"Just heard that India won the Lord's Test," wrote a correspondent from overseas last summer. "I have been an ardent supporter of England for over fifty years, and am both grieved and surprised at this defeat. I am still at a loss to understand - a) The poor standard of cricket in the two premier Universities - Cambridge and Oxford. In the past they have always produced clever Test captains and cricketers of Test standard. b) The lack of a firm, resolute captain of the calibre of Douglas Jardine and Len Hutton, both of whom rescued England when in the doldrums. c) The loss of English grit and determination in their batting. I wonder whether one-day cricket is killing Test cricket in England."
The influence of one-day, or limited-overs, cricket was also very much in the minds of those who prepared the Report of the TCCB Enquiry into the Standards of Play of English Cricket in Test and First-Class County Cricket: the Palmer Report, so named after the Enquiry's chairman, C.H. Palmer. Reading that report, full of valid points, I was nevertheless left wondering to what extent it, like the letter above, was out of tune with what England and English cricket have become and are becoming.
We live today in the age of the instant, be it the microwave oven, the fast-food outlet or the cricket match. So it seems inevitable that, if the public wants action and a winner to cheer, a match it can watch from beginning to end, the counties will supply it; not only because there is public interest but also because where there is public interest there will be sponsors.
For the Test and County Cricket Board, on one hand trying to improve playing standards for Test matches while on the other planning the economic welfare of the county game, the dichotomy is that what is good for the game is not always good for the business.
In the same year that the Palmer Report considered limited-overs cricket to be the main cause of the decline in standards of batting and bowling in English cricket (and before the Indians and New Zealanders had shown the extent of that decline), the TCCB introduced a second limited-overs competition for the county Second XIs; and this summer the number of games in that competition has been virtually doubled by the playing of home and away ties in the three zonal rounds.
Yet the Palmer Report advised: "The young cricketer now entering the first-class county game as presently organised has greater difficulty in acquiring the skills for success in all types of cricket [my italics] because of insufficient opportunity to serve a good apprenticeship in three-day cricket."
I am reminded of the television programme, Yes Minister, in which the Civil Service's answer to any call for action was to set up an enquiry. By the time it had reached its conclusion, everyone would have forgotten why it had been commissioned.
The Palmer Report deserves better than to be shelved and forgotten, and it was appropriate that 1986 provided a timely reminder of its origins: widespread disappointment and genuine concern about the standards of play at Test and county level following the series of failures in Australia in 1982-83, in New Zealand and Pakistan in 1983-84, and against West Indies in England in 1984. Yet how quickly fortunes change.
When they departed for Australia in October last year, England had gone eleven Test matches without a win, having lost all five in the West Indies, two to India and one to New Zealand. Before the year was out, however, they had beaten Australia twice: at Brisbane in the first Test by seven wickets, having made Australia follow on, and at Melbourne by an innings and 14 runs in three days.
The second and third Tests, at Perth and Adelaide respectively, were drawn, and so the Ashes, regained by Gower in 1985, were retained by his successor as England's captain, Gatting.
After a year in the wilderness, these victories were a great morale boost for the England players and their supporters. Viewed from a distance, they appear to be the product of a happy, unified team, and much credit for this must be given to the manager, P.M. Lush, and the assistant manager, M.J. Stewart. Between them, they have restored pride to England's players.
Following the TCCB's decision to draw up terms of reference for the roles of the management on tour, the choice of Mr Lush as manager was significantly successful. The Public Relations and Marketing Manager of the TCCB, he has experience of coping with the media and the marketing men and so was able to absorb those external pressures which in the past have upset touring teams.
The assistant manager and the players, meanwhile, were able to concentrate on their preparations and their cricket. It was a professional approach and it paid dividends.
Gatting, on his first tour as England's captain, said that he did not enjoy all aspects of the job, in which case success must have tasted all the sweeter. There were times last year when he appeared to be waiting for something to happen, rather than trying to make it happen, and it is hoped that his success in Australia will have given him confidence.
Leadership is a matter of initiative as well as command; it is a quality Gatting has always shown in his batting and should, now that he has some wins under his belt, be seen in his captaincy.
Gower's brief reign, in which series victories over India in India and Australia in England in 1985 were offset by 5-0 defeats by West Indies at home and away, ended when he was relieved of the England captaincy following England's defeat by India at Lord's: the first Test of last summer. The cry for a change was widespread. Had it been less strident, who is to say that he would not have been just as successful as Gatting in Australia, especially given Stewart's influence?
Writing of the Australian side that toured England in 1985, my predecessor said he was not among those who maintain there is no such thing as a weak Australian side. Has there ever been one as weak as that beaten by England this past winter?
