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The process by which the great port-wine makers decide whether or not a vintage is to be declared in any given year is a complex one, involving repeated tastings and a 12-month wait. Some years are unanimously considered great; some are arguable; others are undeniably duds. There is no formal process for making the same declaration for cricket seasons, but everyone who follows the game with any kind of historical perspective will have a sense of which years are vintage and which are not.
The English season of 1995 cannot be ranked with the greatest summers, like 1947 and 1981. It may not be recalled in future quite as often as 1948, 1956 or 1975. But it was a wonderfully rich and satisfying summer as it occurred, and perhaps the memories still need more time to mature before we can decide how long they will last. At the heart of it all was a classic Test series between England and West Indies, who traded punches like battered heavyweights (an analogy which sums up the state of both teams) before collapsing in a heap at 2-2. In the background was a tremendous battle for the County Championship. Above everything, after the first few weeks, there was a hot, hot sun which shone with the intensity of 1959 and 1976. At various moments of the Test match TV commentary, I swear I heard Geoff Boycott complain that a batsman was boring and David Gower that someone had got out to an irresponsible shot. The heat must have been doing strange things to the imagination.
In the end, 1995 was short of just one element; the catharsis that would have come from England actually winning the series and the Wisden Trophy changing hands, the kind of historic shift that made 1953 so unforgettable. This is not a question of an Englishmans bias (not entirely, anyway). When John Wisden and Co. gave the trophy to mark this Almanack's centenary in 1963, no one would have envisaged that the same team could win it on 12 consecutive occasions. There was no injustice in a drawn series: the teams were well-matched and, even in their present reduced circumstances, West Indies will always be very difficult to beat when Brian Lara strikes the kind of form he did in the last three matches. But it was exceptionally disappointing that the final Test should have been played on a surface which, unless one side performed quite incompetently, could never have provided a result.
When the Edgbaston Test finished in little more than two days, Warwickshire were attacked for producing an over-fiery pitch, and rightly so. The Oval would hardly have arrived at a natural finish in less than a fortnight, yet the criticism of Surrey hardly amounted to more than a little light chuntering. Since they have the time-honoured right to host the last Test of a summer, the ground authority at The Oval have a special obligation to offer an appropriate stage for the occasion, particularly when a series is level. Over-conservatism is as wrong in these circumstances as taking risks or trying to favour one side or the other. It is all too easy for those of us with a little half-digested knowledge of loam and aeration to start criticising groundsmen. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Surrey did the game and the public a disservice.
Before West Indies arrived in England they had lost a series that was seen as a turning-point. Their defeat at home to Australia, their first in any series in 15 years, led to a general declaration that the Australians were now world champions. And it could not have happened to a more deserving team. Mark Taylor's leadership has been forceful but sporting; the batting positive; and Shane Warne's bowling has been among the most welcome developments cricket has had in years. These Notes are being written just before the 1996 World Cup. By the time they are read, it will (fingers crossed) have taken place and people will loosely be declaring someone or other - possible even England- world champions.
Well, world one-day champions, yet. But even with that proviso, it will be a happy accident if the winners of the World Cup are the planet's best team. The nature of one-day cricket is that any set of capable professionals can beat any other, depending on who performs on the day. And the format chosen for the 1996 World Cup - three weeks of shadow-boxing to reduce 12 teams, including three makeweights, to eight followed by nine days of straight knockouts - was particularly ill-designed for the purpose. The case for a true Test match World Championship, with minimum disruption to the existing structure, was stated here last year and I will not bang on again - yet. The response from round the world was enthusiastic. The authorities did nothing. It is an idea whose time will come.
Fifteen years ago, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh handed over a couple of notes to a gopher and instructed him to place them on the 500 to 1 available against England in the betting tent at Headingley. They were playing for the opposition. The most famous odds in the history of cricket produced the most famous win and, in the case of those two, the most disgraceful pay-out.
If the sport were baseball and the country America, they would have been banned forever. Australia and cricket did nothing. Indeed, the Aussies tended to laugh the matter off, as though a pair of lovable larrikins had been caught playing a slightly illegal game of two-up during the factory lunch-hour. So one cannot resist a slightly malicious chuckle at the mess in which Australian cricket has lately found itself.
