The 1954 Vintage: Part 1

1st October 2020

Next month, when I join the ranks of the UK’s state pensioners, I shall post a blog on some of the thoughts that occur to this sports spectator on reaching that particular milestone on life’s journey. Here, I preface those remarks with a cricket-specific exercise.

A trawl through the list of the 3,000-plus dates of birth of test cricketers listed in the 2020 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack has presented me with the opportunity to select a test team entirely born in my year of birth – 1954.

The squad from which to choose is not large – 27 in total, including some who played only one or two matches – but I have to say that the First XI is not a bad side: 439 caps, 41 centuries and 347 wickets (though the last of these figures is somewhat skewed by one contribution, of which more below).

Although the representation comes from five different countries, it must be acknowledged that the contribution from the Sub-continent (with only one player selected from India) is disappointing. The lack of available players is partly explained by Sri Lanka’s relatively late entry into test cricket (in 1981) and this factor obviously accounts for the absences of representatives from Bangladesh as well as Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan. I was also seriously constrained by my chosen age cohort being affected by the absence of South Africa from the test cricket arena during their peak playing years.

Being from my generation, I like my top order batsmen to be relied upon to give a solid foundation to the innings: none of this flashy stuff. Whilst Geoff Boycott fails to qualify (by 14 years), it can safely be said that a top-three of John Wright, John Dyson and Chris Tavaré more than adequately meets this criterion. Wright scored 12 centuries in 82 tests, whilst Dyson and Tavaré have similar records: two centuries apiece in 30 and 31 appearances, respectively. One of John Dyson’s hundreds – which I witnessed – was registered in the first innings of the Botham/Willis test at Headingley in 1981. Until the English pair’s heroics on the last two days, this looked to have been the defining contribution of the match.

But it is at the other end of the batting order that the team’s real strength is to be found. The opening bowlers are two West Indians, Michael Holding and Sylvester Clarke: a frighteningly formidable combination (though I don’t envy the captain’s task in telling one of them that he will have to bowl uphill).

Holding took no fewer than 249 test wickets in only 60 matches. I first saw him play in the Lord’s test of 1976, when he opened the bowling with Andy Roberts. This was in the days when Mike Brearley, the England captain, was experimenting with a rudimentary skull-cap to give his head some protection: a virtually unheard-of development at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that, until then, a soft cloth cap or a sunhat had provided the only defence against the 90-plus mph missiles that had been hurled at batsmen through the decades.

I was surprised to learn that Clarke played in only 11 tests, his appearances limited by the rich choice of fast bowlers available to the West Indian selectors in this era as well as his test match banishment for taking part in unauthorised “rebel” tours of South Africa. In An Ordinary Spectator, I described my impressions on seeing him play for Surrey against Yorkshire in a Gillette Cup semi-final at the Oval in 1980:

“Clarke, notwithstanding an ungainly bowling action, exemplified the menace that surrounded so many West Indian fast bowlers of the time. In his thoughtful autobiography, Playing for Keeps, Alec Stewart described Clarke as the fastest and most intimidating bowler he played with or against. I clearly detected his threat, at the time, from the safety of the spectators’ seats”.

The 1954 Test XI has a four-man bowling attack. The supporting seamer’s role is filled by Arnie Sidebottom: a veteran of one test match and the obligatory Yorkshireman in the side. (If and when I get round to selecting my 1954 XI of English professional footballers, Sidebottom would again be a contender, given his 20 appearances for Manchester United between 1973 and 1975 and his subsequent career at Huddersfield Town and Halifax Town).

The choice of spin bowler rests between the Australians Ray Bright and Trevor Hohns and the West Indian Derick Parry. The first of these is selected on the basis of the length of his test career (53 wickets in 25 matches), the variation that his slow left-arm bowling would provide and his ability as a stock bowler when the opening pair need a rest.

