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The cricket season of 1956 will be remembered with mixed feelings. It was a notable year for England and Surrey as well as for May, Laker and Surridge, but against this must be set the atrocious weather which ruined match after match and brought a serious fall in gate receipts. It was the wettest summer in memory.
For the first time for sixty years, England had the satisfaction of winning their third successive rubber against Australia. In the early days of Test cricket, England enjoyed a wonderful run between 1884 and 1896 when in the course of eleven tours between the two countries Australia could break the monopoly only in their home series of 1891-92. On the other hand Australia held the Ashes for four consecutive series from 1897 to 1902, and they also reigned supreme immediately following the two world wars when England unsuccessfully contested three rubbers in a row in 1920-25 and 1946-51.
The fine achievements England accomplished under Leonard Hutton received Royal recognition when The Queen conferred on him a knighthood in the Birthday Honours last June. Hutton began England's resuscitation and Peter May, without shedding any of his brilliancy as a batsman until his small Test scores in South Africa, has succeeded to the captaincy in the manner of a born leader. Quiet and unassuming, May has shouldered his responsibilities with tact and ability. To face Australia without Hutton might well have meant a series of collapses, but England were able to rebuild around May and, if the reconstruction of the batting has yet to be completed, the success of Richardson and Cowdrey, and the happy reappearance of Washbrook, Sheppard and Compton, kept the ship on an even keel.
When things go wrong the selectors are usually the first people against whom the brick-bats are hurled. I think it is appropriate, therefore, that tribute be paid to G. O. Allen, L. E. G. Ames, W. Wooller, Washbrook and May for the time and patience they devoted to their task last summer. Nothing was too much trouble for them. I admit that I was among the critics who thought that the recall of Washbrook for the Leeds Test after England had lost at Lord's, was a retrograde step, but with Hutton and Compton unavailable the selectors wanted a man of experience and, as we all know, Washbrook played a wonderful innings of 98 that turned England's fortunes. Then, at Manchester, Sheppard, having snatched a few days away from his curacy at Islington, hit a charming century which showed clearly that any young batsman with a degree of initiative allied to skill need not be tied to the crease for hours on end, strokeless and moribund. Finally, came Compton to The Oval, emphasising that cricket is a game to be enjoyed and he reaped the reward for his indomitable courage after so many operations on his troublesome knee.
Still, whatever deeds the batsmen accomplished, all were utterly dwarfed by Laker and his off-spin. Elsewhere in this section he is given a chapter to himself where his wonderful feats are clearly set forth. It is said that all records are made to be beaten, but I never expect to see again one bowler take 19 wickets in any match, let alone all ten twice in the same season against the Australians. And will Laker's 46 wickets in an England-Australia rubber ever be surpassed?
England certainly owed much to Surrey in the persons of May, Laker and Lock. Lock played an invaluable supporting role both as bowler and as a dazzling fielder and yet Surrey, despite losing these men to the representative games, broke all county records by winning the Championship outright for the fifth consecutive year. Also Surrey were the first county to lower the Australians' colours for 44 years. The part Stuart Surridge played during that period is also fully acknowledged elsewhere and now May has taken over the Surrey captaincy. His is a different driving power from that of Surridge and I can well visualise him keeping Surrey at the top.
The elevation of May to the Surrey captaincy reminds one that between 1952 and 1956 England's leadership was under a player not in charge of his county team: 1952, 1953 L. Hutton (N. W. D. Yardley was Yorkshire's captain); 1953-54 L. Hutton; 1954 L. Hutton and D. S. Sheppard (G. H. G. Doggart was the Sussex captain); 1954-55 L. Hutton; 1955, 1956 P. B. H. May (W. S. Surridge was Surrey's captain). Earlier examples were: 1905 F. S. Jackson (Lord Hawke-- Yorkshire); 1912 C. B. Fry (E. M. Sprot-- Hampshire); 1926 A. P. F. Chapman (W. S. Cornwallis-- Kent); 1928-29 A. P. F. Chapman (G. B. Legge-- Kent);1936, 1936-37, 1947-48 G. O. Allen (R. W. V. Robins-- Middlesex).
For the time being Australian standards have fallen both in batting and bowling, but already they have begun the task of introducing new and promising talent in the hope of issuing a strong challenge when they go to South Africa at the end of this year and when they receive England in 1958-59. Meanwhile the lack of colour in much of the batting which is making a good deal of first-class cricket and particularly Test cricket so tedious to watch is causing officials concern in various parts of the Commonwealth.
A year ago Wisden drew attention to problems confronting first-class cricket in a comprehensive article by W. E. Bowes under the title "Growing Pains of Cricket." Since then, there has appeared a pamphlet, "The Cricket Industry," published by the non-party organisation known as Political and Economical Planning. Newspapers have also dealt with this subject and in this edition of Wisden the club cricketers' point of view is presented. Many people are disturbed over the steady reduction of the tempo of first-class cricket. Public interest in the game, fed as it is now by television, sound radio as well as the Press and an annual spate of books, is undoubtedly higher than ever, yet no one can deny that there is a deplorable amount of negative play by batsmen and bowlers.
