Cricket is too splendid a game to be muted by dull attitudes, 1968

Batsmen must hit the ball again

Denis Compton; introduction by Norman Preston

Denis Compton reigned as a batting genius for England and Middlesex between 1936 and 1958. A natural games player, he figured in 78 Tests, scoring 5,807 runs, including 17 hundreds. Altogether in his first-class career he made 38,942 runs, average 51.71 and hit 122 hundreds. In the memorable summer of 1947, Compton broke many batting records when he achieved the highest aggregate for a season, 3,816 runs and hit most centuries, eighteen. Also during that glorious season, his noted partner, W.J. Edrich, made 3,539 runs. Since then only three players have passed 3,000 runs in one season: Leonard Hutton 3,429 in 1949; M. J. K. Smith 3,245 in 1959; and W. E. Alley 3,019 in 1960. Denis Compton was truly the Golden Boy of cricket and, moreover, he enjoyed every minute of it.

In my opinion there is nothing wrong with cricket; it is the attitude of so many first-class players that has gone awry. Cricket is still a wonderful game as played in the schools and at club level but so much big cricket is no longer the spectacle it used to be, and, in particular, the County Championship, which provided me with so much fun, no longer attracts huge crowds.

Modern trends, like the family car and the thirst for excitement the whole time, now challenge cricket probably more than any other spectator sport. The safety-first outlook has bedevilled professional cricket far too long and like our traffic in the big cities the three-day game has come almost to a full stop.

We still enjoy the occasional breath-taking displays by such cricketers as Gary Sobers, Tom Graveney, Graeme Pollock, Colin Bland, Denis Lindsay, Bob Barber, Jim Parks and, when in the mood, Ken Barrington. But is not Ken one of the culprits who can be so infuriatingly dull?

A typical example of the way the English first-class cricketer has driven the crowds to seek other amusement occurred in the game between Middlesex and Hampshire which heralded the month of July at Lord's last summer. That contest must go down in County Championship history as the one that touched rock bottom.

Three days' cricket on a near-perfect wicket seemed to me so full of promise of good things to enjoy, but everything was ruined as a spectacle by the inability of two teams of professional cricketers even to settle the issue of first-innings points. How the cricketing public suffered!

Hampshire came close to completing an unfortunate double a fortnight later when they played Kent on their own Southampton wicket. It was not until late on the third day that the first-innings points issue was resolved. Again there had been a minimum of interruptions.

These two examples, which are characteristic of Championship cricket today, illustrate the depths to which the game has sunk in recent seasons. Time softens the memory, but I am convinced that we would not have been allowed to get away with such meaningless cricket, either by the crowds or the county committees, in the late 1940's and early 1950's.

It is true that wickets have deteriorated in recent years, although there was encouraging evidence last summer of an improvement in the general standard of pitch preparation. Yet in my day we faced the problem of uncovered wickets exposed to the elements, which resulted in some remarkable surfaces on which any kind of confident stroke play was virtually impossible.

Far from providing an excuse to resort to some of the laboured cricket we have witnessed in recent seasons, such wickets presented a challenge to do the next best thing and throw the bat at the ball. As Leslie Ames, the Kent secretary and manager of the M.C.C. side in the West Indies, says: "When the wicket is bad there is only one way for a batsman to play, knowing he is not likely to remain at the crease for any length of time. That is to have a go!" It is better to chance the arm and make 30 runs quickly than spend an hour of agony collecting the same number of runs.

Naturally, it must be difficult to work up enthusiasm playing in front of deserted stands and terraces for six days a week. The right atmosphere can make all the difference. I was lucky playing soon after the war before enthusiastic onlookers who had been starved of sporting entertainment.

Because of the absence of crowds at county games in the past few seasons, some cricketers advance the argument that it is difficult to provide entertaining play in such an unreal atmosphere. What they fail to realise is that nobody can be drawn back to the game unless the players -- and, in effect, committees -- change their attitude.

People ARE prepared to watch if the right spirit is adopted. They have shown this to be true by flocking to the Gillette Cup matches. Association football has proved that, with the raising of professional standards, the missing spectators can be lured back.

As a former player and now a devoted cricket watcher, it is the fact that a majority of players seem to have resigned themselves to playing unenterprising cricket that concerns me. So many of them go to considerable lengths to complain about the apparently never-ending stream of medium paced short of a length bowlers who have proved a curse on the game.

Yet nothing, it seems, is done by the batsmen to remove these medium pacers -- little phantoms as Brian Statham describes them -- from the tiring line. The attitude of the batsman is to play back to all the deliveries on a line with the stumps and wait for the loose ball to punish. Against such specialists as Cartwright, Bannister, Alley, Crump, Nicholson, Hooker and Shackleton, such waiting can take a lifetime.

Knock-out cricket has shown that these stock bowlers can be hit. Nobody is going to tell me that Hutton, Washbrook, Bill Edrich, Hardstaff and others like them twenty years ago would not have found a way.

I certainly could not have stayed at the crease without making some attempt at attacking them. It would have meant taking risks, using my feet and moving down the wicket. Anything, in fact, which was likely to disturb the bowler's concentration and force him to change his length and direction. With the majority of wicket-keepers standing back these days, it is easier to leave the crease than when there was a Godfrey Evans breathing down a batsman's neck!

