5/20/2018 0 Comments
By Bob Bowden (@54Bobb)
In recent years it has become customary for a group of lifelong friends, most now recently retired to have a few days away watching Essex, preferably in a four-day county game. We try to avoid rattling around in one of the Test venues and hope the fixture list is kind. This year it was a toss-up between Worcester and Taunton. Worcester won out, despite the risks of it being an early May fixture and the possibility we would have to at some point man the lifeboats.
So what did eight old grumpy gits make of Worcester? Happily, the ground is only a 5-minute stroll from Worcester Foregate Street rail station, and cross the Severn at Bridge Street. And for those planning to stay for the duration the newly opened Premier Inn is situated literally in the ground. It is entirely possible if you are allocated a ground side one to watch the cricket from the comfort of your hotel room. The hotel bar and restaurant also overlook the ground, although the club seem to have wised up fairly quickly. Apparently, a concert was held in the ground, whereupon punters swarmed the bar and watched it from there for nothing. A screen has now been erected to prevent the same happening for the cricket.
The hotel position is mightily handy for the cricket of course, a 30-second stroll out the hotel and into the ground. It does, however, give the Blackfinch New Road ground (as we must now call it) a somewhat lopsided air. It’s now a curious, if still pleasing mix of the old and new. Presumably as part of the deal to sell off the land to build the Premier Inn, adjoining it is a new reception area that also serves as the only ‘turnstiles’ to the ground, offices, and restaurant/bar. There is some limited seating in this new block, which I understood to be called ‘The View’.
Turn left and there are several small blocks of seating that run in front of and beyond the hotel. From here you look across to the main pavilion, a modern affair named after Graeme Hick. Between sits the main scoreboard. To the other side is what one assumes is the old, now slightly dilapidated original pavilion, known as the Ladies Pavilion. Not quite sure what the ladies make of that but I have it on good authority they still serve cakes there at tea. Cast your eyes round to the left and there are hospitality marquees, a tree-filled space which is home I was assured to the black pear tree which are of course featured on the club’s badge. Apparently, black pears aren’t much use for eating but you can make nice chutney with them. Free culinary tip - you’re welcome. Continuing our journey left sits the Basil D’Oliveira Stand, much of which was draped in black and houses the television gantry boxes.
Now, if you’d care to swivel your eyeballs to the right from ‘The View’ sits the New Road Stand, which may, or may not date from around 1900. Atop this charming old relic sit rooms that serve as hospitality boxes with what appear to be small patio areas. Just beyond and next to the main pavilion is Foley’s restaurant (named I think after the founding family of the club) which one of our group assured us served a varied menu including a very reasonably priced and gargantuan full English.
If all the above makes the Blackfinch New Road ground sound a bit of a mish-mash, then I make no apologies for that. It is, and it is all the better for it. Sit in front of the hotel and you have a tree-lined vista and old world cricket architecture in view, from the Pavilion end the new hotel has not blocked out the magnificent view across the River Severn and Worcester Cathedral. The ground is small, quirky and feels a quintessential county ground. Our group of old curmudgeons liked it, very much. Long may it continue.
Ah, but what about the cricket you ask? Essex, off the back of the embarrassing defeat against Yorkshire needed to bounce back. Who better than Worcestershire, a side bottom of the table without a win, what could possibly go wrong? In the end nothing, but there were enough twists and turns over the three days to remind us why we love the county championship and why Colin Graves and his merry band of marketing men should be…well you know.
Essex won the toss, and the first eyebrow-raising moment of the trip was their decision to bat first. It surprised us, and it also shocked the local sages who were of a collective view that Ryan Ten Doeschate had dislodged a few marbles. Post-match, Ryan pretty much agreed with that view saying he thought the wicket looked very dry and was a 350 run pitch and manna from heaven for Simon Harmer in the fourth innings. It had somehow slipped his mind that three weeks previously the ground was under several feet of water and there was a fair bit of moisture still lurking.
