PLEASE SIR, CAN I HAVE MY GAME BACK?

Big Bash Slog
Big Bash in full colour

I turned on the television recently and watched a sport that reminded me a lot of cricket. Two teams competing with a bat and ball but the ball was white, unlike the player’s attire, which was multicoloured and emblazoned with corporate sponsors logos. One of the “batters” (as described by the commentator), was given out LBW but amazingly, the umpire was advised by a voice in his Sony earphones that he had made a mistake. The LBW decision was incorrect and the batter could continue his innings. This however, would not be for too long as in this particular match, each team could only bat for a total of 10 overs – good heavens, neither Geoffrey Boycott nor Bill Lawry would have time to get off the mark !

Apparently, this is a form of cricket, known as the Big Bash League. Although I had no idea where the players came from, I could only assume that they played grade cricket on the weekends and if successful with their local club, they might get picked for the Sheffield Shield competition (does it still exist?).

McGrath Sledging
Glenn McGrath having a chat to a West Indian opponent

If you sense that I am slightly disenchanted with modern cricket you are not wrong. My disenchantment however, did not arrive with technicolour Big Bash cricket but had its’ seeds sewn back in the late 1970’s with the advent of  World Series Cricket. The behaviour of Australian cricketers was starting to deteriorate and hit a new low in February 1981 with the underarm bowling incident. Many argue that Ian Chappell was the father of the “ugly Australian cricketer” but Chappell the elder, did have an inherent sense of fair play. His brother Greg however, by ordering Chappell son No. 3 Trevor to bowl underarm against New Zealand in February 1981, set the sportsmanship bar at a new low.

By the time of the Glenn McGrath / Shane Warne era, Australia had become cricket’s “sledging” champions. Sledging is a by product of cricket that runs concurrently with the game itself. Sledging gives players a chance to act like schoolyard bullies and express their machismo, hoping that their childlike behavior gives them some kind of advantage over an opponent. Those who engage in sledging, prefer to call it by the less offensive term of “banter” but whatever you call it, the practice is most unsportsmanlike. Sledging and a decided lack of respect for Australia’s opponents, was the root cause of my cricketing marriage breakdown.

For Australian cricket, unsporting behavior peaked in South Africa in March 2018. The ball tampering affair that found Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft guilty, severed any remaining affection that I might have had for cricket as I knew it. Even though I have fallen out of love with the game of cricket, Paul Simon once sang “preserve your memories, that’s all that’s left you”. These are my cricket memories.

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Backyard cricket – Theresa takes strike and the author chuckles

Born in England and growing up in Wilmslow, Cheshire, I fell in love with cricket. Like  football, our backyard cricket matches were only punctuated when the ball was hoisted over the fence and into a neighbor’s garden. The penalty of “6 and out” was miniscule compared to the fearful exercise of knocking on the neighbor’s front door, expecting to be confronted by Harper Lee’s Boo Radley or Alfred Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in full rage.

I first recall listening to an Ashes test series in 1961 on my Dad’s car radio. The BBC provided commentary from the soothing southern England country tone of John Arlott coupled with the very posh delivery of Eton and Oxford educated Brian (“Johnners”) Johnston. These and the other BBC commentators could keep me entertained for hours on end – even more so when the English rain would inevitably stop play. Johnston in particular, had a sharp sense of humour and among his classical utterings was, “the bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey.” In 1961 I could not understand how an England team led by the dashing Lord Ted Dexter and boasting fast bowling royalty in F S Trueman and J B Statham had lost a home Ashes series to a bunch of colonials.

Living in Wilmslow, 12 miles south of Manchester, ensured that I was a Lancashire County Cricket club fan. I spent many hours at the Old Trafford cricket ground, watching Lancashire heroes Brian Statham, Peter Lever, Bob Barber and Tommy Greenhough, a leg spinner whose bounce and long, almost comical jaunty run up, has never had an equal in the history of the game.

