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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Wellington v Auckland, T20, Basin Reserve, 22 December 2016

It is twenty-twenty time in the southern hemisphere. On Wednesday, there were 38,000 at the Adelaide Oval to see the Adelaide Aardvarks play the Brisbane Bollweevils. The next day, about 300 of us turned up for the New Zealand equivalent at the Basin between Wellington and Auckland. Believe it or not, this represents an improvement on last season when the T20 competition was done by the time the school holidays started, played mostly in windswept grounds in front of handfuls of spectators dressed as Captain Oates. It culminated appropriately in a final on a near-empty provincial rugby ground that was home to neither team. It was a marketing catastrophe worthy of Gerald Ratner.
So this year the T20 is later with quite a few games at holiday venues, where  there should be decent crowds. There are mitigating factors for the modest attendance at the Basin on Thursday. The game started at 4 pm, the wind was as keen as a boy scout in bob-a-job week, and Wellington’s T20 season thus far had been a disaster, with four losses out of four, while Auckland had a 100% win record from the same number of games.
With Wellington 14 for three in the fourth over it appeared that the form book was being followed like a sacred text. Hamish Marshall—captain in this form of the game—led the way by attempting a single that was as self-deceiving as a Donald Trump tweet. He was run out by a couple of metres by a casual underarm direct hit by his opposite number Rob Nicol at mid off. Few were as quick as Marshall in his younger days, but age wearies us all.
Tom Blundell was next to go, to a good diving catch at mid wicket by Donovan Grobbelaar off Colin de Grandhomme, who took six wickets in the first innings of his maiden test in Christchurch against Pakistan recently. Do not be misled into thinking that he is the new Richard Hadlee; it was a performance that said more about the pitch than the bowler. I have been trying to think of a cricketer comparable to de Grandhomme and have come up with Keith Pont of Essex. This is not intended to be in any way derogatory; Pont was a good county all-rounder in a successful side. Like de Grandhomme his height could make his trundling medium-pacers a little more dangerous than face value suggested and he hit the ball hard as a batsman, but he was never (as far as I recall) spoken of as an international player and with good reason.
Auckland have potentially as quick a fast-bowling bowling combination as I can recall seeing in New Zealand. Tymal Mills, now of Sussex, partners Lockie Ferguson, recently seen bowling at 150 kph in the ODI series in Australia (a speed exceeded only by that at which it then came off the bat, alas).
Wellington’s two overseas players, Jade Dernbach of Surrey and Evan Gulbis of Tasmania were both dropped following a late night out on the evening prior to Wellington’s previous game (and let us forgo remarks about a late night in Nelson being any time after 9 pm). This was to have been Gulbis’s last game before returning to the Big Bash, but Dernbach now has the unexpected joy of New Year in the old country.
Mills’ speed accounted for Grant Elliott. The ball was on to him sooner than he expected, so his cut went straight to third man, one of only two fielders outside the circle at that stage of the game.
But things were not as grim for the home team as it appeared. Opener Michael Papps was joined by Luke Ronchi in a match-winning stand of 115 in 11 overs. Ronchi was omitted from the national one-day team for the series in Australia because of loss of form, but it is hard to recall him striking the ball more sweetly than he did here. He hit Mark Chapman’s slow-left-arm for three (big) sixes off successive balls in the eleventh over in an arc from long off to deep mid-wicket.
Papps batted right through the innings for 62 not out. I don’t think that it Is correct to say that he carried his bat, as that only applies when ten wickets have fallen, but it was a fine achievement whatever it is called. Though there was not the late-innings explosion for which Wellington would have hoped given that wickets were in hand, a total of 173 will win more games than it loses.
T20 captains these days change their bowlers like Imelda Marcos changed her shoes. By the ninth over Nicol had used six bowlers, but Marshall beat that with a different bowler for each of the first six overs of the Auckland innings. Sometimes this is more unsettling for the bowlers than for the batsmen, and can lead to some curious deployments of resources. Here, for example, de Grandhomme bowled two overs for ten runs, but was not used again.
Predictably this was all too much for the Basin Reserve scoreboard, a veteran purveyor of fake news. Today it insisted that Auckland wicket-keeper Glenn Phillips had bowled three overs when it was plain for all to see that he had retained the pads and gauntlets throughout.
Auckland started brightly but never got into the higher gear needed for a chase of this size. That Colin Munro—as pugilistic a practitioner as any in New Zealand—took 44 balls over his 38 sums it up.
Over the past year or so I have noted a retreat to orthodoxy among batsmen in T20. Here, there were only three reverse shots, including two dilscoops off successive deliveries from Patel to Chapman, perfectly executed for two boundaries (Patel was not subjected to the indignity of a long stop that befell some of the England attack at the Chennai test match). Perhaps my spectating is unrepresentative, but it seems that the high-risk trick shots are being left to those who are really good at them, like Sam Billings who demonstrated a complete array at the A ODI I saw at Canterbury in July.
There was a fine standard of catching in the Auckland innings, particularly two from Matt Taylor. Chapman went to a running, diving effort at long off, followed by Munro, caught at deep mid-wicket. Taylor caught the ball, threw it in the air, stepped over the boundary and back again, then completed the catch. I went more than four decades without seeing a catch taken like this, but now it happens several times a year. Taylor came in as one of the replacements for the carousing couple and his fine performance—20 at the end of the innings and three overs for 22 in addition to the catches—may have been a factor in persuading Wellington to hand Dernbach his boarding pass.
The best catch of the day was taken by Luke Woodcock who leapt in defiance of gravity, age and probability to take a catch that appeared to be well out of reach and already past him. Thinking that it had finished the game, Woodcock turned to crowd and raised his arms, soaking up the adulation. It was sometime before he realised that the shouts of his teammates were not to join in the veneration, but rather to persuade him to return the ball to them: Arnel had overstepped and it was a no ball.
Wellington won by 33 runs, but remained bottom of the table while Auckland were still top. The top three go into the two play-off games, so Wellington can afford only one more loss at most from the second half of the round-robin phase of the competition.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Graham Johnson at 70


