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Colin Croft – A Quick One From The Seventies

colin-croft

Colin Everton Hunte Croft is quite a name for a West Indian cricketer, albeit more suggestive of a batsman than a bowler. Whatever the names may indicate however Croft was a fine fast bowler and one of the early components of the West Indies pace packs that were so dominant from the mid 1970s onwards.

Unusually amongst his peers Croft was Guyanese, but like most of them he was tall, around six feet five inches, with an unusual action. The run to the wicket was straight enough, but as he got to the wicket Croft’s delivery stride took him out towards the return crease as he slanted the ball in towards the right hander. There was plenty of short stuff, and in addition Croft had the ability to make the ball straighten up as it passed the batsman.

Croft was only 19 when, in January 1972, he made his First Class debut for Guyana against a strong Jamaican side containing four Test batsman. The youngster was given the new ball, not something he relished, and that may have contributed to a disappointing return of 0-75. It was another four years before Croft played for Guyana in the Shell Shield again, and he didn’t take a wicket on that occasion either, although that wasn’t his fault as rain meant he didn’t even get to turn his arm over. Thus it was a further year later, in January 1977, that the first Shell Shield wickets came against the Combined Islands.

West Indies had picked up a drubbing in Australia in 1975/76 so their selectors were looking for fast bowlers and after two more modest outings in the Shell Shield Croft was invited to play for a scratch side against the touring Pakistanis. Opening the bowling with another tall rookie pace bowler, Joel Garner, the tourists were beaten by an innings. Croft took 4-43 and 6-66. The first Test began just over a week later and, with Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel both injured, Croft and Garner came into the side to join Andy Roberts and Vanburn Holder in a four man pace attack.

In the Pakistan first innings Croft shared the new ball with Roberts and took 3-85. First change in the second innings he was more effective, taking 4-47, but shared in the collective responsibility for his side allowing Wasim Bari and Wasim Raja to put on 133 for the tenth wicket which meant it took an obdurate innings from the last wicket pair of Croft himself and Roberts to enable West Indies to hang on for a draw.

The second Test of the series was scheduled for Port of Spain, and the home side even selected a specialist spinner, Raphick Jumadeen, as well as employing the bowling services of Viv Richards (off spin) and Roy Fredericks (leg spin) in the Pakistanis second innings. In the first innings though Croft was the great destroyer with his 8-29 from 18.5 hostile and accurate overs unsurprisingly remaining the best of his First Class career. As the wicket slowed down further he added only one more scalp in the second innings, but by then he had already done enough to secure victory for his side.

The third Test was drawn before Pakistan drew level in the fourth leaving Lloyd’s men 2-1 winners when they took the final Test. The series would have been drawn had it not been for Croft the batsman in the first Test, but the striking feature of the series were his 33 wickets at 20.48. He comfortably led his teammates on both aggregate and average.

In 1977 Lancashire, after the retirement of Indian wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer, had a vacancy for an overseas player. A side in transition had lost one former England pace bowler, Ken Shuttleworth, in 1975 and the previous summer had been the last for another, Peter Lever. They still had Peter ‘Leapy’ Lee, one of those hugely effective county seamers who took a big haul of wickets every summer without ever getting into the selectors’ discussions, but no one else above medium pace. A fast bowler was the obvious target and on Clive Lloyd’s recommendation the county opted for Croft.

County skipper David Lloyd wrote that Croft’s first summer with the county was a big disappointment, and a look at the county’s averages certainly supports that view. Croft managed no more than 47 wickets at 28.40 and in the averages was well behind Lancashire spinners David Hughes and Jack Simmons as well as the ever reliable Lee. There is much however to contribute by way of mitigation. 1977 was the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and was dismally wet, Lancashire losing as many as 125 hours to the weather. In addition to that there were also the events of 4 June, guaranteed to raise a man’s stock in the eyes of the county’s supporters.

Television has never been much interested in the County Championship. Back in those days BBC Wales would cover some Glamorgan matches, but that was it, until ITV, the UK’s only commercial broadcaster decided to take an in interest in the Roses encounters between Lancashire and Yorkshire. ITV only had one channel, but it was organised on a regional basis, so in the north there were a few short windows of opportunity to snatch a few overs.

