Friday, 9 August 2013

WHEN THE MINOR COUNTIES BEAT THE AUSTRALIANS

the pavilion at Ashbrooke, Sunderland 

The last time an Australian team arrived in the North-East 2-0 down in an Ashes series was August 1977, while the World Series Cricket storm raged away in London and in SydneyIt may only be 7.8 miles as the crow flies from Chester-le-Street’s Emirates ICG (nĂ©e Riverside Stadium), venue for the Fourth Test, to the grand old Ashbrooke Sports Ground in Sunderland where, 36 years and four days ago, they were defeated bythe Minor Counties in a two-day fixture; nevertheless, given this tour’s turbulent beginnings and the open secret of a rift between Shane Watson and Michael Clarke, the current group are neither a million miles nor light years from Greg Chappell’s much derided party, who arrived with Packer contracts in their pockets and left as 3-0 losers, having been downed en route by a team of teachers, surveyors, solicitors, and wily old pro’s of the northern leagues. 

If posterity will record the backdrop to 2013 as the sacking of Mickey Arthur in the backdraft of Dave Warner’s swinger in Birmingham’s Walkabout Bar, then the backstory for 1977 was the cloak-and-dagger negotiations over the World Series Cricket jamboree that was about to bootstrap international cricket into modernity. Wisden pronounced that the thirteen of the seventeen-strong touring party to have put pen to paper “had already inflicted the initial wound on those who sent them 11,000 miles to represent an organisation not long since celebrating something of 100 years duration”. This line, pungent with unthinking affinity for the fellow august institution, was precisely the key to the whole affair: were the cricketers representing the ACB, or were the ACB supposed to be representing – in the sense of looking after the interests of – their players, their prime assets? (Any gauche suggestion of workers seizing the means of production here has to be tempered with the reality of Packer pragmatism and a simple desire to break the TV monopoly in Australia. Less a revolution, then, than a liberal reform, precipitously carried out.)

At any rate, by the time the 1977 party reached Wearside, they were a pale imitation of the team that had eviscerated England in 1974-75, a 41-year-old Colin Cowdrey dragged from retirement and offered up to the Gods, Lillee and Thomson. The Packer secret had been broken as early as May and in early August he was in the UK putting out, and relighting, fires. Any Minor Counties players reading the Daily Mail on August 2, two days before the game, would have seen a reproduction of the Packer contracts, on the hardline nature of which their progenitor would later remark, “I make no apologies for the fact that this contract is tough. I told every player, ‘This is a tough contract and you’ll do as you’re damn well told’.” Needless to say, this was very far removed from the world of Oxfordshire versus Berkshire or Lincolnshire versus Cumberland, ‘The Sausage Derby’

The Australians had arrived in Sunderland on the back of defeat, two days earlier, in a Nottingham Test that had seen a visit from the Queen, out in the shires on her Jubilee tour. However, an even more regal visitor had put in a rare appearance at Trent Bridge, for this was the match that Geoffrey Boycott came out of his self-imposed three-year international exile, going on to score 106 (his ninety-eighth first-class hundred) and 80 not out, batting on all five days of the match in which Ian Botham made his debut. England won – Derek Randall, who struck the winning blow, leaving his home patch arm in arm with Boycott, who, famously, had run him out in the first innings – to take an unassailable lead in the five game series.

The match at Ashbrooke, a leafy Victorian suburb four or five David Warner switch-hits south of Sunderland city centre, may only have been a two-day fixture – standard for the Minor Counties players right up until 2001 – and thus did not have first-class status, yet such a short course had not inoculated the Minor Counties against the ignominy of an innings defeat in 1964. In 1953, meanwhile, the Australians had won a first-class match slated for three days but completed inside two by an innings and 171, Ray Lindwall taking 7 for 20 and Richie Benaud following up with 5 for 13 as the Minor Counties were routed for 56 and 62. That game took place on the Michelin factory ground in Stoke-on-Trent, an 80-year-old SF Barnes bowling the honorary first ball at a venue where he had done his fair share of damage – where hadn’t he? – for Staffordshire: an aggregate analysis of 209.2-70-344-62 over seven games, in fact, for an average of 5.55 (well below the overall Staffs career average of 8.10), having made his bow there at a sprightly 55 years young. Whether it was this delivery that persuaded Benaud to select Barnes for his all-time XI is uncertain. Either way, the curmudgeonly old master told the tourists that he wouldn’t be taking the new ball, “in case I induce a collapse”.