Yet there are players with the potential to be good. What is missing, it seems, is the tempering of that potential before it is exposed to international cricket. The place for that is not in the succession of airport terminals and one-day internationals through which the leading Australian cricketers pass each season. It is in a healthy domestic first-class competition.
In 1985-86 the Australian selectors called 24 players to the colours. It is worth a glance at the Sheffield Shield matches which appear later in the Almanack. State sides once proud with great names are frequently bare of current Australian players caught up in the commercial whirlpool of international cricket, simply to satisfy the television mogul and his marketing minions.
"Generally speaking," said the Palmer Report, "only players of genuine Test match standard will be competent to succeed consistently in limited-overs international matches." It was understandable that New Zealand, rather than compete for the prize money at the junket in Perth, chose instead to keep their Test men at home, strengthening their domestic competition so that younger players might profit from the experience of playing with and against them.
The loss of experienced players to South Africa did not help Australia's cause either. In improving the earning power of its top players, Mr Packer, the poacher turned gamekeeper, failed to take into account that while many may be called, only eleven are chosen: and that in a land where the dollar and success are the goalposts, those not chosen would become all too easy prey to the hand with the rand. Yet if the Australians continue to flounder, interest will fall away, not only at the grounds but also in the viewing figures. Even interest in one-day cricket will fall-off if Australia are beaten regularly by the likes of New Zealand or India or Sri Lanka. The Australian Cricket Board already is concerned at the standard of the game there, but those who market it might do well to look at their investment if they see cricket as a continuing commodity. There are those, of course, who would like to see the marketing men run even before they cut their losses.
It is not only for Australia's sake that it should be a power in world cricket, dependent to quite some extent on Test match receipts for its financial well-being, needs the draw of a strong Australian side. Rarely last summer was there a full house on any day, even a Saturday, of a Test match, despite the fact that India and New Zealand were good sides with world-class players. At Lord's, for example, an overall attendance of 57,509 watched the Indians and 69,184 the New Zealanders; yet there were 93,329 to see the Australians the previous year, and 25,539 had earlier filled the ground for the third Texaco Trophy match, even though Australia had already won the series. At Birmingham, 42,750 watched the Indians, 51,550 the Australians. While it may be good for England to beat Australia, it is not good for either country if Australian cricket is so weak that it ceases to be regarded as a major sport by its success-oriented citizens.
But that, too, was beyond England. I left that by this time England had reached their nadir. New Zealand were a solid side, with two outstanding players in Hadlee and Martin Crowe, but I do not think that any England team, possessing pride and spirit, would have allowed themselves to be beaten by them. Noticeable in England's approach against India was a fear of failure; it was almost as if they had forgotten how to go about winning.
At Trent Bridge, where they lost to New Zealand, once England had failed to gain an initiative, they looked resigned to defeat. What was needed was someone whose concern was not for his place in the team or his family: someone who was not conditioned by a fear of failure: who could take the game by the scruff and give it a shake. What was needed was Botham.
Botham, it might be argued, is irresponsible; some wouldn't even bother to argue. But his lack of responsibility is more to himself that to his fellow-man. He bats and bowls not with concern for averages or place but for the joy of playing and the stimulus of competition.
He, too, is a "guerrilla fighter impatient of discipline. A devotee of action who thrives on challenge and crisis." Those are words used to describe Winston Churchill in the 1930s: a man at times as much loved or loathed as Botham has been in recent years.
Botham may not be everyone's ideal hero, but as Carlyle said, the hero can be poet, prophet, king, priest or whatever you will, according to the kind of world he finds himself born into. To a society that cries out for any extravagant gesture to alleviate the mediocrity, Botham by his deeds has indeed become a hero.
In August, he presented the Leukaemia Research Fund with a cheque for £888,000 as a result of his great walk from John O'Groats to Land's End in 1985. The following week the Comptroller and Auditor General reported that the Ministry of Defence had overspent by £938 million on its major defence contracts and paid out more than £200 million on a further seven projects which were later cancelled. I suppose it's not quite cricket.
Botham's absence from the England side for all but the last Test match of the summer was due to his suspension by the TCCB from all first-class cricket from May 29 until July 31. His misdemeanour was bringing the game into disrepute by admitting to using cannabis (in a newspaper article on May 18), denying in the past that he had used cannabis, and making public pronouncements without the clearance of his county.
The suspension was not severe; a week later four auxiliary nurses at a Nottingham hospital were dismissed for allegedly smoking cannabis when they were off-duty and not on hospital premises. Botham erred. In 1985 the TCCB had taken no action against him following his conviction for possession of the drug, and it was felt then that it had been lenient. Moreover, the Board had agreed to support the Sports Council in its campaign against drug-taking, so it had not only to be responsible but be seen to be responsible.
