CRICKET at the present time seems to be flourishing everywhere except in England. The only ray of sunshine for a very long while came last August in the Final Test at The Oval where England, having already surrendered the rubber, outplayed the West Indies by an innings margin. On top of all the disappointments there remains the problems that have driven the crowds from the County Championship.
The standard of English first-class cricket has never been so low; not even after the first world war when England lost eight consecutive Tests to Australia was the outlook so depressing. That the authorities are alive to the situation cannot be denied. The latest findings among a long list of inquiries into the maladies affecting the game in England follow these Notes in the shape of two reports by the David Clark committee and comments by Charles Bray who was a member of that committee.
For the time being the three-day County Championship remains unaltered, but although I would not like to see it cut down as was proposed it cannot last much longer in its present form without public support which has dwindled to next to nothing. Its salvation lies with the weather, pitches and the players, four of whom from each county were due to attend at Lord's before this season began to be briefed by the M.C.C. secretary. Mr. S. C. Griffith was also expected to talk to county committees. Another wise move by the Advisory Committee is the authority they have now given M.C.C. to set up machinery to ban cricket grounds reported as being unfit for first-class cricket.
Some people, and particularly the top players, think that all our troubles will be solved with a return to better pitches. Give us fast, true pitches and we will do better, say some England batsmen, and they refer to the attractive cricket played by M.C.C. on their last visit to Australia, but I remember many negative performances by Test teams of recent years in Australia, South Africa and West Indies. It is a matter of intention and will power. If both sides settle for a war of attrition rather than a game of cricket there can be little to amuse the spectator even if the players themselves are satisfied.
Nevertheless, I firmly believe that we in England will not produce anything like the number of top class cricketers there were before the war until pitches everywhere are brought back to the highest standard. That will be the first step in the right direction and at the same time every visiting county team must understand that they have an obligation to provide keen and attractive cricket for the home team's supporters. The County Championship would never have embraced as many as seventeen clubs had not this been understood in the beginning.
When qualification rules were first agreed in 1873 only nine counties were considered first-class: The Big Six-- Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Kent and Middlesex--plus Derbyshire, Gloucestershire and Sussex. Gradually others gained admission to this august body, but first of all it was essential to obtain fixtures with the Big Six. To do this an ambitious county had to provide satisfactory evidence of playing strength and ability to provide attractive opposition. There were no guaranteed fixtures as there are to-day. Each county went to Lord's in the winter to the annual fixture meeting, some cap in hand in the hope of getting enough matches. They still hold the annual meeting, but it is merely a formality as far as fixtures are concerned; now-a-days these are made a year in advance.
As Sir Neville Cardus has so often pointed out, the finest players have always had flexibility of technique that has enabled them to deal adequately with changes of pitch, scene and climate. Cricket is inclined to reflect the prevailing social background and in this computer age it is utilitarian, freeze and squeeze, nothing generous about it. The odd player who rises above the commonplace is often derided. Hence, the batsman, like Milburn, who has contempt for all bowlers--and rightly so if a disciple of George Gunn--is termed "slogger," a word reserved for the daring tail enders of bygone years.
Considering there is more leisure than ever with the five-day working week and universal annual holidays there must be other reasons besides the motor car and television that have caused attendances at county cricket to fall so alarmingly. Even members, though still paying their subscriptions, do not appear with any regularity. Surely it is because the pattern is always the same. One can scarcely tell one county from another; just a succession of seam bowlers against numerous batsmen static on their feet, ready to use their pads as their main line of defence against the ball not directed at the stumps, with a few deflections behind the wicket for the odd single. Last season I saw Underwood and Dixon bowl nearly all day on a beautiful pitch at Canterbury while Nottinghamshire laboriously compiled 210 in six hours and ten minutes--a typical example of the many dreary displays given by so many counties.
The prevalence of medium-fast bowling has brought about the almost complete disappearance of the genuine leg-spin bowler and the left-arm slow bowler. Hence, the authorities rightly complain that the over-rate--20 an hour is considered acceptable--has fallen. Bring back the slow bowlers with the shorter run-up and the overrate must rise. Much as I dislike any restraint on captains as to their field placings and general conduct of the game, variety would be lent if there were a limitation on the number of overs permitted to seam bowlers during an innings. We know spinners occasionally use the seam, but umpires would know where to draw the line.
The way County Cricket has been allowed to drift towards disaster is surely a reflection upon the Advisory County Cricket Committee which was formed by the M.C.C. in 1904 to consider matters arising out of county cricket and other cricket. All first-class counties may send a representative to attend meetings and the minor countries are also represented. All decisions are subject to the approval of the M.C.C. Committee and I cannot recall any case in recent years of this being withheld. Sir Pelham Warner, long before he died in 1963, advocated a ten-year standstill to any change but his advice went unheeded as did Surrey's for a three-year period.
