The Gower affair and Silence and Lamb, 1993

Notes by the Editor

Matthew Engel

When you lie awake at four o'clock on a winter's morning, it is always the little things that are so damn bothersome. I sometimes wonder what would happen if, as is statistically probable some time soon, a cup final at Lord's ended with both teams having the same number of runs and wickets. Would they really give the trophy, as the rules insist, to the team with most runs after 30 overs? What on earth is the difference between a run scored off the last ball of the thirtieth over and the first ball of the thirty-first?

And why do they now announce Test teams any old day instead of on a Sunday morning, which was part of the warp and weft of an England summer? One would hear the England selectors' latest enormity and go out and vent one's frustrations by mowing the lawn or murdering the weeds. Has this tradition vanished because the few people in the know, so secretive when it suits them, cannot be trusted not to leak the names to their favourite Sunday newspaper? And why, if you ask in a sports store for a pair of cricket flannels, will the assistant only offer something resembling sandpaper but without the softness? If this is what professional cricketers wear, does it explain why they are so keen to play as little as possible?

With luck, it is eventually possible to go back to sleep and worry about something else the next night. But cricket does keep creeping back. There is something insidious about the game. Its glory is that is works on so many levels: well-briefed spectators will think they know what is going on even though the contest taking place in the middle may be full of all kinds of private sub-plots. It does not matter. Other spectators may be more detached, conscious only of white-clad (usually) figures in a summer's landscape; they might have found even the last over of the 1992 Lord's Test match a restful backdrop to reading a book or doing their knitting.

Cricket can appeal to the athlete and the aesthete alike; it can veer between lyric poetry, differential calculus and Thai kick-boxing. No game has such range, such depth. But it is all extremely fragile. Editors of Wisden have been worrying about the game in these pages for most of the Almanack's existence. It has always been in crisis of one sort or another.

A game of two halves

Last year the crisis moved into an acute phase. It was nothing to do with ball-tampering, dissent, TV umpiring, coloured clothing nor any of the other issues that dominated the cricketing press in 1992, nor even to do with the manufacture of flannels. Cricket, at the highest level, has acquired a unique and insoluble problem by turning itself into two separate sports. There is traditional cricket, a game that has stood the test of time as a satisfying pastime and way of life, but which finds it increasingly hard to get an audience. And there is one-day cricket, which is popular among spectators but is regarded with varying degrees of contempt by the professionals forced to play it, administrators forced to stage it, and journalists forced to report it. It distorts cricket's skills and produces a mutant game which, while it might on occasion be tense, is essentially shallow.

The winter of 1992-93 has produced some wonderfully vivid Test cricket in Australia particularly. There have been huge crowds in Melbourne and Calcutta. But with the Indian authorities frightened even to schedule a full Test series, these still look like upward blips on a downward graph. The highest form of the game may have reached the point county cricket was at in the 1950s when the audience found other things to do.

The autumn of 1992 brought the first Tests in South Africa for 23 years and the first ever in Zimbabwe (to be reported fully in the 1994 Wisden). This should have been a glorious time for cricket. The village-sized attendances in Harare and Bulawayo may have been inevitable; there is no cricket-watching base in Zimbabwe. But what happened in South Africa? The crowds at Durban, for their first-ever Test against India, were actually lower than the low figures put out by the ground authority. The idea that the longest-awaited cricket match in history would attract just 5,000 people on its opening day would have been regarded throughout the years of boycott as insane.

All this is gradually ceasing to be a surprise. Players and administrators appear to have forgotten that Test cricket was ever meant to be a public entertainment. The boring passage of play, the possibility of the draw, the long block - all these have their place in cricket tactics. But when they become the entire strategy, the effects are disastrous.

The series between South Africa and India was desperately important to the future of the game, was played throughout at a level that might have been carefully designed to repel the casual spectator. Zimbabwe's inaugural Test in Harare against India was screamingly dull. A little boy sitting behind me (one of a couple of hundred spectators) asked his mother impatiently: "Who's winning?" "Sssh," she said, "nobody". She was right too. Do you think he'll be clamouring for a ticket next time there is a Test match? The Zimbabwe coach John Hampshire defended his team (406 for five after two days) by saying they had to learn - in which case they should do so in private. There are very few books to but in Harare these days and I had no knitting. But the South Africans and Indians, with no excuses, were even worse. The scoring-rate over five days in the Test at Cape Town was 1.83 an over. It was an affront to a beautiful setting.

In the 1960s cricketers were enjoined to play "brighter cricket". At the start of every tour, like politicians promising better times, captains said they would play it. Now they would probably regard such an idea as insulting. Brighter cricket? Entertainment? We do all that in the one-dayers.

