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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Watching Kent lose on TV


Napoleon, when in exile on St Helena, used to receive news of how badly things were going with the Bourbon Restoration, and mightily did it depress him. The physical distance between him and France did not dampen the disappointment one bit.

Having spent last weekend watching recordings of Kent being swept away by the undercurrent of defeat when just an inch away from the shore of victory not once, but twice, I know how he felt. You would think that being separated from the carnage by 12,000 miles would ease the pain. It does not.

There was also the women’s test match between England and Australia from Canterbury, allowing me to think myself once more at St Lawrence in August. However, my Blean correspondent was quick to send caution. His email compared it to the 1969 Gillette Cup semi-final. It was the summer of Woodstock. My correspondent’s view is that what the festival was to rock’n’roll, the fixture between Derbyshire and Sussex was to slow scoring, a marker that no future event would surpass. So it was a warning to be heeded.

Look at the scorecard and you see his point. Derbyshire hewed 136 from the granite of 57 overs, PJK Gibbs leading the resistance with an innings of 44 that was as dogged as a pack of foxhounds (unfortunately Alan Gibson does not appear to have been there to describe the innings in its full horror). Sussex could merely hang on briefly to the crevices of the rock face; all out for 49 in the 36th over.

The one thing I would say is that limited-overs cricket on a poor pitch (“slow and stopping” is Wisden’s description of the Chesterfield strip on that occasion) can be fascinating. Canterbury this week was merely slow, on the evidence of the two hours or so I have watched so far. Heeding my correspondent’s advice, I turned to the men’s game.

First, I watched Glamorgan v Kent in a group match in the 50 over competition. I used to cross the Severn Bridge to watch cricket at Sophia Gardens at some point in most seasons and always found it a convivial place to spectate. Now, over-reaching ambition has turned it into an arena in which county cricketers are hobbits in the full-sized world.

Though the game was a fortnight old when I watched, I had avoided the result, so the arrow of disappointment met no armour as it pierced my heart. Kent were put in. The Sams Northeast and Billings put on 104 for the third wicket. Northeast has had a good year and seems to be enjoying the captaincy. Rob Key remains club captain, but Northeast leads on the field. Key sits out the shorter forms and was doing a fine job in the commentary box, combining dry wit with observation of the subtleties.

Kent seem to be doing a better job of retaining their young players. The captaincy may be part of the deal that has persuaded Northeast to sign a long-term extension to his contract. Daniel Bell-Drummond has just done the same. It may help that Joe Denly and Matt Coles have returned after unsuccessful stints elsewhere, and that Billings is in the England ODI team without having had to move.

But today all the younger ones were outshone by the old stager, Darren Stevens. What a remarkable cricketer Stevens is. A couple of years ago I was there to watch him play one of the finest innings I have seen to beat Lancashire on the last day of the season. Here he made 110 from 64 balls, with nine fours and six sixes. Just as it was that day at Canterbury, his batting was aggressive, but almost wholly orthodox, each shot right for the ball it dispatched.

How gettable was Glamorgan’s target of 318? The pitch was amiable, if a little slow. There hasn’t yet been time to assess the extent to which the new fielding restrictions will restore the balance between bat and ball in the closing overs. Two fielders are allowed outside the circle in the first ten overs, four in overs 11 to 40 and five thereafter. This suggests that the gorging by batsmen in the final ten overs that we saw at the World Cup will be curtailed. Not today though.

Like Kent, Glamorgan had a solid stand early on: 132 between Bragg and Ingram for the second wicket. Ingram went on to a run-a-ball hundred, but momentum was lost mid-innings, thanks to none other than Stevens, who bowled his ten overs for only 38.

Stevens reminds me of Chris Harris. Both deliver ambling bowling that looks innocuous but makes decent batsmen into fools; both can be devastating bat-in-hand. The difference? Harris played 250 ODIs (taking 203 wickets), Stevens none. I doubt that anybody can think of a better player without an international appearance.

When there was a brief rain interruption in the 42nd over, Glamorgan looked out of it, needing 13 an over with four wickets standing. On the resumption, Kent fell apart in a spectacular manner. The game should have been over when the hard-hitting Chris Cooke was caught-and-bowled off a skyer by Ivan Thomas, only for the replay to reveal a front-foot no ball, one of three no-balls in this period. There was a decent excuse: a wet ball, which made it particularly difficult for spinner Tredwell, but there was some poor bowling and fielding, as well as some fine hitting, by Cooke in particular. The win came with two balls to spare.

The Kentish benchmark for wrenching defeat from the certain hands of victory remains the Sunday League contest against Middlesex at Folkestone in 1972. Chasing 128, Kent were 109 for three, then 126 for six, only to lose the last four wickets without addition (including a malaria-stricken Asif Iqbal at No 10). The Glamorgan game was an honourable contender, but at least, thanks to later rain, they still got through to the knock-out stage.

