The summer of 1983 was so long in coming that when May went out the country was still awash after one of the wettest springs anyone could remember. There was talk of counties facing financial ruin. In the first five weeks of the season Lord's lost fourteen whole days' play and 89 hours of scheduled cricket.
"Our groundstaff," wrote the secretary of Worcestershire, "are both physically and mentally exhausted ... for moving wet and heavy flat sheets holding gallons of water is both a depressing and tiring procedure." Even by June 3, Gloucestershire, in their home fixtures, had not managed a single full day's cricket.
Yet in September, when stumps were finally drawn, those who play the game for a living or watch it as a pastime were deeply tanned. After that awful start the sun had played a long and brilliant innings. As if by providence, it came out as soon as the competing countries began to arrive in England for the third Prudential World Cup, which started on June 9, and for the next three months it hardly went in.
Rather than the losses which had begun to seem inevitable, several counties finished by returning profits. Thanks to what they described as "careful budgeting", Gloucestershire were one. As a result of strenuous efforts to contain expenditure, Lancashire more than made ends meet, in spite of having experienced in 1982 the worst financial year in their long and famous history.
As soon as the season was over work got under way at Old Trafford which will improve the facilities there, though not, unfortunately, for the press. There are few grounds in the world, surprising though it may seem, where less is done for those who write about the game.
At the expense of an ominous if salutary reduction in their playing staff, Nottinghamshire turned a deficit of £50,000 in 1982 into a small profit. In the less prosperous counties, relief that a disaster had been averted rather than confidence that a corner had been turned was the prevailing emotion.
In some, as much as 40 per cent of their annual revenue comes, via Lord's, from major sponsorships, gate receipts from representative games, and fees from radio and television. In 1983 none received less that £138,000. Those which had staged Test matches drew up to £180,000. The Test and County Cricket Board's total allocation exceeded £3,000,000.
The World Cup was a great success and India's victory a splendid surprise. They brought warmth and excitement in the place of dampness and depression. In the early years of limited-overs cricket no-one, themselves included, took India seriously. Their strength lay much more in waging battles of attrition.
Now, on pitches which had had no time to quicken up after all the rain, their lack of fast bowling was not the hindrance it might have been. Three of their batsmen could also bowl, which was vital for the way it shortened their tail. When, after beating West Indies in the final at Lord's, they flew home, it was to be fêted through the length and breadth of India. Not six months later they were being pilloried for having capitulated to the same West Indian side. Indian crowds, like the game itself, can be unmercifully fickle.
Australia, beaten by Zimbabwe on the opening day, made little impact on the competition. Defeat by Sri Lanka cost New Zealand a place in the semi-finals and was another result which confounded expectations. England's performance was an improvement on their mostly dismal play in Australia and New Zealand in the winter of 1982-83.
At the end of June, when the visiting teams went their separate ways, they were asked to tender, should they wish to, for the next World Cup. First to show an interest were India and Pakistan, who were exploring the idea of staging it jointly.
India were not alone in having as captain a charismatic figure. Theirs, recently appointed, was Kapil Dev. Pakistan had Imran Khan, who inspired them to sweeping victories at home over Australia and India. England stood by Bob Willis, a man of indomitable spirit though no tactician, and their series against New Zealand maintained quite successfully the enthusiasm generated by the World Cup.
One of the reasons for this was New Zealand's victory in the second Test at Headingley, their first over England in England. With a considerable all-rounder in Richard Hadlee, a wide spread of experience, a discerning captain in Geoff Howarth and an unsophisticated sense of mission, the New Zealanders had a good tour.
New Zealand's displeasure at the way in which the first-class counties rested some of their leading players against them was understandable. For some time now a TCCB working party has been considering how the first-class game in England might with advantage be reorganised. Among suggestions put to them has been one which could involve touring teams in some sort of domestic competition, as a spur to their opponents. The idea of forming, one day, two divisions in the Championship, each consisting of nine sides, is also being considered.