Under slightly overcast condition Essex plodded to lunch reaching 64-2. Chopra departed early and Tom Westley scratched around looking for his post-England mojo before he too departed without troubling the scorers very much. Cook and Lawrence, however, looked serene. Post lunch, however, was not a pretty sight. Eight wickets went down in the afternoon session for 113 runs with the home side’s Josh Tongue bowling very well and finishing with 4-45. It could have been even worse without a wag of the Essex tail from Harmer and Siddle who scored 51 runs between them. Not a 350 wicket then, merely a paltry 177. Bad light curtailed the first day 13 overs early but not before the home openers, Mitchell and D’Oliveira reached 47 without loss.
Our band of not so merry men decided some post play refreshment was in order and were recommended a hostelry not a five-minute stroll across the bridge. And what a discovery this gem of a pub was. Take it from me; if you want a proper old school boozer with fine ales, this tiny oasis is the place to go. Which we did, frequently. Oh, it’s called The Plough by the way.
And, so to day two. It’s fair to say that Worcester supporters are, at the moment, feeling a little gloomy about their team. A couple of decent batters, a couple of decent young bowlers and a promising ‘keeper but not much else seems to be the general consensus. The club is it seems in significant debt, so there’s not a lot of cash available for investment. This may also explain why the sightscreens are possibly the worst I’ve ever seen and can’t be of much help to batsmen. One is a large, tatty and rather grubby sheet draped off the top of the new reception block, secured by bits of string to various bits and piece, and when there’s a touch of wind prone to billowing around like a mainsail on a galleon. At the opposite end, the sightscreen consisted of similar material draped over seating. This was fine until the sun came round mid-afternoon and threw a large black shadow off the blacked out D’Oliveira stand right across it. Seriously, guys, you need to do something about it. Ironically, the school behind the ground had proper sightscreens.
Anyway, day two. Essex winkled the home side out 238, with Joe Clarke scoring an excellent hundred, with solid support from openers Mitchell and D’Oliveira. Beyond these three none of the remaining seven batsmen managed double figures. Still, a 61 lead seemed handy, and by close Essex were 143-4. Cook and Chopra almost wiped out the deficit before Essex contrived to lose their three top-order batsmen all shouldering arms. An overnight lead of 82 with only six wickets in hand certainly was the subject of healthy debate as we again repaired to The Plough to blow froth off our beers.
Day three, and the morning was bright and sunny. While we continued to wonder whether Dave’s exotically and unpronounceable beer the previous night tasted of Bovril crisps or bananas, the locals were downcast in their view of the day ahead. “If Essex get 200 lead, we’re done for.” Much nodding assent ensued. Interesting we thought. Dan Lawrence added a patient 62 to his overnight score of 9, and with support from Foster and Harmer Essex were finally dismissed for 275.
Worcester, with a day and a half left in the game required 215 for their first victory of the season. “We’re done for.” Said the cheery bloke behind me again. And, as it turned out he was right. The Pears having got to 160-5 had got themselves into a decent position, the locals had almost broken into a wave of mild optimism. Travis Head had got to a half-century. Barnard had been providing decent support, but it became clear Harmer was increasingly bamboozling him. He concluded that his best chance was to sweep Harmer, conventionally or reverse it didn’t matter. On each occasion, he swiped and missed, and despite consistent advice from the home faithful to resist, he cocked a deaf ‘un, and was bowled round his legs.
Siddle, on his farewell game for Essex was bowling beautifully from the other end, too quick for the lower order batsmen who twitched and groped relentlessly as another ball whizzed past the outside edge. It was not going to be a long stay of execution, however. Essex had Worcester at 173-8, with the last two men in, both we were gloomily assured were rabbits. Somehow they need to keep Head on strike to have a sniff. Essex decided to test the mettle by offering the rabbit an easy single at the end of each over to keep them on strike. Remarkably, they obliged on every occasion. Travis Head meanwhile, far from managing the situation seemed either resigned to his fate or had more faith in his partners’ abilities than anyone else in the ground. With nine down, Head decided attack was the only form of defence and promptly holed out. Worcester had lost their last five wickets for 22 runs, 182 all out. “Bloody told yer.” said the bloke behind. Harmer and Siddle both took five wickets, a nice way for the Aussie to sign off. We decided we should go to the Plough to celebrate.
