Sick cameramen, recruiting Bradman and more, 1980

My life reporting cricket

When I joined the Daily Mail from the Press Association (the news agency dubbed the University of Fleet Street) 33 years ago, cricket had not yet been sucked into the vortex of world politics and High Court action. And if there was such a thing as player power, it was represented by the deeds of Denis Compton, Len Hutton, Alec Bedser, Bill Edrich and others on the field of play.

The one-day game was not conceived, nor was even a twinkle in the eyes of the legislators; overseas tours were long, comparatively leisurely and crammed with stuffy receptions; grounds were full in the post-war sporting boom; and there was still a division between amateur and professional. Indeed, until the abolition of the thin distinction in 1963, it was still possible to hear, as I did at Lord's, this pre-match announcement: In the match card, for F. J. Titmus please read Titmus F. J.

At Adelaide in 1950, invitations to temporary membership of a club were extended only to the four amateurs and to those of the press who were members of MCC. It was politely declined. On board ship, the amateurs were put at a separate dining table, but the whole party travelled first-class and in style - unlike the modern trial of endurance of the jumbo jet.

Domestically the season consisted of Tests, matches with the tourists, the County Championship, prestige fixtures like Gentlemen v Players, Oxford v Cambridge, and the festivals. Pride in the swiftly disintegrating Empire remained in titles. There was the Imperial Cricket Conference (now the International Cricket Conference), and as late as 1953 it was the Imperial Cricket Memorial Gallery (The Memorial Gallery and Library). Contact between the all-powerful MCC and the working press was minimal. Selectors offered no public reasons for their decisions, and the list of secretaries read like a military gazette. The Advisory County Cricket Committee's annual meeting coincided with the University rugby match, and no-one was ever late to Twickenham for the kick-off.

Sir Don Bradman, who gave a new meaning to batting, was still leading his invincible Australians, and the West Indies were emerging as a potent force - though it was still predicted in some islands that all would collapse under a future black captain. In due course Sir Frank Worrell, a remarkable person as well as being a great cricketer, united the widely scattered and diverse cultures of the islands as no politician was able to do, before or since. His early death was a cruel blow to the entire cricket world, and I have pictured him as the perfect intermediary in the South African dispute. I remember the forthright R. W. V. Robins bluntly asking him if he ever found it a handicap to be black, especially when he was in England. Frankie's laughing response was: Only when I'm shaving.

Twenty years passed before south Africa's racial laws blew up in cricket's face, and those attending the seemingly interminable meetings at Lord's in 1970 will never forget the ominous sight of the square behind barbed wire and under floodlights. With security guards and dogs in patrol, the ground assumed the grim appearance of a POW camp. After the 1968-69 tour of South Africa was cancelled, at the time I would have been leaving Heathrow I found myself interviewing an eleven year old at Aylesbury on why he wanted to play for Manchester United!

Pakistan, gaining full Test status in 1952, is one of the countries adamantly opposed to South Africa's re-entry. The new Muslim nation was so little known in the early years that, on an early tour there, a Commonwealth team's blazer carried the gilt-lettered word: PARKISTAN. Yet within five years Pakistan had beaten England, Australia and West Indies. The victory at The Oval was a classic case of a team, previously outplayed, being taken too lightly. A much-changed side suddenly found themselves fighting a losing battle against Fazal Mahmood, a bowler of the Bedser type on a pitch to suit him. Fazal was one of the best of his age and was a police traffic inspector. Years later, as a passenger in his jeep threading a miraculous path through a tangle of bullock carts, camel trains, cars, buses, rickshaws and wandering pedestrians, I asked him how he controlled his Karachi traffic. You have as much chance as bowling out Hutton without stumps in the ground, he replied.

As the game might have been invented for their bubbling skills and vitalities, the rise of the West Indians was inevitable. In 1950, when they gained their first victory in England at Lord's, a very fine opening pair in Jeff Stollmeyer and Alan Rae preceded the might of the immortal Ws; Worrell, Clyde Walcott, then a wicket-keeper, and Everton Weekes. And the most experienced English batsman could not handle the novice spinners, Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine.

When they arrived in England, the combined experience of those little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine, as the calypso went, was two first-class matches. It was Jack Mercer, the former Glamorgan bowler, then coaching in Jamaica, who urged the selectors to send Valentine. Mercer used to tell Valentine to spin until the blood showed from his fingers. Nobody could pick Ramadhin, and Valentine spun like a top. All John Goddard needed to do was put his slow bowlers on and they would do the rest. Valentine was charmingly vague. When is the England captain coming in? he asked when he was bowling out England in the Trent Bridge Test. You dismissed him an hour ago, he was told.