Perhaps with this in mind, and knowing that if it were to happen the existence of an eighteenth county could be useful, Shropshire, and, as a combined force, Durham and Northumberland have expressed an interest in joining the Championship. The last county to be granted first-class status was Glamorgan in 1921. But as 1983 ended the TCCB announced that no changes would be made in the present Championship format (24 three-day matches) until 1986 at the earliest.
When the England selectors came to pick their side to tour Fiji (for the first time, though only for a few days), New Zealand and Pakistan in early 1984, the problems they faced were much the same as they had been a year earlier. Of the most successful county players many were either ineligible, through being foreign, or unavailable, for having played together in South Africa.
The bowlers who were chosen occupied 19th, 29th, 38th, 41st, 78th, and 85th places in the averages. In years gone by they would have come from the first ten or twelve. In 34th place was a unique species - a Dane now playing for Derbyshire. Ole Mortensen's nationality, incidentally, entitles him for purposes of registration to be classified as a home player. When considering whether it was right that it should, the TCCB, using their discretionary powers, took into account Denmark's membership of the European Economic Community.
In Australia, ethnic groups from many European countries are making their mark on the game. Such names as Hilzinger and Zampatti, Nordstrom and Zablica, Kroschel and Olsen, and Yagmich and Dedopulos are commonplace in Grade cricket in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, many of them being Kims, Gregs, Rodneys and Waynes.
At the annual dinner of MCC, held in the Banqueting Suite at Lord's, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of cricket as "a game to be played, not a battle to be won." Well, the game did have a better year in the way it was treated by its players. One lamentable exception occurred in the Cricketer Cup when the old boys of two great schools, Malvern and Repton, allowed themselves to be carried away by an inordinate desire to win.
More often, when feelings ran high umpiring was the cause. In a series between Pakistan and India the Indian manager flew home to discuss it. When West Indies visited India the West Indian captain spoke out against it. In Australia, during the England tour, it became a controversy inflamed by the constant use of slow-motion replays.
Sir Donald Bradman, no less, thinks the time has come for electronic assistance to be made available to umpires in Test matches, for use in certain types of dismissal (run-outs, stumpings and occasionally catches). If it had been, an absurdly bad run-out decision, in the first over of the match, would not have cast a shadow across the fifth Test in January between England and Australia in Sydney.
On the other hand, the tempo of the game would be further slowed down and the umpire's supremacy undermined. Umpires themselves, while acknowledging their fallibility, prefer things as they are. So, for the moment, do I.
I am less in sympathy with umpires for the way they have allowed fast bowlers to resort ever more frequently to the thuggery of the bouncer. This has got so badly out of hand that for all but a few highly talented batsmen it is now madness not to have a helmet handy. The viciousness of much of today's fast bowling is changing the very nature of the game.
A day's play in West Indies, when the West Indians are in the field, may be expected to consist of the minimum requirement of overs, if there is one, and as many as three bouncers an over (perhaps 250 a day), so long as the pitch has anything in it. To add to their menace, many of them are bowled from round the wicket. I am not saying the West Indians are the only offenders, but they are the worst.
The TCCB's decision, taken at their December meeting, to dispense with the agreement allowing only one bouncer an over in domestic English first-class cricket, was a setback to those who see intimidatory bowling as a curse of the modern game. Already each season ends with more broken fingers and cracked ribs than the one before. One day, a white line may have to be drawn across the pitch, as a warning mark to bowlers.
A proposal at the beginning of 1983 to alter the rules governing appealing was rejected, though it was a close call. Had it been implemented it would have meant the first real change of its kind since 1744. The Laws for the Umpires for that year stated that they were "not to order any man out unless appeal'd to by any one of ye players." The present law states that "the Umpires shall not give a batsman out unless appealed to by the other side." It would have been a pity to have had to alter so ancient a decree.
There is more to be said, I think, for reverting to the old no-ball rule, based on the back foot, rather than as it is now on the front foot. Since the switch to the front foot the number of no-balls bowled has increased hugely, yet because they have to be called later than when the back-foot rule applied the batsman has virtually no time in which to take advantage of them. Towards the end of 1983, in more than one Test series, wides and no-balls, with obvious logic though for the first time, were debited to the bowlers.
