Memories. Two cricketing colossi

County Championship. Somerset v Worcestershire. 23rd, 25th and 26th July 1977. Taunton. 

The prospect of Marcus Trescothick opening the Championship batting for Somerset at the age of 43 in 2019 brought back memories of two other emeritus England batsmen playing in a Championship match at Taunton. It was in a different age and the nature of Championship cricket was as different as the age. Matches were played over three days instead of four, there was no promotion or relegation and so no external pressure on most matches. Declarations to set targets where hard cricket could not force a result were part of the cricketing landscape. Fitness regimes were an undreamt-of thing of the future and players playing into their forties was not an uncommon occurrence.

And so it was on 23rd July 1977 whilst on holiday in Charmouth during a break from my third exile in “the most boring town in England” I found myself sitting in the corner of the County Ground where the Colin Atkinson Pavilion now stands. The old wooden scoreboard was just behind me and immediately to my right. The angle to which I had to turn my head to see it would, four decades on, have threatened the survival of my neck. The neck muscles were threatened regularly because the scoreboard contained not just the score but also an impressive clock to mark the passage of one of the main participants in any cricket match, time.

The day started with disappointment. Somerset lost Peter Denning for 18 with the score on 30 which brought Viv Richards to the wicket. 18 runs later Richards too was out, for 13, and the main dream of the day, for a Somerset supporter watching his only match of the year, was gone.

Richards stood out above all other batsmen in the Championship in those times. Some argued Barry Richards of Hampshire was a better batsman but no-one sent a frisson of excitement around a cricket ground as he emerged from the Pavilion as did the 25-year-old Richards of West Indies, Antigua and Somerset. No-one hit the ball with such ferocity. No other batsman seemed to intimidate bowlers by his mere presence at the crease. An opposition bowler on the boundary once turned to me as Richards systematically and brutally demolished a bowling attack and said, “This isn’t fair.” Just those three words. They, and the dejection in his voice, spoke more than a doctoral thesis.

But this was not Richard’s match. It was to be two colossi of English cricket who would command a permanent place in my memory. But first it was two Somerset left-handers who settled the home crowd’s anxieties and raised their spirits as they established a base for Somerset. 36-year-old Mervyn Kitchen, far from being the only player in this match nearer 40 than 30 and having something of a renaissance in his 18th season of first-class cricket with Somerset, and a 27-year-old Brian Rose, on the cusp of taking up the captaincy took Somerset forward.

At this distance in time I remember nothing of the detail of their partnership. What does remain is the sense of unruffled permanence they generated. It lasted and grew through most of a day of warm dry weather although I cannot now recall if the sun shone. What I can recall is repeatedly stretching my neck to see the ever-rising numbers on the scoreboard.

They batted through until lunch, throughout the afternoon session and into the evening. They added 237 for the third wicket. Kitchen was caught by Basil D’Oliviera off Norman Gifford for 129, only 11 runs more than the combined age of the three players involved in the dismissal. Marcus Trescothick, playing in his 44th year would not have been as worthy of comment in those days. Rose made 128 before being stumped off D’Oliviera playing in his 46th year.

Somerset declared their innings on 351 for 7 off 99.5 overs when Derek Taylor, a mere juvenile in his 35th year, was lbw to Gifford, maturing in his 38th year. A nominal declaration only because the first innings was then limited to 100 overs, one of the various attempts of the time to ‘brighten up’ Championship cricket. Worcestershire safely negotiated the remaining overs without losing a wicket.

That first day of the match was a Saturday. In 1977 John Player League 40 over matches were played on Sundays in the middle of the round of County Championship matches which started on a Saturday. For all the changes which have taken place in cricket in the intervening four decades no-one has suggested splitting first-class matches to accommodate what is, in 2019, called List A or T20 cricket.

The second day was something of a mirror image of the first. Somerset’s attack was led by Ian Botham and David Gurr, both aged 21, who each took two of the four wickets to fall. And yet Worcestershire all but matched Somerset’s score in their 100 overs and did not lose a wicket until they had passed 150. Gurr, quick and often erratic, took his wickets in this innings at less than three an over.

Watching the opposition batting through a long innings and whittling away the advantage your own side have built, however good the weather, can be a gruelling experience for the committed supporter. There was nothing gruelling, however, about the second half of the Worcestershire innings which was gloriously lit up by a jewel of an innings from D’Oliviera.

