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As I write these Notes, England's leading cricketers, having regained the Ashes, are taking a well-earned rest. They have four months in which to enjoy a complete break from the game before leaving, in January 1986, for the Caribbean and another crack at the West Indians.
With an escalating number of Test matches and particularly of one-day internationals - in 1985 alone there were 94, exactly twice as many as in 1980 - players are in danger of becoming disenchanted and each country's domestic competitions of being seriously devalued. No-one was in any doubt, therefore, that David Gower's England side would benefit from the respite that came their way in the autumn of 1985, as should the game as a whole.
But not even an excess of representative cricket had prevented England from rallying with great heart from their heavy defeat at the hands of Clive Lloyd's West Indians in 1984. They won first in India, coming from behind to do so, and then got the better of the old enemy in England. Australia's cricket was known to be at a low ebb, but Allan Border's side still had to be beaten, and by winning three of the six Test matches, the last two by an innings, England made a good job of it.
I am not among those who maintain that there is no such thing as a weak Australian side. Nor, I think, was their captain by the time he flew home last September. He said as much at The Oval, after Australia had been beaten for the ninth time in their last fourteen Test matches. When they took the field next, back in Australia, it was to be beaten by an innings by New Zealand, which prompted Border to question his side's attitude as well as their ability.
Some of them, he believed, had forgotten the reason for playing Test cricket, the feeling of national pride. In other words, some were too concerned about money to give of their best. I doubt, in fact, whether the 1985 Australians would have finished in the first four in the County Championship. As a consequence of playing so much one-day cricket - they did nothing else for the first nine weeks of last year - they seemed to have lost the knack of taking wickets themselves and of selling their own wickets dearly.
They were also handicapped, as England had been from 1982 until last spring, by the loss of senior players down the South African chute. All this left England with a great chance, especially their batsmen, and they took it with a vengeance.
In all the years since England and Australia first met, there is no remote precedent for either side averaging 60 runs per 100 balls throughout a series, as England did last summer.
In the original Test match, played at Melbourne in 1877, both sides averaged below 30. Even Bradman's Australians in England in 1948 were kept to 46.6. In 1930, when Bradman himself scored 974 runs at a rattling rate, Australia's overall averages was 45.2. In 1928-29 in Australia, one of the best of all England batting sides (the first six in the order were Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Hammond, Jardine, Hendren and Chapman) averaged only 38.53, albeit in a series of timeless Tests.
Only once in 25 years after the last war did England average more than 40. Yet here they were in 1985 making their runs at 60.67 per 100 balls, or getting on for 4 an over, at once an indication of the range and belligerence of their own batting and the unfitness of some of the Australian bowling. Being covered the pitches, too, were immune from the vagaries of a wet, wretchedly grey summer; but that has applied for some years now.
It became a source of great joy watching England come together as a team. Much of the credit for this belonged to Gower and his vice-captain, Gatting. Once Gower had started to make runs against Australia - he had had a thin time of it with the bat in India - he grew visibly in authority in the field. His 166 at Trent Bridge, 215 at Edgbaston and 157 at The Oval amounted to a personal triumph.
It was being widely said before Trent Bridge that his best batting form would continue to elude him so long as he retained the England captaincy. In the event, his alliance with Gatting, established in India while Botham was taking the winter of 1984-85 off, went from strength to strength and absorbed without difficulty Botham's rumbustious return last summer.
The emergence of Robinson as a batsman capable of scoring 934 runs at an average of 62 in his first year of Test cricket was another major bonus. But the ultimate test of England's revival and Robinson's mettle lay ahead - in the West Indies in early 1986.
The series against Australia was contested in a conspicuously good spirit, with Gower and Border setting the tone. In this respect it may, across the board, have been a better year, though it is difficult to be certain of that. In Pakistan New Zealand's captain still had to be restrained from taking his side off the field, such was his despair at the umpires interpretation of the Laws.
Nor was there any love lost between the Australian and West Indian sides by the end of their series in Australia, though that was partly, at least, because they had been meeting each other so much too often. They fought out ten Test matches in as many months, which was far too many.
