October 1980

Farewell to all this…

Cricinfo staff
John Arlott retired at the end of the 1980 season. That October, he looked back on his final summer on the circuit

John Arlott retired at the end of the 1980 season. That October, he looked back on his final summer on the circuit

"Although it was not easy to go, was a better choice than, one day, being told to go' © The Cricketer
Cricket is not a matter of endings. It flows; as a season ends in one country, a fresh one begins in another. Cricketers rarely think in terms of endings; that is why they find them so bitter. It is a matter of people and places; nowhere more so than in the steady trundle round the English counties, so warm with associations. That circuit, a sequence of calendars, similar but not the same, is the circulation of the blood of cricket. To some it seems monotonous; but it is not; no season is the same as the one before; always there is some degree of change, essentially of progress, as the game falls into step with the community that supports it. As Andrew Young spoke of 'Streams that stay yet still depart" so, while seeming to stand still, cricket is in perpetual motion. That is its charm; the illusion of performance within a pattern of development; security in achieving ends. So, to leave was to tear up roots: to leave the thing that had lifted him from complete obscurity to the most happy, exciting, career: that little cricket-crazy boy"s pipe dream - indeed more than his pipe dream could ever have been - come true.

The decision was freely taken; and although it was not easy to go, was a better choice than, one day, being told to go. In addition it allowed the luxury of studying, assessing, savouring, enjoying a thousand facets of the game, its people, and the places where they play, that had passed almost unnoticed through the haze of custom. Sometimes the poignancy was almost unbearable. To go to Worcester; the realization that Reg Perks and his Doris and Dick Howorth were gone, suddenly peopled familiar resorts with ghosts.

Cricket, more than any other game, is one of nostalgias. Men stay longer in it then in most others. A lad may enter the game as a sixteen-year-old on the ground staff and remain, as player, coach and umpire, until his sixties. Thus familiar are its figures; many of them contemplate no end to it; it simply comes upon them unawares; in some ways that gives the game its timeless quality. Knowing that 'this is the last time" gives everything a fresh clarity. The habitual assumes rarity value.

To observe it thus was to realize why so many old cricketers find it difficult to go back to the scene of their active days. Even for one who has had as little of the action as a commentator, it would seem empty to go back simply as a spectator; to have, in effect, sacrificed one"s purpose in being there at all.

The season of a West Indian tour and the Centenary Test with Australia seemed a superb prospect which, in the event, was marred by the weather. It was, we were assured, the worst summer since before the First World War. Presumably that was 1907, when Hallam and Wass, twelve times unchanged through an innings, bowled Nottinghamshire to the Championship. Charles Fry once said that Wass was an indifferent bowler on dry wickets even when they were lively; but that, on a damp one, bowling, in effect, fast leg-breaks to three or four slips and a gully, he was all but unplayable.

Certainly rain contrived to damage the 1980 season quite seriously, less perhaps by weight than occasion. It washed out, or heavily reduced, a considerable number of Saturdays, thus affecting the gate receipts on the best day of the week, and distorting matches through delayed starts. Perhaps with an observation sharpened by the 'last time" mentality, it became clear that in no other way of English life is the weather so important. In case someone counters with the argument for farming, it should be observed that, by harvest time 1980, English agriculture had produced a record crop of grain.

The dragging out of over-limit matches from one day, often to two and occasionally even three, increased the drain on the counties" resources. The loss of the Lord"s Saturdays was ameliorated to an extent by heavy advance bookings but as the destruction of an occasion it was unhappy. In the Cornhill Centenary Test the long delay in starting play on Saturday so angered some members that they considered themselves justified in jostling the captains and the umpires when they returned from the final wicket inspection, at which they were in agreement. The incident so shocked and distressed Messrs Bird and Constant - two young, conscientious and capable officials - that they came out to restart play with an escort of four policemen.

The bad weather was, indeed, the major difference between the two Centenary matches. In Melbourne in 1977 the sun shone and, after varied and absorbing play, the cricketers achieved a just result. At Lord"s the feeling between the players, past and present, was again admirable and the arrangements, though not on the scale of the huge MCG, were sympathetic and efficient. Only the rain prevented a clearly-defined ending.

John Arlott, excused from commentary, and almost militantly glass-in-hand, said a last goodbye during the tea interval, thus bringing to an end the most exhausting cycle of interviews any man has undergone since Rudolf Hess landed in Scotland.

