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.

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