Onus now on England and Australia, 1961

Cricket alive again

Jack Fingleton

I am writing this just after the incredible tie between Australia and the West Indies in Brisbane. It would be a captious critic, indeed, who saw anything wrong in this rosy dawn of a cricket renascence -- as we all hope it will be -- but one must be practical and the request the Editor made to me long before this aura of brilliancy was cast over the cricket world here was this: how do the present-day methods of Australian batsmen compare with those of my own era?

My own Test-playing era was the thirties, but a youthful mind formed some pretty strong impressions of the decade before that. I saw the Master, Jack Hobbs, bat in Sydney. I played against Macartney, the Magnificent, in Sydney club games. True, he was past his best, but to the end Macartney carried a pugnacious brilliancy about his batting.

As a lad in my teens, I walked proudly out with the veteran one day to open an innings on the Sydney Cricket Ground No. 2. "Keep your eye open for the first ball, son," he told me. I, somewhat naturally, assumed he wanted a quick single and so, avid to please, I was leading up the pitch when the ball came back like a bullet.

I dropped to the ground. So did the bowler and the umpire, all in a great flurry. The ball crashed against the picket-fence and came back towards us. I picked myself up and walked down the pitch to have words with the Great Man. Always, he told me, aim the first ball at the bowler here -- and he tapped the middle of his forehead. They don't like it. It rattles them. And not only the bowler, I remember thinking.

Macartney, Bradman, J.M. Taylor, T.J.E. Andrews, Alan Kippax, Ponsford, A.A. Jackson, J.M. Gregory, Victor Richardson, Stan McCabe and Hanson Carter were the adventurous type. Not one, of course, is now playing and three, alas, are dead, but one had only to walk around the corner of the M.A. Noble Stand at the Sydney Cricket Ground, see one of those I have mentioned in action and immediately recognise him. Each had his own way of playing the game; each made strokes, or used his feet (as did Bradman) in his own individual manner.

Macartney had a delicious and vigorous twirl of the wrist that took his bat inordinately high in the follow-through. He would dab the ball through the slips. Nobody before or since quite pulled as Bradman did. He crashed the ball, yet in doing so he managed to turn his wrists over so that the ball immediately went to earth.

Nobody had the flourish of Kippax in his late-cut -- many a wicket-keeper's tingling hands could testify to the lateness of the stroke. Ponsford's broad blade was the desperation of all bowlers and nothing exasperated them more than the genius he had for forcing their best balls wide of wide-on and square-leg.

Archie Jackson was a purist in the Trumper-Kippax mould. Kippax once told me of how he used to follow Trumper around Sydney's suburban ovals when he was a small boy. Kippax instinctively moulded his game on Trumper's, and Jackson, who played under Kippax's captaincy in the N.S.W. team, obviously imitated Kippax.

So the strain of Trumper ran through Australian cricket until the mid-thirties. Richardson and Gregory were of the cavalier type, ferocious hitters of the ball at their best.

McCabe had his own effortless style and nobody, in my recollection, other than the wicket-keeper Carter, played that impish over-the-shoulder stroke to fine-leg from a good-length ball.

McCabe once told me that the best batting lesson he had in his life was one day at Kennington Oval in the 1930 Australian tour of England. "Jack Hobbs batted against us for half an hour and I fielded at cover," said McCabe. "I learnt more about batting in that half-hour than in the rest of my cricket career."

A graceful tribute indeed, because McCabe has played three of the greatest innings seen in Test cricket -- 187 not out against the fury of Larwood and Voce in Sydney in 1932; 189 not out against South Africa on a bumping pitch and in a blinding light at Johannesburg in 1936; and 232 against England at Nottingham in 1938. I was privileged to see all three innings. Bradman's 1930 innings at Leeds -- a century before lunch, a century before tea and a century before stumps -- was in the same brand of sheer brilliance.

The names I have mentioned do not exhaust the list of really good Australian batsmen I played with and against. Far from it. Those already singled out had characteristics or stroke of genius that placed them above their fellow-cricketers. The blood in their veins made them seek adventure.

Cooler blood ran through Collins, Bardsley, Woodfull, Brown and Barnes, yet all of these knew triumphs of the highest order. They were more of the suspicious, respectful type. Where those of the first order were wont, so to speak, to fling their cap in the face of the bowler, these others (and I was of their ilk) were first prepared to touch their cap in respect and then set out to dominate proceedings by long occupancy and a refusal to quit.

