When something in sport hasn't happened for a long time, journalists are apt to invoke politics and pop music - like pointing out that the last time England's cricketers won a Test series in the West Indies, Harold Wilson was the Prime Minister and the Beatles were number one with Lady Madonna.
There, I've done it myself. In fact, Lady Madonna was about to be displaced by Cliff Richard's Congratulations. And the day after England drew a nail-biting final Test to clinch the series 1-0, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. It was early April, 1968.
It has been suggested that the current tour represents England's best chance for 36 years of winning a series in the Caribbean. Brian Lara apart, and Devon Smith's first-day century notwithstanding, this is deemed to be a far less intimidating West Indies XI than most others down the years, the 1968 version included.
On the other hand, does this England side of 2004 bear comparison with Colin Cowdrey's 1968 team? It manifestly does not. The line-up for the fourth Test in Trinidad 36 years ago, which England won by seven wickets and was the only match not drawn, was Edrich, Boycott, Cowdrey, Barrington, Graveney, D'Oliveira, Knott, Snow, Brown, Lock, Jones. What would Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher give for that kind of batting strength?
And the bowling wasn't too shabby either. John Snow, on his inaugural tour, was in devastating form. Having missed the first Test, he then took 16 wickets in the second and third, including those of Rohan Kanhai (three times) and Garry Sobers (twice). In four Tests, the 26-year-old Snow bagged 27 wickets; he deserved Cliff Richard's anthem all to himself.
I meet him in the lounge of the Gatwick Hilton. He is 62 now, but still in good shape, still playing cricket for the Lord's Taverners, still recognisably the man who spearheaded the England attack all those decades ago. He has done well in business too, and recently sold his successful travel business to Kuoni. He looks like a man of means.
Snow has always had a keen sense of what he is worth. In the early 1970s he complained bitterly about the wages Test cricketers were paid. Something will happen, he said, and of course something did: Kerry Packer. Needless to say, Snow signed up to Packer's World Series Cricket with alacrity.
As for the current Caribbean tour, he agrees that if these England players can emulate the deeds of him and his compadres, bringing home a 1-0 series win and the Wisden Trophy, they will have done us proud.
In certain other respects, though, a repeat of 1968 is less desirable.
At Sabina Park, Kingston - where the 2004 series is currently unfolding - there was a riot which had to be dispersed by police with tear gas. And when Snow talks about the final Test at Georgetown, Guyana, he puts it thus: "Tony Lock had arrived to replace Fred Titmus who'd chopped his toes off in Barbados, and it ended up as a draw."
Whoa, I cry. Never mind Tony Lock, never mind the draw. Fred Titmus chopped his toes off? "Yeah, jet skis in those days consisted of a propeller underneath the thing you sat on, and someone was riding around on one. Fred got hold of it, and as he did so his feet floated up underneath it, but the propeller was still going round and chopped off most of his toes. He was very good about it. When he came out of hospital and someone asked him how he felt, he said 'a bit lighter'." Snow gives a hollow chuckle.
Riots, dismemberment, an England victory ... clearly the 1968 tour is worth discussing.
We start with the second Test at Sabina Park, in which Snow trapped Sobers lbw, first ball. He had also removed him first ball on the previous occasion they had met in a Test match, at The Oval, and thus has a reasonable claim to immortality: the only bowler to inflict two successive Test match golden ducks on the great Garfield Sobers. To put that into even rosier perspective, in 1968 Sobers was on top of his fabulous game. It was the year in which he himself achieved cricketing immortality, clouting six sixes in an over against poor old Malcolm Nash at Swansea.
Snow's dismissal of Sobers put the Kingston crowd into a bad mood, and as the match progressed the mood worsened, especially in the cheap, and notorious, bleacher seats.
"We were bowling them out," Snow recalls, "and then Basil Butcher was given out caught down the leg side. Jim Parks took it low down, a genuine catch, but all the people in the bleachers disagreed. They'd been drinking a bit, and a shower of bottles came over the fence. Kipper [Cowdrey] went over and tried to calm them down, but that just brought an increased hail of bottles ... which was quite amusing, in its way.
"Anyway, the riot police then came out and shot off all this tear gas into the crowd, but the wind blew it back over the ground. We had to rush off and put towels round our heads, and the game was called off for the day. The next day we resumed in an empty stadium; nobody was allowed in. It was an unreal situation. We bowled them out, but we were struggling at the end at 68 for 8. Fortunately we managed to hang on."
The series moved on to Barbados. There, a first-innings opening partnership of 172 between John Edrich (146) and Geoff Boycott (90) - not to mention a resolute 37 by Snow, batting at number nine - put England in command, although the West Indies rallied and secured yet another draw.
In his 1999 book Geoffrey Boycott On Cricket, I tell Snow (although he probably knows already) Boycott writes that during Raymond Illingworth's tenure as England captain, Illingworth used to post him at mid-on not least so that he could wind up Snow by telling him he was bowling crap, whereupon Snow would start bowling more aggressively. That series was the first time he had spent extended periods in Boycott's enigmatic company; I ask him how they got on?
"Well, Boycs is Boycs," he says. "To understand him, you have to understand the way he grew up, losing his father early on, desperate to achieve. He would love to have had the talent of a Barry Richards, but instead he made himself into a success with hard work and application.
