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In two unforgettable months, English cricket emerged in 1981 from a period of much gloom to a well-being that was reflected even in the enthusiasm with which ordinary men and women set about their labours.
After several weeks of dreadful weather (not a single ball was bowled in any of Gloucestershire's three Championship matches in May), culminating in the loss by England of the first Test match, the sun got the better of the rain and England gained two of the more dramatic victories in the history of the game. A third, soon afterwards, meant that the Ashes were retained.
The change in England's fortunes coincided with Michael Brearley's return as captain. This not only lifted the spirits of the side, it improved its direction and freed Ian Botham of a burden which was threatening to ruin his cricket.
Botham's record speaks for itself. In his twelve matches as England's captain, between June 1980 and July 1981, he scored 276 runs at an average of 13.80 (top score 57) and his 35 wickets cost 32 runs apiece. Yet by the end of last season he had made eight Test hundreds and taken five wickets in an innings seventeen times - always when without the cares of captaincy.
The seventh of these hundreds, in the third Test at Headingley, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat; the eighth won the fifth Test at Old Trafford. With some wonderful hitting Botham reached three figures in 87 balls at Headingley and in 86 at Old Trafford. At Edgbaston, between giving the Australian bowlers two such unmerciful poundings, he finished off the fourth Test by taking five wickets for 1 run when Australia needed only a handful of runs to win.
Botham's catching, too, was back to its prehensile best. Small wonder that Australia's captain, Kim Hughes, said when the series was over that the difference between the two sides was represented by one man and one man only.
No-one, I believe, can ever have played a finer Test innings of its type than Botham's at Old Trafford. I have been told that Australia's attack was by no means one of their strongest, and that by the time Botham came in the best of their bowlers, Lillee and Alderman, were on their last legs. To which I will say only that you would never have known it from the way they were bowling.
At Headingley and Old Trafford we witnessed the reincarnation of Gilbert Jessop. Those who saw Willis take eight for 43 at Headingley or watched Brearley's cool handling of each succeeding crisis also have a great story to tell - one to last them a lifetime.
Australia came so near to winning three of the first four Test matches, despite losing two of them, that if they felt frustrated when they left for home they had good reason to. Alderman and Border, two of their younger players, made a considerable impression; another, Wellham, became the first Australian this century to score a hundred in England in his maiden Test; Lillee made up in virtuosity what he had lost in pace. Not even collectively, though, could such benefits compensate for the collapses, at vital times, which their batting suffered.
It is interesting to compare the itinerary of the 1981 Australians with that, for example, of Joe Darling's side in 1905. The old-timers played 113 days' cricket, 15 of them in Tests; last year Hughes's side played 67, including 28 in Tests. As shorter tours, though with more Test matches, become the fashion, much enjoyable cricket, played in some of the pleasantest places, is being foregone by visiting teams.
It is not generally realised, I think, that county cricketers also play less cricket now than they did. Soon after the last war a couple of dozen bowlers would get through several hundred more overs in a season than anyone does today. Even as late as the 1960s, Lord's staged over 100 days of cricket in a season; this was down last year to 58.
Before and after the heady days of July and August, when England were beating Australia, the game took some hard knocks. More than in any previous year the question of the South African connections of first-class cricketers kept cropping up. When two countries wish to meet each other, it is no longer a simple matter of their respective boards of control arranging a tour and knowing that it will go ahead. Given half a chance the politicians will use it as a means of applying pressure on South Africa to renounce the system of apartheid.
In February this led to the evacuation from Guyana of the England team and the cancellation of the Test match that was to have been played there. For the next few days, while discussions were taking place between the governments of Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica and Montserrat (the islands in which England had yet to play) as to whether the tour should be allowed to continue, officials of the West Indian Cricket Board and those in charge of the England team were bystanders, no more.
Later in the year New Zealand had a tour to West Indies cancelled, for no other reason than that as a country they had played rugby football against South Africa. For a fortnight, too, England's tour of India hung precariously in the balance because two of their chosen team, Boycott and Cook, were on a United Nations blacklist for having been, regularly and quite recently, to South Africa.
