News Blog

Edging Up and Down

19th February 2021

The International Cricket Council (ICC) world rankings of test-playing countries are determined via a rigorous statistical process that takes account of all the test matches played over the previous 3-4 years. For a team to reach the Number 1 position requires, therefore, that it has consistent success over a significant period. Last month, it was announced that, following their latest series win over the West Indies, New Zealand had acquired this status.

Congratulations to them. They have three excellent seam bowlers (Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner), a fine wicketkeeper-batsman in BJ Watling and, in their captain Kane Williamson, the batsman currently rated as the best in the world. Moreover, they play the sport in what I (and many others, no doubt) consider to be the right spirit – hard and fair and with a smile on their collective face – to the great credit of Williamson and his predecessor, Brendon McCullum.

As it happened, the announcement coincided with my viewing of the excellent documentary The Edge (Noah Media Group, 2019), which charted the rise between 2009 and 2011 of the England team to be the ICC Number 1 side (having started at 7th) and then catalogued their subsequent decline. The documentary makes for fascinating (and, at times, difficult) viewing, particularly in revealing the tolls – physical and mental – that were exacted of the players in the England squad by the coach, Andy Flower, in the drive to reach the top of the tree.

Much of the material is not unexpected. It is likely that even the relatively casual follower of the England team would have been familiar with the personality traits of the likes of Alastair Cook, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann, as respectively described by the captain, Andrew Strauss: “doggedness, determination, resilience”, “a solid, dependable person” and “chief joker, buffoon, pain the arse… invaluable”. In this respect, it is reassuring that our expectations are confirmed.

The Edge spends a considerable length of time on the virtues and flaws of Kevin Pietersen: from his commanding presence and frequently superlative batting through to undermining his captain by texting his (Pietersen’s) friends in the South African changing room during the Headingley test of 2012. There is a noticeably perceptive comment about him from Paul Collingwood: “When he first came into the England side, he needed England. As his career went on, the less he needed England, the harder he was to manage”. However, it is Pietersen himself who, perhaps unwittingly, provides the most revealing insight, when referring to his need to take a break from the non-stop demands placed on him to play the various forms of the game: “As soon as you take your whites off, your value and your brand just … fall off the face of a cliff”. I suspect that, with Pietersen, it was – and is – always about the brand.

We are probably also not surprised – though still made uncomfortable – by seeing the venomous hostility that exists in some test match confrontations, particularly those pitching England against Australia. The sledging appears to be vicious and unremitting with no prisoners taken. I happen to think that the spite-ridden comment made by the Australian captain, Michael Clarke, to James Anderson, as he came out to bat as England’s last man to face the fearsome Mitchell Johnson in the Brisbane test of November 2013 – “get ready for a broken f…… arm” – ranks with the worst type of drugs-cheating in terms of being the antithesis of what international sport is supposed to represent.

[An aside. It appears that the boorish nonsense
consistently brought to the game by New Zealand’s neighbours across the Tasman
Sea is not restricted to Ashes encounters.
Australia’s trite apologia following the exposure of the
“Sandpaper-gate” scandal in South Africa in 2018 seems to have now bitten the
dust, judging by their on-field behaviour in the recent (lost) home test series
against India].

The Edge’s most revealing insights concern the emotional costs that were borne by some of the England players. Stephen Finn refers to bursting into tears during a session with the team doctor, whilst Monty Panesar describes bingeing on junk food in the safe confinement of his hotel room.

However, the most painful – and poignant – viewing concerns the effects on Jonathan Trott who, in his own words, by the time of the same Brisbane test “…was really struggling internally… in tears on the field… [with] banging going on in my head”. Not that his circumstances generated any sympathy from some of those paid to offer their supposedly expert analysis of the proceedings. “Pretty poor, pretty weak” opined David Warner, as Trott left the field after being dismissed.

My main grievance with The Edge is with the hype and inaccuracy attached to one of its core statements. There are several references to England not having reached the ICC’s Number 1 position before – and, indeed, the DVD box states that they “[became] the first and only English side to reach world number one”. To me, this did not sound quite right.

The ICC began ranking teams in 2003 and it is the case that England had not been in the Number 1 position in the period to 2011. But test cricket records date from 1877 – when Australia first hosted England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – not 2003. In this respect, the documentary’s retrospectively short-sighted presentation of test match history mirrors that of the media cheerleaders of the Super League, who often seem to view professional rugby league as having started in 1996 not 1895, or of soccer’s Premiership, who forget that English football has had a top flight since 1888, not just from 1992.

To examine The Edge’s claims about England’s historical Number 1 status (or the lack of it), let us consider the years from 1950 onwards. As noted in the previous blog (The Test Match World Title,4th February 2021), this was a period in which there were at least 6 test match playing nations, rising to 8 by the time of South Africa’s re-emergence into the international arena in 1991. It was also a period in which England enjoyed lengthy stretches when they either won or drew several consecutive series against all of the other test-playing nations: 14 between 1950-51 and 1958-59, 9 between 1966 and 1971 and 8 between 1976 and 1979-80 (the West Indies excepted in this last period). It is difficult to believe that England were not the Number 1 ranked team for at least part of these times.

And so it was the case. What The Edge did not report was that the ICC itself has retrospectively calculated its own test match rankings back to 1952 and that these are readily accessible. England were at Number 1 in four separate periods (covering a total of 106 months) over the subsequent half century, including for 33 months after June 1955 and 37 months after January 1970.

As noted, The Edge is an excellent documentary and it is recommended viewing for anyone with an interest in the sport. It’s just a shame that it had to play fast and loose with test match cricket’s historical record.

