CRICKETER OF THE YEAR 1974

Keith Fletcher

One of the few really satisfactory features of English Test cricket last summer was that Keith Fletcher finally came good and, with a series of impressive performances, at last established himself as a regular member of the England XI. His Test innings included a match saving 178 at Lord's and an impressive 82, both against New Zealand and he also easily topped the averages against the triumphant West Indies. In the sad massacre at Lord's, Keith was the highest scorer in both innings with 68 and 82 not out when it could be said that he alone faced their attack with any real conviction.

In these two series Keith displayed considerable skill and character, but without ever quite showing all the elegant fluency which he is capable of producing. At his best he can be among the most exciting stroke-makers in the world but he was forced by circumstances to content himself with the occasional shot of genuine class and, a savage, perfectly judged assault in the New Zealand match on the unsuspecting Pollard.

Basically, Keith William Robert Fletcher is a Londoner; he was born on May 20, 1944 at Worcester where his parents took refuge with relatives after being bombed out of their London home in 1942 while they were in an Anderson shelter. In 1947 they settled down in Cambridgeshire and young Keith went first to Bourn and then to Comberton village schools. Neither school was large enough to run a football or cricket team, but Comberton did have a net and a concrete pitch. Keith was only eleven when he first played for the Cambridgeshire village of Caldecote.

Two years later he joined Royston -- Jack Hobbs' first club -- and thanks to a foresighted headmaster and education officer Keith was recommended to Essex and included in the Young Amateur XI, much against the wishes of the official in charge who regarded with suspicion this small fourteen-year-old from a village school. Runs by Keith quickly dispelled his understandable doubts, which finally vanished during a Young Amateur match against Middlesex. The late Don Smith was standing as umpire when he was approached by Keith, who had just been joined by the number eleven, and asked, "Shall I try to give the bowlers a tap now sir?" The way he proceeded to attack the bowling, plus the appreciation of the situation at a comparatively tender age marked the arrival of someone rather special.

One game with the Club & Ground convinced Trevor Bailey of Keith's exceptional promise. The Essex Secretary immediately predicted that he would, given both health and temperament, become an international. So Keith joined the County Staff straight from school. The way he learned to hook short pitched bowling on a fast indoor pitch merely emphasized the bright future that lay ahead.

Keith made his way through the Club and Ground and 2nd XI, was playing for his county in 1962, and had established himself as a permanent member in the following season when he was awarded his County Cap. In some respects he was fortunate in those early days, because he was simply told to go out and bat. As he possessed both the shots and a correct technique, the runs inevitably came.

During his early years with Essex it was sometimes said that he was inclined to loft the ball too much, when driving off both the front and the back foot, but this was not a serious weakness, even though it occasionally cost him his wicket. It might, in fact, be termed a good fault, because it showed that he could play strokes which were beyond the scope of the ordinary cricketer and with time he was bound to learn how to build an innings.

Among First-Class cricketers it has long been realised that Keith is one of the very few players of his vintage, who possess that rare ability which divides the competent county workman from the true international. This shows itself not only in the runs scored, but also in the manner of their making.

During the past decade Keith has played numerous innings for Essex of a quality, which placed him in a league above most of his contemporaries. He has the skill to take apart a class attack, because he can dispatch the good length ball to the boundary with a straight bat. Like all true craftsmen he has the ability to make runs on a nasty pitch, as a result of a sound basic defence, quickness of eye, and a flair for improvisation.

The big surprise is not so much that 1973 should see Fletcher become an automatic choice for England, but rather that it should have taken him so long to arrive. There has never been the slightest doubt about his potential from the moment he first played for Essex as a teenager, but at Test level with, perhaps, the exception of the series against the Rest of the World and in India and Pakistan in 1972-73 he gave the impression that he either lacked confidence, or enough faith in himself. This attitude could not have been helped by the long spell he was forced to spend in the "will he, won't he make it" classification.

There certainly have been many occasions when it was difficult to recognise the hesitant, nervous England batsman, struggling unconvincingly, sometimes against very ordinary bowling, as the same highly talented Essex player.

Another odd feature of Keith's Test Match career has been the strange inability to hold catches which he would swallow for Essex, for whom he has always been considered a highly proficient fieldsman with an exceptionally safe pair of hands. However, since that unhappy Test against Australia at Leeds when he replaced Sharpe, of all people, and failed to cling to three horrid chances at slip including two which he did well to touch, he has had a record for dropped catches, which does not make sense.

To make matters worse chances have continued to follow him around, even when he has been deliberately shifted to what are normally considered relatively non-catching areas. Possibly, the insecurity of his position in the team has been partially responsible and, now that he has become a certainty, he will start to hold everything, including those half chances.

Keith possesses a cricket brain well above average and is an astute tactician, so that his advice in India and Pakistan was highly valued by Tony Lewis. This summer he takes on the Essex captaincy and should do a highly efficient job. He is a much tougher character than is generally realised and has an abundance of physical courage, as he has shown both when facing fast bowling and during that long spell he spent in the suicidal bat and pad position.

Keith is also an enthusiastic purveyor of leg breaks, which have been known to turn sharply, but unfortunately his length is somewhat wayward so that they do not always pitch.

© John Wisden & Co