In the first of a new series as part of AOC’s Golden Summers section in association with Wisden, Richard H Thomas looks back on the sweltering summer of ‘76 and the carnage inflicted by some cricketing behemoths from the Caribbean.
In 1975 my sister was born – it was quite the biggest shock in all my 13 years. The domestic disruption, however, did not distract me from that summer’s main business, which was the inaugural World Cup, followed by the Ashes. There were memories aplenty: Gavaskar’s 36* in 60 overs; Sri Lanka giving Australia a fright despite Jeff Thomson’s chin music and Gary Gilmour’s one-man show against England. Then there was David Steele, the vandalised pitch and the streaker. Without a doubt though, the team of 1975 was the World Cup-winning West Indies, and the home series against them in 1976 promised everything.
Hardly weakened by Rohan Kanhai’s retirement, the West Indies brought with them the smouldering Vivian Richards and the tall, lithe Michael Holding. Cricket aside, Jim Callaghan became prime minister, and Save Your Kisses For Me became the Song for Europe. Perhaps with post-Eurovision euphoria clouding his judgement, England skipper Tony Greig clumsily promised to make the tourists “grovel”.
It was an insensitive way for a white South African to describe a West Indian cricket team. As the visitors fell just short of 500 in their first innings of the opening Test at Nottingham, the only ones bowing and scraping were the English bowlers. The imperious Richards was everything neutral spectators had hoped, and everything England had dreaded. His 232, suggested Wisden Almanack editor Norman Preston, “overshadowed everything else” as England batted out the draw thanks to 39-year-old John Edrich and 45-year-old Brian Close, who had been playing Test matches three years before Richards was born.
Back in school, we had a new cricket coach. Teachers had only recently dispensed with gowns and mortar boards, so imagine our joy when he turned up in a tracksuit with bags of revolutionary ideas to improve our cricket, like net practice and nicknames. Better still, he believed everyone was good at something. “Venus never drops high ones,” he shouted, thumping one into the clouds. “Thank goodness for Tosh in a run chase,” he suggested cheerily when, at 17-8, Tosh waddled in wearing oversized pads. Such were his persuasive powers, when I lurked at backstop directly behind the keeper I believed I was the only man on Earth capable of patrolling such a critical zone.
In early summer, his immortality was assured when he took us to the Lord’s Test. Imagine a contemporary teacher taking 15 teenage boys to London on public transport; the risk assessments and insurance disclaimers alone would fill a small warehouse. The noise and excitement of a Friday at Lord’s mitigated the disappointment that Richards wasn’t playing, and we saw the whole of the West Indies’ first innings. Even in an under-par 182, Gordon Greenidge (84) and Clive Lloyd (50) did enough to show us that Richards wasn’t the only one who could bat.
On the way home, I had my first taste of alcohol. In a glorious summer of playing and watching, beer was the final element of the cricketing trinity. From his seat a few rows in front, Coach reacted to the snap of ring-pulls with a raised eyebrow which said, “Take it steady and I’ll pretend it’s not happening”. The statute of limitations has surely expired; in any case, we admired him too much to overdo it. Besides, it was too hot for high-jinks.
Alongside empty reservoirs and 15 consecutive days of 90°F heat, confirmation it was officially sweltering came when for the first time in almost 200 years, MCC members were allowed in the pavilion without jackets. Elsewhere, snowploughs sprayed sand on to roads to counteract bubbling asphalt. The Times reported that plagues of aphids were being eaten by plagues of ladybirds, which were now feeding on human beings. People fried eggs on pavements. As drought gripped, we were urged to “bathe with a friend”. The BBC suggested a shower would save water. “A shower?” asked Graeme Archer in The Telegraph in 2012. “Even then,” he suggests, “the BBC was little more than a conduit for metropolitan privilege.”
Back at the cricket, the carnage had started. Richards returned for Old Trafford and, helped by an outfield like glass, weighed in with a century to supplement the efforts of Greenidge, who passed three figures in both innings. There was still no sign of West Indian grovelling as England perished to the tune of 425 runs, despite resistance from Edrich and Close against some of the most venomous fast bowling ever seen. While others of their vintage were spraying their roses or laying patios, they spent that Saturday evening trying to avoid decapitation on live television. Nil-one. England had a sniff after a spirited first innings at Leeds, thanks to centuries from Greig and Alan Knott. The visitors were skittled for 196 in the second innings, but more heroics from Greig weren’t enough. Nil-two.
A nil-three drubbing was inevitable when a brilliant, relentless 291 from Richards contributed to 687-8 declared on scorched earth at The Oval. England brought back Dennis Amiss and a gutsy 203 suggested the roughing up by the Aussies in 1974/75 was now behind him. The headlines, though, were taken by Holding‘s 14-149. At the time, it was the 14th-best analysis in 99 years of Test cricket, but there’d never been a silkier performance of destructive fast bowling by a better athlete.
Shortly afterwards, the heavens opened, the minister for drought was rechristened minister for floods, and the sort of summer Graeme Archer suggests children deserve to experience at least once was gone.
The West Indies cricket team of 1976 were the best I’ve ever seen and the best I expect to see. Hopefully the gods of Caribbean cricket will give us something like them again. It seems like yesterday, but it wasn’t; baby sister is now an energetic senior manager with a husband and some rabbits. In the 38 cricket seasons since, there’s never been a hotter or more memorable one, for me at least.
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