So, if you are thinking of going to Worcester do so. Nice enough town, tremendous pub, lovely old cricket ground, and just as importantly in all that the locals were as friendly and welcoming a bunch as you could find. Apart from the woman in the Indian restaurant with more tattoos than a boatload of pirates. Some cabaret she was, although I don’t think the management had booked her.
I am looking forward to my annual visits to the Lords tests this summer, as I have for more years than I care to remember. It has been part of the fabric of my sporting life, and I’m sure that goes for many of us of a certain age. How many more summers this will be the case remains to be seen and I am not making that statement on the basis I’m planning to shuffle off this mortal coil anytime soon.
The cricket headlines and chatter has recently been all about the ECB plans for its new t20 city based competition due for introduction in 2020. I'll not bang on about it here save to say I don't see it as the panacea for cricket's problems that the ECB does. However, for the purposes of this rant - sorry article - let us assume it will be the roaring success the marketing men predict.
The new competition will fill July and august. In the background, the t20 blast will continue to run (not for long mark my words). Test matches will also continue apparently with England test players ineligible for the new t20 league. But that's for the future, what about the now?
With apologies to the main man of this fine website, I was idly browsing the net and stumbled upon espncricinfo where I spotted a very interesting graphic. This showed the global t20 calendar, which will this year feature seven countries each with their own (prestigious - ahem) t20 competitions. Got a calendar?
~ Dec/ Jan. Australia big bash
~ Feb/Mar. Pakistan super league
~ April/may. India IPL
~ July/Sep. England t20 blast
~ Aug./Sep. W Indies Caribbean super league
~ Nov/Dec. South Africa csa global t20
~ Nov/Dec. Bangladesh premier league
Well, June and October are free.
So where do you fit test cricket in and dare I say 50 over ODIs? Bear in mind that the ICC's grand idea to beef up test and ODI cricket is to have 'championships' for each - a 12 test team league over 2 years; and an ODI league over 3 years. Now, I may be a simple chap but I’m not stupid - logistically you cannot fit proper test series with the best players into that calendar let alone ODIs on top. This seems to be a light bulb moment for even the ICC. Geoff Allardice, the ICC general manager has acknowledged it’s a bit of a challenge. His musings for a solution seem to consist of less 'international cricket'. In other words, fewer tests and ODIs, and I believe you can wave goodbye to 5 test series (ashes apart we already have) and even 4 and 3 test series. Want to have a test league championship? Ok, then it will be 2 test home and away series.
Maybe the t20 bubble will burst, and it will if broadcasters tire of it or start losing money, but as I said at the beginning of this rant - sorry again, article - let's assume t20 thrives in all the above countries and becomes a global cash cow. Top players will naturally and understandably follow the dollar and will happily forgo a less lucrative test career for a twelve-month t20 merry go round. And if the ECB think England players will be happy to miss him out on their new city based franchise, they're even more deluded than I think.
So, if like me you are looking forward to a summer of test cricket make the most of it, it won't be around forever. In fact, if there's test cricket in 20 years time I’ll be amazed.
Written by Bob Bowden (@54bobb on twitter)
So it’s back. Twenty20, T20 call it what you will. We’re supposed to call it ‘The Blast’ – which is either the optimistically hyperbolic description of the excitement it brings, or the expletive uttered in certain quarters upon the format’s return to the summer game. I for one, for a long time belonged in the latter club, however recently I have been persuaded of its merits. The light bulb moment was when someone (I forget who) said T20 isn’t cricket, it’s entertainment based on the game but a million miles from proper cricket (or words to that effect). Alas, we live in an age where for the younger generation instant gratification rules and attention spans are shorter, and for many others, there is too much demand on time to devote a lot to watching proper cricket. T20 addresses these issues.