For the past twenty years we have had one change after another, including the abolition of the distinction between amateur and professional, experiments on taking the new ball varying from 55 to 85 overs, declarations, limitation of the leg-side field, two years without the follow-on, boundaries limited to 75 yards, various pitch-covering rules, insistence of sight screens on all grounds, numerous ways of reckoning the County Championship, including number of matches played and the final abomination, the limit of 65 overs for the first innings in some matches in 1966. Also the controversies over throwing and the bowler's drag, polishing the ball, bowler's run-up limited to 20 yards and permission to captains to forfeit their second innings.
Small wonder that the ordinary follower of the game has become so utterly confused. I always keep a copy of the latest Playing Conditions by me when I go to report a match and I would imagine that every umpire must have one in his pocket to keep abreast of the situation. And what about the players? Surely this constant tampering with the rules has been of little benefit to them.
I always regretted the alteration of the l. b. w. law in 1935. Most of our troubles seem to stem from that time when one must not forget there was a preponderance of pad play, heavy scoring and too many drawn games. I remember the warnings of many experts that the move would be the ruination of attractive batting. Herbert Sutcliffe and R. E. S. Wyatt were particularly insistent on the way cricket would be heading and now their words have been proved true. Is it too late to put the clock back thirty years and begin all over again? The change in the law has mattered most in England where the ball swings more in the air and off the pitch. To compensate the bowler, Wyatt would widen the wicket by two or three inches, encouraging him to attack the stumps and thus compel the batsman to use his bat. If this would lead to hard, positive cricket the leg-spinner could come into his own again.
Opposition to the 65 over first-innings experiment--the list of matches involved is given in the County Championship section--stemmed mainly from the problem it set the middle-order batsmen. I felt that it succeeded in jolting the early-order batsmen, specially the openers, out of their lethargic habits. No longer could they be content in gathering 20 to 30 runs individually in the two-hour session before lunch and there was a notable improvement in this respect. On the other hand many young promising batsmen coming in later could not settle down to build an innings and often had to try and push the score along before they were ready. The experiment favoured the weaker bowling sides who knew their task was done when 65 overs were completed and a premium was put on the negative attack with corresponding fielding placings to keep down the runs rather than all-out endeavour to dismiss the opposition. Nearly two-thirds of the 102 matches, 61 to be exact, produced a definite result. Only once did a side make 300, Northamptonshire reaching 355 for seven against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. The highest personal score was 171 by Colin Milburn for Northamptonshire against Leicestershire at Leicester.
What with a wet summer and the 65 overs experiment, only eight batsmen in 1966 achieved an average of 40 runs and only two reached 2,000, compared with 32 and 23 in the dry summer of 1959.
There has seldom been such a disappointing season for England as that of 1966. The M.C.C. team came back from Australia having drawn the rubber following many days of excellent cricket, yet at home little went right and the losing sequence against the major Test countries continued. Look at the depressing details of the last four years. In 18 home Tests against West Indies, Australia and South Africa, England have won only twice. West Indies were beaten at Edgbaston in 1963 when Trueman took twelve wickets for 119 and last August in that memorable match with West Indies, when they had already won the series, England triumphed by an innings. For the first time on record, England in 1966 had three captains in the same season, M. J. K. Smith, M. C. Cowdrey and D. B. Close. Australia once had four--back in 1884-85, as did West Indies in 1929-30.
In the cases of Smith and Cowdrey, the selectors probably felt their diffident batting did not set the example required to inspire their men compared with the authority and brilliance that their rival Sobers exercised immediately he reached the crease. Before the summer ended the selectors themselves came in for adverse criticism. Examining the facts, one must remember that compared with other countries England have many more first-class players on the fringe of Test standard, yet few who can be termed automatic choices. The early retirement of P. B. H. May--now a selector--the car accident that put E. R. Dexter out of action and the breakdown of K. F. Barrington in the middle of the season robbed the team of three great batsmen. Then the order from M.C.C. that no bowler with a suspect action should be considered for England ruled out two or three men, notably H. J. Rhodes, who were taking plenty of wickets for their counties.
One of the biggest disappointments was the failure of the fast bowlers, I. J. Jones and D. J. Brown, to reproduce the form they showed earlier in the year in Australia. Here again the difference of the pitches, as in the case of batsmen, had a direct bearing. Fortunately, K. Higgs, having learned his art under the sound guidance of Brian Statham, showed the value of accurate length and direction. Higgs used the new ball to such purpose that he took 24 wickets and alone played in all five Tests. Altogether England called on 24 players, including J. S. E. Price who withdrew through injury.
