Cricket: Randall in the reruns on his glory day: Jon Culley on a special match for the Retford ragamuffin

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IT WAS back in the days when to follow the exploits of England's cricketers abroad required night-owl stamina and the capacity to make pictures in the mind from a crackly radio signal. But on this March night bringing the words to life was easy.

The duel which developed between the eccentrically brilliant batting of England's Derek Randall and the magnificently destructive bowling of Australia's Dennis Lillee in Melbourne over 16 and 17 March 1977 remains among the most potent episodes in international cricket history. And as it was played out by such distinctive protagonists, descriptive aids were hardly needed to visualise the backward roll at the crease with which Randall reacted to one over-balancing bouncer or the Chaplinesque doffing of the cap which acknowledged another, much to his explosive adversary's increasing fury.

Scarcely could it have occurred on a more auspicious occasion: the Centenary Test, designed to celebrate 100 years of great deeds perpetrated in the name of Anglo-Australian rivalry on the ground where it had all begun.

Randall made 174 in England's second innings, raising the possibility of an unlikely victory, and even though Lillee's 11 wickets in the match ultimately brought defeat for Randall's team, the jerky, jaunty little right-hander from Retford had hooked, cut and driven his way to a page in Test cricket folklore.

Of seven Test centuries none was so significant for Randall's career, and his recognition of the fact is at the root of an extraordinary gathering of players in Nottingham this afternoon, when the Centenary Test is reconstructed as the focal point of Randall's testimonial year.

Not all of the 22 players from Melbourne can appear - Lillee, sadly, is among the absentees - but Randall's ambitious project has nevertheless born exciting fruit. The 40-overs match, starting at 2.15pm, will feature eight of the England team and while the Australian turnout of four is less impressive, those making up the numbers come with genuine credentials.

Of the England side, only Tony Greig, Alan Knott and Bob Willis could not accept their invitations. But Bob Woolmer, Mike Brearley, Derek Underwood, Dennis Amiss, Keith Fletcher, Chris Old and John Lever will line up alongside Randall. Mike Hendrick, Bob Taylor and David Bairstow fill the gaps.

The Australian originals - Greg Chappell, David Hookes, Gary Gilmour and Max Walker - are supported by Ian Redpath, Ross Edwards, Trevor Chappell, Ray Bright, Jeff Thomson, Bob Massie and the wicket-keeper Steve Rixon.

Naturally, Randall looks back to Melbourne with affection and pride, although he still believes the innings in fact did his career more harm than good. 'I certainly treasure some wonderful memories,' he says. 'But, if anything, it set my career back a year or two.

'I was built up into something I clearly wasn't and after that it probably took me five years to attain the consistency I was aiming for, by which time the greater part of my Test career had passed me by.' Even so, he still managed 47 caps.

An ageless 42, Randall retains his boyish charm and will probably look even more the ragamuffin this afternoon, with so much distinguished grey about him.

He insists that this will be his last season but there are few more attractive reasons to go to Trent Bridge these days and there will be many among today's crowd who would wish him to stay a while longer yet.

(Photograph omitted)