For a while now I have been working on a book project about Minor Counties cricket, during the course of which I've spoken to many stalwarts and, yes, legends of this tier of the English game. A side project that's emerged during the course of my research has been the 'giantkilling' matches: the 10 occasions when an individual Minor County defeated first-class opposition in the Gillette Cup / NatWest Trophy; the six games in the Benson and Hedges Cup when the Minor Counties XI managed the same feat; and the eight games when an international side were upset by the MC's Rep' XI.
These are great underdog stories, of course (one of which I told here), but tracking down participants is a lengthy process. Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to spend 25 minutes chatting to Geoffrey Boycott in 2012 about the two occasions in which he was part of a Yorkshire team tipped up by Minor County opposition: in 1973, against Durham, and 11 years later against Shropshire. He was surprisingly gracious about the games ("we were roobish; best team won"), and courteous in answering my questions.
Even so, it was one of the more enjoyable pieces I've done, although I wasn't initially sure it would ever be published. I'd offered it to All Out Cricket first, but they said finding images was proving too difficult. Then a couple of snaps emerged and The Cricketer took it (publishing it under the headline: 'Down the Salopian Tube'!!) – pleasing for me, but especially so for the players involved, whose moment in the sun deserved such recognition.
Here is the text I filed:
It may be stretching things to call Yorkshire’s 1984 season ‘Orwellian’, but the eighties had seen something of a permanent war up there in that most politically totalitarian of cricketing shires. While you didn’t need Orwell’s foresight to predict Scargill and the Miners’ Strike, no-one, but no-one foresaw witnessing Shropshire’s Minors strike. Yet that’s exactly what happened when David Bairstow took his team to St George’s, Telford for the first round of the that summer’s NatWest Trophy, the annual banana-skin ordeal faced by the first-class counties right up until 2005. In the Shropshire ranks was Steve Ogrizovic, an FA Cup-winning goalkeeper with Coventry three years later who would also feel the wrong end of a giantkilling.
Ogrizovic: Sutton United beat us in 1989. When you’re used to playing at Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury, to suddenly go and play on a non-league ground is difficult. It’s exactly the same for county cricketers. Not just the pitches but the facilities.
John Foster (Shropshire): The dressing rooms were barely big enough for three or four coffins. It wasn’t a pretty ground – more a social club in an old mining area. Cricket is an afterthought and only a tiny portion of the pavilion building. If you were to ask any player in the league at the time, it was probably the least favourite places to play. But when it was decked out for NatWest it was totally different.
Yorkshire’s apprehension – they were coming off an innings-and-153-run home defeat to Essex, the heaviest for 11 years and worst ever at Headingley – was perhaps indicated by their decision at the toss. Shropshire sensed vulnerability.
Brian Perry (Shropshire): We had a good side. Well balanced. We believed in ourselves. Usually when you play a side that’s a lot stronger than you, you put them in so at least you have the 120 overs. I was a bit surprised they put us in, to be honest.
Foster: They were going through one of their flat spells. Although they had Boycott opening the batting, the rest of the side was steady county cricket rather than exceptional, so we always thought we had a chance – if they had an off day and we played exceptionally well. We always put up reasonably sound performances but never actually got particularly close to an upset.
Yorkshire batsman Kevin Sharp, who would later both play and coach Shropshire, was adamant there was no complacency.
Sharp: You were playing against some good players, some quality league cricketers, and if you’re not on your game an upset can happen. Yes, it was a no-win situation for the pros but there was no real nervousness. You played a lot of cricket. It was just another game. It was a matter of treating it with respect. We’d all been around long enough to know that these things happen.
|Steve Gale, with David Bairstow looking on|
Foster and skipper Steve Johnson fell cheaply. At 62 for 3, the innings was rescued by a 105-run partnership between Mushtaq Mohammad (80) and current first-class umpire, Steve Gale (68).
Johnson: Bryan Jones started it, then Steve Gale joined Mushtaq and played probably his best ever innings for Shropshire. He did bat well, and obviously Mushy was an outstanding cricketer.
Gale: We were three down for 60, so possibly in a bit of trouble, and what you don’t want is to get bowled out for 100 or thereabouts with a big crowd on. I think Graham Stevenson had a terrific shout for lbw against Mushy that looked … well, it looked very close. He used to sit on the crease a bit, Mushy. After that I thought, ‘it might be our day, here’.
Andy Barnard (Shropshire): Steve had limited shots but had a gameplan that he used week in, week out, that got him runs, particularly on those slowish surfaces. He had a good record against the first-class sides.
Geoff Boycott: It was a goodish pitch, but slow. But that was okay because Mushy was brought up on good pitches which are slow. He was wristy. He manoeuvred the ball well. A fine player. If you were picking a best Pakistan team of all time, I would put him in my team. And I did.
Foster: Great bloke, Mushy. Always willing to share his knowledge and put his sixpence in. You couldn’t wish for a better bloke in the dressing room.
Johnson: That partnership set things up, then Brian Perry chipped in in his inimitable way and that gave us a reasonable total of 229, which doesn’t sound much in this day and age.
Shropshire were happy with runs on the board.