Understated and precise is how I recall it. The innings has left little impression of extravagance or bravado. Confidence in the stroke, total command of technique and perfection of placement is the broad impression that has become embedded. Doubtless there were errors which the mind chooses to suppress. Yet those attributes I recall were but echoes of what must have been a prodigious talent in the days of D’Oliviera’s prime when he was prevented from playing Test cricket in apartheid-riven South Africa.

He first played for England at the age of 34. What sort of impact might he have made had he been allowed to play for England, or South Africa, at the age of 24? A rare ‘what would have been’ rather than the usual ‘what might have been’ of cricket. In that 1977 match which seemed to be heading towards no serious conclusion on first innings I willed him on.

I don’t recall his powerful back foot play in that innings although I suspect it featured. My recollection is of placement. Of his playing with a smile on his face and a glint in his eye. I never saw the latter of course from beyond the boundary but his whole manner in that innings spoke of it. I do recall vividly one treasure of a short passage of play. The sort of memory which warms the heart over forty years on. It frequently comes to mind in an age of ferocious white ball hitting aided by heavy bats and to which it acts as a counterbalance.

I spent the second day in the same place as the first. Next to the scoreboard. Graham Burgess was bowling from what was then called merely ‘The Pavilion End’. It was to be four more years before the Colin Atkinson Pavlion took on the role of the main pavilion. D’Oliviera was facing. He nudged a ball past slip and through an empty third man to where the old River Stand stood, where the Trescothick Stand now resides, for four. It was so deftly played, as if three decades of playing cricket had been but a preparation for that stroke.

Burgess came in again, repeated the ball and D’Oliviera repeated the stroke. Four more. Brian Close, in his final year as captain of Somerset and in his 47th year, countered by moving fine leg to third man. Burgess, in his 35th year, repeated the ball. D’Oliviera, stepped a little to the off and turned the ball to fine leg. Four more runs, chuckles of admiration rippled among the crowd, and the memory was imprinted. 337 for 4 the final 100 over score. D’Oliviera a heavenly 74 not out designed for the memory bank.

Of course, no Somerset match is complete without a Somerset batting collapse and this match was no different to any other. The collapse comprised most of Somerset’s second innings. Towards the end of the final morning Somerset contrived to reach a gruelling 118 for 7 on a pitch which, in the two first innings, had realised 688 runs for the loss of 11 wickets. Plus ca change.

“118 for 7. We’re in trouble now,” the comment I still recall from a man sitting just to my left. “Don’t forget the lead,” the response of the man just to the left of him. “The lead was 14!” the head-shaking incredulity of the response. The only solace I could find was that Close, who had come in at 91 for 4, had been digging in hard. He was joined by, at 22 years old, a less than half his age Vic Marks. Together they survived, bats over ball and heads over bats, against what now seemed an interminably slowly ticking clock and glacial scoreboard, until lunch.

And then, immediately after lunch, with discussion in the crowd swathed in doubt that Somerset could save the match, Close and Marks emerged from the Pavilion like the dramatis personae emerging after the interval in a cricketing version of The Winter’s Tale. The deep mood of the morning suddenly erupted into one of tumultuous gaiety as the batsmen set about the bowling with gusto.

The ball started to fly to all parts of the boundary. One stroke, a lap from Close, as far as I can recall, flew to long leg, where the Ondaatje Stand now is, bounced short of the boundary and hit a spectator. Close, following the flight of the ball and not needing to run, looked concerned for a while but resumed the match once help arrived.

The sudden Somerset charge set the crowd abuzz and to speculation. The talk turned to an agreed declaration and target. Such arrangements were not uncommon in the Championship in those days and a million miles and four decades from controversy. When the struggle for supremacy on the first two days of a match ended with two scores in the region of 350 an agreed declaration would almost be expected. Captains not agreeing such a declaration would often be criticised by spectators for ‘not making a match of it’.

And yet Somerset were seven down at lunch and only around 150 ahead. Perhaps Close had decided that, with only three wickets left, runs had better be gathered in during whatever time remained to Somerset at the crease. Whether the charge was agreed or a classic Close gamble is a question beyond answering by anyone who was on this side of the boundary.

