Sportstar Archives: Chris Old - Cricket has changed a lot now

Just when Chris Old was all set to become the lynch-pin of the England attack, he was struck by injuries warranting operations on both his knees.

Former England cricketer Chris Old in Madras on February 14, 1993.   -  S. Thanthoni

Sometimes eyes can tell their own story. Well, Chris Old's eyes cannot quite mask a hint of regret. No doubt he had contributed his bit to England as a fast medium bowler of immense ability, but never quite became the spearhead he initially promised to be.

Also his undoubted batting talent did not manifest itself at the highest level. Though greatness eluded this tall, gangling man from Yorkshire, he still had his moments under the sun.

A glorious moment it certainly was when he scythed through the Pakistani line-up in the Edgbaston Test of 1978, with four wickets in five balls. He missed a hat-trick on two occasions by bowling no-balls. Here too greatness eluded him by a whisker.

Life indeed can play cruel tricks. Just when Old was all set to become the lynch-pin of the England attack he was struck by injuries warranting operations on both his knees. Still this modest, charming man carried on gamely.

India has a special place in Old's heart for it was here that his journey into Test cricket began. He made his debut in the Calcutta Test of the series, under Tony Lewis. He came to India once more, under Tony Greig in 1976. Old, John Lever and Bob Willis troubled the Indian batsmen no end with their pace and swing on this tour.

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Old still has happy memories of India. Think about him and memories of old Hash across our minds ; the summer of '42, the Centenary Test, the miracle at Headingley. Well in the summer of 1974, Old and Arnold bowled India out for what is its lowest Test score ever (42) on a bleak day at Lord’s. In the Centenary Test of 1977 in Melbourne, Old bowled splendidly though England finally lost after a bitter battle.

Then, in the Headingley Test of 1981 he was involved in what proved to be the match-winning stand with the rampaging lan Botham. Yes, memories of Old keep coming back. Well, the more one sees the present England pace bowlers struggling, the more one thinks of the 1976 series in India when England's seam and swing bowlers called the shots on similar pitches.

The adage old is gold definitely holds good in this case. Old leading a group of British tourists watched the recent India-England series.  He spoke to Sportstar in Madras.

Tell us about your early days…

Well, I was brought up watching Fred Trueman. I actually played with him for Yorkshire. We overlapped a bit. Going into the Yorkshire dressing room those days was a bit unnerving. We were virtually a team of internationals. So it was a rather young lad walking into the dressing room. I did not speak to anybody. I was very self-conscious. Fred was the first to speak to me. I remember sitting there and listening to him. I learnt more in those early days in the Yorkshire dressing room than what I learnt anywhere in my career. I was also fascinated by Wes Hall. To see him running into bowl was a fascinating sight.

You have a reputation of being a very soft person, though you were a fast bowler…

Well, I think one or two persons would disagree with that (smiles). I have always believed in playing cricket the way it should be played. I have enjoyed every moment of it. There have been occasions when I have been annoyed by some people and I have let them know how I felt, both with the ball and occasionally verbally. But more often than not I have let the ball do the talking. Some people are noisy, some are quiet. It all boils down to who deals in what way with the tension. Each player has his own way of dealing with a situation. You got to know how to cope with the situation.

Having started as a tearaway, you cut down on pace, rather early in your career. Did it affect your bowling?

Basically it was due to my knees. I underwent operations on both my knees. I also got tired of bowling real quick and seeing the batsman just letting the ball go by 90% of the time. And that's also why I decided to cut down on my pace and decided to move the ball more. I think I became a much better bowler after that.

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You broke down often and some of your injuries came just before the Test matches...

I always felt that if I had a problem it's best to tell people. If the other guy is 100% fit and I am only 85% fit, I thought it was better for him to play than me. The fact that I might break down and leave the side a bowler short worried me. Also when you play without being fully fit, you hold yourself back a little, which is not really fair to your team. You have to after all give out your best for the country.