With a similar sense of responsibility, it might also reflect on the condition of some of its customers after a day's imbibing. Cricket watching should be a pleasurable activity: the behaviour and language of certain spectators, from the hospitality boxes to the bleachers, were enough to make some people I spoke to think twice about attending major cricket matches, let alone taking children to them.
Botham's suspension did, however, leave at least one question unanswered. The Board's action followed his admission in The Mail on Sunday that he did take pot, albeit at a time predating the TCCB's anti-drugs resolution. The article was part of a settlement, between Botham and the newspaper, of a libel action instigated by Botham after allegations in that paper in March 1984 that he had smoked pot during England's tour of New Zealand.
Commenting on the settlement, the editor of the newspaper, which had prepared its defence of the action, said that the view on both sides was that "it would be disastrous" for Ian Botham and English cricket if the case went to court. Yet in a carefully worded statement, following that England tour, the TCCB had said that "investigations have not substantiated any of the serious allegations made". The question raises itself. How deeply did that investigation dig?
The manager of that tour, A.C. Smith, has since become the Chief Executive of the TCCB: he will know the pitfalls that await the modern administrator. None the less, he and all with a responsibility for the game would do well to heed the words of Lord Harris in this bicentennial year of MCC.
"You do well to love it [cricket], for it is more free from anything sordid, anything dishonourable, than any game in the world. To play it keenly, honourably, self-sacrificingly is a moral lesson in itself ... protect it from anything that would sully it so that it may grow in favour with all men."
Whether, in this day of insider dealing, such a noble sentiment remains compatible with the business that cricket has become at first-class county level is debatable. But for those who care for the game, who cherish its lessons and its traditions, it is essential that the sentiment takes priority even over the business.
Written more that half a century ago, those words seem no less appropriate in 1987 as MCC, of which Lord Harris was so much a part, celebrates its 200th anniversary, appositely under the presidency of M.C. Cowdrey. An imaginative programme has been arranged, with the highlight, for all cricket lovers at least, a five-day match at Lord's in August between MCC (a side chosen from all cricketers playing in the United Kingdom in 1987) and the Rest of the World.
MCC's place in cricket is unique. If in recent years its role has been diminished, it still has a voice in the game's affairs which one trusts will be raised authoritatively should the ethic of cricket ever be threatened. Wisden, a mere 123 years old, congratulates the Club on its bicentenary and wishes it well.
Given MCC's continuing involvement in cricket's affairs worldwide, by providing the International Cricket Conference with its Chairman and secretariat, what more welcome birthday gift could the members of the ICC give MCC than an agreement to curb short-pitched bowling and improve over-rates in Test cricket? I link the two intentionally, because action on the latter could have an effect on the former, as well as giving the spectator a fair return for his day's admission fee.
The great problem facing the game, certainly at Test match level, is short-pitched bowling, and unless cricket is to become a game which is administered by gentlemen and practised by thugs, action must be taken against those bowlers who practise intimidation as a means of containment and dismissal.
For any bowler to defend his use of the bouncer against a tailender on the grounds that he is helmeted, protected and obstructive, is about on a par with the mugger who defends his right to rob old ladies because they live in an area of high crime and violence.
To see a batsman hit, even felled, by a ball is not an edifying sight. Or is it for some? We live in times when violence and ugliness are pronounced and promulgated, not least by the visual media. Those in public life are seen to be less concerned with truth and concern for people than with scoring political points and remaining in power.
Our young people are not set a very good example by those who should be setting standards. Sport has become an outlet for patriotic aggression, and there are those for whom victory, however it is achieved, is more important than the way the game is played. Along with such a society, cricket has fallen from grace.
The answer to the problem of short-pitched bowling appears simple: a strict application of the Law. On a number of occasions last summer I saw bowlers threaten the batsman's person with no appearance of caution from the umpires.
Umpires are not appointed simply to count the number of balls in an over any more than policemen are there to direct traffic. Their job is to uphold all the Laws: by no means a simple task and one full of responsibility. It requires, also, the full backing of the authorities, which applies both in this country and overseas.
That is why I would prefer independent umpires for Test matches, by which I do not mean "neutral umpires; rather, umpires who are not appointed by the home country's board of control. I would advocate an international panel of leading umpires, appointed by and responsible to the ICC, which in turn would have to show a more positive attitude.
It would cost money, but Test matches are cricket's money-spinner. They are also the world's window on the sport. Such a panel will stand later this year for World Cup matches; just as all countries have agreed to maintain a required over-rate or incur heavy fines.