The 1977 Old Trafford Roses encounter was badly affected by rain but the elements relented long enough for there to be a full day’s play on the first day and, despite early struggles, the home side scored 270-4 before, as per the playing conditions of the time, they had to close their innings after 100 overs. Yorkshire had just over an hour to negotiate on a benign pitch in reasonable light. In Croft they were up against a man with a big reputation, but who had impressed no one in the first month of the season.

Perhaps it was the atmosphere of the Roses encounter, or perhaps some foolish Yorkshireman chose a few ill-advised words, but whatever the reason just as I got home from school and turned the television on I saw three remarkable overs from Croft. Bowling at tremendous pace he flattened the stumps of Geoffrey Boycott, Bill Athey and Jack Hampshire so with Lee chipping in too Yorkshire were suddenly 39-5. Sadly the next day the rain came and there was no play until late on the final afternoon. There was just time for Croft to take one more wicket before, in order to spare his tailenders an ordeal by Fire from Babylon, Boycott declared the innings on 65-6.

If the Roses match was a new dawn for Croft in Lancashire it ultimately proved to be a false one. There was to be just one more occasion when he fired on all cylinders, he and Lee bowling right through the 25 overs of the Nottinghamshire innings at Trent Bridge in July to dismiss them for 121 before lunch on the first day. Croft’s contribution was 7-54. It was enough to bring the Red Rose its second Championship victory of the summer, but there were no more, and only Notts finished below them.

It may be the case that Croft’s lack of consistency in 1977 was caused by the distraction of what was going on behind the scenes in the game. The fact is that Croft did sign for World Series Cricket, although it seems considerable pressure was brought to bear on him not to. Initially the West Indians who signed were still available for official Tests, so Croft and the others were selected for the first two Tests of the 1977/78 against Australia. The Australian second string, led by the veteran Bob Simpson, were brushed aside in the first two Tests, and Croft had another nine wickets at 18.88 to show for his efforts, but then the West Indian packer players were banned and the West Indians had, essentially, a new team for the rest of the series.

The West Indies pace pack in World Series Cricket comprised Croft, Garner, Roberts and Holding. Of the four of them Croft was the least successful, but he still took 30 wickets at 28.88 in seven Supertests, so still a highly respectable return.

Through the northern hemisphere summer of 1978 Croft had the second year of his contract with Lancashire to fulfil. He did a little better than the year before, but 56 wickets at 22.60 was not enough to win him another contract. The Red Rose tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit first Dennis Lillee and then Rod Hogg before finally securing the services of another Australian for 1980. As a taster they did have Mick Malone for a couple of Championship matches at the end of the 1979 summer and he promised much for the future, 18 wickets at 10.61 being just the sort of return that a county expected from its overseas bowler. In the event when he was available for the following summer he was no more effective than Croft had been.

Once peace had returned to the world of cricket the game, particularly in Australia, was in need of a financial boost so for 1979/80 the full strength of Australia had simultaneous three Test series scheduled against both England and West Indies. The first match was against West Indies, and the visitors then took it in turns to play the hosts. Mike Brearley’s 1978/79 England tourists had won the Ashes 5-1, but a year later had no answer to Greg Chappell’s side and lost all three Tests. The contests against the West Indians were rather different.

The first of the three matches was drawn, West Indies taking a substantial first innings lead before some fine batting by Chappell and Kim Hughes rescued the Australians as a placid pitch drew the West Indies sting. Moving on to the MCG for the second Test there was a crushing ten wicket victory for West Indies the unrelenting pace attack of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft sharing the twenty wickets between them. They did the same in Adelaide, winning by the small matter of 408 runs. Croft’s contribution to the series was 16 wickets at 23.62. His average was slightly inferior to those of Holding and Garner, but he was his team’s leading wicket taker.

From Australia the West Indians moved on to New Zealand where, to the amazement of all save a few die hard Kiwis, they lost a three match series 1-0. It was to be their last series defeat for fifteen years and was a controversial one, Croft being involved in one of the big talking points as the West Indians sportsmanship was placed under the spotlight.