Like a canny man given a tip on the Stock Exchange, they wanted to know everything about everybody. They were suspicious by nature and often, as occasional innings shows, suspicious of their capacity to play another type of game. Nobody would doubt, however, that they forged a large piece of Australian cricket history.

The Second World War did not cut the continuity of Australian batting art. Bradman, Brown, Hassett, Miller and Barnes carried over from one period to the next. Morris, too, was just about to make his entrance when cricket was put back into the wings. England had Hutton, Compton and Edrich, for three, to tide it over the break and so the young of both countries were not lacking for champions to emulate.

Yet, at the end of a decade, one is pessimistically inclined to wonder whether any decade in Australian cricket history threw up less champions than the fifties. Harvey and Morris, both capital cricketers, were the product of the forties. Each was well entrenched as the fifties began.

Benaud and Davidson I immediately accept as two all-round cricketers who would have been termed great in any period of the game but it is of specialist batsmen I write particularly and I am forced to the conclusion that although many were chosen, few were found.

Consider this list of batsmen who have been tried over and over again in practically every cricketing country of the world without achieving a decisive position in our national team: Craig, de Courcy, Hole, MacKay, Favell, Archer (K. and R.), Burge, Burke, Rutherford and Moroney.

Only two -- O'Neill and McDonald -- have berths by right at the moment of writing. Simpson, a neat batsman who made his debut in the middle fifties for N.S.W. against Hutton's team, is on the verge of permanent occupancy. He, however, is no new comet flashing across the cricketing sky. He has toured South Africa; he has played Lancashire League. What we so badly want at the moment in Australia are several new batsmen cast in the classical mould.

I am not, I hope, being a carping conservative in saying this. I am conscious of Australia's rich batting heritage; and I am conscious that at the moment of writing the West Indians are giving us much more cultured batting than our own men.

Sobers, Worrell, Hunte and Kanhai are the men of batting destiny in Australia at the moment. Their flashing bats are the ones our youngsters will need to emulate if we are to recapture our former batting greatness and individuality.

To write this is not to belittle Norman O'Neill. No batsman could have wished for a more distinguished entry into England--Australia Test cricket than O'Neill two years ago at Brisbane. After days and days of intolerable boredom, O'Neill came on the last day to lift the game from the dreary depths to heights of brilliancy. His shots off the back foot were magnificent, speeding in all directions.

He gave the Snooze of Brisbane the only sparkle it knew, yet for all the scores he made lately it would be idle to pretend that O'Neill of this summer so far is batting with the surety or the wide range of strokes that he showed us only two years ago. I want to be fair to O'Neill. He has given us some glorious stokes but every now and then his batting has an odd fall from grace that Bradman and McCabe, for instance, did not know when they were in full flight.

That demon fast bowler, Wesley Hall, could be responsible for this. He has, to this time of writing, brought a flurry of uncertainty into the batting of some of our men. O'Neill has not wilted before him. Indeed, in a Sydney game for N.S.W., he twice in succession pulled bouncers form the tip of his nose, almost, square and furiously to the fence. These were the strokes of a great batsman and if, at other times, O'Neill seems disposed to cut and force whereas before he was full-blooded and full-faced with his bat, the explanation might be that Hall's fury has caused O'Neill to hold his bat with a tighter grip.

As in golf, so in cricket. A grip should be snug, not over-tight. There is no flow of stroke from a bat that is held with clenched fingers.

McDonald, like Woodfull before him, anchors himself at the crease and refuses to yield. Possessed of a good sense of humour, McDonald, after a few onslaughts by Hall, does not now see much humour in being hit on the ribs, but he, like MacKay, suffers from lack of mobility. McDonald is a lower hand player -- the left does little work. Woodfull, too, was a lower hand player. It enables one to deflect, to cut; it has most pronounced limitations on the drive. And, clenching hard with that right bottom hand,

McDonald further anchors himself on his feet. He has his limitations but not in intelligence or pluck. Had he not become an opening batsman and thus impregnated with the thought of always meeting the dangerous, swinging ball, McDonald might have become more top-hand conscious and thus a freer batsman. As he is, he is no model for the young to copy as a stylist.

