Spin, Bounce and the Old Swingometer

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

Theresa May has called a general election which is going to be held on 8 June.

It is relatively unusual for a Prime Minister to go to the country during what might be called the business end of the cricket season , when a Test series is likely to be in progress. Mrs. May is known to be a cricket person.

 Theresa May, a keen cricket fan, watches over the action at Lord's Credit: Reuters

Theresa May, a keen cricket fan, watches over the action at Lord’s Credit: Reuters

As Rosa Prince confirmed in her recent biography of the Prime Minister, her hero was , and remains, the great Yorkshireman, Geoffrey Boycott. Bearing that in mind Mrs May is probably quite content to have polling day in the middle of the one- day Champions Trophy: India are scheduled to play Sri Lanka at The Oval – almost within a Sanath Jayasuriya smite of Westminster – on 8 June.

1945 was a special case. There was felt to be a need to go to the country as soon as possible after VE Day and the election was held in July – and we all know the result.

Since then there has been relatively little interference with the cricket season. Of course, in ” normal” times there is never going to be an election in July or August. It is important that our political masters are able to soothe their furrowed brows in Tuscany. But on four occasions Prime Ministers have chosen to cast the die in June. On the whole , the precedents are reasonably good for Mrs May, but slightly less so for England’s new captain , Joe Root.

In 1983, it probably never occurred to Margaret Thatcher, still basking in the glow of her Falklands triumph , that Election Day coincided with the first game in the World Cup. Thatcher won the election – not exactly a landslide as her share of the popular vote was actually down from 1979, but her parliamentary majority was considerably enhanced. Bob Willis’ s England easily beat New Zealand at The Oval – as they were to do in the four match Test series that occupied the second half of the summer – but lost to eventual champions India in the semi-final of the World Cup.

In 1987 Thatcher secured her third successive election victory, becoming the first Prime Minister to achieve this since Lord Liverpool in the early nineteenth century. This time , though , not only was the share of the popular vote slightly down , but the House of Commons majority was reduced as well.

Election Day was 11 June , when the touring Pakistanis were , believe it or not, beating Scotland in a one – day game in Glasgow. England won the one-day series two – one but lost a hard fought Test series one- nil. Both captains led from the front but Imran Khan always had the edge over Mike Gatting, despite the latter’ recent success in Australia.. In the innings win at Headingley the magnificent Imran took ten wickets , including seven for 40 in the second innings. Now , of course, he has attained renown as the leader of Pakistan’s Movement for Justice.

In 2001, Tony Blair called an election on 7 June. Turnout was at an historic low – 59 percent – but such was the disarray in the Tory party that Blair had no difficulty maintaining his overwhelming Commons majority.

This was a modern English summer ; the first Test series , a two- match drawn series against Pakistan , was already over by polling day. England , Pakistan and Australia were engaged in a one – day tournament: there was no game on 11 June. After that came the Ashes . England lost.

I said earlier that the portents were reasonably good for May. We now have to look at the ” problem” case.

In 1970 , Labour’s Harold Wilson appeared to be on a roll . In 1964 , his party had famously brought an end to ” thirteen years of Tory misrule”. ( England’s charismatic captain , Ted Dexter, had stood , rather optimistically , as the Conservative candidate for Cardiff South, a seat held by a senior shadow cabinet member and one destined to be the only person to hold all four great offices of State, James Callaghan. )

Wilson had a tiny majority in 1964 but called an election in 1966 and secured a much bigger one then. All must have looked rosy for him when he decided to go to the country in June 1970.

The polls were all in the government’s favour. According to Alan Watkins’ book ” The Road To Number Ten : from Bonar Law To Blair”( the dust jacket has a picture of a small boy, in short trousers and a cap, standing in front of Number 10 Downing Street: it’s Wilson) the Sunday Times on the weekend before polling day said all the major pollsters gave Labour a lead of between 2 and 13 percent.

After the event Wilson said he had always had his doubts. In any event Edward Heath and the Conservatives swept to power in a result which almost nobody expected.

General elections always take place on Thursdays. Traditionally that is when Test matches start.( This is no longer necessarily the case as the bean counters try to cram in as many games as possible.) Wilson was even less of a cricket person than Thatcher – what can one say of a Yorkshireman ( the second Prime Minister, after H H Asquith , to be born in Huddersfield) who has a constituency in Liverpool ? Heath was , if anything, even less of a cricket person but , inevitably, this did not prevent him from turning up, armed with his trademark grin , to celebrate his native Kent’s winning of the county championship a couple of months after the election . Anyway, Wilson was probably unaware of the fact that the date of the election , 18 June, happened to be the first day of the first match between England and the Rest of the World at Lord’s.

As a result , the start of the match was brought forward to Wednesday and Thursday was a rest day. Sunday, of course , was also a rest day: in fact the game was over in four playing days , a triumph for the World XI’s captain, the incomparable Gary Sobers. He took six for 21 in England’s first innings , and two for 43 in the second and scored 183 in the World XI’s only innings.

