Leaves from a souvenir cricket album, a potpourri of memories of that most sporting, most gentlemanly of games:
Port of Spain, Trinidad, February 1981: The national side of England is scheduled to play the West Indies in the first of a five-match series. The backdrop is idyllic: the green mountains of the Northern Range and the branchy samaan trees that divide the toylike stands, some fretworked in the Victorian style. From those quaint bleachers, at 11:20 a.m., an empty rum bottle comes whistling through the air, signaling the first riot of the new season.
Jammu, northern India, February 1981: A mob of 3,000 burns down the main gates of the stadium and, hurling stones, besieges the visiting team for five hours in its locker room. The visitors are women from England, there to play a side from the Indian Women's Cricket Association.
Melbourne, Australia, January 1981: On the last ball of a New Zealand vs. Australia game, the New Zealander at bat must hit a six—the equivalent of a home run—to tie the game. He's given no chance. The Australian captain, Greg Chappell, tells his brother Trevor to "bowl a grubber," i.e., to underhand an unloftable ball along the ground to the batsman instead of making a proper overarm delivery.
April 6, 1981
It was legal, it seemed, but the cheapness of the play almost caused a severing of diplomatic relations. Aussies have an underarm problem, declaimed T shirts sported by New Zealanders, as their prime minister, Robert Muldoon, raged, "The most disgusting effort I can recall in the history of cricket...the Australian team was as yellow as the uniforms it played in." To which Australia's prime minister could only reply, diminuendo, "Uh, a serious mistake."
"Ah, well," as they might say in the Members' Pavilion at Lord's Cricket Ground in London, the shrine of the sport, "these hot climates, you know. These colonials...."
Just a moment, please.
The Members' Pavilion, Lord's Cricket Ground, summer 1979: It's a most prestigious occasion, England vs. Australia in the Centennial Match, marking 100 years of such contests. The game has been delayed by rain and the two umpires, Dicky Bird and David Constant, a greatly respected pair, have been out to inspect the wet field. Not ready yet, they conclude, and return to the Pavilion—where, waiting for them as in ambush, is a group of Members, badged and blazered, wearing their exclusive neckties of broad yellow and orange stripes. Clearly they have been drinking in the bar for some time. They have become increasingly angry over the delay, and now, yelling profanities, they grab the umpires by their collars, manhandle and abuse them. To traditionalists, it was sacrilege.
"A game that was once played by gentlemen," the New Zealand Prime Minister mourned after the Melbourne incident, and he was right if he was referring to the two or three decades, in that golden playtime of the West which ended with World War I, when the standards of the British public (i.e., prep) school prevailed, when such expressions as "It's not cricket" were coined. He was right also if he meant that the sport has become more win-at-all-costs, more physically intimidating, more likely to provoke violence, even among its fans.
At cricket grounds all over the world you will hear old hands opine that the sport, or the sport that they loved, was, after protracted illness, finally killed in 1977 by an Australian named Kerry Packer. Until then, cricket had been the sole administrative province of some of the most conservative elder sportsmen in the world, the spiritual kin, if you like, of the late International Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage.
Theirs was voluntary work, and it often seemed as if they expected the players to perform on the same basis. Cricketers were the worst-paid professionals in any major sport anywhere.
Enter Packer, a TV and publishing entrepreneur, smarting with anger because the elders had refused him permission to telecast an England/Australia series over his popular Channel Nine in Sydney. Packer, who had something of the reputation of a business desperado—he was known to his enemies as the Man in the Stocking Mask—decided there was just one thing for him to do. He would buy cricket.
It was a wildly successful notion. Most of the best pro players flocked to Packer's new World Series Cricket organization, paying little heed to threats of excommunication by the governing bodies of the sport, whose members came closer still to apoplexy when Packer dressed the players in uniforms of red, yellow and blue instead of the traditional white, played games under lights, used a white instead of a red ball and made other unspeakable commercial innovations.
For a time, international cricket was in chaos. There were two English sides, one official, one outlaw; two teams of West Indians; two representing Australia. And, mostly, the class players were with the pirates. The civil war went on for two years, ending in 1979 when Packer triumphantly accepted the now proffered TV rights and handed the players and the game back to the Old Guard. But things were never the same again. No penalties were imposed on the rebel pros and, what is more, they now knew their worth. Under Packer salaries went, if not sky-high—maybe a dozen or so of the top players now make $250,000 a year—high enough to make pure sportsmanship a little outmoded, especially when bonuses for wins and for man-of-the-match awards are on the line.