MacKay! Here is the oddest-looking batsman I have seen in Test cricket. His stance is odd in that he is bolt upright, his head full to the bowler, his arms out stiff from his body. When he hits the ball -- and he can hit as hard as the next when he allows himself -- there is no sense of the bat having been taken back or swung through. He hits, it seems, with a rigid bat. His feet rarely move -- one reason why he was in such dire straits on those spinning pitches at Leeds and Old Trafford in 1956. In all things, apart from teeth that wage an incessant onslaught on chewing-gum, MacKay is immobile. He is in a cast of his own and when the cast becomes useless, it will be put aside. Strange though it might seem, I do not expect that to happen before the next tour of England.

O'Neill is top-class; Harvey is still a very good batsman, even though Hall has quickened up the tempo of his stroke-making, thus making for some indecisive moments; but, all in all, I could think of no two better Australian models for our young players than Davidson and Benaud. That is, as batsmen.

This might seem very surprising. It indicates, to be true, a paucity of genius; but, in itself, it is a tribute to two very great all-rounders. Davidson's defence in the Tie of Brisbane was impeccable, foot and bat always to the ball. His strokes, too, are ideal. He plays all of them.

Benaud has an odd grip with his top hand. He seems to have exaggerated even Bradman's grip with that hand, but Benaud, when attacking, is a delight to watch. He has played some of the greatest innings in cricket history -- one at Lord's, one at Scarborough, one at Bradford, one Test innings in the West Indies -- and if at times he has disappointed us as a batsman, one has to remember that he either has done or is faced with a terrific job of work as a bowler when he appears in a Test. I expect, however, to see him play some more great Test innings.

Why have not men like Craig and the others come on? Temperament, perhaps, or some odd little habit that has unknowingly developed. Last time I saw Craig bat I was impressed by the fact that he had allowed his right shoulder to swing around towards the bowler. This, no doubt, he incurred when he made himself into an opening batsman, as Barnes did. So many do. They are struggling as hard in the thirties as at the start of an innings because, unknowingly, their bat is swinging across the line of flight.

Favell in one of the game's greatest surprises. At 30-odd years of age, he has changed his stance from a crouch to that of a bolt, upright batsman. His feet and bat are now together. Before they were wide apart. He has had many failures -- his style of play leaves a few things to chance -- but Favell in full flow is a sight for any ground. He has the distinction of hitting two successive sixes in a Test -- successive balls from Valentine in Brisbane.

If it is thought from the foregoing that I am not over-impressed with Australia's batting talent at the moment -- one or two near-Test men just crumple when a bouncer is bowled to them -- you will have guessed correctly.

I cannot recall a time in our history when a Test-berth was there just for the sake of one good score. Never, I think, has it been so necessary for our Test selectors to show judgment and confidence in their team for England.

They could, in fact, trip again to the hamlets of Bowral and Grenfell and choose some unknown who might emulate Bradman and McCabe. The latter, I recall, went to England without having made a first-class century. Our selectors must so choose again because I see no future in favouring those who have had so many chances, who have done so little and who have so little future ahead.

How is it that we have fallen on such poor batting days? A combination, I think, of several circumstances. Every country has its years of plenty and famine, of ebb and flow.

The young Australian, with so many other attractions -- so many motor cars -- might now not be disposed to work so hard at a game that will not yield itself easily. Cricket must be learnt the hard way and by much application, early mornings at the nets, for instance, much study of the masters, much discussion and much experimenting.

With time-wasting tactics, with too many bouncers, cricket has lost much of its appeal. Sir Jack Hobbs, in a letter, once wrote: "Why did bumpers ever have to come into cricket?" I knew what he meant. I never mind a bumper if it is to test the moral fibre of a batsman but the fifties in Australia were marked by far too many bumpers from too many bowlers.

There is nothing uglier in batting than falling to earth under a bumper. Then, too, it is all so aimless. A long walk back for the bowler; a long run in; a bumper; the batsman ducks -- and so on, all over again.

I think it was Doug Insole who recently wrote that captaincy had reached its highest perfection and this was one reason why runs were so difficult to score. If by this he meant dull, stodgy, defensive captaincy, I agree with him; but what particular cleverness is there in the dawdling bowler of an over; in tight field-placing; in a refusal to get on with a game?

What captaincy merit is there in it when all the risks are left to the batsman and, if he does not attempt to perform miracles or suicide, he is roasted by many in the public (the slow handclap) and many in the Press-box who have not an expert appreciation of what is happening in front of them? One who has been through the mill knows the tricks and the subterfuges.

