Such was the success of the West Indians in 1984 that it came to be wondered whether, perhaps, Clive Lloyd's team were the strongest ever to have taken the field. They made a clean sweep of their five-Test series in England and beat Australia six times in a row (in Barbados, Antigua and Jamaica early in the year, and in Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide towards the end of it). Between April 4 and December 11 they won eleven successive Test matches against their two main rivals, an astonishing and unprecedented feat.
In 1882 three of the greatest contemporary judges -- W.G. Grace, A.G. Steel and Alfred Shaw -- had no doubt that the Australian side of that year, led by W.L. Murdoch, was the best to have visited England. Twenty years later similar claims were made on behalf of Joe Darling's Australians, as they were for Warwick Armstrong's in 1921 and Sir Donald Bradman's in 1948.
As Lloyd does now, Murdoch, Armstrong and Bradman each had at his disposal the leading fast bowlers of the day. It is this, more than anything, which makes the present West Indians so immensely formidable.
They are capable of batting and fielding with much brilliance. They work hard at keeping fit, knowing how much it is in their interests that they should, and their venerable captain, besides keeping them in order, has made runs when they were needed. But the weapon with which they destroy their opponents is sheer, unrelenting speed, spectacularly supported in the slips.
Murdoch had Spofforth; Armstrong had Gregory and McDonald; Bradman had Miller and Lindwall. Lloyd, for his part, has got not one or two lightningly fast bowlers to call on, but five or six, and, as he says himself, there are lots more where they come from -- by which, of course, he means the Caribbean.
Their presence has brought a new and, dare I say it, chilling dimension to the game. Batsmen, however heavily protected, face them at their peril, and, as on the infamous bodyline tour of 1932-33, that is only partly to the bowlers' and their captain's credit. It should be a cause of real concern to cricket's administrators that the batsman himself has become as much a target for the fast bowlers of the world as the wicket he defends.
I wrote in my Notes last year that "the viciousness of much of today's fast bowling is changing the very nature of the game." Others have since taken up the cudgels; but nothing has yet happened, on or off the field, to bring a reversal of that trend.
It was hard to watch the West Indian, Marshall bowling at Pocock in last season's fifth Test match at The Oval without recoiling. Pocock was the night-watchman from the previous day. As such, he could expect few favours. However, the Laws of Cricket make it abundantly clear that the relative skill of the striker must be taken into consideration by an umpire when deciding whether the bowling of fast, short-pitched balls amounts to intimidation and is therefore unfair.
That Marshall, a superb bowler, should have kept bouncing the ball at so inept a batsman as Pocock was unwarrantable; that Lloyd should have condoned his doing so was disconcerting; that Constant, the umpire at Marshall's end, should have stood passively by was unaccountable. It was a woeful piece of cricket, entirely lacking in chivalry.
Miller and Lindwall, who played the game hard enough, would never have thought of bowling in the same way to Bedser when he acted as night-watchman at Headingley in 1948; nor, I feel sure, would Gregory and McDonald, or the Demon Spofforth. Perhaps, when the International Cricket Conference do no more than ply lip service to the problem, it is not surprising that umpires are so compliant.
In August 1984 a sponsored search was launched to unearth, if possible, some English fast bowlers. Given the blessing of the Test and County Cricket Board, and under the direction of two former England captains, Dexter and Willis, the intention was to find willing, well-built athletes and to turn them into Larwoods, Snows and Truemans.
Nothing much came of it. What tends to be forgotten, I think, is that fast bowlers of English stock, and I mean genuinely fast, always have been scarce. Between the wars there were no more than three or four of them. In Dexter's opinion there have been only five (Snow, Statham, Trueman, Tyson and Willis) in the last 30 years. Like it or not, English conditions and the structure of the English first-class game (long before the growth of one-day cricket), as well as an Englishman's natural capacity, are not conductive to bowling with what West Indians call "pace like fire".