Upon succeeding Lloyd as captain of West Indies, Vivian Richards said that nothing would change so far as his side's use of short-pitched bowling was concerned. But it was a step in the right direction when, soon after West Indies and New Zealand had finished a series of Test matches by exchanging a sickening fusillade of bouncers in Jamaica, Australia agreed at the annual meeting of the International Cricket Conference to produce a new draft to Law 42 (8) for consideration in 1986.
Although there was a time in the season when hardly a week seemed to pass without their meeting, the Disciplinary Committee of the Test and County Cricket Board gave the impression of preferring acquiescence to action. More than one umpire, after being called to Lord's to give evidence, left without having been seen to receive the backing he and his colleagues must have hoped for.
Within the space of a fortnight, three past or present Test captains (Botham, Fletcher and Imran Khan), charged with bringing the game into disrepute, were merely warned as to their future conduct. I will say only that games in general never needed strong government more than they do today, nor umpires and referees more sympathetic support. Cricket is not exempt from this.
It was more as an administrative adjustment, I think, than as a threat that the TCCB, at their Winter Meeting, introduced a system of instant fines for misconduct by players appearing for England, to be imposed jointly by the captain and the chairman of selectors (or his nominee).
It was done to avoid a repetition of the hiatus there had been after Botham became involved in an incident during the Third Test match against Australia in July. Forty-six days were allowed to pass then before the matter was resolved. During an over in which nothing went right for him, Botham had displayed what the Board referred to as public dissent. To all the world that is what it was, and all the world was watching, play being on television at the time - and what Botham does on television one day, his countless fans do on the recreation ground or the school playing field the next.
Had he been up before the Professional Golfers' Association or the Jockey Club he would have paid for it. Had it been tennis he would probably not, and we know what tennis has come to. After much agonising, Lord's just admonished him.
Botham was never out of the news for long. Not since W.G. Grace can a cricketer, by his physical presence and remarkable exploits, have so caught the attention of the sporting world. Bradman's feats were, of course, more phenomenal, Sobers's more effortlessly versatile; but off the field they maintained a lower, more urbane profile than Botham.
Bernard Darwin, in a vintage profile of W.G., wrote of his "schoolboy love for elementary and boisterous jokes ... his desperate and undisguised keenness, his occasional pettishness and pettiness, his endless power of recovering his spirits" - all of which could apply equally to Botham.
No-one can ever have sent the ball such huge distances as frequently as Botham did last summer. His 80 6s, most of them hit with the full face of the bat, often over extra-cover, were a record for an English first-class season. He scored at something like a run a ball for Somerset, yet still averaged 100 for them, and in the six Test matches he took 31 Australian wickets and held eight catches, some of them quite breathtaking.
Wherever he played he added substantially to the gate, and when the winter came he tested a recent operation on a knee by walking from John O'Groats to Land's End and raising over £600,000 for charity, an astonishing achievement. There was much else, not all of it quite so admirable. There are times when Botham needs to be saved from his unrestraint, as well perhaps as from those who would exploit him.
Somerset, for their part, decided at the end of the season that they needed to be saved from his captaincy. For him, no less than anyone else, England's tour of West Indies presented a challenge - and one that he would relish. Of all the Test-playing countries, only they had not felt the full weight of his remarkable game.
To be fair to Botham, it is no easy business being a county captain while having to miss as many as ten or twelve Championship matches through playing for England. It was no coincidence that while Somerset were finishing last in 1985, Leicestershire under Gower were only one place above them. That Middlesex should have won the title for the third time in six years, despite losing their own captain, Gatting, as well as Downton, Edmonds, Emburey and occasionally Cowans on England duty, made them most worthy champions.
Gatting's forthright leadership still had a lot to do with their winning, but no more than their host of fast bowlers, most of them of Caribbean origin. Gloucestershire's third place, after coming last in 1984, represented a spectacular improvement, though it was at the cost of £8,000 in fines for the slowest over-rate of any county.
