Monday, October 23, 2017

A new season: Wellington v Auckland

Wellington v Auckland, Plunket Shield, Basin Reserve, 23 October 2017 (day 1 of 4)

If ever asked to provide advice to the young of today, I say only one thing: never arrive late at the cricket.

Those who failed to note this wisdom, and arrived 40 minutes or so after the first ball of the New Zealand season was bowled at the Basin today, missed a treat. Ollie Newton, opening the bowling on first-class debut, began with a triple-wicket maiden and a little later the scoreboard read 12 for seven. That’s the thing about cricket: you can watch it for half a century and it still shows you things you haven’t seen before.

Newton took the new ball for the second over of the day, from the southern end. He has had a long wait for this moment. He is 29, and has been on the fringes for a while, but one T20 appearance almost two years ago was his only previous experience in the first team. Why it was decided to give him a go now, and with the new ball at that, I don’t know, but it was a decision of Brearleyesque foresight.

His first ball was a yorker that struck Michael Guptill-Bunce on the toe for a straightforward lbw decision. The second passed by the outside edge. The third, Robert O’Donnell decided to leave, but too late. He was bowled off the inside edge. The fourth was edged to fourth slip as Michael Barry played defensively off the back foot. The hattrick ball was another yorker, kept out—just—by Mark Chapman.

At the other end, Hamish Bennett had Jeet Ravel dropped at first slip by Jeetan Patel, but joined in the fun soon enough with three wickets across two overs. Another from Newton and there we were: 12 for seven. 

Tight bowling and vigilant fielding prevented further scoring for a couple more overs, so keeping alive the hope that Auckland would join Oxford University (v MCC and Ground in 1877) and Northamptonshire (v Gloucestershire in 1907) in being all out for 12 in a first-class match. This was not down to any ill will towards our friends in the north; simply that it would be a thing which any cricket buff would count as an achievement in spectating. A crisp off drive from Matt McEwan settled the matter. 

There were five ducks among the top seven, but as is often the case with dramatic top order collapses, the lower decks achieved what their betters could not and the last three wickets scraped together fifty with the tenth wicket stand of 23 between Nethula and Ferguson the biggest of the innings.
Newton finished with four for 26, but Bennett’s figures were the most remarkable: 5-4-2-3. Logan van Beek and Iain McPeake (are there other rhyming pairs of bowlers?) also took wickets in their first over, in the former’s case on Wellington debut having moved from Canterbury.

At this stage, fingers of blame were being pointed at the Basin Reserve pitch, which has a record as long as your arm of being over-helpful to bowlers on the first morning. But on this occasion, it was innocent. It was green, certainly. There was movement too, but nothing that was uncalled for on the first morning of a four-day game. Few of the Auckland batsmen could blame the pitch with any degree of justification. Raval played round a straight one, and there were several rash shots. 

The counsel for the defence of the Basin pitch could also call upon the close-of-play scoreboard to offer powerful evidence: Wellington 246 for no wicket. No pitch changes its character that quickly. 

The key was the quality of the bowling. The home bowlers were pinpoint accurate, challenging the batsmen throughout and forcing errors and misjudgement. On the other hand, if bowling were taxable, Auckland could claim a full refund on the grounds that theirs took the form of a charitable donation. 

Lockie Ferguson bowled one really good over to Luke Woodcock, troubling him with a series of short deliveries that he was fortunate to survive. But the score was 190 for none at that point and for the rest of the day Ferguson was fast but wayward.

Leg spinner Tarun Nethula had a poor day, which his figures (0 for 45 in 19 overs) do not reflect. At the start of one spell he bowled two wides, one to off and one to leg. For much of the last session he was bowling wide as a defensive measure. He also bowled four no-balls, puzzling given that his approach to the crease is a nine-step stroll.

Seamer Matt McEwan bowled without luck, though not to the extent of Dreyfusian injustice suggested by his loud and lengthy appeals and general demeanour, which was that of a mugging lead actor in a Victorian melodrama.

Michael Papps dominated the innings, unbeaten on 163. He was the epitome of judicious aggression. There was a lot of loose stuff to hit, but he did so in mid-season form. As usual, he was particularly unforgiving square of the wicket. Luke Woodcock’s 64 from 209 deliveries might appear mundane in comparison, but his resolution enabled Papps to plunder freely. Woodcock has a range and, to a greater extent than most players in domestic cricket, can play according to what the situation demands. Today, he equalled the record for appearances for one province, with 127 (shared for the moment with James Marshall).

It was as one-sided a day’s cricket, start to finish, as I can recall. The Basin was pleasant too, the RA Vance Stand offering protection from the north-wester and, as the beginning-of-season email to members boasted “we’re pretty sure it is an asbestos-free zone now”. Value for money there, to be sure.

