Poor pitches and the throwing debate, 1969

Watery reflections from Australia

Jack Fingleton

Though I feel there are too many cricket books, it was my intention for some time to write one on the 1968 Australian tour of England. My publishers were keen and had offered a most generous contract.

I had known, on preceding tours, what an exacting task it is to maintain a daily outflow to newspapers and, at the same time, keep up to date writing a book of the tour's happenings. This imposes a big strain during, say, a tour in Australia or South Africa, but in those countries there is only one match a week whereas in England there are two and sandwiched between, a tiring consideration, are the two trips that have to be made most weeks.

A book on an English tour must be written from week to week, or, as some do, even nightly after the day's play. There always seems to be a scurry to have the first book out (although I believe most things are better dealt with in retrospect) and woe betide the writer who gets too far adrift as the tour progresses. As well as in a writing sense, he gets mentally snowed under.

So, then, I set out to write a book on this tour and I was amused to notice the keen attention that my friend, Bobby Simpson, took in the progress of my book. Simpson is as keen a writer as ever came from the field to the Press box -- and his work is done splendidly by himself and by his own two fingers on his typewriter. You rarely get all this from a former Test player. He was constantly asking how I stood and would tell me with rare pleasure that by the end of each night his book was up to the end of that day's play.

By the end of the second Test at Lord's I, too, was well up on the summer's doings, but I decided to knock my book on the head. It seemed to be a repetition of rain, pitch covers, delays, drawn games and disappointing cricket. Nobody, I was convinced, wanted to read the dreary story of rain over England's cricket fields.

It was the worst summer for weather I had known in England since 1938 and so I decided that the book, like many of the tour matches, would be best abandoned. And I did that, deserting it after the second Test at Lord's, but it must have been the sadistic side of my character that would not let me admit immediately my decision to Bobby Simpson.

He kept eyeing me as warily in the Press-box as he did the English bowlers over those three days at Old Trafford in 1964 when he made 311. When Simpson asked me the inevitable question, I would nod mysteriously and admit nothing.

I hope, the next time he sees me, he thanks me for keeping him up to the writing mark. And I know his book will be a good one because he brought enthusiasm to his task, a knowledgeable mind and nice descriptive typewriting.

The 1968 tour of England by the Australians was not worth many books. It was, as I have written, an abominable summer and cricketers cannot do themselves justice if the sun does not shine or if the game is being constantly interrupted.

To some of the new Australians, having their first experience of English pitches, cricket must have seemed a game from another planet. The ball, for the bowlers, was often heavy and slippery; barely two pitches were alike in bounce and pace and many, indeed, were not up to the standard required for first-class cricket. Indeed, it was later reported by a committee that Old Trafford was not up to the standard necessary for Test cricket.

So, in making assessments, one must also make allowances. That is very important. I saw pitches on this tour that were a poor compliment to a touring side, which is always expected to play brightly and will get a critical, caustic cane if it does not.

Many problems pose themselves to English cricket -- as, indeed, most do to world cricket -- but I saw nothing more detrimental to good cricket on my 1968 tour of England than the pitiable pitches provided by many grounds.

County cricket is another matter. I have sensed for many years now that the present system of county cricket is archaic, and simply not worthwhile, but no matter what the type of cricket, a good pitch is fundamental to a good game and many games in England can never get off the ground because of the inadequacy of the pitches on which they are played.

Six-days-a-week county cricket has been the vogue now for many decades, so modern groundsmen cannot blame incessant play for poor pitches because the past would deride them. But, indirectly, the incessant play is the cause of poor pitches -- or so I think.

On the final day of a game, one will often see another pitch cut for a new game beginning on the morrow. This, I believe, is the inherent fault of the system. A new pitch can be cut but, because of the current play, it cannot be watered and, for all the technical knowledge and mechanical means that groundsmen now possess to make pitches, I do think that watering and rolling are the main necessities for good pitches, granted that the soil and grass are proficient.

At Nottingham on the Sunday of the touring match, Richie Benaud and others travelled to Luton for a friendly match. Benaud told me next day he had seen the best pitch in England of the whole summer. Simpson concurred. "They had an ardent enthusiast in their groundsman there," said Benaud, "and he worked odd hours on his pitch. But, basically, all he did was water and roll it, water and roll it."