Barnard: We felt that was a good score. They didn’t really have any people in form and we had a good bowling side, so felt we’d do well.
Johnson: The one person I thought would be okay was Steve Ogrizovic, because of his football experience, but he did seem nervous and sprayed it about a bit. He did manage to strangle Martyn Moxon, caught at square leg by Mushtaq.
Ogrizovic: The year before, I actually got Viv Richards, but it was a no-ball. I’ve got a picture of his leg peg cartwheeling out of the ground. But Geoff Boycott, along with John Snow, was my cricketing hero growing up, funnily enough.
The consensus was that the battle between Geoff Boycott and Malcolm Nash would be pivotal.
Johnson: Boycs was very circumspect. It was, in some ways, quite amusing. There was no way Malcolm Nash was going to give Boycs any width. There was no way Boycs was going to get himself out to Nash. I don’t know whether there was any history there, but Nashy was a bit of a wind-up character, in a nice sort of way. He’d got quite a brain on him.
Barnard: Nash and Boycott seemed to just play out some sort of ‘Well bowled, mate’, ‘Well played, mate’ first-class scenario. All Boycott was worried about was not getting out to him. He was a good bowler but he wasn’t as good as figures of 12-6-16-1. Clearly, Geoffrey paid him a lot of respect that day and unduly put pressure on the rest of the team.
Foster: The mindset in those days was completely different. Nobody went out to target a bowler, they just went to play an innings. Nashy bowled straight at him, wicket to wicket, and Boycs played it on merits. It was always said that he had a bit of a weakness against medium-pace left-armers, such as EKA Solkar from India.
Sharp: Boycs spent a lot of time not scoring runs off Nash. In the modern game, you wouldn’t allow him to bowl like that. We got well behind the rate. Their score was about par, but it wasn’t insurmountable. All the time Mushy was bowling at me I can remember feeling ‘we need to score, we need to score’.
But Boycott sensed vulnerability in his colleagues.
Boycott: Mushtaq bowled his overs for 3 for 26. They couldn’t pick him. At times we’ve had exceptional teams, but in the seventies and eighties we weren’t a very good batting side. We had some lovely lads, great kids to play with, but you look at their records and we were a bit thin.
However, the Daily Express intimated that the great man’s mind wasn’t entirely on the game.
“Shortly after a loudspeaker announcement proclaiming a collection for the Geoff Boycott Testimonial Fund – an unheard of occurrence at an away game! – the old master was caught and bowled by seamer Brian Perry for 27 in 25 overs. Boycott had a bonus of £97 to show for his away-day collection”.
The Yorkshire Post added:
“Subsequently, another announcement indicated that Boycott was signing autographs and this came with Yorkshire making a desperate effort to retrieve a lost cause. Although players were reluctant to become involved in any controversy, several privately felt that everyone’s effort should have been directed towards winning the match.”
After Boycott fell, Bairstow was bowled round his legs, sweeping, and Yorkshire were truly in the mire at 81 for 6. Not that Shropshire felt they had it won.
Johnson: The old butterflies started going and you start believing you’ve got a chance here. But, you know, these first-class boys, there’s usually someone down the order who can get them out of jail.
Barnard: I don’t think we ever thought we were over the line. But we were experienced enough just to sit back and let them try and make the game. I picked up some wickets at the end, just through skiers, really. We suddenly realized that our score was above par, how difficult even first-class players were finding it to get the ball away.
Foster: We just had to hold our nerve, really. Andy Barnard’s a really, really reliable bowler, so having him to come into the attack to finish things off worked well and was just what we had in mind.
Sharp: You never felt as though we were going to get there. Someone would have had to play a special innings.
It was an especially poignant day for Shropshire’s Doncaster-born skipper, whose died-in-the-wool Yorkshire-supporting father was terminally ill and unable to test his split loyalties at the game. He listened on the radio and had “mixed feelings”. The players’ post-match emotions were more predictable.
Foster: The Yorkshire players packed up and left fairly sharpish. I think they got read the riot act by Dave Bairstow, but before we’d even come out of the dressing room, having opened a few bottles of bubbly, they’d all departed. That was disappointing, but understandable. We adjourned to the bar for a few drinks, as you can imagine.
Sharp: The dressing rooms were tiny. It was not a good place to be after we’d lost. There were a few choice words flying about in there.
Boycott: We won many, many times by eight, nine, ten wickets. On paper, you’re supposed to be better than them. But sport’s not played on paper. That’s the beauty of it, and it should still be played now. Every year. If you had eight Minor Counties in, seven of ‘em would get rolled over but the eighth might be the one that lights up the whole cricket scene. That’s what it’s all about. Giantkilling. That’s the romance, the spice, the inexplicable.
Sharp: It’s one of the worst memories I have. It’s an embarrassing feeling. You’re a paid professional and you’ve lost to amateur cricketers.
The Daily Express and Daily Star ran identical headlines: ‘Flopshire!’ Natural order was restored when Shropshire lost to Warwickshire by 103 runs in the following round, but their feat was there for eternity. As for Yorkshire, any hopes of a mid-season revival were stillborn on the fourth of July.