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Old Trafford Manchester – the pavillion unchanged since 1963

Skip forward a couple of years and I had the misfortune as a Lancashire fan, of travelling to Bramhall Lane, Sheffield on the June long weekend in 1963. The occasion was the Yorkshire v Lancashire, “Roses” fixture and Lancashire were skittled to be all out for not too many, just after lunch on the first day. Yorkshire quickly lost three early wickets but then a bespectacled young man named Geoffrey Boycott and his colleague, W B (Bryan) Stott defied the Lancashire attack for the next two days adding 249 runs for the 4th wicket. I had witnessed Boycott’s maiden county century for Yorkshire and though Boycott’s hundred had probably only taken around four hours, to this nine year old Lancashire supporter, it seemed like a lifetime.

Later that month, England held on for a dramatic draw in the second test match against the West Indies at Lords. A match forever remembered for the aristocratic English batsmen, M C (Colin) Cowdrey, coming out with a broken arm at nine wickets down in the last over of the game, to try and save the test match. Cowdrey ultimately, did not have to face the last two balls from the rampant West Indian speedster, Wesley Winfield Hall, but the memory and excitement of that final over will remain with me forever. I loved cricket.

Geoff Boycott
Geoffrey Boycott (right) opening the batting for England in 1964

1967 and my father decided that he and mother Rose should emigrate to Australia with the seven Jack children in tow. How could this happen? How could I be going to live in a country where they didn’t play football (so I thought) and I would be subject to watching the cricketing enemy – Australia ? Those Aussies won’t win me over, I’m a loyal Englishman who will always support Colin Cowdrey, Geoffrey Boycott, John Snow and the like.

But win me over they did and it was possibly the brilliance of Kevin Douglas Walters that struck me on my road to Damascus. Living at Fairlight in Sydney in February 1969, I fondly remember listening to commentary of the Australia v West Indies test match on my father’s National Panasonic transistor radio, complete with removeable brown leather case. Doug Walters was batting with Ian Redpath at the Sydney Cricket Ground and it seemed that every time Walters faced Lance Gibbs, the ageing West Indian offspinner’s deliveries were smashed to the cover boundary fence. Walters ended up scoring 242 in that innings and completed another century (103) in the second innings, the first cricketer to have scored a century and double century in the same test match. I thought, this is the way to bat, this is my country – Australia !

Doug Walters PA Photos
Dashing Doug Walters in his prime

The “Poms” (as I could now call them) came to Australia in 1970-71 and I had to rethink my allegiance when Ray Illingworth, with a lot of help from fast bowler John Snow, led England to a 2-0 series win. There were seven test matches in that series (the third in Melbourne was abandoned without a ball being bowled) and although four tests were drawn, there was always drama and excitement to enjoy. This was cricket. In that same series, the first ever one day international was played. Australia won but the teams were identical to the test match teams, wore the traditional creams with not an advertising logo in sight and played with a red cricket ball. For me, this was still cricket.

In 1971-72, when Apartheid caused cancellation of the South African tour, Australia entertained a very strong Rest of the World outfit. Though not a contest between traditional rivals, the series produced some sublime cricket – Dennis Lillee, flowing black mane and at the height of his bowling powers, destroyed the Rest of the World team in Perth. Lillee, with his delightfully smooth fast bowling action took 8 wickets for 29 runs in the first innings in Perth and the World eleven skipper, West Indian Garfield St. Aubrun Sobers scored a magnificent 254 in Melbourne. The innings of Sobers was the best batting performance that I have ever witnessed, an opinion shared by the great Sir Donald Bradman. The West Indian all rounder consistently square cut all bowlers with grace and venom to the boundary fence and 95% of those 254 runs must have come in boundaries. I loved cricket.

Dennis Lillee
Dennis Keith Lillee in classic fast bowling mode

My fondness for cricket peaked with the 1974-75 Ashes series played in Australia. I must have watched every minute of that series. There was the erratic brutality of Jeff Thomson’s bowling, Tony Greig’s arrogant defiance, the supreme elegancy of Greg Chappell’s batting and a paunchy forty one year old Colin Cowdrey, trying to defy the pace attack of Dennis Lillee and the frightening Jeffrey Robert Thomson.