The scoreboard was encased in scaffolding and plastic. Regular readers will be familiar with my theory that the Basin scoreboard is controlled by North Korea, spreading fake news to undermine the morale of the civilised cricketing world, so we should be worried about what is going on under there. The extraordinary scores of the day were conveyed on a replacement club-style board with players’ names large enough to be read clearly by spectators as many as three rows away. 

Altogether, a relishable start to the New Zealand season.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Reflections on Recreating 1967

I’ve always been one for the big project. Just a year after that which has been the subject of my summer-long journey through the English cricket season, I embarked upon playing the entire 1968-9 Football League season on Subbuteo. All four divisions. As I recall, the enterprise was suspended after the 92 clubs had played three games each with Queen’s Park Rangers at the head of the First Division, the only team on maximum points. QPR were bottom of the real table that year (but I had already learned that Subbuteo could not promise realism when Geoff Boycott cover drove Graham McKenzie for six off the first ball of a test match—another project was a pioneering home-and-away cricket test league, also in abeyance these five decades).
So it is satisfying to have at least completed the exercise of recreating 1967 day-by-day.
It turned out to be more of a time-hungry exercise than I had expected. Friends and acquaintances who are not cricket people may wonder why they haven’t heard from me since mid-April; piles of unread books threaten to block out the light at Scorecards Towers.
My 40 hours at work are usually chalked up by Friday, so that became writing day, the aim being to prepare tweets for the week ahead and to write the weekly summary. I’ve never found it much of a problem to write to deadlines set by others. When I was reporting domestic cricket in New Zealand for CricInfo there were up to eight deadlines a day to meet, usually achieved without undue angst. But self-imposed deadlines, being without meaningful sanction, are the League of Nations of procrastination deterrence, so often Friday’s tasks would encroach right across the weekend. I would send out the tweets before going to work (about 8 pm in the UK) and file the summaries over the weekend.
In my introductory piece I said that the series would draw upon as fine a collection of primary sources as cricket blogging has seen: diaries, journals, letters, magazines, and anything else that mentioned the summer of ’67. Nothing but empty promises. In the event I rarely used anything other than The Times archive, for two reasons. The first was time, the second that The Times provided such a wealth of material, on cricket and the wider world. Say what you like about Rupert Murdoch, but he gives good archive.
The Times’ cricket-writing team of 1967 was as good as there has been on one paper. It was headed by John Woodcock as cricket correspondent. Nineteen-sixty-seven was not Woodcock’s favourite year, but good writing is always a consolation for bad cricket. Alan Gibson was in his first season as a regular Times writer and AA Thomson was in his last. Though not as yet spending long hours on the platforms of Didcot, Gibson captured the joy of being at the cricket, without necessarily expecting any to be brought by the cricket itself. Thomson is rarely mentioned among cricket’s finest writers, but he should be. Anybody at one of 1967’s many tedious days who happened to have that year’s Wisden with them could have sought relief in Thomson’s memories of the 1902 season. He was recalling the summer when he was eight, just as I have been these past few months:

My information came from two main sources: my step-Uncle Walter and Wisden Cricketers' Almanack for 1903. I learned, as history students must, partly from patriotic narrative and partly from sober factual report. 

Uncle Walter, now in heaven, departed this life in 1935, not long after Yorkshire's innings defeat by Essex at Huddersfield. (At 87 he should have been sheltered from such shocks.) Wisden for 1903 happily sits in front of me. If the B.B.C. were to maroon me on a desert island and, according to their pleasant custom, demand to know what book I should like to take with me, there would be no difficulty. 

Pickwick I know by heart and, though I revere Tolstoi, to read War and Peace under the breadfruit trees would be too much like starting to watch an innings by J.W.H.T. Douglas and waking up to find that Trevor Bailey was still batting. But Wisden for 1903 is the prefect [sic] companion. It has almost everything the heart of man could desire.