The Test Match World Title

4th February 2021

Forgive me if I report on a piece of slightly anorakian historical cricket research. I blame it on the need to exercise the brain cells, in these continued strange times, as I await my invitation to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

The concept of my “Test Match World Title” is straightforward. It starts with the first series between Australia and England in 1876-77 and allows its winners to be judged as the first holders. As it happened, as the series was drawn 1-1 – thus giving us joint holders to begin with – it would appear that we would have to wait until the next series two years later (when Australia defeated England 1-0) to find our initial title holder. However, at this point, I will make the vital – and totally unilateral – executive decision that, in order to qualify for these purposes, a test matches series must have at least two games. Hence, the first holders of the title are indeed Australia, but only after their 2-0 series win in the 1881-82 series against England.

Thereafter, the rules of the game are analogous to that of a World Championship boxing title (or, indeed, the determination of the holders of the Ashes). Australia would retain the title until defeated in a series that had two or more matches – until 1884, in fact, when England won the series 1-0 with two matches drawn. And so on.

This means that, in order to acquire the title, a side would not necessarily have had consistent excellence and success over a lengthy period of time (which is required to reach Number 1 in the International Cricket Council’s rankings of test-playing countries). Rather, it is sufficient simply to have a single series win, at the opportune time, against the team that held the title.

[An aside. It might not have gone unnoticed that I have employed this historical approach on a previous occasion.  “And the Football World Title holders are…” (7th January 2019) described the corresponding exercise in international football from 1872 to the end of 2018.  The only difference in methodology was that individual match results, excluding the Olympic Games, were considered.  It was seen that the title was initially held by England and Scotland (who drew the first encounter) and ended up with Holland.  In 2019, the baton was subsequently passed to Germany and then back to Holland again.  The current (end January 2021) holders of the World Football Title are Italy].

Since England first relieved Australia of the Test Match World Title in 1884, it has changed hands on a further 55 occasions – most recently last year – which implies an average length of holding of 2½ years. Of course, until the West Indies, New Zealand and India entered the test match arena – in 1928, 1930 and 1932, respectively – there were only two (and then three) contenders for the crown, South Africa having (retrospectively) joined the party in 1889. Pakistan played its first test match in 1952 and Sri Lanka in 1982.

The relatively frequent turnover of the crown has occurred partly because of the frequency of teams winning a home series and then immediately losing a series on its next away tour: this has occurred on 21 occasions. The shortest duration for the title ownership is 22 days in the 1979-80 Australian season, when – highly unusually – the home side played concurrent series against England and West Indies. Australia took a decisive 2-0 lead to relieve England of the title on 8th January before going 0-2 down to the West Indies on 30th January, both series being of three matches.

England and Australia have held the title on 19 and 18 occasions, respectively, although the latter’s total duration of ownership has been considerably longer, largely due to the long period of dominance that Australia had between 1934 and 1953. However, all the other countries noted above have had their turn: South Africa (on 4 occasions, initially in 1905-06), West Indies (3, including for 11 years following a series win over Australia in 1983-84), New Zealand (3), India (4, beginning with the 1971 series win in England), Pakistan (4) and Sri Lanka (2).

The comparison of each country’s relative success in holding the Test Match World Title is perhaps most interesting in the period since (say) 1952, when the competitive environment has been such as to comprise at least 6 test match playing nations, rising to 7 with Sri Lanka’s accession in 1982 and 8 with South Africa’s return in 1992. (The total is now a round dozen with the inclusion of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Ireland).

England have held the Test Match World Title on 12 occasions during this period. However, there was a long stretch – from 1982-83 (series loss in Australia) through to 2005 (home series win against the same opponents) – when the ownership of the title was held elsewhere. Moreover, no fewer than 8 of the 12 were examples of the short-duration “home series win, next away series lost” phenomenon that was noted earlier.

For England, the lengthier period of title ownership were from 1953 to 1958-59, 1967-68 to 1971 and 1977 to 1979-80. Each of these was part of longer runs of consecutive series – 14, 9 and 8, respectively – that were either won or drawn against all of the other test-playing nations (apart from the West Indies in the last of these periods). England’s status as the Number 1 ranked test team for at least part of these times is a theme to which I shall return in a forthcoming blog.

The current holders of the Test Match World Title are England, following last summer’s 1-0 win in the 3-match series against Pakistan, who themselves had taken the crown from Sri Lanka at the end of 2019. Having enjoyed another series win in Sri Lanka last month, England will resume their defence against India in Chennai tomorrow. A tough task awaits.

Note on data

The details of every series of test match cricket to the end of 2019 are given in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2020.The subsequent series (to January 2021) are given on the website of the International Cricket Council. The specific dates of individual series are available on Wikipedia.

The responsibility for any errors is mine. The results presented here are given in good faith.

One Year On

29th January 2021

It was on this weekend one year ago that I enjoyed a mini-tour of rugby-watching in and around Leeds. Four matches in three days: the rugby union encounters between Yorkshire Carnegie and Nottingham Rugby in the Championship (Arresting Decline, 5th February 2020) and Otley and Caldy in the National League Division 2 North (“Let’s Keep It Up, Otley”, 6th February 2020) and the double-headed opener of the Super League season at Headingley, where the Castleford Tigers played the Toronto Wolfpack and the Leeds Rhinos took on Hull FC (The Return of Sonny Bill, 7th February 2020).

To date, this remains the most recent live action sport that I have watched in the flesh.

When we consider the events of the last year – and the pervasive impact of the coronavirus – it is tempting to think that much of the world has been put on hold. Foreign holidays have been cancelled, weddings postponed, concerts re-arranged for some future date… In the global sporting arena, the Olympic Games in Tokyo and the Euro2020 football championships have been held over from last year to this. For the four rugby union teams noted above, their 2019-20 seasons were brought to a premature halt in March and, later, the start of the 2020-21 season delayed until March at the earliest. And so on.

It was not quite so straightforward, of course. The combination of financial and broadcasting pressures meant that the truncated seasons were completed in the elite sports (The Icing and the Cake, 10th December 2020). Thus, an abbreviated rugby league Challenge Cup competition (involving only the 12 – later 11 – Super League clubs) was conducted (in empty stadiums) and reached a thrilling conclusion at Wembley in August, when Luke Gale’s late drop goal gave Leeds a one-point victory over Salford in the final.

