CRICKETER OF THE YEAR - 1968

Jim Parks

No other side responded as well as Sussex to the pre-season pleas from cricket administrators for an increased tempo to be shown in the 1967 County Championship. According to lists issued by MCC, Sussex scored their runs faster than any other team and they also achieved the second best over rate. The previous summer Sussex had been ninth and equal fourteenth in the two lists. It was an improvement which was a highly satisfactory for Jim Parks to mark his first year as Sussex captain.

Parks, however, will always be chiefly remembered in cricket for his successful switch to wicket-keeping, long after establishing himself as one of the most attractive batsmen of his era. The transition finally earned Parks a new career as England's first choice wicket-keeper when it had seemed that regular Test selection in any capacity was to elude him for ever.

Parks gained one England cap in 1954 as a promising batsman. He won another as an emergency replacement in West Indies in 1959-60, by which time he was a batsman who kept wicket. He retained the role throughout the 1960 series in England against South Africa but then gave way to specialist wicket-keepers.

By the end of 1962 after fourteen years in first-class cricket, Parks, now 31, was in the mood to relinquish wicket-keeping. That year he failed to make a century for the first time since he established a regular place in county cricket. The dual role he felt was perhaps proving detrimental to his batting. Parks made up his mind to keep wicket for one more season. During the 1962-63 English winter he worked hard to improve his technique behind the stumps. Hitherto, he confesses, he had relied on his natural aptitude as a ball games player being sufficient.

His efforts were rewarded. Parks returned to the England team for the memorable second Test at Lord's in 1963 against West Indies and was retained for 36 of the next 37 tests played by England at home and abroad. Curiously Parks was recalled when the selectors made wholesale changes after one crushing reverse for England against West Indies at Old Trafford; and he himself was axed after another selectorial clear out following another England debacle. This was the fourth Test of the 1966 series at Leeds against West Indies.

By the middle of the 1967 season Kent's youthful Alan Knott was wearing England's wicket-keeping gloves. But the selectors preferred parks to other claimants as second wicket-keeper of MCC's 1967-68 West Indies tour.

Few cricketers were brought up in a stronger cricket environment than JAMES MICHAEL PARKS, who was born at Haywards Heath on October 21, 1931. His father, JH Parks played for Sussex from 1924 until the Second World War and his uncle HW Parks began for Sussex in 1926 and continued until 1948. Sussex have therefore had a Parks in their first-team ranks for 44 years to date.

It was as an all-rounder in the County Grammar School XI at Hove that Parks's ability made its first impact and immediately he left in April 1949, he joined the County staff. He played in two first-class matches that season as a promising leg-break bowler, who could bat a little. The bowling was virtually discarded from the start of the 1950 season, when he played in 12 Sussex matches. An innings of 159 not out against Douglas Wright in full cry for Kent at Gillingham underlined for good the direction in which Parks's skill lay. Though not entirely free from error, it was a remarkable display for an 18-year-old at number seven. Brilliant cover driving marked the innings and to this day Parks remains one of cricket's best exponents of this stroke.

James Langridge awarded Parks his County cap the following summer when Parks's cricket was shared between Sussex and Combined Services. With RAF National Service behind him, Parks played his first full season in 1953 and reached 1,000 runs for the first time. This was the summer that Sussex under David Sheppard's captaincy rose from thirteenth place in 1952, to finish second to Surrey in the County Championship. Parks still considers Sheppard the finest captain he has played under at any level of cricket.

Throughout the mid 1950's Parks was acknowledged as a fine strokemaker, without ever quite fulfilling the early expectations he had aroused. There were moments of brilliance such as a glorious 205 not out at hove against Somerset in three and a half hours, including five 6's and twenty-five 4's, in 1955, when he passed 2,000 runs in a season for the first time. Others will recall a sprightly hundred in each innings against Worcestershire in 1957. Though he was never dull, his cricket lacked consistency.

In two successive winters he had miserable experiences on his first two tours abroad. He failed utterly with the bat in Pakistan during the MCC 'A' tour there in 1955-56 and had the even more distressing fate of returning home from MCC's 1956-57 South African tour after one match for treatment for double vision. Later he collapsed with a form of pneumonia at London Airport when leaving to rejoin the team.

