The cancellation of South Africa's 1970 tour of England left the TCCB with a headache but the Rest of the World XI provided an exhilarating tonic, says Matthew Ryder-Whish

Garry Sobers on his way to 183 in the first 'Test' at Lord's. He finished with 588 runs at an average of 73.50 and 21 wickets © The Cricketer
Which is the strongest ever cricket team to visit the British Isles?

Many cricket followers would nominate the 1921 or 1948 Australians; others might point to the all-conquering West Indies of 1984. However, in 1970, England faced possibly their most formidable overseas opponents of all time in what appears to be a largely forgotten international series of matches. Yet this was a series which went ahead completely by chance.

In the spring of 1970 many English cricket fans avidly awaited that summer's visit by South Africa, then rated by many observers as the world's leading Test nation. But strong protests built up against South Africa's apartheid policies, led by Peter Hain's 'Stop The Seventy Tour' campaign, and the Test series was cancelled at short notice by the English Cricket Council, following a request from the then Home Secretary, James Callaghan.

In its place, arrangements were hurriedly made for England to play five 'Tests' against a Rest of the World team consisting of a galaxy of top international cricket stars, including a number of West Indians and South Africans. The Editor of Wisden called them 'one of the strongest teams ever to take the field' and reckoned only Australia in 1921 and 1948 could have matched them.

Nevertheless, England put up a strong fight in a thrilling series which saw several highly notable performances. Perhaps partly to raise public interest and corporate sponsorship, this series was accorded Test-match status by the TCCB and full England caps were awarded. With little preparation, the Guinness drinks company stepped in as sponsors for the series to the tune of £20,000.

In the first 'Test' at Lord's England fielded a weak, inexperienced side - both openers, Brian Luckhurst and Alan Jones, made their debuts with the pace bowler Ken Shuttleworth - and were outclassed. They were reduced to 44 for 7 by lunch, and never recovered after being dismissed for 127, the World XI's captain Garry Sobers taking six cheap wickets.

The World XI, with a powerful batting line-up, scored 546 with Sobers and South Africa's Eddie Barlow posting centuries. England put up a more respectable fight in the second innings with 94 from captain Ray Illingworth but lost by an innings.

To the relief of the authorities, not to say the sponsors, England, strengthened by the return of Colin Cowdrey, gained revenge in the second 'Test' at Trent Bridge and won by eight wickets in a low-scoring game, though only 16,000 turned up to watch. They witnessed Cowdrey becoming the highest run-scorer in Test history, overtaking Wally Hammond, while Basil D'Oliveira and Tony Greig - who made his debut among five changes - took 14 wickets between them, and in the second innings Luckhurst made a seven-hour unbeaten century to level the series.

In the third 'Test' at Edgbaston, the all-round strength of the World team proved too much for the home side in a fiercely competitive contest. The visitors brought in South African fast bowler Peter Pollock for Australia's Graham McKenzie, while the young West Indian wicket-keeper Deryck Murray, who was studying at Nottingham University, replaced Farokh Engineer.

England were unchanged and, thanks to D'Oliveira's typically aggressive hundred, made 294 batting first, but the Rest of the World again managed more than 500 during an innings that saw Sobers and fellow West Indian Clive Lloyd 'launch a blistering attack on the bowling', according to Wisden. In spite of a huge first innings deficit, Cowdrey and D'Oliveira fought back bravely and made no attempt simply to play for a draw. But Sobers took crucial late wickets and the World XI reached a modest second innings target with five wickets to spare.

Basil D'Oliveira pulls for four on his way to 110 at Edgbaston © The Cricketer
The fourth 'Test', held at Headingley, saw the biggest attendance of the series so far, and the Yorkshire public were rewarded with the introduction of three home. players - Geoff Boycott, Don Wilson and debutant Chris Old for John Edrich, David Brown and Derek Underwood - and a thrilling encounter which could have gone either way until the final ball. England, again batting first, fell into trouble as Barlow wrecked the middle-order, taking four wickets in five balls including a hat-trick, the last of which, Don Wilson, was caught by England's own Mike Denness, who had come on as a substitute for the stricken World XI. They strengthened their batting, Mushtaq Mohammad replacing Peter Pollock, but were deprived of Barry Richards and Rohan Kanhai on the first day, both injured in the field.

The tourists gained a lead of 154 through Sobers and the experimental opener Murray. For once, Boycott and Luckhurst gave England a strong start in the second innings to set a target of 223. Hostile bowling by John Snow left the World XI stuggling but they won with just two wickets to spare after a tense final session when Richards came in at number 10 to see them home.

By this stage public interest had increased markedly and even though the match was 'dead', 53,000 attended the final 'Test' at The Oval which also saw a close finish with the side batting first uniquely losing every match of the series. England made 294 in their first innings, while McKenzie, back in for Gibbs, took four wickets. The World XI's reply was rescued by a stand of 155 by Sobers and Graeme Pollock in just over two hours but the Lancashire pace bowler Peter Lever restricted their first innings lead by taking seven wickets in a sensational debut in place of Greig - D'Oliveira also stood down for Dennis Amiss.

England, with Boycott in imperious form, set the Rest of the World a challenging last-innings target on the final day. Snow, taking four early wickets, gave the home side a glimpse of possible victory, but Rohan Kanhai and Lloyd featured in a decisive partnership. It was Sobers, appropriately, who hit the boundary to win the match by four wickets and thus the series 4-1.

Looking back, many of the England players feel playing against the World team was undoubtedly one of the toughest challenges they faced at the international level. Illingworth describes their opponents as simply 'the best ever side to take the cricket field, stronger than the 1948 Australians when you compare them man for man'. He recalls that many were 'at the peak of their careers and wanting to perform well out of professional pride'.