In the league, Leeds and Hull qualified for the Super League play-offs by finishing 5th and 6th, respectively, in the shortened 2019-20 season. (This itself represented the Super League authorities thinking on their feet, as the original plan had been for a top-four play-off). There was the possibility, therefore, of Hull FC lifting the title at the Grand Final having finished the regular season half-way down the division. In the event, although they impressively defeated the Warrington Wolves in their first match, they were then heavily beaten by the Wigan Warriors in the semi-final.

At this point, I should probably own up to one of my occasional “what do I know?” mea culpa. In The Return of Sonny Bill, I remarked that Hull had invested heavily in some big, powerful forwards and that this looked to have been money well spent, given that Leeds had been overwhelmed by 30 points to 4. I noted that, as Hull could also draw on the evident firepower in their three-quarters and the accuracy of Marc Sneyd’s kicking game, there was “much promise for their new Super League campaign”. In the event, the club’s almost immediate slump in form saw the coach, Lee Radford, lose his job in March and it was only a late-season rally that took them into the final play-off place.

Off the field, there has also been action. At the time of their match with Nottingham, Yorkshire Carnegie were hopelessly adrift at the bottom of their division, having taken only one point from their opening 10 matches. Nottingham added to their woes by winning by 62-10. Conversely, in their lower league, Caldy were striding away at the top of the table. The respective relegation and promotion of Yorkshire Carnegie (who have subsequently been re-branded as the Leeds Tykes) and Caldy were confirmed and, when the hostilities are eventually resumed, the two clubs will confront each other in National League 1.

In contrast with my expectations for Hull FC’s prospects for the Super League season, I was more accurate in my assessment of the lower part of Otley’s division. With three teams to be relegated, I did suggest that it would be a close-run affair, as Otley were then fourth-from-bottom and level on points with Luctonians. It did not turn out well. Otley had slipped down a place by the time the coronavirus-induced drawbridge was raised on the league season and, notwithstanding that they and the sides around them still had 5 matches left to play, the Rugby Football Union decided that Otley would join Preston Grasshoppers and Scunthorpe on the downward path to the North Premier Division.

In the Super League, the off-field events have certainly been significant. Toronto Wolfpack lost their 6 league matches before the season was halted in March. In July, the club announced that the “unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges” brought about by the pandemic meant that it would not fulfil the remainder of its fixtures once the league resumed in August. Toronto’s 2020 results were expunged from the records, including the 10-28 loss to Castleford that I had witnessed in February. In November, a formal vote was held by the 11 remaining Super League clubs – plus the Rugby Football League and the Super League Executive – on whether Toronto should be allowed to return to the competition in the 2021 season. The vote was 8-4 against with 1 abstention.

At present, there remain plans in place for a rugby league team from Ottawa to enter the National League 1 (the sport’s third division in Britain) in 2022. Let’s hope so. However, the huge uncertainty about any Toronto-based revival casts a long shadow over the development of regular transatlantic competition, notwithstanding that there are also eventual hopes for a New York-based team.

The sense of events moving on applies in the wider world, of course, as well as in the narrower sporting context. One year ago, the US Senate was conducting the first impeachment trial of the former President Trump, whilst at the same time – on the Friday evening on my rugby-watching weekend, to be exact – the UK formally left the European Union and entered the transition phase for finalising the details of separation. This was to last for the remainder of the year, of course, the denouement only being revealed – like the stopping of the bomb’s ticking clock at the end of a third-rate James Bond film – at the 11th hour.

And what of the predictions that were being made a year ago? The introductory paragraph of the February 1st 2020 edition of The Economist opened with the low-key statement that “[A] new coronavirus continued to spread rapidly in China”. Jerome Powell, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank was quoted as stating that the virus would probably case “some disruption” to the global economy, though it was unclear how far that would extend. Powell, having drawn on the vast armoury of the Fed’s analytical resources, is the winner of our Understatement of the Year Award.

By contrast, an editorial in the same newspaper referred to the “sparse data and conflicting reports” about a disease that was spreading exponentially. “The medical and economic cost will depend on governments slowing the disease’s spread. The way to do this is by isolating cases as soon as they crop up and tracing and quarantining people that victims have been in contact with… If… that proves inadequate, they could shut schools, discourage travel and urge the cancellation of public events”. For an early insight into how events would turn out in the UK, that was impressively accurate.

Likewise, in the section on US politics anticipating the first of the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries (in Iowa later in the week), the publication suggested that, of all the major candidates on view (including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), the one who would be the most likely to win the election against Trump was… Joe Biden.

I wonder if The Economist has views on Hull FC’s likely performance in the 2021 Super League season.

Memorable Lines

17th December 2020

As we move towards the end of the calendar year, let me refer back to a couple of the television sports programmes which I noted in the previous blog (“The Icing and the Cake”, 10th December 2020).

They generated the occasional memorable line. Two examples.

The weekly NRL Try Time programme of Australian rugby league highlights produced by Fox was actually quite a hard watch. There was no introduction or summary and no context was given to the action in a match, for example by showing player dismissals or crucial drop goals. Instead, it was just an unrelenting diet of tries: perhaps 70 or 80 (plus replays) in 50 minutes of airtime.

In August, the build-up to one score was when James Tedesco, the Sydney Roosters full back, made a break down the centre of the field. As he was halted in a despairing tackle by his West Tigers opposite number, his shorts and jock strap were hauled down, thus exposing a bare backside. As the play continued, the commentator – uncredited, unfortunately – remarked: “That thing’s broken… It’s got a crack in it“.

Absolutely brilliant. Moments later, a sweeping Roosters move produced a superb try in the right-hand corner for Brett Morris.

The second example – from Gary Imlach during ITV4’s excellent coverage of the highlights of one of the days in the La Vuelta a Espana in November – was probably less spontaneous. In the usual way, at the individual time trial towards the end of the race, the day’s current leader took his seat in a makeshift studio in front of a camera – with a backdrop of the sponsor’s logo – until someone else finished the course in a faster time and moved in to take his place.