The big surprise of the season was the return of Tom Graveney to the England team after being on the shelf for three years. One would imagine that a batsman with more than one hundred centuries to his name in first-class cricket would be certain of a place. Anyhow, in their dilemma after the disastrous first Test the selectors brought him back and in seven innings he made 459 runs, topping the batting with an average of 76.50. At the age of 39, Graveney batted better than ever. He certainly had nothing to worry about and his elegant style was a model for all young cricketers. He played straight down the line, a lesson for so many who play across when unwisely trying to force the ball away to leg. I am obliged to Mark Buxton for sending the following list of batsmen who have scored centuries in Test cricket in their fortieth year or over, with age at the completion of their last century. The last column shows the number of Test centuries hit after reaching the age of 39:--
|46||2||J. B. Hobbs||142||Englandv. Australia||Melbourne||1928-29||8|
|45||5||E. Hendren||132||Englandv. Australia||Manchester||1934||4|
|43||9||A. D. Nourse, sr.||111||S. Africa v. Australia||Jo'burg||1921-22||1|
|42||6||W. Bardsley||193*||Australiav. England||Lord's||1926||1|
|42||2||F. E. Woolley||154||Englandv. S. Africa||Manchester||1929||1|
|42||-||E. A. B. Rowan||236||S. Africa v. England||Leeds||1951||3|
|41||8||W. W. Armstrong||123*||Australiav. England||Melbourne||1920-21||3|
|41||8||H. W. Taylor||117||S. Africa v. England||Cape Town||1930-31||2|
|41||3||B. Sutcliffe||151*||N. Zealand v. India||Calcutta||1965||1|
|40||6||A. D. Nourse, jr.||208||S. Africa v. England||Nott'gham||1951||2|
|40||1||C. G. MacArtney||109||Australiav. England||Manchester||1926||3|
|40||-||V. M. Merchant||154||Indiav. England||New Delhi||1951-52||1|
|39||11||B. Mitchell||120||S. Africa v. England||Cape Town||1948-49||1|
|39||11||D. G. Bradman||173*||Australiav. England||Leeds||1948||6|
|39||10||A. L. Hassett||104||Australiav. England||Lord's||1953||3|
|39||9||A. Sandham||325||Englandv. W. Indies||Kingston||1929-30||2|
|39||8||E. H. Bowley||109||Englandv. N. Z.||Auckland||1929-30||1|
|39||5||H. Makepeace||117||Englandv. Australia||Melbourne||1920-21||1|
|39||4||J. S. Ryder||112||Australiav. England||Melbourne||1928-29||1|
|39||4||E. Tyldesley||122||Englandv. W. Indies||Lord's||1928||1|
|39||2||T. W. Graveney||165||Englandv. W. Indies||The Oval||1966||2|
Another come back was that of John Murray. He received the chance which had been denied him far too long, in the wholesale changes made after the Headingley Test that settled the rubber and the destiny of the Wisden Trophy. His neat wicket-keeping was a joy to watch and made England look so more efficient in the Final Test. Moreover, Murray proved his all-round ability by celebrating his return with a century in a crisis which swayed the issue England's way when he and Graveney put on 217 in a record seventh-wicket stand against West Indies. Finally, Snow and Higgs raised the total to 527 in their gallant last-wicket partnership of 128. Between them the last three England batsmen totalled 234.
Brian Close, the latest England captain, was the third player to cover himself with glory on a belated return to the Test team. Back in 1949 he was the youngest cricketer at the age of 18 to appear for England, the youngest Yorkshireman to gain his county cap and the youngest player to accomplish the double. Since then his Test career has been intermittent. M.C.C. took him to Australia in 1950--his only overseas tour--and on his single appearance at home against Australia at Manchester in 1961 his Test career seemed to have been completed when he was assailed on all sides for alleged reckless stroke play. Yet he was back in 1963 and batting courageously against the fiery bumpers of Hall and Griffith in all five Tests with West Indies. But strangely England did not pick him again until a captain was needed last August for the final Test at The Oval. He had proved his ability as a leader for Yorkshire and he led England in the same positive way; his bowling changes were successful, notably the early introduction of Barber, and his personal example close to the batsman at short leg made an aggressive set of fielders who took all the catches offered. Perhaps, luck did go his way for once. This forthright Yorkshireman was certainly the hero of the hour and it would appear he is destined to lead England in the West Indies next winter.
The nervous nineties claimed a record number of six victims in the five Tests: C. Milburn 94, T. W. Graveney 96, J. M. Parks 91, S. M. Nurse 93, G. S. Sobers 94 and M. C. Cowdrey 96. Previously five such dismissals occurred in 1901-2 and 1962-3 when England visited Australia and in 1958-9 when West Indies were in India. There were also five nineties in 1953-4 between West Indies and England in the West Indies but in one instance Everton Weekes was 90 not out.