Snow, England's leading bowler in the series, vividly remembers the strength of the opposition batting. He rates the World team's top six of Richards, Barlow, Kanhai, Pollock, Lloyd and Sobers, with the allrounder Mike Procter down at number nine, as one of the most commanding batting orders of any era.

In a similar vein, Luckhurst, making his debut in this series, talks about the formidable nature of the opposition's bowling. 'Sobers and Procter would normally take the new ball, with back-up from McKenzie, and this was followed by legspinner Intikhab Alam and the world's premier off-spinner, Lance Gibbs,' he says with some feeling. 'South African quick bowler Peter Pollock could only get into the side for one match in the series.'

John Woodcock, covering the series for The Times, neatly summarised the quality and experience of this side on the eve of the first match, noting: "Between them, they have made 52 Test hundreds and taken 780 Test wickets and played in something approaching 400 Test matches, and they are mostly in their prime." The World team's level of performance was even more impressive when one considers they had very little time for preparation and had never played together as a single unit before.

The ICC later ruled that these matches were not official Tests, and they were subsequently erased from Test records, a decision which upset many of the players. John Snow says: 'These were some of the hardest games played by England at international level and should be classed as Tests, especially after the one-innings Test between South Africa and England at Centurion last winter.'

Garry Sobers is bowled by Peter Lever for 79 in the final match. Lever finished with 7 for 83 © The Cricketer
What is beyond question is that the cricket played in this strongly competitive series reached a very high standard. Sobers scored 588 runs at an average of 73.50 and was the leading bowler on either side with 21 wickets. Lloyd averaged 50 with the bat, scoring 400 runs, while Procter, with 292 runs at 48.66 and 15 wickets at 23.93, and Barlow, with 353 runs at 39.22 and 20 wickets at 19.80, demonstrated their worth as high-class allrounders.

In addition, the World team was often capable of producing moments of sublime brilliance. Who of those present at The Oval could forget the sight of Sobers and Pollock, two of the finest cricketers of their generation, batting majestically together in the cause of international cricket?

England fought bravely, some putting in strong performances. Illingworth led astutely and had his most prolific international series with the bat, managing 476 runs at 52.88. Luckhurst, with 408 runs at 45.33, D'Oliveira (308 runs at 44 and nine wickets at 30.88) and Snow, who took 19 wickets at 35.84, all enhanced their reputations at 'Test' level. Snow and Luckhurst feel these matches provided excellent preparation for the tour of Australia the next winter, where they regained the Ashes. Whatever the record books say, it is likely to be some time before we witness a cricket team as outstanding as the Rest of the World XI of 1970. Given the opportunity, who would not want to see such an array of talent in an international series?

England v Rest of the World
First Test Lord's, June 17, 19, 20, 22
England 127 (R. Illingworth 63; G.S. Sobers 6-21) and 339 (B.W. Luckhurst 67, B.L. D'Oliveira 78, Illingworth 94; Intikhab Alam 6-113) lost to Rest of the World 546 (E.J. Barlow 119, R.G. Pollock 55, Sobers 183, Intikhab 61; A. Ward 4-121) by an Innings and 80 runs.

SecondTest Trent Bridge, July 2, 3, 4, 6, 7
Rest of the World 276 (S.A. Richards 64, C.H. Lloyd 114*, M.J. Procter 43; B.L. D'Ohveira 4-43, A.W. Greig 4-59) and 286 (E.J. Barlow 142, D'Oliveira 3-63, Greig 3-71) lost to England 279 (R. Illingworth 97; Barlow 5-66) and 284 for 2 (B.W. Luckhurst 113*, M.C. Cowdrey 64, K.W. R. Fletcher 69*) by 8 wickets.

Third Test Edgbaston, July 76, 17, 18, 20, 21
England 294 (B.L. D'Oliveira 110, A.W. Greig 55; M.J. Procter 5-46, G.S. Sobers 3-38) and 409 M.C. Cowdrey 71, D'Oliveira 81, R. Illingworth 43, A.P.E. Knott 50*; Sobers 4-89) lost to Rest of the World 563 for 9 dec (B.A. Richards 47, R.B. Kanhai 71, R.G. Pollock 40, C.H. Lloyd 101, Sobers 80, Prnrtcr 62, D.L. Murray 62, Intikhab Alam 45; J.A. Snow 4-124, Illingworth 4-131) and 141 for 5 by 5 wickets.

Fourth Test Headingley, July 30, 31, August 1, 3, 4
England 222 (K. W. R. Fletcher 89, R. Illingworth 58; M.J. Procter 3-47, E.1, Barlow 7-64) and 376 (G. Boycott 64, B.W. Luckhurst 92, Fletcher 63, Illingworth 54; Barlow 5-78) lost to Rest of the World 376 for 9 dec (D.L. Murray 95, G.S. Sobers 114; A.W. Greig 4-86) and 226 for 8 (Sobers 59, Intikhab Alam 54; J.A. Snow 4-82, Illingworth 3-41) by 2 wickets.

Fifth Test The Oval, August 13, 14, 15, 17, 18
England 294 (M.C. Cowdrey 73, R. Illingworth 52, A.P.E. Knott 51*; G.D. McKenzie 4-51) and 344 (G. Boycott 157, K.W.R. Fletcher 63; G.S. Sobers 3-81, C.H. Lloyd 3-34) lost to Rest of the World 355 (R.G. Pollock 114, Sobers 79, M.J. Procter 51; P. Lever 7-83) and 287 for 6 (R.B. Kanhai 100, Lloyd 68, Sobers 40*; ).A. Snow 4-81) by 4 wickets.