Imlach’s commentary covered the moment when the time of the Australian cyclist, Alex Edmondson, was beaten and he was about to leave the seat: “He’s about to vacate it for the next leader…[pause]… unless he refuses, of course”.

This was on the day of the US Presidential Election.

Finally, another line – not from a sports commentator, but from a poet: the Northern Irishman Derek Mahon, who died in October at the age of 78.

The obituaries referred to Mahon as “truculent” and “troubled” and the details of his personal life – estrangement from his parents, alcoholism, illness – make for sad reading. It might be expected, therefore, that in our present circumstances – approaching the depth of winter, dealing with the coronavirus and its various implications, wondering when the light might shine again – we would find little in Mahon’s work to comfort us.

Not so. His reading of his short poem – Everything Is Going To Be All Right – was broadcast by the Irish television channel RTE at the end of its news bulletin earlier in the year and this has been widely shared on the internet. The poem acknowledges that “There will be dying, there will be dying…”, but goes on to state that “The sun rises in spite of everything…” and concludes with its title line “Everything is going to be all right”.

I am determined to end the year on an upbeat note. Everything is going to be all right.

The Icing and the Cake

10th December 2020

In the absence of watching any sport from the terrace or the boundary edge since the beginning of February, it might have been expected that I would have compensated by seeking out more sport on television. This has turned out not to be the case.

Since the Spring, the full catalogue of my television sport viewing has comprised:

* the BBC’s evening highlights of England’s Test match series against the West Indies and Pakistan (see “Soul Limbo”, 10th July 2020);

* BBC Alba’s coverage of the Glasgow City vs VfL Wolfsburg match in the UEFA Women’s Champions League (“Unfinished Business at Petershill Park”, 22nd August 2020);

* the respective finals of the rugby league Challenge Cup and rugby union’s Heineken Champions League (“Risks and Probable Outcomes”, 19th October 2020) plus a couple of games in the earlier rounds of the Challenge Cup;

* the weekly editions of the BBC’s The Super League Show and The NFL Show (a review of the National [American] Football League) and Fox’s NRL Try Time (the tries in Australia National Rugby League shown on a Sky terrestrial channel);

* the evening highlights of the major cycling tours of France, Spain and Italy (the Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana on ITV4 and La Giro d’Italia on QUEST/Eurosport); and

* ITV’s coverage of England’s delayed Six Nations match against Italy (when the English half backs spent 80 minutes kicking the ball high into the early evening Rome sky).

For what it’s worth, the programmes I have most looked forward to have been the ITV4 cycling highlights (with the excellent presentations by Gary Imlach and informed commentaries of Ned Boulting and David Millar) and The NFL Show.

The latter, in addition to the highlights of the week’s key games, has included some revealing analysis by Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora (both former NFL players) not only on the intricacies of individual plays on the field, but also some deep-rooted issues within the sport, including the “taking of the knee” and the psychological effect on the individual of long-term injury. The programme does have a laddish tendency, however, and the mid-season replacement of the reliable Mark Chapman by Dan Walker as its anchor is a step backwards. I am prepared to wince at some of the on-field hits that are shown, but Walker’s comment that the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrows “looked the most promising” of two young quarterbacks following an earlier “Me and Jason were wondering…” really did set the teeth on edge.

The overall choice of viewing has been constrained by the prescient cancellation of my Sky Sports subscription in 2019 but, even so, the above list is selective and not particularly long. There are no one-day cricket internationals or England soccer games (or, indeed, any soccer games apart from the Glasgow City/FC Wolfsburg encounter) or any of England’s recent rugby union internationals in the Autumn Nations Cup. There is no Match of the Day or golf or motor racing or athletics… Admittedly, some of these I probably wouldn’t have watched in a “normal” year, but the fact still remains that the scope of my interest in the general sporting environment – and the specific outcomes within it – does appear to have narrowed.

I am not at all sure what the psychological roots of all this are, though I suspect that they are complex. I assume that underpinning it must be the continual process of revaluation of what is or is not important – prompted by the global impact of the coronavirus – that all of us must have undertaken in some form or another in recent months across many parts of our day-to-day lives.

I should acknowledge that – pre-coronavirus – I was already really not all that interested in watching the global multi-millionaires of the Manchester United and Arsenal brands battle it out in front of a capacity Old Trafford on MOTD. So it is not surprising that I have not had any more interest when the stadium is empty. However, it can’t all be about the finances. My interest in The NFL Show has not been diminished by the reports of Patrick Mahomes – the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs – being awarded a contract worth $503 million over 10 years.

Perhaps some insight is given by looking back at the soccer games that I attended over the two years prior to last Spring. There was an international at Hampden Park, a Europa League tie at Celtic Park and Scottish Premiership fixtures in Kilmarnock and Edinburgh. But the other matches I watched were in Berwick, Alloa, Dumfries and Annan. Likewise, the rugby league venues included Workington and Millom as well as Huddersfield and Leeds and there was rugby union in Otley and shinty in Kingussie… It is not difficult to work out that, whilst I enjoy being an observer at a “major” event, I also like to attend the small-scale contest when there is a new place to visit and a local history to explore.

It was probably inevitable that the availability of television sports would not compensate for the absence of opportunities to watch local events. The sports on television are largely at the elite ends of their respective spectra – not at all surprisingly, given that broadcasters have hours of airtime to fill, the sponsors want value for money and the governing bodies and major clubs need to receive the finances for which they had budgeted.

Hence, for the rugby union authorities, the Autumn Nations Cup: on the one hand, a much-needed contribution to addressing a financial black hole; on the other, a quick-fix solution without any history, played in empty stadiums, the viewing rights for which were sold to the streaming arm of a global behemoth with no pedigree in the sport. Regrettably, for me, in the grand scheme of things, it just didn’t seem that important.