The year did not pass, inevitably, without much talk and thought of South Africa. The Australian government began it by banning from entry into that country all cricketers who had toured South Africa with unofficial sides. Predictably enough, such a boycott was found to be impracticable.
West Indies were the next to be drawn into the South African vortex, their Board of Control instructing Clive Lloyd's team, who were already assembled in England for the World Cup, not to play against Yorkshire in a warm-up match at Hull if Boycott and Sidebottom, both with South African connections, were chosen to oppose them. The future of the 1984 tour by West Indies to England was at once thrown into doubt, with the English counties being resolutely opposed to any such political interference.
In the end the West Indian Board, like the Australian government, weakened. However, the reaction of certain West Indian governments to the likely presence of South Africans in the next England side to visit the Caribbean is already causing anxiety.
Still on South Africa, there was a protracted debate at Lord's, prompted by a special resolution calling on MCC to send a side to South Africa in the winter of 1983-84. Despite the club's official view that such a tour would not be in their own best interests nor those of the game as a whole, sizeable proportion of the MCC membership, when balloted, supported the resolution.
Passions were roused. Mercifully, though, no friends were lost, as happened during the Packer affair. In the end, too, the committee's view prevailed. Many members found themselves in a dilemma, being opposed to apartheid yet at the same time jealous of their own freedom of movement.
This was not the only tight corner in which MCC found themselves. In August wide publicity was given to the claim that some of the oil paintings hanging at Lord's, mostly in the Memorial Gallery, were fakes. Started in 1864 by Sir Spencer Ponsonby-Fane, the MCC Collection contains a wide variety of pictures, of which something like 300 were, at the time, on display.
Of these, some 150 were oils. Those of doubtful origin formed a part of a valuable bequest made in the 1940s by Sir Jeremiah Colman. For many years MCC have presented the game and its history by exhibiting the most comprehensive display of cricketing memorabilia in the world. Fourteen of their pictures have now been taken out of circulation.
To deter English first-class cricketers from going to South Africa with any sort of representative side, the TCCB thought at one time of writing "loyalty" clauses into the contracts of the England team. No-one was more opposed to this than the players themselves, whose influence, through the Cricketers' Association, grows little by little.
When, at the start of October, George Mann retired as Chairman of the Board, having served in that capacity for five years, he must have heaved a sigh of relief. Once something of a sinecure, the job is now endlessly demanding.
The former Middlesex and England captain brought to it a disarming blend of integrity, conscientiousness and charm. It would be nice to think that circumstances will allow his successor, Charles Palmer, another former England cricketer and county captain, more time in which to ease the tensions which undoubtedly exist between MCC and the TCCB. As a past President of one and now Chairman of the other, Mr Palmer will be familiar with the conflict.
His first duty was the agreeable one of welcoming into the fold a new sponsor, Texaco, an American oil company who will in future be associated with one-day Internationals and also the World Cup should it be held in England in 1987. Texaco have taken the place of the Prudential Assurance Company. Another major sponsorship changed hands soon afterwards when it was announced that the County Championship (sponsored by Schweppes since 1977) had been taken on by the Britannic Assurance Company.
Between them these two sponsorships are worth something like £500,000 a year. Yet the support of the many smaller firms and private individuals who pay for such essentials as match balls (£30 each) or the players' lunches is just as much an integral part of the scene. Cricket is not alone in being so beholden to its sponsors. From the most humble Point to Point, for example, to Derby Day at Epsom it is the same story. It is a trend which puts a heavy strain on the marketing men of cricket, whether at Lord's or round the counties.
The 1983 County Championship produced a battle royal between Essex, the eventual winners, and Middlesex, the long-time leaders. One of the effects of the TCCB's ban on the fifteen Englishmen who played together in South Africa in March 1982 is that by their uninterrupted presence they provide their own counties with an ironic advantage. Essex, for example, would have been less likely to become champions had Graham Gooch and John Lever been slipping away to play for England.
