Dangerous Play

Mike Selvey

  • Gubby Allen: Man of Cricket by E.W. Swanton
    Hutchinson, 311 pp, £12.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 09 159780 3
  • Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack: 1985 edited by John Woodcock
    Wisden, 1280 pp, £11.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 947766 00 6

Do you forget things? I do, more and more. My ailing, failing memory was sorely tested the other day. ‘Do you remember who won the Grand National?’ I was asked. Of course I did. It was the most exciting race for years, won right at the post by ... Then came the blank. I’d sat and watched the race, goddam it, but the winner still eluded me, just as it had at the time. By the same token, quiz me about last summer’s cricket and my response would be sketchy at best. However, I’m of the school that believes it doesn’t matter if you forget facts providing you know where you can lay hands on them when needed. I found the result of the Grand National in a pile of old newspapers.[*] Last summer? Well, that problem was solved last week when the Gospel according to St John, all 1300 pages of it, beat the dust out of the doormat.

It is a sure sign that spring is in the air when Wisden arrives. While there is a good twelve months browse therein, one flick through is enough to stir the brain cells. It is the cricketer’s holy book, their enquire-within; a saviour of rainy days and the winner of pub bets. Test matches to Tonbridge School, the traditional Famous Five cricketers of the year, statistics galore, common sense, whimsy, reminiscence and who popped their clogs last year – all cricketing life is lodged between the familiar custard-coloured covers. A favourite game is to scour the Births and Deaths pages for unusual combinations of names. Black and White are there, and so are Knight and Day, Marks and Spencer, Freeman, Hardy and Willis, Hardstaff and Slack, Halfyard and Inchmore. Then there’s the New Zealander, Cunis, whose bowling was once described as being ‘like his name – neither one thing nor the other’. The amusement is endless.

Naturally, I recognise that Wisden is a serious work, not to mention an annual bestseller. The Cricketers’ Almanack has appeared on my bookshelf ever since I realised it wasn’t Old Moore with jaundice, listing the phases of the Moon or high tide at London Bridge. My entire cricket career, every over of it, is encapsulated in a row of books four feet long. The editor, John Woodcock, the highly respected cricket correspondent of the Times, has now produced the last five of 122 editions, and his editor’s notes, always regarded as authoritative, this year reinforce his familiar view that intimidatory fast bowling is ruining the game as a spectacle. I cannot but agree.

In 1984, prior to the West Indies tour, he suggested that ‘the viciousness of ... today’s fast bowling is changing the very nature of the game.’ Following the ‘blackwash’ of England and the serious injuries to two young batsmen, he is moved to reiterate the ‘chilling dimension’ brought to the game by the undeniably brilliant but potentially lethal West Indian fast bowlers, hunting not in the traditional pairs but in packs.

There is the danger of going over the top in criticism of the West Indies, for a certain amount of envy is involved, and they are unquestionably one of the finest sides ever to take the field. They realise that fast bowlers hold the key to continuing success at the highest level and are lucky enough to be able to produce an endless stream. We would dearly love to produce bowlers like these, but climate, pitches, the structure of the game, and genetics, are all against it. The lengths we will go to in our quest are illustrated by Woodcock’s mention of a sponsored find-a-fast-bowler competition last year, the object of which was to unearth a lad (or lass!) who could hurl a cricket ball vast distances, irrespective of direction or trajectory, and then teach them the skills necessary for conversion into a Test fast bowler. On the basis of this barmy idea the England football manager should bear Daley Thompson in mind for the next World Cup. His speed on the ground and power in the air could be devastating.

Quite when the modern lapse into thuggery occurred is difficult to pinpoint. Was it the West Indians, Hall and Griffiths, or our own John Snow? More obvious, perhaps, was when Ms Lillian Thomson first hitched up her skirts in 1974-75 and reduced the English batting to shell-shocked tatters. I can to this day recall watching the TV highlights of the series, barricaded safely behind the sofa and seeing Keith Fletcher deflect one ball on to his cap badge (no helmets then), narrowly escaping being caught at cover from the rebound. He recalls not appreciating the significance until returning to the dressing-room, where he lapsed into a state of knee-knocking shock. Another Englishman, the Lancastrian David Lloyd, was hit a terrifying blow in the groin by Jeff Thomson. The following summer, I too hit him in the same region. I saw him later, ice packs clasped to his nether regions, and asked after his health. ‘After Thommo it were a pleasure,’ he croaked. The air fairly whistled out of my pricked ego. England’s nuggety batsman John Edrich, in the thick of that trip too, battered and bruised, felt that he had been on ‘one tour too many, old boy’.

