It's cricket, Geoff, but not as we know it
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Saturday 20 August 2005
If Michael Vaughan's second-in-command were called Spock rather than Trescothick, there is little doubt that he would by now have murmured "it's Test cricket, captain, but not as we know it".
Amid all the exaltation surrounding the matches at Edgbaston and Old Trafford, nobody seems to have dwelt much on the evidence that this Ashes series represents the latest and most dramatic manifestation of a fundamental change in the nature of Test cricket. In Birmingham, the match scarcely went into a fourth day. In Manchester things might have been the same, had not most of Saturday's play been lost to rain. These days, the five-day draw, at least when neither rain nor bad light intercedes, is becoming rarer than the dodo egg.
For my generation, this is slightly disconcerting. We were brought up watching opening batsmen score nine before lunch. If Geoffrey Boycott flashed at a ball outside off stump in the first over of a Test match, questions were asked in Parliament. If he flashed at two, the ravens abandoned the Tower of London. Later, when Chris Tavaré was invited to stiffen England's top order, he did so a little too literally. Watching Tavaré bat was like watching concrete set.
Yet dourness in a Test batsman, a crime now, was a virtue then. Of course, the 1970s also had David Gower and Ian Botham, and decades before either of them had so much as taken guard in their mothers' wombs, Don Bradman was scoring 300 in a day. Thrilling spectacle is not exactly exclusive to modern Test cricket.
Even so, my generation finds itself in an invidious position, getting wistful about a Test era when pushing it along a bit meant a four every three overs.
Last Monday I got up before the sun had stopped snoring, let alone got his hat on, and drove my 10-year-old son Joe to Old Trafford, where we joined the kind of queue that I found myself in only once when I was his age, for the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum.
I do remember being quite impressed as we shuffled past King Tut's death mask, but it didn't have the lasting effect on me that Monday's experience will surely have on Joe, who has subsequently stopped playing cricket only to sleep, eat and go to the toilet.
What worries me, though, is whether Joe's standards have been set too high. If this is what he now expects of Test cricket, then disappointment surely awaits. Is it not better, in the long run, for a love of cricket to be kindled by Boycott and John Edrich reaching a 50 partnership in 212 minutes?
Such then-and-now questions seem particularly pertinent because yesterday was a significant anniversary. On 19 August 1975, I awoke with a song in my heart: it was the school holidays, my parents had gone to work and I could lounge on the couch all day long, illicitly smoking one of my father's cigars and watching the BBC's coverage of the third Ashes Test at Headingley. A fascinating day was in prospect. England needed a win to square the series.
Australia, skittled out in their first innings for a paltry 135, had finished the fourth day at 220 for 3. Rick McCosker was 95 not out, but Phil Edmonds, the England debutant who had finished the first innings with 5 for 28, would be bowling on a wearing pitch.
The BBC's stirring cricket theme tune, by Booker T and the MGs, surely heralded a thrilling day's sport?
But no. Instead, the scenes at Headingley were of utter consternation. Campaigners for the release of George Davis, a convicted East End gangster whom they believed to be innocent (yet who was later found guilty of murder and sent down for life, one hopes with a raised finger, by Mr Justice Blofeld, Henry Blofeld's brother John), had somehow broken into the ground overnight and vandalised the pitch, pouring oil not on troubled waters but on a good length.
It is hard now to remember, still less to understand, what an impact it had. Brian Johnston, for whom cricket was an essential part of a world which comprised nothing more unsettling than finding the odd fruit cake without sultanas, was seen wandering around Headingley in a state of almost catatonic shock. And watching from my couch, aged 13 and aghast, I couldn't believe that there were people who did not hold Test cricket as sacred as I did.
Still, this terrible act of desecration at least garnered some publicity for the impressively energetic, if morally dubious, "George Davis Is Innocent" campaign, and I remember a newspaper cartoonist drawing a placard, immortalising the joke "Free George Davis... with every gallon of petrol".
If you remember it too, then like me, you probably think those were the days. But were they? On reflection, I think these are the days.
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