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The Single-Wicket Game

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Keith Boyce, still the reigning single wicket champion after almost half a century

Single-wicket cricket is seldom played now, despite the explosion of T20 competitions demonstrating that there is a thriving market for bite-sized pieces of cricketing entertainment. In the game’s formative phase however the position was very different, and in the early years of the 19th century the format was very popular, so much so that its own set of laws were drawn up in 1831.

In those days single wicket meant anything from one against one up to five against five, so there were a number of possible permutations, but the basis of the game was that only those directly involved were on the field at any one time. So if it was one against one that meant no wicketkeeper and the bowler had to do all the fielding. Not surprisingly in those circumstances the laws of single wicket differed somewhat from the longer form of the game.

What was unchanged was that the two wickets were 22 yards apart. There was however an additional marking on the field, the ‘bounds’, which applied in all matches of fewer than five a side. These were lines that stretched for 22 yards from the crease in the directions of point and square leg. The purpose of the ‘bounds’ was to assist in judging a very different law, that being that the batsman could only score from a shot that went in front of the ‘bounds’. In addition the batsman couldn’t give the bowler the charge, as the laws obliged him to keep one foot anchored behind the crease.

In order to score a run the batsman not only had to get to the bowler’s end, but back again as well. So to all intents and purposes a single was in reality a two. Without a wicketkeeper or a fellow fielder to back up there were no overthrows or byes, and as soon as the bowler got the ball back to the pitch the batsman could run no more, and could not complete a run he had started unless he had already got to the bowler’s end. There were no boundaries, but as a clue to the quality of outfields the laws did give a batsman three for a lost ball, and in a nod to what was a significant issue at one time, a similar award if the bowler were foolish enough to use his hat in order to stop the ball.

There were no overs as such either, given that each four ball over was delivered by the same man, so of more relevance was the law allowing the bowler to take up to a minute between deliveries, important as he was having to do a great deal of fielding as well.

The apogee of single-wicket was reached in the years leading up to those laws being framed. The game could be dull to watch, but lent itself to betting, so there was often great interest however dour the play might become. After the codification the interest in the eleven a side game grew and within a few years that took over and the last great single-wicket battle took place in 1846. One of the combatants was The Lion of Kent, Alfred Mynn, the Ian Botham of his day, who bowled fast and hit long, ideally suited to single-wicket. His opponent was Nicholas Felix, a very fine batsman, but one whose strengths were the cuts and glances that could not be scored from in single-wicket, and whose lob bowling was little used in the game’s longer format.

The match was arranged for Lord’s and to bring in the crowds it was billed as a contest to find the ‘Champion of England’. Both players had two ‘given’ men to help in the field. Mynn bowled Felix in his first innings before he had scored, to which Mynn replied with five. It was the second innings that illustrated the problem with single-wicket for other than the purist, or those with a financial interest in the outcome. Mynn sent down 247 deliveries at Felix, who hit 175 of them, but most of his shots went ‘out of bounds’, so he scored just three which, with the single wide he got, was not enough to prevent an innings defeat. There was still sufficient interest for a well-attended return to be arranged for late September, won again by Mynn, but that was the last of the high profile single-wicket contests for more than a century.

By the early 1960s cricket was in trouble and drastic steps were taken in 1963. First the age old distinction between Gentlemen and Players went, and everyone simply became cricketers. The most significant change in the way the game was played was the introduction of limited overs cricket as the Gillette Cup began, and in a short time the mightiest of oaks was to grow from that particular acorn. The third part of the revolution was the introduction that year of a modern single-wicket competition.

The venue for the first Carling Black Label sponsored competition was Scarborough. There has been a cricket festival in the North Yorkshire resort since 1876, at the coastal town’s famous old ground at North Marine Road. The Festival was held at the end of the season, which led to some relaxed and entertaining cricket. A pattern had developed whereby there were three First Class fixtures, one involving the summer’s tourists against an Invitational XI, one between Yorkshire and the MCC and a match between the Gentlemen and the Players. With the abolition of the distiction between professional and amateur status in 1962 that had to go in 1963, and the two day single-wicket extravaganza was trialled to fill the gap together with a match between England and Young England.

There were 16 entrants. The competition was played under the normal Laws of Cricket. There were ten overs each per match with, inevitably, a few unusual playing conditions. The bowler changed ends after each over. There was no non-striker so there was also a line halfway down the pitch which, for the batsman, was a point of no return. He could only be run out at the end to which he was running. Two top class wicket keepers, Keith Andrew and John Murray, took turns with the gauntlets, and the nine fielders were made up of eight local club cricketers and one of the other competitors.

The obvious flaw in the format was with the vexed question how long it might take to get through the competition. With 15 matches there might be 300 overs involved which, with the best will in the world, would not be over in two days. At the other extreme there might only be 30 deliveries needed to get a winner. In fact the first innings combined took up just over 54 overs, and the second innings about 8 overs less. Interestingly there were only five matches in which the man batting second won, all in the first round of 8 matches. The man batting first won in all the other games. Two games lasted just the minimum two balls, another game just five, and only three went beyond a total of 60 deliveries, half the maximum available. The longest game lasted 97 deliveries, between West Indian all-rounder Tony White and England off-spinner David Allen.