Unfortunately for Edrich, his Test career did not finish until the Old Trafford Test of 1976 against the West Indies, which happened to be my own Test debut. For 80 minutes on the evening of the third day, he and Brian Close, 84 summers between them, were subjected to the most brutal assault ever witnessed on a cricket field. It is not being melodramatic to say they were lucky to retain their health, let alone their wickets. Even Clive Lloyd, the West Indies Captain, was compelled to admit, in the understatement of the year, that ‘our boys got carried away a bit.’ Carried away! God! They should have been carried away all right – wholesale to Broadmoor. There were two nightwatchmen padded up that evening, one of whom was me. I am, as they say, for ever in these batsmen’s debt.

But how modern are these tactics? The answer, of course, is that very little is new, and it seems we can look back fifty years for a foretaste. In 1930, in England, Australia had regained the Ashes, a much more meaningful feat then than now, when one is apt to lose sight of just what is at stake in the whirlwind of modern schedules. That this achievement was contrary to the dictum that ‘bowlers win matches’ is clear when one considers the rise of the young Don Bradman, who in that series amassed 974 runs at an average of a shade under 140 per innings, and scored at such a rate as to allow his bowlers the time to prise out the opposition.

It was very much with this in mind that the 1932/33 MCC team arrived in Australia under the captaincy of Douglas Jardine, an enigmatic and solitary character utterly devoted to thrashing the Australians and thereby winning back not only the Ashes but national prestige. To this end were included in his team a number of pace bowlers, one of whom, Harold Larwood, was unquestionably very fast, with the remainder varying from fast to fast-medium. The theory was to attack initially with orthodox field placings while the shine remained on the ball, and then to use a now illegal packed leg-side field, while at the same time bowling short enough to bounce the ball chest-high and above and directed at the batsman. The media coined the phrase ‘body-line’, and the batsman had a number of options to counter it. He could hook (difficult and physically dangerous against really fast bowling, particularly with men placed for the poorly executed shot), duck (we saw last summer the problems of ducking on unpredictable surfaces), play defensively (risking a catch to the ring of close fielders on the leg side), or he could step away to leg and swat the ball through the vacant offside. The consequences of this plan were several: Bradman’s batting average was halved, Larwood bowled England to victory in the series, and war was nearly declared.

Through the smoke of battle, however, the bright light of chivalry shone. One of the English fast men, arguably only second in pace to Larwood, was Gubby Allen, himself Australian born, a talented, injury-prone all-rounder, an amateur (although quite why anyone who didn’t get paid for it should want to be a fast bowler is beyond my comprehension), a stockbroker, who was later to become England Captain, a Test Selector, and the most influential administrator in the history of the game – a position to which he cantankerously clings even today. His life, well and sympathetically documented by his old friend Jim Swanton (another influential mouthpiece for the game), reads like a catalogue of milestones in cricket history: bodyline, throwing, the D’Oliveira affair, Packer – Gubby was involved in them all. Much has been and will be written about bodyline, but Swanton’s book gives us a new slant with the inclusion of hitherto unpublished letters, written at the time by Allen to his parents. You see, Allen refused to resort to these dirty tactics. Gubby refused to become grubby. He relates, in a letter following the second Test, the now famous altercation with his captain. ‘Jardine said I ought to’ bowl bodyline, ‘which made me furious. I told him he could leave me out if he didn’t like the way I bowled. I then went and saw Plum’ – Warner, the Manager – ‘and told him that if such a thing ever occured again I would report the whole thing to the MCC Secretary.’ He elaborates later by recalling how Jardine suggested that his refusal was geared to a desire to retain popularity, which notion Allen of course dismisses. My own theory is that ethics were only part of the story, and that Allen was shrewd enough to realise that his own strength as a bowler lay in his ability to move the ball, and that by bowling normally he might capitalise on the freedom of stroke that would be the natural reaction of batsmen unbridled from physical barrage. This, coupled with the knowledge that bodyline would only work anyway if bowled at the very highest pace. He was, in fact, playing the percentages, just as he did with his stockbroking.

