Saturday, August 26, 2017

How Green Were My Pitches: 19 to 25 August 1967

The issues of the week were the England captaincy and the race for the County Championship. Kent had a double-header (as it was not known then) against Glamorgan, first in Gillingham and then in Cardiff. Yorkshire played Essex at Scarborough, finishing on Tuesday, then started a game against Sussex at Eastbourne on Wednesday morning, suggesting that the fixture schedulers lacked basic knowledge of the country’s geography (or that they all had chauffeurs). 

Kent and Yorkshire started the week level on points. Kent went ahead after a last-gasp win at Gillingham, while Yorkshire lost from a winning position at Scarborough. But resounding wins for Glamorgan at Cardiff, and Yorkshire on the south coast put Yorkshire on top by four points with a game in hand at the week’s end.

Bert Lock had a busy week. He was the groundsman who had restored the Oval after it had been a prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. After retiring from Surrey he became the counties’ pitch inspector, in which role he visited both Kent v Glamorgan games this week. Lock could do little more than offer groundsmen sage advice after the event. There were no sanctions at his disposal other than recommending a ban on the venue for the following season (a sanction already imposed upon Hesketh Park, Dartford, though why that ground was singled out from minefields on which Kent played in 1967 is unclear). 

Both matches were played on pitches that would be inconceivable these days, particularly that at Gillingham. I have watched cricket at the Garrison Ground, Gillingham, a Sunday League game in 1972. I don’t recall much about the ground, but it must have been a squeeze to get 10,000 in. “The whole of Kent seemed to be there” according to John Woodcock, who was enjoying his work at last. Stoics they were, with a scoring rate under two an over across the game as a whole, but when 26 wickets fall in a day, as happened on the third day, it wasn’t unrelenting dullness. Derek Underwood took 11 wickets and the win came in the final half hour.

Modern crowds wouldn’t tolerate such laborious scoring, but would they have to? Players of that era say that those pitches created superior techniques. Of course, today’s batsmen would be at sea on pitches foreign to them. But, knowing that their lifespan would be short, they would not be prepared to wait cowering in the crease for the bullet with their name on it, but would have a go at charging the machine guns. A bold, edgy 30 would have won several games this week.

It was Sophia Gardens’ first season as a first-class venue, Glamorgan having moved from Cardiff Arms Park over the winter to make way for the redevelopment of the rugby ground, so the pitches were still bedding in (well enough for the home side to make 353 for nine, bracketed by Kent collapses). It was a homely, pleasant ground whenever I visited; since then it has been turned into an arena, no less, taking much of the charm away in the process, I would think.

DJ Shepherd took 15 wickets in the three innings he bowled in that week. Fifty years on, he is being mourned with affection, having passed away six days after his ninetieth birthday. I saw him play, but remember him more as a superb radio commentator on BBC Radio Wales on Sunday afternoons, which I would listen to in Bristol in preference to the inferior local offering.  Shepherd and Edward Bevan would have adorned Test Match Special had they been given the chance; thus his career off the field mirrored that on it in its lack of just national recognition.

Just as Don Shepherd is most people’s pick as the best bowler not have played a test for England, so Alan Jones is the best batsman in that deprived position. Jones has the sweater and the cap, but not the test status, which was removed from the England v Rest of the World series retrospectively despite it being as high a standard as any tests before or since. This week, he made 44, Glamorgan’s top score at Gillingham, and 60 at Cardiff, both innings worth centuries in their contexts. Alan Jones often did well against Kent; I saw him score centuries in Canterbury Week 1972 and again ten years later

Welsh folk might have hoped that the easier access to the valleys offered by the opening of the Severn Bridge the year before would bring the selectors to Sophia Gardens and St Helens more often, but this does not seem to have happened. Tony Lewis tells the story of Wilf Wooller, Glamorgan’s secretary, manager and self-appointed patron saint, receiving a letter from EW Swanton of the Daily Telegraph requesting information on the form of certain Glamorgan players and enclosing a stamped, addressed envelope for the reply. Swanton was hugely influential at that time, widely regarded as a fifth selector. When the returned envelope was opened a few days later it contained only a copy of the London to Cardiff train timetable.