The seventies and eighties were decades of great injustice. The Guildford Four; the Birmingham Six; Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov; Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko; Geoff Miller of Derbyshire selected for 34 tests while Graham Johnson of Kent played none.


Johnson and Miller were both off-spinning allrounders. Their first-class career stats are quite similar. Johnson averaged 24.5 with the bat and 31 with the ball. Miller’s figures are 26.5 and 28 respectively. Bear in mind that Johnson played much more of his career on uncovered pitches, that as an opener he was exposed more often to the new ball, and that he was down the bill to Underwood when the ball was turning (though at Canterbury the slope meant that he would always take the Nackington Road End while Underwood stalked with the Pavilion behind him).

Graham Johnson made his debut in 1965, but did not find a regular place until 1970—Championship year—batting mostly at No 3, but opening when Brian Luckhurst was playing for England. An average of 23.76 may not sound much, but he made three hundreds, two in wins. He also took 25 wickets, 12 of which came in the game against Surrey at Blackheath that was the first of three late-August wins that propelled Kent towards the title (and yes, Underwood was playing).

The last of these is part of Kent folklore. With eight balls left, Surrey needed 13 to win with the tenth-wicket pair of Arnold Long and Pat Pocock together.  Surrey themselves were still on the fringe of the Championship race, so even in those cautious days felt an obligation to go for the win. Pocock’s slog (I wasn’t there, but saw enough of him to be confident that this is the right word) appeared to be clearing the long-off boundary, but Asif Iqbal moved like the wind to pluck the catch from the air.

Johnson was a first-team regular for the next 15 seasons, and contributed handsomely to Kent’s ten trophy wins of the golden decade. Opening the batting, he made a thousand runs in each of 1973, 1974 and 1975, and was the highest scorer in the last of those years.

