1990 May 22, 2010

The year of the bat

A look back at an English summer when the pitches were flat, the scores tall, bowlers' shoulders drooped, and spectators cried for mercy

If the game these days often appears weighted in favour of batsmen, the start of the 1990 season was possibly the nadir for hapless bowlers.

In the late 1980s the Test & County Cricket Board (the forerunner of the ECB) gradually introduced four-day cricket into English cricket. In a typical compromise solution, the first-class season in England was bookmarked by three four-day matches, with 16 of the more traditional three-day games in between.

In a bid to ensure pitches lasted the distance - or, so cynics claimed, to make it increasingly hard to force a result in the three-day format - severe penalties were brought in for those deemed unsatisfactory, while in 1990 the TCCB decided to use a ball almost devoid of a seam in county cricket.

In March, Harry Brind, the TCCB's inspector of pitches, held a seminar for groundsmen on how to make pitches more friendly for batsmen. Many moaned the pendulum had swung too far.

"I don't think you're going to like the balls this season," former Middlesex seamer turned umpire Allan Jones warned Simon Hughes behind the pavilion at Lord's in early April.

The spring that year was hot and dry, offering none of the early-season green tinges beloved by English seamers. That and the unresponsive ball and shirt-front pitches meant the batsmen had almost nothing to fear from even the better county bowling attacks.

The County Championship started on April 26. By May 7 there had been 32 hundreds, including two triple-centuries and seven doubles. Sixteen of the three-figure scores were career bests, and five were maiden hundreds.

On May 3 several second-round matches took place that would epitomise the early-season slaughter. In Cardiff, Somerset took seven sessions to reach 535 for 2 against Glamorgan before declaring, Jimmy Cook finishing unbeaten on 313 in eight-and-a-half hours. Glamorgan replied with 412 for 6 and the game snoozed to a draw.

But by comparison with what happened at The Oval, that was thrilling stuff. Against a backdrop of noisy building works ("it promises to be a pretty ghastly season there for almost everyone," moaned Matthew Engel in the Guardian) Surrey batted and ground Lancashire into the south London dust. After a decent first day, when they reached 396 for 6, any life there might have been in the pitch did an overnight flit. Ian Greig, Surrey's captain and the younger brother of Tony, made 291 as Surrey took their score to 707 for 9, the highest score in the Championship for 54 years.

"What with no front leg and his penchant for the aerial route," noted Hughes, Grieg's score caused more than a few raised eyebrows. Greig himself was unsympathetic to the bowlers' plight: "They've got to learn to bowl on good wickets."

Surrey's record lasted less than 24 hours, as Essex piled up 761 for 6 against Leicestershire (520) with double-hundreds from Paul Prichard and Graham Gooch. That in turn, enjoyed an equally brief period in the history books.

Back at The Oval, few journalists believed Surrey would be able to force a win, so perfect was the surface. What is more, David Hughes, Lancashire's captain, was reportedly unimpressed with Surrey's total and so set about returning the punishment.

There was also an undercurrent. Hughes was very anti four-day cricket, while Surrey had been one of the protagonists of change. "This just fuels my argument against it," Hughes said. "The wicket will probably not break up until two weeks on Friday. We all realised we couldn't go on with the pitches we had last year, it was awful. But this is a farce."

And if Surrey were in any doubt what to expect, his final comment made it clear: "I want them to put an extra screw on the scoreboard so there's room for a thousand." So seriously did the Surrey administrators take the threat they did just that. At the close on the second day, Lancashire were 179 for 1, the only wicket a run-out.

The third day was one for masochists and statisticians, as Lancashire took their score to 665 for 3. The headline grabber was Neil Fairbrother, who finished unbeaten on 311. He came to the middle in the second over - courtesy of another run-out - and scored a hundred in each session. He gave only one chance, when dropped by Neil Kendrick when on 294.

At lunch he had made 102, and in the afternoon session Surrey's bowlers took their only wicket of the day when Michael Atherton holed out to short extra cover for 191. As the follow-on score - 558 - was passed the Surrey fielders began looking hopefully towards the Lancashire balcony. Hughes remained motionless and the slaughter went on.

There was a one-day interlude on the Sunday - as was the custom then - to play a limited-overs match. It did not provide respite for the bowlers; Surrey made 267 for 4 in their 39 overs, Lancashire replied with 268 for 3 in 37.1.

On the fourth day, the Bank Holiday Monday, Fairbrother resumed his first-class innings and extended it to 366 - surpassing Len Hutton's Oval record of 364 - before he wearily pulled Greig to mid-on. "All my joints ached and my feet were sore," Fairbrother said. "It was still a wonderful experience."

At the lunch break photographers took pictures of Fairbrother posing in front of the scoreboard, only to be shooed away by officious stewards.

The afternoon was expected to be about seeing if Lancashire could pass 1000, but despite Engel noting "bowling on this pitch was still as much fun as having a root-canal job" they lost their way, their last six wickets going down for 118 as they finished on 863. Surrey batted out the last hour to reach 80 for 1.

Brind was unrepentant but did admit the pitch was "not the ideal", adding: "Whether it's the ball not doing anything or the weather, I'm not sure."

Not everybody cashed in. Wayne Larkins, fresh back from England's tour of the West Indies, made 0,0,7,1,0 for Northamptonshire. And Surrey opener Grahame Clinton missed out at The Oval, making 8 and 15. "Actually, it was harder not to score runs on that pitch," he shrugged.

As the summer went on, some of the bowlers who had been moaning in May grudgingly admitted the low-seamed balls might actually help them. "You've got to get used to it," Martin Bicknell, who had taken 1 for 175 for Surrey against Lancashire, said. "My approach now is bowl as tight a line as possible and put pressure on the batsman."

A letter from Alec Bedser to the Daily Telegraph tartly pointed out the seam had actually only been restored to the level it was in 1948.

The summer did not turn out quite as dire as the early indications had suggested it might. In Wisden, Graeme Wright wrote: "In 1928, when there were 312 first-class games, there was an aggregate of 1,000 or more runs in 72 of those games. Last summer, 1,000 runs were posted in 108 of the 241 first-class games and there were 428 individual hundreds, which passed the previous record of 414 in 1928. However, the 32 double-hundreds in 1990 did not quite match the record 34 in 1933, another summer when good weather produced an improvement in conditions for batsmen. To what extent the balance swung from the bowlers to the batsmen last summer can be seen from a comparison of County Championship aggregates: 154,232 runs and 5,260 wickets in 1989; 179,360 runs and 4,632 wickets in 1990."

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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