Either way, you won’t escape it, and whatever you think about T20 we might as well recognize that it is now pivotal to the future of the county game and test cricket. Introduced in 2003 by the ECB to generate interest among young people in cricket and re-generate sponsorship income, like so many sports invented by this country the rest of the world, well India and Australia mainly, grabbed it and turned it into a national phenomenon, supported by massive broadcasting rights. The revenues generated by the IPL and Big Bash (an even sillier name than ‘Blast’ but an accurate descriptor of the cricket) are such that arguably it is propping up domestic and especially test cricket in those countries. Whilst interest and attendance at test matches in England have been high as crowds in other test playing nations continued to dwindle to almost invisibility in some cases, there have been recent signs that this might not be the case forever. Hence, the ECB are scrabbling around throughout this summer in recognition ‘that something must be done’ and have turned their finest minds (no laughing at the back) to revamping T20 which is seen as the saviour of the county championship and longer term test cricket.
Colin Graves, Chairman of the ECB cheesed off the counties and quite probably NatWest by describing, on the eve of the competition, that the Blast was ‘mediocre’ compared to the IPL and Big Bash. To be fair, I think he was taken out of context a bit and if one looks at the bigger picture it’s easy to see why. There seems to be a view in some quarters that all we have to do in the UK is replicate the IPL or Big Bash, but of course, anyone with half a brain should see it ain’t that simple.
Both the IPL and Big Bash comprise a competition played between 8 teams or, and beware if you are of a delicate disposition, as I’m about to use the ‘F’ word – franchises. Australia’s eight comprise six cities from each of the six States. Similarly, the IPL comprises eight teams from eight major cities spread right across India. Both exist in vast countries so captive support for each team is relatively easy. Games are played in big stadia, even the smallest team in the Big Bash – Hobart – plays in a ground that holds 19,500. And because there are few teams, live screening of each match is feasible – and that is the holy grail for the broadcasters. If they are paying top dollar they want maximum exposure, and they want the best players in the competition to attract the audiences.
It’s estimated that of cricket’s global revenues, 80% comes from broadcasting rights with under 10% coming from punters paying on the door. And herein lies the problem for the ECB as it tries to find a way to find a way of maximising TV deals and revenue.
As we all know we have 18 counties. Some are ‘haves’ – they have tests status grounds with large capacities; some are ‘have nots’. Some are in perilous financial straits relying on ECB handouts. All of them, understandably wish to preserve their status, identity and history.
Sky cannot broadcast every T20 game unless they are spread out over a long period – this wouldn’t work for the television audience, nor for spectators actually going to games I suspect. And one thing broadcaster do like is a full house to be shown on TV, atmosphere and the feeling that the viewer is at an ‘event’ are important. So the ‘F’ word raises its ugly head in an attempt to mirror the IPL and Big Bash. How would that work? At the moment, it wouldn’t and no amount of trying to find an alternative word eg ‘City’ will help. Why?
Picture the ECB think tank over lunch at Lords. “How about going regional? North, South, East, West and Midlands. Not very exciting is it and only five teams? OK, expand the regions into ….er…..counties. Ah, yes…..right there’d be eighteen of those and we already…………ok forget that.
Cities then (whatever you do don’t use the ‘F’ word)? Let’s see……………… London (Middlesex, Surrey, maybe Essex at a push); Manchester (that’ll be Lancashire then); Birmingham (Warwickshire obviously, and Northants and Worcestershire); Nottingham (Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire); Bristol(Gloucestershire and Somerset); Cardiff (that’ll be Glamorgan then);
Newcastle (ah…that’s Durham taken care of); and what about Hampshire, Sussex and Kent sir? Well, we only want eight teams so call it Southampton (Hampshire and Sussex – they’re next door to each other so that’s fine).”
