Saturday, July 29, 2017

Maidstone week: 22 to 28 July 2017

Maidstone week was always a highlight of the Kentish season.  I wrote about cricket at Mote Park a couple of years ago. It was at Maidstone that writers could bring out the thesaurus of high summer: shimmering…baking…sweltering, cricket played to the sound of eggs frying on the pavement. Much of this is nostalgia cleansing the memory of course; it was as likely to pour down there as anywhere else, but for many of us Maidstone week was the first element of the holy trinity of cricket watching in Kent, along with the weeks at Canterbury and Folkestone that followed, though in 1967 it would be another five years until I watched cricket at the Mote.

It was a cracker of a week, with an exploding pitch and a match-saving last-wicket stand. The week began with Kent making 296 in the first innings against Hampshire. John Shepherd was now established at No 3, and followed his semi-final 77 with 72 here. Shepherd remained at No 3 for the rest of the season, but never batted as high thereafter. He had the talent, but it was to be his lot to carry the seam attack for the next decade and more, so he usually found himself down at No 8, which was something of a waste.

On Sunday, 10,000 crammed into a ground that had reasonable seating for no more than a tenth of them; this just a few days after almost 17,000 had gone to Canterbury for the Gillette Cup semi-final. What a time, when everybody wanted to be at the cricket, and what a day they saw. There was a large worn patch at one end that Derek Underwood could use as a torturer uses a rack. He took seven for 35 in the first innings as Hampshire were skittled for 95. Their day got worse. The last six wickets in the second innings all fell at 31, the last five partnerships contributing not a single run. Nobody got into double figures. Underwood took five more, and Alan Dixon got four.

Hampshire captain Roy Marshall (six and one) fumed, describing the pitch as “an absolute disgrace to county cricket” saying that he had seen only three worse (oddly adding that they were all in the west country, as if in mitigation) in 15 years.

Charles Bray in The Times reports that Underwood made the ball “kick shoulder high”. It might be that these days the match would have been called off; anyway, the chances of a pitch being that bad are remote. We are worse off for this. It took a fine bowler to make the most of that rough patch and with 28 games in a Championship season the competition could indulge the odd piece of negligence by a groundsman here and there. 

Expecting more turn on another part of the square for the second part of the week, Kent brought in Graham Johnson for John Dye (Norman Graham and David Sayer were still injured). Against Hampshire, Underwood and Dixon between them had 17 for 73, not appearing in obvious need of assistance.
It was back to go-slow cricket on the first day as Surrey crept to 233 for five, finishing on day two with 354 from 155 overs, Underwood four for 100 from 63 overs. Yet it was not Underwood, but another young spinner, Pat Pocock, who had the better day, with six for 43 that made Kent follow on. Four of his victims (and two of Stuart Storey’s) were caught in the leg trap (do they still call it that?). 

Pocock was having as good a run as Underwood and was spoken of as the new Laker, an albatross to hang around anyone’s neck. It was him, not the Kent player, who was selected for the tour to the Caribbean the following winter, but in the long term Underwood  (297 wickets in 86 tests) did better than Pocock (67 wickets from 25 appearances). Given more opportunities, Pocock would have become a notable test bowler, but was not well treated by the selectors. Ray Illingworth’s tenure of the captaincy excluded him for four years, and later they favoured Geoff Miller and John Emburey, both inferior bowlers to Pocock but better batsmen.

At half past two on Friday afternoon Kent’s last pair, Alan Dixon and Alan Brown came together. No doubt some people were already making their way to the car park or to catch the earlier train. Yet, with the help of an hour’s rain break, they were still there at the end, having saved the draw and the two championship points that went with it. Dixon was having a brilliant season with bat and ball. Brown was a very capable batsman, but a hitter, so his restraint was all the more meritorious. The partnership was the stuff of legend, so I am surprised that I had never heard of it until excavating the archives this week.

With five weeks to go, Kent were top of the Championship and in the Gillette Cup final, and the word “double” was being whispered around the boundary.

