The snail-paced Ashes series of 1964 was forgettable to most who saw it, but not Stephen Brenkley, whose love for the game was inspired by the immovable Ken Barrington.
First published in 2017
By common consent the fourth Test of the 1964 Ashes series was a turgid disgrace. Not in our house, it wasn’t. We watched the match when we could, we listened to it, we thought about it. During it and for weeks afterwards we played it again and then replayed it.
It was the week, the long week, when Ken Barrington confirmed the place he still occupies in my consciousness along with a few others such as Derek Underwood, Tony Greig, Alan Knott and modern heroes who will go unmentioned to spare all our blushes. Not a week goes by – in truth, it may be more like a day – when Kenny and his chums from Old Trafford do not surface in the mind’s eye.
The match, which you may have tried to forget if you were around and never dwelled on for more than a glance at the scorebook if you were not, began on a hot Thursday in July. The sun shone almost throughout and by the following Tuesday, a draw, the only probable result from around lunch on the first day, was officially declared.
Australia, winning the toss for the only time in the series made 656-8 declared from 255.5 overs and England replied with 611 all out from 293.1, which left time only for two overs of the tourists’ second innings. Bobby Simpson made 311 for Australia, his first Test hundred at the 52nd attempt, still the longest wait for a specialist Australian batsman, and Barrington scored 256 for England, his first Test century at home, following nine abroad, at the 45th time of asking, a delay surpassed only by Mark Ramprakash’s 54 innings.
The sun also shone for the duration on the green at Reeth, the small village in Swaledale in the North Riding of Yorkshire where we lived then. The green was split, as it still is, into three sections. Unlike now, when cars are parked on the turf for much of the summer and small boys no longer automatically gravitate there with bat and ball and would be frowned on for doing so, we – my two brothers and three or four pals – played cricket there every day and night on two pitches which we had constructed by default.
Our preferred venue was across the cobbles directly opposite the Kings Arms Hotel which our parents owned and ran. They were perpetually busy in those high summer days, looking after the needs of residents at breakfast, providing high teas for the holidaymakers who were passing through and then looking after a busy bar and dining room in the evening. My brothers and I were left to our own devices and gladly so.
Sport dominated our young lives in Reeth but there was no question of playing anything other than cricket in high summer. My first concrete memory of big-time cricket is from 1961 when my mum, who loved it, lamented one afternoon in August. “May’s out for a duck, we’re in trouble now all right,” she told me. Not quite sure what she meant then, I now know it was the England captain Peter May being bowled by Richie Benaud second ball at the start of England’s collapse against Australia at Old Trafford. She was absolutely correct, we were in trouble all right.
Two years later, at Reeth’s annual summer show – still going now and this year’s will be the 105th – I entered the children’s fancy dress competition, dressed in flannels and swathed in bandages, as One of the Ruins that Charlie Grith Knocked About a Bit, in homage to the damage inflicted on England’s batsmen that 1963 summer by the West Indies fast bowler. It still rankles slightly that the outfit went unrewarded.
By the following summer, 1964 and another visit by the Aussies, cricket had started to become the first thing I thought of on waking up in the morning and the last thing on pulling over the bed covers at night. Over the 53 years since, that has not changed much.
The point for us was not really what was happening in Manchester, though we understood well enough that if Australia engineered a draw they would retain the Ashes because they had won the third Test in Leeds. The point for us was that we could re-enact the deeds of the players on our prized strip of turf. We had an old bat, which belonged to the village, a mixture of tennis and cork balls and beer crates from my dad’s cellar for stumps.
Although I rather fancied myself as a bowler in those days – and indeed still spend the winters’ dreams working on a mystery ball that will bamboozle all batsmen and lead to Test selection overnight – it was Barrington I was soon eager to emulate. After Australia batted, England were in the relatively parlous position of 126-2. Enter Barrington an hour before the close on the third day. We watched him until the end of play and then went out to the green to be him. Or that was the idea. I batted first, my elder brother, Alan, bowled, the younger, Peter, was behind the wicket. It might sound jolly decent of Al to have let his middle sibling go in first but he knew how it would turn out. It lasted for about six balls before the beer crate went tumbling over. His turn to bat.
He was still there when we were called in around 9pm. The following morning, we watched the Test for an hour and then went to the green. Al resumed his innings and eventually declared because he was thirsty. Kenny was showing no such inclination.
At the close of the fourth day, Barrington was 173 not out having lost Ted Dexter for 174 not long before, ending a partnership of 246. By then he was a god in my eyes, a status that has never really diminished. The Ashes were lost but that hardly mattered to an 11-year-old boy who was watching and feeling an Englishman bat and bat as though his life depended on it. The criticism being offered by the newspapers was of no significance.
That summer and that match played a huge part in forging enduring passions. We found we rather admired Worcestershire’s challenge in the Championship despite living where we did. Even then, it seemed something for a county to be winning the title for the first time. And they had Tom Graveney, another hero. Graveney scored more runs than any other batsman that summer including his 100th hundred. We wondered why he was not playing for England and were not alone.
It was Jim Standen, however, who exercised our attention as much as anyone. In May of that year Standen was West Ham’s goalkeeper when they won the FA Cup. Three weeks later he was in Worcestershire’s side as their first-change seam bowler. He was the leader of the Championship averages. For this all-round prowess, Standen harboured almost a similar place in my heart to Barrington.
At Cape Town in 2016 when Ben Stokes was plundering the South African bowlers and scoring the fastest 250 in all Tests, I thought longingly of Barrington, whose 250 remains the second slowest. It was an unfettered privilege to see Ben; it was part of life’s passage to watch and, for a little while on Reeth Green, to be Ken.
First published in 2017