You came to India in 1972 under Tony Lewis and again in 1976 under Tony Greig. What are your memories?

Well, I made my debut in Calcutta. Naturally. Eden Gardens is a very special place to make your debut. There were 70,000 people and it was a bit nerve-wracking really. I got five wickets and enjoyed myself a great deal. In both the Calcutta and Madras Tests of the 1972-73 series we lost by a narrow margin. It was fascinating really to watch Bedi, Prasanna and Chandrasekhar plugging away all day.

We were under a lot of pressure with close fielders breathing down our neck. In Madras, when India needed only a few runs we struck early to put them under pressure. No matter what the score is if you can get a couple of wickets early, it adds to the pressure on the team, especially if it is chasing a small score. In Madras, India got a little edgy, some got out fast and the game was in balance for a little while. But Dunam played a nice little knock to help India to a victory. On the 1976-77 tour, John Lever, Willis and myself played a big part in England winning the series. It was a happy feeling really.

What about the vaseline incident in Madras?

Really the whole situation was tense. On the third day of the Test, a hot and humid one. Bob Willis and John Lever were having a lot of trouble with their perspiration. So they put some vaseline strips just over their eyebrows under their headbands to prevent sweat from running on to their eyes. And it had nothing to do with trying to apply it on the ball. Bob Willis ran in to bowl the first ball after the lunch break, and his vaseline strip fell. He went past the umpire and flicked it off. The umpire thought he was trying to put it on the ball. It was one of those painful things. It was blown out of all proportion.

Another very interesting thing happened on the tour. John Lever, who took seven wickets in the first innings of the Delhi Test, actually started off with a ball that did not swing at all. After five overs we had to change the ball since it had gone out of shape. The umpires used sandpaper to take a little bit of shine off the ball. But what really happened was that this ball actually did a lot. It not only swung, but swung a long long way. And John Lever is a very, very good swing bowler.

The England team had a lot of entertainers like Derek Randall and Tony Greig. Any recollections?

Well, a big crowd turned up to watch the final day's play in Calcutta, though India was sure to lose. After the match, the Indian captain Bishan Bedi decided to do a lap of honour. The crowd pelted the team with limes and tomatoes. Derek Randall went to a policeman, took his helmet and offered it to Bedi. The crowd thought it was tremendous.

Even in Madras during the vaseline incident, when there was a lot of tension. Randall got on the field and started joking with Tony. He flicked Tony's cap and Tony chased him all around the field. All this helped in bringing down the tension.

The present England team, which promised so much has failed to deliver in the Tests in India. What are the reasons behind the failure?

The main problem is the type of wickets we have in England. We do not get turners with the result we do not get to face top class spinners. It's a different ball game altogether when you have two or more fielders around your bat. You have to adopt a different technique. This team actually practised hard before the tour, but the surfaces they practised on were very different to the ones they played on. The Indian spinners bowled well, I would not make any comparisons here with their counterparts in the 70s because it is wrong to compare two eras.

There were other problems too. England has not had a particularly happy tour. They have been struck by illness and then the flight schedules were being changed. The whole thing seems to have played on their minds. I get the feeling that a lot of people were actually not in the right frame of mind to give 100%. They were in fact waiting to catch the first flight home.

Chris Old in action during the Third Test against India in Madras on January 14, 1973.   -  Sportstar Archives


Do you think David Gower would have made a difference?

Well, a player of Gower's class would make a difference to any side. Actually the English management before the tour had an idea of the kind of players they wanted, the type of cricket they were going to play. David Gower obviously didn't fit in their plans. But I would have Gower in my side any day. Having played with him a lot, I know what a class batsman he is. He along with Fairbrother may have made things a little difficult for the spinners. It is not quite the same thing when the spinners are up against the left-handers. They have to change their line all the time, especially, if it is a right-left combination. It would have been a big plus to have someone like Gower in the top order.

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We also saw the England bowlers not moving the ball much at all. You and Lever swung the ball under the same conditions during the 1976 tour.