The second test series of the summer began this week, against Pakistan at Lord’s. A better contest than that against India was hoped for, in vain it appeared at the end of the first day with Barrington and Graveney putting on 200. Kent people who so enjoyed Asif Iqbal’s batting over the following 15 years may be surprised to be reminded that his main role on that tour was as an opening bowler. On the second day he took three wickets, as did Mushtaq Mohammad and Salim Altaf. England lost eight for 86, but were back on top by the end of the day thanks to three wickets from the restored Ken Higgs. This was the last time England took the field in a test match, home or abroad, without a Kent player until the first test in Pakistan a decade later.

Elsewhere, the BBC announced that the reconstructed radio network would go by numbers: Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4, while solemnly promising that Radio 1 wouldn’t be too “mid-Atlantic”, which is precisely what had made the pirate stations so successful. They needn’t have worried. Needle time—the agreement with the musicians’ unions that restricted the number of records that could be played, thus guaranteeing work for their members—meant that in the early years the station was more perm than perfumed garden.  

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The first of the great days: 15 to 21 July 1967

It was a great day, the first of the great days, the very day when Kent’s second golden age began. Wednesday 19 July 1967, the Gillette Cup semi-final between Kent and Sussex.

It was the first List A—one-day equivalent of first-class—game to be played at St Lawrence (though it’s a bit tough that the Cavaliers games had no official status). Just short of 17,000 of us crammed into the ground that day, double the current capacity. I began on the wooden benches at the Nackington Road End between the sightscreen and the iron stand, since renamed after Leslie Ames. Later in the day I moved to the boundary’s edge, or possibly beyond it; the boundary shrunk as latecomers took their places on the grass inside the white line. Traffic across Canterbury was gridlocked for much of the morning.

One of the first posts on My Life in Cricket Scorecards I described St Lawrence as it was that day. As I write this, I am watching a recording of a recent T20 game at Canterbury. So much has changed, but the winds of time have left enough in place to make it recognisable. It has not been spoiled, though basing the design of the new flats on the northern side of the ground on that of an East German prison is odd (as an aside, I had thought it impossible that there could be a worse cricket commentator than Danny Morrison, but I listen to Andrew Flintoff at the T20 and reconsider).

Sussex, or more precisely Ted Dexter, worked out the one-day game before anybody else and had won the first two Gillette Cups in 1963 and 1964. Before this season Kent had never beaten a first-class county, so Sussex were favourites. Dexter had given up the game (though was to return for Sussex and England the following year), but Sussex had John Snow, Tony Greig—who had appeared like a whirlwind in the county game that year—, Jim Parks and a team full of experience.

It is worth reproducing John Woodcock’s Times report in full. There is a joy about his writing here that had been absent from his reporting on the test series. It inspired him to reach the top of his game.

I do remember the trepidation caused by the early fall of Denness and the slow restoration of confidence during the second-wicket partnership between Luckhurst and Shepherd, whose contrasting styles Woodcock describes so well. Then, Cowdrey. Yes, he could be stodgy, but on those days when he eluded his captors of caution and reserve he was something to behold, and that day was one of them. His 78 took just 59 balls, and late on in the innings he and Knott made 58 in five overs. All this, bear in mind, with seven or eight fielders back on the boundary. Kent’s 293 was worth at least 350 in a modern 50-over game (the Gillette Cup was 60 overs). 

Woodcock is possibly a little optimistic about Sussex still being in the game until Parks was out; they were well on the way to defeat at 27 for three. This was probably the first time that I became aware of the tremendous feeling of being in control that Kent supporters had when Derek Underwood came on. It was like acquiring a superpower. Woodcock’s account of his defeat of Greig is magnificent; you didn’t trifle with Derek Underwood. 

I will get around sometime to writing about my ten best days at the cricket. The semi-final of 1967 will be one of them.

So to Lord’s, to play Somerset who defeated Lancashire convincingly on the second day after rain took away much of the first. The Palmer brothers, Ken and Roy, both test-match umpires in years to come, delivered the victory, along with Fred Rumsey, Bill Alley and Graham Burgess. Burgess was still there 12 years later on the day Kent’s golden age ended and as Somerset’s began: all out for 60 at Taunton.

