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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Dixon’s great performance: 10 to 16 June 1967

No doubt about the performance of the week this week: Alan Dixon’s seven for 15 for Kent against Surrey in the Gillette Cup quarter-final at the Oval. I assume that he was in seam-up rather than off-spin mode, judging from what the report says about the pitch. One thing that seems constant through the ages is that people stand around pitches when the unexpected happens seeking an oracular explanation for what has occurred. 

Dixon’s performance was then the finest recorded in what we now call List A cricket. Half a century on, it still ranks as equal 17th best, along with Richard Hutton for Yorkshire against Worcestershire in 1969. Keith Boyce took eight for 26 for Essex at Old Trafford in 1971, an extraordinary performance in a 40-over game where he was limited to eight overs, and against the only team to have won the Sunday League at that point. There have been only two other performances better than Dixon’s in games between first-class counties: Mikey Holding, eight for 21 for Derbyshire v Sussex in 1988; and Simon Francis, whose eight for 66 for Somerset against Derbyshire in 2004 comprised more than ten percent of his List A career haul. Derek Underwood’s eight for 31 against Scotland in 1987 is the only improvement for Kent in the intervening half century.

Alan Dixon is rarely mentioned when Kent supporters reminisce about the great days, probably because he retired before the trophy era gained momentum, but it is good to be reminded of what a fine season he had in 1967.

In 2017, the week has seen 50-over aggregates of 602, 834 and 743, with 370 an insufficient target at Chelmsford. Explaining this to the folk of 1967 would be like telling them about drones, iPads or Donald Trump—to them fantastic creations of fiction.

Back then, Yorkshire fell four short of Lancashire’s 194 in 58 overs and Somerset’s 184 beat Northamptonshire by 36 runs. The only quarter-final that hinted at the overcoming of ball by bat was at Hove where Hampshire fell nine short of Sussex’s 233. The reasons for the difference between the ages are well-rehearsed: pitches, fielding restrictions, but most of all mindset—an appreciation of what is possible. Then, making the stop press of the evening paper, now instant transmission around the world. 

Is it better? Backwatersman has recently recalled becoming bored by Dawid Malan’s hitting of sixes. An issue that many of us have with T20 is that it makes the extraordinary commonplace. This week (2017) in the Champions Trophy semi-final England were tested in trickier conditions than they are used to, and rightly so when a world championship is at stake. A virtuoso should have a wide repertoire. It is great that players these days have wifi shots at their command, but they should play more often in conditions that deprive them of their gadgets and leave them depending upon their mental arithmetic. Some of the best one-day games I have seen were played on tricky surfaces.

Bowling of historic proportions nevertheless left the Surrey authorities worried that the crowd of 8,000 (there were two bigger at the other games) would feel short-changed, so had the bright idea of the two teams playing a twenty-over-a-side match to fill the time “for the purse of 100 guineas” a healthy supplement to the winning side’s pay packet in 1967. So there we are. The first T20 county match was played at the Oval between Surrey and Kent on 14 June 1967. Kent won, but the details seem to have disappeared.

Just as T20 appeared like a temporal anomaly, so the possibility of white cricket balls was raised, not in the sports pages, but in the Times diary, reporting on the suggestion of 81-year-old Foster Sproxton, who, like many of us, could never watch a fast bowler “wiping a damp ball on white flannels without thinking of Lady Macbeth”. His central point—that a white ball is easier for spectators to see—remains sound, as does MCC’s response that white balls lose their colour too quickly (and these days, they don’t swing). That blue balls were used in late Victorian women’s cricket is a revelation, possibly an early example of mansplaining.

Earlier in the week, Kent played Middlesex at home starting on the day after the match between the two teams at Lord’s was drawn. Kent played two more sets of back-to-back fixtures later in the season, so it appears to be a scheduling feature.

The match displayed the best and worst of three-day cricket in this era. The first day was as uneventful as Theresa May’s adolesence, as Middlesex ground 239 from 104 overs. By the end of the second Middlesex appeared in control, 173 ahead with eight standing. The third day was a thriller, starting with a Middlesex collapse and culminating in a winning Kent run chase. Denness. Luckhurst and Cowdrey all made fifties, but it was Alan Knott who caught the eye of AA Thomson, attacking every ball “not rashly but with…dancing delight”. Thomson compares Knott’s batting with Compton, the ultimate praise for those of a certain age. Knott features in almost every report of Kent games as the realisation grew that he was something special.

