April 24, 2011

The most underestimated batsman of his era

Marcus Berkmann
Derek Randall played the game as we thought we would if we were in his shoes, only with 2000 times more natural ability

Cricket, as we all know, is a team game played by individuals and no cricketer can have been more beguilingly individual than Derek Randall. Modest of stature, equipped with a pixie-ish demeanour, and liable to doff his cap at insane Australian fast bowlers, Randall was a one-off.

Viewed with the dispassionate gaze of hindsight, his figures may not look much: 47 Tests between 1976-77 and 1984, 79 innings, 2470 runs with seven hundreds and 12 fifties, five not-outs, average 33.37. After Randall was dropped for the last time, the role of "slightly frustrating underachieving England middle-order batsman" was occupied by Allan Lamb, Mike Gatting, Graeme Hick, Mark Ramprakash and John Crawley, each of whom drove me mad at various times in his own way. But Randall, I forgave everything.

Although 47 Tests is not a bad haul for a top-six batsman who did not score a huge number of runs, I felt at the time that he should have played more, and I feel it still. Randall was, for me, the most ill-used and underestimated batsman of his era, allowed fewer chances than his contemporaries, and punished more swiftly for every failure. Writing these words, I feel my teeth start to grind uncontrollably.

He is, of course, best known for the Centenary Test of 1976-77. It was only his fifth Test, but if you are going to score an epic 174 against Australia, this was the Test to do it in. Mere months before Kerry Packer turned the game upside down and inside out, this was a grand celebration of all that had gone before, without the slightest clue of what was to come.

The Queen was there, so were thousands of elderly former cricketers, and Randall produced the performance of the game. England needed 463 runs to win and, astoundingly, came within 46 runs of it. The cap-doffing incident followed a particularly well-directed Dennis Lillee bouncer. There could be no better way to disarm the old growler. Another bouncer was flat-batted to the midwicket boundary "with a speed and power that made many a rheumy eye turn to the master of the stroke, the watching Sir Donald Bradman. Words cannot recapture the joy of that moment." This was Wisden's unusually effusive description. It was my hero's defining innings and, needless to say, I did not see a ball of it.

Later games, though, I remember with unnatural clarity. Randall was always a nervous starter. At times, when he was out of form, he could look as though he had never actually batted before and had just wandered on to the pitch by mistake. We who revered him sat through these occasions in torment, hoping he would somehow survive his first few overs, for when he finally found his touch everything clicked in the most magnificent way.

He had that ability, most recently seen in Kevin Pietersen (who otherwise resembles him in no way at all) to play shots you did not think were possible, and make them look easy. It was an outrageous talent that communicated the sheer joy of batting. For Randall, Test cricket never seemed like just another day at the office. He played the game as we thought we would if we were in his shoes, only with 2000 times more natural ability.

True, his game was not without its technical flaws. Like so many Test batsmen he had a tendency to nibble fatally outside off stump. Apparently the man himself believed that his relatively short reach made him vulnerable to such balls, although his reach never seemed that short when he was swooping on balls in the covers like a hyperactive orangutan.

Low centre of gravity, long arms, astounding instincts: what else do you need? The fielding, of course, was his great additional value to a side. It was said, so often that I probably said it in my sleep, that he was worth an extra 20 runs to his side in the field, although I remember once arguing in the pub that it should be 23, while someone else said 18. Those who did not buy into Randall really did not buy into him. Their number included several England selectors.

But, though constantly shoved up and down the order, Randall had a tendency to score runs when they mattered. I particularly remember a gritty and ground-out 105 at Edgbaston against Pakistan in 1982 when he was opening the batting, mainly because no one else would. In Melbourne he batted at No. 3 but I always thought he looked more comfortable at Nos. 6 or 7, at which positions he averaged in the mid-40s.

My favourite innings of his, better than any of the hundreds, was an 83 at Trent Bridge against New Zealand in 1983. Coming in at 169 for 5, he and Ian Botham flayed the Kiwi bowling to all corners. Botham bludgeoned a century and stole the headlines but it was Randall's batting that delighted the connoisseurs. In one over from Richard Hadlee, a Nottinghamshire team-mate who at the time was taking wickets pretty much when he felt like it, Randall hit three boundaries in three balls through the off side. Each ball was slightly different, each shot was slightly different and the result was the same. It was joyous and sublime.

The next year Randall got 0 and 1 against West Indies and was dropped forever. Typically he had his most productive county season in 1985, when England were trouncing Australia and no middle-order places were available. It was not always a lucky career but it was an honourable and at times brilliant one. Someone put the Centenary Test on DVD, please, and add that Hadlee over if there is room.

