Two fine Test series, 1973

Skills and controversy

Richie Benaud

It is rare for England and Australian spectators in the space of only eighteen months to see two such splendidly assertive Test series as those played in 1970-71 and 1972. Six Tests in Australia and then five in England produced some top class cricket and captaincy and, perhaps more important, provided the tremendous upsurge of interest in both countries. There were three captains involved in the series. First Lawry and Illingworth were in charge in 1970-71 but, towards the end of those Test matches, Lawry fell from grace and was replaced by Ian Chappell, who had led the Australian side ever since.

There is no more chancy game than cricket and it is worth pondering for a moment on what might have happened to the Australian captaincy had Dennis Lillee emerged as a fast bowler just one or two matches earlier than he eventually did. Lawry might have won a Test or two Tests and retained the captaincy, and Chappell could well still be Australia's vice-captain. Instead, it was Chappell who had the benefit of Lillee's emergence as a potentially great bowler and, in the series in England in 1972 and against Pakistan in 1972-73 in Australia, Chappell depended to a great extent on Lillee's ability.

For me, the last two series between England and Australia have been outstanding in their interest and in the skills shown by the players. There have been some who have decried the series in Australia when Illingworth regained the Ashes and others who have found fault with most things which have happened in Anglo-Australian cricket for the past 18 months. I want to make it quite clear at the outset that I am not amongst those.

I thought the cricket was very good in Australia in 1970-71 and there was no doubt that England had the better side. I regarded Illingworth as a good skipper, despite what I reckon to be a palpable error in not making Australia follow on in the Adelaide Test of that series. This is not a case of being wise after the event, for I said exactly the same thing on the spot at the time. But, as always, it is a decision for the victory in the rubber and claim that he had been correct in allowing his bowlers that extra rest in Adelaide.

That series was, in fact, a good lead up to the excitement of the 1972 battle in England which produced some of the best cricket I have ever seen as a watcher. Indeed, to me, this was the best series I have had the pleasure of seeing since retiring as an active player. It bought on Ian Chappell as a captain, Lillee and Massie as bowlers, Marsh as an all-rounder and Greg Chappell and Edwards as batsmen. For, England it was a slightly different story and, as often happens with a team experienced both in years and cricketing know-how, their cricket slipped a little.

When the Australians set out for their tour of the West Indies they had every cause to feel pleased with the way their cricket had staged a come-back, with the drawn series against England and their three-nil victory over Pakistan to emphasise the improvement over the past eighteen months.

Not the least interesting aspect of the past two Anglo-Australian series has been the amount of controversy engendered by the matches. Personally, I am all for a little bit of controversy in Test cricket and I would require some convincing that events in the past two series have done the game the slightest bit of harm. On the contrary, I believe interest in cricket to have been stimulated rather than stilted by various events which have taken place on the field. In Australia it was the running battle between England's fast bowlers and their skipper Ray Illingworth, and the Australian umpire, Lou Rowan, and the spectators. In England it was the Headingley pitch which raised a few eyebrows at a time when Australia had just squared the 1972 series.

Those who have never played Test cricket may find it hard to imagine exactly the atmosphere in the centre during a contest between two national teams. Cricketers who have never been in the Press box or commented on Test matches would find it equally difficult to agree that controversy could be a good thing for cricket.

I believe the key to it lies in the modern-day attitude of the cricket spectator. In this I do not necessarily mean the man or woman who goes along to the ground having reserved a seat for a Test match day, sees that day's play and then goes home again and off to work for the remainder of the Test match. With television such a strong part of cricket these days, radio taking the game on to the beaches and into the homes and, as well, the spectators who go to the ground avidly watching every ball bowled, I feel there is a need for more than a stilted approach on the part of the players.

No spectator is particularly interested in seeing sportsmen perform on the field as would a group of stuffed dummies, neither is he interested in seeing what Australians would term a group of teddy bears in action on the ground or on the T.V. screen.

There have been a number of characters in cricket over the years and from old-time journalists we hear about them on many occasions. There was a time, not so long ago, when every effort was being made to stamp out the character of the players and have them conform to a rigid set of rules. Things have changed a little and both England and Australia can put into the field a number of players who are able to catch the spectator's eye whether batting, bowling, fielding, or just standing around as part of the team.

There will always be controversy where fast bowlers -- and I mean fast bowlers, not the fast-medium, slogging away variety -- are involved in a cricket match. That extra pace, the judicious use of the bouncer as an attacking weapon and the ever present chance of a batsman being hit -- and painfully hit at that -- all tend to keep in the forefront of a spectator's mind that before him is a controversial character.

John Snow is one of these, off the field as quiet a man as you could wish to find and concentrating, they say, on his poetry to the exclusion of most other things. Be that as it may, on the field he is a dynamic proposition and a fine fast bowler. I was taken to task rather severely last year for having said on television that first of all I considered Snow to be a great bowler and secondly I could quite understand why he did not endeavour to bowl as fast and furiously for Sussex in seven days-a-week cricket as he did in Test matches for England.