Fortunately, cricket is a resilient game. One great match (like West Indies' one-run victory over Australia in Adelaide), one victory (India over England in Calcutta) can galvanise the local public and wipe out the memory of many wretched days. But if Test cricket is to thrive, as well as survive, there have to be many more Adelaides than Harares.

Standing Alone

The forces of darkness, or at any rate, floodlit cricket, may be taking over the world, but England for the moment is safe. This summer brings England v Australia, and the game's treasurers are licking their lips. Test cricket in this country has avoided the trends elsewhere for various reasons: the great series of 1981 persuaded a new generation that Test cricket could be thrilling; the Test and County Cricket Board has not allowed the fact that the public seem to want one-day internationals to sway them into staging many; the London Tests have established themselves, more than ever, as social occasions; the rhythm of the English summer helps push the series along, at least in years when there is only one touring team; and TV and, above all, radio commentary have insinuated themselves into the life of the nation.

So far, the cancer afflicting Test cricket has spread furthest here into county cricket. This year the English three-day county game is replaced by the four-day game, much admired by those who sit in offices and plane cricket, much despised by those who still go and watch it, especially at the Festival Weeks. The arguments for and against the changes are given by some very distinguished antagonists elsewhere in the Almanack. One pauses to speculate that the system chosen for 1993 will not last three years, as planned. There are too many empty spaces on the programme. The counties may well force the restoration of the zonal Benson and Hedges games, though there would be more merit in having 18 rather than 17 four-day games matches, nine home games each, with counties playing their traditional rivals twice. In theory, cricketers want to play less; in practice someone will want to try and make money somehow.

Whatever your views, you must admire the cunning of the TCCB officials who have ground down the opposition to the four-day game by making three-day cricket, over a period of years, seem ridiculous. Since 1989 they have forced the counties to play their three-day games on four or five-day pitches: any miscalculation in favour of result wickets has been punished by the threat of the 25-point deduction. Teams winning the toss this summer, aided by the four-day format, two runs for no-balls and the general climate in favour of batsmen, may well consider themselves failures if they are out before mid-afternoon on the second day for less than 450. The games may look neater in the 1994 Wisden than ever before. But if they contain any fun and entertainment for the spectator it is likely to happen only by accident; and no doubt someone at the Board will change the rules next winter to make sure that gets eliminated.

For the time being, everyone has to give the new system a chance, coloured clothing on Sunday and all. I have no profound objections to this gimmick - and the players should have had their names on their backs in all professional cricket years ago. If, however, the counties are planning to change their colours every year to exploit children and make them buy up-to-date gear at rip-off prices, which is what happens in football, then they are taking the road to hell.

Silence and Lamb

The 1992 Test series between England and Pakistan really did produce exciting cricket, largely because two brilliant fast bowlers, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, produced a method of attack that, after years when the only way of fighting the bias against batsmen was by aiming to knock their heads off, restored the focus of the game to the stumps. There is prima facie evidence that part of their method of doing so involved breaking the Laws of Cricket. This produced material that filled the papers with weeks of argument, 99 per cent of it ignorant. Jack Bannister's article on the subject in this year's Wisden is designed to slice through the misinformation. It is typical that the facts should have been so hard to ascertain. Only English humbuggery could produce a scale of values by which Allan Lamb was fined more for exposing alleged cheating than Surrey were for actually doing it. Only in cricket could Aqib Javed's behaviour towards umpire Roy Palmer at Old Trafford quickly be overtaken by the fact that the manager, Intikhab Alam, defended him. If a manager cannot defend his players, who on earth can? But two of the eight provisions of the ICC Code of Conduct are designed to stop anyone saying anything to the press.

The obsession, especially at Lord's, with keeping things quiet, gets worse all the time, though it never succeeds. The £750 fine on the Derbyshire chairman in 1991 for a mild criticism of the England manager was one preposterous example; the endless (and completely ineffective) censorship of players' opinions goes on to no discernible purpose; the chairman of selectors refuses to offer any explanation for the omission of David Gower from the tout party; the secretary of ICC refuses to say anything whatever about the reason for the ball being changed in a one-day international at Lord's; when county officials drop players for "internal disciplinary" reasons, they think it is none of their members' business. Those of us close to the game know that cricket is run by very nice, hard-working, intelligent and, in many cases, forward-thinking people. They seem entirely unaware that they sometime give the impression to those further away of having served an apprenticeship under one of the less enlightened Romanovs.

Of umps and refs

"Chaos umpire sits,
And by decision more embroils the fray."