The high point of the series for me, was Doug Walters’ century in the session between tea and stumps in the second test at Perth. On that Saturday, I ended up being very late for a bank Christmas party, unable to drag myself away from the television. Robert George Dylan (“Bob”) Willis was bowling the last ball of the day to Walters who was on 97 and needing 6 runs to score a century in the final session.

In 2019, a batsman would be content to see out the last ball and maybe collect three singles on the following day to complete his hundred. “Caution” however, did not form part of the Doug Walter’s vocabulary. The six foot seven inch wiry haired Willis, who officially added Dylan to his name in tribute to the legendary singer / songwriter, hurled the ball in short to Walters. The one time Australian army conscript swiveled and hooked the ball somewhere in the direction of heaven’s door. These were the days of black and white television, one camera and certainly no high definition. As the ball disappeared off the face of Walter’s bat, TV viewers could only hope that it would clear the boundary rope. The ball did clear the rope by some margin and immediately hundreds of fans also cleared the rope in the other direction, to mob Kevin Douglas Walters. There may have been better technical batsmen than Walters, more prolific run scorers, but as an Australian cricketing folk hero, none have come close to matching the boy from the NSW town of Dungog.

McCosker Colour
Rick McCosker with broken jaw facing Bob Willis in the 1977 Centenary Test

Cricket continued to be a major part of my life through the 1970’s and early 1980’s. I enjoyed the production line of superb West Indian fast bowlers and the imperious batting of Isaac Vivian Alexander (“Viv”) Richards. The Australians ultimately gained the upper hand over the calypso kings but despite the looming storm clouds of the World Series Cricket revolution, there was still a marvelous centenary test to be played in Melbourne against England in 1977. Among the many highlights of this game, was the plucky performance of one time Rural Bank of NSW colleague, Rick McCosker. The Australian opening batsman had his jaw broken in the first innings but batted at number 11 in the second innings, wired and bandaged up, to add a valuable 54 runs with Rodney Marsh for the last wicket.

Later that year, following the cricketing implosion created by Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, I remained loyal to the cricketing establishment. I discovered new heroes in the volatile fast bowler Rodney Hogg, dashing batsmen Peter Toohey and Kim Hughes and a forty one year old cricketing relic, Bobby Simpson. Simpson shrugged off ten years of retirement, returning to captain the “official” Australian team in a home series against India.

Night Cricket
Night cricket – not for the purists

In the early 1980’s, the divide that was Australian cricket was eventually merged, but for me the damage to the game had been done. One day internationals of just fifty overs per team, had become an equal attraction to Test cricket for the public. Creams had given way to coloured clothing, bad light would not stop play as floodlights took over and the one hundred year old tradition of a cherry red cricket ball had been replaced by a white version that within ten overs was scuffed and discoloured. The behaviour of Australian cricketers continued to deteriorate and my love of cricket was on the decline.

Three or four month tours by the major cricket playing nations, including tussles with county or state teams were becoming rare. There was an abundance of one day 50 over matches, aimed at generating revenue, but these once exciting contests, had started to follow a predictable format. Too many meaningless matches staged and too many obscure, hastily named trophies offered. Many a one day international game had become boring between the 15th and 40th overs. Eventually, the authorities “fixed” this by creating 20/20 cricket, cutting out the tedium of the middle period, but we still had to suffer the never ending 50 over “ODI’s” to satisfy programming demands of the broadcasters and sponsors.

The first international Twenty 20 match was played in 2005 and then the cricket follower had the “luxury” of three different versions to watch. Eventually a pink ball would be added for night cricket, so that one of three different coloured balls might be used. The different forms of the game required a different skill set and upward of 40 players would now represent Australia in any particular summer. Frankly, it became impossible to know who was in what team, which format of the game was being played and for what trophy. As quickly as some of the 20/20 players were capped by their country, they would disappear into cricketing oblivion. My disillusionment continued.