Another story I associate with Jack Mercer involved Freddie Trueman on the 1953-54 tour of the West Indies. MCC were playing at Spanish Town, not far from Kingston, at a sugar plantation. Across the entrance was strung a banner exhorting the employees on the virtues of WORD OBEDIENCE, DISCIPLINE. Trueman, who was sharing a car with Mercer and myself, looked with disgust at the banner and exploded: bloody well wouldn't work here!

When West Indies won at Lord's, their supporters, singing and dancing invaded an astonished Long Room, where I also saw an old member innocently bump into the Duke of Edinburgh, who had just opened the aforementioned Imperial Cricket Memorial Gallery. The Duke's tea spilled down the royal trousers, leaving a most unfortunate appearance. Perhaps it was just as well for his peace of mind that the member shuffled away blissfully ignorant of his gaffe.

Yet I doubt if the Duke was more taken aback than Jeff Thomson, the fire-eating Australian bowler, after his first over to Colin Cowdrey, who had just joined the England party in Australia in 1974. As England were down to twelve fit players, including two wicket-keepers, Colin was pressed into premature service, although he had been in the nets for only four days. You could almost hear the dreaded Thomson's ears flap back in expectation as Colin took the pallor of an English December to the wicket. His last Test innings had been three and a half years before, but the old touch was not lost, and at the end of the over the lamb blandly approached the lion and murmured: I don't think we have met - my name's Cowdrey.

Cowdrey in Pakistan, 1969, Hutton in the West Indies, 1954, and Peter May in Australia, 1958-59, were captains on singularly difficult tours. The unsuspecting May, comfortably England's finest post-war batsman, found himself in the centre of bitter throwing and umpiring controversies, and Hutton and Cowdrey, from the start of their misadventures, must have thought they were being committed to tip-toe barefoot through fields of broken bottles. On many occasions in the West Indies and Pakistan I had anguished doubts after filing my story. The events of the day seemed so irrational as to be the child of an overheated imagination.

Hutton found the young Trueman a frightful handful, and rumour of the most bizarre nature on a variety of themes spread through the lovely Caribbean like an unchecked forest fire. Finally there was the episode of the flamboyant Honourable Alex Bustamente, Jamaica's Chief Minister. During the final Test, with his score at 205, Hutton entered the pavilion at tea hoping to snatch a shower and a cup of tea. He was no sooner in the room than an excited official burst in and stormed: This is the crowning insult. It transpired that Mr Bustamente's hand had been one of the several thrust out to Hutton, who had replied to the shouted congratulations with Thank you. The interval was spent sorting the matter out, and making it clear that had he but known Mr Bustamente had been there he would have stopped. Despite a stout denial from the Chief Minister that he had been insulted, the incident continued to be blown up out of all proportion.

More evidence that cricket was being dragged into the political maelstrom came in Pakistan. In retrospect, it is obvious that Cowdrey's tour should not have been attempted during a period of civil disorder. England arrived after a brief stay in Sri Lanka to find the itinerary changed, armed troops patrolling the streets, and a general picture of chaos and crisis. Far from bringing stability to the scene, as officialdom hoped, the Tests attracted student agitators and play was constantly interrupted. Both the local Board and British diplomatists shirked the responsibility of calling a halt to the wretched and dangerous situation. Cricket was used as a political shuttlecock.

Oddly the most peaceful Test was at Dacca, which was considered to be the flash-point, because the local students took over the policing of the match. On the eve of the match their leaders conducted a serio-comical press conference at which I wondered whether I should laugh or be scared. The only casualty proved to be Cowdrey, who had £30 pinched from his pocket as he walked the width of a pavement from the bus to the ground entrance.

In the end the mob won at Karachi, with the Test abandoned on the third morning after the most serious of several riots when England were 502 for seven. Colin Milburn had scored 137 in what sadly proved to be his last Test innings and Alan Knott was within 4 runs of his maiden century for England. The team left for home that night, and I wrote my eye-witness account of the riot at home with one half of a broken stump in front of me. It was safer there.

Milburn's career effectively ended with a motor accident as his genius had started in full bloom. He had spent the winter with Western Australia and flew to what was then the east wing of Pakistan as a reinforcement when Cowdrey's fitness was in doubt. The boys prepared a welcome for him. As he came down the plane steps they sang The green, green grass of home. They also arranged for the coach to stop at a disreputable hotel and filed out. Colin's jaw dropped, and just as he was prepared to make a bolt for home the players returned and took him to the team's headquarters at the Inter-continental.