England won the next game , at Edgbaston, and , although the Rest of the World won the remaining three games, they were reasonably close encounters. A magnificent collection of the world’s best players had been assembled for the series. The cricket was genuinely exciting. I watched one day live, the Monday of the fourth game at Headingley, when John Snow, undoubtedly the best fast bowler in the world at the time, tore into the World XI: it was exhilarating stuff. It is ludicrous that these games , described and marketed at the time as Test matches, subsequently had that status removed, unlike the utterly pointless and lacklustre contest between Australia and an ICC World XI in Sydney in October 2005.

England owed much to their captain, the gritty Yorkshireman , Ray Illingworth, who scored 476 runs at an average of fifty two. ( Sobers made 588 runs and took twenty one wickets.) There was a bit of a captaincy ” issue” going on – nothing compared to the internecine strife that beset successive Wilson cabinets, but a peculiarly English kerfuffle.

At the beginning of 1969 the man in possession had been Colin Cowdrey, a classic England captain, not actually terribly good at it but , well, Tonbridge, Oxford , captain of Kent since 1957, and with all the right credentials. Illingworth, on the other hand, a no – nonsense professional from Pudsey, near Leeds , had had no captaincy experience until he had joined Leicestershire from Yorkshire in 1969. But before the Test series against the West Indies had even started , that year, Cowdrey damaged his Achilles’ tendon and was out for the season. Illingworth , a fine county performer with a modest Test record, was an inspired choice to replace him.

Illingworth kept the job in 1970 ; the real prize though was the trip to Australia the following winter. Illingworth was chosen , Cowdrey being vice- captain for the fourth successive Ashes tour. With Boycott and Snow to the fore , it was one of England’s greatest victories .

But why were England playing the Rest of the World in 1970 ? This goes back to one of the grimmest episodes of English cricket history, the shambolic omission and then equally shambolic selection of the ” Cape Coloured ” all rounder , Basil d’ Oliveira , to tour his native South Africa in 1968-69. Nobody involved in this sorry episode, Cowdrey included, emerges with any credit from it, apart from d’ Oliveira himself. The short term consequence was the cancellation of that tour. It was not immediately apparent that sporting links with apartheid South Africa were terminally concluded. South Africa were indeed due to tour England in 1970. But a nationwide campaign, orchestrated by a young, white South African activist, Peter Hain – later to be a Cabinet minister in Blair’s government – persuaded the Cricket Council to withdraw the invitation to South Africa. The Rest of the World side, which included South Africans Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow, Graeme Pollock and Mike Procter , was a more than adequate replacement.

One figure peripherally involved in the d’ Oliveira affair was the shadow foreign secretary Sir Alec Douglas – Home, who had been Wilson’s predecessor as Prime Minister. Douglas – Home was the only British Prime Minister to play first – class cricket , not , of course , as Prime Minister, but as Lord Dunglass, playing ten games as a medium- paced outswing bowler for various teams , including Middlesx , MCC and Oxford University , in the mid 1920s. He then became the fourteenth Earl of Home and devoted more time to politics: he accompanied Neville Chamberlain to Munich , so he was no stranger to the more inglorious aspects of public life. He gave up his title to become party leader and this gave rise to one of the best one- liners of the 1964 campaign. Fed up with being constantly berated for his aristocratic lineage, Home observed; ” well, I suppose if it comes down to it, Mr Wilson is the fourteenth Mr Wilson.”

Other Prime Ministers have been equally keen on the game. Clement Attlee , Winston Churchill’s wartime deputy, who won that 1945 election with a staggering 71% share of the popular vote , installed a newswire service in Downing Street so that he could follow the cricket scores.. John Major famously went to his beloved Oval after leaving Downing Street in 1997( it was In May but well before the start of the Ashes series so it does not feature in this deeply forensic analysis). Major wrote an accomplished history of cricket.

Going further afield , Michael Manley , Prime Minister of Jamaica, wrote a history of West Indies cricket. John Howard, of Australia , was a genuine cricket tragic.

Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, probably tops the list for sheer enthusiasm. It was he who instituted the traditional opening match of the touring side against the Prime Minister’s XI.

His wife was slightly less keen. Jack Fingleton – Bodyline opener, Bradman critic , one of the five best cricket writers of all time and for many years the parliamentary correspondent of Radio Australia – had a nice story about that.

The first time Menzies took his wife to a Test match , at the MCG in 1925, legendary England openers, Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe batted all day. The next time was at Lord’s in 1926. The Australian fielders came out and behind them, emerging from the darkness of the Pavilion , came – Hobbs and Sutcliffe.

” Goodness,” exclaimed Mrs Menzies, ” haven’t we got these two out yet ?”

Bill Ricquier, 29/04/2017

This article was published in The ScoreLine: https://scoreline.asia/spin-bounce-and-the-old-swingometer/. Feature image:¬†Basil d’Oliveira in action for England.

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