BRIAN VINER INTERVIEWS

Tom Graveney: 'I cannot understand now why I wasn't killed'

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The oldest member of first-class cricket's most exclusive club recalls his dangerous hooking instincts, a never-to-be-repeated stint as England wicketkeeper and how he was almost sent home from West Indies

Tom Graveney is not a man to pull rank, but this evening, as he takes his seat at a dinner at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane to honour the 10 surviving cricketers with 100 hundreds to their names, he will be able to reflect with pride that he is the senior member of that exclusive centurions' club, a club that also includes Zaheer Abbas, Dennis Amiss, Geoff Boycott, John Edrich, Graham Gooch, Graeme Hick, Mark Ramprakash, Sir Viv Richards and Glenn Turner.

Cricket's oldest centurion is 81 now, and it is 44 years since, playing for Worcestershire against Northamptonshire, he bottom-edged an attempted pull off David Larter, saw it bounce over short leg, and scurried a quick single to register his 100th hundred. It was an inelegant way for such a stylish batsman to reach one of cricket's great milestones, but he didn't fret about it. Besides, there were a further 22 first-class hundreds yet to come, five of them for England.

To his amazement and delight, Graveney was recalled to the Test team in 1966, after three years out, and fully 15 years after making his international debut. He was 39, and knew how to make hay while the sun shone. In his second coming as a Test batsman he averaged around 50, and finished, in the week of his 42nd birthday, with a Test average of 44.38. I suggest to him that if his own late flourish is anything to go by, his fellow centurion Ramprakash, a mere 38, could still prosper for England. "I've been saying that for the last two years," he says. "I thought I was the best player in England from 1962 to 1966, and whether I was or not didn't matter. I thought I was, so I played like I was. Mark's the same, I think. But it [his recall] came totally out of the blue. I remember fielding on my 39th birthday. A West Indian in the crowd shouted 'Heh, Graveney, haven't they got a pension scheme in this country?'"

Our laughter fills the spike bar at Cotswold Hills Golf Club, just outside Cheltenham. It would be stretching it a bit to say that we are only a tee shot from his home, but one of his tee shots would once have got us a sight closer. At the age of 57, Graveney finished fourth in a national long driving contest open to all comers, and played golf for many years off a handicap of one. In a televised pro-celebrity match, playing with Johnny Miller against Nick Faldo and Henry Cooper, he once knocked it round Turnberry in two under par. Nature blessed him with prodigious sporting talent, not to mention abundant, easy-going charm. In nigh on two hours his face darkens only once, when he refers to the shabby way his nephew David Graveney, the former chairman of selectors, has been treated by the England and Wales Cricket Board.

"It was one thing being shelved, but do you know, after 10 years' service he hasn't been invited back to a single Test match. It's dreadful, and it's hit him a bit hard. Poor old David, he's a hell of a nice man."

It was David's father, Ken Graveney, who introduced his younger brother to first-class cricket, in 1947. Ken was playing for Gloucestershire and suggested that Tom, on leave from the army, might make up the numbers in a couple of benefit matches. Thus was a career born that would yield 47,793 first-class runs, and, with occasional but potent wrist-spin, 80 wickets. Strangely, though, it was his fleeting stint as England's wicket-keeper that has left the most enduring physical legacy.

"South Africa at Old Trafford in 1955," he recalls. "I scored nought and one, and caught three and dropped four at first slip. So when Godfrey Evans broke his finger in two places, Peter May said, 'You might as well keep wicket'. And the first ball I caught, down the leg side off Frank Tyson, that's what happened." Chuckling, Graveney shows me the little finger on his left hand, which he can bend back almost to the horizontal. "Can you see? The middle knuckle doesn't operate any more."

Coincidentally, South Africa at Old Trafford, four summers earlier, was the match in which he made his England debut. "Denis Compton dropped out when a full toss hit him on the toe. It must have been the only full toss he ever missed in his life. So I came into the team, and did well enough to be picked for the 1951-52 tour, on the ship to Bombay and six months in India, Pakistan and Ceylon. The first Test I missed with dysentery, then we went to Pakistan, who weren't yet full members of ICC [International Cricket Council] and we played two unofficial Tests there." Another chuckle. "We knew we would lose at least one of them. We had 38 lbw appeals and never got one."

Back in Bombay in the second Test against India, batting at three, Graveney scored his inaugural Test century: 175. There would be 10 more, but only one against Australia. It came not in the famous summer of 1953 when England won the Ashes for the first time since 1934 and Graveney was made one of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year, but in the last match of the Ashes-retaining 1954-55 series.