Twenty-four years later, in 1977, another, less eminent Staffordshire man, Peter Gill, would be at the heart of the Minor Counties’ first ever victory over the Australians, just their third over any touring team in 36 attempts. Any aspirations to play professional cricket – not to mention undertake a university degree – that Gill may have had were nipped in the bud when he was commandeered to the family industrial insulation firm – an appropriate metaphor, perhaps, for a No 3 batsman, so often an auxiliary opener. Australia’s first-drop, Greg Chappell, was in London alongside Rod Marsh, parlaying with Kerry Packer whod applied for an injunction to prevent the Test and County Cricket Board (precursor of the ECB) and ICC excluding WSC signatories from international cricket. Meanwhile, a Jarrow March away, his fellow tourists spent their solitary, rain-sodden day off after Trent Bridge touring the Newcastle Brewery, and the following morning were being asked by Cheshire skipper David Bailey to have first use of a slightly two-paced Ashbrooke surface, “because I thought we’d get them on the backlash and it was an overcast day, so it gave us the best chance of doing some damage”. From a family of West Hartlepool lawyers, Bailey had headed to Manchester a decade or so earlier to train as a chartered surveyor and in 1968 and ’69 played 27 first-class games for Lancashire alongside Lloyd, Lloyd, Engineer, Higgs, Lever, Wood, Simmons et al – qualified thrice over, then, to judge the surface: by profession, playing experience and geographical provenance.

With grass banks on three sides of the ground and a rickety, covered stand flanking the rugby pitch at the northern end, Ashbrooke, a multi-sports complex offering tennis, squash, hockey and other envigorations, provided a small-scale though fitting amphitheatre for a North-Eastern public still largely deprived of top-level cricket (Durham would not turn first-class until 1992, of course). “The ground was ringed” recalls Bailey, who duly gave the new ball to one of the crowd’s own: Durham’s Stuart Wilkinson, reckoned by Gill to be “the quickest bowler in Minor Counties cricket, if not the quickest outside it”. 

the wrong end
He may have been able to propel the ball from A to B very quickly, yet the local tearaway couldn’t always discern which way the wind was blowing, and Hertfordshire’s Brian Collins was thus more than a little surprised when his opening partner opted to run uphill across the rugby pitch. A 36-year-old former policeman who left the force to sell burglar alarms, Collins was a tall, strong, lively in-swing bowler for whom the strong breeze blowing diagonally over his left shoulder was “absolutely ideal. I couldn’t believe my luck. I saw [Wilkinson] have a word with the captain and I thought there’s no way I was going to let him have my end, so I’d got to be on the button”. Within an over, Wilkinson was kvetching to the skipper; after three, he was replaced by genial Devonian left-arm swing bowler Doug Yeabsley, a schoolmaster at Haberdasher’s Aske’s who played as a back-row forward for Harlequins for many years. Despite a rickety set of knees, he would bowl uphill and into the wind, unchanged and uncomplaining, for the rest of the innings.

Amateurs they may have been, but, as Gill remarked, “the pitch was lively and our opening bowlers were quite a handful”. Indeed, this was a more than useful attack. Earlier that summer, Collins had returned aggregate figures of 31.4-8-97-5 for Minor Counties West in the Benson and Hedges Cup group stages, while Yeabsley’s return for the same side was an even more impressive 42-12-106-7, his victims including Eddie Barlow, Glenn Turner and Basil D’Oliveira. Wilkinson, meanwhile, had picked up a man of the match-winning – if not matchwinning – 5 for 24 in the Gillette Cup against a Northants side at one stage reeling at 17 for 4, his scalps including two of the flintiest souls on the circuit, David Steele and Peter Willey, as well as Mushtaq Mohammed.

Collins’ keenness to use the advantage saw him nip out the first three wickets – the relatively unheralded Ian Davis, Gary Cosier and Craig Sarjeant, who nonetheless shared between them 25 more Test caps than their eleven opponents could boast – with Kim Hughes surviving a hat-trick ball but becoming the fourth of his 4 for 42. Yeabsley had the golden-haired poster boy of WSC, David Hookes, caught at slip, while Wilkinson, once he had the wind in his sails, finished with 4 for 49, including the prize scalp of Doug Walters, who interrupted his chain smoking to top-score with 42 as the Australians were skittled for 170 in 41.3 overs either side of a lunch interval extended for local dignitaries and sponsors. The Minor Counties’ wicket-keeper Frank Collyer observed, somewhat pithily, that “it wasn’t a gentle ride for them”.