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Cricket ball options in 2019

Test match cricket has continued to be popular with the general public but with only passing interest for me. Although the Ashes series remained mostly five match affairs, too many two, three and four match tournaments have evolved. The drama, twists and turns generated during a home test series stretching from late November to early March, are no longer. In 2018 -19 Australia hosted India in a whistle stop four match test series that spanned just one month and one day. Then Sri Lanka arrived for a two test “series.” No sooner had we settled into this two match challenge, than the Sri Lankans were on the plane home. What was the point?

For me, Test cricket was the real attraction, the focal point of the game. There would be meaningful five day contests between bat and ball where there could be enterprising batting but if a two hour occupation of the crease was needed, the batsmen had the technique and the grit to hold on for an honourable draw. Batsmen would preserve their wicket with the tenacity of the 300 Spartans defying the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. Yes, we might have had to endure “barnacle” Bill Lawry batting all day to score a half century, but this was Test cricket, a unique sporting experience.

I apologise for wallowing in nostalgia but I do miss the cracking cover drive of a gum chewing Doug Walters and the stubborn defence of a Geoffrey Boycott. Where is Jeff Thomson unleashing the unexpected beamer at an unsuspecting (English) batsmen’s head and the one time roly poly Rodney Marsh, completing yet another “caught Marsh bowled Lillee” dismissal ? What happened to batting technique ? We now have batsmen (no Steve Smith, I won’t call them “batters”) playing improvised 20/20 shots in test cricket, often sacrificing their wicket. Bowlers don’t have to prise out batsmen’s wickets anymore. The backyard taught us that we could all slog, but who today can stroke a ball along the ground between mid wicket and mid on in the vein of Greg Chappell or square cut like Sir Garfield Sobers ? Where are the off spinners who can bowl 8 straight maidens like England’s Fred Titmus or the fast bowlers such as West Indians Andy Roberts and Michael Holding, bowlers with an almost casual run up but deadly delivery ?

Jeff Thomson hurls down another thunderbolt

And I might ask, where are the delicious names that have been sprinkled throughout cricketing history – instead of Arthur Theodore Wallace (“Wally”) Grout or Frederick Sewards Trueman or Sir Curtly Elconn Lynwall Ambrose, we now have Shane Robert Watson and Glenn James Maxwell.  Come on Mr. & Mrs. Watson, Mr. & Mrs. Maxwell, how can your sons be true cricketers being named Shane or Glenn?

To keep the 20/20 cricket follower entertained, we have bowlers serving up fodder for the batsmen’s slogfest. There are endless reviews of contentious appeals, sponsored by an American chicken fast food purveyor and if you need more than 20 runs an over to keep you awake, clichéd anthems will regularly blare out of the P.A. system -“Another One Bites The Dust”, “Eye of The Tiger” and of course,”Howzat ?”

To some, the evolution of cricket may be seen as being positive. There is no doubt that a player hitting a six in the last over to win a 20/20 match can be very exciting or a run out on the last ball to claim victory, but when I look back and compare my cricketing memories with the game as it is in 2019, the modern variety “is just not cricket.”

“Time it was and what a time it was”  (Paul Simon)

 © 2019 David Jack

3 thoughts on “PLEASE SIR, CAN I HAVE MY GAME BACK?

  1. David, a superb piece reflecting the game I recognise and have known since the mid 1950s. My county, yours originally, Lancashire have followed the ECB in becoming a business first,and last.Both organisations regard for the member or paying supporter is minimal. To such an extent a first fanzine for England certainly for cricket is now about to issue fanzine no6 called ‘Not The Spin’If you DM an address via twitter will get one sent. Stay well, this is a super article. Roy

    Like

    1. Great article David.
      In our fast moving world of decreasing attention spans, need for ‘flicking’ to the next installment of interest, sponsorship infatuation of sporting institutions or betting agencies such as Neds, Unibet, Ladbrokes, bet365, betfair and TAB what hope does traditional cricket have ?

      Like

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