That Cook had spent some time there coaching non-white children and that Boycott's visits had been mostly of a private kind cut no ice with the Indian government. In the end Mrs. Gandhi, their Prime Minister, relented, but it was a close-run thing.
There is no knowing where it will all end. In the autumn of 1981, while England's tour was in doubt, the world of cricket came close to being split into two halves, the dividing line being one of colour. The white and non-white countries are, in fact, so inter-dependent in a cricketing sense that for this to happen would be a setback from which the game might take generations to recover.
When it comes to overturning racial prejudice, cricketers believe that the best contribution they can make is to compete together, whether in the same team or on opposite sides. Those administrators who meet each year at Lord's will always do well to remember that they hold the positions they do, not to act as politicians but as guardians of the game of cricket - in South Africa not least.
In 1981 the International Cricket Conference admitted Sri Lanka to full membership, thus increasing to seven, exclusive of South Africa, the number of Test-playing countries. During a two-months tour of England the Sri Lankan national team played an engagingly open type of game. They are a welcome addition to the fold. Zimbabwe and Kenya became Associate Members.
Disappointingly, the ICC allowed another year to pass without acting decisively to reverse the continuing decline in the over-rate, whether by insisting upon fines or restricting a bowler's run-up or prescribing that a day's play shall consist, weather permitting, of a minimum number of overs. In the last twelve years it has fallen by an average of five overs an hour; in the last 30 it has dropped by seven if not eight.
Although, only five months earlier, the Australians in England had hedged their bets in response to an initiative from the Test and County Cricket Board to keep the game on the move, Greg Chappell, when he returned to captain Australia in November, soon said that something really must be done.
As it happened, last summer's Test series was sufficiently absorbing for the slowness of the over-rate to pass without much adverse comment. What aggravates the situation is the way teams take drinks, as they never used to do, when it is neither particularly hot nor perishingly cold, and the habit which fast bowlers have acquired of leaving the field for a change of shirt and socks and very often for a rub down at the end of a spell of bowling. Especially in West Indies this has become common practice, though it can but give the bowler an advantage. Batsmen will be doing it next, when they reach a hundred.
In India, in some of the major competitions (as may be seen from a study of the scores in the overseas section) sides failing to keep the game moving pay for it in runs. In Australia, in the one-day internationals, sides failing to bowl their 50 overs in the time allotted to them are now fined at the rate of £375 an over.
At the Test and County Cricket Board's meeting in December, fines were stiffened for dropping below nineteen overs an hour in the Schweppes Championship and measures taken to discourage a bowler from leaving the field, simply to refresh himself, by making it more difficult for him to have a substitute. What is needed, though, is action of a more concerted kind.
Wisden 1981 carried a picture of Michael Holding kicking a stump out of the ground, during a Test match, to show his disapproval of an umpire's decision. This year, in the same disreputable category, is one of Trevor Chappell bowling a sneak in Melbourne, at his brother's behest, to prevent New Zealand from making the 6 runs they needed to tie a one-day match. Some say it is money that has caused this collapse in the ethics of the game, others that it is the reflection of a graceless age.
In Australia, I am afraid, it is partly the result of weak government. For too long the Australian Cricket Board have been over-tolerant of indiscipline and actions of dubious intent. True cricket-lovers have been as sickened by Lillee's antics as they have been spell-bound by his bowling. The latest precept, that Australian players shall penalise each other for misconduct, hardly seems a step in the right direction.
The tide of commercialism maintains its inevitable advance. Like every other major sport, cricket in its present shape would be unable to survive without the generous help of its many sponsors. Of these, the National Westminster Bank had a successful first season as successors to Gillette in promoting the one-day knockout competition.
Less happily, following a match at Hove in which Sussex fielded a discourteously weak side against the Australians, Holt Products, whose sponsorship had been aimed at making these games between counties and touring teams more competitive, withdrew their support. If Sussex's action was only partly responsible for Holt's decision, it was still a pity, in what was a fine season for them, that on this occasion they misjudged their obligations.