David Hopps gives the background to the bribery scandal on page 17. Some conclusions are easy to draw. There really is no more serious allegation possible within the game than the one Warne, Mark Waugh and Tim May made against Salim Malik. If Malik tried to bribe Warne to throw a match, he is a cheat; alternatively the other three are liars. Whoever is guilty should no be allowed to continue in the game. But which?
There is no point in having an International Cricket Council if it is not to investigate a situation like this, adjudicate on it and issue penalties as appropriate. Who cares how many overs are bowled in a day's cricket, if the overs and the day are tainted? Most outside observers believe the power exists, inherently. The ICC's chief executive, David Richards, believes it should exist, and hopes to get more authority to deal with emergencies, but he was warned against precipitate action by the lawyers. In the old days, the world's great fears were war, famine and pestilence; these days litigation sometimes seems have superseded the lot.
Instead, the only investigation was the one conducted by the retired Pakistani judge Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim. The three Australians, perhaps arrogantly, declined to travel to Pakistan. But if they had no faith in Pakistani justice, they were vindicated. The judge said their allegations were concocted. Now there are still countries in the world where judges sometimes reach a verdict without listening to the defence; it is pretty unusual to get there without listening to the prosecution. Judicial ignorance ( Who are the Beatles?) is a well-known phenomenon, though it is a little baffling that any judge could produce a nine-page summary while apparently ignorant of the relevance of gambling to this case. Judicial pique is less well-documented but it shines through this judge's attitude to the Australians.
Cricket is a splendidly designed game for betting: its mixture of the individual and the general gives an unparalleled range of opportunities for enthusiasts to back their judgments. But, as the northern saying ought to go, where there's brass, there's muck. In Britain, where betting is legal and bookmakers are inclined to cowardice rather than corruption, the problem appears to be controllable; any unusual betting patterns would be spotted at once, and publicly exposed. In the subterranean world of subcontinental betting, too illegal to be subject to the public gaze, too narrowly-based to form a mature market, the same checks do not apply. The ICC Code of Conduct belatedly lays down the law and bans players from betting: the sound of stable doors slamming is heard across the globe.
In its July 1995 issue, the magazine Wisden Cricket Monthly made the mistake of publishing the views of one Robert Henderson on the subject of race and cricket under the headline Is It In The Blood? Henderson speculated that foreign-born and, most specifically, black cricketers as a matter of biology were subconsciously incapable of trying whole-heartedly when they play for England. The libel action threatened by players named in the article was settled out of court. Since the magazine is under the same ultimate ownership as this Almanack, it was peculiarly painful episode for us.
The Henderson thesis is, in essence, piffle. He is not qualified to analyse anyone's subconscious. Let's try to separate two issued here. Firstly, there can be no support - there is no support - for the idea that England teams should discriminate against black players. Apartheid in South Africa is only just dead; the idea that it could appear here instead is abhorrent and unthinkable. For the first time, a significant number of British-born blacks are beginning to make their mark in county cricket; it would be surprising if some of them are not in the Test team in the next two years. Of course, they must and will be judged on their merits, as were the migrant generation that preceded them.
There remains a related matter that is a legitimate area of discussion. Let me repeat: it is nothing to do with race. Many cricketers, black and white, can in effect choose their nationality through ancestral or residential qualification. However, it is not a fair choice. The UK has the only cricketing circuit that offers players of a wide range of ability the chance of a career. Only the most brilliant can have that career without being qualified for England.
It is reasonable to believe that not everyone who has chosen to regard himself as English has done so out of any deep patriotic commitment. I am not casting aspersions on any individual's motivation, still less his subconscious. But there is a widespread belief - not least among the players - that the qualification rules should be tightened, to prevent the merest suspicion that anyone might be flying a flag of convenience. And I support that.
The calendar year 1995 was not a bad one for the England team. They played 13 Test matches, all against strong teams, won three, lost three and drew seven. The year was immediately preceded by a decisive defeat in Melbourne and followed by one in Cape Town, after which came a 6-1 defeat in a set of one-day internationals against South Africa. The team was then weary, in the way that only cricket teams who have lost an overseas Test series can be weary. Two youngish quality fast bowlers have emerged: Darren Gough was followed by Dominic Cork. They have hardly yet played together in Test cricket, still less played well together. But the potential is there.
