KnottyMartin Chandler |
At this distance in time I am unable to recall who England were playing at the time, where the game was, or who the batsman or bowler involved were. But I do remember the commentator, Jim Laker, temporarily deserting the unruffled and laconic style that I and every other cricket follower of my generation had grown up with. The reason was that it seemed that Alan Knott, standing back to a seamer, had put down a catch. The bowler, batsmen, fielders and umpires all looked confused. Laker clearly struggled with the concept as his comment was along the lines of Looking at the players’ faces I believe Knott may have put one down, but he didn’t seem convinced, and neither was I. Then, after the seemingly interminable wait for the slow-motion replay, he was forced to concede that the batsman seemed to have had a remarkable stroke of good fortune.
In those far-off days of the early 1970s television pictures were nothing like they are today. Now high definition pictures and instant replays at whatever speed the commentary team desire give players nowhere to hide. In the days of just one fixed camera, so that half the time the batsman obscured the armchair spectator’s view of the wicketkeeper anyway, those charged with the pleasureable duty of describing the play were always circumspect in their criticism be it of players or umpires. The whole incident was of itself eminently forgettable, in the context of a game of cricket that has clearly not been able to park itself in my memory, but the concept of Knotty dropping a catch was so bizarre that I clearly remember the delivery itself, and Laker’s reaction to it, to this day.
For me and most who had the pleasure of watching Knott ply his trade when he was at the peak of his powers he was the finest wicketkeeper in the game, but my elders and betters weren’t quite so sure at the time, and nor were some of Knott’s contemporaries. In fact the man himself, when asked, would shuffle around uncomfortably before laughing off the suggestion that he was even the best stumper then available to England, but then that view couldn’t be taken seriously, as Knott was nothing if not self-effacing.
The truth of course is not quite so straightforward as simply coming up with a verdict as to who is the best, because wicketkeepers aren’t all the same, and have slightly different approaches to the game. In some ways they even have different skill sets, although in truth mind-sets might be the better phrase. The question that was asked back in the 70s was whether Knott was a better wicketkeeper than his deputy, Derbyshire’s Bob Taylor, in the same way that a generation before the same discussions took place involving Knott’s Kent predecessor Godfrey Evans, and his final understudy, Northamptonshire’s Keith Andrew. The fashion always seemed to be to acknowledge that Taylor and Andrew were better ‘keepers, whose inferior batting kept them behind Knott and Evans in the pecking order.
Inevitably the next comparison made was that between Evans and Knott, and there were several, most notably Colin Cowdrey, who played extensively with both. Although he was therefore perfectly placed to make a judgment, Cowdrey was never one to indulge in such comparisons of teammates, but when it came to publishing his autobiography he had little choice but to tackle the issue. He ducked it as well he did the bumpers that Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall greeted him with in his debut Test back in 1954 writing I do not see how anyone could be better than Godfrey Evans was on his day, and I can pay no higher compliment to Alan Knott when I say there are many days when he is clearly as good
Evans and Knott, the former in particular were, unlike Taylor and Andrew, showmen. Both, but particularly Evans, would raise their game on the international stage, and both thought nothing of throwing themselves spectacularly after the ball, arguably on occasions unnecessarily. But both were also very different in their approach to the job. Those that wax lyrical about Evans normally do so on the basis of the fact that he stood up to all but the fastest bowling, and his keeping to Alec Bedser is always the example cited. The very same Bedser, when a Test selector, always preferred Knott over Taylor but would complain at the fact that Knott stood back to almost all medium pacers, and he was particularly critical of his doing so to the distinctly easy-paced Bob Woolmer.
But there was no lack of skill on Knott’s part, as anyone who saw him keeping to his Kent and England colleague Derek Underwood would have to acknowledge. Underwood was, the history books will tell you, an orthodox left arm spinner. That said just about the only orthodox thing about him was that he employed finger spin. He was close to medium pace and on a rain affected wicket could be all but unplayable. The ball that spun sharply from Underwood, or skidded through or jumped up was always taken beautifully by Knott, and I don’t ever recall a catch going down from “Deadly”, or for that matter a missed stumping.
The truth is that Knott’s view was that he was better employed standing back and catching everything, rather than coming forward and missing a few. He noted that for all the rheumy-eyed reminiscing there were only ever three men stumped off Bedser in Tests. Knott was at his best when throwing himself into that no-man’s land that exists between ‘keeper and first slip or, as he was perfectly capable of doing, suddenly changing direction and flinging himself down the legside and coming up with a miraculous catch from an inside edge. Knott also reasoned, and no one could criticise him for this given the limited financial rewards that were available in his time, that he was much less likely to get injured standing back. On a similar tack Knott was at the vanguard of a revolution in glove design as larger, more heavily padded gauntlets came into vogue, as well as the webbing that makes a modern wicketkeeping glove look more like a baseball mitt than anything I saw in a kit bag as a child.
