A 1996 portrait of Tom Graveney, then 69 © Getty Images
A 1996 portrait of Tom Graveney, then 69 © Getty Images

Tom Graveney, born June 16, 1927, was one of the most elegant and graceful batsmen to play for England.  Arunabha Sengupta remembers the man who enjoyed the best part of his career after being recalled to the England side to face Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith at the age of 39.

“Heh, Graveney, haven’t they got a pension scheme in this country?”

The comment was hurled from the crowd by a West Indian spectator as the 39-year-old Tom Graveney retrieved a ball from the outfield. For the supremely stylish Gloucestershire batsman these taunts were hardly unexpected. What had indeed been out of the blue was the sudden recall to the English cricket team, after Lance Gibbs had spun them to submission in the first Test at Manchester.

Graveney had believed that he had played his last game for England three and half years ago. He had appeared 55 Tests in all till the end of the Australian tour of 1962-63. Just 116 runs in three Tests Down Under got him the axe on return. A pity, because the West Indians visited England in the summer of 1963 and the elegant stroke-maker always feasted on the Caribbean attack.

His record in those 55 Tests had been decent — 3107 runs at 41.98 with six hundred. But Graveney knew that he had left the initial promise largely unfulfilled. When he had emerged as a tall, slightly-built youngster for Gloucestershire, the delights of his driving had sent old timers on a delicious nostalgic spree. Obvious parallels had been drawn with the recently-retired Gloucestershire great Wally Hammond. The front foot play of young Graveney almost echoed the celebrated willow-work of the great Hammond, and like the old master, he was a scratch golfer as well.

However, with time, Graveney’s batting enthralled and frustrated in equal proportions. His twirly backlift, the booming strokes and the flourish at the end of the cover drive gladdened many a heart, but, as Frank Keating put it “the batsmanship of Our Tom was of the orchard rather than the forest, blossom susceptible to frost but breathing in the sunshine.” His successes were many and laced with elegance and grace, but punctuated by ordinary efforts when England needed him most.

The Ashes failure hurt — it was the fifth time that he had played a series against the arch rivals, and apart from a dogged century under the hawk like eyes of skipper Len Hutton, he had never succeeded against them. When he was omitt

Tom Graveney (seated second from right) with the England Test team at Trent Bridge in 1968 © Getty Images
Tom Graveney (seated second from right) with the England Test team at Trent Bridge in 1968 © Getty Images

ed from the side Graveney resigned himself to spending the rest of his cricketing days on far-flung county grounds. And suddenly at 39, he was asked to go out there and face the thunderbolts sent down by Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith.

 

The second coming

And Graveney delivered in style. He fully believed that he had been the best batsman in England between 1962 and 1966, ‘not that what I though really mattered.’ And now, at this advanced age he came out at No 3 and played a majestic innings of 96. The drives through the off and forcing shots towards the on were as crunchy and effortless as ever. Even when Hall or Griffith sent one rearing for his eyebrow, he plonked his left foot down the pitch hooked them with élan off the front-foot. In later years, only Viv Richards showed the same inclination to play the hook shot without rocking on to the back-foot.

The Lord’s effort was not a residual flash in the old pan. In the following Test at Nottingham, he blasted 11 fours and a six to score 109, rescuing the England innings from 13 for three, and adding 168 with Colin Cowdrey. It could not prevent West Indies from winning, but Graveney was not done yet. In the final Test at The Oval he was absolutely regal in his brilliance. He spent six hours at the crease, once again reviving England from yet another collapse. From 166 for seven, he put on 217 with wicketkeeper John Murray before being run out for 165. It was a breath-taking effort and won England the Test match. Graveney was back in the forefront of cricket and the entire world basked in the glory of this second coming.

English batsmen Tom Graveney (left) and John Murray leave the pitch at The Oval, after a record unbroken 8th wicket partnership of 164 runs in a Test match against the West Indies. The Englishmen are applauded by the West Indies players, led by captain Gary Sobers (right) and Wes Hall (behind Sobers) © Getty Images
English batsmen Tom Graveney (left) and John Murray leave the pitch at The Oval, after a record unbroken 8th wicket partnership of 164 runs in a Test match against the West Indies. The Englishmen are applauded by the West Indies players, led by captain Gary Sobers (right) and Wes Hall (behind Sobers) © Getty Images

The following summer, against India at Lord’s, Graveney constructed another masterpiece –151 against —Bishan Bedi, Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and Erapalli Prasanna. The New Year of 1968 rang in with the Queen awarding him the OBE. He rejoiced by creaming another 118 against his favourite West Indies attack in Port-of-Spain — a century he considers his best ever. He was in the islands as the vice-captain to Colin Cowdrey.