The TCCB's decision last March to sack Keith Fletcher and make Ray Illingworth manager as well as chairman of selectors was the only sensible response to the situation that had developed. In the short run, it has been successful. With fewer internal tensions, England's affairs were mostly conducted with more dignity than had been the case beforehand, especially on the hopelessly-run 1994-95 tour of Australia. The South African tour, with Illingworth in charge, was mostly harmonious and the arrival of the diplomatic John Barclay as assistant manager was extremely helpful. The handling of gifted but problematic individuals remained woeful. It was hard to fathom what Illingworth thought he was achieving in his dealings with Mark Ramprakash and Devon Malcolm. Other teams are deeply into sports psychology; Illingworth expresses his contempt for the very idea.
Theoretically, Illingworth had more power than anyone has ever had over the national team. And he would regularly flex his muscles, laying down iron principles for the untrammelled exercise of his power and for selecting the team. Then, suddenly, those principles would prove unexpectedly changeable. Ultimately, it became clear that teams were being chosen much as they had been before, by a coalition in which the captain's voice was extremely important. And Mike Atherton's reputation, as a cricketer and captain, had recovered after his difficult 1994; indeed, it was sky-high - both because of the way he held the batting together (saving the Johannesburg Test was merely the most dramatic example) and because of the sensible manner in which he appeared to deal with his master. There was something rather endearing about Illy's claims to total power, which became a great deal less insistent when things were going wrong. It is clear, though, that if the counties are ever to agree to let the England selectors have a say in the way they handle their players, it will come only when Illingworth gives way to a more emollient figure.
To me, the biggest disappointment of Illingworth's reign so far is not that he has exercised too much power but the reverse: he would insist on citing form as a justification for selection instead of backing his judgment about a player's quality and then sticking with it, and facing the consequences. The style of leadership has changed dramatically; the sense that England selection policy will be blown around by the most fickle of winds has not.
For some of us, 1995 was the Ceefax summer. The Press Association/TCCB scores computer, after an appalling start in 1993, began to provide an efficient service, enabling Championship scores to be updated every few balls instead of every half-hour. The upshot was that watching a game on teletext could be almost as exciting as being there: Northamptonshire's marvellous matches against Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire were as draining on the screen as they must have been for the players. (Note to the BBC: this summer, can you just mention how many overs are left, please?)
It was a remarkable Championship season. Middlesex and Northamptonshire had records that would have made them easy champions in a normal year. But Warwickshire were outstanding: in terms of win percentages, their 14 wins, two defeats and a draw out of 17 fractionally beat Surrey's benchmark season of 1955, when they won 23, lost five and drew none.
Certainly, no one has won so much and received so little credit as Warwickshire in the past two years. And many of Northamptonshire's wins were truly epic: Allan Lamb strutting about the field, all but giving orders to the opposition, was one of the most memorable sights of 1995. The combination of dry weather, four-day matches played on three-day pitches and the absence of any kind of incentive for struggling teams to try and hold out for a draw made for some one-sided matches. The evidence of the year suggests a case for introducing points for a draw, but these could easily make for a lot of drab cricket in a year when pitches were flatter and the weather wetter.
The best teams expected to beat the worst in 1995 with greater certainty than for many years past. If anything, this ought to have increased the clamour for a two-division Championship, but eventually this ill-considered argument died away as suddenly as it had flared up. Among the panaceas for the reform of English cricket that replaced it was the suggestion that county groundsmen ought to be employed centrally to prevent them preparing pitches for home advantage.
I suppose it could take as long as three seconds for the averagely intelligent person to realise the unworkability of this scheme. Imagine the glowering between committee and dressing-rooms and the enemy on their square. How would anyone exercise control? How can London give orders about the soil in Scarborough? What if the groundsman were incompetent or drunk? If the club complained, he would go to Lord's and announce that they were trying to interfere with his sacred duty.
Michael Henderson (no known relation to Robert) is the cricket writer on The Times whose attack on the competition coming from former players turned journalists provided a rather less serious diversion in 1995 than the other Henderson business. The story is dealt with by Tim de Lisle in his media article on page 1371. Basically, this Henderson is also wrong. The public is best served by variety in its newspapers and in its writers. Anyone who plays first-class cricket acquires an understanding of the game that the rest of us cannot possibly hope to match. But cricket also has to be reported by people who have broader perspectives. Cricket needs both Hendo and the people he abuses.