And no cricketers were as strongly influenced by the Packer revolution as those of the West Indies, the group of English-speaking Caribbean-island countries stretching from Jamaica down to Trinidad which turned down political union after independence came in the 1950s but which stayed together as a cricketing unit.
Their islands may be prettier than the South Bronx or North Philadelphia, but the fastest road out of poverty heads the same way in Antigua or Barbados as it does in the black enclaves of U.S. cities—via sport, which means cricket to West Indian kids. And, just as black players in America have come to dominate basketball, so Jamaicans, Trinidadians et al. have become the world's best cricketers, the culmination of a trend which began shortly after World War II.
On the eve of last month's England-West Indies game at Port of Spain, the trainer of the West Indies team, an Australian named Dennis Waight, threw a little light on what the cricket correspondent of the London Observer had to say in his preview of the match. "England's batsmen," wrote the Observer man, recalling a famous 1879 battle, "view the prospect [of playing the West Indies] with no more relish than the defenders of Rorke's Drift eyed the approaching Zulu hordes."
The horde, in fact, numbered four, the West Indian quartet of fast bowlers (as opposed to spin bowlers with slower, trickier pitches) who send the ball down at 90 mph and more, and of whom Waight said, "There's bigger money for them now. This is a tougher game. Their aggression comes up. They might not like the batsman, so they try to bounce a few around his head. And that ball is like a rock, and it hurts."
Nobody was denying that, least of all Geoff Boycott, England's most experienced batsman, who, like many cricketers nowadays, wears a hard helmet, a plexiglass visor and heavy padding under his clothing, along with the traditional leg pads and gloves.
"It's frightening," Boycott said, "and anyone who says anything else is stupid. Imagine standing on the central divider of a freeway and every few moments stepping into the fast lane. If the first three missiles don't get you, the fourth one will."
On the first morning of the Port of Spain game, though, such ordeals for the Englishman were postponed for a while for reasons that, to a stranger, took some time to become apparent, though there had been clues enough painted on the wall outside the stadium.
The Trinidadian talent for Calypso is well known, less so the islanders' talent for incisive, literate graffiti. Among such timeless adjurations as "Nationalize the Holiday Inn" and "Taximen, blood will flow unless fares go low," there had appeared more mysterious ones, like "Dem Selectors must be sick, Deryk is best to keep wicket."
Minimal research interpreted this. The selectors had picked David Murray (of Barbados) instead of Deryk Murray (no kin and hailing from Port of Spain) to plays as wicketkeeper (or shortstop) on the West Indies team. Local boy misses out. It didn't seem that sinister.
Not, that is, until the first morning of play when, instead of starting the game, the umpires seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time inspecting the field. Meantime, the fans were drinking a little rum, getting a little restive. An hour after the advertised starting time, the first bottle flew.
"Not one of the great riots," said an old hand of international cricket as bottles continued to whiz. "Remember Guyana, '79, with the stand on fire?"
"Remember Alston here in Port of Spain?" said another.
It was an old, well-loved story among the veterans. Rex Alston, possessor of the kind of juicy upper-class British accent heard less frequently on the BBC these days, was giving a radio commentary when some crowd trouble broke out. Blissfully oblivious that half the fans were carrying transistors, he described with disdain what the despicable, rum-soaked ruffians were up to. The commentary box at that time was a rickety wooden booth detached from the press box, and Alston continued speaking for some minutes—until he smelled smoke. His flight from the burning box and the enraged crowd is now part of the history of cricket.
No fires this time, only three arrests and only 65 white-helmeted cops from the Guard and Emergency Squad at St. James' Barracks deployed. Big trouble was averted, just in time for the umpires to announce that play, after all, would commence, though both Clive Lloyd, captain of the West Indies, and Ian Botham, captain of England, had declared their reluctance to start because of the state of the field.
It should be pointed out here to those unfamiliar with cricket that the ball is delivered so that it hits the ground short of the batsman, who plays it on the bounce. It's therefore highly important that the 22-yard strip of ground between batsman and bowler be as 'true," as level as possible. And on this occasion it was far from that.