I recall, and still with misgivings, how we played for several seasons on our club pitch at Waverley, in Sydney, with the ball spitting, kicking, shooting and doing all manner of unorthodox things. It was as dry, as Bill O'Reilly once put it, as a hymn-book. The groundsman of the time did not believe in watering his pitch.

The one before him, "Boss" Reid, a wonderful old Edwardian gentleman with a beard like Dr. Grace, used to water his pitch as late as Saturday morning and then roll it with a heavy roller and let the sun dry it out. It was on Reid's pitches that Alan Kippax became the Trumper of his generation.

Nobody -- and Bradman, Jackson and McCabe never got runs at Waverley in my time -- could overcome the later dusty one and batsmen became highly suspicious of it. No batsman can do himself justice on a dry, dusty pitch, although many a bowler, as we have seen in England, can forge a fictitious reputation on them.

I thought the Lord's pitches in 1968 were uncommonly indifferent. One expects something better at the headquarters of the game and it was, for the Australians, a blessing in disguise that rain so often intervened there, or else the Australians would have suffered several more defeats on their tour.

I was watching play there one day, with the ball bringing up dust, when the idea occurred to me how little use is made of the middle of a pitch, which gets just as much rolling as the business-ends. My thoughts led to imagining a pitch made up of "middles" which, at the very least, would be thickly turfed with no bare spots -- and I suggested this in the London Sunday Times as an experiment well worth trying.

One of Lord's assistant secretaries, Jack Bailey, was absent in Holland at the time I wrote my suggestion, and I still think it had much merit and the spirit of experiment in it. It would have turned play about, with the bowlers running from Father Time one end and the late Tavern the other. Even the traditions of Lord's, I thought could have withstood what would have been an interesting innovation. But Mr. Bailey seemed to think I had gone berserk when he approached me about my suggestion. He thought I was not taking Lord's seriously.

The county system apart, the quality of pitches is England's biggest problem. Some special committee seems to scurry here and there to inspect, when a pitch gets a bad report, but what are lacking are watering (even in England's climate!) and rolling when the pitch is malleable.

I prefer not to mention in this little story but I was once admonished by several very good English friends for writing some captious comment on over-coaching. We stood, one Sunday morning, on the cricket field of a famous English school while the lesson was read to me. I was not very interested in it.

The sun was shining brilliantly and the pitch was wet from over-night rain. My critic was in charge of cricket and I thought: "What a lovely pitch this will turn out later if the heavy roller is put on it now." The school first eleven had a game that afternoon and, later, I asked my lecturer how the game went. "Oh, it was disappointing. The pitch was absolutely spiteful." And so it would have been; the marks on it drying under a hot sun had remained unrolled.

I never seem to have luck with my suggestions in England. The Lord's pitches apart, I have been hammering for years that fast bowlers and particularly alleged fast bowlers should be restricted in their run-up to, say, sixteen yards. Keith Miller, fast enough to displease any batsman, ran ten yards and sometimes twelve.

A run-up, surely, is to enable a bowler to get up momentum. Those who know the science of athletics can say how long it takes a one hundred yards sprinter to reach top speed after his take-off. It would not, I guess, be very far and yet I constantly see in first-class and Test cricket a bowler travelling forty yards who is running as fast after ten yards as he is after thirty-five yards. Indeed, I have seen some worthies even lose pace in their run as they come near delivering the ball.

At the time of writing, Charlie Griffith and Wesley Hall are in trouble with some Australian umpires for taking too long to bowl an over. Griffith, timed at seven minutes for an eight-ball over, was advised in Melbourne to take a taxi, so long was he in getting back to his far-distant mark.

This long run, with its official sanction, is the most nauseating absurdity of all cricketing time. How we put up with it, year after year, is beyond my comprehension. Next time, I invite you, when you see one of these dreary runners in action in a first-class game, to look at the faces of those around you and see how bored they are.

The poor batsman, who stands there in frustration, awaiting a ball a minute -- and that often delivered pretty wide of the mark -- generally incurs the wrath of the critic and the slow handclap of the spectators when these condemnations rightfully should be directed to some innocuous bowler whose only attribute is that he clamps down the scoring rate. He does that by holding up play and not delivering smartly. I see no genius in that.

