Picca and other surprise quick tour picks
My obsession with cricket was relatively fresh when Picca broke into international cricket. And the manner of his breaking into the team excited me and so still defines him for me. He was picked for the 1979/80 tour of Australia and India as a twenty-year old, with just one full season of first-class experience. He was supposed to be fast and I conjured with the idea of how good he could be and might become if he was deemed ready to play Australia after so little grown-up cricket. The notion of an England bowler with ‘raw pace’ was thrilling.
Dilley stands, in the time of my cricket consciousness, at the head of a line of bold or optimistic tour selections of inexperienced but possibly destructive England fast bowlers. The inspiration, the whisper in the selection committee’s ear, is from an earlier generation. Frank Tyson, taken to Australia in 1954/55 with Fred Trueman left at home, had been a first-class cricketer for the same length of time as Dilley before his selection. Tyson was the decisive factor in the Ashes campaign, taking 28 wickets at 20, decking and bruising as many Australians as he dismissed. Tyson, though, wasn’t a pure example of the ‘surprise quick tour pick’, as he had made his Test debut in the final test of the English summer against Pakistan. His career, however, followed a pattern of injury and frustrated come-back, emulated if not surpassed by most of the later sqtp’s.
Twenty-five years after Tyson’s Ashes, Graham Dilley was selected. In the next twenty years, England made six more surprise quick tour picks. Why the increasing willingness to gamble on untested pace bowlers?
The West Indies provide the answer. Their quick bowling made them the most successful international team through the late 70s, 80s and into the 90s. England needed pace to compete. Touring with large parties (16 players) gave them the opportunity to have a flyer on a relative unknown. Series in Australia and West Indies, where wickets were traditionally, if not in actual fact, quick provided further motivation.
The six that followed:
Norman Cowans: selected for the 1982/83 Ashes tour, aged 21 and with 43 first class wickets in the locker. Cowans shone in the three run victory at Melbourne, taking 6-77 as Border narrowly failed to guide the Australia tail to their target. His test career, never a regular, was over in less than four years.
Greg Thomas: six years, a stress fracture of his back and 30 wickets for Glamorgan in 1985 made a questionable case for his inclusion in the team to tour West Indies in 1985/86. Wisden recorded that he had it in him to be England’s spearhead, but he only played five tests and suffered more injuries.
Phil DeFreitas: at 20, DeFreitas was a part of the ‘unit’ that undid Australia in the 1986/87 Ashes. The selectors’ gamble with a young player paid off, although his career didn’t develop as this debut series promised that it might.
Ricardo Ellcock: eight years and 40 matches after his first-class debut, Ellcock was chosen to tour the West Indies in 1989/90. He never made the tour, as he was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the back, and barely played cricket again.
Ashley Cowan: his selection for the 1997/98 tour of West Indies, sits at the intersection of two of the England tour selectors’ favoured routes: sqtp and response to a stand-out performance in the Gillette/NatWest Cup Final. Cowan took one wicket on tour, without appearing in an international. He never reappeared for England and struggled with injury for much of a ten year career.
Alex Tudor: chosen for the 1998/99 Ashes Tour ahead of Andy Caddick, Tudor had experienced bowlers ahead of him and bowled well when his chance came at Perth. His England highlight came the next summer – batting as nightwatchman, making 99* against New Zealand – before injuries and poor form kept him out of England contention.
Young bowlers, without solid county careers behind them, continue to break into the England team on tour and at home. Finn, Shazad, Bresnan in recent years. Dernbach and Meaker may follow. These promotions, in keeping with England’s thoroughness, are more calculated and certainly at this time of plenty, feel much less speculative, or even desperate, than the decisions that brought Dilley and his followers to the fore.