The 40 over John Player’s Sunday League began in 1969 and the 55 over Benson and Hedges Cup in 1972. The 60 over Gillette Cup had started in 1963 and the perceived wisdom of the time was that spin bowling had no real place in the one day game, and swing and seam were the dominant bowling styles. The Knott era coincided with the advent of covered wickets as well, and the slow spinner seemed for a while to be in terminal decline. These factors helped to cause the art of wicketkeeping to change, and a generation was to pass before ‘keepers started to regularly go back up to the stumps when quicker bowlers were operating.
The fact that Knott had so many imitators was helped by his individuality. He was never still, constantly going through carefully worked out calisthenic exercise routines between deliveries. And it wasn’t just on the pitch that Knott’s preparation was so intense. He showered and changed at every interval, and followed a strict dietary regime that involved copious amounts of fruit and milk. He always wore a floppy hat, had his shirt collar turned up to prevent his neck getting sunburnt and, to protect his elbows, always kept his shirt sleeves buttoned down.
And then there was Knott’s batting. Fearless improvisation was the order of the day, a man for a crisis if ever there was one. His ability to frustrate the opposition bowlers and fielders was almost as important a part of his game as the runs he scored. He also managed to combine the grit and determination needed to shut up shop in a crisis, with the equally valuable ability to score runs in a hurry when they were needed. All this was achieved with a highly individual technique that certainly wasn’t in any coaching manual, but which suited Knott perfectly. The cornerstone of the final version of that technique was an unorthodox grip in which the palm of his top hand, rather than the back of it, pointed down the pitch towards the bowler. The effect of this was that he relied largely on his bottom hand for the power in his shots. He was a superb cutter of the ball, and his speed on his feet, like a featherweight boxer, made him a fine player of spin, and his placement of his onside shots usually found the gaps in the field. His most memorable strokes however were those where he dabbed at short fast off side deliveries to lift them over the waiting slip cordon. In those pre 20/20 days few played the shot, but for Knott it was a rich source of runs.
When, at 16, Knott first played for Kent’s junior sides he was selected as a promising batsman and off spinner. At that time the county had two of Evans’ long-standing understudies, Derek Ufton and Tony Catt, and the county were much more interested in boosting their limited spin bowling options than signing another wicketkeeper. It was only when Ufton decided at the end of the 1962 season to concentrate on his soccer career that a vacancy arose, and in 1964 Knott got his chance and played in Kent’s last eight games of the season. As Catt went off to South Africa in the close season Knott unexpectedly became Kent’s first choice ‘keeper, a position he then held right through to his retirement at the end of the 1985 season.
By the end of Knott’s first full summer in 1965 it was clear where his career was going. Wisden spoke of his magnificent form both behind the stumps and with the bat, one particular effort in a match in which Kent were in dire straits being described as an innings worthy of a master.
In the mid 60s England’s selectors were faced with a common dilemma. Their choice lay between a top quality stumper, Middlesex’s John Murray, or a competent wicketkeeper who could also play as a frontline batsman, Sussex’s Jim Parks. To make their decisions more difficult Parks had a disappointing record with the bat in home Tests, averaging just 23, whereas when overseas his average was north of 40. In 1967 Murray got the nod for the three home Tests against India, but a pair in the first Test against Pakistan, who were visiting in the second half of the summer, brought Knott a Test debut and, with seven catches in a comfortable England victory, he saw off Murray to secure, at 21, a place in the touring party to the Caribbean that winter.
His past successes overseas, including in the West Indies, meant that Parks played in the first three Tests that winter, but injury and loss of form brought Knott in for the fourth Test. It is a famous match, made memorable by Gary Sobers’ ill-judged declaration that gave England the only definite result in the series, but it should not be forgotten that Knott played a crucial role with the bat. After West Indies began with 526 England were still less than half way towards that total when Knott joined skipper Cowdrey at the fall of the fifth wicket. They added 113 before Cowdrey was dismissed, and after that Knott shepherded the tail for 31 more precious runs before being left unbeaten on 69. In the fifth Test Sobers very nearly atoned for his mistake in the previous match. That he did not was due to Knott, firstly with Cowdrey again, this time from 41-5, and then with the tail, making an unbeaten 73 in just shy of four and a half hours in order to deny West Indies.
In 1969 West Indies were England’s opponents again, for a three Test series in the first half of the summer. The home side won the first and last Tests with the second left drawn, but it was largely down to Knott that the final Test was won. The game was played on a green wicket at Headingley in overcast conditions, which meant that England did well to muster 223 and 240 after batting first. Knott, in obdurate nudging and nurdling mode, eked out innings of 44 and 31 to make a major contribution. West Indies first innings was just 161. Although the visitors’ victory target of 303 would comfortably have been the highest score of the match, when their turn came to bat again the pitch had flattened out and the sun greeted them. They got to 219-3, just 84 short with Basil Butcher on 91, Clive Lloyd just settled in, and Sobers to come. Then Knott caught Butcher off Underwood. One writer described the chance as a brute of a low catch and went on Knott dropped his gloves like a mongoose grabbing a rattlesnake. Sobers almost immediately fell into a trap of Ray Illingworth’s making and once, a few minutes later, Knott held another fine catch to dismiss Lloyd, the course of the game was changed irrevocably.