Cricket has changed a lot, with the amount of one-day cricket being played now. The outswing bowlers are a dying breed. In a one-day game a batsman can do a whole lot of things with the away going ball, with no slips. So to avoid that, the present bowlers just hit the seam and try to bang the ball in. They carry the same habit to the Tests too. They have forgotten to swing the ball.

The present England pace bowlers don't really have the variety. Unfortunately, Fraser is not fit. He was a very accurate bowler, could go on and on. When you're up against it you would like to say "Well he's going to bowl 25 overs in the day and is not going to go for very much". The others could just bowl around him. We haven't got that kind of a bowler now... Jarvis and Lewis are promising, but they've still got a long way to go.

Does the 'summer of 42' ring a bell?

Oh..Well, yes. Actually in the first innings (Lord's Test, 1974) we actually had a bit of a struggle to bowl India out. Engineer batted very well. Then on the fourth day when India followed on, it all started happening. It was cloudy, and the ball started moving around a great deal. In these conditions Geoff Arnold is a ' superb bowler. Arnold got Gavaskar and Viswanath out early. And I just ran through the lower half of the Indian batting. Those days the Indian batting was a little brittle. If one or two wickets fell early they seemed to fall apart. But really the conditions were such on that day that it might have tested any team.

Though England lost, you took a lot of wickets in the Centenary Test in Melbourne, 1977. It must have been a great match...

I don't think there ever will be an atmosphere like that. There was a huge crowd on the first day and by lunch both the teams had been bowled out. It was a case of sheer nerves on the big occasion. There were so many of the English and Australian past greats watching the match.

There was a little bit of movement early on in the first day. We bowled well on the first day to get them into trouble. But then the 'Old Fox' Dennis Lillee came in and changed the script. Australia batted well in the second innings. Rod Marsh got a hundred. Rick McCosker came in bravely to bat even after receiving a blow on his head. We had to chase a target in the fourth innings. But we decided to give it everything we had. There were a lot of people and we decided not to play for a draw. Derek Randall batted magnificently. Though we finally lost, it was a great match.

Then, in the Edgbaston Test of the 1978 series against Pakistan, you got four wickets in five balls...

Again, the conditions were just right for me. It was the Pakistan first innings and I got Sadiq's wicket with a bit of a long lop really, caught down at fine leg by Radley. I changed ends after the lunch break and it worked wonders for me. I got Wasim Raja and Wasim Bari off successive balls and was on a hat-trick. Then I bowled a no ball. I was furious with myself. Then off the next two balls I got Iqbal Qasim and Sikander Bakht. Again I was on a hat-trick and again I bowled a no-ball. This still annoys me. I was so close to a hat-trick. In fact on my second hat-trick the ball was edged by Liaqat Ali but didn't carry to the keeper. If it had, it would have made me even more annoyed (smiles). But again these things happen. Some missed it, others nicked it.

Your partnership with lan Botham in the Headingley Test of 1981 is still remembered…

Well, we were losing by an innings when Graham Dilley went in to bat. We then decided that if it was on the stumps, we would block it, and if it was off the stumps we would smash it.

Off the second ball Dilley hit a beautiful coverdrive. You could see Botham pump himself up. He hit a four, then another and that's what got him started. Dilley too played well and as I walked in after he left, lan said, "I suppose you are going to play the same way". While we were batting, we could almost see the Australian hearts going down. Though Kim Hughes was the skipper, we felt that there were at least seven skippers on the field ordering the players around.

We felt if we could play and add around 100 or 150 we could put some pressure on Australia. Botham pulled off some incredible shots off the likes of Lillee and Lawson. I was very annoyed when I got out. I thought we had not got enough runs. In the end we thought we were 30 or 40 runs short, but Willis came up with an incredible spell and we had won!

Chris Old: "There was a time in my career, when I really had to concentrate on my bowling, so my batting suffered..."   -  The Hindu Archives


The series also saw some astute captaincy from Brearley...