Paradise Lost, Book II 907-8

It was clear to anyone watching the England-Pakistan series that the relationship between the Pakistanis and English umpires had, as they say in the divorce courts, "irretrievably broken down". As in a marriage, not all the blame can be heaped one way. Pakistani cricketers are indeed paranoid but that does not mean people are not out to get them. However hard umpires try to be fair, years of niggling from one country's team must start to affect their subconscious judgement.

The world umpiring system is now a shambles. ICC has willed a solution, an international panel of umpires, but has refused to will the means, i.e. how to pay for it. Instead, with great solemnity, they have created the completely irrelevant system of referees. It is very nice that so many affable and deserving former Test players not at the time employed in television are able to take part in this make-work scheme. But they can serve only one purpose; indeed their terms of reference, shorn of ICC jargon, boil down to only one purpose: to reinforce the authority of the umpires.

Competent Test match umpires do not need anyone to reinforce their authority; they already possess enough. However, because the game has refused to rid itself of the 19th-century delusion that a system of home-country officials can function effectively, Test match umpires round the world have been (all too frequently) incompetent or (just occasionally) corrupt. Even men supremely good at giving out and not out have not been in a strong enough position to run against the prevailing local culture, such as the West Indian notion that endless intimidation of batsmen is an acceptable form of play.

There are practical problems in setting up the panel. The longer people persist in believing there is a sensible alternative the harder it will get. The situation is not helped by the umpires themselves. English umpires have argued that such a panel would diminish their career prospects, when in fact it would enhance them immeasurably. They also persist in being dog-in-the-manger about repeating the experience in English cricket. One Test umpire told me has begged for years for a chance to stand in a few Championship matches and never had the courtesy of a reply from Lord's. Overseas associations are just as obstructive in a different way, by doing far too little to encourage former first-class players to join them. Everyone should now be aware that the empirical skills, instincts and sheer nous acquired playing first-class cricket are a far better preparation for top-level umpiring than years spent passing exams. Yet still some umpires' unions prefer recruits who can recite the law on seam-picking word-perfectly instead of someone who knows how it is done.

Into the current vacuum have come various nonsenses; first, the turn-and-turn-about three-umpire matches tried in Zimbabwe and South Africa; and then, South Africa's unique contribution, the TV umpire. This involves an official sitting in the stand to adjudicate on run-outs and, if they still exist, stumpings, by watching the replay if requested by the umpire in the middle. As a stunt, it gave the Durban Test a little publicity, not that it helped the attendance much. It also sowed the first harmless-looking seed of something that could grow to be thoroughly pernicious.

If cricket has contributed to society as a whole, it is the notion that the umpire's decision is final and that cricketers do not argue with it. Anything else is not cricket. The idea is totally foreign to, for instance, baseball. Wise professional cricketers have always known that the good decisions and the bad ones balance out over time. Wise selectors, who presumably exist somewhere, do not ruin a player's career for one bit of bad luck. And above all, cricket teaches us that, in the end, whether you are in or out does not matter much. What matters is the ability to accept the decision. As a rule of thumb, cricketers should have that firmly understood by the age of 11.

This only works at a professional level if (see above) umpiring is recognised as fair-minded, competent and authoritative. That, however, is considered too expensive, though it is hardly more expensive to fly umpires around the world than to fly the referees round and have a man paid to sit and watch television on the off-chance. Only the tiniest percentage of cricket matches would ever be able to have TV umpiring. Yet the doubt and dissent will spread to every English village, every corner of the Bombay maidan and the Port-of-Spain savannah. If Steve Bucknor is called idiotic, as he was in Johannesburg, for giving someone not out without calling for a replay, how can old Fred from Middle Snoring make such a decision. Proponents had said TV umpiring worked in American Football. News travels slowly to South Africa. The National Football League had just decided to scrap it all and go back to basics.

The Gower Affair

The finishing touches are being put to these notes as England go down to a defeat in Calcutta Test, a few days after the members of MCC held a special general meeting and rejected, by 6,135 votes to 4,600, a motion of no confidence in England's Test selectors proposed by 286 dissident members against the strong opposition of the MCC committee. The vote in the hall, as opposed to the postal ballot, was in favour of the motion by 715 to 412, and it would have been clear to a neutral, fair-minded observer, if one was present, that the proponents had won the debate as well.

The meeting was called because the selectors had left out David Gower and, only slightly less controversially, Jack Russell and Ian Salisbury from the tour of India; Salisbury, who had flown out to act as a net bowler, was later asked to join the tour. Ted Dexter's refusal to give the reasons for the Gower omission was widely seen as arrogant; Keith Fletcher, the new England manager, did offer an explanation - that too many batsmen would have been in their mid-30s - which was quite incredible. One expects managers to lie, fib, or obfustucate when they have a record to defend; it was a shock for it to happen on Fletcher's first day. Gower's omission created a furore not seen in 25 years since the selectors left out Basil D'Oliveira, with consequences that went far beyond the loss of a Test or two, from a tour of South Africa.

