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In a recent article in Cricinfo Magazine, Christopher Martin-Jenkins lamented the performances of the England top-order Test batsmen in their county championship games, comparing them unfavourably to those of Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch and Bill and John Edrich. Those past batsmen stood out a long way from the pack and were clearly a class above their contemporaries. Since today’s don’t, they aren’t, is the conclusion we are invited to draw.
But that relies on the baselines being the same, on the pack staying where it was – and that is manifestly not the case.
I was sitting with a friend of mine (who, unlike CMJ, has first-hand memory of Bill and Denis in their pomp) the other day when a batsman aimed a meaty biff through extra cover. A couple of the one-saving fielders set off in pursuit, overhauled it and threw the ball in quickly enough to pressure the batsmen on their second run.
“You’d never have seen that in the old days,” exclaimed my friend. "That would have been four runs every time!” Half the old-timers’ fours would now be cut off for one or two, and a healthy amount of their twos would be ones, and so forth. And then there’s the bowling. Where are the 65mph medium-pacers who used to fill in while we waited for the new ball thirty years ago? The people who come on second change these days would have been serious candidates to open the bowling when an Edrich was batting, at least in terms of pace. Good batsmen get far less opportunity to milk utterly innocuous bowling than they used to.
When the tall trees of English batting were felled by Lindwall and Miller or Lillee and Thomson and the team struggled to pass 200, part of the explanation was that county batsmen never experienced anyone who bowled as fast as that.
On the television last week, Joe Denly and Robert Key of Kent dealt reasonably comfortably with Steve Harmison and Liam Plunkett of Durham, who were being clocked at 91 and 88mph respectively. In the televised championship match CMJ referred to in his piece, Andrew Flintoff and Sajid Mahmood were bowling well within themselves on a sluggish pitch, but they’ve both been clocked at 90+ in Tests before now. Today’s batsmen might find a Lindwall, Lillee or Roberts difficult to play because of their command of length and direction, but their pace would now be business as usual for a county cricketer.
And these are home-grown bowlers who are currently surplus to the Test team’s requirements, not the Caribbean imports who used to provide the only serious pace in the county cricket of the 80s.
Whether Bill Edrich was a better batsman than Paul Collingwood might make an interesting debate, but citing their county records on the assumption that they provide a fair comparison is like treating Test performances against the strong India of today and the weak India of fifty years ago as equivalent.
If the Test stars of today do not seem to shine as brightly in county cricket as their predecessors, it may be because they are intrinsically less bright, but it is at least as possible that it is because the background is so much lighter than it was.
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