The game was played at Rectory Field, Blackheath another venue that was to disappear from the roster in another five years and which I never visited. Like the Bat and Ball at Gravesend, it is still a cricket ground.

At Headingley, India started the third day looking as if they would lose by the end of the day; in fact they lasted well into the fifth, thanks to fine batting from Engineer, Wadekar, Hanument Singh and, especially, the captain, the Nawab of Pataudi junior, who made 129 to follow his first innings 64. Most of the talk was still about Geoffrey Boycott and whether or not he should be dropped after his deliberative double hundred.
Elsewhere, the Times diary featured Tom Stoppard (a big cricket fan). 

The play turned out to be The Real Inspector Hound, a more accessible work than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, one that requires an actor to be on stage for the duration, playing a corpse. They always receive the loudest cheer of the evening.

The ITV franchises were redistributed this week, a change that would create Thames, London Weekend, Yorkshire and HTV. In a letter to The Times Alan Bennett pointed out the dependence of the new franchises on BBC talent. Bennett had a primetime Saturday sketch show On the Margin on BBC 1 with a supporting cast that included John Sargeant, to become one of television’s best-known political journalists.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Single wicket in Kent; single-minded from Boycott 3 – 9 June 1967

Anybody in need of reassurance that the world is a better place in 2017 than it was fifty years ago need only read this report of a match between the England women’s team and the Lord’s Taverners, played at the Oval.

Where to begin? For a start it is in the news pages, rather than sport, a bit of colour at the bottom of page two. To add to the disappointment, it was written by Philip Howard, later a distinguished literary editor of The Times, and a fine writer for the paper until his death in 2014. He tries to be nice, but the allure of a rolling pin metaphor becomes too much. One might have expected more of a former women’s lacrosse correspondent of the Glasgow Herald

Perhaps most grating is his use of first names. Who would guess that opener “Enid” is Enid Bakewell, named by Wisden as one of the five best women cricketers for all countries? I expect that the bowlers were ungainly compared to Statham. Roughly 98% of male bowlers were, after all. And perhaps WG Grace would have been less scandalised by women playing cricket than Howard believes, given that the great man was taught the fundamentals of the game in the orchard at Downend partly by his mother, Martha.

In the first half of the week, for the first time this season, Kent had no fixture. But instead of a much-needed day off, the playing staff had to report to St Lawrence for a single-wicket competition. It was appropriate that Kent should participate in a revival of this once-popular form of the game as at its peak in the first half of the nineteenth century its most famous practitioners were all Kent players: Alfred Mynn, Nicholas Felix and Fuller Pilch. Perhaps the most famous contest of all took place at Lord’s in 1846, a two-innings contest. There were just two fielders available to the bowler, but no runs could be scored behind square, and to score a run the batsmen had to make it to the bowler’s end and back. Shots had to be played with at least one foot behind the front crease. Felix batted first and was bowled for a duck. Mynn replied with five. In his second innings, Felix faced 247 balls from which he scored three runs (one a wide) before being bowled, leaving Mynn the victor by an innings and two runs. The crowd that packed Lord’s loved it.*

By 1967 the rules of single-wicket had evolved so that it more resembled a normal game of cricket. Each player had the full complement of fielders available and matches were limited to eight overs a player. But out was out, so when Derek Underwood was out for a duck, Alan Dixon scored a single to progress. Scheduling must have been a nightmare. 

As might be expected, the all-rounders Dixon and Shepherd got through to the semis, joined by fast bowler Alan Brown and batsman John Prodger, who was in his last season (though he may not have known that at the time) after ten years as something of a bit player. He was renowned as an outstanding slip fielder. In the final, Prodger made an unbeaten 41 in his eight overs, which Dixon overcame to win the competition. He would represent Kent in the national competition at Lord’s later in the season.