I feel that an international team of umpires, paid in accordance with their responsibilities, would feel less the servants of the national authorities who appoint them at present and, as a body, would have the confidence to enforce the Laws.
With regard to the Law on short-pitched bowling, the TCCB will propose at this year's ICC annual meeting that bouncers be restricted to one per over, with bowlers receiving only one warning. Acceptance by the Test-playing countries would show they are more concerned for cricket than they are for national success.
English cricket has taken pride in the high standard of its umpires, and rightly so. But every now and then that standard slips. In the Test match at Headingley last summer, Shastri was given out off what should have been called a no ball; at the time Lever delivered it, there were three men behind the popping crease on the leg side: an infringement of Law 41.2.
Similarly, in that Test, India had twelve players on the field during an over. Such an occurrence is understandable, given the umpires' attention to other matters, except that the player should not have returned to the field without the consent of the umpire at the bowler's end (Law 2.8) who should, at the same time, have made sure of the substitute's departure. I will return to the comings and goings of players, but first I wish to comment on the scores in New Zealand's fourth innings at Trent Bridge.
The confusion arose from the action of Gower, who, with New Zealand 73 for two and requiring 1 run to win the second Test, was called upon by Gatting to bowl the last over and thoughtlessly "threw" his first delivery. Umpire Palmer called "no-ball", which effectively gave New Zealand the run they needed, but Martin Crowe, then 44, hit the ball for 4 runs. Were these to be added to his and New Zealand's scores?
It was the interpretation of one of the umpires, when questioned by the editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly very soon afterwards, that they should not be. However, it does not appear that the umpires, at the end of the match, agreed with the official scorers on the correctness of the scores in accordance with Law 3.14. Subsequently, the Secretaries of MCC and the TCCB were of the opinion that the 4 runs should count towards the scores and this is how they appear in Wisden.
The Secretary of MCC, which is responsible for the Laws, considered that the ball had not become dead on the call of "no-ball", there apparently having been no call of "time" immediately after the call of "no ball". Consequently, in accordance with Law 24.9, Crowe was entitled to hit the no-ball and have the resulting runs added to his score. There would have been no confusion had the umpires issued a statement immediately after the match, for they were not unaware that there was uncertainty.
I am intrigued by the number of itinerant spear-bearers who have joined the play in recent years, bringing on or taking off helmets, glasses of water, dry batting gloves, salt tablets. Sometimes they are mentioned by name over the public address system: perhaps it's in the spear-bearers' union agreement. But thinking about it, the spectator has a right to know the extra's name, having paid to see this interruption to his day's cricket.
More serious are other comings and goings. One first-class umpire told me last year of an international fast bowler who, at the end of his spell, took his sweater and kept walking until he was back in the pavilion, without even telling his acting-captain that he was going, let alone requesting the umpire's consent.
This consent is not just a courtesy (the day seems long past when courtesy is considered commonplace); it is a requirement of the Laws. One might ask why the umpires do not enforce it, but one can sympathise with them. In many walks of life, enforcement of the lesser laws produces counter-charges of "petty" or "nit-picking", so that it would seem to be the enforcer rather than the transgressor who is at fault. There is room here for captains, and the county clubs, to make sure that both the letter and the spirit of the Laws are adhered to.
In this respect, counties and their captains could stand a reminder from the 1944 MCC Select Committee's report: "The Intervals and Hours of Play as provided for in the Laws of Cricket or in Match Regulations must be strictly adhered to. In particular, the two minutes allowed for the incoming batsman to take his place is a generous allowance which should rarely be utilised to the full [my italics] and never exceeded."
And then there is field-placing. It is not as if, by late in the summer, a captain does not know where his bowlers want their fieldsmen. The prevarication practiced last summer by the England and Middlesex captain and the England and Middlesex spin bowlers when it came to setting a field may not have been deliberate time-wasting, but more often than not it was a waste of time. There are times, I regret to say, when it smacks of the shop floor and working to rule.
"War was gradually improved into an art and degraded into a trade," wrote Gibbon while describing the decline and fall of an earlier empire. It is hard, at times, watching some cricketers go about their daily business, not to reflect similarly on what had been improved into an art in the heyday of a more recent empire.
For all that modern society prefers action to aesthetic pleasures, style and personality continue to attract attention, and cricket must encourage those who breathe life into the game. Not only batsmen but also bowlers who by pace or wiles make cricket a contest rather than an exercise.