Cricket is certainly fortunate in this vital year with the structure of the first-class game in England in the balance to have such a compelling personality as Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the most important office of all, that of President of the M.C.C. He alone of all the Prime Ministers of England has played first-class cricket. At Eton, as Lord Dunglass, he played in the Eleven for two years, making top score, 66, against Harrow in 1922 when he also played for the Lord's Schools against The Rest. A medium-paced bowler and capable batsman, he played for Oxford University and is a Harlequin but he did not gain a Blue. He also played for Middlesex and in 1926-7 went on the M.C.C.'s tour to South America under the captaincy of Sir Pelham Warner. The only other Prime Minister who became President of M.C.C. was Lord Baldwin, in 1938. In those days the Committee met at four and took tea at half-past, a very different state of affairs compared with the many arduous all-day meetings of the present time.
While the one million pound new building scheme, including a luxury block of flats and the demolition of the old tavern at Lord's has got well under way, Surrey, like a bolt out of the blue, produced their plan at the beginning of the year for transforming The Oval. It provides up-to-date amenities for Surrey C.C.C., players and spectators, including terraced seating for 22,000 and the erection of four to five hundred flats and nine shops at the Vauxhall side of the ground. There has been some imaginative thinking by the Surrey club, its Landlords, the Duchy of Cornwall and the developers and architects. It will mean a reduction of the vast playing area which will become a circle inside The Oval with a maximum seventy-five yard boundary. Spectators will enjoy a much closer view of the players and there is provision for plenty of car parking space on two levels under the flats and with the rake of the stands. The developer, M. Howard, is a brother of Geoffrey Howard, the Surrey Secretary.
The first Public House to bear the name of the Grand Old Man of Cricket was opened last July at Elmers End. It stands within 200 yards of his grave and between the two sites is Birkbeck railway station. In the saloon bar is an attractive mirror tinged with copper with the head of Dr. Grace superimposed. The architect, a lover of cricket, attended the previous year's ceremony commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of W. G. and so the new hostelry got its name. Cricket could not wish for a better advertisement, thousands of commuters to the City pass its doors, and some enter, day by day. The Rev. A. N. B. Sugden, a chaplain at the cemetery, who has since returned to his native Yorkshire as the Vicar of St. Peter's, Harrogate, blessed the house and pulled the first pint. The next day he was present when Mr. C. Stuart Chiesman, Chairman of Kent C.C.C. unveiled a commemorative plaque to W. G. on his final home, Fairmont, Mottingham, where he died in 1915. Downend House, Gloucestershire, the birthplace of W. G. was also in the news at the same time for it was sold by auction for £12,600 to a Bristol engineering design firm. In 1942, it fetched only £1,200.
The English College in Rome can, like cricket itself, trace its history in some fashion to Anglo-Saxon times, when a hospice for English pilgrims was founded by the Tiber. Almost inevitably English Catholic men studying in Rome played, in the rolling fields round the city, the game which their co-religionist John Nyren, helped to immortalise. The serious history of English College cricket there began, however, just after the first world war, when the rector, afterwards Cardinal Hinsley, bought the old Portuguese monastery of Palazola by Lake Albano as a summer residence for the college.
The formation of the Rome Cricket Association came about in 1962 following a Cricket Gala competed for by teams from the British Embassy, the Australian Sports and Social Club, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the English College, the Beda College and the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. This event, for which a trophy known as "The Rome Ashes" was presented, is now annual.
None of this would have been possible without the generous support of Donna Orietta and Don Frank Pogson Doria Pamphili in whose private park, the beautiful villa Doria Pamphili (a master-piece created by Algardi when the head of the family was Pope Innocent X), the matches are played. Teams from England are regularly entertained and an Australian side has also played there. A fast matting wicket, quick outfield, generally superb weather and a happy atmosphere make cricket in Rome an exhilarating experience. No less, for the visitor, is the hospitality of the home teams. At least two members of the present Sacred College have played Roman cricket--Cardinal McCann of Capetown (a very capable player) and Cardinal Heenan of Westminster (a more light-hearted one).
Rothmans of Pall Mall have rendered spendid service to cricket in recent years, including the production of coloured films on various Test series. The latest, "West Indian Summer" lasts forty-seven minutes and deals with last season's Test series in England. It has a commentary by John Arlott and is available free to cricket clubs, societies and sports organisations all over the country. Many a long winter evening can be enlivened by recalling the exciting cricket witnessed the previous summer. Anyone interested should contact Desmond Smith, Rothmans of Pall Mall, Berk House, 8 Baker Street, London, W.1.