It was Bright, of course, who nearly scuppered Boycott’s glorious day at Headingley in 1977 – when the local hero made his 100th First Class century in a test match against Australia (which I also witnessed) – his passionate appeal for a catch by the wicket-keeper Rod Marsh down the leg-side being turned down by the umpire. The incident was recollected in An Ordinary Spectator:

“Bright’s body language suggested he was less than impressed when the decision went against him; he snatched his sunhat from the umpire in disgust. The crowd on the Western Terrace jeered. We were square to the wicket, of course, and in no position to judge the validity of the appeal. But we knew it was not out: it couldn’t possibly be. The fates had decreed otherwise. From my own perspective, I thought that Bright was a scruffy cricketer – with an appearance not unlike that of the Richard Dreyfus character in Jaws and an ungainly bowling action – and certainly not the man to disturb the natural course of events on this particular day”.

After the solid – if not stolid – foundations laid by the first three in the order, the heart of the batting line-up takes on a more flamboyant appearance through Allan Lamb and Kim Hughes with Yashpal Sharma getting the selector’s nod for the last batting place over Australia’s Peter Toohey and Faoud Bacchus of the West Indies. There is plenty of experience here with a total of 25 centuries in 186 tests.

Although I saw Lamb play several times for England, the reference to him in An Ordinary Spectator is from the Benson and Hedges Cup Final at Lord’s in 1987, when Yorkshire defeated Northamptonshire. My father and I watched the game from a packed Mound Stand, two rows back from the boundary edge. I noted that after Lamb had been dismissed for a low score – edging a wide delivery from Paul Jarvis through to David Bairstow behind the stumps – my dad had been really impressed that he had walked off without waiting for the umpire to raise his finger. (Arnie Sidebottom was at the crease when, with the scores level, Jim Love blocked the last ball of the game to give Yorkshire the victory on the basis of having lost fewer wickets).

Hughes is the obvious choice as captain of the 1954 XI, I think, notwithstanding his experience as being another veteran (along with Bright again and Dyson) of the 1981 Headingley test match, which was one of the 28 occasions on which he led Australia. Wright, who captained New Zealand in 14 tests, would be his deputy.

That just leaves the wicket-keeper. The role is taken by Steve Rixon, who played 13 times for Australia between 1977 and 1984 taking 42 catches and making 5 stumpings.

The selection is not without its flaws. The batting line-up lacks a consistently heavy scorer – no-one in the side averaged 40 in tests – although having Yashpal Sharma at number 6 does provide a useful supplement to the top order. Perhaps most significantly, there was no obvious candidate to fit the bill as all-rounder and provide the ballast in the middle-order. As a result, Sidebottom is due to bat at number 7 and Rixon at 8, which might be at least one place too high in each case. The lack of an all-rounder also places a significant burden on Sidebottom and Bright in their support of the main strike bowlers, Clarke and Holding. Overall, however, it looks to be a side of resilience and character and it will fight its corner.

On a broader historical note, it is perhaps not surprising that the 1954 cohort feature in some of the major developments in the cricket world during the last half century. For example, at the end of the 1970s, Bright and Holding took part in the World Series Cricket competitions organised by Kerry Packer as did two other 1954-born test players, Richard Austin of the West Indies and Taslim Arif of Pakistan.

Then, in the following decade, no fewer than five of the players in my 1954 Test XI took part in “rebel” tours of South Africa during the period before that country was admitted back into the test match fold: Clarke, Dyson, Rixon, Sidebottom and Hughes (who captained the Australian sides in two series in the mid-1980s). These squads also included four others born in 1954 who, as noted, didn’t make the final XI: Austin, Bacchus, Parry and Hohns.

It is also interesting that, following the completion of their playing careers, three players – Wright, Dyson and Rixon – have held senior coaching positions with one or more of the test-playing nations.

So these are my contemporaries in the 1954 vintage (or were in the case of Sylvester Clarke and Richard Austin, who died in 1999 and 2015, respectively). I am in good company. Bring on the 1955 XI.

The 1954 Test Team: JG Wright (New Zealand), J Dyson (Australia), CJ Tavare (England), AJ Lamb (England), KJ Hughes (Australia, captain), Yashpal Sharma (India), A Sidebottom (England), SJ Rixon (Australia, wicket-keeper), RJ Bright (Australia), ST Clarke (West Indies), MA Holding (West Indies), PM Toohey (Australia, 12th man).

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