When Mike Denness was sacked from the captaincy (despite winning two trophies) in 1976, Johnson was his choice—and that of many supporters—to replace him, but he became Asif Iqbal’s vice-captain instead. When Asif was sacked at the end of the season (despite winning the Championship jointly with Middlesex) because of his association with Kerry Packer, Alan Ealham, rather than Johnson, was chosen to replace him. It was Johnson’s bad luck to have had a poor, injury-blighted season at the wrong time, though it was widely thought that the EW Swanton and the other old school ties on the committee were relieved to have an excuse to turn elsewhere, as Johnson was reputed to be unafraid to speak his mind and even (on the basis of not much more than that he studied at the London School of Economics when it was at the centre of sixties radicalism) a bit of a leftie, though the fact that Johnson wintered in Vorster’s South Africa suggests that he was not exactly in the vanguard of international socialism.

He would have been the best choice to succeed Ealham after the terrible 1980 season, but after prevaricating by returning to Asif for a couple of years, the county turned to the next generation. Kent fans of that generation still pass rainy afternoons by debating whether Johnson or Bob Woolmer was the best captain that Kent never had. A couple of years of either would probably have made the following decade less painful.  

As a middle-order all-rounder in the Championship winning side of 1978 Johnson made 685 runs and took 56 wickets at 19 apiece. He continued to open in one-day cricket for a few more seasons, filling in at the top of the order as late as the 1983 NatWest final.

Johnson took 105 wickets in one-day cricket, or, put another way, just 7 a year over the 15 seasons when he was more or less a regular. I always felt that he was under-bowled in the shorter game, especially in the first half of his career. It was a time when medium pace was king, with all sorts of mediocre trundlers favoured over quality spinners.

He was one of the best of a fine fielding side, succeeding Colin Cowdrey at first slip, but being somewhat more mobile than his predecessor on the boundary on Sunday afternoons.

Quite often in the mid-seventies Johnson would be in a minority (sometimes a small one) in the playing XI as a non-international player. He, Ealham and the others were the chorus line without which the stars could not perform. But once in a while he stopped the show with a solo, most notably in the 55-over final against Worcestershire at Lord’s in 1976.

Opening the batting against Imran Khan, Johnson made 78 and put on 110 for the first wicket with Woolmer, the basis of a total of 236, which sounded much more formidable then than it does now.  Kent won by 43 runs, with four catches by Johnson, including three off Underwood, all (in my memory at least) on the boundary. One of them—Imran I think—was taken on the run in front of us in the Warner Stand.

The end of Graham Johnson’s Kent career was unfortunate and said much about the medieval attitudes of the committee room of the eighties. It came about on the first morning of the game against the Australians in 1985 when Johnson was told he was playing shortly after learning that his contract was not to be renewed. His refusal was termed with sufficient robustness as to ensure the immediate cessation of his employment, so he did not get the dignified farewell that his service deserved (Brian Luckhurst had to step in, playing his first game in nine years).

These days, relations between the committee and the players are conducted in a manner that acknowledges that feudalism ended a while ago, not least because players who were mistreated by the old regime have moved into the committee room. Graham Johnson has chaired the cricket committee for more than a decade, a tough job with the money short.

Johnson probably wasn’t quite international class, but a number of players who were no better have a collection of England caps nevertheless. His off spin would have been more testing than that of Moeen Ali and Gareth Batty in India at the moment (but then, how are spin bowlers to develop if half the County Championship is played before May is out?).

Graham Johnson turned 70 recently, though this photograph (taken at Tunbridge Wells in July) makes that hard to believe. He and Derek Underwood both look ready to tie up an end each for an hour or so after the interval.  There may not have been any tests, but few players have won more domestic trophies than Graham Johnson and we in Kent were fortunate to have enjoyed his career.