There were some big names on show, but most fell at the first hurdle, Trevor Bailey, Fred Trueman, Brian Close and Colin Milburn being four men who the sponsors would rather have seen in the final than White and the man who took the trophy and first prize of GBP250 (around GBP5,000 at 2014 values), Somerset’s Ken Palmer. He was an all-rounder who played one Test in South Africa two years later, when he was called up during an injury crisis whilst on a coaching assignment. He is better remembered as an umpire who stood in 22 Test between 1978 and 1994.

There was a big change the following year as the competition, sponsored once more by Carling, moved forward to the end of July, and more than 200 miles south, to Lord’s. The format was also sightly different, the maximum duration of the games being reduced from 20 overs to 16. There were also rather more top names, but none of Garry Sobers, Richie Benaud or Colin Cowdrey got beyond the first round. Bailey, Trueman and Close, as in the inaugural year, crashed out at the first attempt again. The most interesting game was that involving Sobers, who was drawn against Peter Parfitt, undoubtedly the finest after-dinner speaker the game of cricket has produced and a batsman good enough to play for England 37 times and average 40. Against that background the fact that The Lion of Cricket failed to dismiss him, and that Parfitt scored as many of 60 from his 48 deliveries was not so improbable. That Parfitt’s part-time off breaks were not penetrative enough to dismiss the great man was no surprise, but the fact that he restricted him to just 47 runs so that Sobers lost by 13 most certainly was.

There had been some getting used to the format on the part of the players and the matches were consequently rather longer, the first innings in the first round matches taking up as many deliveries as those batting first had in the whole competition at Scarborough. Overall it was the lesser lights who once again did well, although Palmer did not pass the first round this time. In the second round Parfitt went out and it was another English seam bowling all-rounder, Essex’s Barry Knight, who won the day, beating the Burnopfield Basher, Milburn, by a single run.

In 1965 the winner was a 21 year old, albeit a man who had first played Test cricket more than six years previously. The mercurial Mushtaq Mohammad was completely dominant and was not dismissed at all. In the first round he used his full ration of 8 overs to score 56 before dismissing his countryman Saeed Ahmed for 31. In the quarter finals he quickly dispatched Rohan Kanhai for 3 and took just five deliveries to overhaul that. In the semi final Lancashire’s David Green, first round conqueror of Wes Hall, gave Mushy more of a test, scoring 36, but his military medium couldn’t prevent the eventual winner taking the tie with almost three overs to spare.

In the final Mushtaq batted first and battered Basil D’Oliveira’s gentle swing and seam for an unbeaten 76, including eleven fours and two sixes. One of the earliest exponents of the reverse sweep at one point towards the end of his innings Mushtaq delighted the crowd with a switch hit, almost half a century before Kevin Pietersen first deployed the shot. Dolly made a valiant attempt to make a game of it and was on 33 at the half way point of his innings when, sadly for the crowd, a superb catch at mid wicket intercepted a shot that seemed destined for the boundary.

Fred Titmus won in 1966, a year in which there was a delayed start due to damp weather. They still got through 17 matches in a day and a half, which saw 644 runs scored. If Mushtaq’s triumph the year before had been as a result of a little magic Titmus won by using his commonsense. His flat niggardly off spin meant that he was difficult to get away, and his batting was more thoughtful than explosive, exploiting the gaps in the field rather than going over the top. Against Geoffrey Boycott in the semi-final he spent his first four overs scoring 9, and then 47 in the other four. Boycs, who beat reigning champion Mushtaq on the way to his meeting with Titmus, was dismissed 7 short with an over left. The Middlsex man batted through his eight overs in the final too, for 42, and dismissed Australian Bob Cowper after three overs for a comfortable win.

In 1967 there was finally a win for a superstar as Sobers romped home. There was a new approach taken as in an effort to broaden the appeal of the competition. Each of the First Class counties was encouraged to hold their own version, with the winner of each travelling to Lord’s. To those 17 were added holder Titmus and six overseas stars; Sobers, Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, Neil Hawke, Majid Khan and Hanif Mohammad, Mushtaq’s older and, at that stage anyway, more distinguished brother.

There were fears that some of the comparitive unknowns produced by the counties would not prove good enough. A particular concern was Hampshire’s 18 year old David Turner, not yet established in the county side he had not taken a single First Class wicket and had only taken nine by the time he retired 22 years later. But Turner beat Hanif in his first match and experienced Kent all-rounder Alan Dixon in his second to fully justify his place.

As for Sobers he batted beautifully against Derek Richardson in the first round but those who wanted to see fireworks from the great man’s bat were largely disappointed as his bowling meant that he only had to score a total of 43 runs to defeat Titmus, Mike Buss of Sussex and his opponent in the final, Brian Edmeades of Essex. The bigger competition meant a bigger prize fund, Sobers picking up GBP500 for his efforts over the two days.

