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.

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