In England and Australia we have put up with a lot for a long time in the belief that Test cricket covers all, even to the little personal tugs-of-war off-field that set the stage for on-field.

It is well to assess these matters because they have made the task of the modern batsman all too difficult. Seemingly, now, the captain who is prepared to experiment with a few runs to get a wicket or two is an ass. Runs must not be given away; they must not even be yielded, and so the slow leg-break bowler, he who allowed for the execution of every stroke in the game, including the hit over the fence, is an outcast.

I blame that revised lbw rule, favouring the man who works the ball in from the off, very much for this, but that is another matter. It will suffice here to note that slow leg-break bowling provides three important things in cricket:

    (a)
  • quick overs;
  • (b)
  • the opportunity to play every stroke in the game; and
  • (c)
  • the chance of a batsman to make a fool of himself -- in other words, humour.

Englishmen like May, Cowdrey and Dexter have had to make their distinguished paths in county cricket with little chance of playing against slow leg-break bowlers. I salute them for the brilliance they have shown under handicap because those Australians I have mentioned all had the chance of footwork and stroke-play against slow bowlers.

Our slow bowlers have run through the years -- Hordern, Mailey, Grimmett, Hartkopf, O'Reilly (quicker paced than the others), Ward, Fleetwood-Smith, Tribe, Dooland, Walsh, Benaud, Kline and Martin. All ready to gamble with a few runs to get a wicket or two; all led by skippers who were not run-misers.

Against fast bowling and against tight field concentrations as practised by, first Yardley at Nottingham in 1948, Hutton and May, our modern Australian batsmen have had to fight much harder for their runs against England.

All this considered, however, I doubt if we have two we can place with May and Cowdrey as stylists, although the latter so often denies his better parts. I consider Peter May one of the greatest batsmen I have seen.

O'Neill and Harvey would be our best batsmen. I am hoping against hope that, as so often happens in Australia, we will suddenly produce at least two new men over-night because England now has Dexter, who, seemingly, has come ahead by leaps and bounds since Australia of two years ago.

He is like Benaud and Davidson, firm believers, as Bradman was, in the full face of the bat to the ball. This, I now know after years of playing and watching the game, is the most payable stroke in cricket -- a minimum of risk for the maximum value.

Pushes, cuts and deflections are all very well if the bowling is good but the risk in these, with the bat half-face, is pronounced and often not worth the result. Sobers is a delightful example of the full, flowing stroke, mostly top-hand.

No bowler likes being driven for four. Cuts and pushes, yes, he does not mind a little bit because he always feels he will break through--but a full-blooded drive, no! It rattles them, as Macartney said. As a boy I asked Alan Kippax once how he played his late cut. He smiled and replied, I'm afraid I won't tell you. It's got me out too often.

I have high hopes that the flourishing bats of Sobers and his henchmen will inspire a young generation of Australians. I have high hopes, too, that the wind of change which Benaud and Worrell so bravely inspired in Brisbane, will blow on to all cricketing countries and disperse that mean, niggardly outlook on Tests which says they must be won at all costs and, if they cannot be won, they must never be lost.

Had Benaud and Worrell not put that thought aside there would never have been the Brisbane Tie. Halfway through the last day both sides would have been cannily playing for another day and another Test. In Brisbane, at a time when many were lamenting that the game was dying, cricket was never more alive in its challenge, in its brilliance, in its down-to-earth honesty and the link it forged between men of different countries and different colours of skin.

In England, Jack Hobbs was celebrating his 78th birthday. "The tie in Brisbane," he said, "is the best possible birthday present I could have had." It reminded me of another of Sir Jack's birthdays. It would, I think, have been his 46th. He was led by that great Australian captain of other days, M.A. Noble, on a circuit of the Sydney Cricket Ground and the whole ground rose to him and gave him a special birthday cheer.

These are the memories that linger, the touches that warm the heart. So many are just underneath the skin of this great game. So few captains and officials worry about pricking the surface for them.

Cricket matches are always at their best when they are hard-fought. I have no stomach for anything else but there comes a time when the desire to win defeats itself in a dull negation of the game and its virtues. We, England and Australia, must in the near future have more confidence in each other, more trust.

Often, as might have happened in Brisbane, there is as much virtue in losing as in winning if the game has been played honorably, with courage, with character and with challenge.

© John Wisden & Co
 
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