That summer, the Australians were back for another Ashes tussle. Graveney did not really pile runs in the same vein, but given the hard times earlier in his career, he did quite well. Alan Connolly bowled him for 96 at Edgbaston. And in the final Test at The Oval he scored a thoughtful 63 before Derek Underwood bowled England to that incredible win after the outfield had looked like marshland on the final day. In the fourth Test at Leeds, in the absence of Cowdrey, he led England for the first time.

A few months shy of 42, Graveney scored 105 at Karachi, putting together a rollicking partnership with Colin Milburn. He was seriously considered as a candidate for captaincy, but finally the selectors opted for Ray Illingworth. Finally, with his favourite West Indians visiting again in 1969, he started off with 75 well compiled runs at Manchester in an innings win.

From the day of his unexpected recall, Graveney had scored 1775 in 24 Tests at 49.30 with five hundreds. The second phase of his career soared to the heights that the first had always promised but never really scaled.

The unfortunate exit

Yet, Graveney knew that his purple patch would not last forever. Time was busy breathing down his neck and his days were numbered. And to secure his future, he travelled down to Luton during rest day of the Manchester Test, to take part in a match between Tom Graveney XI and Bobby Simpson XI. It was played for his benefit, and earned him £1000.

This triggered the problem that ensured his final dismal departure from Test cricket. Nine months earlier, Graveney had expressed his desire to play in the match to the chairman of selectors Alec Bedser and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) secretary Billy Griffith. Bedser had been vague, “I don’t know I will be a selector then.” And Griffith had been non-committal.

Nine days before the Old Trafford Test, Graveney had been informed by Bedser that he could not take part in the game at Luton. The graceful batsman had answered that financially he could not afford to miss the event and had advised the selector to keep him out of the side if they could not grant him permission to play. He had been included and had interpreted it as permission to appear in Luton.

However, he was wrong. On the morning of the match, Bedser informed him that Luton was out of question. When Graveney protested, Bedser promised to call the organiser of the match, the millionaire who owned the Luton Town FC —Tony Hunt. Unfortunately, Hunt was in hospital and hence unavailable.

Graveney had no option but to go down to Luton and play the game, returning to the team hotel in Manchester at midnight. The following morning witnessed Graveney’s 42nd birthday and marked three years of his recall to the England side. At beakfast Bedser informed the batsman that he was reporting him to the disciplinary committee. The Test and County Cricket Board banned him for three Tests. Graveney never played for England again.

“It was a miserable way to finish,” he reflected later.

Beyond the tally

The final figures of Graveney read 4882 runs in 79 Tests with 11 centuries, the average hauled up to 44.38 by his late revival. It could indeed have been better, if his cricketing days had not ended this abruptly, or if he had not – as some of the selectors in the fifties maintained — “treated Test cricket like festival matches” in his earlier days.

But, one of the joys of watching Tom Graveney bat was the unrestrained zest with which — as a youngster — he matched Denis Compton stroke for stroke and later held his own while batting alongside such masters of stroke-play as Peter May and Colin Cowdrey. His relish for attacking play may have been too genial, too light-hearted, but they brought people to the grounds in hordes — even in the dull post-War days of fifties and sixties that led many to lament, “Should we ration our runs too?”

Even when out of the England side, he continued to enchant crowds every summer, first for Gloucestershire and then crossing the border to Worcester, where, according to Keating, “the mellow architecture of his glorious strokeplay matched the resplendence of the ancient cathedral.”

He was there to enjoy and entertain and did it the way he knew best. Be it hitting balls straight down the ground as if on the adjoining golf links, or hooking Ray Lindwall and Wes Hall off the front foot. “It is a miracle I was not killed,” he said many years later.

The first steps

Graveney heralded from Northumberland, born into a family steeped in the flavour of sports. His father was enthusiastic about all ball games but sadly passed away when the future England batsman was only six.  His brother Ken, father of future county cricketer and England’s chairman of selectors David Graveney, was the first to get into the Gloucestershire side as a medium-pacer.

Graveney postponed a career in accountancy to join the army and served in Greece and Egypt. It was in Egypt that he played a lot of cricket on matting wickets that perfected his front foot game. When he returned to England, Ken Graveney introduced him to the Gloucestershire county officials, saying, “This is my younger brother. I can’t get a ball past him.”

Graveney’s initial days for Gloucestershire, starting 1948, were full of the exciting promise of stepping into the spirit of Wally Hammond. He also became the Henbury club champion in golf, but the county coach advised him to temporarily abandon the other sport to tighten his back-play.

The youngster was blooded in the Manchester Test against South Africa in 1951, when Denis Compton missed the match after being hit on the foot by a full toss. “It must have been the only full toss he missed in his career,” Graveney used to joke later. The debutant scored just 15 but impressed with his technique on an awkward wicket. He made it to the side to tour India that winter.

A severe bout of dysentery hit him when he was in Delhi, and it resulted in his missing the first Test match. At the second in Bombay, he ‘felt and looked like a skeleton’ as he walked into bat. Every half hour he took a pint of water and a salt tablet. There must have been a virtual ocean frothing about inside him by the time he finished, for he batted eight hours against Vinoo Mankad, Lala Amarnath and Sadu Shinde to score 175. It remained the highest score by an English batsman in India for quarter of a century before Dennis Amiss made 179 in 1976.