What no one seems to realise is that none of this is remotely new. The generation of cricketers just retired happened to contain a number of gifted writers. But during the Ashes series of 1934 the Daily Herald was said to be the only daily paper with a journalist reporting the game; the best seats in the press boxes all went to ex-players, who were employed solely for their names, and their ghost writers. The Sunday Referee, which also stood out against the trend, had the headline A Straightforward Account of Yesterday's Play in the Test Match at Lord's Written by Professional Sports Reporters.
Editors of other papers said they had to get big names as a defence against the Johnnie Walker scoreboards, recording every run, which the whisky firm put up in seaside resorts. The 1934 Press First XI read: J. B. Hobbs (The Star), C. B. Fry (Evening Standard), P. F. Warner (Daily Telegraph), D. R. Jardine (Evening Standard), P. G. H. Fender (Evening News), Lord Tennyson (News of the World, if you please), A. E. R. Gilligan (News Chronicle), A. W. Carr (Nottingham Journal), J. C. White (Sunday Pictorial), B. J. T. Bosanquet (Daily Mail) and R. C. Robertson-Glasgow (Morning Post). A notional match between that side and a modern press box XI headed by Roebuck, Marks, Pringle, Bannister and Selvey - to take only those ex-players who are front-rank correspondents rather than columnists or commentators - would probably be a walkover for the ancients, even if that side is a bit short of pace. But, Robertson-Glasgow aside, the moderns could write the other lot off the park.
I am not convinced that many of the current generation of players are ever going to enlighten us much about the way cricket is and should be played. I was lucky enough to be at Abergavenny to see the 16th six of Andrew Symonds's innings sail over the outfield, a hawthorn bush and a patch of bindweed and on to a nearby tennis court, giving him a world record. Most of the interest centred on Symonds's nationality. English-born, Australian-bred, he decided, with refreshing originality, not to take the easy option of declaring himself English at once, and set out to prove himself in Australia, the country to which he felt he owed most allegiance.
It was something else that bothered me. Interviewed later, he said he was entirely unconcerned by the record; what mattered was playing the best he could for his team etc. etc. This is supposed to be the sort of thing one says in these circumstances. What was so worrying was that he sounded sincere. Since the definition of a six-hit was regularised in 1910, there must have been - what? - over a million innings played in first-class cricket. Not one of these had ever before brought forth a six, the ultimate expression of a batsman's power and dominance, 16 times. Did it really mean nothing to Symonds? If so, it is dispiriting that such gifts could have been given to someone with so little appreciation of what they mean to the rest of us.
During the Benson and Hedges Cup final, someone was spotted in the Lord's pavilion wearing an AIDS ribbon. It was a reminder, besides anything else, that MCC is no longer, if it ever was, an exclusive club for irascible colonels. All kinds and conditions of men belong, though not many young ones, as is inevitable in a club where the main qualification for membership is the patience to endure 20 years on the waiting list.
Many people have noticed that attitudes at the club have lately become a little less narrow too. This has been a gradual process but it has accelerated since Roger Knight became secretary. There are imaginative rebuilding plans. And the atmosphere for non-members seems less intimidating; a little more in keeping with a place of entertainment at the end of the 20th century and less with the glasshouse at Catterick circa 1942. Perhaps eventually this mood will reach the membership as a whole and they will realise the extent to which their attitude towards the half of the human race excluded by birth from MCC makes not just them but the whole game look stupid.
But the most urgent problem, at Lord's as at other major grounds, is not getting into the pavilion but into the ground itself. In perhaps the bravest piece of cricket reporting last summer, Andrew Longmore of The Times discovered that it was indeed possible, just about, to buy a ticket on the day. He queued four hours for returns at the back of the Mound Stand. So did dozens of others. By the time Longmore was saved by a friendly passer-by with a spare, the grand total of two people had gained admission. After all that, he was rather angry to discover that the person in the seat in front of him, an MCC member, spent the afternoon reading The Spectator instead of being one.
