Saturday, June 17, 2017

Dixon’s great performance: 10 to 16 June 1967

No doubt about the performance of the week this week: Alan Dixon’s seven for 15 for Kent against Surrey in the Gillette Cup quarter-final at the Oval. I assume that he was in seam-up rather than off-spin mode, judging from what the report says about the pitch. One thing that seems constant through the ages is that people stand around pitches when the unexpected happens seeking an oracular explanation for what has occurred. 

Dixon’s performance was then the finest recorded in what we now call List A cricket. Half a century on, it still ranks as equal 17th best, along with Richard Hutton for Yorkshire against Worcestershire in 1969. Keith Boyce took eight for 26 for Essex at Old Trafford in 1971, an extraordinary performance in a 40-over game where he was limited to eight overs, and against the only team to have won the Sunday League at that point. There have been only two other performances better than Dixon’s in games between first-class counties: Mikey Holding, eight for 21 for Derbyshire v Sussex in 1988; and Simon Francis, whose eight for 66 for Somerset against Derbyshire in 2004 comprised more than ten percent of his List A career haul. Derek Underwood’s eight for 31 against Scotland in 1987 is the only improvement for Kent in the intervening half century.

Alan Dixon is rarely mentioned when Kent supporters reminisce about the great days, probably because he retired before the trophy era gained momentum, but it is good to be reminded of what a fine season he had in 1967.

In 2017, the week has seen 50-over aggregates of 602, 834 and 743, with 370 an insufficient target at Chelmsford. Explaining this to the folk of 1967 would be like telling them about drones, iPads or Donald Trump—to them fantastic creations of fiction.

Back then, Yorkshire fell four short of Lancashire’s 194 in 58 overs and Somerset’s 184 beat Northamptonshire by 36 runs. The only quarter-final that hinted at the overcoming of ball by bat was at Hove where Hampshire fell nine short of Sussex’s 233. The reasons for the difference between the ages are well-rehearsed: pitches, fielding restrictions, but most of all mindset—an appreciation of what is possible. Then, making the stop press of the evening paper, now instant transmission around the world. 

Is it better? Backwatersman has recently recalled becoming bored by Dawid Malan’s hitting of sixes. An issue that many of us have with T20 is that it makes the extraordinary commonplace. This week (2017) in the Champions Trophy semi-final England were tested in trickier conditions than they are used to, and rightly so when a world championship is at stake. A virtuoso should have a wide repertoire. It is great that players these days have wifi shots at their command, but they should play more often in conditions that deprive them of their gadgets and leave them depending upon their mental arithmetic. Some of the best one-day games I have seen were played on tricky surfaces.

Bowling of historic proportions nevertheless left the Surrey authorities worried that the crowd of 8,000 (there were two bigger at the other games) would feel short-changed, so had the bright idea of the two teams playing a twenty-over-a-side match to fill the time “for the purse of 100 guineas” a healthy supplement to the winning side’s pay packet in 1967. So there we are. The first T20 county match was played at the Oval between Surrey and Kent on 14 June 1967. Kent won, but the details seem to have disappeared.

Just as T20 appeared like a temporal anomaly, so the possibility of white cricket balls was raised, not in the sports pages, but in the Times diary, reporting on the suggestion of 81-year-old Foster Sproxton, who, like many of us, could never watch a fast bowler “wiping a damp ball on white flannels without thinking of Lady Macbeth”. His central point—that a white ball is easier for spectators to see—remains sound, as does MCC’s response that white balls lose their colour too quickly (and these days, they don’t swing). That blue balls were used in late Victorian women’s cricket is a revelation, possibly an early example of mansplaining.

Earlier in the week, Kent played Middlesex at home starting on the day after the match between the two teams at Lord’s was drawn. Kent played two more sets of back-to-back fixtures later in the season, so it appears to be a scheduling feature.

The match displayed the best and worst of three-day cricket in this era. The first day was as uneventful as Theresa May’s adolesence, as Middlesex ground 239 from 104 overs. By the end of the second Middlesex appeared in control, 173 ahead with eight standing. The third day was a thriller, starting with a Middlesex collapse and culminating in a winning Kent run chase. Denness. Luckhurst and Cowdrey all made fifties, but it was Alan Knott who caught the eye of AA Thomson, attacking every ball “not rashly but with…dancing delight”. Thomson compares Knott’s batting with Compton, the ultimate praise for those of a certain age. Knott features in almost every report of Kent games as the realisation grew that he was something special.

The game was played at Rectory Field, Blackheath another venue that was to disappear from the roster in another five years and which I never visited. Like the Bat and Ball at Gravesend, it is still a cricket ground.

At Headingley, India started the third day looking as if they would lose by the end of the day; in fact they lasted well into the fifth, thanks to fine batting from Engineer, Wadekar, Hanument Singh and, especially, the captain, the Nawab of Pataudi junior, who made 129 to follow his first innings 64. Most of the talk was still about Geoffrey Boycott and whether or not he should be dropped after his deliberative double hundred.
Elsewhere, the Times diary featured Tom Stoppard (a big cricket fan). 

The play turned out to be The Real Inspector Hound, a more accessible work than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, one that requires an actor to be on stage for the duration, playing a corpse. They always receive the loudest cheer of the evening.

The ITV franchises were redistributed this week, a change that would create Thames, London Weekend, Yorkshire and HTV. In a letter to The Times Alan Bennett pointed out the dependence of the new franchises on BBC talent. Bennett had a primetime Saturday sketch show On the Margin on BBC 1 with a supporting cast that included John Sargeant, to become one of television’s best-known political journalists.

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket

In the same package as this year’s Wisden , there arrived Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket , co-authored by Stephen Fay ...