There was also John Arlott, furtively in the Thunderer’s pages for a few weeks as John Silchester, as if straying from Le CarrĂ© and filing his reports via dead-letter drop. Peter West too, with others called in from their main duties on elsewhere on the sports pages, including UA Titley and Vivian Jenkins from rugby and Gerald Sinstadt from football.
I did deliver on the promise to reflect what was happening in the wider world (“what does he know of cricket…” etc). However, this turned out rather differently to how I had expected it to. I assumed that there would be sober commentary on the great events of the day, particularly the Vietnam War and the race riots in the United States. In fact, these issues were barely mentioned. Instead, readers were more likely to be told about Brian James Lee Walters aka William Frederick Walker, who was jailed for posing as a parson (and marrying nine couples); Gilbert Clark of Fishponds, whose late wife left their house to a dog’s home; or Arthur Strickland, who offered to shoot the Queen’s pigeons for free. Had I been transported back to 1967 with a copy of The Times and my Blean and Khandallah correspondents for company, it is this sort of stuff that I would have read out to them rather than the big issues, so my brief of reflecting what they were talking about around the boundaries was met rather well.
Making the past unfold day-by-day made me reconsider my view of those events more than I had expected it to. Hindsight is both the historian’s best friend and their finest adversary.
Will I do it again? Yes, certainly, but probably not while I am working full time. Of course, it need not be over a full season; maybe a World Cup, or even a particularly good Canterbury Week (1972?) would be an appropriate subject. But I will do a full season at some point. Nineteen-seventy would be the most likely subject: Kent’s first Championship since the First World War, a cracking, status-deprived and somewhat forgotten and series between England and the Rest of the World plus a football world cup and a general election. A bolder choice would be 1906, Kent’s first Championship year, or 1914 or 1939, years in which the even the most narrow-visioned cricket nut must have acquired a bit of perspective. It would be interesting to conduct the exercise in partnership with others who would look at events through another county’s lens.
I have been encouraged by the interest shown by some readers, particularly other bloggers. The generosity of this community says plenty about our common enthusiasm. However, any hubris that I might have developed was expunged a few weeks ago when a photo of our dog on election day posted with the hashtag #dogsatpollingstations received more retweets in the first hour than any of the cricket tweets has in total.
As @kentccc1967 has more followers, I will continue to use it as my link to My Life in Cricket Scorecards and for other cricket matters, which means that @lifeincards will fall into abeyance.
The new season in New Zealand starts next week, so watch this space.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

1967 or 2017: which is better?

These days the County Championship is the supply teacher of the fixture list, its role to fill gaps in the timetable and occupy the discontented, success measured by the lack of bother caused, so as not to draw attention away from the showcase class in the best room. The frustration of the Championship’s almost total absence from the height of summer is clear enough from the work of Backwatersman, Cricket Nick and others on whom I depend for the vicarious experience of following county cricket from New Zealand. 

How enticing the 1967 schedule looks in contrast. Twenty-eight three-day games per county plus a tourist fixture or two. Cricket every Saturday. And the chance to watch at places that have long forgotten that they ever hosted first-class cricket. They should be set to music, just as Flanders and Swann sung a list of railway stations axed by Dr Beeching: Harrogate, Portsmouth, Pontypridd, Nuneaton, Kettering, Coventry, Bath, Basingstoke, Buxton, Lydney, Ilkeston, Glastonbury, Dover, Folkestone, and more.

But how good was the cricket at these lost venues? The players and commentators of that era and those before present their cricket as a sort of Socratic dialogue in which the skills of batsman and bowler were constantly honed until they reached levels of technical accomplishment now unknown. It was an intellectual exercise as much as a sporting one; Freddie Ayer perpetually bowling to Bertrand Russell. 

Uncovered pitches were a foundational belief of this creed, the test that would expose the heretics of the cross bat and of the leaden footwork.
I have always bought into this interpretation of cricket’s past, partly as a result of watching cricket in such conditions and seeing how interesting it is. But the string of low scores that pepper the 1968 Wisden are by no means all due to drying pitches. Many taxed batting without help from the rain. A few, such as that at Mote Park on which Hampshire were bowled out for 31, were so explosive that they would now be outlawed by anti-terror legislation. More pitches were simply slow and tired. 

There were days when the cricket lived up to the image of halcyon struggle between champions, but more often it was simply dull. Their batting techniques may have been superior, but were deployed almost completely in defence. Boycott’s monastic 246 in the Headingley test against a weak attack was the most renowned example of the timidity that captured most batsmen of the era, but we have discovered many others on our journey through 1967.

A match between, say, Yorkshire then and now played on a difficult 1967 surface might lead us to admire the impeccable straightness of Boycott’s bat, but would likely result in a win for 2017 as Bairstow, Root or one of the others, not being content to await their fate in the crease, would manufacture an ugly 40 that would be the difference. It would be a better contest to watch too.

This isn’t the present being wise about the past either; exasperation was the default tone of John Woodcock’s reports in The Times that summer. In the 1968 Wisden Denis Compton bemoaned the attitude of cricketers: “The safety-first outlook has bedevilled professional cricket far too long and like the traffic in our big cities the three-day game has come almost to a full stop.” Had the expression “political correctness” been current in 1967 one fears that Compton would have given it a hammering.