Still, on a dank, windy day they may well have feared an equally violent buffeting themselves. With DK Lillee back in Australia – he and Ian Chappell having ruled themselves out of contention until the Packer business was resolved – and Thomson skulking around the outer for much of the two days, the new ball was taken by Lennie Pascoe, more than capable of bringing some brimstone to proceedings. He bowled 8-0-8-0, which amounts to a lot of very quick – “the quickest I saw” according to Yeabsley, who had played against Holding, Roberts, Procter and many others – though often very short deliveries allowed to sail through to the keeper. Even so, Cumberland’s phlegmatic former Lancashire opener Bob Entwistle, struck on the pad first over, walked down to his opening partner, Oxfordshire’s Mike Nurton, and deadpanned: “‘E’s a bit quick, lad”.

Entwistle was soon snaffled by Pascoe’s partner, Mick Malone, whose solitary Test appearance was just around the corner, at the Oval later that summer, when he returned the miserly first-innings figures of 47-20-63-5 (from an innings of 101 overs!) against which his Sunderland match economy rate of 3.87 looked distinctly profligate. Anyhow, this brought Gill to the crease and he offered a portent of what lay in store by contributing a sprightly, stroke-filled 39 in tandem with Nurton, a lay Anglican preacher, trained magician and eventually all-time leading run-maker in Minor Counties cricket, whose nuggety 40 helped his team to 133 for 4 off 41 overs at stumps. Meanwhile, in the High Court that day, Packer’s injunction application was rejected by Mr Justice Slynn after the TCCB undertook not to disbar anyone from selection until a full court case was heard in September, the ruling stating that doing so would amount to restraint of trade. In Sydney, a writ was issued on Packer’s behalf against the Australian Cricket Board seeking a declaration along the same lines. The game was moving forward.

On the second morning, heavy overnight rain led to the start being delayed by 75 minutes and to pockets of agitated Australian discussion on the outfield, recalls Hertfordshire skipper Collyer, a solicitor and Cambridge graduate: “On the second morning, while they were waiting for the ground to be tidied up, I have a clear memory of them punting an Australian Rules football back and forth, talking in little groups. While one’s not privy to the conversation, one got the impression that there was a lot of uncertainty over what the immediate future held”. One certainly wonders what the party’s four non-Packer players – Cosier, Sarjeant, Hughes and Geoff Dymock – made of it all, while the immediate future of footie-punter-in-chief, Thommo, amounted to having his WSC contract annulled due to a 10-year agreement with a radio station that required him to play for Queensland.

When it was clear there would be no prompt resumption, Bailey declared 37 runs in arrears, “to try and twist their arm into giving us a target. I prefer to play these games to win, not as an exhibition”. And so, typically, do Australians. Busy fifties were scored by Davis and Hookes as Bailey let his spinners wheel through a few overs – Durham leggie Peter Kippax bagged 3 for 46, while current Somerset President Roy Kerslake bowled tidily for his 9-2-22-1. Acting skipper Walters was cut on the jawline attempting to pull Yeabsley and had to be given seven stitches. Nevertheless, at 169 for 6 and without any negotiation or collusion, a declaration was made, giving Minor Counties a target of 207 to win in two and three quarter hours, about which Collyer surmised: “I don’t think they thought for a moment they thought we were going to get those runs”.

Dymock and Malone took the new ball, Nurton falling early while Entwistle chipped in with a measured 33. However, it was the 81-run stand between Gill – who played “the innings of my life”, cutting and driving and clipping 17 fours on his way to 92 of the 166 runs scored while at the crease – and Kippax that took the Minor Counties to a position of apparent impregnability. Cosier, a military-medium swing bowler whose boomerangs had taken 5 for 18 in one of the ODIs a couple of months’ earlier, came into the attack just as the sun broke through the Wearside cloud, more or less negating his threat – although Gill, within sight of a century and with his team still almost 40 runs short of their target, “got a bit excited and had a slog at one” to be caught and bowled. 

preparing for Court: Packer and Greig
With the Minor Counties cruising to victory – Collyer recalls that “there was no element of panic. We were a rather more experienced cricket team than they were” – Pascoe, third change second time around, was brought back for a second burst. It was to no avail. A bespectacled, helmetless Bailey ruefully remembers the New South Wales paceman being barracked by “a wag in the sheds who bellowed out: ‘I thought you were supposed to be effin’ quick, man’. I thought, ‘thanks a lot’,” but he then upper-cut him through third man en route to adding 29 not out to an unbeaten first-innings 21. As the victory target drew close, Collyer can “remember sitting in the stand thinking ‘well, this is rather good’ and having something to drink”. Durham’s combative skipper Neil Riddell smeared Ray Bright for a six over mid-wicket and then Bailey “kicked one and ran”, the leg-bye carrying the Minor Counties to a famous, unimaginable victory with just an over to spare. Despite the embarrassment, Nurton doesn’t “suppose it was a great tragedy in their lives, losing to us lot; an inconvenience, maybe”.