The principal impacts of the coronavirus on sport have been below the elite levels. In Britain, the 2020 rugby league season was abandoned after a couple of games at all levels below the Super League. For the 2020-21 season, the Rugby Football Union has cancelled all matches below the top two divisions (and even the second tier – the Championship – has not yet started); Scottish Rugby followed suit for all matches in its league structure. The 2020 English cricket season saw the 18 First Class counties muddle through truncated versions of their 4-day and 1-day competitions, but the club-level programme was drastically curtailed. The recent lockdown in England ruled out amateur and grassroots team sports, whilst team sport in schools has also been severely affected.

And so the elite players are – if not thriving – keeping their heads above water. The multi-millionaire footballers and motor-racing drivers are still being paid. But the events in which they participate are – as they always have been – the icing on the cake. The difference now is that the icing is in danger of being all that is left. The cake itself is being hollowed out and is at risk of disappearing.

The Super League’s governing body can probably feel satisfied that its competition succeeded in reaching the end of the season, which culminated in a pulsating Grand Final between St Helens and Wigan that was only decided in the final seconds of the match. However, in doing so, they would do well to remember that, amongst the players who took part in that encounter, were those that had begun their professional careers at lower league clubs such as Batley, Featherstone Rovers and Whitehaven. About a dozen others had aided their development via loan or dual registration experience with other teams in the lower divisions, including the North Wales Crusaders, Dewsbury Rams and Workington Town.

My concern is that, by the time that we reach the “new normal” of the post-pandemic world, there might be a generation of sports participants below the elite levels – especially players and coaches, but also administrators, volunteers and spectators – who will have moved on to other things, not to return. Where, then, will the elite players come from for the television sports of the future?

The 1954 Vintage: Part 2

19th November 2020

Earlier this week, I qualified for the New State Pension. The age for men of my generation had drifted slightly – it is now 66 – but I have got there in the end. Henceforth, the UK taxpayer will generously contribute to my (taxable) income by just under £171 per week.

I have mentioned previously (“In The Stars?”, 14th October 2019) that Wilfred Rhodes is the oldest cricketer ever to play for England (aged 52 in 1930). The corresponding achievement in rugby union is that of Fred Gilbert (aged 39 in 1923) and in football Stanley Matthews (42 in 1957). In rugby league, Gus Risman led Workington Town to success in the Challenge Cup final of 1952 at the age of 41.

The ages of the oldest winners of Men’s and Ladies’ Singles titles at Wimbledon are 41 and 37 (Arthur Gore and Charlotte Cooper Sterry in 1909 and 1908, respectively, though Serena Williams will beat the latter record if she wins an eighth title). The oldest cyclist to take part in the Tour de France is from the same era: Henri Paret was 50 when he competed in 1904. In the Open Championship, the oldest winner is – appropriately enough – Old Tom Morris, who was the advanced age of 46 when he took the title in 1867. Like countless others, I was willing the 59 year-old Tom Watson to shatter this record at Turnberry in 2009; he was the runner-up.

I have left all these ages behind.

So far, so predictable. We have a good idea of the age-groups in which high-level sporting prowess is at its peak and after which it diminishes. However, all is not yet lost as far as my potential sporting success is concerned. If I brush up my shooting skills and win a medal at the Olympic Games in either Tokyo next year or Paris in 2024, I would still be younger that the 72 year-old Oscar Swahn, a Swede who won a silver medal in the “sports shooting” event at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp.

Of course, Swahn was a mere whipper-snapper in comparison with the 73 year-old John Copley, who also won a silver (in London in 1948) in the “mixed painting, engraving and etchings” category of the Art Competition. (Helpfully, the website from which I gleaned this information noted that this was “no longer recognised as a sport”). Art competitions were in the official programme for all Summer Olympics between 1912 and 1948 and, in the last year, medals were awarded in architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture. In 1949, the International Olympic Committee decided that, in future, it would hold a non-competitive arts exhibition instead.

More realistically, for my generation, there remain open the age-group sporting events in which we can compete. Most of these might be modest in scope and standard, perhaps, but they still provide the opportunities to derive personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement. A couple of years ago, in one of our regular e-mail conversations, my good friend Andrew Carter – who is older than me by three days – reported that he had won a bottle of wine for being the first man over 60 to finish the Evesham 10k race: “Hardly the Olympics, but I feel like I’ve become a professional!”. We are – both, hopefully – still a very long way from that distant point at which Dylan Thomas memorably instructed us to “not go gentle into that good night”.

So what of the 1954 vintage? Which of my and Andrew’s contemporaries scaled the domestic sporting heights?

The England cricketers with the most test caps are Allan Lamb (79) and Chris Tavaré (31) – both of whom were selected for my 1954 Test XI, as reported last month (“The 1954 Vintage: Part 1”, 1st October 2020) – although only three other Englishmen make the list (with 5 caps in total). Lamb and Tavaré made 16 test match centuries between them (of which the latter contributed two), but the group as a whole took just two test wickets (one falling, rather improbably, to Lamb and the other to Arnie Sidebottom).

On the soccer field, the roll-call includes two prominent England internationals with nearly 100 caps between them: Trevor Francis, who was the first footballer transferred for £1 million when he moved from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest in 1979 – a fact that really betrays the passage of time when we learned earlier this summer that Lionel Messi’s contract with Barcelona reputedly included a buy-out clause of over 700 million euros – and Phil Thompson, the multi-trophy winning defender with Liverpool. There is also Sam Allardyce: an England manager, rather than player, albeit for only one match.

Given the demographics, it is no surprise that the 1980 British Lions rugby union tourists to South Africa included 5 players born in 1954. Of these, three were fly-halves – and all of them excellent players – David Richards of Wales and the Irishmen, Ollie Campbell and Tony Ward. In An Ordinary Spectator, I remarked on seeing Richards – then of Neath Grammar School – as the outstanding player in the Llanelli Schools Sevens tournament of 1972. In the league code, there have also been half a dozen Great Britain internationals, the most prominent of whom is probably the (Peebles-born) full-back George Fairbairn, who played 16 times for England as well as winning 17 GB caps between 1975 and 1982.