Don Shepherd was not Glamorgan’s most successful bowler this week. Left-arm paceman Jeff Jones took 16 wickets, including six for 27 in the first innings in which he and Tony Cordle bowled 16 overs each, unchanged. Jeff Jones is best remembered as father of 2005 Ashes winner Simon Jones, who inherited his old man’s ability to bowl quickly as well as a frame that did not bear up well to his doing so.

Yorkshire also had a mixed week, but in reverse order to Kent’s. At Scarborough they contrived to throw away a lead of 127 to lose by nine runs to Essex, who were second-bottom. Spinners Hobbs and Acfield took eight between them, and bowled 52 overs for 68 runs, illustrating my earlier point about the general timidity of batsmen in those days. Batsmen sharing a car with Fred Trueman would have spent an uncomfortable eight hours or so on the way to Eastbourne

There was redemption at the Saffrons, with (speaking as we were of very good players who did not play for England) Tony Nicholson taking nine for 62

England were building a good lead at the Oval in the third and final test, but the press and public focus was on the Close question. On Wednesday the England captain was “severely censured” by the Advisory County Cricket committee (copying The Times’ deployment of the upper case) for his leadership of the go-slow against Warwickshire the previous week. The Thunderer thought the matter worthy of a leader, which came down on Close’s side for the captaincy to the West Indies, but unenthusiastically so. By Friday, down the front page was the headline “Things look black for Brian Close”. As chance would have it, Boycott’s late withdrawal from the test due to illness meant that Close opened with Cowdrey, the only alternative after the retirement of MJK Smith.

Times' leader
Kent all-rounder LJ (Leslie) Todd died this week in 1967. I knew the name but not much else. His obituary in Wisden is an unexceptional, largely statistical, record of a career that lasted from 1927 to 1950. Over the years, one has rarely turned to the Kent Annual for good writing, but Todd’s obituary in the 1968 edition is a cracker.

It was written by JGW (Jack) Davies, an off spinner who was a Kent contemporary of Todd’s. However, Davies was a jazzhat summer-holiday amateur of a kind that pros like Todd (especially Todd, it may be inferred) held in some contempt. It should be noted that Davies’s profession was psychology. The result is an obituary that tells us what sort of man he was, as well as what sort of cricketer.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The captaincy question: 12 to 18 August 1967

This was the week that Brian Close lost the England captaincy. Not at once; he was to lead the side at the Oval in the final test, but the events of this week meant that Colin Cowdrey, not Close, would take MCC to the Caribbean. I had always thought of this as the establishment using a flimsy excuse to reinstall its own man, but having watched the story develop through the week as it happened it does seem that Close had much more of a case to answer than I had thought.

That an England captain should be replaced after winning five out of six tests seems incomprehensible now, but India and Pakistan were poor sides. Both had talented batsmen, but their bowling attacks were weaker than those of most counties. Despite this, at times England’s approach was absurdly cautious, treating jelly babies like gelignite. Geoffrey Boycott’s 246 at Headingley set the tone. Close (who, let us recall, had reportedly demonstrated impatience with Boycott a few years before by picking him up and hanging him on a coatpeg) did little to hurry Boycott up.

This week, at Trent Bridge, Ken Barrington, assisted by his captain, laboured his way to a century that was “careworn and comfortless” according to John Woodcock in The Times

That Monday’s play was washed out would have come as a relief to Woodcock, who used the free column inches to question Close’s approach: “why…did the full toss become inviolate?”.

England completed a win on the fifth day, and how pleasing it is to find “mettlesome” in a Times headline, referring to the pitch. But the victory did not lift Woodcock’s dark and unforgiving mood, so it was unfortunate that his assignment for the second half of the week was to follow Close to Edgbaston for Warwickshire v Yorkshire (who were now the Championship leaders). When as fine a writer as the Sage of Longparish deploys punctuation sarcastically—Boycott spent all day in the pavilion with a “bruised” toe—trouble is in the air (there were no restrictions then on where in the order absent fielders could bat, so Boycott opened without a runner; an all-run four did nothing to foster the illusion). Woodcock pointedly notes how comfortable those Yorkshireman who had been captained by MJK Smith were in the Warwickshire captain’s company when he was batting. Smith was sixth in the batting averages at this point, so the form that partly caused him be dropped as captain after one test in 1966 was no longer an issue.

