1975

The joy of touring

Henry Blofeld



Blofeld: 'The press box on the first morning of a series is a tense place' © Getty Images
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Writing about cricket is a way of life as much as any other. Part of that way of life is to spend most winters following a Test series abroad. For many this may seem an enviable pursuit especially in the case of Englishmen who will hear or read about the details of a tour during midwinter with its attendant discomforts. The first essential for anyone about to embark on this sort of life is a love of cricket, the second, which in some ways is just as important, is a spirit of adventure.

The third prerequisite is a sense of humour. Cricket tours can be fascinating, exciting, satisfying and on occasions extremely funny, but they can also become irritating and dull and even depressing. On the one hand marvellous moments of cricket are watched, interesting people are met and long friendships arise and fascinating parts of the world are visited. On the other the cricket can be dreary for long periods, constant defeat for one side can give it all an inevitable and boring aspect and living in close proximity with anything up to thirty-five other human beings for a longish period of time can have its problems. So too can the demands of continual travel and therefore of packing and unpacking and frantic journeys to airports in the vain hope that a lost air plane can be caught.

A tour provides a chance too, for all those involved with it to see different parts of the world, to appreciate how people of different ethnic backgrounds live their lives and to see how their civilisations work and to enjoy cultures which are different from their own. Another person's job usually seems more attractive than one's own and as this piece is being finished the day before I fly off to spend the winter with the MCC in Australia and New Zealand the attractions of my own job at this moment may seem even greater than normal.

The first joy of watching a Test series away from home is the opportunity to see the actual cricket. When a tour has finished as many as eighty or ninety days' cricket has been assigned to an old and battered notebook in which one has daily written the details. And yet in each such book there is the memory of great innings, fine bowling performances, superb catches, crucial missed chances, thrilling finishes and then the mental picture of maybe a beautiful ground, maybe a famous old cricketer met or, in the case of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, the memory of an exciting journey down a gold mine.

These are the glamorous aspects of touring, but there are also the more mundane, day-to-day aspects. For a journalist there is, first and foremost, the daily deadline which has to be met. In Australia the time is nine hours ahead of England and therefore it is possible if one wants, to watch the cricket, have dinner and then write about the day's play. In the West Indies the time is five hours behind England and when play finishes at six o'clock it is already eleven o'clock at night in Fleet Street and editions have gone. Accordingly one adopts a very different way of working.

In Australia there is plenty of time to write, but when the moment comes to take the story down to the cable office a taxi cannot be found and what was once a nine hour advantage has by then become only a four hour advantage. In the West Indies the cable circuit to London has several times been lost at crucial moments of the day. During the thrilling last Test in Port of Spain in April 1974 the cable people were on strike and every word which reached London for the first four days of the match had to be telephoned. In India, on Mike Smith's tour in 1964, a cable boy was given a pile of dispatches and was instructed to tell the operators that they were to be sent at urgent rates. Twenty minutes later one of us happened to go into the cable room only to find that the entire staff had gone off to have a drink and that the pile of dispatches was sitting unattended on a desk. At the time it seems that those moments must inevitably shorten one's life, but very soon in retrospect they become extremely funny.

 
 
In Australia the time is nine hours ahead of England and therefore it is possible if one wants, to watch the cricket, have dinner and then write about the day's play
 

Touring is not an ideal occupation for someone who likes a comfortable well-ordered life with a fair amount of routine. One is constantly travelling, which to someone who packs a suitcase as badly as I do is always a problem. Set against this is the excitement of arriving every fortnight or so in a different town or city to meet old friends or to make new ones. Again one's excitement can be dampened as it was for me when I flew from Montego Bay to Kingston three years ago only to discover that my luggage had landed in Miami at about the same time that I landed in Kingston.

When one is travelling with an MCC side it is difficult not to let oneself become emotionally involved with their fortunes on the field. Consequently, it is almost always more fun to be with a winning side. The press box on the first morning of a series is a tense place for no matter how much people may try and hide their partisanship they will all, except for the neutrals present, be identifying themselves with their fellow countrymen on the field of play. False bonhomie and 'I told you so's' may greet early disaster while success may be quietly and apparently sympathetically recorded, but not really.