The overseas sporting Hall of Fame has some impressive members: Chris Evert, Bernard Hinault, Michael Holding (another 1954 Test XI selection), Marvin Hagler, Walter Payton et al. I must also include the distinguished Brazilian football captain (and qualified doctor) Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira – who was better known as Socrates – if only to reproduce an absolutely classical (pun intended) piece of John Motson commentary from Brazil’s match with Italy at the 1982 World Cup: “And that was a goal by Socrates that sums up the philosophy of Brazilian football”.

At this point, I shall go slightly off piste as far as sporting connections are concerned by noting that the 1954 cohort has also been prominent in other fields, notably feature film direction (James Cameron, Ron Howard, Joel Coen, Ang Lee, Jane Campion) and – especially – politics. The vintage can lay claim to Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe and Condoleezza Rice as well as, er, Alex Salmond and Jean-Claude Juncker. I should note that this list includes presidents Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, HugoChávezof Venezuela and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, so perhaps I should move the discussion on elsewhere. How about contributors to popular culture: John Travolta, Matt Groening (the creator of The Simpsons) – and Adam Ant.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I remarked on my first realisation, when watching an open-age sports event, that the players on the field in front of me were of roughly my age. Referring to my first term at university in 1974, I noted that:

“The average age of the Cambridge rugby side… was, not surprisingly, two or three years older than me. The majority were, like me, undergraduates, though obviously further advanced in their courses. But [it] was only those two or three years. These players were not far away from being a team of my contemporaries doing battle with mature club sides… If I had been of the required standard – which, of course, I was nowhere near – it would have been me out there on the pitch as well”.

I also noted in the book that, by that time – although I did not realise it until much later – I had already attended the first international sports event that featured a participant who was younger than I was. This was the England versus Luxembourg Ladies Volleyball match at the Leeds University sports hall in Match 1973, when the home side included the 18 year-old Joan Quigley from the Kirkby club, who was already the veteran of 20 previous internationals.

In an idle moment, as I stared out of the window contemplating (yet again) the implications of the coronavirus – from tomorrow evening, given the new restrictions in Tier 4 Local Authority areas imposed by the Scottish Government, I will be breaking the law (repeat: breaking the law) if I travel outside East Dunbartonshire – I had considered conducting an enquiry of anorakian proportions. Which sporting contest had I attended – I wondered – that incorporated the highest level of 1954 representation? A moment’s thought suggested that it would certainly have been the London Marathons – with their cast lists of thousands – that I went to see in the early 1980s, followed by the Wimbledon tennis and Open Championships fields of the same era.

Not very interesting. What about team sports? I suppose that an answer might have been found by trawling through my collection of match programmes – and focusing on those for the bigger events for rugby, soccer and cricket, in which the players’ details were given – in order for me to pinpoint the fixture that included the highest number of my exact contemporaries. But life is too short, really. A glance at the programme for the Varsity Match of 1976 reveals that five of the participants had been born in 1954 (and that I was not one of them). That answer will suffice, I think.

And so the New State Pension age is reached and I arrive at another checkpoint on life’s journey. It feels as if I were passing over the line across the road that marks the location of one of those intermediate sprints that feature part of the way along a mountainous Stage in the Tour de France. I trust that that is an appropriate analogy: a staging post at some considerable distance from the finishing line.

Let us hope that, in the years to come, we will be cheering the 80 year-old first-time novelist who wins the Booker Prize or the 90 year-old chemist being recognised by the Nobel Prize Committee. We of the 1954 vintage will look to follow them – albeit some distance behind – in heeding another of Dylan Thomas’s commands: we will indeed “burn and rage at close of day/rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

Pamela Ewing’s Dream

1st November 2020

Eight months ago – at the beginning of March – I had just about completed my plans for sports-watching in the summer of 2020. It turned out to be a memorable programme.

The opening item on the agenda, at the end of that month, was the first leg of the Women’s Champions League quarter-final between Glasgow City and VfLWolfsburg at Petershill Park in Springburn. Although the Scottish Women’s Premier League runs over the calendar year – and the 2020 season had only just started – the European tournament had commenced last autumn and Glasgow City had reached the last eight for only the second time.

I had expected that Wolfsburg would be formidable opponents, having twice won the competition and been runners-up on two other occasions in the last eight years. The home side battled hard, cheered on vociferously by their support in the 1,500 crowd, but the German side’s experience showed through and they took the spoils 2-0. The second leg, a week later, produced an aggregate score of 5-1. (In a parallel universe, previously reported on 22nd August in “Unfinished Business At Petershill Park”, Wolfsburg won 9-1 in a single-leg tie played in the Anoeta Stadium in San Sebastian).

At the beginning of May, my friend George Farrow and I had a couple of days in Manchester to watch Lancashire play Essex in the County Championship. It was the first time I had visited the ground since 1976, when I had seen Geoff Boycott make a century and then watched Geoff Cope take six wickets on the third day of a Yorkshire victory in the Roses match.

The weather this time was not quite so hot as it had been in that glorious summer, but it was pleasant enough for the early season. The visitors dominated the match, Alastair Cook and the new Essex captain Tom Westley making first innings centuries and the impressive off-spinner Simon Harmer taking 10 wickets in total. There was some late resistance in Lancashire’s second innings from Steven Croft and Graham Onions, but Essex sewed up victory by 8 wickets on the third afternoon.

The following month, Scotland hosted two T20 international matches at the attractive Grange ground in Edinburgh: New Zealand and, ten days later, Australia. The tourists won both matches: New Zealand by scrambling a hurried single off the penultimate delivery and Australia in a canter by over 100 runs. Both games were played in bright sunshine in front of capacity crowds and we were treated to some exhilarating batting, initially by Kane Williamson and then Steve Smith. I have remarked before on how much pleasure is to be gained by watching elite sportsmen at the top of their game.