When batsmen bat with a fear of being dismissed and bowlers bowl with a fear of being hit, stalemate and boredom set in. English cricket has, in batsmen like Botham, Gatting, Lamb, Whitaker, Bailey, and Gower - and Hick - players to break any stalemate, but there is a desperate need for attacking bowlers.
The time has come to encourage wicket-taking, and that is why I would like to see the TCCB, when it decides on bonus points for the County Championship in 1988, award them for bowling only. If pitches are to remain covered, and I suspect they will in the meantime, the batsmen already have sufficient in their favour. I would prefer to see cricket played on pitches which are more responsive to the vagaries of the English climate.
It is said that to produce mature, exciting wines in some regions, the vines must suffer; the same could be said of young batsman. But if pitches remain covered for Test cricket, bowlers must learn to take wickets on them.
Of late, some groundsmen have shown themselves able to prepare sporting pitches which give both batsmen and bowlers a chance, and others should be encouraged to do so. The Palmer Report stressed the need for pitches that are hard, fast and true to start with and then give spin bowlers some help later in the match. However, the practice of some counties of producing pitches which favour their own strengths is deprecable. As the rewards for winning increase, so the practices need more careful watching.
Looking at ways to improve the standard of first-class cricketers, the Palmer Report recommended a Championship of sixteen three-day matches and eight four-day matches per county; a knockout competition involving twenty teams in place of the current Benson and Hedges format; and a Sunday League of two divisions with each county playing only eight matches and then the top two in each division going into semi-finals and a final.
The response of the counties was, not surprisingly, less radical. However, from 1988, there will be four-day matches in the County Championship. Each county will play six four-day matches in addition to sixteen three-day matches. The zonal leagues format will be retained for the Benson and Hedges Cup, although there will not be quarter-finals; instead the top team from each group will go into the semi-final round.
And the Sunday League, which from this year becomes the Refuge Assurance League, will be increased rather than cut back. Each county will continue to play the others once, and at the end of the season the top four counties will contest semi-finals, followed by a final.
I welcome the introduction of the four-day game if it is going to give young batsmen the opportunity to develop an innings properly instead of being forced into "one-day-style cricket" in pursuit of bonus points. Perhaps, too, it will reduce the number of contrived finishes, although the weather will always provide instances of final-day forfeitures.
There is no excuse, though, when forfeitures become no more than a means to obtaining a result after two days of stalemate. I can understand the player's point of view. There is nothing worse than passing through an afternoon towards an inevitable draw in any kind of cricket. But when collusions, primed declarations and forfeitures make a nonsense of all that has gone before, it is not cricket. There were some marvellous Championship matches last year, played to an exciting finish, which resulted purely and simply from positive cricket, positive attitudes and skilful captaincy.
Not retained under contract by Yorkshire, Boycott said late last year that he had retired from first-class cricket. It is not easy to imagine a season without him, especially with four-day Championship matches just around the corner. I have a feeling he will be back, for Yorkshire even.
Last year also saw the retirement of the Australian fast bowler, Jeff Thomson. Devotees of the unquotable one-liner will be sad to see him go, but no batsman. In 51 Tests he took 200 wickets at 28.00; only five Australians have taken more; and in 21 Tests against England he took exactly 100 wickets. In all first-class cricket he took 675 wickets at 26.46.
Off the field, but never far away from it, D.B. Carr retired as Secretary of the TCCB after a life devoted to cricket. He made his first-class début at eighteen, playing for England against Australia in the Victory Test of 1945 at Lord's, and in 1951-52 he played in two Tests against India, captaining England at Madras. After being assistant secretary and secretary of Derbyshire, he became an Assistant Secretary of MCC in 1962 and then in 1974 was appointed Secretary of the newly formed Test and County Cricket Board.
He is succeeded by A.C. Smith, who carries the designation of Chief Executive rather than Secretary, an indication perhaps that he is responsible for a business organisation, not a club. Previously secretary of Warwickshire, since 1976, and a Test selector, "A.C." played six times for England as wicket-keeper on E.R. Dexter's MCC tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1962-63.
If these Notes seem a catalogue of concerns, they are so because I am concerned about cricket: for the quality of cricket as I am for the quality of life. I do not see the game in isolation but in relation to what is happening in our society. That is, for me, a great part of cricket's attraction. Therefore it does concern me when, for example, I perceive a drift towards more limited-overs cricket, not just in England but internationally; because if cricket does indeed reflect stages of social history, our lives too must become more and more restricted to a set number of permutations.
When the American short-story and baseball writer, Ring Lardner, died, Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy's game. A boy's game with no more possibilities than a boy could master. A game bounded by walls which kept out danger, change or adventure."
Cricket must always be more than that. So must life.