Let me stress that such bowling tactics are not new. They have been mastered and, by sensible application, they can be again. I recall a confrontation in the middle between Norman Yardley and Don Bradman during the Test match at Nottingham in 1948 in the days when the new ball was taken after 55 overs. Bradman's tactics were to use Lindwall and Miller for as long as possible and then bring on Toshack bowling on the leg stump to stop the runs until the next new ball was due. Yardley replied by bowling Shackleton-style when the Australians batted, much to Bradman's discomfort.

Eventually Bradman faced an entire over from Yardley without once offering a stroke as the ball went down the leg side. At the end of the over Bradman walked up to Yardley and said: "If we are all going to continue playing cricket this way we might as well give up the game." He changed his attitude, Yardley responded and the rest of the series was played at the right tempo.

I was encouraged last season when I heard that Stuart Surridge, in his first season as chairman of Surrey's cricket committee, made his own stand during a second eleven match at The Oval when he saw a Surrey batsman who has had considerable first team experience, playing without any sign of aggression. Surridge squirmed in his seat until he could stand it no longer and asked the Surrey coach, Arthur McIntyre, to go out to the middle and instruct the batsman to play the game the right way or get out!

Too much of the modern game seems to be complicated by theory and the shutting out of natural talent by coaches who insist that all players should be of the same mould as laid down in the coaching manuals. The younger of the overseas cricketers who have been signed up by the counties during the winter will undoubtedly find some of their methods frowned upon by coaches when they first enter county cricket. I very much hope they will have enough strength of character to resist the attempts to turn them into the factory models filling our county sides.

Last summer I was surprised when one of our leading batsmen, with many overseas tours behind him, told me he was not happy with the way he was holding the bat. He asked how I held mine. "I've not the slightest idea," I replied. "I never paid any attention to any special grip. I held it the way it felt most comfortable." So I should have thought, would any batsman. Of course, a player trying to influence younger and less experienced batsmen to copy his own style is nothing new in the game.

It happened to me in Australia in 1946-47 when Wally Hammond, the greatest batsman, I saw, offered his advice on how to deal with the spin of Tribe, Dooland and McCool. "Play from the crease, Denis. Whatever happens don't be lured from your ground." It was against my nature but I followed his instructions with disastrous results in the first three Tests.

Finally I decided to play my own game and scored 147 and 103 not out in the fourth Test at Adelaide. What may suit one batsman does not necessarily suit another.

Len Hutton issued similar instructions during the West Indies tour in 1953-54 to counter the spin of Ramadhin and Valentine, with a particular warning to Tom Graveney, although Graveney is essentially a front foot player. It was asking him to play an entirely different role to stay on his back foot in the crease instead of using his height and reach.

For two Tests we batted the Hutton way and lost both of them. Things came to a head on the third day of the second Test when England scored only 128 runs from 114 overs. Eventually all the batsmen put their point of view to Hutton. He agreed to allow us to play our natural game with the result that we squared the series by winning two of the last three Tests.

One of the main results of coaching has been the steady decline of the hook shot favoured by the Australians and one of the most effective scoring strokes in a batsman's armoury. Today it is frowned upon because of the great element of risk involved, yet Bradman employed it and he was not a player to take outside gambles.

Bradman was also an expert in setting fields to try and curb a batsman's use of the hook shot, but I remember Bill Edrich using it repeatedly in a superb exhibition of hooking when scoring a century against Australia at Sydney during the 1946-47 tour. Cyril Washbrook and Joe Hardstaff could also teach some of our young players how to hook with safety.

Humour, too, has faded from the field. Gone are the days when Keith Miller would open the bowling with a ping pong ball as he did against Jack Robertson when the Australians played Middlesex at Lord's, or when my brother Leslie was able to stick the bails on with chewing gum while batting during his benefit match against Sussex in 1954.

I remember also the occasion when a dog held up play during the Surrey and Australians match at The Oval in 1948. Syd Barnes promptly gathered up the dog and presented it to umpire Alex Skelding who had turned down a leg before appeal by Ray Lindwall only moments before! "All you want now is the white stick," said Barnes.

Nor have I forgotten the time Leslie rushed off the field at Lord's after lunch as he was about to continue his innings. Leslie had developed a superstitious habit of bowing to a portrait of Gregor MacGregor, a Middlesex wicket-keeper of the last century, which hangs in the Lord's pavilion. On this occasion his batting partner, Jack Robertson, had deliberately kept Leslie talking all the way to the wicket and it was only as he shaped to face the bowling that Leslie remembered he had forgotten to bow.

This was all harmless fun which spectators enjoyed because it made them feel part of the game -- and they came again.

Still, I believe there are signs of brighter times ahead. In Colin Milburn we have a batsman of character who is willing to hook, Alan Knott, a wicket-keeper who believes it is part of his job to entertain and Robin Hobbs, who is able to clown in the field without detracting from his ability. Such personalities should be encouraged. If more players were allowed to express themselves naturally, our legislators would find half their problems on the way to being solved. Cricket is too splendid a game to be muted by dull attitudes.

© John Wisden & Co