The second Kent fixture of my weekend was the T20 quarter-final against Lancashire at St Lawrence. I watched this one just a few hours after it was played, again without knowledge of the result. This was a defeat of a different school. Kent struggled throughout, only coming close to an unlikely win at the end, but then losing anyway, by a squeak.

It was good to see the old ground full, though the current definition of “full”—7,000—is less than half the number of us who squeezed in for the Gillette Cup semi-final in ’67. Five-figure crowds were common for the big one-day games of the seventies. It didn’t help that plenty of thought appeared to have been put into finding ways to block the view from the stands. The sightscreen put the lower pavilion out of commission, the TV scaffolding the upper; the dug-outs got in the way of the corner of the Underwood-Knott where I spent seventies summers.

There has been pleasing news about county attendances elsewhere in the last few weeks. There were 6,000 at the Oval for a 50-over game I watched on TV. Best of all, 14,000 attended the three-days of a Championship game at Scarborough. So if county cricket is played at times and in places that suit people, they will watch. This statement of the obvious will be ignored by the ECB as the Championship is further curtailed, probably to take place only on weekdays in April and September.

Kent were put in, and struggled almost throughout, losing wickets whenever a smidgen of momentum had been gained. That they reached 142 was largely thanks to an eighth-wicket partnership of 52 between Tredwell and Fabian Cowdrey, who looks much like his Uncle Graham at the crease, which is no bad thing at all.

A low first-innings in any form of cricket always brings with it the hope that the pitch is to blame, and that the opposition will find run-making just as difficult, if not more so. This strip was next to the one that induced torpor among the women, and shot making was not straightforward; orthodoxy is imposed upon batsmen by this sort of surface. A couple of early wickets gave substance to the hope, but as long as Ashwell Prince remained, there seemed to be inevitability about the outcome, particularly when he was joined by Jos Buttler in a fifth-wicket partnership of 73.

England players appear for their counties so rarely these days that some Lancashire folk may not have remembered that Buttler had joined them from Somerset. He was very impressive, the one batsman able to play cross-bat shots and reverse sweeps with confidence in the conditions. With two overs to go and the partnership intact, 13 were needed, nothing at all in T20 terms. Prince was out to the first ball of the over, but seven were scored off the remainder, leaving six to win, but effectively five as in a tie Lancashire would have lost fewer wickets.

Why is there is no “super” over in the event of a tie in this competition, as there is everywhere else? T20 is only about entertainment so razzmatazz should be pursued to its logical outcome. Deciding a tie on a statistical nicety is like finishing a punk rock concert with the national anthem (actually, the Sex Pistols did end concerts with God Save the Queen so I’ll leave it there).

There was a single off the first ball, then Buttler and Croft holed out in the deep off successive deliveries by Coles. New Batsmen James Faulkner missed the fourth ball, and for the first time in the game Kent were on equal terms.

However, Faulkner—man of the match in the World Cup final a few months ago—is developing the habit of trampling on my dreams. Two runs from the fifth ball left two needed for the tie. They were fluked. Faulkner’s drive hit the stumps at the bowler’s end and ricocheted at precisely the angle needed to place the ball between two fielders to allow a safe two to be taken. It was Jack Bond diving to catch Asif Iqbal all over again.

I look back to the glory days of the seventies and think that we should have enjoyed them even more than we did had we known that decades of frustration were to follow. Distance does not temper that feeling, but the thing about sport is that there is always another game. Surrey v Kent in the 50-over quarter-final, in this case.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Canterbury Week 1965: It Begins

Thursday 5 August 1965.

LBJ is in the White House. That night Morley Safer’s CBS News report showing US troops setting light to the homes of unarmed Vietnamese villagers starts to turn public opinion against the war.

In London, the Wilson Cabinet and the House of Commons meet for the last time before the summer break. “The whole place is completely conked out” records the Minister of Housing and diarist, Richard Crossman. “We have taken a terrible beating; our own people are disheartened and the press are utterly vicious.”

The Beatles are No 1 with Help!, both on Top of the Pops—Alan Freeman presenting on BBC 1—and at the cinemas.

In Kent, My Life in Cricket Scorecards goes to the cricket for the first time, fifty years ago today.

It was Canterbury Week, Middlesex the visitors. A Thursday, half-day closing in Herne Bay, so our grocer’s shop shut at one and we got there for the afternoon session. My Dad had been lent somebody’s membership card (thus adding a touch of illicitness to the outing) and we took our seats in the what was then referred to as “the wooden stand”, but which now bears the names of two of those playing that day, not much more than boys, but who have been surpassed by none in the half-century since, in my eyes at least: Derek Underwood and Alan Knott. Mike Brearley appeared for the visitors.