“What about Kent?”
“Hm, bits of it aren’t far from London so bung Kent in there.”
“Sir, what about Yorkshire?”
“They’re an independent republic aren’t they? Anyway, they’ve already said they’ll enter as long as they’re called Yorkshire.” ‘’Sir Surrey have also indicated they’ll be happy to play for London as long as it’s called Surrey. And it seems that Essex, Northants, Derbyshire, Leicestershire are forming an armed brigade ready to march on HQ at any time.”
“I see…right get on the phone and call off tomorrow’s meeting with the county chairmen.”
“What about two divisions?” “Move the whole thing to the UAE?”
“Any other ideas?.......Anyone?”
The point is the Counties know there’s a need for radical change to ensure their future existence. However as I’ve pointed out none wish to be sacrificial lambs, either losing their individual identity, the smaller clubs don’t want to be swallowed up by the bigger ones in some franchised carve up, none want to miss out on the TV revenue. The fact is, we are a small island with eighteen counties and not enough geographical spread to sustain an IPL or Big Bash model. I think it was Jonathan Agnew who recently said it’s all very well trying to ape these competitions but we have to face up to the fact that we are different by virtue of our county structure, and you know what? I think he’s right.
Something will have to give. I’ve no idea what. Anyone out there who does I suggest you send your answers on a postcard to the ECB sharpish.
Written by Bob Bowden (@54Bobb)
As the great and good (ish) of the ECB lit a cigar and sat back with a glass of fine cognac to toast the new season, replete with self satisfaction at the revolutionary changes, or as some might say, the annual tinkering with the rules, little did they know what lay around the corner. Before they’d flicked the last of the ash of the old Havana, none other than the England captain himself caused the old boys to choke on the brandy.
Alastair Cook walked out to bat in the first County Championship match for Essex wearing his old favourite helmet. As did Jonathan Trott for Warwickshire. Game one of the new season and two high profile players were refusing to play ball, as it were. So what caused this open display of rebellion?
On the face of it the ECB has taken the not unreasonable view that it makes sense to ensure that player safety remains paramount and that safety equipment meets the highest standards. Anyone want to argue against that? No, didn’t think so. So the ECB introduced new regulations in regard to ‘head protection equipment’, helmets or ‘lids’ to you and me.
No half intelligent person who walks out with a bat in hand is going to object to wearing a piece of protection that will prevent them getting their skull cracked are they? Of course not, unless perhaps you are from the ‘In my day’ generation. Certainly not Alastair Cook or Jonathan Trott, or any others unhappy with the ECB’s new rules.
Two aspects of the new regulations seem to be the bone of contention. First is that the wearing of ‘compliant headgear’ is now mandatory for batting against all types of bowling; wicket keepers when standing up to the wicket; and fielding when in a position closer than 8 yards from the batsman.
Second, is that ‘head protectors’ – oh for goodness sake – helmets (!) must in both design and manufacture meet British Standard BS7928:2013 which has been adopted by the ICC as the international standard.
So why all the fuss? A combination of considered thought along with apoplectic explosions of outrage from certain quarters suggest the rumblings of discontent are about freedom of choice and the cricket authorities adopting a nanny state approach.
Let’s look at freedom of choice. The argument goes something like this.
It’s up to the individual whether he or she wants to wear a helmet. If they don’t, it’s because (a) they don’t feel it’s necessary e.g. a batsman facing a bowler so slow that a fag and a read of the Racing Post is possible before the ball arrives; or (b) if the individual is dim witted enough to risk getting brained, well, it’s a free country innit? Who are the ECB to tell players what to do? It’s ‘elf & safety’ gone mad.