Eventually, reluctantly, the authorities revealed that the previous night the security guards had been unaccountably absent and the floodlights unaccountably switched off. Some local chauvinists, angered by their hero's omission from the West Indian team, had slashed the tarps there to protect the central strip from overnight rain. Then with machetes, holes had been hacked where they'd do the most damage: at the bowler's run-up and where the batsman would stand to play the ball. All that could be done was to fill the holes with mud and hope the sun would dry it out. A sabotaged cricket field—where else but in the West Indies would you find such an act of desecration?
Well, in England, actually, in 1975, on the eve of the last day of a vital game against Australia, with England poised to win. There the saboteurs not only dug holes but filled them with asphalt, on behalf of a London cabbie named George Davis, who was serving a 20-year sentence for robbery and wounding a policeman.
The Justice for Davis Group is what they called themselves, claiming he had been wrongly imprisoned. Influenced no doubt by the thought that no Englishman would deliberately wreck a cricket ground and thereby prevent a victory over the Aussies without the most desperately sincere motives, the courts eventually let Davis go free, a happy ending which he swiftly fouled up by immediately going off on another caper and getting caught in the act.
In Port of Spain, though, no one had used asphalt, and three and a half hours late, play commenced. England won the toss and put the West Indies in to bat, a reversal of normal procedure. Normally, there are advantages in batting first, but Botham had the state of the ground in mind. It could possibly improve but hardly get worse, and no batsman in the world would opt to face the attack of the four West Indian fast bowlers in conditions that would let the ball play all kinds of tricks.
England's fast bowlers, though, were nothing like as ferocious, and through what was left of that day and all the next, the West Indian batsmen hammered the toiling bowlers, for 426 runs, a daunting total to match even against ordinary bowlers—an impossible one, so it looked, against the West Indian four.
"If the first three missiles don't get you, the fourth one will," Boycott had said. That missile, the ball, is red, made of leather and has a raised seam. It's a little smaller than a baseball and a little heavier, and this is how Colin Croft, currently the fastest of the quartet, handles it. To begin with, the batsman watches him walk away from his point of delivery, pacing out the 60 or 70 feet of his run-up, spitting on the ball, rubbing it on his white pants so that they soon develop a red patch, fingering the hollow of his throat, or his hairline, to pick up sweat to add to the shine of the ball—all legal in cricket.
Turning, he begins his run-in, no sprint but a bounding, accelerating build-up such as a long-jumper uses, until at the peak of his rhythm, 20 yards from the batsman, his arm, straight from wrist to shoulder, swings over and releases the ball. The ball's speed, close to 100 mph at times, derives from both the bodily momentum and the armswing.
In the stand watching Croft, awaiting his turn at bat at the beginning of England's first innings, is young David Gower. With his blond curls he could be straight out of an old-fashioned boys' adventure story. "It gets fearsome," he says frankly, "when they [the West Indian bowlers] start whistling them around your ears. You know, it gets your nerves going. You have to be, uh, sharp, to deal with it. You have to be ready to get out of the way. People say, just watch the ball, but I'm not entirely sure about that. It's not that easy.
"Your bat," he goes on, essaying a nervous joke, "is your insurance. You have to keep it up."
In his short career as an international player, Gower's insurance has failed to pay off more than once. He has been hit on the neck, has had his eyebrows cut and stitched like a boxer's, his nose displaced. "Only kept me out a week," he says of the nose injury, just like the hero in a boy's story. Except that his sport is now evolving into something hardly suitable for such fiction. What is at the back of his mind, of all the English batsmen's minds, is the thought of dealing with the West Indians' bumpers. A cozy name, but an uncozy phenomenon.
Like baseball, cricket is essentially a duel between a man with a ball and one with a bat, cricket differing in that the bowler's (pitcher's) basic aim is to knock down the wicket the batsman defends, the castle, as they call it, the three wooden stumps topped with a wooden cross-piece called the bails. Additionally, the bowler can induce the batsman to give a clean catch, and there are one or two more esoteric ways of getting him out.
But in cricket these days there are times when such aims seem secondary, when the purpose of the fast bowler seems to be physical intimidation of the batsman, to put it at its mildest. English and Australian players go in for it as much as the West Indians do—and indeed you can trace the evolution of the technique back to the '30s, when the English bowler Harold Larwood tried something like it in Australia and caused an international row. Currently, though, Croft, the towering—6'8"—Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Mike Holding, the West Indian foursome, are the world's masters at what is known as the bumper, or, sometimes, bouncer.
