The End of an Era

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier2 Comments

English cricket recently lost one of its great performers in the left-arm spinner Derek Underwood. No England spinner took more than his 297 Test wickets. He took 2,465 first-class wickets at 20.28 apiece; he reached 1,000 at the age of 25. On the uncovered pitches of his early years in county cricket with Kent, he could be literally unplayable. To the modern spectator he must seem unusual, in that he had a long, slightly lumbering run-up and bowled at something like medium pace. “Lumbering” is perhaps unfair; the fact is that the flat-footed “Deadly” was no natural athlete. He turned himself into a serviceable fielder, and actually scored a hundred for Kent. The ultimate cricket person, he served a term as MCC President.

Underwood contributed significantly to many England Test victories, but none quite matches England’s defeat of Australia by 226 runs in the fifth Test at The Oval in 1968. This enabled the hosts to level the series one-all. Australia retained The Ashes, so the victory, if not exactly Pyrrhic, was not as sweet as it might have been. But the drama of the final day, in which Underwood played the central role, made the finish especially memorable. And although no one knew it at the time the match was exceptionally unusual for any sporting event in that it set in motion a chain of events that altered world history.

The 1960s is not remembered as a golden age of Ashes cricket. Richie Benaud had won overwhelmingly in 1958-59, and his successors as captain, Bob Simpson and Bill Lawry, had focussed on not losing. In 1968, Australia won the first Test at Old Trafford. After that weather played a crucial factor. England had much the better of the second Test at Lord’s, making 351 for seven and bowling Australia out for 78. But that game and the next two, were drawn.

At The Oval, England were on top almost from the start, making 494 and bowling Australia out for 324.On the final day Australia, in notional pursuit of 352, were 85 for five at lunch, and the game seemed done and dusted. But the weather interfered yet again with a torrential downpour. Spectators joined ground staff trying to make the outfield fit for play. Eventually with about 75 minutes left, the umpires decreed that play could resume. Underwood took the last four wickets for six runs in 27 balls, with the last man out leg before with literally minutes to spare. Underwood finished with seven for 50.

The feature image is a celebrated photograph of the final moment, which is itself memorable in a number of ways.

First, all the players are visible; indeed, the only participant outside the frame is the square leg umpire, Arthur Fagg. One hesitates to say this is unique, but it is certainly highly unusual.

So there they are, the bowler, the wicketkeeper and nine fielders, and two batsmen. Eleven sportsmen and none of them is doing anything, as it were, sporty. It is not like the famous picture of the final act in the Tied Test at Brisbane in 1960-61, where there is a real sense of action. Here, everything is poised. The fielders’ arms are raised in – supplication? Celebration? Almost all eyes – not all, but almost all – are trained on the one person actually doing something, the umpire, Charlie Elliott. His body obscures the movement but he is clearly raising his hand to signal that the striker, John Inverarity (who had opened the batting with Lawry), is out. Inverarity, as if trying to postpone the inevitable, is looking away. The non-striker, Alan Connolly, who seems more wound up than anyone, is looking at Inverarity.

But what I like most about the picture is the England eleven itself. I suspect that this is the only occasion on which this specific group played together as a team. Nobody is going to say that this team was the greatest ever like the West Indies of the 1980s or the Australians of the 1990s. But the combination of character, ability, achievement and aesthetic appeal makes them a very special group.

It is impossible to place them all by reference to conventional field placings, so we will go clockwise from Underwood.

The first fielder to Underwood’s left as we look at the picture is Ted Dexter. Dexter was one of the most glorious stroke makers ever to play for England. He offered style as well as substance. Like Denis Compton before him and David Gower after him, “Lord Ted” was English cricket’s matinee idol. He launched a memorable assault on West Indies’ fast bowlers, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith at Lord’s in 1963, making a breath-taking 70 in 75 minutes in England’s first innings. He captained England on and off between 1961 and 1965 but then disappeared. He played some games for Sussex in 1968 and found himself back in the England side. This was to be his last Test match.

Next to Dexter is the redoubtable left-handed opener John Edrich. He played a significant part in this match, scoring 164 in England’s first innings. Australia were always favourite opponents. Only four England players have scored more than his seven hundreds against them. He was a major contributor to England’s victory Down Under in 1970-71. He was immensely courageous against the fastest bowlers, ending his Test career, helmetless and in semi- darkness, against Michael Holding and Andy Roberts in 1976.

