Richard H Thomas on cricket’s most notorious plates of meat.
According to the masterful Trinidadian scholar CLR James, cricket is played all in the mind. Using rather gendered language (this was before it occurred to anyone that women might like to play the game), he wrote that for a bowler, “ultimate greatness” is “in his head”, and for a batsman, his innings is played “more in his head than on the pitch”. Gender politics aside, he has a point, but the success of both batters and bowlers also relies on the efficiency of the two limbs at the opposite end of the body – the feet.
For a while, the second day of the first Test between England and South Africa at Lord’s in 2017 was all about feet. Joe Root used his to dance down the track to Keshav Maharaj and be stumped, but the spinner unfortunately had put his right one in the wrong place, and the England skipper was reprieved. Earlier, Morne Morkel had also overstepped and Ben Stokes was called back to the crease like a man summoned back to the pub after leaving his phone on the bar. On both those occasions the cost was not enormous, but Jasprit Bumrah was less fortunate when he planted his front foot an inch or two too far down the track and induced a knick from Fakhar Zaman in the ICC Champions Trophy Final. Dhoni took the chance of course, but it was to no avail and the Pakistani cashed in with an additional 111 runs. As Suni Gavaskar reflected ruefully to NDTV, despite Bumrah bowling “quite superbly throughout the tournament”, that no ball is what “he will be remembered for” mainly because “it was against Pakistan”.
Pakistan of course, have had their own trouble with feet landing in the wrong spot. At Lord’s in 2010, no balls by Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif had massive ramifications. “In isolation, they amount to nothing, for three runs in a total of 446 is trivial” reported Andrew Miller, but so began a spot-betting storm that threatened the very credibility of cricket at the highest level. The match – which England won at a canter – was “stripped of innocence” and “dribbled to an awful and ignominious conclusion” in Miller’s words. But more widely, “anyone who believes in the magic of hero worship and the joy of escapism was dragged into the gutter as well”. And all because of where two bowlers had put their feet.
Even when there are no sinister undercurrents whatsoever, overstepping can still be very vexing. When Curtly Ambrose rocked up to Perth in 1997, he was no doubt relishing the prospect. Four years earlier, he had, after all, sent seven Aussie batsman back to the hutch in 32 balls, for one run. He probably imagined, with some justification, that this pitch was made for him. And he wasn’t necessarily wrong, because it was the run up that caused all the grief. One of his overs included nine no balls and lasted 15 minutes. He overstepped another six times in the next over and didn’t look best pleased about it all.
The front foot no ball rule has prevailed since 1962. Before that, it was all about where your back foot landed, the change having been made to eliminate the dragging of the back boot that enabled quick bowlers to deliver the ball while close enough to inspect the little hairs up a batsman’s nose. Ian Chappell – never one to shirk a controversial issue – is a strong advocate for a return to the old back foot rule. Among the positive side effects he suggests, are earlier calls enabling the batsmen to change their shots, an improvement in over rates and a greater chance for umpires to concentrate on the “business end” of the pitch to make important calls. It all seems common sense reflects Chappell, but “the problem with common sense is it’s not that common.”
When it comes to batting according to the late Martin Crowe, “there is one vital thing – footwork”. It was Bradman, claims Crowe, who “better than anyone, showed that fast, efficient foot movements that facilitated getting into the correct body position was the key to batting”. A trip to the Lord’s museum might leave you staggered at the size of Bradman’s boots, and logically, the feet that lived within them. There will have been prima ballerinas with bigger plates of meat than the Aussie champion. Barry Richards and Suni Gavaskar were others famed for their footwork. Richie Benaud suggests that one of the reasons Sachin Tendulkar stayed at the top of the batting tree for so long was because his footwork was “close to flawless”. One of the most surprising descriptions of daintiness at the crease comes from Shoaib Akhtar about his old skipper Inzamam-ul-Haq. “Speed” and “Inzi” are not often to be found in the same sentence. Rohan Kanhai, wrote Ashley Mallet, had “film star looks and was the most handsome of batsmen”, having been “born with a gift of swift footwork”. Perhaps we can conclude that no successful batsman has ever achieved anything brilliant while rooted to the spot. Apart of course, from Virender Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist.
For bowlers, so long as you plant them in the right place, seemingly any sort of feet will do a decent job. Some bowlers for example, were just born with whoppers. Take Maurice Tate: “along with Sydney Barnes and Alec Bedser” reports Paul Weaver, Tate is remembered as “one of England’s finest fast-medium operators”. He was “a big man, maybe 15 stone, with broad shoulders” writes Stephen Bates, before adding that Tate had “huge feet”. Indeed, Justin Parkinson says that Tate’s feet were so significantly enormous that they were the subject of a music-hall song. Lyrics? Sorry, no joy so far but I’d pay good money to read them.