Essex were pre-eminent as a one-day side, Fletcher's experience, Gooch's batting and a generally pragmatic style accounting for this. McEwan, a tower of strength since joining Essex in 1974, has returned to his native South Africa to farm. His place will be taken in 1986 by Border, one of very few distinguished Australian batsmen ever to join an English county.
Despite replacing a South African with an Australian, Essex make a point of acting strictly within the TCCB's guidelines, aimed at reducing the overseas influence in county cricket. Other counties tend to look for loopholes in the rules of qualification and to find them.
Gloucestershire are a case in point. Their challenge for the Championship last year, though it reawakened interest in the game within the county, could be traced to their signing, before the start of the season, two Zimbabweans (one, Curran, whose eligibility was tenuously based on the discovery that he possessed an Irish grandparent) and a Jamaican.
Hampshire ran into second place on the backs of two brilliant West Indians and the Smith brothers from South Africa (both, it is true, qualified to play for England), but without including in their side, from the start of the season to the finish, a single Hampshire-born player.
I should be sorry to see the English game without any overseas players - their contribution is often dazzling - but it is as well, in view of the ambivalence that exists, that the TCCB have further tightened the rules of qualification. Someone such as Curran will have in future to accomplish a period of four years' residence within a member country of the EEC. Insisting even upon that needed care, so fine is the line between what is best for English cricket and a cricketer's legal rights.
Regulations concerning the covering of pitches are also under review, which is good news. Since full covering was introduced into county cricket in 1981 (it has come to stay in Test matches, in the interests, for better or worse, of uniformity and thrift) the game has lost in variety. There can be no doubt of that.
One felt deprived last season of some absorbing cricket, wherein, but for the covers, batsmen could regularly have been seen using their defensive skills against a turning ball on a drying pitch. Instead, on succession of plastic pitches, all the life taken out of them by constant covering, runs were as plentiful as they have ever been.
Only once before, in 1928, have as many as nineteen batsmen averaged over 50, and never before have as few as four regular bowlers taken their wickets at under 20 runs apiece - and this in a summer when it always seemed to be raining.
When games follow as predictable a pattern as they often did in 1985, captains are drawn into the most detailed collusion in search of a result, introducing an element of pretence and culminating as a rule in an agreement on the last morning upon the precise terms of any target to be set.
All being well the covers will have been removed, if only partially, by the start of the 1986 season, or by 1987 at the latest, enabling the county game to regain some of its former diversity. I am inclined to think, too, that the system of allocating points in the Championship needs further revision.
It was not only because of full covering and foul weather that there was a higher percentage (62.7) of drawn games in 1985 than at any time in the history of the competition. It must have been partly because of the exaggerated significance of bonus points, which reduces the incentive to aim for outright victory. Something is surely wrong when 2,034 bonus points are awarded, as in 1985, and only 1,216 points for actually winning games.
As 1985 ended, the report of the working party that had been sitting for a year under the chairmanship of C.H. Palmer, investigating the standards of English cricket, was still awaited. Some felt their deliberations had become academic, even irrelevant, in view of England's much-improved fortunes, but there was not really much question of that. The time had come for the English game to take another good look at itself, not only from the playing angle.
If the working party had been seeking evidence from the Australian tour, for or against the introduction of four-day Championship cricket, they must have been disappointed. Although the Australians did play several four-day games against the counties, these made no significant impact.
In October, Mr Palmer was succeeded by Raman Subba Row as Chairman of the TCCB. Now in new offices at Lord's, the Board has the widest responsibilities, and there is no more influential figure in the English games than its chairman.
A feeling of well-being greeted Mr Subba Row, Australia having just been beaten and a good season rescued from a wet summer. But he is not one to be complacent. He would have had reason to reprove those counties which put out much less than their best sides against the Australians, other than in the event of illness or injury. More than once the Australians were upset by this, even to the point of resenting it.
He needed to be concerned, too, at the licence given to players in writing for the national press, and also about the effect the teachers' strike was having on cricket in the schools, where it is already played much less than it used to be.