It would have been splendid had this quest for fast bowlers been successful (so long as four had not been chosen for every Test match); but a more realistic aim would be to improve the quality of English bowling. Diversity and ingenuity are in short supply because the call for containment has become the burden of English cricket. The variety in bowling and virtuosity in batting which came as a consequence of uncovered pitches are missing because pitches are now covered. The game suffers, too, from being played with balls which have seams that stand up, at times, like a dog's hackles.
I should like to see a restriction placed on the polishing of the ball. Apart from anything else, it absorbs time. The Clark Report of 1967, which, although the counties rejected it, proved to be quite far-sighted, recommended that no interference with the natural condition of the ball, other than wiping and cleaning, should be allowed. Such a move would have had support at the time from overseas cricket authorities.
Being warm and exceptionally dry, the summer of 1984 was a difficult one for groundsmen; but the pitches they produced stood up well enough for more individual first-class hundreds to be made (328) than in any season since 1962, when all counties played four more Championship matches than they do now and some as many as eight more.
The form shown by some of the new school of English batsmen was encouraging. Most counties have high hopes for one or more of their young batsmen, although there was an understandable anxiety that they should be spared a bludgeoning, before they were ready for it, from the West Indian fast bowlers. In the event, Warwickshire and Hampshire lost Lloyd and Terry respectively, after seeing them off to play for England. Six months later, both were still under the doctor.
As the element of danger grows, so the enjoyment to be had from playing much of today's Test and county cricket must surely in diminish. Dressed up to open an innings against sides containing bowlers with a reputation for intimidation, batsman look ever more preposterous. Chests, thighs, legs, ribs, elbows, forearms, even backs are padded and swathed. As I was afraid would happen when helmets came into fashion, they have led to an increase, at most levels of the game, of ill-natured bowling, not only by West Indians.
Helmets, especially those with visors attached, are cumbersome to wear. They can weigh as much as 3½lb and inevitably slow down a batsman's reactions. The weight of the modern bat has also led to a change in batting styles, the cut and the hook being the strokes to have suffered most.
In 1956, when Gunn and Moore supplied the Australian touring team with bats, the order was for sixteen between 2lb 2oz and 2lb 4oz and one of 2lb 6oz. This last one was for MacKay, who had a method all his own, involving no detectable pick-up of the bat. Today's average weight is nearer 21b 10oz, not a few being of 3lb and more. Is it surprising, therefore, that it has become fashionable to stand with the bat already raised above the shoulder?
No less an authority than Bradman sees this as a negative and regressive idea and one which detracts greatly from the style and flow of batsmanship. Bradman's own bats weighed 2lb 2oz. So did Compton's. Using a modern mallet they could never have played with such marvellous dexterity.
Many followers of the game were of the opinion that the most agreeable cricket they watched in 1984 was played on the first two days of the Test match against Sri Lanka at Lord's, when our visitors were batting. Their batsmen stood in the natural position, rather than with bat aloft; they used their feet, and bouncers were few and far between.
It would have been a very different story, I know, had the West Indians, not England, been bowling, or if England themselves had had a fast attack, but it was quite like the old days while it lasted. This was a great occasion for Sri Lanka, on which they won many new admirers. Wettimuny's 190 will have made him something of a legend.
So small, though, were the crowds which the match attracted, even over a holiday weekend, and England played so feebly, that there was no escaping the effects of the present surfeit of international cricket. The more there is of it the more the senior players, as well as the public, tend to take it for granted.
Allegations that the England team to New Zealand and Pakistan in the winter of 1983-84 had been taking drugs would have seemed unthinkable, even in an age when it is common practice, but for the amount of touring they now do. England embarked of fifteen Test matches in 1984, not to mention numerous one-day internationals.
It came as no surprise, therefore, when in August Botham announced that he would not be available for England's forthcoming tour of India. In seven years he had played 73 Test matches. Although tours were nothing like as regular in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Alec Bedser never once went to India or West Indies, preferring to take a winter's rest.
Richard Hadlee, after carrying all before him in England last season -- his double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets for Nottinghamshire, the first in England since 1967 and achieved in only 21 matches, represented a brilliant all-round feet -- also took a break from playing for New Zealand.