One aspect of his cricket, however, about which there were no qualifications was his fielding at cover-point. His ability there brought him nominations England's twelfth man in more than one series, during a period when the selectors specifically named a top-flight fieldsman for the job. It was on one of these occasions that Parks appeared in his first Test. He came in to the side at the eleventh hour at Manchester for the third Test of the 1954 series against Pakistan, when Frank Lowson withdrew through sickness.

Rupert Webb's impending retirement as the Sussex wicket-keeper was responsible for Parks's career entering a new phase. Robin Marlar, at that time Sussex captain, suggested in the middle of 1958 that Parks should take over the wicket-keeping duties. The move would help to create a place for one of the University players Sussex inherit every vacation. Parks had occasionally kept wicket in an emergency. But nothing that happened during those closing weeks of the 1958 season prepared the cricket world for Parks's wonderful successes in both his roles the following year.

In that long hot dry summer of 1959 Parks claimed 93 victims including the then record of 86 catches. With the bat he scored 2,313 runs, averaging over 50 for the first time in an English season. He scored six centuries - a number never exceeded before or since - and among them was the season's fastest hundred. This came in sixty-one minutes against Lancashire at Old Trafford.

That winter he was coaching in Trinidad and answered an urgent call from MCC after Peter May's unhappy return home. He hit a century against Berbice and another in the fifth test. Overseas as a chosen tourist for the third time inside a year, Parks went through a lean time. A groin injury early during MCC's 1960-61 tour of New Zealand, prevented him reaching peak form and John Murray seized the chance to establish his reputation.

In 1963 the pendulum swung in Parks's favour again and he embarked on his long sequence of Tests spread over nine successive series. These included tours to India, South Africa and Australia and New Zealand. In India, circumstances caused him to play as a batsman twice without keeping wicket and in New Zealand he stood down from one Test when the usual custom of filling the wicket-keeping position by rotation was followed. Otherwise Parks was England's wicket-keeper and his performance was one of the most under-rated successes in present day English cricket.

Parks during this time was never completely free from the stigma that followed the frequently expressed view that it was only his batting ability which kept him in the side. To flout cricket's traditional adage that you should always play your best wicket-keeper, irrespective of other considerations, irritated some critics. They overlooked that Parks's steady improvement had narrowed the gap between his rivals and himself in the part that modern wicket-keepers play in the main. That is to say Parks clung to nearly everything possible over the long periods when he was standing back; close up he missed few chances against off-spinners; and was seldom taxed by the presence of a leg-break bowler.

No wicket-keeper retains the faith of the England selectors, and passes 100 victims in Tests, as Parks did, without possessing talent. Parks admits that he came to the job raw but stresses that he learned all the time. He particularly profited by watching Wally grout in the 1964 series with Australia. (It is worth recalling that in last year's Wisden, John Murray admitted to learning much from Grout in the 1961 series.)

Ironically it is a fair surmise that it was batting failures which finally lost Parks his England place. He seldom in fact scored as heavily in Tests as might have been expected. Yet his free approach was often a tremendous boost to the team and more than once his batting, mostly at number seven, tilted the scales for England. Certainly the record books are littered with the names of men chosen for England for batting alone who cannot match Parks's Test career record of 1,914 runs, average 33.57.

Parks's knack of scoring briskly has been an integral part of the various Sussex Gillette Cup triumphs since the competition began in 1963. The Sussex public showed their appreciation of his strokeplay over the years when his benefit fund in 1964 realised a Sussex record of £9,750.

Last season the additional task of captaincy did not prevent Parks from attaining his best seasonal aggregate for six years. It might have been even better, but a strained side caused him to miss several matches and he also broke a finger during the summer. Still, he achieved 1,000 runs in a season for the fifteenth time, including 2,000 three times.

At the risk of offending his fellow captains, Parks says frankly that he was disappointed on several occasions last season at the failure of opposing leaders to contribute anything towards achieving a clear cut result. He believes the Championship game will only improve when first-innings points carry less weight, and an outright verdict is more amply rewarded.

Parks expects to stay in first-class cricket for at least five more years, though he may not continue to keep wicket all that time. If he manages to instil his own brand of entertaining cricket into his younger colleagues before retiring, it will not be the least accomplishment of a distinguished career. - RS.

© John Wisden & Co