Sobers would certainly have started as favourite for the 1968 competition but, sadly, for the first time the weather meant that no cricket at all could be played. The cricket world was not however completely without the single wicket game as a tournament was played in Pakistan in August. It is, of course, possible in a single wicket match that the result is a tie. Between 1963 and 1967 it happened in England just once, a semi-final between Palmer and Ray Illingworth back in 1963. Remarkably the final in Pakistan, between Test player Ijaz Hussain and Mohammad Siddique, needed three attempts before Siddique managed to win after two ties. The tournament was not, as far as I am aware, repeated. A variation on the theme also took place in Australia, a double wicket competition. There was a sad end to that, Kenny Barrington in the dressing room at the MCG suffering the heart attack that was to spell the end of his illustrious career.

The last summer of the 1960s saw the seventh and last Charrington Breweries competition. Charrington was the parent company of Carling and the title of the tournament had changed in its third year. The reason why Charrington withdrew arose out of a change of ownership at the parent company. There was a reappraisal of the company’s policy over advertising and endorsements and, as interesting and well-attended as the competition had become, it was not sufficiently attractive for any other sponsor to be persuaded to take over. At least the tournament went out with a bang, a West Indian all-rounder lighting up Lord’s with a display as impressive as Mushtaq’s four years previously. But it wasn’t Sobers.

In 1969 Keith Boyce was not yet a Test player, and was perhaps fortunate to get a preliminary round opponent who only ever took one First Class wicket, the ‘small man of county cricket’, Lancashire’s Harry Pilling. In the first round proper however he defeated Sobers, comfortably, and did well to then overhaul Graham Roope’s 49, and 37 from Dudley Owen-Thomas to secure a place in the final with Brian Bolus. In a fitting climax to the last final he proceeded to record the highest score in the history of the competition, 84 and, as he then dismissed Bolus for just a single, the final game provided the biggest winning margin as well.

Since then there have been other attempts to rescue single-wicket cricket, but none have sparked a revival. I saw one in 1979, and a format that seemed a good one, but it never caught on. The date was 24 July, a Tuesday, and the protagonists were Ian Botham and Mike Procter who were competing for the sum of GBP1,000. The figure doesn’t sound like a great deal, and even now would only be worth around five times that amount, but bearing in mind that a whole season of Sunday League cricket brought the winning team a prize of just GBP5,500 in cricketing coin it was a tidy sum for a short day’s work.

The rules were, like the 1960s version, very similar to a normal game of cricket, with a wicketkeeper and nine fielders provided. One of those fielders, former Gloucestershire and England off-spinner David Allen, by then aged 43 and a few years retired, also bowled ten overs in each innings. No doubt this variation was brought in to attract the spectators, as it ensured that the two great pace bowlers could take a breather between overs and bowl at full tilt for their ten overs. And they were going to have to bowl them, the answer found to the problem of the two delivery game being that the batsman would carry on after dismissal, but would forfeit ten runs.

Procter batted first and tucked into his old teammate Allen, whose ten wicketless overs cost him 96. Botham, still just 23 and seemingly fired up conceded just 50, and dismissed his opponent once. Procter ended up on 146-1, so 137 was the youngster’s target. Botham gave Allen some fearful stick, taking 122 runs from him, but the wily old bowler had a five-fer amidst the carnage, so with his 66 runs for once out from Procter Botham still ended up nine short on 188-6 (128). The match went almost to the death. As Procter began the last over Botham was on 177-5, so it was a good job for the South African that he managed that single dismissal from the second ball of the over.

I enjoyed Procter vs Botham, and there were other such contests at around that time, but again the format never moved on. It is odd in many ways as the desire amongst cricket followers to debate whether Player X is better than Player Y is an enduring one, which shows no likelihood of going away, yet there is still insufficient interest to snare a sponsor to set up a single-wicket competition. I can only conclude that whatever people might like to argue about, the reality is that cricket is a team game, and that battles between individual players are fought only amongst the statsmongers and the zealots – the true cricket lover wants to watch eleven playing eleven.

Comments

Very interesting read. My local village team had a single-wicket competition from the late 1980s to around 15 years ago in memory of a young player who’d died in a tragic accident. I also saw a double-wicket tournament at Wembley Arena in 1978 or ’79, with pairs from most of the Test playing teams. I forget who won, but it’s almost certainly the only time I saw Derek Randall bowl.

Comment by stumpski | 12:00am BST 1 December 2014

We are considering a revival of single wicket competition along the lines of the silk cut challenge in the 80s but really struggling to find the rules of those events….can anyone help?

Comment by Glyn Davies | 5:05pm BST 20 September 2019

trying to find the rules of the silk cut challenge in the 80s…can anyone help ?

Comment by Glyn Davies | 5:06pm BST 20 September 2019

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