At a sort of second slip position is the oldest man in the side, Tom Graveney. He too was a beautiful stylist, and a master batsman in county cricket. By this time he had made well over a hundred first-class centuries. He was now well into his third or fourth attempt to “crack” Test cricket, having been recalled in 1966 after failing in Australia in 1962-63. He was now a crucial part of the batting line-up and he had led the side in the fourth Test at Headingley. But nothing lasts for ever. He was omitted after the first Test against West Indies in 1969 and never played again.

At the extreme left of the picture, seemingly prowling forward to get nearer to the action, is Ray Illingworth. Illingworth had had an ordinary sort of series in 1968, which was not unusual. A highly capable all-rounder for Yorkshire since the early 1950s, as an off spinner he was always competing with contemporaries like Fred Titmus and David Allen. Pat Pocock was the man in possession at the start of the summer. He was replaced by Illingworth after the Manchester Test, despite having taken six wickets in Australia’s second innings. And it was Pocock who got selected for the winter tour in 1968-69. But everything was about to change for Illingworth. By the time England played their next home Test, against West Indies in 1969, he was captain, having left Yorkshire to lead Leicestershire. Two years later he had emulated Douglas Jardine and Len Hutton by leading England to victory in Australia. Shrewdness, toughness, and immense cricketing nous, coupled with the respect which all his experience had earned from those who played under him, made him one of England’s outstanding captains.

At slip stands the captain at The Oval, Colin Cowdrey. By any standards Cowdrey is a major figure in English cricket history. From the moment he stroked his first Test hundred, as a 21 year-old at Melbourne in 1954-55, 102 out of a total of 191, it was clear he was something special. At his best he was as glorious a stroke player as Dexter or Graveney, but he could be irritatingly introspective. He always seemed destined for the top job in succession to his friend Peter May and he had some trial runs, but Dexter, Mike Smith and Brian Close were all preferred. Then Close fell foul of “the shirts” at Lord’s and Cowdrey led the side to the West Indies and helped them to a famous victory. His takeover from Close was not the only occasion where Cowdrey’s proximity to cricket’s “establishment” was discernible. But things were going to change for him too. As we have seen, Illingworth was in charge when England next played at home. Cowdrey damaged his Achilles’ tendon in an early game for Kent and played no more cricket that season. In fact he played only three more home Tests, against Pakistan in 1971. Remarkably, though, having already toured Australia four times, he went twice more, in 1970-71, as a disgruntled second in command to Illingworth – he had been vice-captain on three previous tours – and as a replacement in 1974-75, as Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee ravaged England’s batting. He captained Kent for the best part of two decades, leading them to the county championship in 1970.

Cowdrey scored a century in the third Test at Edgbaston; it was his hundredth Test. He also got injured though and missed the fourth Test at Headingley; hence Graveney’s one Test as captain. Cowdrey was now fit again, and among the changes that were made for the Oval Test was the omission of the Surrey batsman Ken Barrington. Barrington had been at the core of England’s middle order since the beginning of the decade. He was very different from the others; utterly determined, with a “none shall pass” attitude. Like Geoffrey Boycott, he had been dropped for slow scoring; unlike Boycott, he had a penchant for reaching landmarks with a six. Remarkably, he had a career average of 58.77, and 63.66 against Australia. He averaged 56.66 in the 1968 series but there was a feeling that he was below par. This was confirmed when he suffered a mild heart attack in Australia in the English winter. He immediately retired, so that fourth Test against Australia at Headingley turned out to be his last.

Behind the stumps is Kent’s Alan Knott. Like Underwood, with whom he will always be associated, Knott was relatively near the start of what turned out to be a glittering career. He was an accomplished batsman, often seeming to score runs when they were most needed. As a wicketkeeper, well, no knowledgeable cricket person would exclude him from a shortlist of the greatest of all time.

The more backward of the two backward short legs, in the right-hand corner as we look at the picture, is Basil D’Oliveira. Of all the stories regarding England cricketers’ rise to international status, few can match his. A hugely talented player born and growing up in Cape Town, as a “Cape Coloured” – mixed race – he was denied access to the sport at the highest level because of the apartheid system. He wrote to the cricket writer and broadcaster John Arlott for help. Whoever advised him to do that was very wise. Arlott was not only a figure of substance in the world of cricket; he was a man of profoundly humane character who loathed injustice of any kind. And he had been to South Africa, reporting on MCC’s tour of 1956-57. He found what he saw so disturbing that he vowed never to return.