On the other hand, for financial reasons the best cricketers retire much later now than they did. For those at the top there is a lot of money in today's game -- too much, I am inclined to think, for the results which a good many of them produce. For the boots, bats and other cricketing equipment that he endorses, Botham receives something in the region of £40,000 a year. A county cricketer, capped and in mid-career, receives the comparatively modest minimum wage of £7,250 for his season's labours.
Following England's unsuccessful tour, on which, besides their sundry setbacks off the field, they lost to both New Zealand and Pakistan, a change of captaincy was only to be expected. For nineteen of his 87 Test matches Willis had tackled the job staunchly. His distinguished career came, though, to a rather muted end.
After being forced, through illness, to fly home early from Pakistan, he was still not himself when he returned to county cricket in late May and to Test cricket in June, and on July 21 he played what turned out to be his last match, the Benson and Hedges Cup final at Lord's. His indomitable service to England is handsomely reflected in his great collection of Test wickets. Although often beset with aches and pains, he never spared himself when bowling for his country.
Gower, Willis's natural successor, could not have taken over at a more demanding time. I had felt the selectors should have given him the tour to New Zealand and Pakistan, by way of preparation for the series against West Indies which followed it. But that was not to be, and by the end of last summer no-one was much the wiser as to whether Gower would, in fact, prove the man to lead England out of the shadows.
More than once, I fancy, he was unhappy with the side the selectors gave him, and for the third year running the TCCB ban on those who had toured South Africa in 1982 precluded the inclusion in the Test side of some of England's best players. Conspicuous among these were Boycott, Gooch, Lever and Underwood, whose collective experience would have been invaluable to Gower. But even with a free choice England would have been unlikely to hold the West Indians at bay.
In India, soon afterwards, Gower and his side ran into more difficulties. Having earned the gratitude of the Indian people by staying on in the country despite the assassination of the Indian Prime Minister and then of a Deputy British High Commissioner, they proceeded to provide India with their first victory in 32 Test matches.
This year, when the TCCB's ban expires, England should be in a position to field a full side for the first time since early in 1982. This will renew the interest of those to whom the political implications of the TCCB's action were disingenuous. To some extent, at least, it should restore England's playing fortunes.
For the third time in six years and the second year running Essex won the County Championship, which was sponsored for the first time by the Britannic Assurance Company. They also took the John Player Sunday League.
The Championship had a dramatic finish. With only two balls of the season left, it could have gone either way. Nottinghamshire, needing 297 to beat Somerset at Taunton and so hold off Essex, were 293 for nine. Going for the winning hit, Bore, Nottinghamshire's number ten, was caught by Ollis, a substitute fielder, five yards inside the long-off boundary. A week earlier Nottinghamshire, only a single point behind Essex with a match in hand, had looked the likelier winners.
Although when the two sides met at Chelmsford in May Essex were well beaten, Nottinghamshire's form in the last week of the season was disappointing. For much of the campaign Gooch batted in truly commanding fashion for Essex, and as in 1983 the faithful Lever took over 100 wickets for them. With the help of Fletcher's canny captaincy, and under an active administration, Essex are conducting an admirably efficient transition from one generation of players to the next.
It would be nice to be able to say the same of Yorkshire, who played under their fifth different captain in seven years. For them, however, a season which had begun promisingly enough ended in more autumn strife, with Boycott's position within the club creating, once again, unrest and unease.
To be a success, the introduction of a minimum of 117 over in a day's play in the Britannic Assurance County Championship, weather permitting, needed the wholehearted co-operation of the players. This was not forthcoming. Instead, within a few days of the start of the season county captains were to be heard inveighing against it, and the TCCB, at its winter meeting, reduced the requirement from 117 overs to 112, coupled to a scale of fines.
On principle this seemed a pity. After all, the asking-rate of 117 overs a day was based on only eighteen an hour. But unfortunately the archetypal English bowler is now a medium-pacer with a long run. He is, frankly, a trundler. As a result, even after an eleven o'clock start it was sometimes past eight o'clock in the evening before the 117 overs were completed. By then the spectators, or many of them, had gone home to supper, and as the days drew in so the light became a problem. The play was invested, too, with a certain clockwork predictability, which detracted from the art of captaincy.
