Scores of retired cricketers and most spectators over 40 will be convinced there can never be a game as good as three-day county cricket. But the version that was laid to rest in August 1992 was a burlesque of the one they loved. Three-day cricket had been dying, slowly, since the winter meeting of the Test and County Cricket Board in 1980, when the switch to full covering was made. Imperceptibly at first, but unmistakably by the end of the decade, pitches lost the individuality that had made the English game unique.
The irony of full covering - that is, the protection of pitches during breaks of play through rain or bad light as well as overnight - is that it has had precisely the opposite effect from the one that was intended: the improvement of England's performance at Test level through a Championship programme played, in theory, on surfaces comparable to those in use for Tests. Uncovered pitches, it was argued, gave bowlers too much help: eliminate the weather factor, putting potential England bowlers on the same footing as their opposite numbers overseas, and they would have to brush up on their control and extend their armoury to go on taking wickets. That it has not worked like that, and seems little more likely to in four-day cricket, is primarily because English pitches lack the bounce of pitches overseas, particularly those of Australia and the West Indies. Deprived of the rain that made the Championship a game of such variety, and one which required such a diversity of skills, the surfaces went dead.
Derek Underwood was one of the leading actors in the most exhilarating day's cricket I have seen, taking seven for 103 while Rohan Kanhai miraculously made 107 in a Warwickshire total of 204, on a kicking, turning Gravesend pitch in 1970. Underwood would have been a freak if by 1987, the season he retired at the age of 42, he had not lost some zip; but he was no slower through the air than he had been in his prime, and he was still, by some way, Kent's best spinner. But he was depressed and disillusioned: in 600 overs quickest slow left-armer in the game (his stock pace was brisk slow-medium) had had three batsmen caught at slip, of whom one fell to his faster ball. The snick just doesn't carry any more, he said regretfully. Slip has become a luxury position. Covering came in to limit the effectiveness of seamers bowling on green pitches, but it has handicapped the spinners more. Five years further down the line, statistics leave no doubt that he was right. In the 12 seasons before full covering (1969-80) there was always at least one spinner in the top ten of the bowling averages, and in 1971 there were five. By contrast, in 12 seasons of full covering, seven have passed without a spinner among the leading ten, counting only those bowlers with 20 or more wickets. When Underwood's successor in the Kent team, Richard Davis, finished sixth last season, he became the first English spinner to win a top ten place since John Childs and Jack Simmons in 1986.
If Underwood ran out of wickets, little wonder lesser bowlers floundered. Despite the uneven pitches of the later 1980s and, until 1990, seams so pronounced that with strong thumb and finger-nails it was possible to pick a ball up by the seam and lob it several feet, captains of all but the best teams had nearly given up trying to win games by bowling the opposition out. To meet requirements of the third-day run-chase, bowling of a lower standard than that of serious 12-year-olds became accepted practice.
In the eyes of many county cricketers, the three-day game had become near enough a farce, unwinnable in most circumstances except through junk bowling, leading to a declaration and a run-chase, the terms of which the captains had negotiated. Played as it had been since the mid-1980s, even many of its greatest admirers were content to see it go. But the duration of the matches was not the cause of its demise. It was covered pitches. And because of the bat's ascendancy - in which umpires' liberal interpretation of benefit of doubt, lack of bounce and pace in pitches and, not least, MCC's failure to restrict the weight of bats all play a part - it would be no surprise to me if by the end of the decade the unacceptable features of three-day cricket have begun to reappear.
In the 12 seasons up to 1980, there were 97 instances in Wisden's first-class averages of batsmen averaging 50 and upwards. In 12 subsequent seasons, the number soared to 189. And by no means all those extra runs have come when the fielding side have not been trying.
Such statistics firmly suggest that the switch to covered pitches in 1981 was based on a false assumption - that the techniques of English professionals would improve only in conditions favouring the bat. Yet there are as few outstanding English bowlers now as at any time since 1946, when counties were short of players following World War Two. And since today's players are twice as fit, practise harder and in cricket terms are playing for hefty sums of money, the conclusion that the more conditions vary the higher the standard of play is a hard one to resist.
Largely because of Underwood, who through his pace and great accuracy was uniquely destructive on drying pitches, the myth has grown in English cricket that batting was more or less a lottery after rain, with the ball turning square for the spinners and flying off a length for the faster bowlers. In reality, the bowlers' advantage was seldom as great as is supposed. Unless sunshine followed rain, the pitch would often stay a pudding, on which anything underpitched sat up asking to be hit; and even when the surface crusted - the sticky dog- it might have been only for an hour that the ball turned and bounced unpredictably in height and pace. Those were the conditions Kanhai faced that day at Gravesend, and his response was breathtaking in its opportunism and audacity. Correctly divining that attack was the best if not only method of defence, he straightdrove Underwood's first ball to him for six, and went on to make his 107 out of 177, scoring 54 in boundaries with three sixes and nine fours. Unless the ball was full enough to drive, he made no attempt to score off Underwood, taking many balls on the thighs and upper body and, with six or seven fieldsmen clustered within feet of him, used the bat as infrequently as possible.
Underwood bowled 36 successive overs - and on a pitch on which the bounce varied between knee and shoulder-high, Alan Knott did not allow a single bye. It was cricket of a stunning standard. Warwickshire went on to win by 93 runs. But though the ball turned on all three days - Underwood taking seven wickets in the second innings too - Lance Gibbs of the West Indies, then possibly the best dry-wicket off-spinner in the world, came out of it with four for 136 for Warwickshire. Bowling on wet pitches was a specialised art, as was batting, and learning those arts was regarded as an essential part of a player's education. It can hardly be a coincidence that Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting, who have become the most prolific batsmen in the country, started their careers when pitches were left open to the elements.
The counties were suspicious enough of the effect of four-day cricket to trim two years off the Murray Committee's recommendation that the experiment should last five years. That was primarily for commercial reasons: secretaries were unsure they could find satisfactory sponsorship for games whose third day was a Saturday, and whose tempo was likely to be slow. By 1995, however, the cricketing defects of the format may be unmistakable.
One chance was lost in 1987, when for a season pitches were left uncovered during the hours of play. This half-hearted experiment failed, largely because the run-ups were still covered and, in a year of green pitches, the spinners never got on often enough to prove the point either way. There was another missed opportunity in 1992; before the change, there should have been a season when four-day games were interspersed with three-day games on uncovered pitches, just to try it out. Perhaps then England's Test record might really have started to improve. It is a salutary thought that since 1981, in 120 Tests, there have been half again as many defeats as wins, 43 to 28; while between 1969 and 1980, in 114 Tests, victories outnumbered losses 38 to 26.
John Thicknesse has been cricket correspondence of the Evening Standard since 1967.
Three-day county cricket ended in 1992 because the Test and County Cricket Board voted on May 19 to accept the recommendations of the Structure Working Party (The Murray Report). The main points in the Report were:
It was agreed that the changes should last at least three years rather than the five originally suggested in the Report.
The committee was chaired by M. P. Murray, the chairman of Middlesex. Other members were: B. G. K. Downing, chairman of the TCCB marketing committee; Sir Ian MacLaurin, chairman of Tesco; E. Slinger, vice-chairman of Lancashire; C. J. Tavaré, captain of Somerset; L. A. Wilson, chairman of Northamptonshire; Rev. M. D. Vockins, secretary of Worcestershire; and C. A. Barker, TCCB accountant.
W. R. F. Chamberlain, A. C. Smith and T. M. Lamb, chairman, chief executive and cricket secretary of the TCCB, also attended meetings.