A reality check on bowling

Alec Bedser, a distinguished bowler of his time, was also a good judge of cricketers.-JOHN GICHIGI/GETTY IMAGES

Defensive opening batsmen may not stimulate a frenzy, but can lay a solid foundation for the team. The middle-order can transform the improbable to the possible, while the sloggers can be the most exciting.

IN his playing hey-day, Alec Bedser was a superb medium-pace swing bowler. Later in his life as a selector, he was a pretty good judge of a cricketer. Throughout his involvement with the game, both on and off the field, he was always a pragmatist. I well recall Alec taking the new ball against an Australian state side during the 1954-55 MCC tour of Australia. He was pitted against a young left-handed opening batsman of limited ability, but of inexhaustible patience and discipline: an opponent who based his defence on an exact knowledge of where his off-stump was and who had schooled himself to play only at those deliveries which pitched in line with the wicket.

The outcome of the contest was stalemate, with Alec's parabolic movement repeatedly sweeping narrowly past the batsman's outside edge without producing the much-to-be-desired nick. After a half a dozen overs of frustration, Al approached me where I was fielding at mid-off, and offered his expert judgment on the opener's skill level: "Awful player! What a donkey!" Another six fruitless overs passed — before he ventured a second opinion: "Hard to get out though!"

Whenever I am asked for an assessment on who was the best batsman I ever bowled against, I remember this Bedser episode. It reminds me that few if any players are equally accomplished in every department of batting. Thus while the unbowlable defensive opening bat may not stimulate a frenzy of pencil sharpening in the scorer's box, he may substantially promote his side's chances of victory by laying down a solid foundation to a winning total. Conversely the middle-order stroke-makers are the personnel of the creativity department: the men whose task is to conjure up the runs by defying the limitations of time and the constraints of tactics — and transform the improbable into the possible. Finally I am borne aloft on the exciting, breathless wings of fancy to recall the gamblers' throw of the sloggers: the men with the "derring do", the rustic technique and the strength capable of defying the mathematical illogicality of scoring scads of runs in a handful of minutes and balls.

But `revenons a nos opening batsmen moutons! I have always felt that the openers who commanded my respect in my fast bowling halcyon days were all endowed with certain essential attributes. Courage was a "sine qua non". There was no backing away against bowlers of the calibre of Lindwall, Miller, Trueman and Statham in their 80 to 90 mph pomp: trundlers who took a healthy bite at the hard, new, red cherry when they were fresh and raring to go — and often on moist first-morning pitches which delivered movement off the seam and through the air, plus bounce and swing. Equally as crucial as these batsmen's physical bravery were strength, quick decision, reaction and movement times — plus the crowning necessity of a tight, correct technique. The quality openers I confronted in my time had few gaps between bat and pad, and rarely swung their bats across the line of the ball. Most were endowed with monumental powers of concentration.

So let's get down to particulars. Australian openers Arthur Morris and Colin McDonald were out of the top drawer, seldom allowing their attention to stray from the delivery under their consideration. Like his Scottish ancestors, McDonald was a bonny fighter, but limited in his nudging and deflecting scoring methods. "Artie" Morris by contrast was an immovable defender, a ruthless punisher of the loose delivery and a prolific scorer on the leg-side. Springbok Jack McGlew was cast very much in the same mould as McDonald: rugged and tough to the degree that he even scorned to rub the bruises inflicted by the rising deliveries. Both McDonald and McGlew learned and grew as their careers progressed; each eventually conceding that batting is a side-on skill. McGlew coached himself into batting sideways — according to Hoyle — by gripping the point of his shirt collar between his teeth — so that his chin was tucked into his leading shoulder — and then pointing both at the approaching ball.

Bradman held up England's Len Hutton as the beau ideal of openers — and indeed he was the perfect technician. Poised and balanced he seemed to have eons more time than other batsmen. He was always in position to play the regulation delivery and when a ball moved late in the air or off the seam he had the instinctive reflexes to adjust his bat swing at the very last instant. In my university days, I once opened the bowling for the Redcar Club in an early season pipe-opening game against Yorkshire. I succeeded in making Len hurry a few of his strokes — whereupon he paid me the compliment of sending for Freddie Trueman — who was playing snooker in the Lobster Pot pub across the road from the ground — awaiting the call to bowl later in the game. His message to Fred was: "Come and watch this lad bowl Fred. He's quicker than you!" It was the biggest compliment he could have given me. The only flaw in Len's make-up was his orthodox thinking: his expectation that an innings should not contain the unexpected. Hence Keith Miller often flummoxed him with "wrong 'un", bowling it out of the blue, immediately after a vicious bouncer!

I never bowled against India's Sunil Gavaskar, but I saw enough of his batting from the commentary box to bracket him amongst the finest in the history of the game. He was that classical combination of guts and style. His technique was studied and punctilious perfection: a sort of Indian Boycott but with more dedication and heart. He needed that heart since no player in Test history has had a more unenviable batting challenge: standing up to the West Indian pace blitzkrieg of Holding, Roberts, Garner, Marshall and Croft. No one ever scored more prolifically, and notched more hundreds so gracefully and stylishly against such sustained enmity. The greatest praise I can heap on the head of Pakistan's Hanif Mohammed is that he came very close to rivalling Gavaskar — statistically and aesthetically.