On the third day, the implicit advocacy of Smith became explicit after county cricket’s most notorious time-wasting incident.

All this was for just two points that Yorkshire obtained from the draw.[1] Woodcock’s push for Smith was soon to be revealed as futile as Smith was about to announce his retirement (though he returned after a couple of years and played again for England in 1972).

As we know, the Oval test the following week was Close’s last for nine years, until he was recalled as a human sacrifice, offered to pacify the West Indies quicks. It was Colin Cowdrey who led MCC on tour. Of course, we in Kent were delighted with this outcome, though if positivity was what was being called for, Cowdrey was an unreliable choice. 

Knott and Underwood performed splendidly in the test, though Underwood’s five wickets were not to be enough for him to join Cowdrey in the Caribbean. Titmus, Pocock and Hobbs were selected, with Lock following when Titmus lost some toes in a boating accident. Woodcock was still writing a touch dismissively of Underwood’s “cutters”, so in some quarters he was not regarded as a proper spinner. Maybe the selectors thought better than pick another Kent man. 

In the County Championship Kent travelled this week to two grounds long since disappeared from the circuit: Leyton and Burton-upon-Trent (I have watched cricket at Leyton: the 1972 Gillette Cup quarter-final, won by Kent by 10 runs). With wins urgently needed after a draw and a loss at Canterbury, it was a frustrating week: two more draws, just a few wickets short of a win in both cases.

With Underwood missing at Leyton, it was John Shepherd who bowled most overs this week, which was pretty much how things were to be for the next 15 years. It seemed that Kent captains would put Shepherd on at one end in April and take him off in September. He took five in the first innings against Essex and against Derbyshire bowled 49 overs in the first innings, finishing with six for 71. An oddity is that Underwood bowled only three overs. It was a green seamers’ surface, but worth giving the country’s leading wicket-taker a try, surely.

Kent’s first-innings 159 came from 84 overs, Derbyshire’s 154 took 102. Just as well that John Woodcock was not there, but a bit of a shame that neither was Alan Gibson, who would be moved to lyricism by a backs-to-the-wall effort by PJK Gibbs. Instead, The Times sent Peter West, who was mild in his criticism (“Hard grafting indeed!”). Perhaps as a Kent supporter he was prepared to sacrifice aesthetics for outcome; if so he came away with neither. 

Slow batting had also lost Kent time at Leyton. So often in 1967, timidity was the default reaction to difficulty or challenge. Perhaps, much more than those of us who were then children realised, we were still living in the shadow of the World Wars, and the fear that came from them. I have been reading Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending. He wasn’t writing about the County Championship, but he could have been: “But wasn’t this the sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country”. I think he was referring to the minor counties.

With Godfrey Evans unable to extend his return to first-class cricket, the gloves were handed to David Nicholls, who thus, almost accidentally, began a decade as Alan Knott’s stand-in, a role he performed most capably and jovially until Paul Downton came along.

It was the end of pirate radio this week, or was supposed to be. Radio London shut down, but Radio Caroline carried on, Johnnie  Walker was cast in the press as an international fugitive, the Scarlet Pimpernel of the airwaves. As Walker has since recounted, before long he was returning home regularly, intercepted at the border only once and then for an autograph for the immigration officer’s daughter.

René Magritte died in an appropriately surreal week.

[1] It was as a result of this incident that a minimum number of overs in the last hour of Championship games was introduced. In 1967 it was still by the clock.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Canterbury week to remember: 6 to 12 August 1967

It’s been a bit sad this week keeping an eye from afar on Canterbury week, cricket’s Royal Ascot now more by way of an autumn meeting at Pontefract. The main attraction was a three-day game against the West Indians, once a cast of legends, their roles now filled by understudies. Kent rested a number of players, so I trust that the club didn’t have the gall to charge extra just because it was Canterbury week, as has been recent practice. The T20 games that bookended the week will have got people through the gates, but not in the numbers that they came in 1967.

