Cricket lovers of half a century ago would travel miles to watch Gloucestershire or Worcestershire not in the hope of witnessing a victory for either county but simply to watch Tom Graveney, who died on Tuesday aged 88, bat. There was an easy elegance about his front-foot style that caressed the ball to the boundary. It all seemed so effortless and special. Of course it was not that effortless since Graveney, like many who make the game look so simple, practised assiduously.
On every morning of every county match – and they played a lot more in his day – Graveney would have a net, a decent one where he would bat as earnestly as he did in the middle. Practice made perfect.
I played against him in a charity match in 1976 just after he had retired when Oxford University CC were the stooges for a star-packed XI including Denis Compton and Graveney, who duly cruised to his half-century.
I remember there were no cut shots against our opening bowler; instead with a little step forward he met the short ball with a vertical bat and it sped away magically to the point boundary.
Technically I got him out in that match. One or two of the crowd may have thought this was the case. In fact having reached 50 and therefore deciding it was time to go he told me exactly where to station a man at long-on. Next ball he struck the ball straight into the hands of a fielder who did not have to move an inch. Rory McIlroy could not have been more precise when playing a chip shot.
After his retirement Graveney kept in touch with the game. He was a generous, easy-on-the-ear commentator for BBC, a marvellous president of the MCC and an unswerving supporter of the cricket society in Cheltenham where he lived. In all these activities Tom, who never lost his warm West Country burr, was charm personified, forever encouraging, self-effacing and devoted to the game.
It was hard to discern the toughness of a man, who scored 4,882 runs in 79 Test matches in a stop-start England career which spanned 18 years. Len Hutton, as captain, was never entirely convinced by him, in part because he had a modest record against Australia. When Hutton queried whether one could ever trust a man with ruddy cheeks to perform in the heat of battle he may have been thinking of Graveney. No doubt Hutton took a more sympathetic view as he witnessed Graveney’s second coming as an England cricketer in the 60s when he was so prolific against West Indies.
Not that Tom was ever a pushover. His single-mindedness may not have been obvious but here was a man who caused quite a rumpus when quite early in his career he decided to leave Gloucestershire on a point of principle and therefore had to spend a year out of first-class cricket before he could play for Worcestershire.
Then, at the end, Tom annoyed the powers that be by playing in one of his own benefit matches on the rest day of a Test match in 1969, a decision that terminated an international career which was not as lucrative as the ones enjoyed by today’s cricketers.
However, one would be hard-pressed to convince anyone who only met him after he had retired from cricket of any spikiness.
Most of us just remember the majesty of his batting, epitomised by that cover drive. At Worcester the contrast with Basil D’Oliveira was wonderful to behold. Both were masters when it was difficult on the uncovered wickets of old. The spinners on a drying pitch would make the ball leap and turn. D’Oliveira would work his magic off the back foot, Graveney off the front foot. Both methods were equally effective since here were two minor geniuses at work, leaving spinners tamed and exasperated and no longer knowing what constituted a good length.
This is a memory to be cherished. It is also one that highlights another massive service to the game by Graveney. No one was as unrelenting in his encouragement of D’Oliveira into county cricket and beyond as Graveney.