In normal play the bowler endeavors to cause the ball to hit the ground as close in front of the batsman as possible, which gives the greatest chance of breaking his wicket or causing him to make an ill-judged shot. The bumper, though, is deliberately pitched short. It hits the ground at high speed and flies at the batsman's head.
Naturally, not every delivery is a bumper, but the point of the bumper is to frighten the batsman standing out there in the fast lane of the freeway, to work on his nerves so that the next conventional ball may get him out.
Against England this day in Port of Spain, it works all too well. Only Gower shows much resistance, and by the end of the day Croft has taken half the side's wickets, CROFT BREAKS ENGLAND'S BACK was the headline next day in the Trinidad Guardian, and the Calypsonians were already spreading his praise. Sang Trinidad Crusoe:
"It was England versus the West Indies/Under Trinidad sun and tropical breeze/But you cannot stop West Indies cricket/Colin Croft alone took five wicket."
Like many boxers with tough reputations, Croft turned out to be a man who, when not going about his mean business, is articulate and friendly, and anxious to justify himself. He's from Guyana but has lately emigrated to Baldwin, N.Y., where none of his neighbors in that Long Island community is aware—nor are those of his mother-in-law in Brooklyn, where he spends much of his time—that they are harboring the fastest, hardest bowler in the world.
"I play cricket, I get men out," he said simply. "The best way to get them out is to be aggressive. It is my weapon. The umpires are in there to judge about aggression. If they allow it, what can I do about it?" The logic is unassailable.
Next day Croft and Holding, Garner and Roberts again went through the English side like a fiery wind. There was no necessity for the West Indians to bat again. They had won, in cricket parlance, by an innings and 79 runs.
The humiliation behind them, the English team headed for Guyana, and the second game in the series. It was possible, but not likely, that they could draw level. They had an injured player who was flown home and a substitute, Robin Jack-man, was sent out to replace him. Maybe this would change England's luck.
There was another way for England to swing fortune around and make cricketing history, too, a lot of people had been saying. That was to give a place on the national team to a 27-year-old batsman from the town of Stevenage, just north of London, named Roland Butcher.
Butcher is black, a Barbadian who left his island behind in 1967 as a boy of 13, one of hundreds of thousands of West Indians who emigrated to England after World War II. He had played pro cricket with the London side, Middlesex, since 1974, but not until 1980 did he blossom into a fluent batsman hitting high scores. As such he had been noticed by the English selection committee, which had included him in the party of 16 players to travel to the West Indies.
Being in the party was one thing. Actually starting on the team in an international match was quite another. Butcher had been left out of the Trinidad game and hence Port of Spain would not witness the historic first appearance of a black cricketer wearing the badge of England's international team, which shows the victorious St. George standing over the slain dragon.
There were also those who felt apprehension for Butcher. In the wrong mood and with rum aboard, a volatile West Indian crowd might smell a betrayal in his appearance on the English side.
At first, his non-selection was the target of criticism. "Hey, why don' you pick de black boy, mon?" was a common question to white fans in the crowd. On the second day, though, Butcher came on as a fielding substitute—that didn't make him a full-fledged England player; you have to start for that honor—and the Trinidadians gave him a taste of what to expect. "Butcher, Butcher, double-crossah!" they chanted.
"I have spent more than half my life in England, and my family and future are there," Butcher had said before leaving on the tour. But it seemed likely that until the English caravan reached his native Barbados, where pride in the achievement of the poor boy from East Point was likely to outweigh racial animosity, Butcher was going to be under much stress.
Any hopes, though, that he might gain national honors in Georgetown, Guyana were swiftly squashed. A Jamaican sportswriter recalled that Jack-man, the replacement bowler, had spent the last several winters coaching in South Africa. He informed the Guyanese authorities, and within hours Jackman was served with a deportation order.
Declaring that they wouldn't play without him, the England team canceled the Georgetown game and headed back to Trinidad and then Barbados for the third match of the series. Would they be welcome there with Jackman on the team? And, later, in Antigua and Jamaica?
A political solution was patched together. The tour went on, just so that the English side could be flattened again by the fearsome foursome of West Indian bowlers. There was one small happy event, though. Despite being on the losing side and hardly covering himself with glory in Barbados, Butcher started for England and may now call that St. George badge his own. He had also found a place in cricket history.
But ominous chapters in that history continue to be written. The English couldn't be blamed if they should be tempted to switch to a nice, quiet, sporting, gentlemanly game like baseball.