I am writing this on the eve of my eighth tour, four of which I have covered as a neutral, and it is impossible for me to pick out one as the best. Those ageing notebooks tell the story. If I had to choose one piece of cricket it would be Graveney's century at Port of Spain in the First Test against the West Indies in 1968. It had all the elegance, grace and beauty of classical batsmanship. He never made a wrong or an ugly move, he never hit the ball with anything but the middle of the bat and yet he never once appeared to hit the ball, but rather to stroke with perfect timing through the crowded off side field as he drove again and again to the cover boundary. It was an innings which first dulled the tumultuous enthusiasm of a huge partisan crowd and then gradually forced them to appreciate and to applaud what they were seeing.

In Durban, two years later, Richards, in only his second Test, and Graeme Pollock, both batting at their best, put on nearly 200 against Australia on what was the only occasion I have seen two truly great players batting at their best at the same time in a Test Match. Ian and Greg Chappell put on 300 with a breathtaking display of batting in Bridgetown on Australia's last tour of the West Indies, but their opponents were only Barbados. In Perth, in 1969, Sobers destroyed an attack which consisted of among others McKenzie, Mayne and Lock while making 120. There was Amiss's heroic innings of 262 not out against the West Indies at Sabina Park in 1974, Turner's 223 not out for New Zealand on the same ground two years earlier and Rowe's 214 and 100 not out in the same match which was his first test.

Greig's thirteen wickets in that last Test at Port of Spain in 1974 is the most spectacular piece of bowling I have seen on a tour, but the vain attempts of the Australian batsmen to play the short pitched bowling of Procter and Peter Pollock, McKenzie going through the West Indies on a heavy Boxing Day in Melbourne in 1968, and Bruce Taylor's seven wickets for New Zealand on the first day of the Second Test against the West Indies in 1972 all stand out. So, too, do the agonies of the West Indies batsmen against Gleeson in Australia in 1968/69.



Kalgoorlie, land of tradition, beer and brothels, also happens to be home to Australia's largest gold mine © AFP
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Then there are the individual matches in which suspense and drama build up over five or six days in the way that is peculiar to cricket. In the West Indies in 1968 four matches out of the five were dramatic games of cricket, but the last, over six days in Georgetown where England held on for a draw which enabled them to win the series, but only after the last eight balls of the match had been safely negotiated by England's last pair of Knott and Jones, was the best of all. After five exciting days at Adelaide in 1969 only thirteen or so runs and one wicket separated Australia and the West Indies. In the West Indies in 1972 New Zealand drew every match of the series and three times survived in the most exciting and unlikely ways and then there was England's miraculous 26 run victory in Port of Spain in April 1974.

There have been other moments on the field of play which have been equally memorable if less pleasantly so. Foremost among these comes Sabina Park, Kingston in 1968. England were winning the match easily when in the West Indies second innings Butcher was caught behind by Parks off D'Oliveira and a section of the disappointed crowd began to throw bottles and a riot developed which only ended after the police had used tear gas to disperse the crowd. When play eventually restarted the game changed dramatically and on the unscheduled sixth morning to make up for time lost, England all but lost the game. The one slightly humorous side of that incident was that the police failed to notice the direction of the wind before throwing the tear gas and most of it was quickly blown back across the ground into the Pavilion where the members had at least as torrid a time as the rioting spectators.

On my first tour which was to India in 1964 the series was drawn with all five Tests ending in dull draws on the lifeless Indian wickets, but there was excitement of another sort in Calcutta when part of the crowd set light to one of the stands. Before the Second Test in Bombay on the same tour I had probably my most exciting moment of all. A number of the MCC party were down with dysentery and on the eve of the match there were only ten fit players and I was asked to stand by to make up the numbers if the situation was the same in the morning. Unfortunately for me Stewart, the vice-captain, on hearing the news in hospital, crept out of bed and took his place at short leg when England lost the toss, but was forced to return to bed by lunch.