I saw a bowler at Kennington Oval in 1968 who trudged into the distance and then put foot after foot in a dull manner for forty yards to deliver a ball about as fast as a London bus going up Fleet Street.

It was a piece of fulsome, unexciting running. I would not mind so much if such a bowler turned a catherine-wheel for variety in the middle of his run. It would not, I am sure, affect the speed of the delivered article; it hurt more than ever when somebody said the same bowler, on the Sunday, had cut his run by half in a time-limit game.

I broached this pet hate of mine to an important member of Surrey and he floored me by saying the tactics in a long run were to catch the batsman in between the taps of his bat on his mark! I think he was pulling my leg.

But while I continue in this berating mood let me call down a murrain on all fast bowlers, seamers and alleged fast bowlers who walk back into eternity and take an eternity to emerge from it. And a bigger murrain on officials who allow them to do it, to the great boredom of the cricketing public.

There is one other blot on modern cricket -- padding-up -- and M.C.C. showed its obvious concern with this malady during the summer. The habit existed with some English professionals as far back as I can remember but it developed new proportions after the amendment of the lbw rule in the 'thirties.

This amendment, permitting lbw to a ball breaking from the off, encouraged a rash of in-swing and off-break bowlers and the modern batsman believes he can offset this part of the rule by thrusting his front pad up the pitch at the ball, in the belief that no first-class umpire will give him out lbw so far away from the stumps.

I think the remedy here is with the umpires. Instead of giving the batsman the benefit of the doubt, they could give it against a man who negates the spirit of the game.

It is interesting at the time of writing that the West Indians in Australia are befuddled by John Gleeson's flick-spin. The English largely nobbled Gleeson by pushing their front pad at him, attempting no stroke. Gleeson appealed often but couldn't get lbw's.

I could well imagine the thoughts of Gleeson the batsman when he several times in England emulated his opponents by pushing his front pad up the pitch at an off-break -- and was given out lbw! But Gleeson was a number ten batsman.

I often thought umpires paid too much respect to the names of some avid pad-pushers. Alec Bedser told me in England this summer that on his home pitch he constructed a paper frame to represent a front pad down the pitch and, time after time, on breaking through the paper-frame, he knocked over the stumps! All umpires, please note!

M.C.C. arranged a fine dinner to mark the 200th Test match -- which fittingly, happened at Lord's -- between England and Australia. I was chatting with an old foe, Sir Leonard Hutton, before dinner when a young man, obviously Australian, on his first visit to England, asked Sir Leonard a question. "How," asked the young visitor, "would you say the present generation of cricketers compares with yours?"

It is a question only an inexperienced cricketer would ask. Sir Leonard did not answer directly. He looked at me. "Jack," he said, with that lovely arch look so typical of him, "there were county players in my day who never looked like playing for England and who would walk into this present English side."

The young man invited the rebuff -- the natural answer to such a question to a cricketer of other days. The English team was not a good one. It was patriarchal in the field and, at Lord's and at Edgbaston, much batting time was lost when the situation demanded urgency.

England in batting and bowling merit deserved to win the series by a wide margin, but there was much to admire in Lawry's tactics at Old Trafford when his batting initiative against Pocock put Australia into a winning position almost before the English appreciated it. Lawry took Pocock by the scruff and Walters, Sheahan and Chappell followed their skipper's lead. "I had never batted against Pocock before and I knew he must have had doubts in his mind about me. So I decided to charge him," said Lawry afterwards.

It was this initial "charge", winning the Old Trafford Test, that eventually drew the series. It is always hard to win a series from a side that wins the first Test. A winning skipper can take command of the general situation, set the tempo, so to speak.

This has often made many series drab between England and Australia, in both countries, and it induced Jarman, while Lawry watched, injured, from the Leeds balcony, to decide on safety-first tactics to impose in the Fourth Test. Jarman had to bear the brunt of many ironical remarks from his fellow-Australians on the field as he passed them.

Here was a pitch made for spinners and for the Australians to win another Test and so offset the suggestion that rain had saved them in the series. But Jarman, who may have been his off-field master's voice, would not use spin, nor give Gleeson the end which Snow had so mutilated with his sprigs.

