The start of a love affair
Forty years ago this week I attended my first cricket international. Like generations of schoolboys before and since, I headed, with a friend, to the match, clutching sandwiches for lunch and £1 to buy us drinks during the day. The game itself was in the normal course of events quite forgettable, but it ignited a smouldering interest in cricket that had started the previous Ashes summer and by the time I left The Oval on that late summer's evening I was hooked for life.
In the second half of 1973, England had quite simply been demolished with both bat and ball by West Indies, the three-Test series culminating in a four-day innings defeat at Lord's as West Indies took the series 2-0. Ray Illingworth, the hero of the previous two Ashes series, was dumped as captain in a typically English establishment way. As the selectors prevaricated, it was left to Illingworth himself to tell the press he had been sacked, unfortunately as he prepared to lead Leicestershire against Kent... where the captain was the man who replaced him in the England job, Mike Denness.
The international summer was not quite finished. In 1972 the authorities, capitalising on the success of the Gillette Cup and John Player League, had launched a third domestic limited-overs competition - the Benson & Hedges Cup - and also three post-Test ODIs, the first to be played in England. They also had a non-tobacco sponsor, Prudential Insurance.
The experimental Prudential Trophy matches were successful enough to be repeated in 1973. In a split summer, New Zealand played twice, and then in early September, West Indies. Even though the first ODI had been played two and a half years earlier, the deep suspicions of the authorities outside England of the new format meant the West Indies games were only the eighth and ninth ODIs to be played. They were approached with the kind of casualness that greeted the early T20s three decades later. A bit of fun, but not to be taken too seriously.
England, with new captain Denness top-scoring, won the first ODI by one wicket. The scores seem to a modern eye ridiculous and more befitting T20s. West Indies made 181 in 54 off their 55 overs, England squeaking home with three balls to spare.
Along with 18,000 others I headed to The Oval on a sunny Friday morning for the second game. As with most children, I was more attracted to the winning side - West Indies, with their fast bowlers and attacking batsmen - than staid England. My one disappointment - that Garry Sobers was absent because of "fatigue" - was soon forgotten.
Outside the ground I got my first shock. The West Indian immigration to the UK had taken off immediately after World War Two, and although tens of thousands had set up home they were largely centred on a few areas in the major cities. Consequently, as a middle-class Berkshire boarding-school boy, I had never seen a black man in the flesh.
I recall outside the large brick perimeter wall of the ground was a mass of people, noise and colour. Touts were selling tickets but the easier way of getting in seemed to be over the wall. One entrepreneur had a ladder. For a fee he quickly leant it against the wall - the customer clambered up and over, and the ladder was swiftly withdrawn.
The language being used was unfamiliar - heavy Caribbean accents, slang and fast delivery left me bemused. But there was no sense of menace, just of excitement.
As an 11-year-old I did not smoke but I also remember scantily clad girls (and I had not seen many of those before either) handing out free cigarettes - one each only - on behalf of the same brands that sponsored the domestic competitions.
Before I got into the ground I fell victim to a conman who was selling tour booklets and scorecards. I handed over my 25p and found I had bought a poorly printed eight-page affair that was riddled with spelling mistakes and errors. The "scorecard" was no more than a list of those likely to be playing.
Once inside there was relative calm but that soon changed. Surrey were aware that a large crowd was expected, and following much-criticised pitch invasions six weeks earlier during the Test, they banned spectators from sitting on the grass, as they usually did on major match days, reducing the capacity by around 6000. They also took the unprecedented step of warning that anyone coming onto the outfield would be ejected.
In those days matches were not sold out in advance as they are now. Large numbers of the cheaper seats were sold on the day, with the result that the open banked seats on the sides of The Oval were almost exclusively populated by West Indies supporters. It was for the day, Kensington Oval. A majority had been born and raised in the Caribbean and brought the vitality, joy and enthusiasm that is so much a part of spectating there with them.
We had seats over third man at the Pavilion End but we were still among a mass of West Indians. Within minutes of the start of the England innings the noise was close to deafening, with horns, chatter and, for those without the foresight to have brought a musical instrument, cans banged together. My friend and I sat there dumbfounded. We had been taught you watched cricket in silence. Occasionally clapping.
A large (to be fair, everyone seemed large) West Indian looked pitifully at us and asked why we were not joining in (even though we were already on our feet, just to see what was happening in the middle). I can recall replying that we had nothing to make a noise with (my £1, already depleted by the rip-off brochure would not extend to enough cans to allow percussion), calling him "sir".
He jabbed his neighbour in the ribs, pointed at us and said something. His neighbour opened two cans of beer, they both downed them in one and then handed them to us. They immediately repeated the exercise and handed those cans to my friend. "Now, join in." And for the rest of the day, we did.
It was more entertaining watching and listening to the supporters than following a turgid England innings. The numbers who had illegally gained entry meant that in most areas seats became an inconvenience. Everybody outside the white ghettoes of the members' areas seemed to spend the day on their feet.
England used the match to see how a few fringe candidates for that winter's West Indies tour would fare. John Jameson did enough to gain selection with 28 off 85 balls; David Lloyd, run out for 8 from 43 deliveries, did not. At one stage England scored 15 runs from 13 overs, and by lunch - when they had slithered to 98 for 4 off 37 overs, the game was as good as over. Lance Gibbs, the offspinner, returned figures of 11-4-12-1 as England made a tortuous 189 for 9 in their 55 overs.
The one moment when the atmosphere turned nasty - albeit briefly - came when Tony Grieg, who was to be the target of genuine vitriol from West Indies three years later, appeared to have been run out by yards. Umpire Tom Spencer gave him in and the crowd around us exploded with anger. I acquired a few words to add to my vocabulary as well. Without replay screens and never-ending analysis, what we did not know was that the wicketkeeper had accidentally dislodged the bails with his hand before the ball had reached him.
Crawford White in the Daily Express said the match was lethargic and the scene "phoney" as the West Indies quicks came in off half runs. In rhetoric that would decades later have had the ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit rushing to Kennington, he added the talk around the ground was that the sides had reached an agreement to share the prize money.
West Indies effortlessly knocked off the runs, reaching their target with 12.4 overs and eight wickets in hand. It would have been nine but Roy Fredericks, who had just reached his hundred, was bowled by Geoff Arnold as he tried to finish the game with a six.
The Daily Mirror report gave an indication of how differently those early one-dayers were played, mentioning that at one point in the West Indies chase "the run-rate progressed with increasing menace to well in excess of four an over".
With my friend, I headed for the back of the pavilion to try to get some autographs of my new heroes and was amazed to strike gold immediately with a flurry of signatures. The ease with which they were obtained became clear when an elderly West Indian patted me on the shoulder and gently pointed out that all those who had signed were just random fans who happened to be walking past. Fake signatures on a fake scorecard.
I did not care. I left The Oval on that sun-drenched September evening with a new passion as well as an insight into a totally different world. I was hooked.
What happened next?
- England were outplayed for most of the Test series in the Caribbean in 1973-74 but came back in the final Test, largely thanks to Tony Greig's offspin, to square the series 1-1
- The Oval continued to be a West Indies home from home through to the mid 1980s, when rising ticket prices and the lack of widespread enthusiasm for the game among second-generation immigrants started to have an influence
- Martin Williamson ended up at Wisden and then ESPNcricinfo and can often be heard lamenting the corporatisation and Anglicisation of The Oval when West Indies are playing
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa