We’re now in mid-May, and, if all was right in the world, the West Indians ought to be arriving in England for their three-Test tour. That obviously won’t be happening.
There was a time when it would have been unthinkable that the West Indians would be granted only three Tests. Their first three tours, all before World War Two, comprised three Tests, but after that, until their decline in the last 20 years or so, they always had five. The one exception – the forgotten tour – was 1969.
1969. ….The moon landing; the Beatles’ last studio album (hence the title, geddit?); Richard Nixon inaugurated as US President. And in English cricket, the launch of the John Player League, a forty-over competition played on Sundays by the seventeen first-class counties. Lancashire, under Jack Bond, were the first winners.
The fact that the Sunday League was launched at all bears witness to the concerns of the Test and County Cricket Board (the forerunner of the England and Wales Cricket Board) about the state of English cricket. As the editor of Wisden, Norman Preston noted, “instant” cricket was an instant success. “Nevertheless “, he warned “this one-day “instant” cricket must never be regarded as a substitute for genuine first-class cricket.” There was an almost seismic development in the three-day County Championship. Brian Close’s Yorkshire, who had won the title for three years running, were deposed by Tony Lewis’ Glamorgan, who won it for the second time in their history. Yorkshire fell to thirteenth, the lowest place they had occupied in their history. They did win the 60-over Gillette Cup, beating Derbyshire in an exceptionally dull final at Lord’s by 69 runs.
In his Notes, Preston made some interesting comments about the duration of cricket matches. He mentioned that some people advocated increasing the duration of County Championship matches to four days – as was eventually to happen of course. Preston observed that “I can think of nothing more dreary than a four-day county match. Look what happened when Test matches were extended to five days – since then only a few have been worthwhile watching.”
Certainly recent Ashes series had not been too exciting. In the 25 Ashes Tests played since the start of the 1961 series in England only ten had ended in a positive result (four wins for England, six for Australia). That said, The Oval Test of 1968, which England won to level the series, was dramatic from a cricketing point of view, with spectators helping Colin Cowdrey and his team mop up the outfield on the last day, enabling Derek Underwood to bowl Australia. Out just in time. That England were in a position to win at all was due in no small measure to a century by the South African born Basil d’Oliveira, who had been recalled to the side having been dropped after the first Test despite making 87 not out in the second innings. Anyway, as everybody knows the brouhaha caused by d’Oliveira’s initially being omitted from, and then included in, MCC’s party to tour South Africa in 1968-69, led to the cancellation of that tour, South Africa’s sporting isolation and ultimately the collapse of apartheid and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela. So if one were compiling a list of significant Test matches, The Oval 1968 would have to come near the top.
England were in a reasonably good position at the start of the 1969 season, even though two of their great players of the ‘60s, Ken Barrington and Ted Dexter, bowed out after the 1968 Ashes. Cowdrey, who had become captain for the nth time almost by accident at the end of the 1967 season, seemed secure, despite, or perhaps because, of his less than glorious role in the d’Oliveira imbroglio.
A few weeks into the 1969 season, however, things were looking a bit different. Playing in a Sunday League match against Glamorgan at Maidstone on 25 May Cowdrey tore the Achilles tendon in his left ankle. His season was over.
A few days before that a genuine tragedy had befallen one of Cowdrey’s England colleagues. The Northamptonshire batsman Colin Milburn, famed for his prodigious bulk and aggressive strokeplay, was gradually establishing himself in the England side. He had made 83 in the Ashes Test at Lord’s and then a hundred against Pakistan in Karachi, on the tour that replaced the South African one. He started the 1969 season in blistering form but after the county’s game against the West Indians he was involved in a car accident and lost his left eye.
Unlike “Tiger” Pataudi, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Milburn never recovered. It wasn’t for want of trying. He tried to re-establish himself in the Northants side. In fact he was playing in a match I have written about before when Hampshire beat Northants at Southampton in 1973 to settle the destination of the Championship. It was painful to watch. He died in 1990 aged 48.
Cowdrey’s injury proved fortuitous because the captaincy was given to someone who turned out to be one of England’s most successful leaders. Ray Illingworth, an off-spinning all-rounder had been in and out of the England side for the last decade, struggling to compete with Fred Titmus and David Allen. He was the man in possession though in 1968, Pat Pocock having been dropped after taking six for 79 in the first Ashes Test. Then at the end of the season he left Yorkshire and joined Leicestershire as captain. It was to him that the selectors turned when Cowdrey was ruled out.