For all that, theirs was a fine success. No team has a better spirit than Essex, and their captain, Keith Fletcher, in his outwardly crestfallen way, stands no nonsense from them. In the South African, Ken McEwan, they also had the outstanding batsman of the 1983 season.
Essex's Championship victory avenged their earlier defeat at the hands of Middlesex in a desperately close finish in the Benson and Hedges Cup final. Somerset made up for a disappointing Championship season by winning the NatWest Bank Trophy, their victory over Middlesex in the semi-final having produced from Ian Botham one of the outstanding innings of the summer.
In the John Player Sunday League Somerset were runners-up to Yorkshire, whose first victory this was in any of the four major competitions since they took the Gillette Cup in 1969. It was followed, sadly but all too predictably, by another of those acrimonious but very public disputes in which Yorkshire seem to specialise.
To the chagrin and bewilderment of his supporters, Boycott was given the sack within a few weeks of being awarded a testimonial for 1984. He had just moved into the top ten run-getters of all time, and in August he had scored nearly 1,000 first-class runs for Yorkshire. The reason given for his dismissal - that youth must be served - hardly rang true.
Taciturn he may be; recalcitrant too. In Yorkshire, though, he is something of a folk hero. Through their last few barren years he alone has given them anything to boast about. To pension him off, when he was still so prolific, seemed to be asking for trouble, and so it proved. The time came, I am afraid, when an unwieldy committee looked to be fighting not so much for Yorkshire as among themselves.
Perhaps the outstanding individual performance of the year was Imran Khan's in taking 53 wickets in nine Test matches against Australia and India, all of them in Pakistan on pitches which, as a rule, make fast bowlers wish they had stayed at home. Just how much Imran's presence meant to Pakistan became startlingly evident in November when they had to do without him in Australia.
By then, in India, Sunil Gavaskar had equalled Bradman's record of 29 Test hundreds. Soon afterwards he passed it. The tribute which Gavaskar must have valued most of all came from Bradman himself when he referred to him as "a great little player."
The English season was one in which contrivance, not to say connivance, played an unsatisfactorily prominent part. The regulations no longer preclude it as they did, so that during May, when it was so wet, innings were being regularly forfeited, usually be mutual agreement between the captains.
The century in 35 minutes which Steve O'Shaughnessy scored on the last day of Lancashire's last match was meaningless. "I would rather have had to work hard for a fifty," said O'Shaughnessy. The long hops and full tosses being served up at the time, in an effort to procure a declaration, reduced the game to a farce.
Then, too, rain had caused much loss of play, and the players, or most of them, had had just about enough. It is not that they play more than they did. They play less, in fact, than they sometimes have. What so exhausts them, I think, is the surfeit of one-day cricket - with all the dashing about, both on and off the field, which that involves, the close finishes which it produces and the nervous energy which it consumes.
If the game is more stereotyped than it was, owing to the emphasis on fast and medium-paced bowling and the corresponding lack of spin, there is still a lot of wonderfully good cricket to be seen in the course of an English season. Much of the bowling is ruthlessly ungenerous; there is some very fine batting and any amount of brilliant fielding.
As the overseas influence wanes there may be less, but the England team should eventually become stronger. The wider use of artificial pitches can only be for the good. Conversely, it is worrying how many fewer state schools now include cricket in their curriculum.
Physical education advisers have tended to move away from traditional sports and to concentrate more on peripheral activities. In the planning of today's housing estates, recreational facilities seem seldom to have been a high priority.
Yet if proof is needed of the extent of general cricket interest, the extraordinary number of books being published on the game provides it. One must assume they sell. So far as the newspaper offerings of top players are concerned, these need careful watching. However vigilant the censors are at Lord's and Melbourne, mud is occasionally being thrown.
For the most part, though, such writings as Willis's on his innermost thoughts, as they appear in print, or Mike Brearley's when as a player he revealed them, point to first-class cricket, however competitive it has become, as being still a proudly chivalrous game.