The Times said that almost 40,000 attended the week, and I suspect that this does not include members, who were not counted as we passed through the members’ gate on Old Dover Road. If this is so, 50,000 would be a better estimate.  The attraction? Kent, leading the Championship, were playing Leicestershire (second), then Yorkshire (third). 

I was there for the first four days. I’m certain of this as I remember that sort of thing, but was puzzled that I couldn’t recall much about the Leicestershire match. Reading John Woodcock’s reports, all was explained. It was as unmemorable a game as was played all season. As the week went on, Woodcock was to become increasingly exasperated with the low-entertainment value of the cricket about which he was writing. As early as Monday he was calling Colin Cowdrey “pensive”, and reporting with an undertone of surprise that the crowd accepted the slow batting in silence. The following day he described Lock’s decision to settle for a draw as “baffling”, given that Leicestershire had played two more games than Kent and three more than Yorkshire.

The game was Stuart Leary’s benefit match. Leary was the epitome of the long-serving professional for whom the benefit system had been designed in an age of poor pay and no retirement provisions. Leary’s winter career as a footballer with Charlton Athletic and Queen’s Park Rangers was over by 1967. It had mostly taken place in the maximum wage era, and even after Jimmy Hill’s successful abolition campaign, there were no crocks of gold in the middle divisions of the Football League. Leary was having a good season, chipping in when runs were most needed. He was often dogged, but could hit to effect when required. His benefit year returned £9,000, a fair sum in 1967 (my parents bought their semi-detached in Herne Bay for £2,500 in 1964).

Stuart Leary was a joker who would interact with the crowd; like many who cultivate a breezy persona, it was in part a disguise. He died by throwing himself off Table Mountain in Cape Town in 1988. There were rumours of Leary’s fears of vice squad investigations and AIDS, so it is important to note David Frith’s account in his book about cricketing suicides Silence of the Heart, in which he presents no evidence that such fears were anything other than the product of Leary’s own tormented mind.

The bored crowd at the Leicestershire game passed some of the time by generating a conspiracy theory. The England XII for the second test was announced on Sunday. Surprisingly, given that England had won three tests out of four so far that season, there were six changes from that picked for Lord’s. Colin Cowdrey, Alan Knott and Derek Underwood were three of the inclusions. Cowdrey was having a good year and remained one of the best batsmen in the country. Underwood was the leading wicket-taker and Knott, as we have seen, was attracting rave reviews from every reporter who watched him, so none of this trio was a controversial selection. But the Salem branch of the Kent Supporters’ Club has always been strong and for many the coincidence of a Yorkshire captain and three of Kent’s best being called into the nation’s service on the eve of a possible Championship decider was too much to bear, especially as Ray Illingworth, who had performed decently in the tests thus far, was dropped and thus available to play at Canterbury. 

Brian Close must have wished that he had such power. In fact, the last thing he would have wanted was Cowdrey, the establishment’s favourite, back in the test team, with the anointment of the captain for the winter tour yet to be made. It was the chairman of selectors, Doug Insole of Essex, who guided the choice. Insole died just last week, taking the story of the selection meeting for the South African tour of 1968 into the silence with him.

Kent needed a wicketkeeper, and thinking that experienced hands were needed in such an important contest, called Godfrey Evans back to the county colours for the first time since 1959. I’ve written before about watching Godfrey Evans that day and later. His return created a stir, with The Times carrying the story on its front page. He was one of that small band of cricketers who inspired lifelong adoration in a whole generation. You could see it at the SCG in the eyes of the elderly sisters in my earlier piece. Compton, Botham and Viv Richards were three others, but there aren’t many.

Once more, roads around Canterbury were jammed because so many people were going to the cricket. Instead of the blandness of the first game of the week, there was tension and incident throughout. We watched from the benches on the northern side of the ground, where the flats have been built. In Brian Close’s absence, Fred Trueman led Yorkshire and played the role of pantomime villain with enthusiasm. Just a year off retirement, Trueman had become a craftsman as skilled as any in the manipulation of the ball at medium-fast pace. But for a couple of overs when required he could roll away the years and bowl with pure speed. He was warned for persistent short-pitched bowling, but only after he had broken Brian Luckhurst’s hand in the opening overs. 