All cricket tours have their moments off the field just as the cricket produces those fading notebooks, but although there is not a great deal of time in which to look round the country one is visiting when one has taken into account the hours spent travelling and the apparently free days on which one has to write previews or supply one's newspaper a certain number of column inches, one has the opportunity to see a lot more than simply hotels, cricketers and cricket grounds.

In the same way that every tour has its memories surrounding the actual cricket, so too does it have its memories surrounding the country itself. The most fascinating country I have visited with a cricket side is India and this is not, I think, just because it was my first tour. It is a country of great contrasts, curious paradoxes, it is beautiful, it is of great historical interest and for me never boring. Inevitably it is the appalling poverty which hits one first, for it is at a level and on a scale which is inconceivable to someone who has never ventured further east than Rome. It is a fact of life though to which one soon grows accustomed and the more one travels round the country the more the size and hopelessness of the problem becomes apparent.

The drive from Dum-Dum Airport, Calcutta, to the Great Eastern Hotel in the centre is horrific when done for the first time and it would be impossible to find anything which contrasted so acutely with the vast palaces and riches of the ruling princes who have recently been stripped of their titles by the Indian Government, but each was and in a sense still is, as much a part of the country as the other. The heat, the smell, the constant stream of beggars, are as astonishing to Western eyes as is the Taj Mahal, the old city of Delhi, Jaipur and Benares where medieval cities still exist.

 
 
The most fascinating country I have visited with a cricket side is India and this is not, I think, just because it was my first tour
 

In eight weeks the side went down towards the south to Bangalore where I slept under a mosquito net for the first time, to Madras which had the most equable climate of all the cities. From there to Hyderabad where the party was put up in a hotel which had once been the palace of the Nizam's eldest son. In Calcutta the poverty was worst of all, but it was counteracted by the comfortable colonial suburbs and the golf club at Tollygunge. Nagpur is the centre of India and is one of several grounds in the world which is overlooked by a cathedral, but all comparisons with Worcester end there. New Delhi with its wide boulevards is very much a product of Western thinking and planning and in Kanpur, the old Cawnpore, the golf course had browns of marl rather than greens of grass and there a snake charmer wound a python three times round my neck while I was waiting to drive off from one of the tees.

The West Indies is also very different from England, but being so close to the United States of America and relying so heavily on the tourist industry and, of course, having been developed by Europeans, the Western influence is very strong. One quickly finds that each island, both big and small, is different in terms of its past and therefore its inherited culture. For example, Barbados, until independence, had always been English and as a result it still has a peculiarly English atmosphere and way of life. Sugar and tourism are its two main industries and while the St James's coast where there are some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, has been developed for the tourist, the rest of the island has been relatively undisturbed and it has the peaceful atmosphere of a farming community.

Trinidad on the other hand is a very cosmopolitan island where the influences of Spain, France, Germany and other European countries have all made themselves felt and indeed Port of Spain has attracted people from all over the world. The Roman Catholic influence has worked to produce Carnival, a wonderful two-day pre-Lenten Festival and all the traditional West Indian culture like limbo dancing and the calypsos comes from Trinidad. Touring sides are rarely in Trinidad for Carnival, but their first visit is generally about two weeks or so beforehand and the excitement and total involvement of the islanders with Carnival is obvious to see.

One has the chance to visit the calypso tents where the main calypsonians and their entourage sing that year's crop of calypsos every night in the build up to Carnival, the city echoes with steel bands and there is no better sight in the world than a Trinidadian dancing the Jump-Up, which is the calypso dance. The Trinidadians understand and react to rhythm in a way in which it is impossible to copy, but to see a crowd of many hundreds moving, swaying and jumping to the calypso music is unforgettable. Trinidad is an industrial not a tourist island and, indeed, most touring sides see this at first hand when they play a game at Pointe-a-Pierre in the oilfields.