"I'd played a bad shot in the second innings of the second Test. Second ball, too. I tried to drive Bill Johnston and nicked it to Gil Langley behind the stumps. I think Len [Hutton] decided after that that I wasn't the right man for the tough stuff, and that rather dogged me throughout the first part of my England career. I missed the third and fourth Tests, but I was back in a squad of 13 for the fifth Test in Sydney. Len went out and lost the toss, Ian Johnson put us in, and as he walked back into the dressing room Len said, 'Put your pads on, Tom, and come in with me'. Until then I didn't even know I was playing, let alone opening. I was never really a natural opener. Anyway, Len was out in the first over and Peter May and I put on 118 for the second wicket." Graveney scored 111, and I ask whether he thought Hutton had deliberately kept him in the dark, to protect him from nerves. "Oh, nobody ever knew what Len was going to do."

His Test career continued in fits and starts, even during the Ashes summer of 1956, which remains an irritation, insofar as this most affable of men harbours 52-year-old irritations. "That was my best year in first-class cricket," he tells me. "I scored 2,400 runs, I was top of the averages, yet I wasn't picked to go to South Africa." A gulp of bitter shandy, and a twinkly-eyed smile. "I made a great mistake, you see. I beat [the chairman of selectors] Gubby Allen at golf."

I think he's joking, but maybe not; it was not a wise career move, then even less than now, to offend the Establishment. Graveney offers another example, from England's tour of the West Indies in 1953-54.

"We lost the first Test at Sabina Park, and the second at the Kensington Oval. The Navy were in at the time, and we had a bit of a party at the Barbados Yacht Club, where this bloke walked up to me and said, 'You'll never be any good until you stop [Trevor] Bailey, Evans and Compton drinking'. I gave him a suitable reply, but he happened to be staying with the Governor General, and the next day Len Hutton and [player-manager] Charlie Palmer were up at Government House trying to stop me being sent home." Graveney's brown eyes fill with mirth. "Another black mark. How they ever made me president of MCC [in 2004] I don't know."

Times, we agree, have changed. "In many ways we were serfs," he says. "When I left Gloucestershire in 1961 I wasn't allowed to play for Worcester at first because I still lived outside the county, by all of seven miles. So I had to play league cricket." He shakes his head in disbelief. "The Worcestershire chief executive, Mark Newton, found an old contract of mine recently, from 1966. I was on £850, which wasn't a lot of money even then, and we'd won the Championship in 1964 and 1965. There was a little clause at the end: 'Playing in an away match more than 40 miles from headquarters, 10/6 for an evening meal'. Isn't that lovely? But I don't resent the payment they get these days. I'm delighted they're being paid properly."

For an old-timer, Graveney is refreshingly positive, too, about the revolution convulsing modern cricket. "Twenty20's produced some fantastic stuff, as long as it doesn't harm Test cricket. The one area of the game I would do something about is the behaviour of the players on the field. I don't think it's good enough." Wasn't he ever sledged? "I don't recall it, if I was. The only person who used to say something was Godfrey Evans, whenever I walked out to bat against Kent. He used to say, 'How's your golf, Tom?' Trying to get me to think about something else."

Graveney's favoured response was to smack the cricket ball as he did the golf ball, out of sight. He was especially formidable off the front foot, having played so much on concrete pitches while in the army in Egypt. "I cannot understand now why I wasn't killed," he says. "I used to hook off the front foot, even the likes of [Ray] Lindwall, and [Wes] Hall and [Charlie] Griffith. I always got runs off the West Indies."

Notably at Trent Bridge in 1957 when he clubbed them for 258, I remind him, but old cricketers need no reminding. "Yes, I'd missed the first Test at Edgbaston, but at the end of that match Doug Insole, the vice-captain, went to the selectors and said, 'Don't pick me if [Sonny] Ramadhin's playing'. He couldn't make head or tail of him. So that let me in, but I got nought at Lord's. Trent Bridge was my last chance, and as you say, I got 258."

On the receiving end was the man Graveney considers the best bowler he ever faced, Garry Sobers. "Oh, the greatest cricketer of all, in my opinion. We were always pleased when he got runs, because it meant he wouldn't be taking the new ball."

Of course, calling Sobers the greatest cricketer of all begs an obvious question, involving the man whose centenary last week is also being celebrated at tonight's dinner: did Graveney ever play against Don Bradman? "No, the Don only ever played once at Bristol, and it was not a very good wicket so he never came back. Everybody wanted to see him to bat, you see, so he played on very good pitches. There's no taking away his record, 100 every third innings is remarkable, but ... I saw Wally Hammond. In 1946, when I was still at Bristol Grammar School, I saw him get 147 [for Gloucestershire] against Yorkshire. He had a massive presence. To see him walk out to bat was worth the entrance money on its own. All the old players, Les Ames, Gubby Allen, Joe Hardstaff, they all said that no one could bat like him on all wickets."

Graveney is the first to admit that Hammond's status in the centurions' club – 165 first-class centuries and an average of 56.10 – eclipses his own. But he's the one, along with whippersnappers such as Hick and Ramprakash, to whom a roomful of folk in formal attire will pay homage at the Hilton tonight, and rightly so.



The Centurions' Dinner is organised by and in aid of cricket's leading charity, the Lord's Taverners. For details call 020 7821 2828 or see events@lordstaverners.org

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