Meanwhile West Indies were struggling. The great side created by Frank Worrell and inherited by Gary Sobers was falling apart. They lost to Cowdrey’s England in 1967-68 (Michael Vaughan’s 2003-04 team is the only England side since then to have won in the Caribbean) and lost to Australia and drew with New Zealand in 1968-69. The squad that arrived in England in May had lost Seymour Nurse, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith through retirement and Rohan Kanhai was also unavailable (although not for Warwickshire).
The tour got off to a slow start because of dismal May weather; of the tourists’ eleven first-class matches before the first Test, one was won and one lost.
England won the first Test at Old Trafford by ten wickets. Illingworth won the toss, batted and forced West Indies to follow on. England had a long tail, with Alan Knott at six, but 128 from Geoff Boycott, 75 from Tom Graveney and 57 from d’ Oliveira took them to 413 in ten hours of effort in what turned out to be a heatwave that was to last the rest of the summer.
West Indies’ best bowler was the medium pacer John Shepherd, who took five for 104 in 58.5 overs. Anybody who watched county cricket in the 1960s and ‘70s will remember Shepherd, who played first and most memorably for Kent and later Gloucestershire. He was a well-built man of medium height, a sound but belligerent middle order batsman, a bustling right-arm bowler, an excellent fielder, full of energy and transparently cheerful. He played just five Tests, three of them in this series. Off-spinner Lance Gibbs, “a true artist” as the Wisden match report called him, took two for 98 in 60 overs.
The critical phase of the match occurred in the last two and three quarter hours of the second day when England’s fast bowlers, John Snow and David Brown, swept through the West Indies’ top order; with Knott effecting a brilliant stumping off Derek Underwood to dismiss debutant Maurice Foster, the visitors closed on 104 for six.
They were all out before lunch the next day, Snow and Brown finishing with four wickets each. With a lead of 266 Illingworth enforced the follow-on. West Indies were much better the second time around. The left-handed opening pair, Roy Fredericks and “Joey” Carew – the latter on his third tour of England – put on 92. The veteran Basil Butcher and captain Gary Sobers each made 48. Helped by a thunderstorm on the Monday they took the game into the fifth day but the result was never in much doubt, as Illingworth’s varied attack worked its way through the order.
A critical aspect of England’s success in this match was the fielding and in particular the slip fielding of the Yorkshireman Philip Sharpe.
Sharpe had been a schoolboy prodigy at Worksop College (Joe Root’s alma mater) and first got into the Yorkshire side in 1959, when the county won their first title since 1949, and was a regular member of the side that won the Championship six more times in the next nine years. He was a good batsman, short and stocky, especially good against pace. But it was his slip fielding that made Sharpe stand out; he was exceptional, and his bowlers, who included Illingworth and Fred Trueman, knew it. It was really his fielding that got him into the England side, first against the West Indies in 1963 when, against the fiery pace of Hall and Griffith he headed England’s averages for the series. But he never really established himself. When Cowdrey was injured during the third Ashes Test at Edgbaston in 1968 a replacement batsman was needed for the fourth. There was some support for Sharpe, but Keith Fletcher of Essex was chosen. The match, as luck would have it, was at Headingley, and when Australia batted a chance, inevitably, went to Fletcher at slip, which, equally inevitably, he put down. He wasn’t allowed to forget it. Sharpe only played 12 Tests in all, and made one century, which came in the second half of 1969, against New Zealand. But he averaged 40, which suggests he should have played more.
At Old Trafford, he took two memorable catches in the second innings, the first diving to his left, to dismiss Carew off d’Oliveira, the second, at chin height, also to his left, to dismiss Sobers off Barry Knight. I have seen pictures of both and you can see why Sharpe’s colleagues used to think that he caught the ball after it had passed him.
The second Test was at Lord’s. Despite their commanding victory at Old Trafford England made two changes. One was self-inflicted. Their most experienced player, Graveney, who had first played against the West Indies in 1953-54, had played a benefit match on the Sunday – a rest day of course – that followed the Saturday of the Old Trafford Test. This was unauthorised behaviour and Graveney was suspended for two Tests – in fact he never played again. Underwood was replaced by another batsman. The men selected were the Yorkshireman John Hampshire, whose first Test this was, and the experienced Middlesex left-hander Peter Parfitt, who was playing his first Test since the 1965-66 series in New Zealand, and, as it turned out, his last until the Ashes of 1972; such were the vagaries of selection in the ‘60s.