Jamaica, although an island of strange contrasts, is the most beautiful of the bigger islands. The North coast is tourist orientated and geared to the pursuit of the US dollar while in the South, Kingston and Spanish Town are the home of probably the poorest people in the old British West Indies. In the North the tourist trade has brought prosperity to the people, but the atmosphere is artificial. Anything West Indian is sold to Americans at high prices whether it is records, calypso singers, who surround one's deck chair on the beach and demand exorbitant prices for Island In The Sun, or in the hotel shops where plastic palm trees are sold to take back home. Kingston is 109 miles away across some wonderfully rugged and effective countryside. Downtown Kingston is not safe, but the city is over-looked by the Blue Mountains and close by are the ruins of Morgan's Harbour where the pirate had his headquarters and which later Nelson used as a harbour.

The other Test centre, Guyana, is at the same time the West Indies and South America. Georgetown is a Dutch colonial city with contemporary red-roofed building embellished with ornate ironwork. The canals which are now empty run down the middle of the wide tree-lined streets which as a result are dual carriageways, and the city is overlooked by a handsome cathedral which is the tallest wooden building in the world. The population is made up of Africans and Indians, two ethnic groups who find it difficult to live together. The Africans are found almost entirely in the cities and towns while the Indians work the cane fields. Guyana is a poor country and Georgetown is not the safest city in which to walk about, but interest in cricket is as high there as anywhere else in the West Indies and, as advertisements stuck on boards and lamp posts show, the visiting calypsonians of Trinidad are very popular and Guyana has some notable calypsonians of its own.



Nelson's Dockyard in Antigua is the natural harbour Lord Nelson used as his base in the West Indies © Getty Images
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Outside Georgetown, Guyana becomes South America. The two vast rivers, the Demerara and Essequibo, wind deep into the continent and I have twice been on a journey by boat up a tributary of the Demerara to Santa Mission, an Amerindian settlement. The Amerindians worked their way through, North and Central America many centuries ago and are still a delightfully unspoilt people who are almost totally unaffected by Western society. They live off the land and money does not have too much meaning. In two and a half hours chugging down the Kimuné Creek one leaves Test Matches and the West Indies far behind and life takes on a new meaning.

The smaller islands all have their individual charms too. There is Nelson's dockyard in Antigua, which is a superbly situated natural harbour used by Nelson as his base in the West Indies. It is a splendid land-locked bay, surrounded by hills and invisible from the open sea; the buildings erected by Nelson's men, and stuck together with a mixture of sand and molasses, still survive. In St. Lucia there are the pitons, two impressive cones of volcanic rock which rise high out of the sea, a big banana growing industry and a huge rainfall. Grenada produces a breathtaking drive across the island from the airport to the main hotels. In all the islands big or small the rum shops which sell rum to the locals in the villages and in the streets of towns serve the same purpose as the English pub and the good humoured faces inside are always eager to join in any conversation about cricket and what is said is usually worth listening to.

In the West Indies one has the chance on a cricket tour to see all these things and many others besides, and, in general, to grow accustomed to the various local environments which have produced so many splendid cricketers. There may only be the occasional rest day in which there is time to look around, but adventure is well rewarded.

In Australia, too, there is plenty to see and fascinating places to visit. My first experience of Australia was in Kalgoorlie, the old gold mining town in Western Australia. Like Kimberley in South Africa which is famous for its diamonds, Kalgoorlie has a great sense of tradition. When I was there in 1968 the town had been rejuvenated by the recent discoveries of nickel in the area. Somehow, it seemed to come straight out of a cowboy film; the swinging saloon doors in the pubs, the cobbled streets and likelihood that every other character might be John Wayne gave it a tremendous atmosphere. In Kalgoorlie I was first introduced to ice cold Australian beer. It is there that most of a street is given over to state-controlled brothels which apparently play a considerable part in keeping the crime rate down.

Perth, itself, is a very isolated city, being more than 2000 miles from Adelaide, but the new mineral finds in the state have helped to give it a feeling of expectation. It also possesses the fastest pitch in Australia. Adelaide is a peaceful city presided over by its splendid cathedral and with a myriad of churches besides. It nestles up against the foothills of the Mount Lofty Ranges and the pace of life is quieter than in Melbourne or Sydney. The Barossa Valley lies inland behind Adelaide and from there come many of Australia's best wines.

