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Anticipation had been more satisfying than was realisation when, having been abroad, I saw cricket for the first time in six years. What was read and heard promised much, but in reality, the standard was disappointingly lower than in 1973, when England's batting was weak enough to admit such as Lewis, Roope and Wood to Test cricket. In retrospect their merits, measured against those of Brearley and Randall, look more attractive.
Expectations certainly were realised in two directions; the high fielding standard and the exciting all-round cricket of Botham, who is splendidly old-fashioned in his willingness to experiment, even so far as to trade runs for wickets. Perhaps we should not overstress the fielding, for that might suggest that high quality is new. The past also had its great exponents. There was the superb close-catching team of Lock, Surridge, Stewart and company in Surrey's all-conquering team of the fifties. No current player has approached the amazing record of Jack Hobbs, number one cover point, who ran out fifteen opponents in as many matches during the 1911-12 tour of Australia. Moreover, the stumping standard now is low. Only Taylor looked an authentic stumper among the many long-stops.
Figures, it is said, may be used to prove anything. Brearley's Test batting figures, average 23--or almost--surely point only in one direction, yet he was still retained after repeated failures in more than 30 Tests. The figures of the season's averages also point truthfully in another direction, showing that much of the best cricket was played by foreigners. Few Englishmen could have been included in a representative team from the counties, which might have been Boycott, Greenidge, Viv Richards, Allan Lamb, Clive Lloyd, Procter (captain) Botham, Imran, Taylor, Garner and A. N. Other. The last place should go to a genuine slow spinner of craft and guile, such as Titmus most recently was, if such a player now exists.
When I left England Boycott was our best batsman. When I returned he was the only one of true class. I heard much about young batsmen challenging the present incumbents. The latter were vulnerable, but the challengers were not all they had been painted. Some, notably Larkins and Parker, failed whenever seen on television, and shaped as if they often would do so against class bowling. I did see Tavaré make runs on occasions, but not impressively, and a batsman whose hands work against each other, the one at the top, the other at the bottom of the handle, is much handicapped.
What young players are damaged by over-limited cricket is an obvious excuse--except that it apparently leaves young foreigners like South Africa's Lamb unscathed. Lamb is far ahead of most young Englishmen, those shufflers crippled by bad footwork. He looks correct at the wicket, still and composed, his bat comfortably grounded. His footwork is economical and sure, so that stroke-play is almost a formality.
Yorkshire's young side may contain someone better, but the England reserve I fancy most is Alan Butcher. He may not have done himself justice in his one Test, but he did move into position like a true batsman. His advance may be accelerated when he discovers that gripping the bat at the very top of the handle excites in bowlers visions, which are often realised, of slip and gully catches.
Willey, Gooch and Gower, in that order, looked Boycott's best supporters. Gooch would surely benefit from a more relaxed stance. His stiff, awkward position with bat unnaturally aloft must surely prove a severe strain when he plays a long innings in a hot country. Gower most obviously has flair, a gift for stroke-making, a fine sense of timing, and certainly a quick eye. His weakness is footwork, for he seldom plays far from the batting crease off either foot. That indecisiveness was the direct cause of his failures in the final two Tests. He has been compared to Frank Woolley, but any resemblance does not extend to footwork. It seemed wellnigh impossible to bowl a length when Woolley was on the rampage, reaching far forward or going right back to attack. That is what footwork is bout. If footwork was better, there would be no call for those ridiculous helmets.
Randall is the oddest performer. He made nearly a third of his runs in an end-of-season caper against Middlesex to gain a misleadingly high place in the averages. I thought he was shaping cross-batted to play baseball when I first saw him shuffle across the pitch with bat lifted to point towards cover. His method is so faulty that he is as yet miscast as a specialist Test batsman, and his brilliantly agile fielding is insufficient compensation, particularly in a side carrying Brearley.
Superficially England's bowling position looks good. Against generally modest opposition the pace bowlers have served the side well. Their stature against tough opposition, however, was put in doubt by India, despite their relying overmuch on three or four batsmen. Confidence had already been shaken by the battering received in the Prudential Cup final. Not least assaulted was Hendrick, whose negative method reveals little concern for wicket-taking. That he rarely allows batsmen to play forward explains why he was still waiting to take five wickets in a Test innings after 25 matches.
By contrast the positive Botham did so eight times in his first eleven Tests. When it came to the crunch, moreover, Hendrick the defender had no answer to Richards in that Prudential final. He was apparently unaware that the sure way to stop--perhaps dismiss--an opponent who advances before the ball is bowled is to aim to drop it on his feet. Elementary instruction, including even running between wickets, often seems neglected these days.
Considering only those who bowled enough to take twenty first-class wickets, we cannot be reassured to find nine of the first fifteen places occupied by foreigners, while the other six were ageing Britons. Underwood 34, Jackman 33, Lever 30, Arnold 35, Higgs 42 and Pocock 32 led the English. That a pace bowler of 42 figured so prominently argues against younger rivals and current batsmanship.
It is no less disturbing that so many of the well-advertised hopefuls, including Les Taylor and Hugh Wilson, have had, open-chested actions. That is the penalty for having Willis as first-choice fast bowler. He reached that eminence despite an action which should not be imitated. Happily the selectors chose Dilley, whose action does promise well, for Australia. If he becomes the next first-choice opener, the forthcoming generation will have a good model, as did pace bowlers of my generation watching Tate, Larwood, Allen, Kennedy and others with classic actions. Careers of bowlers with indifferent actions are seldom long, and Willis, who toiled four months before reaching twenty first-class wickets, may well be nearing his end.
I am puzzled that, in the more serious cricket, most batsmen are held to a modest scoring-rate by closely set fields. Yet in over-limited games the opposition tacitly admits they cannot restricted to fewer than 5 or 6 runs an over by spreading the field around the boundary. Hence the 290 for six slammed in 55 overs by Essex in the Benson and Hedges Cup final. More positive tactics, making batsmen as anxious about survival as about run-making, might pay better--in fact, take care of the singles and the fours will look after themselves.
I recall an early Gillette Cup game in which Middlesex were only 72 for three after 32 overs against Surrey. Two boundaries were hit in an over, not a shattering event but it caused fielders to be banished to all parts of The Oval. From that point of eased pressure, runs flowed at five and a half an over. Of course the far-flung fields may be admission that the bowlers now lack the accuracy to bowl to a set field. Some facts support that view. Only two overs were possible before an interval at the start of India's second innings at The Oval, and they should have been compelled to play ball after ball. Alas, two wides were scattered, and the Indians were allowed to stand idle while most other balls flew well clear. Shades of fiery Fred Trueman, who would have ensured giving those batsmen six balls of hell!
Is too much money too easily earned today? Do we set our sights too how? Should commentators encourage complacency by using the currently favourite BBC adverb 'extremely' so freely? It is not an extremely good stroke when a supposedly Test class batsman drives a half-volley, for most number elevens can do that. For that matter should commentators on TV talk as much as they do while play is actually in progress? Perhaps our low standard exists because the incentive to strive for perfection is insufficient.
Where is the incentive when a batting average of 23 is qualification for a Packer benefit tour worth £10,000. For an unsuccessful performer that is glittering reward for a tour of only ten matches of cricket, plus a dozen or so one-day frolics of play-acting in fancy dress. Cricket in pastel shades! On with the motley then, and all aboard for the Skylark.