Frank Keating

Day of the rabbits

Day of the rabbits

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For the first time I can remember I haven’t bothered a fig about England’s Test matches. I haven’t even cocked an ear towards the radio. Keith Miller said you shouldn’t take candy from kids, and Bangladesh’s so obvious wretchedness about being outclassed depressed everyone’s spirits.

Or is it an ageing codger’s grumpiness? Bangladesh can only improve by playing the best. I did not remotely feel so cheerless about one-sided contests 23 years ago when I was enchanted to be in Colombo to see Sri Lanka’s very first Test and, although England won easily, it was heartwarming to welcome a new side into the fold. And it took Sri Lanka just over a dozen years, didn’t it, resoundingly to wallop Australia in the 1996 World Cup final?

Come to think of it (and the reason I did was that their hero and first true-great bowler died last week at 78), I was also there when Pakistan won their first Test against England after being scornfully written off as duds. It remains a thrill to remember the famous day at the Oval in 1954. It was my last summer hols from school and I stayed with an aunt in Pimlico. Like Bangladesh’s spring of 2005, it was a cold wet summer for hard-wicket fledglings. Two of the four Tests, at Lord’s and Manchester, had been washed away, but not before Pakistan had been pitilessly skittled for under 100 in both their innings; and at Nottingham Denis Compton had gaily slaughtered them for 278 and an innings humiliation. At the Oval the bedraggled tourists were at once bowled out for 133, but then the weather worked in their favour for once and a wet wicket perfectly fitted the cut, swing and genuine arts of Fazal Mahmood. He embarrassed England to a paltry all-out for 130 but, with the pitch dried, more meek Pakistan batting had, by mid-afternoon on the fourth day, the haughty home side hot favourites to score just 168 to win. A doddle.

‘Let’s look to get ’em tonight,’ announced captain Hutton as he padded up. A day off was an enticing carrot for Test cricketers back then. At once, Hutton himself was undone (again) by Fazal’s disguised outswing, but the great Yorkie’s fury calmed as Simpson and May serenely posted the half century. ‘Are we still looking to win it tonight?’ asked Statham on the balcony to no one in particular. ‘Of course we are,’ snapped Hutton. Simpson went at 66, but May and Compton coasted past the century. They would get them that night for sure. At 109, May mistimed a drive off Fazal — and with 40 minutes left and only 59 to win Hutton sent in hitter Evans to finish things off. As he passed May at the wicket gate, Godfrey grinned: ‘A day off tomorrow? No problem.’ The perky wicketkeeper mowed festively at Fazal and was bowled. Then Graveney went for a duck, and Compton was caught behind. Stunned, Hutton signalled to shut up shop for the morrow. No day off. Statham told me many years later, ‘Len was speechless; like the rest of us, he’d thought it was a piece of cake; when he realised we could lose he went white with a humiliated sort of rage.’ Next morning, Fazal (12 for 99 — I daresay those very figures etch in gold-leaf his funeral plaque this week) gaily, jubilantly, chopped off England’s tail. Pakistan won by 24 runs. They had come to learn, but the rabbits had come and conquered.