The match that gave New Zealand victory was the first, in Dunedin, and the margin of victory just a single wicket. Lloyd won the toss and, probably wrongly, chose to bat. Keeping the ball well up and making the most of the conditions the New Zealand attack, inevitably led by Richard Hadlee, dismissed the West Indians for 140. When their turn came the West Indians dished out a bumper helping of short bowling to the home batsmen who batted bravely and eventually took a lead of 109. Had they learned the lesson that Hadlee taught them about how to bowl in the conditions they were faced with it would doubtless have been a good deal fewer.

In West Indies second innings Desi Haynes made a fine century to go with his 55 in the first but no one followed his example and the New Zealand victory target was just 104. There was an unsavoury incident early on when Holding, after having a confident appeal for a catch at the wicket rejected, wandered down to the striker’s end and flattened two of the stumps in that famous kick, the force of which is superbly captured in a well known photograph and which today would doubtless have brought Holding a lengthy ban. In that series however it was simply one of what became a collection of displays of open dissent. After Holding’s display of petulance West Indies did reduce New Zealand to 54-7, but in an ill-tempered finale the last pair scraped home.

In the second Test it was Croft’s turn to show the nasty side of his character. Again the West Indians were unhappy at the standard of the umpiring and, as the New Zealanders accumulated a first innings total that would put them beyond defeat, the real trouble started just before the tea interval on the third day as an appeal for a catch at the wicket from New Zealand captain Geoff Howarth was turned down.

The West Indians refused to resume the game unless umpire Fred Goodall was replaced, although they were persuaded to take the field twelve minutes late not least by Howarth assuring Lloyd that he would instruct all his batsmen to walk. When there was a similar appeal, Howarth again staying put and getting the benefit of the doubt the West Indians bowled a barrage of bouncers amidst a deliberate and obvious slowing down of the game. They did not expect to resume the match after the rest day which was scheduled to follow.

After considerable diplomacy however the West Indians were again persuaded to return, and before long another appeal for a catch behind the wicket was turned down as Croft beat Hadlee’s bat. Croft let Goodall know what he thought of him and in his next over delivered a series of bouncers at Hadlee and was no balled by umpire Goodall. Clearly angry Croft flicked off the bails as he walked back to his mark and then, as he approached the wicket for his next delivery, simply barged Goodall out of his way. Not unnaturally Goodall wanted to speak to Lloyd about the incident, and the West Indian captain did not cover himself in glory by standing firm at slip thereby forcing Goodall to come to him.

In the end the New Zealanders, who had been expected to be cannon fodder for the West Indians, thoroughly deserved the draws they secured after their frantic victory in the first Test but the sour taste remained. For the forthcoming tour of England the rather more decisive Clyde Walcott was installed as manager, and clauses introduced into players contracts about their behaviour. Croft’s return in New Zealand was ten wickets at 26.40.

The West Indians, including Croft, have all subsequently accepted that their behaviour was unacceptable, although at the same time have maintained their complaints about the umpiring. Croft has always denied the shoulder charge was deliberate however, stating that he had lost his run up and that the contact was simply an unfortunate result of his unusual action. Howarth for one has always questioned that, but Goodall did not subsequently gain himself much sympathy with some of his comments about the incident some of which were interpreted as being racist. The incident can be seen on youtube and readers can make up their own minds as to whether they are prepared to give Croft the benefit of the doubt, or whether his actions amounted to a deliberate or reckless assault on Goodall

In England in 1980 Croft had a disappointing time and, with a young Malcolm Marshall in the party, one fine fast bowler was going to miss out. For the first Test an injury to Croft made the decision for the selectors. He was brought back at the expense of Marshall for the second Test, and for the only time in his 27 Test career bowled badly, failing to take a wicket and conceding 101 runs. Unsurprisingly he was dropped in favour of Marshall for the third Test before injury freed up a place for him in the last two when he bowled much better. He ended up with nine wickets at 34.00 which, after his travails at Lord’s was a creditable comeback.

By 1980/81 Sylvester Clarke was another top class fast bowler to have emerged from the Caribbean but, with Roberts coming to the end of his reign and niggling injuries providing a natural rotation Croft played in all eight of West Indies Tests, four in Pakistan and, the Guyanese government forcing the cancellation of their Test by refusing a visa to Robin Jackman, four at home against England.