On that occasion I was pointing out the difference between English and Australian cricket where, in Australia, a bowler considers himself to have had a hard season if he has reached 250 overs by the conclusion of his eight matches. Whilst playing those games he will be giving himself an easy time in club matches back in his own State. This aroused the indignation of a good many people who contended Snow should be bowling absolutely flat out for Sussex every time he picked up the ball. Sheer madness, I say.

Dennis Lillee would be finished in six months if he did this, and I have no doubt any England bowler would have the same happen to him if he were to carry out the strictures.

This is another reason why Snow himself is a controversial character and it would be idle chatter to class him as the best loved of the England Test team at the moment, certainly as far as administrators are concerned. He would be one of the best loved in my team if he continued to bowl as he has done in the past two series between England and Australia. Even so, I doubt if he will ever be free from controversy, nor probably will Lillee, for the reasons expounded above.

There was no excuse, for example, for language allegedly used on the field to umpires in the 1970-71 series in Australia, nor was there the slightest excuse for Illingworth wagging his finger in umpire Rowan's face during the final Test. That was merely provocative and, even worse, it was completely pointless.

At the same time, I was quite in accord with Illingworth when he took his players from the field whilst bottles and cans were removed from the playing area. I do not know that I would have flounced off the field with such determined indignation as Ray that day but I was certain at the time, and am still sure, he did the right thing in letting things settle down on the field and bringing his players back on once the ground had been cleared. Indeed, he had every right to insist, not ask, that the ground be cleared before play would continue.

Life was relatively placid from that incident through the Old Trafford Test at the start of the 1972 series, and through Lord's and Trent Bridge. The only ripples on the surface were the injury to Dennis Lillee's back, the splendid England win at Old Trafford and the astonishing bowling feat of Bob Massie, playing in his first Test match at Lord's.

When I looked at the pitch set out for the Headingley Test in 1972, I must confess to having had a quiet chuckle to myself. If ever a game was labelled for controversy it was this one, to be played on a strip of earth so bare that one's neighbours would have laughed had it been put in the local lawn competition.

With Underwood on hand, recalled to the England side, it became a good story for the press, radio and television and the two most important things were to have a copy of Roget's Thesaurus close at hand and to be able to judge when to book out of one's hotel, in the light of the game obviously not going the scheduled five days. In a situation such as that, a Test match can become just as much a battle between the media camps as between the players. 'Squealing Australians' was one popular phrase that was counter-acted by apologies from other sections of those watching the game.

In the end, it did no harm at all far as I was concerned, because Australia squared the series at The Oval and the image of the Test rubber as being very good for both spectators and players was retained right to the end.

Everyone will have their own ideas on this question of whether or not controversy harms cricket but, over the past two series between Australia and England, I think the game has come out of it very well. The type of controversy which I believe harms the game is where the cricketers are providing poor fare for the spectators, whether that be at the ground or on the television screens. This can come about in a variety of ways but more often in the past twenty years it has been because of unpardonably slow cricket.

There were days in these two series where the cricket was slow but it was thoroughly interesting and, at times, completely absorbing. At the end of a day's play the cricket watcher would have been so completely wrapped up in the events of the day that he would more than likely find it difficult to tell you off the cuff just how many runs had been scored per over.

Not so when there is any sort of deliberate attempt on the part of the fielding side to slow things down. I have absolutely no time for those who set out to contain a batting side by slowness in the field, dragging their feet in the change-over or in accentuating the slow walk back of the faster bowlers.

That sort of controversy I feel does harm in the game because it will be written up or talked about by the media and agreed with -- as it should be -- by the cricket follower. At this time cricket comes into disrepute and spectators have to decide whether or not they will go and watch a match in the light of the almost deliberate slowness of the players.

Personally, I think the last two series between these two countries have provided the best cricket of any dual series since the war. I thoroughly enjoyed the batting efforts of Boycott and Edrich in Australia, the all-round ability of D'Oliveira and the superb wicket-keeping of Alan Knott. Snow did a magnificent job for his captain and so did Lever, Willis and Underwood, who acted as perfect foils to Snow at the opposite end.

Although beaten, I enjoyed watching Stackpole, Redpath and the Chappell brothers, as well as Rod Marsh, and, when these players and others went to England as a rough, untried team, there was plenty to appreciate in their play on the different style English pitches.

I doubt if cricket has ever had such beneficial publicity through all avenues of the media and rarely has the financial return been better for the game's administrators. I believe a great deal of this is due to the fact that in both series the cricket has been very good and the teams roughly equal in strength and intent on providing good entertainment. In addition, they have provided their share of controversy -- or had it provided for them -- and I regard that as a contributing factor to the success of the last eleven Test matches between England and Australia.

Gods or flannelled fools? Voiceless robots or men of character, willing and able to express their feelings? Well, you can take your pick, but I am inclined, having been both in the centre and in the Press and television boxes, to prefer the latter any day.

© John Wisden & Co