Since MCC no longer directly controls English cricket it was not a logical forum for public discontent, but it was a very effective one. The club committee mad it their business to defend, if not the selection, then at least the selectors' right to do as they wanted without hindrance - so it was sometimes implied - from the ignorant masses. At various times, the committee and their supporters suggested that it was wrong to criticise selectors before the tour had played, because that was pre-judgement; it was wrong to criticise during the tour, because that constituted disloyalty to the England team; and of course it was wrong to criticise afterwards, because that meant hindsight, and any fool can have that. The use of the word disloyalty is particularly interesting in this context. We will come back to that in a moment.

There was no sustainable cricketing case for the omission of Gower from a Test series against India. No one seriously made one. Selectors have always had their own secret agenda: prejudices against certain players considered to be unsuitable tourists. In the old days men were sometimes omitted because they did not buy their round at the bar; these days they are more likely to be left out because they do.

Many players throughout history have had their Test careers aborted or curtailed because of these personal defects, real or perceived. It is, however, entirely bizarre that these defects should suddenly be discovered in the cricketer who has played more Test matches than anyone in history.

There are many criticisms than can legitimately be made of Gower as a cricketer and, above all, as a captain; Graham Gooch's period of captaincy since 1989 has been magnificent. But the English cricket public, as I was saying earlier, have remained loyal to their Test team in a manner unmatched elsewhere in the world. The modern player who has reciprocated that most has been Gower. Between 1978-79 and 1986-87, he went on nine successive winter tours. The following year, understandably, he asked for a break. Since then he has been willing to play for England any time, anywhere, even to the point of going close to public humiliation by Gooch in Antigua in 1990. He did not go on any rebel tour nor is there any evidence (as there is for some other players who subsequently trumpeted their loyalty) that he seriously contemplated it. The contrast with Gooch - his decision to go to South Africa in 1981-82, his refusal, for understandable family reasons, to tour Australia in 1986-87, his need to have Donald Carr fly out to Antigua in 1986 to persuade him to stay because some local politician had criticised him, the fact that he planned to skip the (abandoned) India tour of 1988-89 until he was offered the captaincy, even his insistence on not going to Sri Lanka this year - is very stark.

This party for India was chosen last September at a moment when reconciliation was being offered all round, to John Emburey for instance. Now Emburey is a fine cricketer and a nice man. But he is the only person in the whole shabby history of these enterprises who actually signed up for rebel tours to South Africa on two separate occasions. Short of standing on the square at Lord's on the Saturday of a Test match and giving the V-sign to the Long Room, it is hard to imagine how anyone can have shown greater unconcern about whether he plays for England or not. For him, forgiveness was instant. For Gower, there was none. The whole business reflected badly on English cricket; the dissidents were right to make themselves heard.

A first-class mess

Before the First World War, my predecessor Sydney Pardon must have been able, as he wrote his Notes (presumably with a quill pen rather than a world processor), to sit back and reflect at leisure on the season just gone and contemplate the one ahead. Wisden's role is to celebrate cricket as well as to indulge in anguished analysis of it. I was hoping to finish these Notes in an appropriately spring-like fashion; summer's coming, the Australians are coming, there's some very fine young players breaking into county cricket. It's still a beautiful game. Last year I saw two of the best days' cricket I have ever seen in my life: the Sunday of the Lord's Test and, in improbably blistering heat, the last day of Durham's game against Northamptonshire at Stockton-on-Tees.

I was starting to ruminate happily on these memories when news came through that the secretary of ICC had announced that he did not think the matches played on the rebel tours in South Africa before 1991 were first-class, which put many of the statistics in this and every other existing record book in doubt. His view was endorsed by the full ICC in the very week Wisden went to press. There was no time to alter the statistics in this edition; indeed a full year will hardly be enough.

I have never wavered in my view that the rebel tours were immoral. However, first-class status in cricket does not imply a moral judgement; in any case it is outrageous to make that judgement 11 years after the event. The matches palpably fitted ICC's own definition of what constitutes first-class cricket and Wisden strongly opposes any change in their status. Cricket's rulers did little to stop the tours when they were taking place. Now, when they are history, they have responded with a piece of vindictiveness that has a minimum effect on the players involved and a maximum effect on the integrity of the game's statistics. Do such details matter? I think so.

But anyway, as I was saying, it's the little things that are really bothersome...

© John Wisden & Co