There was no Roberts in Pakistan but he was not missed. Despite the grassless pitches that were prepared the West Indies pacemen were as effective as ever. Croft took 17 wickets at 17.76, more than Garner, Marshall, Holding or Clarke, albeit at a marginally higher cost than Clarke paid for his 14. The West Indians won the second Test, and were never in great difficulty in any of the other three, all of which were drawn.

Against England the situation was much the same. Croft took 24 wickets at 18.95 to be the leading West Indies wicket taker. Going into the final Test he had 21 at 13 and it was only the decisions made by Graham Gooch in the first innings and David Gower in the second to take him on that rather marred his series. Before that he had been superb and 5-40 in the first innings of the first Test and his match haul of 7-104 in the third Test were major contributions to his side’s two victories. His second best Test figures, 6-74 came in the fourth Test with only Peter Willey’s second Test century preventing his figures being even more impressive.

Not yet 30 Croft should by this time have been at the peak of his powers, but his next and, as things turned out, last Test series was very different to those that had gone before. The destination was Australia for a three match contest but, this time, the Australians held Lloyd’s men to a 1-1 draw thanks to an innings of exactly 100 by Hughes in the first Test that even the curmudgeonly Croft later acknowledged to be the best played against him. Holding was magnificent all series, but Croft fell away completely his series bringing him just seven wickets at 51.57. With neither Roberts or even Garner bowling as well as in the past Lloyd was no doubt pleased just to avoid defeat.

In 1982 Croft was back in England, and once more playing for Lancashire. This caused some controversy in particular amongst the strong League fraternity in the county. In 1979, following his last unsuccessful stint with Lancashire, Croft had signed for the Central Lancashire League side Royton. He had bowled well and the club had been challenging for the title when, with a month of the season left, he broke his contract and walked out never to return and was banned from the League as a result. The League’s protests fell on deaf ears however as Lancashire found themselves compromised by a change in the regulations regarding overseas player. They wanted to play Lloyd for the season, but to achieve that could only play a second overseas player whose registration they already held and, never having cancelled Croft’s, he suddenly became a much more valuable proposition.

Sadly for Lancashire injury meant Croft missed the second half of the summer, but his performance in the first half, 33 wickets at 30.39, suggested that not a lot had changed and that 1982 summer was just about the last knockings of Croft’s career. His back problems would not go away although he had surgery and, eventually, was persuaded by Ali Bacher to join the second, 1983/84, West Indian rebel tour to South Africa. Injury meant his Test career was probably over anyway, and there is no doubt from comments that he has made since that Croft, understandably, resented the meagre rewards which the West Indian stars of his time played for and was attracted by the $30,000 he received for the trip. On the other hand he went with his eyes wide open, having seen the ferocity of the reaction to the first rebels a year previously.

One famous incident involving Croft on the tour was an occasion when he was ejected from a whites only train carriage despite having the status of an honorary white. One white South African intervened on his behalf and both of them pointedly had to travel the rest of the journey in the third class compartment. The government was embarrassed, Croft must have had much to think about, and two years later he wrote to the United Nations acknowledging that his belief that sport and politics should not be mixed was wrong. His name was subsequently removed from the UN blacklist that it had been added to as a result of his participation in the tour.

By then Croft’s career was over and he had relocated to the USA. An intelligent man he had qualified as a teacher in 1971, a job he turned to briefly between 2007 and 2008 at a school in Berkshire. He later qualified as a pilot, having worked in air traffic control, but best known has been his work in the media. Never a man to hold back his views are brutally honest, a fine example being one quoted by Ian Botham, the subject of Croft’s comment being the 1994 version of Angus Fraser; his bowling is like firing at F-16 fighters with slingshots. Even if they hit no damage would be done. Like an old horse he should be put out to pasture.

Another interesting quote from Croft is about his own game; My purpose was to get people out. The batsmen were never my friends. I never even talked to some of my teammates, never mind the opposition. Cricket at the highest level is not a joke. It is my job. If a batsmen gets a hundred, it means that two things have happened – he has batted exceptionally well and/or I have not done the damn job they have selected me for. It is simple as that.

Colin Croft seems not to have been a particularly popular man amongst his peers nor for most who remember the cricket of the 1970s, but there are a few of us left who can recall that early evening at Old Trafford on 4 June 1977, and for us Croft has always been a reet good lad.

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