The evening after the Scotland-Australia match, I reverted back to soccer. I had been successful in the ballot for tickets for the Last 16 Euro 2020 match played at Hampden Park in Glasgow. Of course, at the time of booking, I had not known which teams would be playing – and this added to the sense of anticipation of the event – and it turned out that these were Spain (winners of Group E) and Russia (third in Group B).

The Spanish supporters turned out in huge numbers and their vibrant enthusiasm and noise was something of a contrast to the stuttering performance of their lauded team. The Russians were methodical and well-organised, but neither side was able to break the goalless deadlock before the end of extra time. The real drama came in the penalty shoot-out, in which a combination of striker nerves and goalkeeping excellence meant that the score was only 2-1 to Russia when Sergio Ramos, the Spanish captain, stepped up to take the final kick in the first phase of five attempts. He duly blasted the kick over the bar to send the Russians into the quarter-finals.

A double header of cricket followed in July. First, there was a 50 over Royal London Cup match – Yorkshire Vikings versus Nottinghamshire Outlaws at Scarborough – and then, the following evening, the Northern Superchargers vs the Oval Invincibles at Headingley in the new “Hundred” competition.

The two traditional county sides were without some of their main players – including Joe Root, Johnny Bairstow and Alex Hales – who had been voraciously gobbled up by various Hundred franchises. But that did not prevent them putting on an excellent game of cricket, in which both teams scored over 300 runs and Yorkshire won by two wickets with 4 balls to spare. Adam Lyth played the decisive innings, his final boundary taking him to exactly 150 not out.

It was at that time, unfortunately, that the summer’s hitherto fine weather turned less favourable. My train journey from Scarborough to Leeds the following morning was characterised by a view across the Vale of York of squally showers and strong winds. The weather hinted at an improvement in the hour before play started and, indeed, three (10 ball) overs were possible before the rain arrived again and set in for the evening. The Oval Invincibles had made 41 for 2 by the time the players sprinted from the field. Jason Roy, their star opening batsmen, revealed himself as being not quite so invincible after all when Ben Stokes dismissed him lbw second ball.

So much for what I have recently watched. There is more to come, not least the Second Test in the three-match England vs Australia rugby league Ashes series, the first such confrontation for many years. I have a good seat on the half-way line for the game at Elland Road next weekend. Can’t wait.

I am reminded of a popular 1980s television soap opera.

Dallas. (Series 8, Episode 30, 1985, CBS). Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) is fatally injured when run over by a car driven by Katherine Wentworth (Morgan Brittany).

Dallas. (Series 10, Episode 1, 1986, CBS). Pamela Ewing (Victoria Principal) wakes up in her luxurious bedroom. She wanders into the bathroom, where Bobby is in the shower. It turns out that she had dreamt Bobby’s death – as well as all the events in the 31 episodes of Series 9.

Risks and Probable Outcomes

19th October 2020

Two major rugby finals were played on Saturday: league’s Challenge Cup final between the Leeds Rhinos and Salford Red Devils at Wembley and union’s Heineken Champions League final between the Exeter Chiefs and Racing 92 at the Ashton Gate ground in Bristol.

There were several similarities: both were shown on terrestrial television (respectively, the BBC with 9 presenters/commentators/analysts) and Channel 4 with 8 – whatever happened to Ray French or Bill McLaren commentating with only Alex Murphy or Bill Beaumont in support?); both were played in stadiums that were eerily spectator-free as a result of the coronavirus restrictions; and both entered the last 10 minutes with the game evenly poised (16-16 at Wembley and 28-27 to Exeter at Bristol).

It is the contrast in game management in their respective final stages that is particularly interesting.

At Wembley, once Ash Handley had scored his second try to draw Leeds level (and Rhyse Martin had missed the touchline conversion), it was distinctly possible that the next score would determine the winners of the Challenge Cup. Moreover, it was also highly likely that that score would be a drop goal – as Jonathan Davies, one of the BBC’s commentators, anticipated as early as the 70th minute (though he annoyingly used the Australian term “field goal”).

Sure enough, Leeds twice manoeuvred themselves into position for Luke Gale – their drop goal expert – to make attempts at the extra point. His first effort (a minute or so after Davies had raised the possibility) went narrowly wide, but his second – perfectly struck with 4 minutes to go – sailed through the posts to give his side the decisive 17-16 lead.

The Salford defenders had known what was coming and on both occasions they made valiant attempts to charge the kick down. However, as their captain Lee Mossop acknowledged afterwards, the physical exertions of the game had taken their toll and Gale, knowing exactly how much time and space he had at his disposal, was able to successfully execute a well-rehearsed routine.

As Bristol, in a match in which the Parisian side had never held the lead, a penalty goal reduced their arrears to that single point after 64 minutes. That remained the position when Racing had possession within the Exeter 22 for a full five minutes from the 70th minute onwards, including a run of 19 successive phases, several of which were right in front of the Exeter posts. During this period, the Racing forwards took it upon themselves to make individual thrusts for the try-line in the hope that supporting colleagues would drive them over, before recycling the ball to launch another attempt; their fly-half and playmaker, Finn Russell, touched the ball once.

One wonders at what point Russell might have realised that the forwards’ strategy was not yielding results against the impressively disciplined and organised Exeter goal-line defence. Why did he not take up a position a few yards deeper and demand the ball in order to attempt the easiest of drop kicks that, with the three points on offer, would have given his side a 30-28 lead? Indeed, the longer Racing’s unsuccessful siege of the try line went on, the better the drop-kick option would have been, as the running down of the clock would have reduced the time available for Exeter to make a counter-strike on the scoreboard. (This approach is one with which all the great American Football quarterbacks have been familiar over the years – from Joe Namath to Tom Brady – namely, the timing of their team’s winning field goal (sic) with the clock ticking down to its final few seconds).

