Football’s got a nerve: the Premiership resumes business next week and is already blaringly full of itself, its conceited luminaries strutting about as if England’s abject World Cup show was nothing to do with them. Sanest way to continue enjoying the summer is to ignore anything that concerns football till the clocks go back in October, which is about the same time as the England cricket team set off for Australia in defence of the Ashes. Beset with injuries, at least the cricketers have knuckled down to turn out a new team by introducing some warmingly bright sparks. In the absence of crocked captain, Vaughan, for instance, for much of the summer it has been heartening to admire the adult composure at the crease of the callow, schoolboy-fresh Cook; and instead of the earnestly predictable straight lines of veteran leftie spin bowler Giles, it has been an overwhelming pleasure to watch the precocious Panesar at work. The selectors deserve credit for encouraging the arts and devious crafts of the young Sikh against the inclinations of the inscrutable safety-first coach, Fletcher, and for giving a chance to the Devon-born Trent Bridge wicket-keeper, Read, over the coach’s favourite, Jones of Kent (the only change on purely cricketing grounds since the heady Ashes victory 11 months ago).
The English have traditionally prided themselves at producing glovemen of grandeur at both football and cricket, but while the goalkeeping line (Swift, Williams, Banks, Shilton) seems to have dried up completely, the dynasty behind the stumps is as healthy as ever; and while Jones and Read vie for the top job, they are both only too aware of an ambitious handful jostling to audition downstage — Foster of Essex, Powell of Glamorgan, and Worcester’s Davies, to name but three.
They can each, crucially, bat a bit, and behind the timbers they all nicely fall into the distinct types which Cardus defined — ‘the indignant and shrill, or the calm, polite, and enquiring’. It was always so …Board and Strudwick, Duckworth and Ames, Evans and McIntyre, Bairstow and Downton, Russell and Stewart …the one appealing to the gods, a ravenous, rowdy presence (‘Out! Out! On y’way, lad! Hop it! Next please!’), the other tidy, trim, and softly apologetic (‘Sorry about this, ol’ boy. Bad luck. Good afternoon. The pav’s to your right, ol’ chap. Mind the step’). Forty years ago, it was perceived to be Sussex’s Jim Parks, top bat, vs top ‘keeper John Murray of Middlesex, but it was interesting the other day to hear Jim (still full of the joys and 75 this October) say that he was never worried about John ‘because I felt I had the edge on him purely as a ’keeper, but if Jimmy Binks and Keith Andrew were better, fortunately for me they weren’t much good at batting.’ Me, I’m old enough to remember Jim Parks in the newly minted wonder of his youth as one of the most thrillingly glistening cover-points I ever saw — the lot: silken speed, swallow’s swoops, darts-champ arrow throws. It was almost tragic they talked him into wearing the gauntlets.
The elastic Jack-in-the-box Mr Punch, Alan Knott, was surely England’s very best of all. He lives in Cyprus now. My favourite was Alan’s longtime rival, the serenely immaculate, soft-handed Bob Taylor, a lovely friend on tour. In Calcutta once, Bob and I went to early Mass at Mother Teresa’s convent. ‘Mother, why do you smile so?’ asked Bob afterwards. ‘Because St Francis did,’ she said, ‘and you must, too.’ For the length of that long sweltering day, Bob beamed beatifically all through an interminable Gavaskar century.