"But I didn't really know him then. In a game in Montego Bay against Jamaica's colts, a warm-up for the Test match, the umpire no-balled me quite a bit, wrongly at times, which didn't please me. Boycs was chirruping on about it on the field and even started up again in the dressing-room, so I picked up the nearest thing to hand, which happened to be a round tin of Elastoplast, and hurled it across the room at him. It hit him just above the eye. Basically, after that we knew where we stood."
The fourth Test in Port of Spain hinged on a second-innings declaration by the West Indies captain, Sobers, that these days would attract suspicion.
In the first innings the West Indies declared at 526 for 7. England were 404 all out in reply, and the West Indies then declared at 92 for 2, setting England 215 to win. England did so with seven wickets in hand, Boycott scoring 80 not out and Cowdrey 71. In fairness, Sobers had felt sure that his leg-spinner, Willie Rodriguez, would prevail on a deteriorating wicket.
"I remember some dressing-room argy-bargy between Kipper, Kenny Barrington and Tom Graveney," Snow says. "Should we chase the total or shouldn't we? Colin was very indecisive as a captain. I played under quite a few - MJK Smith, Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey, Raymond Illingworth, Mike Denness, Tony Greig - of whom Raymond was the best. Colin was basically too nice for his own good. He needed to be more of a bastard, and to believe in himself more as a player.
"But to be fair, once we'd decided to have a go, he played a magnificent innings, one of the best I ever saw him play. Whenever Garry moved a fielder, Kipper played it into the gap. It was remarkable to watch. Anyway, we won and Garry got castigated."
In Guyana, the great man almost made amends. He scored 152 in the first innings, and then took the prized wickets of Edrich, Cowdrey and Barrington. In the second innings he finished 95 not out, and eased his team into the driving seat. The outcome of the entire series eventually depended on the final over of the final Test: England were nine wickets down, with only the feeble bat of Jeff Jones, the tailender's tailender, to deny the West Indies a series-levelling win. But with the estimable Alan Knott at the other end, though scarcely visible through the crowd of West Indian fielders, Jones stood firm.
What odds might there be against a similar denouement to this series, I wonder, with another Jones standing defiantly at the crease? Simon Jones, England's fast-bowling prodigy so cruelly injured in Australia 16 months ago but now back to fitness and up to speed, is the son of Jeff Jones.
And Snow is an admirer. "He's got real pace and the ability to swing it. His action is a lot better than it was - the smoothness of it, the control of it - but I would hope he can learn to move it a bit more off the wicket. I never bowled an away-swinger after my school days, I just lost it, but I could always bowl a leg-cutter. I got a lot of wickets from that. It's a matter of working at it, of practice, practice, practice. But first he's got to get over that knee injury, mentally I mean, so that he can concentrate fully on what's happening at the other end, not his end."
As for the other, relatively inexperienced members of England's pace battery, all of whom enjoyed early success on Thursday, Snow thinks that Stephen Harmison "needs to stay upright to be more consistent" and that Matthew Hoggard "has to balance control with effort; in Sri Lanka he was slightly off-balance.
"I often compare quick bowling with karate. You generate great force when you hit something with speed, strength and co-ordination, and that's what the bowler has to do. The trouble is that guys like [James] Anderson are basically learning the game as they go along.
"I tend to chirrup on about this, but it's true, we need to develop players at an earlier age, a formative age. It's the same with any sport, or anything. That's the time to give them a full understanding of what they're doing, and to make them aware of their strong points and weak points.
"I don't think you should need a bowling coach when you get to Test level. Can you imagine someone asking FS [Trueman] if he wanted a bowling coach? I can understand them having physios and whatever, but I'm not a great believer in doctors and nurses and maiden aunts following them around."
This might be interpreted as the embittered grumbling of an old-timer, but then he was pretty good at embittered grumbling even when he was dark-haired and fresh-faced, which is largely why he went on only three tours (to the West Indies, Australia, and Pakistan) in an 11-year international career. Besides, to write him off as an old-timer is part of the problem, Snow believes.
"I still enjoy coaching but I don't do a lot. I don't think we use former players enough in this country. In Australia, when a state player finishes, they try to hook him up to the system in some way. Here, you get to a certain age and it's goodbye. All that experience, thrown away." It might be a Victor Meldrewish point, but it's also a fair one.
John Snow life and times
1941 Born: 13 October in Peopleton, Worcestershire. Educated at Christ's Hospital.
1961 Makes his first-class debut for Sussex. Played 267 matches for the county, twice taking over 100 wickets in a season, with his best return of 126 coming in 1966 at an average fractionally over 19.
1965 Handed England debut in the second Test against Zealand at Lord's. Takes four wickets as England win by seven wickets.
1968 Takes 27 wickets in four Tests, including 7 for 49 in the first innings of the second Test at Sabina Park, as England win series in the West Indies.
1971 As England's first-choice fast bowler, plays a leading role as Raymond Illingworth's side regain the Ashes in Australia. Takes 31 wickets in six Tests.
1972 Dropped by England after knocking Sunil Gavaskar off his feet as the Indian batsman goes for a quick run.
1976 Takes 200th Test wicket in final game for England against the West Indies at Headingley.
1977 Signs up for Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket. Apart from a brief spell with Warwickshire three years later, his first-class career is virtually over.
1997 Elected to the Sussex committee as vice chairman.Reuse content