Fits and starts

The scores, however, remained fluctuating and inconsistent. And as the years rolled by, Graveney did not really go out of his way to please the people in power.

In an interview to The Independent  Graveney recalled his first tour to the West Indies: “We lost the first Test at Sabina Park, and the second at the Kensington Oval. The Navy were in at the time, and we had a bit of a party at the Barbados Yacht Club, where this bloke walked up to me and said, ‘You’ll never be any good until you stop [Trevor] Bailey, Evans and Compton drinking’. I gave him a suitable reply, but he happened to be staying with the Governor General, and the next day Len Hutton and [player-manager] Charlie Palmer were up at Government House trying to stop me being sent home.”

Another bloomer he confesses to making was to beat Gubby Allen at golf. He was supposedly never quite the blue-eyed boy after this display of audacity.

It was during his first Australian tour that he fell into the bad books of Hutton as well. Off the very third ball in his second innings of the second Test, he tried to drive Bill Johnston and nicked a catch to Gil Langley. It made Hutton decide that he was not yet cut out for the tough world of Test cricket. Although the captain later used his own methods to groom him, this was a stigma that would dog him for the entire first half of his career. He was dropped for the third and fourth Tests. At the last minute, after toss of the fifth Test at Sydney, Hutton informed him that he was to open the innings. “Put your pads on, Tom, and come in with me”. Till then he had no idea that he was even playing in the match. Graveney scored 111, his only Ashes century.

His career progressed sketchily, with an odd spate of runs amidst a number of insipid performances. He got a taste of wicketkeeping too when Godfrey Evans broke his finger in two places during the Old Trafford Test against South Africa in 1955. Graveney had scored a duck in the first innings and had dropped a few in the slips, when captain Peter May handed him the gloves saying, “You might as well keep wicket”. The first ball he caught was an express from Frank Tyson. Since then the middle knuckle of his little finger does not work anymore — the digit can be bent back all the way to almost horizontal.

His rather ordinary form saw him miss the first Test at Edgbaston against the West Indies in 1957, and he scored a duck in the second at Lord’s. He was almost certain to be dropped in the third game at Trent Bridge when vice-captain Doug Insole, who had struggled to pick Sonny Ramadhin all through the summer, asked the selectors not to include him in the side if the mystery spinner was in the fray. Hence, Graveney was handed what looked like his last chance to establish himself as an England batsman. He batted almost eight hours to score 258.

He followed it up with 164 at The Oval to cement his place in the side.

Tom Graveney on his way to an innings of 164 at The Oval against the West Indies © Getty Images
Tom Graveney on his way to an innings of 164 at The Oval against the West Indies © Getty Images

Yet, his performances remained inconsistent, and for the next five and a half years, his only two hundreds came against a limited Pakistan attack in 1962. After the Ashes of 1962-63, he was not persisted with. At 36, Graveney had every reason to believe that he had played his last for England.

The style and the man

He continued to play for Worcestershire, fully believing that he was the best batsman in England. Against Northamtonshire in 1964, he bottom-edged an attempted pull off David Larter, and as the ball bounced over short-leg, he scampered a single to bring up his hundredth hundred in First-Class cricket. It was not the ideal way to get to the landmark for someone considered the most graceful post-War batsman for England before David Gower, but there would be 22 more centuries, five of them impeccably scored for England following his triumphant return to the top level.

Three years of county cricket followed the unfortunate Luton incident, before Graveney left the game for good. Cricket writer JM Kilburn wrote of him: “In an age preoccupied by accountancy, he has given the game warmth and colour and inspiration far beyond the tally of the scorebook.”

Graveney continued to spend his time on the green fields, although hitting a stationary ball. At the age of 57, he finished fourth in a national long driving contest. He played for many years with a handicap of one, and once appeared in a televised match alongside Johnny Miller against Nick Faldo and Henry Cooper.

Graveney became chairman of MCC in 2004 and was inducted into the International Cricket Council Hall of Fame in 2009. Those who watched him in his prime, especially in impressionable years, swear by the grandeur and grace of his batting. As Christopher Martin-Jenkins wrote in 1997, “All opinions are subjective, but in his long career [1948 to 1972], I believe truly that there was no more elegant or charming batsman.”

Tom Graveney (right) of England is inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame by ICC President David Morgan during Day Two of the npower 1st Ashes Test at the SWALEC Stadium on July 9, 2009 in Cardiff, Wales © Getty Images
Tom Graveney (right) of England is inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame by ICC President David Morgan during Day Two of the npower 1st Ashes Test at the SWALEC Stadium on July 9, 2009 in Cardiff, Wales © Getty Images

(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://twitter.com/senantix)