Oh, yes. In the Edgbaston Test of the same series, Australia was coasting towards a victory, with five wickets in hand. lan (Botham) was having a very bad time as a bowler, had little confidence in his own bowling. Brearley just walked up to him and said "Right, you bowl from this end". Botham just stood there not believing it. Brearley said, "Come on, it means you'. Botham with his morale obviously boosted, by the confidence the captain had in him, just ran in and bowled as fast as he could. And everybody knows what happened.

Once he got a couple of wickets, his confidence picked up and in a mood like that he could do anything. But it was Mike who got the best out of him.

Going back a little Chris, you played in the 1974-75 Ashes series, which was a watershed series in many ways. We had Thomson and Lillee going for the jugular. What really caused England's defeat in that series?

I think I was pretty fortunate I played in only two Tests (Laughs). It was really the first time we were up against two fast bowlers of that class. Max Walker was a good bowler too who kept going on and on from one end. Thomson and Lillee attacked at the other end. So they were all reasonably fresh. We never really had a chance.

I couldn't really call it intimidating. They did bowl the odd bouncer, but they also pitched the ball up a lot. The Perth pitch was one of the fastest I have ever played on. The ball just flew from a length. The pitches made our plight worse. Considering we had no helmets, chest guard and arm guards those days, it was quite frightening. In the end we were happy to go back in one piece.

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Do you think intimidation is a legitimate part of a fast bowler's armoury?

Well, the bouncer should be used carefully. But in the 70s and 80s we were getting four or five an over from say the West Indian bowlers. I don't think the people actually want to see that. The new ICC rule is the other extreme. It is designed to protect those who are not very good players of pace. The lesser batsmen can now go on to their front foot.

We got to find a balance. The whole idea of bowling is to hit the stumps, right? So too much of short-pitched bowling is bad. But whether it is intimidation or not, the umpires have to decide. If it becomes too much, they can issue a warning to the bowler. But I think the height regulation rule in one-day cricket is good. In Test matches short pitched bowling can be wasteful at times, the batsman can just let them go by, but in over-limit cricket each ball left is each ball not scored off. So it does make a lot of difference.

Yorkshire went through turbulent times in the early 80s. You were a key player in the drama....

Well. in the late 70s Ray Illingworth came back as manager. He thought Geoff Boycott was not the right man for the job and made John Hampshire the captain. John did not look particularly happy in the captain's role. He had a few injury problems too. I was asked to lead the side after Hampshire broke his thumb. At the end of the season I had a bit of a problem with Geoff Boycott and also there was some trouble with the membership issue.

The following season we were going along fine, when Ray took me to the side one day, and said he was going to take over as the captain as directed by the committee. This didn't particularly please me. At the end of the season I was sitting with Ray when I got a call that I was not even in the Yorkshire XI. That did not please me either. I thought it was probably time for me to leave the county.

Then came the rebel tour to South Africa...

Actually, I thought I should have been in Keith Pletcher's team which toured India in 1981-82. I was really down when I knew I was dropped. It was then I was invited to play in the Currie Cup competition for Northern Transvaal. I thought, 'Well my international career was over, so why not see how cricket was being played in some other part of the world?' By that time the rebel tour also came through and I didn't stand to lose anything.

In spite of your enormous talent, you never quite did justice to your batting abilities. Are you disappointed?

Well, there was a time in my career, when I really had to concentrate on my bowling, so my batting suffered. I don't think there's anyone more depressed about it than me. I must admit if I have to do it all over once again, I would have certainly concentrated on my batting.

The hundred against Warwickshire (37 minutes) must have given you immense satisfaction. It's the third fastest century ever...

It was one of those days. There was nothing in the game, and they were behind in the over-rate so there was some pretty friendly stuff, and I got everything in the middle of my bat. My second 50 came in just 9 minutes. Well, anyway a century like that makes you feel good. I had it in me to become an all-rounder at Test level.

(This article was first published in the Sportstar magazine on March 27, 1993)

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