Earlier in the week, the Championship game at Southampton (the old ground at Northland Road) vindicated John Arlott’s criticism last week of the points system, quickly becoming a dour battle for first-innings points. Richard Gilliatt, back from captaining Oxford University for the first half of the season, made 122 in six-and-a-half hours, in vain as Hampshire were bowled out four short of Kent’s total. 

David Turner, to become a regular for Hampshire over the next 20 years, scored his maiden fifty in this game. Later in the week he had more success, reaching the last eight of the National Single-Wicket Championship at Lord’s. He beat Hanif Mohammad and Kent’s Alan Dixon before going down to Harvey of Derbyshire. Garry Sobers won the final defeating Brian Edmeades of Essex.

The matches were eight-overs-a-man (they did change ends) but out was out, so some contests were very short. Fred Titmus took one ball to overcome Clive Lloyd’s eight-ball three. There was a full complement of fielders but no non-striking batsman. A batsman who crossed a line halfway down the pitch had to proceed to the other end and stay there until cleared by the umpire to return to the other end. 

It was the fifth year of the competition; apart from the first at Scarborough, all had been held at Lord’s. The following year’s contest, at the Oval, was washed out. It returned to Lord’s in 1970, Keith Boyce the winner and then it seems to have disappeared from the calendar. Previous winners were Ken Palmer, Barry Knight, Mushtaq Mohammad and Fred Titmus. 

In the wider world, Britain was obsessed with sonic booms. With the maiden test flight of Concord (the French imposed the “e” later) imminent, some feared that living in Britain would be like inhabiting the inside of a drum, normal conversation all but impossible because of the mechanical thunder and the sound of windows crashing from their frames. So the Government sent a couple of military supersonic planes to fly at maximum speed over the capital to see what happened. It certainly created a stir over the wider London area, with children in Billericay (and no doubt elsewhere) jumping and crying. The responsible Minister, Anthony Wedgwood Benn treated the matter with a good deal more levity than his later regeneration Tony Benn would have been inclined to, cheerfully telling the House that nobody would know what Concord would sound like until it took off. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Underwood likes to be beside the seaside: 8 to 14 July 1967

It was Kent v Lancashire week this week. Two games at seaside resorts at either end of the country, Derek Underwood the common factor, inducing in the Lancashire batsmen the inhibition of a teenager at their first school dance. Over the two matches his analysis was 118.5-58-181-14.  I was about to write that Underwood was approaching his peak, but he had already taken 100 wickets in three of his four seasons, so he started only a short walk from the summit and stayed at altitude for a quarter of a century. It is surprising that nobody that I have come across so far in 1967 was talking about him in terms of England selection. As we saw earlier in the season John Woodcock, among others, didn’t quite know how to categorise him. Spinner or medium pacer? Simply calling him Derek Underwood was enough, as there has only ever been one of those. A return to the test side was just a few weeks away. 

There was Sunday play at Folkestone, watched by the largest crowd seen at the ground since the Second World War, but Kent were barely more aggressive than Lancashire and slow handclapping—a lost art these days, but common enough then—filled the void. Charles Bray in The Times reported that the Lancashire players and the umpires sprinted to their positions at the end of one over to provide alternative amusement. 

At least the spectators had what Bray accurately describes as “picturesque” surroundings in which to enjoy the sun. In 1967 it would have been possible to walk down the pavilion steps, across the field of play and to continue across green fields right to the top of the North Downs (which terminate spectacularly as the White Cliffs of Dover just down the road). Soon after, a housing estate started to spread in the area below the escarpment and now the walker would have to negotiate the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, but for all that it would still be one of the more pleasing outlooks from the public seats of a cricket ground. I must write about cricket at Folkestone at greater length as there is no ground at which watching cricket has been more pleasurable.

On the third afternoon it seemed that Lancashire, 30 short of making Kent bat again and with six wickets in hand, had done enough to salvage the draw, but a combination of Underwood and brilliant fielding turned the game.

Kent’s fielding (Norman Graham and one or two others apart) was a major factor in their rise to the top of English cricket and was well ahead of the general standard of the time.

