11th July 2019
It was 50 years ago this week – on 14th July 1969 to be precise – that my friend and I grabbed our rucksacks at the end of the schoolday and rushed down to the Oakwood Clock to catch the number 21 bus. In Harehills, we changed to the 44 that took us straight to the Headingley Cricket Ground.
In those days – incredible as it might seem now – the gates were opened for free at the tea time of a test match. And so, shortly after play had resumed following the break on the fourth day, we found ourselves standing by the low brick wall behind the shallow banking of packed Members’ seating that ran from the “new” pavilion round towards the Old Pavilion and the Football Stand.
Initially requiring 303 to win in the fourth innings, the West Indies had reduced the target to below 100 with only three wickets down. It looked as if, in the last game of the three-match series, England would surrender their 1-0 lead.
The ground slopes down on that side of the arena; the spectator has a sense of looking up slightly to view the action. On the brighter early evenings – such as this – it can also be a strain looking towards the sun behind the Western Terrace. But we didn’t care. Our view was perfect.
Hindsight suggests that the West Indies were not the side they had been on the previous tours: there was no Hall or Griffith, for example. But, again, that did not register with us. We were still watching the glamorous visitors from the Caribbean. And the next man in was Gary Sobers.
Basil Butcher had been something of a liability in the outfield. The radio commentators had said that his arm was “thrown out” and so he could only return the ball with a curious underarm whipping action. His batting seemed to more than compensate, however. We watched as he entered the 90s.
The England captain Ray Illingworth turned to one of his side’s all-rounders – Barry Knight – to supplement the patient accuracy of Derek Underwood. I was intrigued by Knight’s bowling action: a bouncy medium-paced approach to the crease that reached a climax with a huge leap that seemed to halt all his forward momentum prior to delivering the ball.
And then Underwood got Butcher out – caught behind by the wonderful Alan Knott. The crowd cheered. In came the great man.
Ten minutes (and four balls) later, out he went again – for nought. Bowled by Knight, off an inside edge, attempting a forceful back-foot shot. I watched – awestruck and open-mouthed – as Sobers trudged off the field.
The scorebook reveals that the West Indies innings collapsed. Clive Lloyd was out cheaply. The Underwood/Knott combination struck again to dismiss John Shepherd. Four wickets fell for nine runs. England won by 30 runs the following morning.
But, half a century later, it is not the final outcome of the test match that seems to matter. Rather, my overwhelming memory is captured in a single dominant tableau: Sobers has completed his elegant follow-through – but his wicket is broken behind him. I can close my eyes and see it now. I am held in the moment – captured and captivated.
I was 14 years old and all was well with the world.