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.

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