That win brought Kent to within six points of leaders Yorkshire, but at Southport in the second half of the week they collected only two points after missing the first-innings lead by six runs and having the third day washed out when Lancashire 116 for six, again mesmerised by Underwood. Yorkshire, at Bramall Lane Sheffield, were also washed out on the third day, but had the first-innings lead so were ten points ahead in the Championship at the end of the week.

Contrast the week for two batsmen. John Prodger of Kent made one before being bowled by Ken Shuttleworth. That was it for him. He was dropped for Southport and retired at the end of the season without making another first-team appearance. Roy Marshall, the West Indian opener who chose to make his career with Hampshire rather than on the international stage, made 160 out of 239 against Northamptonshire in a manner that caused Alan Gibson to suggest that Marshall should be ranked among the best of his time. Who remembers him now? He later ran a pub in Taunton and served on the Somerset committee.

John Arlott (still masquerading unconvincingly in The Times as John Silchester) was vocal on the subject of the points system this week, after a frustrating afternoon at Southampton.

Some of the best cricket is slow, when the wind is with the bowlers and the batsmen are heads down into the gale, but we have already seen ample evidence that in 1967 there was plenty of cricket that was simply dull without cause. The authorities became convinced that something was needed to challenge the inbuilt conservatism of batsmen and captains, and in 1968 the bonus points system was introduced. It has been with us, in one form or another, ever since. 

The three-test series against India was disappointingly one-sided. At the end of the first day of the third test, at Edgbaston, it seemed that India might be in with a chance, having dismissed England for 298 (despite opening the bowling with reserve keeper Kunderan, his only bowl of the tour; Pataudi did the job in the second innings). The talented quartet of spin bowlers—all selected here—now had the sun on their backs and a responsive surface. But no. India were rattled out for 92 on the second day. Brian Close did not enforce the follow on, a highly unusual course of action in the age of rest days. On India’s previous tour in 1959, Colin Cowdrey did not enforce the follow on one occasion, publicly stating that this was to give the Saturday crowd cricket to watch. All very well for a dilettante southern amateur, but surely not the wizened northern pro who carried with him x-rays to prove to doubters that his heart was made of flint?

Basil D’Oliveira was omitted from the twelve despite his first-test century, but as we know a D’Oliveira hundred was never a guarantee of his future selection.

Henry Blofeld made 67 for Eton Ramblers (appropriately, some would say) against Radley Rangers in the Cricketer Cup, the competition for the old boys of public schools, but Ted Dexter’s unbeaten 78 won the game. Fifty years on, Blofeld is on his farewell tour of the commentary boxes. In the days when Henry Blofeld was his name rather than his profession I enjoyed his writing in the Guardian, then the Independent. His reports would often be the most perceptive available; you would learn more about a game you had watched from reading them. Over the years he has lurched into self-parody in a way that Brian Johnston, for example, never did (on TV David Lloyd is in danger of going the same way).

Wimbledon finished with Billie Jean King forcing the tennis writers to plunder the thesaurus for the usual descriptions of losing Brits—doughty fighter etc—by defeating Ann Jones quite easily in the ladies’ final. King also won both doubles titles, in the company of Rosie Casals and Owen Davidson.

At the Open golf at Hoylake Roberto di Vicenzo led with one round to play. Neither Wimbledon nor the Open played on Sunday. 

The bill that reformed the abortion law completed its passage through the Commons, the second major social reform to be passed as a private member’s bill in a fortnight, following the partial decriminalisation of homosexual activity. Readers must be aware that my nerdery extends beyond cricket into the arcane world of parliamentary procedure; in the past couple of years I have seen my name not only in Wisden (thanks to Brian Carpenter) but also in the new edition of Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand (the equivalent of Erskine May). In 1967 the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, ensured that there would be sufficient time for these bills to pass, thus overcoming the usual obstacle to the enactment of private members’ bills. The abortion bill was in the name of David Steel, then a couple of decades off being a mini-puppet in David Owen’s top pocket in Spitting Image.

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 ...