Piecing together the evidence from Wisden, I certainly saw Knott bat, but not for long; he was out for a duck, just as he was the last time I saw him, twenty summers later. I have no specific memory of Brian Luckhurst completing the first century that I ever saw, but the Wisden helpfully says that he batted for three hours 40 minutes, so I must have joined in the applause, and that for a jaunty eighty by Alan Dixon.

Dixon had a good game. Kent had scored only 138 batting first, but his five for 22 had helped conjure a lead of 65 as Middlesex were skittled for 73. Four of Dixon’s five victims went for ducks, as did two more off Alan Brown the fast bowler. Those were the days of uncovered pitches of course, but Wisden’s report makes no mention of it having rained and tellingly, young Underwood didn’t even get a bowl. Difficult pitches were accepted as part of the game.

Batting was easier by Thursday afternoon. Bob Wilson, captain in Colin Cowdrey’s absence at the test match, declared at nine down at about the time we left. Eric Russell made a hundred, but Kent still won by 76 runs.

In truth, I remember nothing precise about the play. But the occasion stays with me: the buzz of the stand, abating as the first ball of the over was bowled; the attractiveness of white movement on green grass; all those numbers flicking over on the scoreboard; a scorecard (cricket and writing went together even then); the routine, the ritual, the theatre. 

The recruiting officer signed me up there and then.



Sunday, August 2, 2015

A test match umpire tries and fails to teach My Life in Cricket Scorecards to ski

The time: 1985. The place: a hillside in the Massif Central, France. Imagine yourself in a helicopter looking down on the snow-covered scene.

You see two figures. The first is flat on the ground, rigid with fear at the imminent prospect of sliding to an icy oblivion. He is thinking that he will die not knowing the identity of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year for 1985.

The second is standing, wedging the first perfectly securely, coaxing him to a standing position (but not in the accidental racing configuration of the skis that led to the wiping out of not one, but two lines of Gallic infants the previous day).

The first figure is My Life in Cricket Scorecards, the second Barry Dudleston of Leicestershire, Gloucestershire and Rhodesia, scorer of 32 first-class hundreds, then at the beginning of a distinguished umpiring career that would include two test matches.

It was a joint trip by two Bristol schools. Barry was tagging along to enjoy the skiing and to help some of the novices stay upright (failing in my case), and a few of us teachers were also there as paying guests (in view of what follows it is important to establish early on that at no time was I responsible for the welfare of the young people present).

I recognised Barry as soon as I got on the bus that took us from Bristol to central France, but it wasn’t until the second night we became acquainted. He was impressed that I had seen him make 171 not out against Kent at Canterbury 15 years before. It was the innings that established him in the Leicestershire line-up. At No 4 rather than the opener’s position that he filled for most of his career, he batted almost throughout the second day and was 159 not out at the close, a fair rate of progress for the time, particularly as Norman Graham, Kent’s opening bowler, delivered 50 overs for 70 runs (yes, 50 overs; I checked).

Of course, it was a delight for a cricket fan to sit in a French hotel room listening to tales of the game, particularly as told by as entertaining a raconteur as Barry. But a bottle of whisky made an untimely but telling intervention. I made the beginner’s error of trying to keep up with a pace practised over almost twenty years on the county circuit. Imagine going for a run with Usain Bolt and trying to keep up; the physical consequences would not be dissimilar. By refilling my glass from the bottle and his own mostly from the tap, my Clifton correspondent—who I also met on this trip—did not materially assist matters.

My recall of the later events of the evening is imprecise, but it is reported that at one point I rose from the horizontal to correct a minor error of cricket statistics before returning at once to the recumbent. I skied little over the following two days, hence the lesson on the last day that did manage to get me down a hill intact and free of collateral damage to other skiers. I have not put on skis again from that day to this.

Over the next three or four years there were regular catch ups, often on Thursday evenings. The usual venue was The Vittoria on Whiteladies Road, run by Sam Glenn, a keen cricket fan. Sam was a resourceful landlord as exemplified by the Vittoria’s winning of a prize in the Pub Garden of the Year competition despite not having a garden, an impediment that a lesser man would have regarded as insuperable. He also had problems with his sight to deal with. Or at least I assume he did. It would explain why most Thursday nights he called closing time and shut the doors apparently not having seen that we were still there, drinking.

Barry was in the category of batsmen just below international level. Several players with career figures similar to his collected a few caps: David Steele, Graham Barlow and Roger Tolchard for example. He might have done so if a run of form had synchronised with the selectoral mercuriality of those times.
Instead he had the satisfaction of being at the heart of the successful Leicestershire team led by Ray Illingworth that won the Championship in 1975 and four one-day titles too, a record bettered only by Kent in the seventies (Lancashire won more one-day titles than Leicestershire, but not the Championship).