In the course of my bowling and broadcasting career I have encountered quite a few "Could Have Been" openers: men like Aussie Les Favell whose addiction to the exciting but injudicious hook was the only thing which stood between him and the highest more sober echelons of batting. West Indian and Moral Re-Armer, Conrad Hunte had the same leg-side failing and was perhaps too Christian to be ruthless. Barry Richards, for his part, was denied his opportunity of international greatness by South African politics. He was an aristocratic player — a sort of blond curly-headed cricketing Jeremy Irons who exuded an ambience of Brideshead: a timer of the ball rather than a bludgeoner; a fine artist rather than an artisan: a Parnassian bat. There have been other players to make the blood race: men like India's F. M. Engineer and Barbadian Roy Marshall who chose professional county careers ahead of prolonged international fame.

And now to the middle-order creativity department. When Denis Compton played, he obeyed only "Denis Charles Scott's" law. He was a "dominant compulsive" who refused point blank to accept subservience to others. He must have been an "enfant terrible" at school for he was a lateral and unconventional thinker in everything he did. He invented strokes rather than be shackled by the bowlers. When I first bowled to him in a county game at Lord's, I was astonished to see `Compo' begin advancing down the wicket to me as I began my 20 yard run. Thus forewarned, I immediately dropped the ball short, only to see Denis rock back on his heels and hook the bouncer over the fine-leg fence! Once I witnessed him sweep a medium-pace delivery so fine that he was caught by the wicket-keeper off the full face of the bat!

The left-handed Springbok, Graeme Pollock, was another free-spirit of the batting crease. Immensely strong and of monumental build, Pollock's methods were of the "stand and deliver" ilk. But for all of his lack of conventionality, the "molly-duker" was orthodoxly straight in some of his stroke-making. Quite often his front foot was a long way from the line of the ball in his cover driving; but his bat-swing was straight and full, so that when he made contact with the ball on the up, the ball whistled through the covers — admittedly in the air — but so quickly that it was what the West Indian spectators would call a "not a man move" stroke.

The West Indian batting trio of Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott and Frank Worrell were dubbed "the Three Ws". They were an intriguing blend of power and grace. Everton Weekes drove and hooked with all of Pollock's ferocity — even against Lindwall; Clyde Walcott was `The Hulk' of Caribbean cricket and a batsman who hit the ball with such force that it seemed that he had a personal vendetta against it. The power of his drives emanated from an enormous back-lift — a feature of his batting which I quickly spotted when bowling against him playing for Barbados against Jim Swanton's touring side in 1956. In our first two encounters I slipped two yorkers under his guard for only two runs; but our third meeting produced a reduced back-lift and a Walcott innings of 130!

Frank Worrell's languid grace hid a timing which rivalled that of any player in the international game and once enabled him to hit the speedy Brian Statham for a straight six at Nottingham. Other batsmen worthy of an honourable mention include the cavalier of South African cricket in the sixties, Roy McLean, the ephemeral Guyanese, Rohan Kanhai, whom I once saw slip and fall on a wet wicket while playing a good length ball — which he still hit for a boundary! Then of course there was the nuggety Aussie batting powerhouse, Norm O'Neill: a brilliantly correct player, whose ability to tear an attack apart was marred only by nerves so sensitive that they sometimes left him physically sick. India's "Tiger" Pataudi scorned the monocular handicap of his later playing years and never allowed an innings to fall into monotony, even on a Melbourne "green-top". Strange how England's "Ollie" Milburn suffered the same one-eyed fate as Pataudi and shared the same aggressive philosophy of never allowing the game to become dull when he was at the crease.

On the English county scene, bowlers were confronted by the problems posed by the steely determination of Peter May, and the natural elegance of Tom Graveney and "Kipper" Cowdrey. Never have I met a more disciplined batsman than P. B. H. May — and never a player with a more powerful bottom hand on the bat handle — "his guide and master." "Long Tom" stroked his boundaries with effortless ease off medium-pace and spin — but was not equally at home against real pace. Ball games came naturally to Cowdrey — squash, racquets, golf were his natural habitat and he displayed little effort in playing them with outstanding results. A Cowdrey of more athletic dimensions might have conjured up visions of a latter-day improved Wally Hammond. What a daunting prospect that would have been for any perspiring bowler!

I have bowled against an eighteen-year-old Sobers — batting number seven in a West Indian side in which he was more of a replacement for the spin of Alf Valentine than a batsman — and still been powerless to prevent him flogging a brilliant 71! But of all the batsmen whom I have targeted, none has surpassed the all-round skills of the little man from Down Under, Neil Harvey. His nimble footwork positioned him perfectly for each delivery he faced, his defense was solid, his timing was that of the natural ball-player that he was. Against spin-bowlers, he was the master — never beaten in the flight and rarely, if ever, stumped. I sometimes troubled him with the ball which pitched on off-stump and moved towards the slips: a fallibility which often led to his giving a catch to gully. In this respect his natural inclinations sometimes brought about his downfall.

He was always willing to have a go at the ball on or just outside the off stump! It was a gamble which sometimes led to disaster but more often paid off big time. For, of one thing you could be sure when bowling against "Nina" Harvey.

If you did not get him out early in his innings and if he batted for three sessions of play — at the end of the day he would usually have 200 on the board. His motto was attack rather than survive! His mental and physical skills were in perfect sync and his baseball fielding abilities made him a formidable all-round cricketer.