Golden Summer 1963
published in Wisden Cricket Monthly December 2021
My Golden Summer? A tough assignment for a player in the twilight of a cricket career which never really had a dawn. But I will name the English summer of 1963.
There was some wonderful cricket to watch, and I made the two all-important discoveries about cricket which gave me a career at all.
It was a pivotal season in England’s cricket history – the first after the abolition of the amateur status which had become increasingly unreal. Scorecards gave all players their initials in front of their name. Imitating football, the counties started to play a one-day knockout competition, the Gillette Cup. Each innings was 65 overs – so a full day of 130 overs was very good value for a pre-decimal admission fee equivalent to 37.5p when £20 a week was a reasonable wage and you could get a pint of bitter for around 8p unless like me you were an undersized 15-year-old. Three runs an over was fast scoring in that first year, and ironically, England’s most dashing batsman, Ted Dexter, won the Cup for Sussex as captain by strangling their opponents. But it was a big success, and introduced a still unfinished epoch of shorter and shorter competitions with faster and faster scoring.
It was a wet summer, but my idol, Roy Marshall of Hampshire, still managed 1800 first-class runs. Like me he played in glasses but that is all we had in common. He was an opening batsman who foreshadowed two future Hampshire successors, Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge, in attacking from the start and turning bowlers into waiters. Along with Dexter, he was the biggest ground-filler in English cricket. I did not see him all that often, living in London rather than Hampshire, but scoured the many newspapers then covering County cricket in depth to visualize his drives, cuts and slashes.
Above all, it was a West Indian summer. Frank Worrell led them. He had an aura, a truly great captain with more greatness clearly in waiting after cricket, only to be robbed from him by disease. His side did not need much from him as a player, although he retained his elegance at the crease. Four batsmen averaged over 40 on still uncovered wickets in the Test series: ever-reliable Conrad Hunte, Rohan Kanhai, who hooked so hard that he regularly ended up on his back, implacable Basil Butcher, and Garry Sobers, for whom I held my breath. Four bowlers took 94 of the 97 English wickets that fell: Wes Hall, whose run-up began at the boundary and sometimes beyond it at smaller county grounds, Charlie Griffith (not called in that series for his deadly yorker), Lance Gibbs, ripping turn and almost never a bad ball, and Sobers, brilliant at every known form of left-arm bowling.
The West Indies produced a series even more gripping than the Profumo scandal. The fans wanted them back in a hurry, and they inspired another innovation to achieve it: the twin-country series of 1965. Three wins to West Indies, one to England and the draw was the one at Lord’s where Colin Cowdrey came out to back with a broken arm against Wes Hall. Two balls to go, all four results possible… Straight out of Henry Newbolt. Easy to forget that Cowdrey did not face them: England’s fine under-rated spinner David Allen was at the striker’s end.
I went to the Headingley Test (which they won by 221 runs) with a school chum – who came from Berbice, in what was still British Guiana. He introduced me to the Guyanese contingent, whom he knew well: Kanhai, Butcher, Gibbs, and I shook the hand of Joe Solomon which had run out two Australians to produce the tied Test match.
Later I met another bespectacled hero – Alf Valentine. No longer needed in the Tests, as a genial elder statesman and occasional captain in county matches he contributed to a happy tour, and he could still get through a maiden over in 90 seconds. I remember him wearing a beautiful pair of shoes, of which he was a passionate collector. It was no surprise to discover that he had a wonderful life after cricket: settled in Florida, he and his second wife fostered hundreds of troubled children.
That golden summer also transformed my playing career. I had not caught the selector’s eye, nor indeed many chances, as a would-be wicketkeeper at a fine cricket school, Repton. I had no aptitude for the role. I had volunteered for it at primary school only to escape the ignominy of fielding at third man at both ends for the lowest possible team.
In the long holiday of 1963, I stumbled across some players in a pick-up match on an open field (where they were not allowed) in London’s Hyde Park. They were glad of an extra outfielder to patrol the boundary near the horse-riding track and to keep cave for a park keeper. They were members of a local pub team and recruited me for a few late-season matches against other pub elevens on slightly better park pitches.
Through them, I discovered that outside school cricket there were a host of teams that worried little about playing ability. They were grateful to me for turning up. I have been playing for such teams for nearly sixty years since, some a bit grander, and in twenty different countries. Availability was my secret. I played even more cricket after turning 50 than before because I became a self-employed, or more precisely, unemployed writer, and more available, especially at the eleventh hour. For many years I had a voicemail: “Where’s the match? When do you want me to be there?”
The pub team did not need a wicketkeeper, and as the youngest member I had to do much chasing in the outfield. In one match, the captain took pity on me (or possibly sought to end the proceedings and get back to the pub). Anyway, he put me on to bowl. And in my very first over for his team, I produced a total ripper. It is hard to do justice to it, but I got a reminder years later when Shane Warne produced That Delivery to dismiss Mike Gatting.
I made then my second major discovery about cricket: its power to deliver to any player a Magic Moment. Of course it delivers many more of them to good players, and intentionally rather than randomly, but it also doles them out to no-hopers. Moments which even their all-time idols could not better, which make their imagined crowds roar and their imagined commentators gasp.
Magic Moments have tremendous power. It takes only one each season to make perpetrators forget days of drudgery and humiliation, and decide to play another season. Magic Moments in cricket can leave an afterglow on life outside. They make despairing dramatists attempt another play, despairing diplomats make another démarche and despairing dentists decide to drill another bicuspid.
I have had other Magic Moments in an undeservedly long career, glow-worms in a cave of mediocrity, but none to beat the first. That is why 1963 remains my Golden Summer.