Through Arlott, D’Oliveira found a place with Middleton in the Central Lancashire League, and in 1964, he signed for Worcestershire. By 1966 he was playing for England alongside his county teammate Graveney. He had a difficult tour of the Caribbean in 1967-68, but top scored in the first Test at Manchester with 87 in the fourth innings. Like Pocock he was dropped but when Roger Prideaux pulled out of the Oval Test at the last moment, D’Oliveira was recalled. And what a recall it turned out to be. He made a magnificent 158 in England’s first innings, and on that dramatic final evening it was he who took the vital wicket to break the determined sixth wicket partnership between Inverarity and Barry Jarman. Now the selectors had to choose the team to tour South Africa in the 1968-69 close season. What could possibly go wrong? We shall return to this. D’Oliveira’s late son, Damian, also played for Worcestershire, and his grandson, Brett, is the current red ball captain of the county.

The more forward, or squarer, of the backward short legs, is Colin Milburn. A big, well, one could almost say fat, man from County Durham he was very popular as a character and as an aggressive top order batsman. In the game at Lord’s which England dominated, he made an exhilarating 78 batting at number three (on the first morning). In this game he opened with Edrich. Tragically, this turned out to be his last home Test. In May 1969 he was injured in a car accident and lost an eye. He tried to make a comeback with Northamptonshire in the early 1970s, but with limited success. He died in 1990, aged 48.

You can sort of tell that the two men alongside one another in a sort of forward short leg position must be the fast bowlers. On the right is David Brown, a popular figure who played for, captained and later managed Warwickshire. He was tall and reasonably quick. He took five for 63 in Australia’s first innings at Sydney in 1965-66, a game won for England by Titmus and Allen. When Australia were bowled out for 78 at Lord’s, Brown took five for 42. He played the last of his 26 Tests against New Zealand in 1969.

The eleventh man is John Snow. Generation-wise, Underwood, Knott, Brown and Snow were more or less contemporaries; the rest were older, some much older (only Knott, Brown and Snow are still alive today). With all respect to Brown, Snow was in a different league. Of all the England fast bowlers I have seen, Snow is the favourite. He was fast, clever and dangerous. He was unconventional and he was a captain’s nightmare. But Illingworth could handle him, and Snow won a series in Australia. Not many England fast bowlers can say that.

So the serious business of the summer was over and attention turned to the tour of South Africa. The selection committee included Cowdrey, and it has to be remembered that England toured under the auspices of MCC, whose membership included the shadow Foreign Secretary (and former Prime Minister) Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Anyway the selectors came up with a team that did not include D’Oliveira. Press and public outrage was intense. Tom Cartwright, the Warwickshire medium-pacer withdrew for fitness reasons and D’Oliveira replaced him in the touring party. The inevitable consequence was the South African government’s withdrawal of the tour invitation and the cancellation of the tour.

To get the cricket out of the way, the show of course had to go on. MCC organised a tour of Pakistan, with Tests in Karachi and Lahore in West Pakistan and Dacca in East Pakistan. Hostilities were brewing which would escalate into a bloody civil war leading to the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971. The Tests were a perfect setting for riots and demonstrations. All three were drawn. At the second Test in Dacca, D’Oliveira made a century and Underwood took five for 54 off 44 overs. There were final Test centuries for Cowdrey in Lahore and Milburn and Graveney in Karachi. That game had to be abandoned because of the political situation before England’s first innings was finished; Knott was 96 not out. When the Test side re-convened under Illingworth in June 1969 to face West Indies, there was no Milburn, no Barrington, no Cowdrey and no Dexter; by the second Test, there was no Graveney. It really was the end of an era.

Moving back to broader issues, South Africa were due to tour England in 1970. That tour was cancelled after mass demonstrations organised by Peter Hain, a young student who later served as a Labour Cabinet minister. This set in motion an orchestrated boycott of South African sporting relations that led ultimately to the collapse of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela.

The chain of events started with that famous match at The Oval, the central figure of which turned out not to be Underwood but D’Oliveira. He wore his unusual and unwanted fame with modesty and good humour. No one should underestimate his contribution to the recent history of his native land. Peter Oborne, D’Oliveira’s biographer, tells a story about D’Oliveira being invited to lunch by Mandela while on a coaching trip to South Africa. At the end of the lunch the two men got up and Mandela embraced D’Oliveira. “Thanks for coming Basil” he said. “You must go home now. You’ve done your bit.”

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  1. Thanks for that retrospective, Bill. It brought back a lot of memories because I remember watching Underwood polish off the Aussies on a proper tv (small, black and white and on BBC).
    You could have been harsher on Cowdrey and the Establishment: that team would have had little in common except cricket itself, a full spectrum of society at the time.

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