Rain, in the long run, beat England for the series. It beat, also the nationalism of Mrs. Doris Munday, of West London, who rang Lord's when the famous ground was covered in hailstones during the Second Test and said: "I am responsible for this storm. And there will be many more until the Australians pay their debts."

In telling me this story on the night of the M.C.C. 200th Test dinner, Mr. Donald Carr, an assistant secretary at Lord's, said Mrs. Munday, a hypnotherapist, claimed that she had occult powers as far as weather was concerned and would continue to use them because several years ago she had broken a seven-years drought for the Australians who had thanked the aborigines and had refused to pay Mrs. Munday. "The woman said she was not fooling and over the phone she began to put an occult spell upon our Jean, who felt dizzy and cut the caller off," said Mr. Carr.

Mrs. Munday, who also claimed to have broken droughts in India, China and the United States, did not let up on the Australians and it became the wettest tour in history, although Mrs. Munday seemed to have relented later. In the bushfires of the Blue Mountains, N.S.W., in November, 1968, she offered her occult powers to put them out.

This Australian team was, I thought, the poorest batting and bowling side I had seen in action under the green caps. The poor pitches have to be assessed in the batting failures, although so many Australians were lacking in primary technique.

Yorkshire, under the brilliant captaincy of Fred Trueman -- and I saw no better leadership in England during the summer -- diddled the Australians completely, beating them by an innings and 69 at Sheffield, an ignominious defeat for a touring side against a county. The Yorkshiremen rubbed it in also, through Ken Taylor, by winning the long-distance throw at the end of the cricket!

I must pay tribute, too, to the second successive win of Glamorgan over the Australians on a good pitch in one of the best games of the tour. And in Alan Jones I saw one of the very best batsmen in Britain.

Of that defeat by Yorkshire I wrote in the London Times: "Some Australian players came early and easily into Test cricket and not through the crucible that tempers skill with temperament -- too many at Sheffield under baggy green caps bent and withered in an un-Australian manner."

In the tours to come, Australian teams must always regard the match against Yorkshire as another Test. Yorkshire, in the field, looked an infinitely better team than the English Test one. And Trueman's captaincy was full of fight, shrewd moves, and colossal Yorkshire bluff.

I like the Tykes because they are never false to their nature. When Trueman's team came into the dressing-room, I afterwards learned, they did not indulge themselves in any wild paeans of self-praise. Far from it. They got stuck into a first-class row as to whether individual money prizes ... the brass... should go into a communal fund!

Trueman, sadly, will be seen no more on the first-class cricketing field. He was, in very truth, a wonderful character. I met him first when George Duckworth gave the pair of us a lift back to Lymm from Old Trafford. Trueman, then twelfth man for England, talked of himself all the way back.

He is Yorkshire to his boot-heels and an unforgettable character on the field. I loved him most at Adelaide one Australia Day when the artillery on the parade ground opposite the Oval broke out into a salute. Fiery Fred dived to earth immediately and waved his white hanky fiercely in surrender.

I've written before of how wrong I think it is that the best of the international blood of other countries should be sucked dry by England in trying to keep alive the out-moded, incongruous county cricket system.

International cricket will suffer, as the West Indians seemed to be suggesting at an early stage in their Australian tour. They are tired of cricket before a tour begins. They are played out.

In trying to insist that there is still a future for six-day county cricket, the supporters of the system fail to realise the effect upon attendances of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of cricket lovers since World War Two. This applies not only to England. The lovers of cricket, if not the game itself, are dying out. It is a sober thought to be measured for the future.

It is interesting for me to note the upset over D'Oliveira. I went to the Press conference at Lord's on the evening Mr. Griffith announced the team and Mr. Insole, chairman of selectors, presented himself for questioning. Mr. Griffith read the team for South Africa in alphabetical order and it was not until he got to Knott that the penny dropped and the Press realised D'Oliveira was not in the side. Then there was a mad scrable by some through the door to get the news flashed over the air.