Nottinghamshire's victory in the Schweppes County Championship, their first for 52 years, was to be welcomed for reviving interest in the game in one of the traditional strongholds. To see so many Midland hearts gladdened by Nottinghamshire's success was the reward for much hard and imaginative work at Trent Bridge. Two of the world's best cricketers, one the South African, Clive Rice, the other the New Zealander, Richard Hadlee, made Nottinghamshire's victory possible.
They were well supported by an English off-spinner and assisted by a groundsman who went too far for some tastes in the extent to which he prepared pitches to suit the home attack. However, after Middlesex had gained a notable victory at Trent Bridge, Brearley, their captain, referred in glowing terms to the pitch on which the match was played.
While Nottinghamshire and Sussex had much to be pleased about, as did Somerset, who besides winning the Benson and Hedges Cup declared a profit for the year of £158,234, and Essex, who took the John Player Sunday League, Yorkshire were involved in another of those internal disputes which have been so much a part of their recent history. A personality clash between Ray Illingworth, manager of the Yorkshire team, and Geoff Boycott, hallowed by many of his fellow Yorkshiremen, revealed Headingley as being a hotbed of dissension, with sides being manifestly taken.
It seemed an absurdity when young members of the Yorkshire team, unfit in terms of cricketing ability and commitment so much as to tie up Boycott's bootlaces, were asked to vote on whether or not they wanted to play with him any more, let alone when their feelings were made public. It is to England's cost that Yorkshire insist upon tearing at each other's throats.
Progress is being made in the development and construction of artificial pitches. In the English climate more than in any other, no school or club should be without at least one artificial pitch, not simply for practice but for matchplay. Strangely, little use is made of them - much less, for example, than in Australia.
In England innumerable days are lost which would otherwise be possible for play, and the hearts of many batsmen are broken by having to play on rough grass pitches when they could be enjoying themselves on synthetic ones. It is good news, therefore, to hear of the encouragement coming for artificial pitches from the National Cricket Association and also from Nottinghamshire.
To see boys of primary school age becoming involved in a fully sponsored countrywide competition seems to me to be more questionable, whether or not it is played with a soft ball. That is too young, surely, to have to worry about losing.
In an age when the ball moves about more than ever before, demanding a good, basic batting technique, and pitches are not as true as they were, it is ironic that the methods employed by many leading English batsmen stray so far from the textbook. Old players never cease to wonder that Gooch and Gower, two batsmen of splendid ability, seem so reluctant to use their feet. Whereas not many years ago an England side could be expected to play with bats straighter than their Australian or West Indian counterparts, that, also, is no longer so.
One of the lessons which Ken Barrington was always driving home at the time of his death (no cricketer was ever more widely mourned) was the logic of playing straight. Why be bowled, he would say, aiming at mid-wicket when, much more safely, the same ball can be hit into the arc between mid-off and mid-on.
Run-getting is becoming harder, for all kinds of reasons: the nature of the balls, the fitness of the fielders, the monopoly of the seam, the general tightness of the game. The meaner the tactics of a fielding side, the more likely a batsman is to revert to nature, in other words to hit across the line. It is understandable. Yet for all but the occasional genius, soundness of technique is still the best salvation.
The acceptance of the helmet as being standard wear has led to an increase in bouncers, especially against lower-order batsmen. Hardly surprisingly, pity though it is, umpires feel now that they are being over-protective, even towards tailenders, when they tell a bowler of no great pace to pitch the ball up.
I wonder whether, as a way of bringing back the spinner, it might be worth giving an extended trail to prohibiting polishing, as distinct from cleaning, the ball. Certainly the degree of movement achieved by, for example, Alderman in last summer's Test matches makes confident batting, except, on his day, for Botham, barely possible.
During 1981 Derek Underwood became only the 32nd bowler to take 2,000 first-class wickets and Boycott overtook Colin Cowdrey as the maker of more runs for England than anyone else. After an unprecedented thirteen years in the job, Alec Bedser gave up being Chairman of the England selectors. All who know him and admire his sense of duty and enjoy his bluff humour will have been delighted that he finished on a winning note. It is noticeable how no-one does more to defend the ideals of the game than the old-time professional, such as Mr. Bedser, who has come to see things in perspective.
Thanks not least to him, the season of 1981 in England brought much happiness. On a broader front it was an uneasy year.