Thursday, 10 April 2014

Tell me on a Sunday...

I was following the World T20 recently and with the IPL trophy around the corner once again, gathering together the world's greatest stars, I cast my mind back to a less commercial, more innocent era in the 1960s.

As you all know, most championship matches start on Sundays this year. Back in the early 60's, Sunday sport was a no-no and television largely awful or non-existent. The then extant Sunday Observance Act of 1782 made the day one for quiet contemplation, as there was greater chance of encountering a grizzly bear in your refrigerator than seeing sport on television.

When BBC2 appeared, there was a gap to fill in the schedules on Sunday afternoons and it was the then Controller of Programmes at the BBC, Huw Wheldon, who convinced the Board of Governors of the merits of his big idea. The Rothmans Cavaliers fixtures, that had become a feature of the English summer from 1963, became a staple of Sunday afternoon TV from 1965 to 1968, prior to the start of the John Player Sunday League the following summer. No worries in that era about tobacco sponsorship, eh...?

From week to week the team changed, but the Cavaliers side introduced some wonderful players to a wider audience than ever before. There was South African Fred Goldstein, whose approach to the game made our own later import, Chris Wilkins, look circumspect in comparison. Goldstein opened the innings to impose himself and match reports usually read that he 'batted beautifully for eight overs before holing out in the deep'. There were West Indians, Keith Boyce and John Shepherd among them, though Garfield Sobers was a much-appreciated regular. There were also occasional glimpses of the great South Africans; Eddie Barlow, Graeme Pollock, Mike Procter, Lee Irvine. Best of all, from my perspective, you would occasionally see retired legends reappear, so there was a chance to see Denis Compton and Godfrey Evans once in a while. A Derbyshire side I saw play them had Les Jackson in the eleven, a legend who had been retired for several seasons.

All very familiar, isn't it? Of course, the results were spectacular and capacity crowds filled the grounds while large audiences viewed on television. Much of this was down to the quality of the cricket, though it shouldn't be overlooked that pubs across the country shut at 2pm on a Sunday, re-opening at 7pm, pretty much when the day's match had ended. For many people, the only place to get a beer on a Sunday afternoon was at the cricket, so to the cricket they went.

So impressive was the public response that Sunday championship cricket was trialled in 1966 for the first time, with play beginning at 2pm. Other sports started to follow suit and cricket authorities realised that there was gold to be had in a Sunday League, which started in 1969. It sounded the death knell for the Cavaliers, as the biggest names were by then engaged by counties, but Sunday cricket was now acceptable and the John Player League a huge hit.

And why not? There was a chance to see some of the game's greats, alongside some of its characters, with commentary provided by the dream team of John Arlott and Jim Laker. Arlott was the wordsmith, his bon mots worth listening out for and hanging on to, while Laker was more succinct, his economy with language and consonants the equal of his bowling a few years before. It was Laker who introduced me to the joys of Little 'arry Pillin' of Lancashire, a player whose lack of height gave this teenage boy of similar stature the thought that he could play the game.

There was also Jim Yardley, a left-hander who only had two shots - a dab through gulley and a pull - but made a lot of runs in doing so. Until I added six inches to my height one summer, they were the shots that scored 99% of my runs too...

They were golden days and were the catalyst for Sundays being a day of sport for millions, yet its worth remembering that the scoring rate in county matches today often exceeds that in the early summers of the John Player League, where 150 in 40 overs won more matches than not.

I hope that this summer's Sunday cricket is worthy of its predecessors and that Derbyshire fill it with a brand of controlled, aggressive cricket that has been the preserve of the best Sabbath sides for nearly fifty years.

Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays would be nice, too.

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