Marcus Berkmann is the author of two books on cricket, Rain Men and Zimmer Men. This article was first published in the Wisden Cricketer in 2006. Subscribe here

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  • Stephen on April 26, 2011, 6:42 GMT

    Derek Randall was the person who made me love watching and playing cricket. He played with such great fun and lack of ego and clearly loved playing the game. I remember being at Lords when he played an incredible inniings to come within a haird breath of beating Essex in a one day final. As a young Notts fan I idolised him and still remember him incredibly fondly.

  • Harsh on April 26, 2011, 2:23 GMT

    On his day one of the most entertaing players of modern times.An acrobat as a fielder and one of the most outsatnding of all.In full flow he was a sight to watch and his 174 in the Centenary test was one of the best test match innings ever played.One can never forget the battle between Lillee and Randall in the Centenary test and Randall spectacularly launched an assault against a great Aussie bowling attack.Randall had an affinity for Australian bowling scoring a century on 3 of his 4 Ashes tours .I also remember his 2 crucial hundreds in 1982 in tough situations against India and Pakistan as an opener,winning both the tset matches for England.It is worth mentioning that in 1979 Derek Randall was ranked by Sobers as the 10th best batsman in the world.

  • madappa on April 25, 2011, 22:51 GMT

    I recall seeing Derek Randall in a Bombay test (can't remember the year, late 70's for sure; Tony Greig was the captain) and enjoyed his presence on the field immensely. He was a brilliant fielder (probably saved thirty odd runs that must be added to his batting runs) and kept dancing to the crowd's chants that was enjoyed by one and all (even my mother-in-law!). He seemed like a person who enjoyed cricket and communicated it to everyone on the field. I believe India lost that test, but I didn't mind the result as I had great fun watching Randall. Thanks for bringing up great memories, and Cheers, Prakash

  • Chris on April 25, 2011, 12:15 GMT

    One of my favourite English cricketers of all time - probably number 2 behind KP. Shocked his average is so low. I always remember him as much better than that average.

  • Dummy4 on April 25, 2011, 8:05 GMT

    As a die hard notts fan for many years,this fella as brought many happy days.His fielding is still the best i have seen,there was never a dull moment even in the most boring of days,an absolute one off.A great character on and off the field....

  • Soumen on April 25, 2011, 0:31 GMT

    I saw Derek Randall in his very first test at the Eden Gardens, Kolkata in 1977 when I was still in high school. Some of the enduring images from that test for me (along with two huge sixes by Chris Old and Bob Willis towering over a very dimunitive English fitness trainer during the pre-match warm-up) are Derek Randall's deliberately, crowd-pleasingly funny, exaggeratedly maniacal running in the outfield - it seemed like his bones or limbs could come out any time. He was quite a showman and a comedian on the field, and I am surprised there's no mention of that side of him in this article.

  • Hemant on April 24, 2011, 21:15 GMT

    Good article Marcus, I grew up in the days of radio commentary as the main source of keeping up with tests, and very clearly remember description of Randall's prowess! Even if you settled the pub argument on Derek's fielding being worth only 18 runs, with his average of 33+, that ought to up his average to 50, which would be quite deserving of his calibre!

  • BR on April 24, 2011, 20:07 GMT

    i remember reading his quote in the centenary test when receiving his man of the match award " i would like to thank Dennis for the bump on my head"!

    his sense of humor and engaging crowd antics were legendary among indian fans as many others have commented.

  • Geoff on April 24, 2011, 19:52 GMT

    And my favourite cricketer too. Two things. First, THAT run out when Randall run out...an Aussie?...who had been barely backing up - but so swift was Randall at short mid-on that the batsman never had a chance (and late in the evening too if memory serves correctly). And second - my comprehensive school Headmaster giving an assembly based around the virtues of Randall the never-say-die, whippet cover fielder who cold collect and throw as one at full pelt on the boundary edge to save a single for his team. Only assembly I ever listened to. Working-class hero. Thanks for a great write-up Marcus.

  • Balaji on April 24, 2011, 16:42 GMT

    I never saw him on the ground. I saw his photo in a book bringing out details of all the players just before the 1976-77 England tour of India, and what struck and still stays with me was the grin. What still stays with me is the sheer sense of pleasure he seemed to give out. Another was I think in Boycott's autobiography. In the 1977 Ashes, Boycott ran Randall out and stated that he felt devastated. It apparently took Boycott some time to get himself back on groove. According to Boycs, it was the sight of Randall playing with his child which brought back a sense of perspective.

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