I found Melbourne more of a city in the European sense. It is the financial centre of Australia and produces the appropriate amount of bustle and excitement. Society, too, is curiously English and suitably the city is overlooked by the white turrets of Government House. The well-to-do suburbs of South Yarra and Toorak stretch away on the other side of Government House and the colonial type houses provide a contrast to the modern high rise blocks which have shot up in the centre. The Melbourne Cricket Ground is probably the biggest in the world and is a mass of concrete and steel girders, having housed the 1956 Olympic Games. Inside it 30,000 spectators seem lost and well over one hundred thousand will watch at any rate the Saturday of a Test match.

Sydney, surrounded by interminable networks of bays and beaches is the most beautiful of the cities and is as different from Melbourne as its inhabitants would like to presume. It is much the most cosmopolitan of all the Australian cities and correspondingly vibrant. The Sydney Harbour is a magnificent structure and the newly finished Opera House is almost as unbelievable. At weekends the beaches -- Bondi being the best known of all -- are packed with sun worshippers and surfers and, as in all Australian cities the comfortable suburbs stretch out for miles around.

The first Test of any series is played in Brisbane and there in early December the heat and the humidity are intense. Brisbane itself is out of character with all the other cities, being more like a shanty town. It is given its only freshness by the wide Brisbane river and its cricket ground, the Woolloongabba, which is the smallest and least sophisticated of all the Australian Test grounds, but it is here that maybe the most memorable Test of all, the Tie between Australia and the West Indies was played in 1960.

 
 
In the West Indies, the rum shops serve the same purpose as the English pub and the good humoured faces inside are always eager to join in any conversation about cricket and what is said is usually worth listening to
 

Because of the political structure of the country South Africa is no longer on other countries' visiting lists, but I watched the last series played there, against Australia at the start of 1970. In two months I saw some beautiful country, I went down a diamond mine and was splendidly entertained wherever I went. Newlands, in Capetown, with Table Mountain rising high above it, is for me a close second to Queen's Park Oval, Port of Spain, as the most beautiful Test ground of all. I was also able to have a look first hand at apartheid in action and therefore the opportunity to judge whether the living conditions for non-Europeans, which are said to be the best on the continent of Africa, compensate for their fundamental lack of freedom and their delineation as second class citizens.

At the moment of writing I have not yet seen cricket played in New Zealand or Pakistan, but by the time is read I will have visited New Zealand where, and in Pakistan too, I am quite certain there will be corresponding pleasures and opportunities on the cricket field and off it.

A cricket tour also provides a journalist with another important opportunity in that it enables him to get to know the players he is writing about in a way that he is unlikely to do in England. When one is living with a group of people for four months or more everyone grows to know each other pretty well and I am sure than an understanding of a player, as the man he is, enables one to write about him with greater understanding as a cricketer.

In these pages I have tried to show inevitably in the barest detail what I have seen and found in the cricket tours with which I have travelled. Over and above it all there have been countless friends that I have made, the occasions when I am sure I have irritated some of my colleagues to screaming point and the general enjoyment which I have gained from each one. A tour is not just a matter of watching Test Matches and recording statistical details. Nor is it a question of moving from one hotel to another with the same group of people and of packing and unpacking and sitting together every night at the same dining room table.

A cricket tour is about cricketers from another country as well as those from one's own and a little knowledge about that country may help to understand its cricketers rather better. I do not believe that one will learn too much about a country if one simply drives from the hotel to the cricket ground and back again.

The West Indian way of life reflects all the temperamental uncertainties that their players reveal under pressure on the cricket ground. There is an intensity about the way in which the South Africans play their cricket which can be seen there in conversation a long way from cricket. A visitor to any part of Australia who looks around him will better understand the uncompromising attitude of her cricketers and anyone who has seen the Taj Mahal by moonlight will perhaps more fully appreciate the bowling of Bishan Bedi.

© John Wisden & Co