Twenty-five years ago, when I was a mere lad, I was invited to a cricket coaching session in Cheltenham. Bob Taylor, the former England wicket-keeper, was there. So was a young batsman from Gloucestershire’s second team. But the man most of us young upstarts wanted to see was Tom Graveney. The local legend.
Tom wasn’t there to begin with. We had an hour or so of nets first. It was a time when Graham Gooch’s batting stance was all the rage. Few kids patted their toe with the bat when they waited for the bowler to run in. They all stood tall and upright. I thought it was ugly.
Many of the kids were experimenting with trigger movements too. Was it best to take a small step forward and then rock back, or was it better to move the back foot slightly back and across as the bowler released the ball? Everyone seemed to have a different opinion. Batting seemed very complicated.
Then the Gloucestershire and Worcestershire legend arrived. He watched us closely in the nets. He liked my bowling action – “bowls very nicely” my report card said – and he nodded approvingly when he saw the straightness of my bat.
However, I was a little tentative about playing too many shots. I knew how to stay in for long periods but didn’t trust myself to play aggressively off either front or back foot. The art of caressing the ball effortlessly to the boundary, like Tom Graveney used to do, seemed arcane.
But then the great man spoke. I still remember his words with absolute clarity today. They filled me with optimism and certainty:
“Cricket is a simple game, lads. If the ball is a good length or full, you lean into the ball and play an off-drive with a straight bat. Aim between the bowler and mid-off. If the ball isn’t quite there to drive, just check your shot. Block it. Don’t follow through”.
Ok. Seems simple enough. But what about scoring off shorter balls?
“It’s just as simple. Go back and across and look to drive off the back-foot instead. Again, look to play straight and aim between the bowler and mid-off. If the ball isn’t quite there to hit, block it. It’s the same principle”.
This advice has always stayed with me. Batting is indeed a very simple art made complicated by over analysis and theory. By sticking to Tom’s advice the mind should stay uncluttered.
“If you look to drive, off either front of back foot, you’ll automatically get into good positions to unleash the full repertoire of stokes all around the wicket.
If the full ball is slightly wider, you’ll naturally drive it through cover rather than mid-off. If you’re looking to drive wider short balls you’ll naturally punch it through cover or cut it through point. Your arms will do this naturally if you’re balanced.”
As you can probably guess, Tom wasn’t a fan of ‘modern’ batting techniques. He didn’t see the need to raise the bat like Gooch or even jump around the crease like Kim Barnett: “Just keep it simple. Stay still. Pick the length. Either go back or forward and look to play straight”.
Simplicity isn’t always associated with beauty, but Tom Graveney’s batting was utterly straightforward and wonderfully stylish. He scored one hundred first class centuries and made nearly 5,000 test runs at an average of 44. I wish I’d seen some of them in the flesh. Instead all I’ve got are grainy old videos and second hand accounts.
His career was anything but straightforward though. It’s a fascinating tale. He spent most of his career at Gloucestershire, before moving to local rivals Worcestershire when the captaincy was taken from him.
During his time at New Road, Worcs won their first ever county championships in 1964 and 1965. His form earned him an unlikely England recall at the ripe old age of thirty-nine. He went on to play another 24 tests and scored four additional international centuries.
Graveney’s final two test innings produced scores of 105 and 75. But he was banned for attending a benefit gig on the rest day. He never played again. He was also a thorn in the ECB’s side over the Basil D’Oliveira affair. Good on ‘im.
Tom was a man of principle. He always wanted to do the right thing in the right way – whether it was at the crease with a bat in his hand, or off the field with a real ale in his hand. The news of his death yesterday was very sad. He’ll be fondly remembered.
I discovered recently that my old English teacher, and former Hampshire cricketer, Andy Murtagh wrote a biography of Tom Graveney. It’s called Touched By Greatness. I thoroughly recommend it.