There has been much debate as to when bodyline evolved. Before the tour Jardine, canvassing opinion as to the most effective ways of containing Bradman, certainly discussed leg theory, where the ball is directed at leg stump to a packed leg-side field: but this is distinct from bodyline, where the batsman becomes the target. Allen discounts the possibility that these tactics were discussed on the ship out to Australia, and points instead to the second innings of the second Test when Larwood ‘had returned to the field having had boot trouble. Incensed by a highly vociferous crowd, and not being in one of his happier frames of mind, he started to bowl many more bouncers and to alter his line of attack away from leg stump to that of the batsman, Bill Voce’ – his bowling partner and Nottinghamshire colleague –’ following suit. As they did so, Jardine moved more fielders across to the leg side and by the close of the innings in my opinion Bodyline had been born.’ So there it was: the triumph tempered by accusations of bad sportsmanship and bad blood. A new word – ‘intimidation’ – had been introduced into the vocabulary of cricket.

Yet I am not convinced that this was the start of the story. Consider the following. ‘As I went out to bat, the preceding batsman was being carried off the field unconscious. He had been knocked out completely by a bouncer. The first two balls I received hit me on the head and went for four.’ Fair makes your hair curl, doesn’t it? These are the words of R.E.S. Wyatt, in his book Three Straight Sticks, and they refer to the bowling of Constantine, the West Indian, in England in 1928, four years before the Bodyline Tour. Wyatt was to become Jardine’s Vice-Captain in Australia, while Constantine was to feature again the following year, this time in the West Indies, when Wyatt says that he got his

first sight of bodyline bowling. In view of what was to happen later in Australia, it was interesting to note that no one made any public protest at the methods adopted by Constantine. He was certainly one of the fastest bowlers I’ve ever seen. He bowled at lightning pace and from the start of the innings bowled bouncer after bouncer at the batsman’s head with only two men on the off-side.

So perhaps Jardine was wrongly credited with having developed bodyline and was merely utilising tactics employed against our own side earlier, on the assumption that since no complaints were forthcoming then, he would receive none either.

What had once caused a major international incident is now accepted, albeit reluctantly, as commonplace by the modern player. Swanton argues that what we see today is not bodyline because the field placings are different. I’m afraid I disagree. The attack is still directed at the batsman, with perhaps a marginal shift in line so that a catch from the glove or splice of the bat balloons square of the wicket on the leg side or to the off, rather than exclusively to the on-side as before. Still, this is missing the point, for the effect is no less damaging. If this kind of cricket is killing the game as a spectacle, what is to be done? I have to lay the blame firmly with administrators rather than players. It is in the nature of most people, if not that of Gubby Allen, to play to the limit of the rules. In other words, get away with what you can. It seems that Constantine got away with it, and so did Larwood in 1932-33, and so subsequently have Hall, Griffith, Snow, Lillee, Thomson, Holding and the rest. The solution does not lie with more tinkering with the laws of the game such as we experienced with our one-bouncer-per-over rule. Quite apart from the fact that we were the only country to employ it, the rule had the effect of reducing a fast bowler’s legitimate armoury, while at the same time making one bouncer per over almost compulsory.

No, the rules on intimidation are very clear. What is needed is a harder line taken by umpires, which in turn can only come if they receive much stronger backing from the authorities, and this, mark you, at international level. The high-quality, controlled fast bowler is one of the great sights of cricket. Let’s just make them think about their bowling, that’s all, before it’s too late.

Swanton’s book is entertainingly written, with an insight and mischievous humour that could only emanate from a deep friendship. I have always had cause to remember wise words spoken to me at my grandfather’s knee. ‘Never,’ he said, ‘trust a man who tucks his shirt into his underpants.’ Quite what oyster produced this pearl I don’t know, but I was reminded of it by the account here of the youthful Gubby Allen playing for the Eton Second XI in an effort to attain the first team. Through no fault of his own, seemingly, he was run out, but subsequent remonstrations with his partner at the time were dismissed with the advice that you ‘must run to a chap in brown suede shoes’. Now there’s a real precept for life. Posterity notes that Allen was run out for nought on his Eton debut. It fails to mention the fielder’s footwear.

[*] Last Suspect, 50-1.