In 1919, when the County Championship consisted of two-day matches and extended hours of play (11 to 7.30), the editor of Wisden wrote in these corresponding Notes that the "experiment was doomed before the season had run half its course." He referred to players and umpires hating the long days and the public assuredly not liking them. It was much the same in 1984.
Before the start of that first season after the Great War there was such anxiety for the future of the game that among the remedies seriously suggested were the shortening of boundaries, a penalty on the batting side for every maiden over bowled, a limit of four professionals to each county side and the banishment of all left-handed batsmen. As much as anything it was the steadfast confidence of Lord Harris which prevented anything rash from being done, and by 1920 the counties were playing three-day matches again.
Now, in 1985, come the first four-day first-class matches to be played in England outside the Test arena, other than the occasional game between England and The Rest. They feature -- eight of them -- in the programme for the Australian touring team and could be seen as a pilot scheme. There is a school of thought which views a four-day County Championship (sixteen four-day matches, played in mid-week, as opposed to 24 of three days) as the answer to England's ills. It would reduce the heavy load of cricket played and cut down the travelling. Also, so it is claimed, it would provide a better preparation for five-day Test matches.
Against that, it would be unpopular with county members, who constitute an indispensable source of revenue, and might well lead to more slow play. It is said, in addition, that it would mean better pitches, though this I doubt. Most groundsmen already do all they can to meet the requirements of the TCCB.
It is not the current Championship which the players find so wearing, and which breeds careless batting habits and negative bowling, but the abundance of one-day cricket. In purely technical terms the standard of English batsmanship can seldom, if ever, have been so low. Even among the Test side there is an absence of basic, orthodox footwork, while the bat, time and again, comes through across the line of the ball. Why? Because four competitions out of five, from the cradle to the grave, are now played on a limited-overs basis, culminating in a slog.
There is even a tendency in certain counties to think of the Championship as being little more than an interlude between one one-day competition and the next. The reverse sweep, an abomination of a stroke and one which I doubt whether any of the great batsmen of the past ever played, is redolent of today's "instant" cricket.
The fading out of overseas players, or at any rate of players who are ineligible for England, until each county has only one in the side, is progressing more slowly than was the original intention. There was a good example last summer of why the selectors are so keen for it to happen. Terry had the chance of opening Hampshire's innings, and thereby winning his England place, only because Greenidge, being with the West Indian tourists, was not available to do so.
Terry, I am sure, would be the first to admit how much he has learnt from watching Greenidge in action. Conversely, of Lloyd's West Indian side only Dujon, Harper, Haynes and Holding had not used English county cricket to learn how best to beat England. Weigh up, in this context, what Martin Crowe, New Zealand's fine young batsman, said after playing for Somerset last season: "I've probably learnt more in the last six months than in the previous six years."
To protect the interests of home-bred players, the TCCB have further tightened the qualifications for players from overseas who aspires to a place in the England team. The two South Africans to have won one in the last couple of years, Lamb and Christopher Smith, became eligible after four years with their counties.
Without Lamb, whose three centuries against West Indies last summer were innings of the utmost resolution, England would have been in an even sorrier plight than they were. But that is not the point. From every aspect it is reasonable that an overseas player's commitment to the county of his adoption, in this case England, should have to be more explicit.
In future, the residential qualification of four years will be extended by a year for each season of domestic first-class cricket the player has had in his native country before moving to England. In addition to that, no county may have on its books, at any one time, more than two players who are ineligible for England.
The TCCB made short work of rejecting the charges made against Willis's team on tour, deciding there was no conclusive evidence to suggest that anything they might have done off the field had adversely affected their performance on it.
However, Willis and then Taylor, England's immaculate wicket-keeper, bemoaned the indifference with which some of the England players were inclined to shrug off defeat; Cook, the Northamptonshire captain and the Chairman of the Cricketers' Association, felt moved to warn his members to look to their laurels; and Mr. F.M. Turner, the Leicestershire secretary, called for English cricket to put its house in order.