Illingworth was the key. He moved from Yorkshire for the 1969 season, taking the captaincy, disillusioned by Yorkshire’s feudal approach to its professionals. It seemed an odd move at the time. His home county had just completed a hat-trick of Championship titles, while Leicestershire were as unfashionable as a powdered wig. It made all the difference to Leicestershire; to Yorkshire too. Yorkshire led by Illingworth would have had a much better seventies than did Boycott’s unhappy band.

Barry regarded Illingworth’s cricketing knowledge and nous as unequalled. One example from dozens cited during those Thursday evening conversations: Illingworth could predict how many runs were in a one-day pitch with oracular accuracy. “This is a 180/220/240 pitch” he would tell his team of a Sunday afternoon. They then knew what pace to set, how many runs they could safely concede, and what level of risk they should take.

He was also the focus of a large number of funny stories, oddly for a man who was never deliberately humorous and, like many from the Ridings, wore dourness as a badge of pride. Much of this stemmed from the fact that, in a career that straddled five decades and consisted of more than 1,200 innings, he never, on any single occasion, believed himself to have been dismissed because the bowler bowled a ball that was better than he was. There was always an excuse so cast-iron that, by comparison, the Queen Mary appeared made of rice paper.

The apogee was reached on a benefit tour of the Caribbean. Leicestershire found themselves playing under a baking sun on a pitch from which steam rose as the bowler came in. Illingworth went out to bat wearing a sunhat, the first time that anybody could remember him donning any manner of head gear on the field. He was soon out, and as he walked back to the pavilion a good deal of money was laid down on whether his excuse would rest in the pitch or the hat.

The dressing room was tense when Illingworth returned as they waited for his preferred explanation. “How can they expect anybody to bat on a pitch like that?” he said. “Besides, my hat got in my eyes.”

Illingworth was also responsible for Barry’s fledgling career as a wicketkeeper. When Roger Tolchard was selected for MCC in the traditional season-opener versus the champion county at Lord’s, Leicestershire were without a stumper for a match against Cambridge University. When Illingworth asked if anybody had ever kept wicket before, Barry responded in the affirmative. This was a flat-out lie, but his view was that any opportunity to wear gloves to protect against the chilling April winds off the Fens should be taken.

He did enough of a job to be reinstated later in the season when Tolchard committed the cardinal sin of missing an easy chance off Illingworth’s bowling. Things went well until presented with a stumping chance when Illingworth lured a batsman down the pitch. Barry took the ball cleanly and with a flourish turned to the square leg umpire expecting the raised finger to be accompanied with a nod of appreciation to the skill of the keeper.

Instead, the hand remained by the official’s side, but he was laughing heartily, as were all the players. Except, tellingly, Illingworth. After gathering the ball, Barry’s sweeping movement with the gloves had failed to make any contact with the stumps and the batsman had returned to the crease bails intact. Thus ended a promising wicketkeeping career.

Playing for another county, Barry might have developed a reputation as an all-rounder. But for Leicestershire there were four slow bowlers ahead of him: the test off spinners Illingworth and Birkenshaw and slow left-armers Steele and Balderstone, so his own left-arm spin was not given the exposure he felt it deserved. “Fred Titmus took 3,000 wickets” he once told me. “How many of those does he remember? I took 47 and I can talk you through every one of them.”

After a spell as Gloucestershire coach (which is what took him to Bristol) Barry joined the first-class umpires list, on which he served with distinction until compulsorily retired on reaching 65. He regularly finished near the top of the assessments and was popular and respected around the county circuit.

Barry umpired two test matches in the era when officials were from the host country: against the West Indies at Edgbaston in 1991 and Pakistan at Lord’s in 1992. Along with my Clifton correspondent, I had the pleasure of being his guest on the Saturday of the latter game. From our complementary seats in the Mound Stand we watched Pakistan achieve a lead of 38 against an England attack of Malcolm, De Freitas, Lewis, Salisbury and Botham. Only now have I realised that we saw Botham’s final bowl in test cricket.

We have always regretted not taking up the offer of more free tickets for the Sunday, which turned out to be one of the great test days. England were dismissed for 175 by a combination of top-class fast bowling from Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, and Mushtaq Ahmed’s leg spin. Chris Lewis gave us his finest hour (or five minutes, at least) and removed three of the top four for ducks, turning a target of 137 from a hillock to a mountain. They got there by two wickets, thanks to judicious hitting from Wasim and Waqar.

For many years Barry led bands of some England’s more discerning, less barmy, supporters on overseas tours. It was a pleasure to catch up with them in Sydney, Wellington, Rotorua, Auckland and Napier.

Barry Dudleston was 70 a couple of weeks ago. Happy birthday Barry, and thanks for the skiing lesson.