While writing the profiles of favourite cricketers of the 1970s, I found that almost all of them hailed from either the West Indies or Australia. However, while going through the results of the matches played during this decade, one finds that England was also a top drawer side for most part of this period. It was only when one started thinking about the top cricketers of England that the reason behind their ranking low on popularity charts became evident.
Most of the players from the original home of cricket were of the dull and dreary types, who might win matches, but would not bring crowds flocking to the venue. The two honourable exceptions to this general rule were Tony Greig, the South Africa born all-rounder, who led England for a brief period during the mid-70s and Alan Knott, the wicketkeeper, often hailed as the best in the world during those times.
Knott hailed from the county of Kent and made his entry into the world of Test cricket as a 21-year-old in 1967. He replaced the stylish John Murray, who had donned the big gloves for the country till then. Knott quickly proved his worth behind the stumps by his effective, if rather unconventional style of keeping. He also showed that he was a useful batman to have in the side by placing a very high price on his wicket and coming up with useful scores in tricky situations.
From 1967 till he left for Kerry Packer-led World Series Cricket (WSC) in 1977, Knott featured in 89 out of the 93 Tests that England played. Out of the four that he did not play, one match was where he stood aside to give an opportunity for his understudy Bob Taylor to take his place in a Test in New Zealand in 1971. This was done as a reward to Taylor for his sincere work during the long and arduous tour of Australia that preceded this match.
After his return from WSC, Knott played in six more Tests, with the last one being the sixth game of the series against Australia in the summer of 1981. Towards the end of his career he developed a strange reluctance to go on tours, due to which he did not play in any of the Test matches played outside England, after he returned from WSC.
There exists little doubt that Knott was the best wicketkeeper in the world during the 1970s and would remain one of the all-time greats who have donned the big gloves. It has been said of Knott that he belonged to that breed of keepers whose gloves dropped a ball once in a season and not once in a game. His work behind the stumps was the closest one could think of perfection when it came to the art of wicketkeeping.
Varied bowling attack
England could boast of a varied bowling attack during the duration of his career, which helped them to win the Ashes series in Australia during the the winter of 1970-71. They had the pace of John Snow and Bob Willis, the swing of Peter Lever, the fastish left-arm spin of Derek Underwood and the slow off spin of Ray Illingworth. However, Knott did not have any difficulties in adjusting to any type of bowling and each of these bowlers could bowl with the confidence that they had a wicketkeeper who rarely dropped a catch or missed a stumping.
It was Knott’s wicketkeeping off Underwood's bowling that set him on a different pedestal from the other glovemen of that period. Underwood was a unique left-arm spinner, who bowled his leg breaks at a speed just short of medium-pace, of a long run up. He was unplayable on wet and dry wickets, which were the norm in England during those days, when pitches were not covered. The speed of Underwood’s leg breaks would increase on wet wickets and he could make the ball spit and jump at uncomfortable heights and angles. While the poor batsmen would be all at sea trying to defend his wicket, Knott would collect the ball with such effortless ease that one wondered whether the stumper had an extra sense that told him accurately how the ball would behave after pitching.
The fact that Underwood and Knott played for the same county, Kent, would certainly have helped but still it required quicksilver reflexes, superb anticipation and amazing confidence to stand up to the stumps to this master bowler without committing mistakes. A similar instance that comes to one’s mind is the manner in which Syed Kirmani used to keep wickets to Bhagwat Chandrasekhar.
How would Knott compare with the other wicketkeepers of his era? Where would he stand when compared with Rodney Marsh of Australia, another popular stumper of the 70s? Marsh was without doubt an excellent keeper but most of his work was done when the fast bowlers were operating. Australian side was packed with fast bowlers such as Denis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Max Walker and Terry Alderman and spin bowling was in the hands of either Ashley Mallett or Terry Jenner, both of who posed little problems for the stumpers. Marsh had higher numbers of victims by virtue of having played more matches and the famous partnership he struck with Lillee. But when it came to standing up to the stumps, Knott was better than Marsh, possessing the same calibre as Kirmani. However, in the overall analysis, Knott scored over Kirmani as well, since the latter did not get many opportunities for keeping to top class fast bowling.
As stated earlier, Knott blossomed into a very effective lower order batsman in international cricket. His average of 41.55 in Test matches is the best for a batsman at No. 7 in the twentieth century. He was unique in that his batting technique was completely unorthodox and did not belong to any coaching manual, but he could adapt to the needs of the situation better than most recognised batsmen. He could employ the sweep shot effectively against the spinners and play the pull and cut strokes also effectively, while being a quick runner between the wickets as well. The five centuries in Test cricket stand as testimony to the efficacy of his batting methods.
Knott played a total of 16 Tests against India, including the two tours that he made with the England sides in 1972-73 and 1976-77. He was a constant thorn in India’s flesh as he could unsettle the Indian spinners with his unorthodox sweep shots, that he played effectively to neutralise them. Ajit Wadekar, then leading India, had recorded that during the Test at the Oval in 1971, where India recorded the first ever win on English soil, it was Knott’s wicket that was valued the most as he could singlehandedly change the course of the game. He was popular with the crowds in India, who loved his work behind the stumps while respecting his professionalism.
Knott was among the first cricketers to practise yoga on a regular basis. He did this to improve the flexibility of his body and for increasing his powers of concentration. He was a busybody on the field; it was the norm to find him going through constant series of movements while keeping wickets. He always wore a long sleeve shirt, that disappeared into his gloves, and turned his collar up - the former to protect the elbow while diving and the latter to keep his neck safe from the effects of too much Sun. He seldom smiled and had a constant squint in his eyes. He also had peculiar dietary habits, often restricting himself to fruits for prolonged periods, to avoid any of the ailments that affected cricketers during the tours of the sub continent during those days.
After bidding adieu from the game, Knott took up professional work with the England and Wales Cricket Board as part-time wicketkeeping coach and assessor of Test players, but soon moved away from the game. He chose to settle down in Paphos in Cyrpus, a place he found to his liking for the sole reason that there were no stray dogs there! Currently, he spends his days there, far away from the world of cricket.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)