During a period when the side was confined to the hotel at Lahore, Roger Prideaux, then captain of Northamptonshire, slipped out to give a trial to a young student fast bowler. The nets at the Gymkhana were surrounded by barbed wire, and soldiers stood protectively by. The trialist was Sarfraz Nawaz, and it can be truthfully said that he lived up to his unconventional start.

I would not like to give the impression that all tours to Pakistan were fraught with danger. The early ones were not examples of feather-bedded luxury, but India and Pakistan can now offer comforts undreamed of at one period. At one of the less attractive centres Keith Fletcher switched on a large fan in the hope of getting rid of a colony of bats in the ceiling. Immediately a rain of mutilated bats descended on the diners below. On another occasion an England team arrived at an up-country hotel to see a corpse under a white sheet being carried away. It was the chef, knifed in a kitchen quarrel.

No cricket education can be considered half complete without a tour of India, though admittedly it can be wearing at the time. One widely held fallacy there is that anyone remotely attached to the visiting team has access to a vast pool of complimentary tickets, and is willing, nay anxious to discuss every aspect of the game anywhere at any time. I have found strangers in my hotel room - and in the most private area - who have called in for a chat. At New Delhi, my only relief was to lock myself in the bathroom, where the light was not visible from the outside, and read Vanity Fair, borrowed from Mike Brearley.

A Test at Calcutta is comparable to five days of the fervour of a Wembley international between England and Scotland with crowds of a comparable size. Before the 1977 match there was the astonishing sight of the grass on the pitch, such as it was, being scraped away with household scrubbing brushes.

Melbourne 1955 provided the mystery of the Damp Pitch...except that it wasn't really a mystery. Despite official denials at the time, there could be no doubt that there was an illegal watering on the rest day. On the Saturday evening cracks had begun to appear and the pitch was worn. On Monday, after a hot Sunday, the pitch and its surrounds were damp. The Melbourne newspaper The Age published a story that sprinklers had been used, but among the speculation which followed was a learned explanation that the cause was a subterranean river directly under the ground. If that was right, how remarkable that the effect should be confined to a tiny area in the middle of a vast ground. There was no sinister motive, however, and the error was accepted as a groundsman's inexperience. But an England victory spared Australia no end of embarrassment.

Godfrey Evans made one of his famous catches to dismiss Neil Harvey, and in the course of 12.3 eight-ball overs Frank Tyson, who in three Tests of the series was the fastest bowler I have ever seen, and Brian Statham won the match. Tyson had seven wickets in the innings and Statham two, and I remember Sir Don Bradman, in the lounge of the Windsor Hotel making a special effort to tell Statham that England would not have won without his brilliant support.

Inevitably in the highly competitive field of Fleet Street, a long career brings its ups and downs. Memories are the most perishable of all commodities and one's standard is measured by the last story. I have had a few successes and some failures, but I regard my part in recruiting Bradman for the two home series with Australia in 1953, the coronation year, and 1956 as my greatest coup. It happened by chance.

When teams travelled by ship I used to join the Australians at their last port of call - Malta, Naples or maybe Marseilles - and file a daily story. One morning, while waiting in a queue outside a Purser's Office, two of the Australian players told me The Don would have enjoyed making the trip. Normally I am opposed to player-writers as it can be a deception of the public and goes against my journalistic principles, but Bradman was an exception and capable of making a huge impact with his unique perception, judgement and reputation. I cabled my editor, who responded with enthusiasm and set the operation in motion.

The outcome was a dazzling success. It brought The Don, who wrote every word himself, congratulations in the fourth leader of The Times, and gave the newspaper a new status among the discerning public. Fully to appreciate The Don's insight and knowledge of the game it is necessary to be with him over a long period, and that was my privilege. I also understood the price he has paid for his unique fame, with incessant requests for autographs and hopeful conversations opening with, You must remember me, we stayed at the same hotel at Leicester in 1930.

Later I had a different style of collaboration with Johnny Wardle when he was signed, in the teeth of intense competition, to reveal his troubles with Yorkshire exclusively to the Daily Mail. Nearing midnight I was awakened and told to go immediately to Wardle's home at Wakefield. I had two basic instructions: one, to make sure no other newspaper intervened; two, to produce three articles the next day.

After arousing the village taximan I went to Kings Cross, where a rail voucher and the terms of the agreement awaited me, and then on to Wakefield station to join two others in a hired car. We parked outside Wardle's home until the family came down for breakfast, and when whisked him to the paper's offices at Sheffield. Johnny was so upset by Yorkshire's decline, and what he thought the causes to be, that the articles were simple to write. The main target of his criticism was Ron Burnet, the captain, who had been appointed to instil discipline into the side.

