The Watershed

In Some Cricket Matches.. by Bill Ricquier

I was watching the Delhi Daredevils play the Kolkata Knight Riders on television the other day. It turned out to be an exciting game . This was a relatively quiet phase. At one point Manish Pandey let a ball pass outside off stump. The umpire was so shocked he signalled a wide. Then there was a short break. – sorry, a CEAT Tyres Strategic Timeout – and , all of a sudden I thought to myself ( I was in vacant rather than pensive mood) : Is it really forty years since the Centenary Test ?

Now that really was an exciting game. As David Frith said in his celebratory article in The Cricketer magazine, , it was the greatest event the game has known. Over 200 former Test players went to Melbourne to watch Australia play England in a one-off game at the same ground , the MCG, where they had played their first match exactly one hundred years earlier, March 13 to 19 , 1877. The oldest English player present, 84 year old Percy Fender, flew over with his grandson to watch. Jack Ryder, 87, had been Don Bradman’s first Test captain

The game itself was equal to the occasion. One of the many remarkable things about it was that the result, a victory for Australia by 45 runs , was exactly the same as the result in that first match. And there were some heroic individual performances.

The game was divided into two very distinct parts. When Tony Greig won the toss and inserted Australia on a pitch still containing some moisture, ball was very much dominating bat. Australia were dismissed for 138: opener Rick McCosker retired hurt with a broken jaw, courtesy of a Bob Willis bouncer. England fared even worse. They were all out for 85 , with the great Dennis Lillee taking six for 26. By the end of the second day Australia were 104 for three in the second innings.

One of the not out batsmen was Doug Walters , one of those rare Australians whom even England supporters love. He went on to make 66 on the third day. Rod Marsh, the combative and pugnacious wicket keeper made a hundred. But the most evocative piece of batsmanship came from the tall, muscular , left-handed debutant , David Hookes. In a memorable passage of play he hit Greig for six successive fours in an ( eight ball) over. ( Both, alas, are no longer with us, along with Bob Woolmer, Gary Gilmour and Max Walker.)

Greg Chappell declared on the fourth morning , setting England 463 to win. When they were 279 for two, and 346 for four, he must have felt just a little bit worried. In the end , Lillee, with another five wickets , was simply irresistible. But there were gritty and positive performances from Mike Brearley, Dennis Amiss, Alan Knott and Greig, to help England get tantalisingly close.

There was no doubt as to who was the star performer though. Nottinghamshire’s Derek Randall , playing in his fifth Test , and his first against Australia, made a magnificent 174.

Randall was unique. No one would call him a great player. He finished with a batting average of 33 in his 47 Tests. But if you were to ask English cricket supporters of a certain age to name their favourite player I suspect a surprising number would plump for Randall. And three of his seven Test hundreds cams against Australia.

He was genuinely eccentric , always fidgeting , talking to himself and winding up the opposition. One of the abiding images of the game is of Randall bowing and doffing his cap to Lillee , having just avoided a bouncer.

So the game ended with its deliciously fitting margin of victory. Everything in cricket ‘s garden seemed rosy and , more important, reassuringly familiar. Amiss , the oldest player in the match, had started his professional career as a teenager in 1957. The county game he grew up in was little different from that played in by Fender in the 1920s . There were amateurs and professionals ( ” gentlemen ‘ and ” players” ) and no one-day cricket. All that changed in the early ’60s. But, when it came to change, well the cricket establishment ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Within weeks of the game’s conclusion , news broke of of the recruitment of many of the world’s leading players to take part in a competition organised and funded by the Australian television magnate , Kerry Packer. Greig had been his recruiter in chief.

The divide in the game was deep and bitter. There was litigation in England over restraint of trade. Greig was ostracised by the English cricketing establishment for many years. This would have been of no comfort to him , but they have got everything that really matters , from d’ Oliveira to terrestrial television, wrong for decades.

This was no exception. Packer had his own commercial reasons for doing what he did , but it was the right thing for the game. The players had been paid a pittance. Would cricket as we know it have survived without Packer? They called his so-called World Series games a ” circus” but everyone who participated – basically the best players in the world – said it was the most intense cricket they played. Test cricket between 1977 and 1979 , on the other hand, was , with the odd exception, insipid and second rate.

When the schism ended – and Packer got the TV rights he craved ( with lieutenants Greig and Richie Benaud as permanent employees ) the changes started coming in. The white ball. The coloured clothes.
( The white ball came first. Slip fielders couldn’t pick it up against the white clothes. Packer, who knew everything about TV, said: Keep the ball; change the clothes.) . Day – night cricket . All these came from World Series Cricket.

Other changes can’t be laid at Packer’s door. Railway sleeper bats. Diminishing boundaries. T20…? Well , it’s not so bad. When it becomes T 10 we should start getting worried.

And let’s not start on the CEAT Tyres Strategic Timeout….

Bill Ricquier. 18/4/2017

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