West Indies, too, must feel that the weather prevented them from producing a series result in keeping with their immense strength. For one who, as a small boy, pored over the cartoons of the Australian fast bowlers Gregory and McDonald; who watched Larwood and Voce prepare for the Australian tour of 1932-33; saw the fiery West Indian attack of 1933; was one of the thousands awed by the arch destroyers Lindwall and Miller in 1948; witnessed Tyson and Statham"s wrecking of Australia in 1954-55- fast bowling has always been the most compulsive element in cricket.

Of course it was logical - quite simply so - to proceed from the premise that two extremely fast opening bowlers are a major attacking asset to the conclusion that four bowlers all of high speed, operating all the time, would be overwhelming. Never until now, though, had any country had four bowlers of such speed at the same time. Some claimed to find the West Indian pace attack boring and, certainly, their over rate was sometimes sadly leisurely. When they were taking wickets though - and usually overcoming a sluggish pitch to do so - they were-compelling: and, of course, their speed breeds spectacular fielding. They were unique not only in their complete reliance on pace, but in their apparently inexhaustible supply of it. They began with Roberts, Holding, Croft and Garner; had Marshall in reserve; and did not need to call on Clarke of Surrey or Daniel of Middlesex, who both were markedly faster than any Englishman.

John Arlott made a memorable presentation speech at the end of the Centenary Test at Lord"s, for which thousands of spectators remained, spellbound.

There was, too, always the prospect that Richards would set up one of his firework displays: and when he did, the entertainment was as fine as we have seen from any batsman of any period or country. Lloyd, too, once or twice batted in his mightily languid way.

England had few batting colours apart from Gooch"s bold front early in the series; an assault by Botham at Trent Bridge and Willey"s century; until Boycott, given the situation he so much relishes, at Lord"s, eschewed all error and made a century.

Middlesex were always likely to defeat the bookmakers by winning the Championship and the Gillette Cup - the major double - with a splendidly-balanced team strengthened by the acquisition for a single season of the towering, thoughtful, and versatile van der Bijl: and by the vastly improved form of a Brearley freed from the anxieties of the English captaincy and able to bat as of old.

Northamptonshire took the Benson & Hedges with a healthy batting side of good heart; and Warwickshire, with Willis in his first year as captain and David Brown as manager, performed the miracle of the season by leaping the length of the John Player League, bottom in 1979, top in 1980. To have watched much of this was an undeniable, considerable pleasure which even the weather could not spoil.

It is not carping to say that too much of this success was achieved through the use of overseas players. That is not a one-sided debate. It is beyond question that cricketers from other countries have vastly improved the standard of county cricket, both as an entertainment and as a development area for young Englishmen. Now, though, those who cannot - or will not - play for England are taking too large a share of the actual play in the county game. Neither is it chauvinistic to say that this is unhealthy; it should be reduced for the health of the country game of England which was the original plant of cricket.

The 'last time round" man finds looking to the future irresistible. Dilley began the season not only as a remarkably improved, but, more important, as a steadily improving bowler. It must be hoped that his glandular fever will not prove too debilitating; it is a dire complaint for a fast bowler. Three others give good reason for hope in that field: Agnew, Wilson and Pigott all have technical problems to solve but none of theirs are insoluble. Cook of Leicestershire and Barnett of Derbyshire offer other bowling hopes.

Let us not overlook the rich rising crop of rising wicketkeepers. Richards of Surrey, Garnham of Leicestershire, French and Curzon of Nottinghamshire, Brassington of Gloucestershire reflect an extremely high standard - importantly, one not retarded by overseas talent.

Among many batsmen, Briers of Leicestershire has a few knots to untie; so, probably, does Sharp of Yorkshire. Athey, in the course of two numerically unsatisfactory innings in the Centenary Test, nevertheless looked a batsman on the brink of a considerable career; if he does not become an established Test cricketer something will have gone radically wrong. Mendis of Sussex, brought up in the county, has an unquestionable and precocious talent; while in the same county Wells, a little behind in technical development - especially in attacking short-pitched bowling - has a reassuring quality of hitting the ball in the middle of the bat. Above all, Kim Hughes in the Centenary Test unfurled a flag of gallantry in batting which augured excitingly for the second century.

There will be much to enjoy, after this last round, in idle watching of the box - and cocking an ear to the old boys.