In the afternoon, photographs were taken at the Grand Hotel - one of Johnny at a typewriter - and as we went into the foyer, to my embarrassment, we ran into Burnet. For my part I liked both Johnny and Ron, and I felt as if I had intruded into a family quarrel. It is always to Burnet's credit that he never held a grudge and rose above the sea of disputes with dignity. In fact, I did signed piece for him when Yorkshire won the Championship at Hove.

If Wardle was at fault, it was that his passion for Yorkshire over-boiled. when he was sent to Australia with me on Peter May's tour I found him conscientious and intelligent, as well as fearless. He was particularly useful on a tour tormented by throwing controversies, for his technical know-how was outstanding.

Of several stunts I became involved in, the most amusing was with Richie Benaud's team. Again it was aboard ship. The day before the arrival of the Australians at Tilbury I had a shore-to-ship call from J. L. Manning, a particularly demanding Sports Editor, to arrange to assemble the players at starboard stern at 1.30 p.m. precisely. A Daily Mail plane would then take a photograph of them, and I was to give the exact position of the ship at 1.30 p.m.; repeat, exact position.

Benaud, as always obliging, agreed, but understandably the bridge said it was not possible to give the exact position several hours in advance. Mr. Manning was not to be put off within a nautical mile or two, and I lost some poundage running up the stairs to the radio room.

As the appointed time approached, the sea became choppy, there were rain squalls, and the overcoated cricketers became increasingly disenchanted with the project. If we had weather like this we'd give Australia back the Abbos said one through clenched teeth. Suddenly, to my relief, a plane appeared and circled three times at a drunken angle. The picture appearing on the breakfast tables the next morning was a little out of focus, but a reader was to know that at the moment of crisis the photographer was being violently sick!

With the sixties came the time of cricket's upheavals and changed attitudes. Cricket journalism moved into sterner and more specialised dimensions. Instant judgements had to be passed on the weightiest of subjects, often after long and complicated briefings. After the International Cricket Conference had tried to thrash out the complex question of throwing I was urged by my office: Can't you simplify it? As generations of legislators had tried for almost a century to find the right wording I was not too ashamed to reply that it was beyond me.

I am inclined to think that if the same resolve was shown in curbing the menace of bumpers and intimidation as was applied to throwing problems, some of the recent insults to the fair name of the game would not have happened. Unfortunately an endemic weakness called self-interest and parochialism, which left the game so divided during the Packer struggle, takes over. The soft option of passing the buck to the hard-pressed umpires is seized upon avidly. There have been clearly defined regulations to stop excesses of bumpers, and I trust the experiment of the one-an-over restriction will have more success. The latest legislation represents the last chance to prevent cricket slipping into perpetual violence.

Bumpers, in fair numbers, are part of the game. Intimidation is not, and must be stamped out. One thought does occur to me: as the human frame is now infinitely bigger and stronger, is 22 yards the right length of the pitch? When 22 yards was officially drafted into the 1744 Laws, the bowling was underarm!

So swift, complete and dramatic have been the changes in the last few years, both on the field and in administration, and it almost invites ridicule to pass comparisons. Some of the old chivalry and morality, which put cricket apart from other games, has ebbed away in the tide of awards and prizes, sponsorship in its many forms, and larger appearance money. There must be some concern that the benefits of the newly developing marketing are not cornered by a small élite of privileged players. There is much to commend in the dedicated attitude of the players who demand more say in their affairs. Fine! As long as it is remembered that they owe a responsibility to the game at large.

Crowds are different today, and the trend is towards in stand cricket and instant results. It is possible there will be little place for five-day Tests in the future, particularly in an impatient country like Australia.

On playing standards I am sure the great players of the immediate past of the class of Bradman, Hutton, May, Arthur Morris, the Ws, Compton, Martin Donnelly, Dudley Nourse, Vijay Merchant, Alec Bedser, Fred Trueman and Co. would be just as effective today. All the so-called progress of negative bowling and field placings would not have stopped Bradman. He might have been slowed down - partly because of the decline in the over-rate - but he would still have scored a staggering number of runs.

Equally Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar, Geoff Boycott, Barry Richards, Clive Lloyd and the other modern batting giants would have found Bedser's cut and swing and the fast bowling of Ray Lindwall and Keith just as difficult. The best all-rounders I have seen are Sir Gary Sobers, Miller and Mike Procter, and Ian Botham may aspire to that class.

The Packer affair was a supreme tragedy, particularly as it had its origins in an Australian commercial TV struggle. I know all the arguments, but the over-riding disappointment to me was that negotiations were going on in secret during the nostalgic Melbourne centenary Test match. To be able to do so suggested the players involved had no affiliation whatsoever with the spirit and sentiment of their distinguished predecessors.

© John Wisden & Co