The highlight of Knott’s career was, as for most who made the trip, the 1970/71 Ashes series where the urn was regained on Australian soil by Illingworth’s side for the first time since Douglas Jardine in the famous Bodyline series of 1932/33. It wasn’t Knott’s best series with the bat. He kept getting starts but only once passed 50. He still averaged more than 30 however and his 24 victims behind the stumps were crucial. Illingworth wrote later he is certainly the best wicket-keeper I have ever seen …… and his top-class keeping was a major factor in our winning the Ashes. Illingworth, in common with all Yorkshiremen, is not given to hyperbole, and he played with or against all the great keepers of the post World War 2 era, including Taylor, Evans and Andrew.
My first vivid memory of Alan Knott’s batting comes from the next Ashes series, in England in 1972. Prior to the final Test it had not been his best series with bat but, despite having Denis Lillee and the mercurial Bob Massie in their attack, Australia went to the Oval 2-1 down. Batting had been difficult all summer, particularly for England as not a single century was scored by an Englishman in any of the five Tests and the Australians, probably deservedly, managed to square the series. In the defeat Knott scored 92 and 63. This was not however the unorthodox defensive Knott. This was the version who was looking to score at every opportunity. No bowler I have ever seen has swung the ball as far as Massie did in 1972 and Knott took him to pieces. In an innings which would have left all the coaches in the land shaking their heads with disapproval the inswingers were dispatched through the covers, and the outswingers hoisted over midwicket. Knott spent 224 minutes at the crease altogether for his 155 runs, so it was harum scarum stuff, but wonderful entertainment.
At this stage of his career Knott’s batting tailed off markedly, and he started to struggle against the quicker bowlers. It was no lack of courage on his part but the 1973 West Indian quicks in particular had targetted him with short pitched deliveries and hit him regularly. After two Tests of the return series in the Caribbean that winter further failures caused Knotty to fear for his place and, after some experimentation, he decided to adopt the unusual grip on the bat that I have already referred to. He also opened up his stance. The effect was immediate as he scored half centuries in his next three innings. The new style also helped Knott to a personal triumph amidst the disaster that befell England when they encountered Lillee again, this time with Jeff Thomson, in 1974/75. Time and again Knott and Tony Greig were all that stood between England and total disarray. There was nothing either man could do to stop the Australian juggernaut rolling over their side, but three fifties and a century from Knott represented some sort of riposte, and were fully appreciated by the Australian crowd who, despite his many successes against them, always respected him. To further underline his quality in the face of adversity going into the final Test Knott headed England’s batting averages. He richly deserved to do so at the end, but typically of the man he failed to fill his boots against the anodyne Australian attack, shorn of its twin terrors, that his teammates gorged themselves on to gain a comprehensive consolation victory.
Lillee and Thomson were not quite so effective in 1975, and David Steele emerged from nowhere to blunt their threat, but Knott too played his part as he averaged more than 37 and scored two important fifties. In 1976 Greig’s team famously failed to make the first of the great West Indian pace packs grovel, and for three Tests Knott struggled along with the others. That English batting salvaged some pride at the end of the series was in no small part due to the century and two fifties that he made in the final two Tests.
In 1977 it was back to the Ashes, although England’s convincing 3-0 win was rather overshadowed by the breaking news of World Series Cricket, and Knott was one of the four Englishmen, along with Greig, Underwood and John Snow, who signed up. In the ensuing furore and litigation Knott’s Test place was lost and it was to be 1980 before, against West Indies, he regained it. His wicketkeeping was as polished as ever, but he failed miserably with the bat and for the final Test was replaced by David Bairstow who was not, with the greatest of respect to one of the game’s more memorable characters, in the same league as Knott as a ‘keeper and, when the latter was in his pomp, was not as good a batsman either.
So Knott missed the 1980/81 trip to the Caribbean, where neither former Kent teammate Paul Downton nor Bairstow made the place their own, and after Downton and Taylor failed to make any impression with the bat in the first four Tests of Botham’s Ashes Knotty came back for what was to prove to be one last hurrah at the age of 35. His batting was not what it had been, but nonetheless he finally managed to finish an Ashes series at the top of the England averages, scoring a half century in each of the fifth and sixth Tests. His international career might conceivably have gone on for a little longer, and in particular he might have ended up with a century of Test appearances rather than the 95 he managed, but he knew the end was near and in 1981 he opted for security for his family rather than a personal milestone and he went to South Africa with Graham Gooch’s rebels, and the consequent ban saw off any possibility of his wearing the three lions again.
After he came back from the Cape Knott played on for Kent until the end of the 1985 season and then enjoyed a varied career coaching, broadcasting and analysing the game. In 2009 he was inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame at a special ceremony at Lord’s. The only other wicketkeepers to share that honour are Rod Marsh and Sir Clyde Walcott, and I don’t believe that anyone would really seek to argue that either were ever in the same class as Knotty as a ‘keeper, let alone better. Do I still think he is the best there has been? Much as I respect Illingworth’s views I would not ordinarily be concerned about disagreeing with him. But I am not going to ignore the evidence of my own eyes, even if I was a callow youth at the time. So no, I do agree with Illy and am happy to declare that I do not believe there has ever been a better wicketkeeper than Alan Knott.