1969 December 3, 2005

A sad end to an elegant career

"The good years started as the result of a brawl. They ended with another fight"

Tom Graveney tosses with Bobby Simpson ahead of the game at Luton that ended his Test career © The Cricketer
"The good years started as the result of a brawl. They ended with another fight." So recalled Tom Graveney, one of the most elegant of England's post-war batsman, who really came into his own after he was recalled to the side on his 39th birthday.

By his own admission, he believed his Test career was over when the summons came in June 1966. He had already played 55 Tests, but in the 24 that followed he scored 1779 runs at 49.30 with five hundreds. At the start of the 1969 season, he was the frontrunner to succeed Colin Cowdrey as England captain - he had been vice-captain in the Caribbean the previous winter and led England twice against Australia in 1968. But in the end the selectors plumped for Ray Illingworth, a decision that left Graveney "puzzled rather than angry". Despite this setback, in the first Test, Graveney scored a four-hour 75 as West Indies were beaten by 10 wickets at Manchester.

The problem was that on the Sunday of the Test - a rest day - he travelled south to Luton and took part in a match between a Tom Graveney XI and a Bobby Simpson XI. It was Graveney's benefit year and the game raised £1000, a sizable sum when weighed against the final total at the end of the summer of £7000. And what's more, he had given his word to the organiser that he would support the venture.

But the problem was that three days before, Graveney had been told by Alec Bedser, the chairman of selectors, that he could not take part in the match. Graveney had originally flagged the proposal to play nine months earlier. Then, Billy Griffith, the MCC secretary, had been non committal, and Bedser equally vague - "I don't know that I will be a selector then".

Nine days before the Old Trafford Test, Graveney again called Bedser who stressed that could not play at Luton. "Look Alec," Graveney replied. "I can't afford not to. If you don't want me to play, then don't pick me for the Test. I have got to play unless you come up with some other arrangement."

That weekend the side was named, and it included, to his surprise, Graveney. He took that as a tacit nod that he had been given approval to take part in the benefit match. He misread the signs, however, and on the morning of the Test, Bedser took him to one side and told him again that Luton was out of the question. Graveney again protested, and Bedser said he would call the organiser of the match, Tony Hunt, the millionaire owner of Luton Town FC. But Hunt was in hospital and the two never spoke.

And so Graveney played at Luton, keeping as low a profile as he could, and returned to the team hotel in Manchester at midnight. At breakfast the next day, Bedser told Graveney that he was reporting him to the disciplinary committee. t was Graveney's birthday and three years to the day since his recall.

Graveney follows Ray Illingworth, England's new captain, onto the field at Old Trafford © The Cricketer

The hearing was fixed for the following Thursday at Lord's. Graveney gave his account, making it clear that he had not been refused permission to play before the start of the Test. That was disputed by Bedser, who claimed that he had discussed the situation in the showers on the eve of the game. The Test & County Cricket Board backed their man and Graveney was severely censured and banned for the next three Tests. At 42, his England career was over.

Hunt was also criticised for his role and for holding Graveney to the commitment he made the previous year despite the clear consequences. The TCCB statement spoke of the "pressures" Graveney had been under, a thinly-veiled reference to Hunt.

Why had Graveney even agreed to play at Luton when it was clear even nine months earlier that it clashed with the Test? The new Sunday League took up most spare Sundays, and June 15 was all there was. Graveney was aware he was 41 at the time, and that "this mint of runs I had found would not last forever." Furthermore, at the time he committed, he was about to tour the Caribbean facing the fastest bowlers in the world on the fastest wickets - he concerns on that front were partially justified as he made 261 runs at 32.62 . And once he had said yes, he stuck to his word, and Hunt was in no mood to allow him off the hook after making such a sizable financial outlay.

"I was sad at this," Graveney recalled, "because it was not much of a way to go out after a long time in the game. It was a miserable way to finish."

It later emerged that the potential problem had not overlooked by Bedser after the initial chat. On the Friday the squad for Old Trafford was picked, he called Graveney's brother, Ken, and told him to try to talk him round. Ken, who was in a hurry, left Tom a cryptic message: "Remember, England comes first." Its meaning did not become clear to Tom until after the Test.

Reaction to the ban was mixed. Many sided with Graveney and against the establishment, but Alex Bannister in The Cricketer made the point that Bedser would not have been spared the whip "if Graveney had been involved in an accident either to or from Luton or on the field ... and imagine the furore if the selection had been accompanied by the statement: 'TW Graveney was not considered because he is taking part in a match at Luton'."

So his England career ended under a cloud. It was coincidental that the career of one of England's other most stylish post-war batsman, David Gower, also ended in selectoral controversy and debate when he was omitted from the side to tour India in 1992-93.

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo