In the summer of 1972, before the Ashes series, the first computerised Test match was played between English and Australian teams selected from the post-War Ashes greats. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the simulated event which involved real life TMS commentary highlights, expert analysis, renowned statisticians, newspaper reports and interviews of the major performers.
It is common knowledge that after one of the perennial London drizzles on a murky June day of 1972, 25-year-old Bob Massie walked out on his debut and routed the English batting with eight wickets in each innings of the Lord’s Test.
What is not so well known is that a few days earlier that very month, England and Australia met at Lord’s for a landmark Test played between the greatest Post-War Ashes heroes — the first Test match simulated in the virtual world.
A dream showdown took place amidst a lot of interest and fanfare and for a few days hard-core cricket fans were dazzled by the shining stars from the different universes of statistics, computers, broadcasting, as well as celebrated glitterati of the noble game.
Yes, 1972 was much before the laptop age. Computers were few and restricted to the premises of major companies. The game was played out on two Univac 1108s costing £ 3 million each, in a huge room in the offices of the BP House in London. The event marked the celebration of 25 years of Ashes Tests after World War Two.
A brainwave of the BBC, the idea was at first treated with scepticism. However, soon it had found an influential convert in Steve Bonarjee, BBC Editor (Radio), General Current Affairs. It was Bonarjee’s infectious enthusiasm that propelled the venture.
In the end, half-an-hour’s broadcast highlights were carried on air on five successive evenings, and every bulletin was concluded with fifteen minutes of expert analysis and interviews on Radio 4. The Sun carried detailed match reports on the following mornings.
The teams are selected
There could not have been a more illustrious selection panel for the England team. John Arlott and Brian Johnston put their heads together and were chaired by the great Neville Cardus. The Australian selectors were no lesser lights themselves. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Director of Sports Bernard Kerr performed the role of the chairman and the two other members were legendary broadcaster Alan McGilvray and the doyen of Australian cricket writing Ray Robinson.
The selectors met over dinner and discussed the teams till wee hours of the morning. The Test was to be played at Lord’s in early June, and the stipulation was that the teams had to be selected out of Post World War Two Ashes greats. Hence, the sides were tailored to requirements and some sublime pre-War men missed out. The great Wally Hammond did not make it, because his only post-War Ashes series had been a disaster in 1946-47.
One surprising selection was definitely the appointment of Trevor Bailey as the England captain. Bailey had never led the national side in his career. However, the choice was backed up with some sound reasoning by the selectors.
It was argued that but for his ghosted articles that had offended Gubby Allen, the then chairman of selectors and the supremo at Lord’s, Bailey would definitely have led England in Tests. Besides, listeners of Test Match Special (TMS) could vouch for his understanding of the game, supreme technical and tactical knowledge and uncanny ability to assess players. Len Hutton himself had rated ‘The Barnacle’ as the best strategic thinker in the England side.
Thus the teams were selected.
|Len Hutton||Arthur Morris|
|Geoff Boycott||Bobby Simpson|
|Peter May||Don Bradman (c)|
|Denis Compton||Neil Harvey|
|Colin Cowdrey||Lindsay Hassett|
|Trevor Bailey (c)||Keith Miller|
|Allan Knott (wk)||Richie Benaud|
|Johnny Wardle||Alan Davidson|
|Jim Laker||Ray Lindwall|
|Fred Trueman||Wally Grout (wk)|
|Alec Bedser||Bill Johnston|
Of course, this was 1972. Hence one cannot expect Greg Chappell or Dennis Lillee in the side. Neither was Bob Willis, a big enough name at that time, nor would Ian Botham come into the reckoning for another several years. However, when BBC announced the names, there were a number of callers astonished at the omission of Ken Barrington, Frank Tyson, Brian Statham and Tony Lock. Australians were not that shocked, although there were advocates of Sid Barnes, Gil Langley and Don Tallon.
The captains arrive
Both the captains had to be present for thematch, to take on field decisions as the match progressed. Bailey was game, but Don Bradman had other commitments and could not fly to London. He nominated Alan Davidson as his deputy and the great all-rounder boarded the flight to take the reins of the side. Thus, both the teams were led by all-rounders who had never captained their countries in their playing careers.
The simulation programs were developed using sophisticated algorithms. Dr Maurice Kendall was a legendary statistician who has lent his name to the Kendall-tau rank correlation technique. He was an author of several seminal books on statistics, had occupied the chair of statistics at the London School of Economics and was later knighted for his contribution to the subject. He was also a keen cricket enthusiast. He was approached by BBC for the venture and eagerly agreed to lend his expertise. John Poston of Scientific Control Systems was another leading statistician with computer programming background who came onboard. Poston became the consultant in charge of the operation of the program and helped the two captains whenever necessary.
The next recruit was TMS scorer Bill Frindall. He was commissioned to supply Kendall and Poston with detailed statistics of the 22 selected players, especially the numbers of the England-Australia Tests. Kendall provided the requirements to Frindall and they were many. The figures of the batsmen had to be split into first and second innings scores, with distributions of their performances in bands of 10 runs, their modes of dismissals, main scoring strokes and the type of bowlers who dismissed them. The bowlers’ economy rates, maiden over frequencies, wicket taking patterns, break, swing and way of dismissing batsmen were also generated. The climatic conditions under which they performed were also tabulated and taken into consideration. Frindall spent a whopping 180 hours preparing the data.
With the statistical distributions drawn up on the data by Kendall, Poston programmed the system. The Meteorological Office supplied the average schedule of the weather for five days of early June in London NW8.
The program had to generate results that helped ball by ball radio commentary. Hence, the outputs of a particular ball was detailed, something in the lines of: “Ball one — Lindwall to Compton, short outside off-stump, away-swing, square cut, one run.”
There were other factors that were fed into the simulator. A new ball aided a fast bowler. With more overs bowled, a bowler’s effectiveness wore off. At the start of a new spell, he would be refreshed again.
The captains could employ five variations of field placings, ranging from very attacking to very defensive. They could instruct batsmen to bat normally, defend or take risks as the situation demanded. They could also ask the batsman to shield the tail-ender if necessary.
And of course, captains could change bowling, modify batting orders and declare the innings.
The outcome of each ball was printed out, and formed the basis of the commentary at the end of the day. The synthetic broadcasts were provided by John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Norman Yardley. The engineers provided adequate effects in the background — generating sounds imitating the bat hitting the ball, applause and appeal. On Johnston’s insistence, the team also produced the effect of an aircraft passing overhead.
The Met Office projected heavy atmosphere and rain. It made things complicated. The wicket would be severely difficult in the early hours. Davidson toyed with the idea of putting England into bat, but then, like the adage goes, took first strike after a lot of thought. Alec Bedser and Fred Trueman had the ideal conditions to bowl with the new ball on a pitch made fresh by 20 minutes of rain.
The major surprise was the 44th delivery of the match when Bedser bowled Bradman first ball. It did seem extraordinarily counter-intuitive given the great man’s freakish record — he averaged nearly 85 in the two post-War series versus England. However, on closer analysis, there was plenty of data that showed how Bedser had got Bradman’s wicket in five successive Tests, twice for a duck, once off the first ball the great man faced. It had been at Adelaide when a similar late in-swinger, as simulated by the computer, had done The Don in.
In the end, Australia were helped by their batting that ran deep. Some resistance by Richie Benaud and Grout from the lower order raised their total to 192. By the end of the day, Hutton and Geoff Boycott had survived 11 testing overs from Ray Lindwall, Davidson and Keith Miller, scoring just three runs.
But, the next morning, there was more rain. England were done in by the wicket and some excellent bowling. Lindwall picked up five, Miller four and Davidson one as the hosts were bundled for 80.
In the second innings, after Morris had hit one back to Trueman, Bradman took the match away from England with his usual fluent scoring with Simpson playing the sheet anchor at the other end. The 131-run second-wicket partnership proved to be the deciding factor.
Laker bowled The Don towards the end of the second day for a scintillating 79, and Trueman picked up four second innings wickets to augment his four in the first innings. But, Australia’s 273 in the second innings meant a steep target of 386 to win in the fourth knock. And although the wicket became easier with time and Compton played a superb innings of 95 not out, Lindwall’s second five-for in the match sealed the issue.
Australia thus emerged victorious by 142 runs. Given that till then, 66 post-War Tests had been played between the two countries and Australia had won 23 of them to England’s 13, it was quite an expected result.
Down the years, the match has been replayed using more sophisticated technologies, with the same players and simulating similar conditions. The results have remained more or less identical.
Was England compromised by selection? Would John Snow have been a better option, especially after his recent Ashes-winning performance in the 1970-71 tour? But, then, the selection of Bailey was perhaps inevitable, given the dearth of all-rounders produced by the country. The captain did little of note in the match, but leading the country for the first time is never easy. Perhaps even the two Univac 1108s knew that.
The match was played out over 12 hours. The two captains were fully absorbed, hooked to the game, while Frindall painstakingly constructed his scoring charts. Davidson interestingly opted to open the bowling in the first innings alongside Lindwall, relegating Miller to No 3. However, in the second innings, Miller was back sharing the new ball with his long-time partner. We will never know whether this change was prompted by Miller’s four first innings wickets or a colourful cable dispatched from Australia. Davidson also promoted Benaud ahead of him in the batting order in the second innings.
Interestingly, Knott gave away quite a few byes in the match — but presumably the condition of the wicket made keeping difficult.
After commentary highlights each evening, the day’s play was also analysed by Arlott, Cardus, Johnston and they even interviewed players who had played stellar roles. So, Ray Lindwall, who took 10 wickets in the match, spoke to the panel on phone from a florist’s shop in Brisbane, discussing the techniques of the batsmen he had exploited. “Boycott tended to commit himself into a stroke too early, and as I swung the ball away late, I would expect to have him caught behind or bowl him off stump.”
|Australia 1st Innings||2nd Innings|
|AR Morris||c Knott b Bedser||15||c and b Trueman||8|
|RB Simpson||b Bedser||5||c Hutton b Trueman||67|
|*DG Bradman||b Bedser||0||b Laker||79|
|AL Hassett||b Trueman||30||(5)c Laker b Wardle||24|
|RN Harvey||c Compton b Trueman||37||(6) b Laker||23|
|KR Miller||c Knott b Trueman||4||(7) c Wardle b Laker||15|
|AK Davidson||b Laker||11||(9) b Bedser||14|
|R Benaud||b Trueman||53||(8) b Laker||4|
|RR Lindwall||b Laker||4||(10) c May b Bedser||12|
|+AW Grout||c Knott b Trueman||25||(11) not out||7|
|WA Johnston||not out||1||(4) c Knott b Trueman||10|
|Extras||(B5, LB 2)||7||(B6, LB 2, NB 2)||10|
|Fall of Wkts:||1/14, 2/14, 3/23, 4/81, 5/87, 6/102, 7/122, 8/144, 9/191, 10/192||1/10, 2/141, 3/169, 4/173, 5/219, 6/219, 7/236, 8/244, 9/258, 10/273|
|England 1st Innings||2nd Innings|
|LHutton||c Johnstonb Miller||11||c Simpson b Lindwall||26|
|G Boycott||b Lindwall||0||c Harvey b Lindwall||14|
|PBH May||c Morris b Davidson||13||b Davidson||2|
|DCS Compton||b Lindwall||0||not out||95|
|MC Cowdrey||b Lindwall||0||c Simpson b Miller||13|
|*TE Bailey||b Miller||14||b Lindwall||0|
|+APE Knott||b Lindwall||2||(8) c Harvey b Davidson||24|
|AV Bedser||c Johnston b Miller||7||(7) b Miller||13|
|JH Wardle||not out||16||c Johnston b Miller||22|
|FS Trueman||c Morris b Miller||5||b Lindwall||2|
|JC Laker||b Miller||1||c Grout b Lindwall||20|
|Extras||(W3, NB 8)||11||(B 1, LB 2, W6, NB 4)||13|
|Fall of Wkts:||1/14, 2/14, 3/23, 4/81, 5/41, 6/47, 7/52, 8/64, 9/78, 10/80||1/37, 2/46, 3/36, 4/95, 5/97, 6/126, 7/165, 8/209, 9/220, 10/244|
| End of Day Scores:
Day One: Eng (1) 3-0 (Hutton 3, Boycott 0)
Day Two: Aus (2) 142-2 (Simpson 53, Johnston 0)
Day Three: Eng (2) 36-0 (Hutton 26, Boycott 7)
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)