A glance at the scorecard reveals that only Worcestershire’s four main bowlers, three Test bowlers among them, bowled. No occasional bowler. Perhaps Close cast the die in favour of regaining control of the match rather than trying to fend off defeat. Or perhaps Worcestershire concluded he might bat for the duration and agreed a target.

Whatever the reason for the charge it paid off. Close and Marks added 83 runs for the eighth wicket and Close stayed with the tail until an unlikely declaration, nine down, set Worcestershire 236 to win in perhaps a little under three hours. The nine wickets were shared, three each, between Vanburn Holder, Gifford, and D’Oliviera whose three wickets were all bowled. D’Oliviera bowled a total of 59 overs in the match and Somerset batted over 97 overs for their 221 for 9 in their second innings.

Somerset attacked hard in Worcestershire’s second innings. Graham Burgess, by then in his 35th year, reduced them to 38 for 2 removing Glenn Turner, probably the main threat, in the process. I can recall the hope of an unlikely victory rising until Phil Neale and Ted Hemsley counter attacked. The neck was at risk of a serious crick as the head constantly turned to the clock to see how much time was left. As the runs mounted so the head turned more often. Close meanwhile marshalled an orderly retreat in the field as close catchers supported by an inner ring were gradually transformed, as if in a slow motion ballet, into an inner ring supported by boundary fielders.

Still the runs flowed and, as if in some numerical ballet, the partnership passed 100 as the target fell below 100. The tension among the crowd was now of a different order. The match had swung back Worcestershire’s way, the possibility of defeat again stared Somerset in the face and the minute hand on the clock moved ever more slowly as we willed it to rush on. Still Close directed his field, moving a fielder first this way and then that, as he tried to stem the flow of runs. As much as the first two days had consisted of relaxed enjoyment of serene batting the final day had involved an extended agony of stomach-clenching tension.

Then Ian Botham, due to make his Test debut two days later and take five Australian wickets in an innings in the process, broke the partnership. In those days Test players played for their counties immediately before and after a Test match and at any other time when England were not playing. It really was a different time. It was as if Botham had punctured a fast expanding bubble. Another wicket for him, two for Marks, one for Dredge and a run out and Worcestershire had collapsed from 146 for 2, needing another 90 runs to win, to 179 for 8.

The crowd were really on the edge of their seats, or the benches of those days, now as the excitement at the prospect of victory replaced the agony of the prospect of defeat. Suddenly the hand on the clock was racing around and the remaining overs were ticking down. Both Hemsley and Neale had gone, D’Oliviera had been bowled by Dredge for 6 and Gifford’s dead bat was Worcestershire’s main hope.

But the agony of hope among spectators does not win matches. Experienced tailenders ‘shutting up shop’, to use the terminology of the time, can save them. Eventually the agony turned to the numbness of realisation that victory would not come after all and in the end to the conclusion that we had seen a match above the common run and perhaps the draw was the just outcome.

The batting of the first two days, the seemingly endless tension of the final day and, perhaps above all, that sublime cameo between the 45-year-old D’Oliviera and the 46-year-old Close have kept the match firmly in the mind for approaching half a century and far more than many a victory.

And as that time has slipped into history and the memory of that cameo has remained in the mind the cricketing world has changed out of all recognition. And in parallel the Taunton ground has, through all those years, also changed out of recognition. First to go was the old scoreboard, next to which I sat throughout that match, and by then barely capable of supporting its own weight. It was replaced by the Colin Atkinson Pavilion and a new scoreboard, now also gone.

Over the next 38 years the rest of that 1977 ground went too until only the clock, which timed the agony of that last day and which now sits at the top of the Colin Atkinson Pavilion, and the golden memories of those hours remain.

Result: Somerset 351 for 7 dec (99.5/100 overs) (MJ Kitchen 129, BC Rose 128, BL D’Oliviera 3-79) and 221 for 9 dec (DB Close 57*, VJ Marks 40, VA Holder 3-41, N Gifford 3-57, BL D’Oliviera 3-58). Worcestershire 337 for 4 (100 overs) (GM Turner 85, BL D’Oliviera 74*, JA Ormrod 57) and 187 for 8 (PA Neale 86, EJO Hemsley 40). Match drawn. Worcestershire 7 points. Somerset 5 points.