We read of the Grace Era and the Golden Age of Cricket, before 1914, but even in those days there were complaints. In 1910, Lord Harris wrote an article is Wisden on the faults of modern batting, deploring the two-eyed stance, but long before that Alfred Lyttleton in 1901 only narrowly failed to find sufficient support for his proposal that the lbw law should apply to any ball pitching either side of the wicket. That spectators showed dissatisfaction at the way the game was sometimes played in the good old days is revealed in the following extract taken from the Wisden report of the Middlesex match against the Australians in 1899, and, mark you, the game was over on the second afternoon, having yielded an aggregate of 660 runs, the Australians winnings by an innings and 230 runs:
"On the first day the game was marred by an unseemly demonstration on the part of the spectators, happily without precedent at Lord's. Resenting the extreme caution with which Darling (the Australian captain) and Iredale were batting a section of the crowd forgot their manners, jeering ironically when a run was obtained, and at one point whistling the "Dead March in Saul." That his play was monotonous may be judged by the fact that Darling took three hours to get his first 38 runs. His explanation of his extreme slowness was that he was suffering from a painfully bruised heel."
During the winter a Special Committee has been at work under the chairmanship of Mr. H. S. Altham to inquire into the "Future Welfare of First-Class Cricket." Their findings and recommendations arrived just in time for inclusion in this issue, but I have to write before the report went to the Advisory County Cricket Committee and finally to M.C.C. It is possible that some of the drastic proposals have already been thrown out, but one must remember that a tremendous amount of time and thought was given to the various problems which confronted the Committee and they must be complimented on their courage in advocating such remedies. In any case any changes would be for an experimental period of only one season.
Still, the thought of limiting the first innings of each side in a County match to 85 overs fills me with dismay. It appears to be cutting at the very foundations of the first-class game as laid down 100 years ago by such men as John Wisden and later by Dr. W. G. Grace.
I appreciate the desire to encourage batsmen to show more initiative in the early stages of a match, but I fear this 85 over suggestion if put into force would lighten the bowler's task and bring no benefit to the batsmen. Some sides with poor bowling resources would have nothing to worry about on losing the toss on a perfect cricketing day. They would know that by five o'clock their opponents would be all out and therefore the taking of wickets would not be imperative. More important would be the effort to keep down the runs and this would be done by using a defensive field to guard the boundaries.
The spectators would not be overjoyed at such tactics nor would they be pleased if on a lovely sunny afternoon at, say, The Oval, Surrey were building up a nice score at a good rate and the innings was abruptly terminated at 260 for six with May or Barrington 97 not out. They would hate to see their favourite robbed of the hundred he deserved. And what would be their reaction if the other side then began with their usual safety-first opening pair--and I could name quite a few--and the scoring suddenly dropped to a snail's pace? I imagine the spectators would empty the ground and possibly some would never return.
In recent years the bowlers and their fielders have gained too much control. I am pleased that the packed leg side field menace has been tackled but the packed off-side as exploited by some left-arm bowlers operating round the wicket can also produce negative cricket. It would seem that in this present age there are too many men in the field.
But, whatever alterations (if any) are made everything depends on the players themselves, and especially the captains. We remember how B. H. Lyon was hailed as "The Apostle of Brighter Cricket" in the 1930's when Gloucestershire, as they are now with T. W. Graveney, were an attraction wherever they appeared. Middlesex, too, were a dynamic force when they had R. W. V. Robins as their captain and recently we have had Surrey, under Stuart Surridge, putting a definite result before anything else.
For some time I have held the view that the award of first innings points has contributed to the safety-first policy of many county teams. Three successful first innings results are equal to one victory and some sides, striving to improve or maintain their positions in the Championship table, never consider the final issue until the minor one has been decided. These first innings points were surely meant to compensate a side whose chance of victory had been spoiled by the weather. Now that the eight points for a match reduced to one day will be available as soon as two-thirds of the playing time has been lost without a ball being bowled, we might well discard the four points given for first innings lead or at least reduce them to two. Such a step should help to compel all teams to think about victory as soon as a match begins.
The advocates who would confine county cricket to the weekend had a shock during the winter when, by a large majority, the counties directed the Special Committee not to consider the possibility of playing on Sundays. The whole of English first-class cricket is built on the membership of the County Clubs. The members are the backbone of county cricket and no doubt thousands would withdraw their support if they were deprived of mid-week cricket. One cannot measure the financial side of cricket solely by the number of spectators who pass through the turnstiles. Given fine weather and attractive cricket the crowds will come along. I think Lancashire summed up the position accurately in the following paragraph taken from their annual report for 1956:
"The sharp fall in public support is disappointing in a season when the team greatly improved its position, but the weather was appalling and largely to blame. It cannot be denied that the players have the future of the game, the Club and their welfare in their own hands; the cricket they play must be the cricket the public want to see, and at the same time, be successful too.
Besides the weather, the state of the pitch and the number of days allotted to a match govern to some extent the character of the cricket. And here we touch on a subject that caused much controversy last season--the preparation of pitches. Fast, true wickets used to produce great batsmen as well as great bowlers. Since the heavy roller was condemned too many batsmen have made survival their first consideration.
Perhaps the West Indies will lead a revival in the art of batting. In Worrell, Weekes and Walcott they have three of the finest stroke players in the world and should prove most welcome visitors under their popular captain, John Goddard. Given a hot summer they may well inject some much-needed enterprise into our cricket.