The following day, again at St Lawrence, Kent played the International Cavaliers, a match I was present for. As I have written before, the extent to which the Cavaliers have been forgotten is reflected in the fact that my piece on them comes up second in a Google search behind a brief Wikipedia entry. The Cavaliers played against counties and other teams on Sunday afternoons live on BBC 2. As can be seen from the scorecard, the Cavaliers consisted of a mix of the best contemporary players—Sobers, Close, Boycott, Gibbs in this case—some famous names in or near retirement—Evans, Bailey, Trueman—and a few others to make up the numbers. The Cavaliers opener C Smith is Cammie Smith, a Bajan who played one test and later became an ICC match referee. Mohammad Younis became better known as Younis Ahmed during a long county career.
It was cricket designed for TV, a progenitor of World Series Cricket and T20 and it packed out Canterbury that afternoon as it did around the country every Sunday. The world’s best cricketer dominated the game: Sobers four for 18 and joint top scorer with 33 against Kent’s modest 120.

It was an unpredictable week in the Championship. Champions Yorkshire lost twice, and badly at that, at Lord’s and Bath. The top two, Hampshire and Leicestershire, both lost but kept their places. Tom Graveney “struggled” to a century against Warwickshire, according to the headline. Graveney struggling would be a better watch than most batsmen at their best. Middlesex followed their victory against Yorkshire by clinging on against Kent thanks to a two-and-a-half hour unbroken seventh-wicket partnership from Eric Russell and Harry Latchman. Mike Denness scored his first century of the summer, but it was an innings from Colin Cowdrey that had Vivian Jenkins purring in The Times.

Jenkins was a Welsh rugby international and former Glamorgan cricketer who had covered the MCC tour of Australia in 1946/7 and was rugby correspondent of the Sunday Times for many years. He was sensible enough to spend his retirement winters in New Zealand according to his obituary in The Guardian.

Cowdrey was, unusually, not in the test team for the first test against India at Headingley. It was the scene of Geoff Boycott’s most notorious innings, one that John Woodcock laid into in his report.

Nobody, I am certain, has scored more than Boycott’s unbeaten 246 and then been dropped, as he was for the second test.

The Middle East had descended into what we know as the Six Day War, the short duration measuring the degree to which the Arab alliance underestimated the Israeli military. Israel took over the Sinai, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Arab sector of Jerusalem, all of which except Sinai and Gaza it continues to control to some degree to the present day. Reporting from Beirut for The Times was Norman Fowler, still claiming expenses half a century on, now as Lord Speaker, having spent much of the interim as a leading Conservative politician.

*This account of Mynn v Felix is based on John Major’s More Than a Game. Major may not have been much of a prime minister but he’s a cracking cricket historian.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Kent trip up at Grace Road: 27 May - 2 June 1967

There is no sentence that can tell us more definitively how different things were in 1967 than that which follows. For several hours on Saturday 27 May and again on Bank Holiday Monday 29 May, the only thing on television in much of the Britain was County Championship cricket. BBC 1 had Middlesex versus Sussex from Lord’s. Most ITV regions showed the Roses Match from Old Trafford, while BBC Wales covered Glamorgan against Hampshire. BBC 2 did not open up until the evening, so it was county cricket or nothing.
In the event, on Saturday it was nothing, as the early summer deluge continued. No county cricket was played anywhere on Saturday. Most matches got going on Bank Holiday Monday, but the rain returned everywhere but Trent Bridge on Tuesday. Kent’s fixture at Edgbaston was washed away completely.

In the absence of any cricket to write about, John Woodcock devoted his Monday piece in The Times to an interview with Frank Woolley, holder for ever more of Kent’s first-class run scoring (47,868), appearance (764) and catching (773) records. Not forgetting 1,680 wickets, bettered only by Freeman, Blythe, Underwood and Wright. There were plenty of people around the Kent grounds in 1967 who had seen Woolley play, and he was always their favourite, not for the weight of the statistics, but because of the style in which he made his runs. Woolley was left-handed, and those who were still going strong when David Gower appeared said that he was the nearest they had seen. Woolley lived in Canada by this time, but returned reasonably often. I remember him sitting in the President’s tent one Canterbury Week in the late sixties, and there is a famous photo of Woolley, Ames and Cowdrey together in 1973, Kent’s three makers of a hundred hundreds.

