Wes Hall’s 40 yard run up, seen at the Oval in 1963. Pic: Audmanettv
Today is the last day of the cricketing summer. A summer so strange that not a single ball bowled in the first class game has been viewed by any paying spectator. However, it’s been great to have some free-to-view cricket back on BBC TV. First, highlights of all the test matches between England and West Indies/Pakistan. Then, live (!), two full T20 matches between England and Pakistan/Australia. And finally, more highlights of the 50-over series between England and Australia. Truly, you spoil us, Mr BBC Director-General.
Watching ball-by-ball coverage of Test matches was something I did all my life until the end of UK free-to-view transmission in 2005. That wonderful Ashes summer, with its series of close finishes, has rightly gone down in history. Over the previous four decades work would sometimes get in the way, of course, but there were always weekends. Plus I was sometimes able to filch the the odd day working from home. These occasions could be a bit dull but one Monday in 1984 I got lucky. I spent the day correcting proofs on my living room table while at Lord’s, in the corner of the room, Gordon Greenidge was hitting 214 not out, as the West Indies got 344-1 in a run chase.
I’ve only ever been to a handful of Test matches, all at either Lord’s or the Oval, the last being in 1990 when I took my father to see England play India at the Oval. It was Sachin Tendulkar’s first tour, and we saw the young master fielding on the boundary just in front of us. My first visit was, however, 27 years before, to the famous Lord’s Test against the West Indies in 1963. A small group of boys were taken from my school, Thorpe House in Gerrards Cross, by the deputy head (and cricket coach) Mr Wood. His first name was Ken, but of course we never called him that. Test matches in those days lasted from Thursday to Tuesday, with a rest day on the Sunday, so I think that it must have been the Friday when we went. I really have very little memory of the day itself, but we must have travelled by train to Marylebone. I see from this report of the match that this was the day when England captain Ted Dexter hit 70 in an hour after lunch as England chased a first innings score of 301 by West Indies. I do remember watching from side on as Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith bowled with ferocious speed, and marvelling at the length of Hall’s run up, which must have been about 40 yards. (You get an idea of how long it was from the screen grab at the top of this piece, taken from the Oval test later in the summer.)
We were there on the second day, but in fact the Test match went on to a famous final day on the following Tuesday. I was spending my last term at Thorpe House as a boarder (even though we only lived half a mile from the school) so I watched the climax on TV in the boys’ common room there.
On the Monday, Colin Cowdrey had retired hurt with a broken arm, caused by a hit from Charlie Griffith. Then West Indies batted again, and were out for 229, so England were left needing 234. By the time the last hour started England needed 48 to win, with five wickets down. Brian Close and Fred Titmus were in. But then Titmus was out, soon followed by Fred Trueman. The score was 203 for 7 when David Allen arrived at the crease. After a few more big blows, Close was out, with England needing 15. The last fit man, Derek Shackleton came in. He and Allen could perhaps have scored them, but with hostile bowling from Griffith and Hall they could only prod the odd single.
At some point in the time that followed, the live TV coverage ended, as it was already past ten to six and the 5.50 news bulletin could not be delayed any longer. However, soon after the bulletin started, it came to an end (apparently under the orders of Sir Hugh Greene, then the BBC Director-General, who had been watching the cricket) and the cricket came back on again.
As the last over started England needed eight runs. They were surely batting for a draw. They got a couple of singles off the first three balls. Then Shackleton was run out on the fourth, but the batsmen had crossed. The nation held its breath as Cowdrey, arm in plaster, made his way to the non-striker’s end. Allen blocked out the two remaining deliveries and the match was drawn.
Unsurprisingly there is a lot of material online about this match, as well as Arunabha Sengupta’s atmospheric piece referenced above, but written in 2018, which I freely admit I have relied on for this piece. Here is the full scorecard at ESPN Cricinfo and here, amazingly, is a 40 minute YouTube video of the highlights of both teams second innings. There is also a shorter YouTube video of Hall, Griffith and Sobers bowling on the same tour, at the Oval test.
What wasn’t so apparent to a 13 year old boy at the time was the cultural significance of this Test series, which West Indies won 3-1, with only one draw. Only two years before Frank Worrell had become the first black man to captain the West Indies cricket team for an entire series, and this was the first time this had occurred in a team touring England. As a batsman his powers were waning, perhaps not surprisingly as he turned 39 during the tour. He retired from international cricket at the end of the tour and, tragically, died of leukaemia less than four years later.
West Indies fans, probably at the Lord’s Test 1963. Pic: ESPNcricinfo
I do remember the crowd at Lord’s. There were areas of unreserved ‘free seats’ and people could also sit on the grass (you hired a cushion for, I think, a shilling). Large sections were taken up by West Indies fans, as can be seen in the picture above, taken from the Sengupta piece. I love the fact that they are all dressed in smart clothes, with their brief cases and handbags in front of them. This was the first home Test match series against the West Indies for six years, and many more immigrants from the Caribbean had arrived in that time. The sheer numbers of West Indies fans are in stark contrast to the numbers who turn up now to modern Test match series. This perhaps mirrors the declining importance of cricket in the Caribbean – a shame when you consider the heritage they have to build on.
The boisterous crowds have been driven away, says this article in The Cricketer, ‘by high ticket prices, the end of block-booking and overzealous ground regulations on instruments, food and the like.’ The article links to an academic project at University College London which is hoping to shed some light on this under-appreciated corner of British cricket history. Led by Professor Michael Collins, it is compiling a social history of the Windrush generation through cricket which will attempt to answer the eternal question of why, if cricket was so important to so many African-Caribbean people in Britain, has their participation declined so markedly over the last 30 years. Collins says: ‘For many West Indian immigrants to Britain, cricket was a bridge across back to the Caribbean. It was part of their Caribbean identity, but it was also very much part of their British identity.’
It will be an interesting read. I look forward to seeing a copy. Contact Michael Collins here.