I hope more than I can say that Lord's are being sufficiently vigilant. It is always possible to change the Laws of the game, but to restore crumbling traditions is altogether harder. In December the TCCB, prompted by England's lack of success, set up a nine-man working party, under the chairmanship of Mr. C.H. Palmer, to investigate the standard and quality of English cricket, from the Test team downwards.
Also towards the end of the year there came another call for neutral umpires in Test Cricket, this time from Gavaskar, who had been brought back as India's captain. So many series of Test matches are being soured by wayward and arguably partisan decisions that the time may have come not for neutral umpires but for an international panel.
If all future Test matches were to be umpired only by neutrals. England would never again play under the best umpires in the world, which are their own, and that would hardly be satisfactory. They could meet Australia at Lord's with an Indian standing at one end and a Pakistani at the other, when the players of both sides would prefer to have two of the best Englishmen or two of the best Australians. It is the greatest pity that only in England do former players take to umpiring.
The situation is being aggravated by much wildly intemperate appealing, particularly for possible close catches off bat and pad, aimed at putting umpires under pressure. In 1983 I wrote how the advice, indeed directive, that the batsman must always be given the benefit of any doubt in the umpire's mind seemed to be losing acceptance. Intended to help umpires, it would be in everyone's interest to remind them of it.
As for the days when batsmen walked if they were out, those are long gone. All this, as well as the brutalising effect of the bouncer and the flooding of the international cricket market, should be on the agenda for this year's annual meeting of the ICC. They must surely realise by now that unless we are very careful, the one-day international will drive out the Test match, even in India, as inexorably as the grey squirrel drove out the red.
Seldom in the same year do so many famous players announce their retirement. While England lost Willis and Taylor, Australia were deprived, simultaneously, of Greg Chappell, Lillee and Marsh. Their achievements, individually let alone collectively, were monumental.
In one sense, Willis is the odd man out, having been endowed with less natural talent for the game than the others. But that makes his record all the more remarkable. Lillee took more Test wickets (355) than any other bowler in the game's history, and Willis (325) stands second to him. Chappell scored more runs for Australia than anyone else, not forgetting Bradman, besides taking 122 catches, another record. Taylor holds the record for wicket-keeping dismissals in all first-class cricket (1,646) and Marsh for dismissals in Test cricket (355).
Chappell was a great batsman, and I use the word advisedly; Lillee must have been one of the three or four best fast bowlers of all time, and Taylor had the hands of a genius. So faultless was Taylor's timing that Fletcher, who spent many hours standing next to him at slip, said the ball entered his gloves not so much with a thud as a whisper.
In every way Taylor was a credit to the game. Lillee was too often not; nor, at times, was Marsh. Only the infamous sneak, bowled in a one-day international against New Zealand at Melbourne, marred Chappell's otherwise irreproachable conduct on the field.
Between them they are an enormous loss, whatever their indiscretions, and despite the three Australians' unholy alliance with Mr. Kerry Packer.
If we can set aside England's failing at Test level -- they lost to New Zealand, Pakistan, West Indies and India, and had the worst of a draw with Sri Lanka before, at last, winning a Test match in Delhi -- 1984 was not an unprofitable year.
I have had my say about the West Indians. Of the famous sides of the past, some may have been better balanced but none more irresistible. On their tour of England they were a great attraction. It would have been good to trap them on a turning pitch, but I expect they would have coped.
No-one who watched them storming to victory at Lord's or routing England at Old Trafford is likely to forget it. They revelled in the sunshine of a lovely summer, and the first-class counties, the minor counties, Oxford and Cambridge, Scotland, Ireland and the Combined Services are all in their debt for having boosted their finances. Of the £2,350,000 which the TCCB had to distribute, approximately £1,250,000 came from the international account.
At the other end of the spectrum, a friend trekking in the Himalayas came upon a cluster of Kashmiris glued to their transistor sets, listening to a Test match commentary. That was near Ladakh, at nearly 14,000 feet. So in all manner of places the heart of the game beats strongly.