Letter to the editors:I was very pleased, on returning to Cambridgeshire after an absence of almost 20 years, to be greeted with a copy of the C & H newsletter, which inter alia allowed me to bring myself up to date on local developments. Some of the names are the same as they were, and I was pleased to discover that some of the people don't even look any older. Well, not much anyway. I was distressed, however, to read a letter complaining about the non-availability of "top players" for ECL matches. That was a problem 30 years ago as well, but I am not sure that the answer is on the lines suggested by your correspondent.
When I was asked whether I would consider becoming chairman of C & H, a post in which I served for some years, I replied that I would do so on a number of conditions. Most of these I have long since forgotten, and they are probably not relevant to current circumstances anyway. But one which I do remember was that we should make a serious attempt to win the Tollemache, putting into place a 5-year plan designed to ensure that we would be represented by the best team which we could field and raising the standard of that team to such a level that we could reasonably expect to have a chance of success.
I hesitate to say that it was solely due to the conditions which I laid down, but the simple fact is that we did win the Tolly, and qualified for the final the following year as well. In those days even qualifying was something of an achievement, as only one team from six went through and we always had either London or Middlesex in our heat. We had never previously qualified for the final, and I think I am correct in saying that we have never won it since, so perhaps my thoughts on the factors which contributed to our success may be of some interest.
The first thing to note is that we did not have a particularly outstanding team. I think that one or two of us might just have made it to National Master; I was a Regional Master at the time, and several of the team had not made it that far. It was a far cry from the situation now, when a glance at the county ranking list reveals a positive galaxy of Life and Grand Masters. What we did have, however, was a team rather than a collection of pairs, or even worse, as was the case when I first arrived in Cambridge, a collection of individuals who sometimes deigned to play with each other.
Two things, in my opinion, were essential to creating the team spirit which was important to our success (we did a lot of other things as well, most of which helped, but these two were vital.) First, we decided that the ECL and the Tolly should be treated entirely separately, with no presumption that regular membership of the "A" team in the former would entail selection for the latter. The reasons for that are very simple: the Tolly is a one-off (or hopefully 2-off) event, whereas the ECL is a 6 or 7 match event. It is (or at least it was in those days) simply not realistic to suppose that people can make themselves available on 8 or 9 week-ends in a season simply to demonstrate their commitment to playing on the one (or hopefully two) big ones. Given that, the question one has to ask is this; do we want to be represented in the Tolly by the best team which we can put out, or merely by the best team selected only from those with most time to spare? Certainly there can be different views on this question, but I made it clear that I personally was not prepared to play unless the team was selected on the former basis; I was convinced then, and remain convinced now, that if we wanted to do well, never mind win, nothing else was good enough.
The second thing which we did was to arrange regular meetings at which the team would play together and discuss the hands and results in considerable detail. We had a nucleus of 5 pairs who did not expect to play in ECL matches (though they might sometimes be asked to do so in an emergency), but who did undertake to attend the team sessions whenever they were able. Usually at least 4 pairs would be available for these sessions, and if they were not, a pair from the ECL "A" team would be invited to fill in. They would be delighted to do so if they could, as a good result at one or more of these sessions could be one of the factors leading to an invitation to join the Tolly squad (bear in mind that this was at a time when the University contingent in the C & H team was particularly strong, but necessarily "floating", so that opportunities for "promotion" were fairly frequent).
The reasoning behind this approach was again quite simple. The ECL was, with all due respect (and I suspect that the same is still true today), simply not a strong enough competition to provide our top pairs with adequate preparation to meet the likes of London, Middlesex, Hampshire etc. with any realistic chance of success. Our view was that our team would gain more benefit from trying to beat hell out of each other in an informal but competitive atmosphere than from playing against relatively low-class county teams. After all, we had to make the assumption that we could actually win the Tolly, in which case it seemed to follow that any one of our pairs would benefit more from playing against one of the others than they would from toiling against lesser competition.
As I have said, the policy worked. It was not the only possible policy, but in my view it was the best. One of its important side advantages was that it led to a much greater stability of personnel in the ECL teams as well. The pairs in the "A" team were consistently trying to establish that they were in line for promotion to the Tolly squad, while those in the "B" and "C" teams were equally trying to advance a step. Perhaps not surprisingly, our concentration on the Tolly meant that our ECL results improved significantly as well. Our experience would certainly lead me to recommend the approach to any county hoping to improve upon the level of results achieved by its teams.
Perhaps I could close on a different note. Whatever the basis of selection, it does not seem very helpful to me to denigrate the Tolly team for finishing "only" 7th. The Tolly is one of the toughest events around, not admittedly on a par with the Gold Cup or Spring Fours, but certainly well above the standard of the ECL or any of the random one-day green pointed events which have proliferated in recent years. Merely to make the final is a fine achievement, even now that qualification is slightly less difficult than it was in my heyday. There is no disgrace in placing 7th from some 40 or so counties fielding presumptively the strongest teams which they can put out. Of course, that is not to argue that we should not aim to do even better next year. But in my judgement we are unlikely to do so if a criterion for selection is the amount of time which a pair can afford to make available for matches against relatively low-class opposition.
Yours sincerely, Peter Burrows.
[An interesting historical perspective. Of course some things now are different - the overall standard has improved and I don't think the ECL is regarded with disdain, but there are many more competing events today. Also "7th" was in fact our lowest placing for 5 years. (eds.)]