1983 July 31, 2010

All out for 14

When wickets fell so fast that Sylvester Clarke came out to bat without any socks on and soap all over his head

While low scores are not uncommon, team totals that barely make it to double figures belong to the era before motorised mowers and advances in groundsmanship led to a massive improvement in the standard of pitches. Of the 27 first-class totals below 20, only six were made after World War I. Perhaps the most remarkable of that half dozen came at Chelmsford at the end of May in 1983, when Surrey were bowled out for 14.

The first day of the County Championship match between Essex and Surrey had been washed out, and the second was unremarkable until the last session. Keith Fletcher had won the toss, batted, and made a typically painstaking hundred as Essex scored 287. In the break between innings, Surrey captain Roger Knight ordered the heavy roller. Some claimed that was the cause of what followed, but the Times was not convinced, Peter Ball writing that "bad or irresolute batting was the main reason".

Neil Foster and Norbert Phillip opened with the new ball, bowling with "fire, accuracy and speed", which none of the Surrey bowlers had previously managed. Phillip was known to be a dangerous bowler, and Foster, in his first match back from a serious back injury, supported him perfectly.

"Norbert bowled outswingers and Fozzie was swinging it and seaming it," Keith Pont told the BBC. "There were a lot of left-handers in the Surrey team and the bowlers were swinging it like an absolute boomerang. People were letting the ball go because it was starting two-and-a-half feet outside off stump. They were either being trapped lbw or being clean-bowled."

Alan Butcher was the first to go, caught down the leg side attempting a hook. "For a couple of years we had ended up batting the last 40 minutes at Chelmsford knowing the ball did normally swing around and we used to end up losing three or four wickets," he said. "On that evening it just seemed every time we missed the ball it was lbw or bowled or every time we nicked it the ball went to hand."

Within five overs Surrey were 8 for 4. Inside the dressing room, concern was starting to turn into panic.

"It was late in the day and the first three batsmen were padded up plus a night-watchman," Monte Lynch, who at No. 5 was one of six successive ducks that afternoon, told the Sunday Times. "The rest of us were in the plunge bath with an after-match drink. Suddenly the door was kicked open and our coach, Micky Stewart, was standing there like John Wayne, frothing at the mouth, shouting at us to get out and padded up." Stewart was not being over-cautious, as five wickets fell with the score on 8.

Graham Monkhouse finally got the scoreboard moving again when an outside edge fell inches short of Ray East in the slips and produced two runs. His partner by then was Sylvester Clarke, who Lynch recalled "went out to bat without any socks on and soap all over his head".

He had almost not made it. When Jack Richards had been dismissed shortly before, he returned to find Clarke relaxing in a bath. "Better pad up, Silves, we're in trouble," Richards told him. Clarke thought they were pulling his leg, and only when other team-mates said the same did he get out of his bath to check.

Clarke was never a batsman who believed in anything other than attacking, and heaved Foster over midwicket before being yorked. In the next over Monkhouse was trapped leg-before by Phillip. Foster finished with 4 for 10, Phillip with 6 for 4.

"We watched the procession from the dressing-room balcony with some amusement. It was like one of those speeded-up sequences from the Benny Hill Show, complete with its own percussive soundtrack of spikes on concrete as batsmen clattered up and down the pavilion steps"
Derek Pringle on the fall of Surrey wickets

Derek Pringle was injured and so did not play, and he wrote in the Daily Telegraph two decades later: "We watched the procession from the dressing-room balcony with some amusement. It was like one of those speeded-up sequences from the Benny Hill Show, complete with its own percussive soundtrack of spikes on concrete as batsmen clattered up and down the pavilion steps."

"At the end of our innings, the Essex crowd went mad, clapping them off," recalled Surrey spinner Pat Pocock. "The two bowlers led the sides off, and back in the dressing room we looked at each other and we were just dumbstruck, as if we'd seen a ghost. Then somebody burst out laughing and everybody laughed."

"A friend came to the match," Pont said. "She'd never seen a professional game before. As I walked off she said: 'I really like this game - it's very exciting'."

In the Surrey innings there had been seven noughts, and Andy Needham - who was responsible for one of them - had his father make seven ties each with seven small silver ducks on them. "We all walked in as the Magnificent Seven with our ties and Micky cut them up," Lynch said. "He told us: 'If you're going to be famous, be famous for the right reasons'."

"I remember our captain, saying we 'hadn't batted awfully well' to the press afterwards, which didn't really help anyone," Butcher said. "The temptation to go and get plastered out of our brains on that second night was huge but then suddenly someone worked out, only half jokingly, we could still lose by an innings to the extras (20) we'd conceded, so that was scrapped."

Pringle told an amusing tale of one newspaper reporter who had left Chelmsford early to go to dinner. He called through his copy at the end of the Essex innings, concluding by telling the sub: "Finish with 'At the close, Surrey were ___ for ___. Fill in the relevant details". At 9.30 the journalist called in to check all was well. "Any problems?" he asked. "Well, yes, actually," replied the sub. "You left some blanks for us to fill in. Well, the numbers missing are 14 and 10. Surrey were bowled out for the lowest score in their history. We had to rewrite your piece in the office."

The following morning television crews were in evidence, along with a larger media contingent than usual at an early-season Championship match, to see if lightning would strike twice. They had wasted journeys. Rain delayed the start, and after an early wobble, which left Surrey on 18 for 2, Knight hit an unbeaten 101 as the game drifted to a soporific draw.

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