For the rest of the innings Kent mined for runs in difficult terrain: 42 for Denness, 66 for Leary. Evans got a hero’s welcome and Trueman dusted the crease with his cap as Evans reached the middle. The thing that people who were there remember most about the day was the hitting of Alan Brown, coming in at No 10. He made a quick 33 including 18 flayed (as Charles Bray reported) from four Trueman deliveries. When I was back at St Lawrence last year I saw Alan Brown walking around the boundary and went up to say hello. “I remember you hitting Fred Trueman into crowd” I said, pointing towards the Nackington Road End. 

“No” he replied. “Fred was bowling from the Pavilion End. I hit him into these seats here” (gesturing towards what was then the concrete stand). He was pleased to be acknowledged, even if inaccurately. 

It was probably true that the absence of the test players cost Kent the game, and perhaps the Championship. I wasn’t there for the last two days, but more to the point, neither was Derek Underwood, who might, on a sunny second morning after overnight rain, have cleaned up. Alan Dixon (the captain in Cowdrey’s absence) took seven, but at more than three an over, and he put down an easy catch that would have ended the tenth-wicket partnership and given Kent first-innings points. It seems very odd that the 85 overs of the Yorkshire innings were delivered by only three bowlers: Dixon, Brown and Norman Graham, who bowled 37 overs for 60 runs. Young off spinner Graham Johnson did not get a chance, and neither did John Shepherd. Bryan Valentine shrewdly noted in his President’s report on the season that Shepherd’s 54 wickets at 20 were all the more creditable given that he only got on when conditions favoured the bat. 

Kent “went to pieces” (according to the 1968 Kent Annual) in the second innings and were bowled out for 100. Only Bob Wilson, the end of his career just a few weeks away, resisted with any effect, making exactly half the total. Tony Nicholson took five for 37. Nicholson was the only member of the Yorkshire XI who would end his career without playing test cricket, and was a better bowler than some who did. His Wisden obituary says that “he swung the ball, had excellent control and was often found to be sharper in pace than the batsman expected”. We saw the best of him in Kent; the following year he was back at Canterbury and took eight for 22.

There was no way back for Kent. Yorkshire wrapped the game up on the third morning, and Leicestershire took over at the top of the table. Alan Gibson, who spent the latter part of the week at Lord’s watching the new leaders play Middlesex, was grudging:

Gibson was in peak mid-summer form. The first two paragraphs of his report on Sunday’s play at the Oval is a typical Gibson opening. 

If this exercise in retrospection introduces a handful of readers to the writing of Alan Gibson, my work will not have been in vain (they should get hold of Of Didcot and the Demon, Anthony Gibson’s collection of his father’s work).

Gibson’s colleague the Sage of Longparish (as he called The Times’ cricket correspondent John Woodcock) was moving ever closer to the end of his tether by the end of the week. Having become impatient at the slow going at Canterbury during the first half of the week, he was exasperated by events on the first three days of the second test, at Trent Bridge, by the end of which England had scored a morose 252 from 135 overs, against an Asif Iqbal-led Pakistan attack. Woodcock did not hold back:

Outside cricket, my eye was taken by a proposal to build a bridge across the Thames Estuary to the Isle of Sheppey, to take traffic from the north to the unbuilt Channel Tunnel while steering well clear of London. On a clear day this bridge would have been visible from our house further along the coast and it was a cracking idea, but it’s the first I’ve heard of it, so cannot have been taken at all seriously.

The playwright Joe Orton died at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell (or “friend” as The Times called him, showing that there was still some way to go after the decriminalisation of homosexuality a few weeks before). I had forgotten that the pair had been jailed a few years before for defacing library books.

The Consumers Council proposed that food should be commonly served in pubs, a suggestion that to some was as if they had suggested holding bingo sessions in the nave of Canterbury Cathedral.

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 ...