Colin Cowdrey is an interesting case study in the cricketing mentality of 1967. In the Gillette semi-final he made 78 in 59 balls, a rate of scoring that would be respectable today. “Better than his best” said Woodcock. Yet a couple of weeks later on the same ground he was diffidence personified, to Woodcock’s despair:

I’m with Woodcock; more exposure to one-day cricket earlier in his career might have liberated Cowdrey from his inhibitions and allowed him to become a great player rather than one who had greatness within him.
Weekly one-day cricket, in the form of the 40-over Sunday League, was still two years away, but inevitable and necessary. The International Cavaliers have not featured as much as they should have I my recreation of 1967, as I spent most Sunday afternoons watching them on BBC2, with Learie Constantine commentating. But The Times ignored them, as did Wisden, so the only record of the Cavaliers’ matches in 1967 is behind the Cricket Archive paywall. It could be argued that those games were the most important cricket played that year, the start of a half-century long shift towards shorter forms of the game. For me, the ideal fixture list would always contain one-day cricket; fine dining is all very well but a burger once a week does no harm. 

Not that the County Championship was without appeal to spectators. The Kent grounds were packed at weekends. Woodcock wrote that it seemed that the whole of Kent was at Gillingham for the Sunday of the Glamorgan game. Weekend after weekend it was said that 10,000 were there, and Kent was not the only county to benefit from the introduction of Sunday cricket. Unfortunately, in most Kent grounds there was nowhere for the great majority them to sit comfortably. If they found a place the chances are that they would have been breathing in a fog of cigarette and pipe smoke. The catering was either lamentable or non-existent, real ale a future dream. Whatever was happening on the field, there is no doubt that off it spectators are better served in 2017.

The frustration that Woodcock and Compton expressed with the reticence of the cricket meant that 1967 was the last season of its kind. The following year saw two changes designed to promote “brighter cricket” (a phrase that was a synonym for “Holy Grail” at that time). 

First, in 1968 the bonus points system replaced points for the first-innings lead, an innovation that has remained with us, though often tinkered with, ever since.

Second, in the same year each county was allowed one overseas player without a qualification period. Those in the county game in 1967, such as John Shepherd and Keith Boyce, had undergone a two-year qualification period during which they could not play international cricket, a condition that deterred current test players. From 1968, a generation of the world’s finest cricketers would be seen on county grounds. There were incessant complaints about this, of course, mostly about a supposed block on English talent. But how helpful would it be for selectors attempting to discern which batsmen are up to test cricket in Australia and which are not, to be able to watch them play in the County Championship against some of the world’s best fast bowlers? 

Despite the batting torpor of 1967, I do regret that the tricky (for batsman) pitch is now a rare phenomenon. The terminology for the state of pitches is determined by batsmen, who use words—“good” and “bad”—that measure how easy it is for them to practise their art. Ideally, over a series or a season pitches will range across the continuum of favouring the bat or the ball (and in the latter case sometimes seam, sometimes swing, sometimes spin). 

How pleasing it was that relegation from Division One of the County Championship in 2017 was decided on a Taunton turner, though the pitch was marked below average (apparently a similar mark next season will put Somerset at risk of a points deduction; yet when England batsmen in India look like an infant class trying to solve The Times crossword there will still be some who are surprised). How much better than the contrived declaration game that Middlesex won to clinch the Championship in 2016. Pitches should spin in England at season’s end. Presumably the Beckenham surface on which Kent scored 701 and Northamptonshire 568 was considered average or better.

It was the pitches becoming more batsmen-friendly and regulated that did for three-day cricket in the end. Without a bit of help most teams could not take the 20 wickets necessary to win a match without artifice in three days. Perhaps—though nobody thought so at the time—the best structure for the Championship was the mix of three and four-day games that existed from 1988 to 1992, though the three-day matches should be played on 1967 pitches and the four-day on contemporary ones.

Following events day-by-day revealed the rhythm of 1967. Kent’s season began hopefully, became expectant, then confident, finally triumphant. It was a wonderfully optimistic time that captured the imagination of the Kent sporting public that for decades had had only the Ryanair of sporting stock, Gillingham FC, in which to invest its hopes.

By the end of May both Norman Graham and John Shepherd had secured places that were theirs for 10 and 15 seasons respectively. Mike Denness and Brian Luckhurst became likely England players. Graham Johnson and Alan Ealham did not achieve much in 1967 but were on their way. It was pleasing to discover what a tremendous season Alan Dixon had.

Best of all, it was becoming clear that Alan Knott and Derek Underwood were world-class performers in the making. In Knott’s case every reporter who followed Kent produced a paean of praise about his keeping, usually invoking Godfrey Evans as a point of comparison. As I have said often enough, Underwood was regarded by some as being not quite a proper spinner, but it was enough that he was Underwood. How much would each attract in the IPL auction, particularly Knott who batted like a T20 player half a century ahead of time?

Knott played in every home test match for the next ten seasons, Underwood in most of them. There was usually at least one other Kent representative in the England XI. Had this not been the case perhaps more Championships would have been won. Kent finished second to Yorkshire once more in 1968, before slipping back into the bottom half of the table in 1969. The Championship was won, at last, in 1970.

One more piece on 1967 to come, reflecting on the process of recreating a cricket season 50 years on.

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 ...