Asked about the non-selection of D'Oliveira, Mr. Insole gulped, said "Uh, well," paused, and then went into a long and involved explanation. I noted several things about the D'Oliveira case -- particularly how one or two played politics in their writings when accusing others of exactly the same thing -- but, knowing South Africa well and the general situation there, I found it none of my business and refrained from asking Mr. Insole questions that might have been asked.

Generally, I found it more than strange that selectors should present themselves for questioning on their actions. I can imagine what Sir Donald Bradman would say if anybody asked him for HIS reasons.

But the oddest thing of all in this distressing imbroglio was the incredible demand by one who has had a long cricket career, that the way the selectors voted on D'Oliveira should be made known to their various counties so that members would then know how to vote on their selectors. A crazy world, indeed!

I know South Africa well and think that the South African Government would have accepted D'Oliveira had they been sure that the tour would have gone off, in his presence, with no incidents, but many of those who so strongly rushed into print with virulent attacks on all and sundry in the D'Oliveira case showed little cognisance of a political situation that was bound to arise in certain circumstances and which would have been exploited by some who never saw a cricket ball bowled.

Nor did many voluble critics show much knowledge of the realities of South African life. One can like or dislike South Africa and its ways, but the one who pretends that any activity is inseparable from politics in most countries these days is a political innocent. It was the "innocents" who got most publicity in the D'Oliveira affair.

So 1968 ended with the best string of young batsmen in the world, the South Africans, forced into inactivity and because, however inadvertently, of a cricketer that the South Africans had greatly aided in pursuing his career in England.

On how slender a thread, at times, hangs destiny. Had Barry Jarman held a catch from D'Oliveira at The Oval when he was 31 -- he made 158 -- the hullabulloo would never have arisen, nor would it if Roger Prideaux had not developed pneumonia on the eve of the match and let D'Oliveira into the side.

If I could see little merit in the all-round batting and bowling ability of the Australians, I must not fail to pay tribute to their fielding. In agility, in throwing, I think it was the best international team in the field I have seen.

Against that, has to be set the poor record at The Oval when catch after catch went down, but The Oval is a notoriously difficult ground on which to make catches. The background of the flats there makes it very hard to judge a ball in the air and I think it will be found that more Test catches are dropped at The Oval than on any other Test field.

I must, too, warmly acknowledge the very good batting of Redpath and Chappell. Redpath was an interesting study. On the preceding tour he made a glorious century against Oxford at the Parks and one thought he would move on to a very high niche in Australian cricket. Then he became bogged down in his crease to off-spin bowling and there were early signs in 1968 that the same fate would befall him. Of a sudden, however, he sent a message to his feet and they began to twinkle and Redpath emerged once again into near-greatness.

It was footwork that made Bradman great -- among other things -- and footwork is the basis of good batting. One or two other Australians began to copy some Englishmen in poking their front pad at the ball--one of the ugliest sights in cricket. Yet the further this tour progressed, and on so many dubious pitches, Redpath became a model to others in his footwork.

Chappell, too, came on apace. He has breeding in his cricket -- from grandfather Vic Richardson -- and I do believe his batting jumped ahead immediately he decided that he would stand up straighter in his stance.

He, too, forsook somewhat the dominance of his lower hand in his strokes -- what a wonderful lesson golf teaches in the importance of the top hand in swinging a club! And the more the tour progressed the more he drove with power. Some day, I hope, he will take his hands higher up the handle and then we really will see something memorable from this cricketer who, like V.Y.R., is full of guts.

One very good book emerged this summer and that was by my Sunday Times colleague, Ian Peebles. It did not get the prominence it deserved. It had not the hot meat of the several current controversies yet it dealt with throwing which, several years back, gave us cricket's most bitter controversy, once inducing the hurried presence at Lord's specially summoned from Australia, of Sir Donald Bradman and Mr. W.J. Dowling.

Peebles called his book Straight from the Shoulder. It is, by far, the best book, the definitive book, written on the subject. Peebles delved deep and backed his case with some surprising photographs.

I see no argument against his logical case that the arm, when it reaches the level of the shoulder in the delivery action, shall not be bent until the ball is delivered. This cuts away all the verbiage and all the doubt. Why officialdom dallies in accepting the Peebles law is beyond my comprehension. This book kills throwing for all time.

© John Wisden & Co