On the other hand, an official England B tour in the New Year of 1986 was a new and welcome departure. The second best side was chosen, rather than one with the accent on youth, and for a tour which, as originally planned, would have prevented the players from taking up any other worthwhile cricketing engagement during the winter, a fee of £3,000, or just over, seemed meagre.
With the lure of South Africa, and talk, however fanciful, of an entrepreneur, who is also Botham's agent, attempting to set up his own programme of one-day exhibition matches, as Mr Packer did with such unhappy consequences for cricket in Australia, it is important that players should not feel ill-used. In the ordinary way they are not, at any rate in England.
In Australia too little of the vast revenue which cricket produces has been going back into the game. The players know it and it has become a cause of discontent.
In England it all does. The TCCB central fund, upon which the counties depend for their very existence, was well topped up at the end of last summer with the result that most of the counties declared useful profits. Border's Australians may not have been a great side, but they helped swell the coffers most abundantly. From the Tests and one-day internationals alone the takings were £2,468,322.
Being still of good report, cricket continues to attract the sponsors it needs, not only those whose names are widely identified with the game but hundreds that are not.
As an illustration of this, let me quote from one of Surrey's many informative news letters: "A lot of work has been put in by our marketing department at The Oval in organising various sponsorships. You will see Surrey players this year displaying the British Airways Poundstretcher on their shirts, sweaters and track suits, and the Mazda Company has supplied us with cars. We are delighted that Nescafé have continued their sponsorship of our youth development scheme, which also involves Poundstretcher sponsorship in the form of an Under-18 youth tour to Australia for four weeks in December and January. In addition Alfred Marks have again provided player-incentive sponsorship in the Britannic Assurance Championship and George Brittain are this season's sponsors of the Player of the Month awards."
Companies making the heaviest investments in the game hope for, indeed expect, some degree of television coverage in return. That is the quid pro quo, and because the John Player League no longer has BBC2 mostly to itself on Sunday afternoons the competition may not have quite the attraction for the sponsors that it did. The whole business of tobacco sponsorship is fast becoming a vexed question.
The two cigarette competitions, the John Player and the Benson and Hedges, were won in 1985 by Essex and Leicestershire respectively. The NatWest, which also went to Essex, provided a last-ball finish for the third time in the last four years. A diversion from the more sober business of Test and Championship cricket, the NatWest final at Lord's makes a theatrical climax to the season.
This time Randall, no longer a regular member of the England side but still a great favourite with the public, set up a memorable finish by scoring 18 of the 20 runs Nottinghamshire needed from the last over to beat Essex. At 34, and despite thoughts of retirement, Randall still personifies the sunny side of the game.
To guard against the hooliganism that has so harmed the image and marred the enjoyment of association football, the cricketing authorities are having to restrict licensing hours on grounds and to make special appeals for orderly behaviour. After the field at Headingley had been prematurely invaded at the end of the first Test match, in anticipation of the winning hit, steps were taken to avoid the same thing happening in the remaining Tests.
It is a pity when many have to be denied their ordinary pleasures in order to restrain the few, but it was for the best. The one-day finals are also having to be more tightly controlled, while even in Derbyshire it was considered necessary to express publicly the county's concern at "the type of people" who were being attracted to Sunday games. The dreadful fire at Bradford City's football ground in April 1985 had repercussions in the cricket world, several clubs being obliged to take extra precautionary measures.
In more distant parts Sri Lanka's first Test victory, against India in Colombo in September, provided them with a famous landmark. It had taken them three and a half years and fourteen Test matches to achieve it. India's first, against England in Madras in 1952, came in their 25th Test and after nearly twenty years of trying, the war intervening; New Zealand's, against West Indies in Auckland in 1956, came only in their 45th Test match.
New Zealand's victory over Australia in Australia at the end of last year, by two Tests to one, also fulfilled a long-coveted ambition. Richard Hadlee's bowling had most to do with it. Only the great S.F. Barnes, for England against South Africa in the Triangular Tournament in 1912, has taken more wickets in a three-Test series in this century than Hadlee did now. Barnes took 34 at the age of 39, Hadlee 33 at the age of 34. With a classical action and superb versatility, Hadlee holds back the years.