Ultimately, game management at a time like this is a question of assessing the risks and probable outcomes of the alternative actions that are available – usually when in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. I would judge that the probability of Russell succeeding with the drop goal from 15 yards in front of the posts would have been close to 100%. The probability of Racing retaining possession through multiple phases before crossing the Exeter try-line might also have been high – and Exeter did have a player in the sin-bin for this period of play – but, crucially, not as high as the alternative. There was always a risk that possession would be lost or an infringement incurred – as did finally happen after the 19th phase. A penalty awarded to Exeter took them to the security of the half-way line with their lead intact.

It might be argued that this discussion is irrelevant because another subsequent penalty was awarded to Exeter to take the final score to 31-27. I think we can discount this. The psychology of the game would have been completely different if Racing had taken the lead – for the first time in the match – with only 5 minutes to go. And the last penalty was given away in a desperate attempt by a Racing player to regain possession, which wouldn’t have been needed if his side’s noses had been in front.

A final point. Neither Miles Harrison – the lead Channel 4 commentator – nor any of his army of supporting colleagues made any reference to the drop-goal option during this decisive period of play.

The assessment of risks and probable outcomes. Where else have I been hearing about that recently?

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).

Citius, Altius, Fortius.  Part 3: Moscow 1980

10th September 2020

In 1980, I was one of a party of students on a “cultural exchange” to the Soviet Union organised by the National Union of Students. It was actually my second trip. Two years earlier, I had visited Minsk, Smolensk and Moscow. This time, the itinerary comprised Moscow, Riga and Leningrad (which is now St Petersburg once again, of course).

On neither occasion was there any need for me to have any particular left-wing sympathies – or, indeed, any political interests at all – in order to be selected for the respective tour parties. I simply responded to the advertisements in a student newspaper and, a few weeks later, joined the companies of 15 or so others who were curious about what they might find – or, more accurately, be shown – behind the Iron Curtain.

In An Ordinary Spectator, I reported on how, during the first visit, we had found ourselves in a cavernous and largely empty sports hall in Minsk watching some of the group-stage matches in the 1978 Women’s World Volleyball Championships: Belgium vs Tunisia, Mexico vs Holland and Yugoslavia vs Italy. It had been our collective decision, part of the way through the second game, that we were ersatz Dutchmen and that we would suddenly start to cheer wildly whenever Holland won a point. I’m sure that this was instrumental in enabling our new-found heroines to level the score at two sets all, though it wasn’t sufficient to take them to victory.

In this blog, I wish to recall something from my return visit to Moscow in 1980. My diary of the trip for Wednesday 10th September 1980 – 40 years ago to the day – records the following entry for when I had some spare time to myself one late afternoon:

… to the large beriozka… and then, most enjoyably, a quick walk down to the Lenin Stadium, which I entered and in which I sat for about quarter of an hour – the tartan track, the somewhat spartan seating, no covering, the posher orange and red-backed seats on the far side, the flag poles, the bowl for the Olympic torch, the green football pitch in the centre of the stadium, the televisual screens at each end. And, especially beautifully, the sun going down at the point directly behind one of the large square blocks of floodlights. A splendid little bonus to the trip. For some reason I felt quite exalted as I walked past the large statue of Lenin down the main boulevard away from the stadium”.

It was exactly four decades ago and I can remember it very clearly. What surprised me at the time – and continues to do so in retrospect – is that I was allowed to enter the stadium and take my seat in the stand without any hindrance. I don’t doubt that I was being observed by someone, from somewhere, but there was no hint of an official coming to tell me to vacate the premises. (I enjoyed exactly the same type of unencumbered access to the Melbourne Cricket Ground – which had been the main venue for the 1956 Summer Olympics – when I visited that city in 1987).

As I sat in the Lenin Stadium, I was aware that, only a few weeks earlier, it had been the venue of some dramatic athletics events which had brought gold medals for Allan Wells (100 metres), Steve Ovett (800 metres), Sebastian Coe (1,500 metres) and Daley Thompson (decathlon). Elsewhere, there had been Olympic success for Duncan Goodhew in the swimming pool.

In some respects, it was strange that there had been any British athletes there at all. In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, the USA had led a boycott of the Games, which had been supported by 65 other nations, including Canada and West Germany. However, the UK was not amongst them. The Conservative Government, which had been elected with Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister for the first time in 1979, supported the boycott, but left any final decision over participation to the National Olympic Committee and the individual athletes. In the event, the Games were boycotted by the British associations governing equestrianism, hockey and yachting.

In September 1980 – and for some time afterwards – the Cold War remained a central feature of global geopolitics. The old guard Soviet leadership – headed by Leonid Brezhnev – was still in place; two months later the USA would elect a new right-wing president in Ronald Reagan; the Soviet Union would lead a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympic Games by 14 Eastern Bloc countries in 1984; the fall of the Berlin Wall was nine years away…

The Lenin Stadium, which had been built in 1956, was extensively renovated in 1996 with, amongst other things, a roof being added. It had been renamed as the Luzhniki Stadium four years earlier. However, this structure was itself demolished and rebuilt in 2017, in time for Russia hosting the soccer World Cup the following year.

Today, I doubt that the casual visitor to the Grand Sports Arena of the Luzhniki Olympic Complex – to give it its full title – would be able to walk in off the street and take a seat in the stand. The security-conscious times in which we live would put paid to that. And that’s before one acknowledges being a Western visitor amid the general tension in East-West relations that never really seems to go away.

However, one cheering fact revealed in the stadium’s Wikipedia entry is that parts of the cover and the façade wall of the old structure were retained in the latest design, thus ensuring that not all of the 1980 Lenin Stadium has been lost.

For my part, I also have something from that time. The beriozka I mentioned at the beginning of my diary entry was a store in which good quality items could only be purchased with western currency. On my visit, I bought an elegant wooden letter-rack, complete with Olympic rings, which – 40 years on – retains its place in my study.

20200622_122934