By some peculiar podiatric quirk, two of the most distinctive pairs of cricketing feet in history were often seen on the field at the same time. The 1970s were up-and-down years for English Test cricket, but Derek Underwood and Tony Greig were right in the middle of everything. Underwood was described by Jon Hotten as having “the look of a distracted Oxford don”, and if ever spotted walking along the street, one would have imagined that he’d never heard of cricket, let alone played it. The look was completed, writes Hotten with “a severe forehead, and a few combed over stands”. The flat-footed gait though, was only funny if you were watching from the stands. Geoffrey Boycott – another Test colleague of that era – described Underwood as having “the face of a choirboy, the demeanour of a civil servant, and the ruthlessness of a rat catcher”. And he caught plenty in his traps.
In fact, by the late 1960s wrote Tony Lewis, “Underwood was confirmed as the outstanding slow bowler in England”. It was a position he held until he retired. Bowing at the medium side of slow off a brisk 10-yard trot, Arunabha Sengupta reports that Underwood’s line was “painstakingly accurate, the speed brisk, and the length unhittable” and if he ever bowled a bad ball, “the mortification remained etched on his face”.
While most of Underwood’s remembered heroics involved damp or drying wickets, Derek Pringle points out that in 16 Tests played on the dustbowls of India, he took 54 wickets at an average of 26.5 and remains England’s most successful ever spinner. “Whatever the weather, whatever the day” writes Jon Hotten, Underwood “had the ball for it”. Tony Greig was Underwood’s skipper on one of those tours to India, in 1975/76. In every way the tall, blond haired, dashing and outspoken Greig was everything Underwood wasn’t. While the Kent spinner’s feet pointed outward to different continents, Greig was so pigeon-toed his feet almost touched each other at their tips.
Although his gangling frame suggested “possible limitations”, wrote David Frith, Greig “turned his dimensions to his advantage” as his batting power was “instantly obvious”. Furthermore, his fielding “could be spectacular” and as a bowler, “he delivered from a great height and at a fair pace” with the additional option of some “potent off-spinners”. “He was never a great cricketer”, but was always “a great competitor” wrote Scyld Berry, but perhaps most importantly of all, according to Berry, Greig “changed cricket for everybody as we know it” as “the game suddenly leaped forward and players started to get paid more substantial amounts”. When he became Kerry Packer’s first lieutenant, many thought Greig had signed a pact with the devil; few would deny that what he was actually doing was what Chris Maume described as ushering cricket “into the modern era of fully fledged, handsomely paid professionalism”. When Greig gave the Spirit of Cricket Lecture at Lord’s a few months before his death in 2012, David Frith concluded that it represented his “redemption in the eyes of cricket’s establishment”.
Surely though, the greatest cricketing feet belonged to Fred Titmus. On England’s tour of the West Indies in 1967/68, his career was almost ended after an accidental encounter with the propeller of a speedboat. Martin Williamson reported that while relaxing in the Caribbean sea, the Middlesex spinner’s foot slid under the boat and after “a bang”, he thought he’d cut his foot. “As he lifted his leg out of the water” wrote Williamson, “the seriousness of what had happened hit home. His foot had gone into the propeller. Two toes had been sliced straight off and two others were hanging on by the skin alone.”
Skipper Colin Cowdrey (whose wife had been driving the speedboat), Robin Hobbs, Denis Compton and Brian Johnston used a beach chair as temporary stretcher, and raced Titmus to hospital in Bridgetown. Fortunately, reported the Telegraph, “there was a Canadian surgeon nearby, who was roused from his sunbathing” to make good the bloody mess, creating “a sort of flap with what remained of the four toes”.
Williamson notes that only eight weeks later, Titmus played a warm-up match against a British Army XI in Germany, and followed an innings of 63 with 6-44. He took 111 wickets in the season that followed, and finished top of the Middlesex batting averages. In all, he scored 21,588 first-class runs and took 2,830 first-class wickets – about eight good county careers in today’s terms. Famed for his longevity within the game, Titmus was selected to tour Australia in 1974/75 at the age of 42, and as Berry reports, his final Middlesex wickets came in late 1982 when Mike Brearley saw pipe smoke coming from Middlesex’s dressing-room “and decided he needed a third spinner”. In borrowed kit, 49-year Titmus took 3-43 to win the match. His appearance meant that he had played cricket in five decades, having first turned his arm over for Middlesex in 1949. He even had a song named after him, albeit F**kin ‘ell it’s Fred Titmus never got any serious radio airtime for obvious reasons. Half Man Half Biscuit singer Nigel Blackwell admits that the suggested encounter with the Middlesex stalwart was purely fictitious, and that he’d never met Titmus, “let alone greeted him in such an overfamiliar way”.
As John Woodcock concluded, the “remarkable” story of Titmus was one of “good doctoring, good luck and irrepressible spirit.” Perhaps too, it shows that feet might not be so important after all – look at the career you can have even when part of one is completely missing. Maybe cricket is played in the head after all.