India's victory in Melbourne in March, in the so-called World Championship of Cricket, a one-day tournament arranged to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of the state of Victoria, was as much of surprise as their triumph over West Indies at Lord's in the final of the 1985 World Cup.
The tournament itself was no more than a qualified success, the Australian public having by that stage of their season had more than enough one-day cricket. "They are killing a good product," said Border on the over-exposure of the one-day game, a warning all countries would do well to heed.
Having flown on to Australia from India, where they did so well, England made disappointingly little contribution to this Melbourne jamboree, though they did share with Australia the privilege of playing in the first match under the new Melbourne floodlights, watched by 84,494 people.
India also gave us the brightest new star of 1985 in Mohammad Azharuddin, who scored 110 in his first Test match, against England in Calcutta, 105 in his next in Madras, and 122 in his third in Kanpur. No-one had ever done that before, and Azharuddin made his runs with a charm, touch and instinct in keeping with very best of the orientals.
In the same series another young man, Sivaramakrishnan, bowled, if only for a while, some magically effective leg-breaks. With him helping India to win a Test match in Bombay, Holland doing the same for Australia at Lord's and Abdul Qadir for Pakistan against Sri Lanka in Karachi, this was a more reassuring year for those who fear for the leg-spinner's survival.
Also overseas, the game took a firmer hold in an unlikely outpost, Sharjah in the Arabian Desert, where two one-day tournaments attracted sides officially chosen by their Boards of Control.
Never a year goes by without South Africa making its presence felt. With no chance of being voted back into membership of the ICC, and aware of the need for international competition to sustain their own game, the South African Cricket Union managed to arrange a full tour, starting in November, by a useful side of Australians, who accepted to go to South Africa in the certain knowledge that they would be banned forthwith from official Australia cricket.
The team, led by the former Australian captain, Kim Hughes, was more experienced and arguably stronger than that which had lost the Ashes in England. They went at a time when South Africa was in ferment, and unlike the English side of 1982, the first of the rebels, their tour coincided with their own domestic season.
It thus presented the Australian authorities with a dilemma similar to that in 1977, when they encountered widespread defections to Mr Packer, and they had little alternative but to impose the bans they did. This is not to say that the Australian Board's own handling of the matter had been entirely plausible.
Then, as Wisden was going to press, England's two winter tours came under heavy and damaging political pressure. By insisting at the last minute that four of the England players should cut themselves off altogether from South Africa, where they had played and coached, the governments of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe prompted the TCCB to cancel the B side's visits to both these countries.
This was in accordance with the policy of ICC, who passed a resolution in 1981, subsequently reconfirmed, that there must be no political interference by one member country in the selection of another country's team. More sympathy was felt for the Bangladesh Board of Cricket Control, whose contrition was manifest, than for the Zimbabwe Cricket Union, who, as if under pain of death from their government, blamed the TCCB for the impasse.
With the Sri Lankans alone managing to stand by their original commitment, England's B team were left in the end with only the middle leg of their projected tour, and soon it was looking as though the Test side, due to leave for West Indies a few weeks later, might have no tour at all.
The threats came now not so much from the politicians of the Caribbean, who had had their say earlier, but from the more militant trade unions, particularly those in Trinidad. It was they who warned of serious disruptions unless four more England players, who had also visited South Africa for cricketing purposes, undertook not to do so in future.
Although deeply concerned to save the game from a split between white and non-white countries, the TCCB again saw the legal and moral implications of binding their players in this way. Their refusal to do so came as a relief to those who believed that in the past they had allowed themselves to be rather too easily manipulated by political propagandists.
There need, in fact, be no doubt whatever that an abhorrence of apartheid is shared by all the world's cricketers. If the Cricketers' Association were to ask their members for a profession of this, no-one, I am sure, would abstain. There exists among them a fellowship which transcends politics, and one that until now has helped to make such a politically vulnerable game so wonderfully resilient.