West Indies also made some changes, notably the replacement of Carew by Steve Camacho. This turned out to be a good choice. Sobers won the toss and Fredericks and Camacho put on 106 for the first wicket, and number three Charlie Davis made a painstaking century. Their total of 380 (Snow, five for 114 in 39 overs) took five sessions. But their approach seemed to have paid off when England closed the second day on 46 for four, with Sobers, who opened the bowling with Vanburn Holder, having taken two for nine in 11 overs.
Sharpe fell first thing on the Saturday morning but there followed a fine partnership between Hampshire and Knott, who put on 128 for the sixth wicket. When Knott was out for 53, England were still 191 but Illingworth now joined Hampshire in a stand of 60. Hampshire played a handsome innings of 107, with fifteen fours, many of them powerful straight drives and forces off his legs. He became the first Englishman to make a hundred on debut at Lord’s. Illingworth also made a hundred, playing superbly with the tail – he and Snow added 83 for the last wicket, of which Snow made nine not out. Illingworth’s highest score in 31 previous Tests had been 50. (Hampshire, incidentally, made it to Australia on Illingworth’s Ashes-winning tour in 1970-71 but ended up with fewer Tests than Sharpe, just eight.)
England made 344, just 36 behind. The West Indian batsmen showed much more urgency in the second innings. Fredericks made 60, Clive Lloyd, in dazzling form, according to Wisden, 70, and Sobers, batting with a runner because of a niggle picked up in the field, his highest score of the series, 50 not out. He declared on the morning of the fifth day setting England 332 to win in five hours.
England started as though their main concern was not to lose. Boycott spent two and a half hours making fifty and Parfitt two hours making 39. But Sharpe somehow galvanised Boycott; together they put on 126 in 90 minutes and for a while an England victory seemed possible. But when they were both out within minutes of one another, Boycott for 106 and Sharpe for 86, the shutters went up. England finished on 295 for seven.
The third Test, at Headingley, was the best of the three. England won by 30 runs; West Indies really should have won.
West Indies were unchanged; for England, Underwood replaced Parfitt. The first three days were overcast and damp, and most of the batsmen struggled. England batted first and made 223, left-handed opener John Edrich top-scoring with 79 and Holder taking four for 48. West Indies’ batsmen found life hard, particularly against the medium-fast bowling of Knight, who took the first four wickets; only Butcher looked comfortable, and they managed only 161. In England’s second innings, ten batsmen made scores between 39 and 15 (Boycott was out to Sobers for a duck). West Indies needed 303 to win.
The weather was better on the fourth day. After the early loss of Fredericks Camacho and Davis put on 61 and then Butcher joined Camacho. Butcher went on to play what was certainly the best innings of the match and arguably of the series, making 91 in two and a half hours with 16 fours. It was a typical Butcher display; he could be a lustrous stroke maker but unlike some of his more famous teammates he was prepared to play the waiting game.
Camacho made 71 and Butcher and Lloyd took the score to 219 when the former was caught by Knott off Underwood. The game was beautifully poised, and ideally set up for the arrival of Sobers, who, however, was out at once, caught driving at a ball from Knight. Lloyd followed soon afterwards and Underwood mopped up the tail.
The series was a real success in a number of ways. Until Headingley, the weather had been glorious. And the crowds were really good, 21,000 on the Saturday at Old Trafford, and 27,000 on the Saturday at Lord’s, when the gates were closed, and over 100,000 altogether.
And the tour wasn’t over yet. Of course there were no ODIs – they didn’t start in England until 1972. But there were two more county games. Altogether the tourists played 19 first-class matches on top of the Tests. The last match was a remarkable game against Hampshire at Southampton, when the West Indies chased 397 to win by three wickets, having been bowled out for 106 in their first innings. For the county, the great South African Barry Richards made 85 and 120 not out. He always loved playing in the tourist matches; it gave him a rare taste of international cricket.
I said earlier that this was the forgotten tour. There was one thing, though, the memory of which lingered on after the rest was, indeed, forgotten.
Straight after the Lord’s Test the tourists flew to Londonderry to play a one-day match against Ireland. The tourists’ eleven included the manager, Clyde Walcott, an all-time great of West Indian cricket, who was now 43 and hadn’t played serious cricket for years.
In the absence of Sobers and Gibbs, Butcher was captain. He won the toss and chose to bat.
West Indies were all out for 25.
Butcher’s Wisden obituary – he passed away in December 2019 – takes up the story. “The Jamaican journalist L D “Strebor” Roberts noted the tourists’ flag was flying upside down: “Half-mast might have been more appropriate.” “
Feature image: View of England versus West Indies in the first Test at Old Trafford, 1969
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