Ihope Pakistan’s Mohammed Amir gets a friendly reception at Lord’s when he returns to Test cricket after his five years’ suspension for his part in the spot-fixing scandal. I thought he was harshly treated then. He was a naïve 18-year-old boy then, and trapped by a News of the World sting operation. Then he was put under severe pressure by his captain, and threats were made against his family if he didn’t comply.
Spot-fixing, in this case the agreement to bowl a no ball in a specified over (for the benefit of a bookmaker) is obviously wrong, but, compared to match-fixing, it’s a trivial offence. So I hope the Lord’s crowd will say “welcome back” to this brilliant bowler – even if England’s opening batsmen might wish his return had been postponed for a few more months.
This promises to be a good series. Pakistan are a much better side than Sri Lanka (and may, one trusts, enjoy better weather too). They beat England last winter in the UAE, their home base since it was deemed too dangerous to play Test cricket in Pakistan. England are without Jimmy Anderson for at least the first Test, and if he returns for the second of these back-to back games, he will do so without any match practice, unless he is thought to have recovered sufficiently to play for Lancashire against Durham in a match that begins next Saturday. So, whenever he returns, Anderson may be short of his best, and England suffer from the ECB’s cock-eyed schedule and their devaluation of county cricket – suffer deservedly, I might say.
The word is that Joe Root will move up from 4 to 3. Michael Atherton has been calling for this on the grounds that your best batsman, if not an opener, should come in first-wicket down. This is, he says, the usual Australian practice, though not, one might add, their invariable one; Michael Clarke preferred to bat at 5. There’s no golden rule. Neither Sachin Tendulkar nor Gary Sobers came in at 3, though admittedly both India and the West Indies then had another great player to bat in that position, Rahul Dravid and Rohan Kanhai respectively. Graeme Pollock, South Africa’s greatest batsman, played all his Test cricket at 4. For England, Denis Compton was usually at 4 and Kevin Pietersen declined to bat higher up the order than that position. Ken Barrington scored Test hundreds at 3, 4 and 5. My own view is that a team benefits if their leading batsman plays in the position that feels most comfortable to him. So if Root prefers 4, that’s where he should bat.
Sometimes, of course, your best batsman is an opener, taking the risk of facing the fast bowlers when they are fresh and have a new ball in their hand. 23 June was the centenary of the birth of Len Hutton, the greatest English batsman of my time. We rightly think highly of Alastair Cook, whose own record as an opener is very good. Yet it scarcely compares to Len’s. Cook has played 231 Test innings, hit 28 centuries and averages 46. Len had 138 innings, scored 19 hundreds and averaged 56. In style and technical mastery he also excelled Cook by some way, his cover drive as much a thing of beauty as Ian Bell’s.
Yet the most remarkable thing is that he missed seven years of his career on account of the World War. He was 23 in 1939 and had already made five Test hundreds, including the then world record score of 364 against Australia at The Oval. He was 30 when he next had the chance to play Test cricket and 38 when he retired. He faced one of the greatest of Australian pace attacks – Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, supported in a couple of series by Bill Johnston, all of whom finished their careers with a much lower bowling average than Mitchell Johnson.
All three were very skilful and very fast, all bowled nasty bouncers and Hutton had no helmet and none of the protective clothing batsmen now wear. Moreover, he didn’t have the heavy modern bat which can send a defensive stroke to the boundary.
An accident in the gym, while working as a PE instructor in the second year of the war, left him, after a couple of operations, with a left arm two inches shorter than his right one. He had to remodel his technique and found he was no longer able to play the hook shot effectively. No wonder Lindwall and Miller targeted him. At The Oval in 1953, a Lindwall bouncer rose sharply and took off his cap, which only just missed falling on the stumps. Lord knows how many runs and hundreds he would have made but for Adolf Hitler. He had a nice laconic sense of humour too. Asked the best way to play really fast bowling, he said “from the other end”. I daresay Atherton and Cook would agree – though that wasn’t, or isn’t in Cook’s case, advice any of the three acted upon.