Egged on by Woodcock, Woolley criticised the growing commercialisation of cricket, this at a time when advertising hoardings around the boundary were still a decade away on the Kent grounds. What would he have thought of logo-laden shirts and outfields?

There was more substance in his complaint about the slow scoring of the modern game, of which there was much evidence this week, notably at Grace Road where on the first day against Kent, Leicestershire squeezed 155 runs from the first 90 overs. Peter West’s report notes the arrival of drinks as the highlight of the first session (West’s piece is a rarity in that it records a dropped catch by Alan Knott).

This exercise in reliving 1967 is unapologetically nostalgic, but that is not the same as saying that cricket was better then. A torpor could quite easily possess proceedings then in a way rarely seen now. When was the last time you heard a slow hand clap? It was common enough then. A day’s County Championship these days is likely to be more reliably entertaining than it was fifty years ago (though uncovered pitches would be fun).

Kent lost the game because Leicestershire outdid them in the very qualities that had served them so well so far in 1967. Their pace attack of John Cotton (19 overs off the reel) and Terry Spencer was more dangerous than Graham and Sayer, and Jack Birkenshaw followed a hat-trick at Worcester by being Underwood’s equal.
Leicestershire’s other advantage was Tony Lock’s captaincy. Lock was lured back to English cricket from Perth by the offer of the captaincy at Grace Road. By 1967, his third season, he had brought about something of a renaissance (or perhaps simply naissance). Ray Illingworth completed the job, with five trophies in five years in the seventies. Meanwhile, Lock repeated the trick in the southern hemisphere, leading Western Australia to their first Sheffield Shield in twenty years. In 1967 he was still good enough for Peter West to describe him as the finest slow left-armer in the country, and was to be called up to join the MCC party in the Caribbean in the winter.

Earlier in the week, Leicestershire visited Worcester where 22 wickets fell on the Bank Holiday Monday. Off spinner Birkenshaw took his hat-trick as Worcestershire were dismissed for 91. Len Coldwell and Jack Flavell then bowled 35 overs between them (though not unchanged this time), taking nine wickets as Leicestershire gained a lead of 20, which Worcestershire overcame by the end of the day, though with the loss of two further wickets only for the rain to return on the third day.

I tweeted the result of the second XI match between Kent and Worcestershire at St Lawrence. It is not the intention to make this a regular feature unless something noteworthy occurred, but I was there for the first afternoon and remember two things about it. First, I collected the autographs of some Worcestershire players, including Joe Lister and Jim Standen. Lister was Worcestershire secretary. That one man could run the club and still find time to captain the second XI goes some way to refuting Woolley’s view of a game being overtaken by commercial interests. Lister went on to be secretary of Yorkshire during Boycott Civil War. Standen was the most distinguished of the dwindling band of footballer-cricketers, having kept goal at Wembley in winning West Ham teams in the FA Cup in 1964 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1965. Another, Ted Hemsley—at that time Shrewsbury Town’s left back—was also in the Worcestershire team.

The other thing I recall was that I retrieved a ball that had been hit for four and returned it to the fielder, John Dye, something that, as a dweller of the upper decks of stands where possible, I have never done since, though I did once dive out of the way at Maidstone from a six that a braver man would have tried to catch. Glenn Turner made the highest score of the match, and I probably saw him do it, the first time I watched one of New Zealand’s finest.

The scorecard of that game reveals that batsman and former vice-captain Bob Wilson was in the Kent side, dropped from the first team for the first time in more than a decade. From then on he was a mere stopgap, and retired at the end of the season. I recall at Dover in late August somebody asking him if he was playing in the Gillette Cup Final a few days later, a question that even a child could spot as insensitive given that everyone knew that the answer was no.

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released that week, and received an intelligent review in The Times.

The Summer of Love was not a universal phenomenon. The war in Vietnam raged on, the Middle East was about to explode and now Nigeria found itself on the brink of a civil war. The coastal province of Biafra seceded from the rest of the country this week, a decision that resulted in the Blue Peter Christmas appeal of 1968 being devoted to easing its children's starvation.