For a performance that, understandably, ranks as the highlight of his cricketing life, Peter Gill won Man of the Match – “hundred quid; bought a few drinks” – and while Doug Walters came in to offer his congratulations to his amateur and semi-professional conquerors, the rest didn’t mingle and share a beer after the game – a quintessentially Aussie tradition for which Walters was of course the prime torch-bearer for many years. In fairness, this was in large part due to a brutal itinerary – absent the first and last days in May and the tourists played 27 of the remaining 29 days that month, 92 of 126 on tour, and were starting at 11 am sharp in Manchester the following day – but was perhaps also down to there being less bonhomie than usual amongst a group who, Collyer remarks, “didn’t look a particularly relaxed or happy bunch”. Was there any obvious disarray or disharmony among the opponents? “Not that I noticed,” said Gill. “You’ve got to remember that this is a one-off match for us and I’d have been extremely apprehensive – not apprehensive, nervous about playing these guys. Regardless of the scoreline in the Test series, this was Australia and I can’t say I was looking at what was going on around me”.

The Australians lugged themselves onto the coach and went on to defeat Lancashire in comfortable fashion before re-crossing the Pennines to Leeds where Geoffrey Boycott, famously, registered his ‘undredth ‘undred. As for the Minor Counties players, they had to scuttle back down the motorways to work, no doubt while basking in their first – their only – victory over an Australian team. Collins thought some of the press response a touch churlish, if not downright disrespectful to their achievement: “That was something that was levelled at us: ‘You’ve only beat a second-rate Australian side’. Okay, we didn’t play Chappell, Marsh or Thomson, but this was still an international team, eleven of the best seventeen in their country. They had all played Test cricket. There were no passengers”. 

Regardless of its position on the Packer situation, Wisden’s post-mortem on the cricketing merits of the touring party would be relatively scathing, despite them only losing one of the seventeen three-day fixtures (to Somerset): “A side no more than a good average had been allowed to beat them, with some comfort, in three Tests in England for the first time since 1886”.

On the other hand, with qualification for the 60-over Gillette Cup (ended in 2005), Benson & Hedges Cup representative games (ended in 1998) and an annual fixture against the tourists, this was truly a golden age for the Minor Counties game, and that winter the winning XI in Sunderland, bolstered by a handful of other players who just missed out on selection for Ashbrooke, went on a fully subsidised tour of East Africa courtesy of enlightened Minor Counties’ Treasurer Geoffrey Howard, a former RAF pilot and Lancashire and Surrey Secretary who had managed Hutton’s successful 1954-55 Ashes trip.

The Aussies, of course, disbanded under the historical inevitability of Packerism, a force and legacy still vigorously present today, largely for the better yet also, it might be argued, for the worse in the shape of a complacent cricket administration – a cricket culture, perhaps – in Australia that has been too focussed on revenue streams (the Channel 9 coverage, with its regular slots for hawking merchandise, is almost gaudily commercial to English tastes) to the detriment of the creation of the type of ecology that would allow long-form cricketing talents to come through as they once had done in swaggering abundance.

The Ashes may be gone, but crisis, as they say, begets opportunity. The game in Chester-le-Street offers a chance to a new generation of players to dispel the spectre of their recent defeats. That said, the Australians are used to getting spooked in the North-East – I don’t suppose Watson will be booked into Lumley Castle this time – and one wonders whether the ghosts of 1977 may haunt this current bunch as they head to this corner of England with little – save, that is, the credibility of the Australian cricket culture (or what CA might be inclined to call its “business model”) – to play for.

A lot of water may have passed under the bridge since 1977, just as a lot of water has rolled past the Riverside Stadium and out into the sublime indifference of the North Sea, yet this present crop of Australians must hope, after the green shoots of Old Trafford, that no such nadir awaits them, there by the side of the River Wear.   

 


5 comments:

Mike Nurton said...

Great report Scott and brings back many happy memories although I still have nightmares about Pascoe attempting to damage my facial features!

wayne Porter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
conveyancing nsw said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
126noke@gmail.com said...

Fabulous writing !!!

thank you

Gusssss said...

Nice report. I was there both days and enjoyed it very much, although disappointed that Tommo wasn't playing. I expect Mike Nurton wasn't too disappointed at that ha ha. Or maybe he was, in the end we all want to play against the best, after all.

My school friend actually managed to snaffle the match ball at the end, it was flat as a pancake and almost as soft as a tennis ball, and we had many games with it on the playing fields at Bede school.