It was noticeable in 1995 that West Indian supporters were virtually absent from the Tests. Spontaneous enthusiasm now is out; buy a ticket months in advance or stay at home is the message. There is a danger that soon the disadvantaged, the unconnected and - worst of all - the young will all be missing. This needs coherent thought and care from the game's authorities. Why not a couple of thousand tickets for the Saturday and Sunday of a Test match kept back and sold at affordable prices? The small loss of short-term revenue would be more than cancelled out by long-term gains. How many of today's cricket fans got hooked because they were able to get a glimpse of some big game when they were young? And how many of tomorrow's?
It used to be generally - and, I think, rightly - said that the two most beautiful Test grounds in the world were the Adelaide Oval and Newlands, Cape Town. That, however, was in the days when Newlands was not actually staging Test cricket. Now it is, and has been revamped. No one has yet moved Table Mountain. But the cricket ground itself is no longer beautiful.
The local association had a difficult task. If the facilities and the capacity had not been improved, Tests might have been taken away. And officials say that the oak trees that were the ground's chief glory were mostly dying. Now there are capacious but uninspiring stands instead. More imaginative solutions could have been found to preserve one of cricket's great shrines. In England or Australia they would have been, because public opinion would have insisted. In South Africa, where democracy is a novelty, there was hardly a peep. It is a rotten shame.
The formation of the English Cricket Board is not an especially thrilling subject for most followers of the game. And the arguments over it have now become bogged down in detail so that the handover from the existing bodies has been postponed at least until later this year. Officials from a group styling itself the Big Five- the Test ground counties excluding Middlesex- did try and hijack the process with an unsubtle plan to give their counties the bulk of the power and money, based on a wrong-headed analysis of their own importance, but this merely united everyone else against them.
Part of the urge for change comes from the people who attend TCCB meetings getting fed up with the discomfort of being crammed in a small conference room containing 60 people. There is also a genuine belief among administrators that the new Board will lead to better government. One's worry is still that what emerges will be even less responsive to the concerns of ordinary players and spectators.
It will obviously require a genius to run the new Board. But the present TCCB chief executive may have been under-rated. The Guardian recently reported that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used to play in goal for Portsmouth FC under the alias A. C. Smith. It said nothing about keeping wicket for Warwickshire. But is it possible that, in addition to holding English cricket together, which he has done with great skill, A.C. also found time to write the Sherlock Holmes stories? When he retires later this year, he should clearly be succeeded either by Sherlock himself or his cleverer brother, Mycroft.
I probably ought to say something in these Notes about Laws 24 and 42, and Brian Lara's battles against the problems of mega-stardom, mixed in with some perceptive thoughts on Sky TV, the Internet and Darren Gough's left foot. Some other time, maybe. It is gratifying (though occasionally alarming) to know how many Wisden readers rummage conscientiously even through the mustiest corner of the Almanack. Several have noted that Cota Ramaswami of Madras is apparently due to celebrate his 100th birthday this year, a feat not yet achieved by any Test cricketer. His date of birth is recorded as June 18, 1896, and there is no record of his death.
Ramaswami toured England in 1936, played two Tests on the tour though he was already over 40, and indeed scored rather well: 40, 60, 29 and 41 not out. And his centenary falls just two days before the start of this year's Lord's Test against India. Unfortunately, the odds seem to be against him being around to enjoy it. In 1985, aged 89, Ramaswami left his home, wearing shorts, T-shirt and slippers, and has never been seen since. He had already tried to commit suicide several times. But no body has ever been found, and some people believe he must still be alive. In Wisden, though, he will now have to be presumed dead.
Some Wisden problems are less weighty. Salim Durani is listed in the Records section as having scored the second-fastest fifty in Test history: 29 minutes for India against England at Kanpur in February 1964, against the unchallenging little leggers of Colin Cowdrey and Jim Parks. More than thirty years on there was an attempt to strip Durani of full honours on the same grounds as the contrived fifties and hundreds in the first-class list were relegated to footnotes.
But Durani's innings was slightly different. The match was already dead, the fifth draw in a five-Test series, played on horribly flat pitches. The bowlers may have been clubbable and not trying very hard to be anything else, but that is not the same as actively conniving with the batsman. Parks was particularly miffed by any suggestion to the contrary since Durani was dropped in his leg-trap, though he does admit this was actually set on the deep square boundary. So Durani stays. And let us give thanks for a game that, among its endless and multifaceted delights, throws up historical conundrums like this one that manage simultaneously to be absurdly trivial and desperately important.