These are the sorts of arguments that have brought forth one or two usual suspects such as Geoffrey Boycott, and an unusual ally for Boycs , Ian Botham. Geoffrey complains the ECB are turning cricket into a game for ‘cissies’; Beefy believes it’s a ‘big boys game’ (and presumably a big girls game too although the ladies may not welcome such a description) and that the football authorities wouldn’t dare tell Lionel Messi he had to wear shin guards (er…actually Beefy they already do – mandatory). I normally agree with these two – they’re from my cricketing generation but I’m not sure that I agree with them on this point. The fact they didn’t wear lids in their day is to my mind irrelevant. I grew up watching guys like this play, and the fact is for most of their careers helmets weren’t around or when they did arrive were pretty rudimentary affairs. There were some ferociously fast bowlers plying their trade so the top batsmen learnt that self preservation was a priority, and learned to watch the ball – I imagine as best you could – when Holding, Marshall, Lillee or Thomson were trying to knock you into the local infirmary, players were left ducking and weaving like a flyweight boxer. Hooking and pulling, for obvious reasons, was far less prevalent than today and only executed by the very best batters. Tailenders who couldn’t tell one end of a Gunn & Moore from another were generally afforded exemption from exocet deliveries via a sort of bowler’s gentlemen’s agreement, although I’m not sure Jeff Thomson signed up to it.
However, time has moved on. The problem is that the introduction of helmets and their subsequent evolution with faceguards and ever greater protection has developed a sense of security where batters down to number 11 don’t think twice about dealing with the short ball with an extravagant hook or swipe. T20 has encouraged this even more. The thinking is “If I get a clonk on the nut, it’s ok I’m protected.” Of course, sadly we all know that isn’t necessarily the case.
The fact is, I’d bet there are few, if any, top class batsmen today who could play quick bowling well without a helmet – why would they be able to? So freedom of choice – ok – but in reality players mostly wear helmets anyway in the circumstances covered by the regulations.
Next, what’s the beef (excuse the Botham pun) with the ‘compliant headgear’? Ah, this is the more interesting one. The ECB lists manufacturers of helmets that meet the new standard – no surprise all the household names do and there are around thirty different lids to choose from. They all look super. The problem is that the faceguard or grilles are no longer adjustable, they are fixed to a position where it is reckoned the ball cannot penetrate between grille and helmet peak. This will help avoid the sort of injuries suffered by Stuart Broad and Craig Kieswetter, the latter’s career being ended by such an impact injury.
That’s a good thing right? Well, no according to one or two high profile players the most notable of which of course is current England captain Alastair Cook. The key appears to be the fixed grilles do not provide the same field of vision as the old grilles that the batsman could adjust to suit their own eyeline. Ravi Bopara has said the same that in some cases the grille bar cuts across your line of vision.
The point is that at the highest level, where the stakes are now so high, players like Cook live or die by the runs they make and plays the short ball better than most. A split second is all they have to make the judgement of whether to play or leave the short pitched ball, and that is not going to be helped if your view is restricted.
Cook made a point of ignoring the ECB’s mandatory position in Essex’s opening championship fixture by wearing his old (non –compliant) helmet, which puts the ECB and England in a somewhat tricky position. It’s thought that the England captain believes he is the best judge of his own safety and has not been able to find one of the new helmets that he feels comfortable with. Alastair Cook does not strike me as the sort of bloke who wants to be a rebel or deliberately confrontational. His position though as England captain makes him extraordinarily high profile in any stand off on this issue. I suspect other players are watching very carefully as to what happens.
It may be that Cook will find a new helmet that works for him, England and the ECB I guess are certainly hoping so as the last thing they want is for him and others to refuse to conform with the new regulations at the beginning of a new summer. Hauling the England captain up before a disciplinary board would be a tad awkward to say the least. Quite where the PCA would stand on this is interesting as the new regulations were brought in after consultation with them apparently.
One other thought, and it is that the ECB might want to think about putting a rather large wad of cash to one side. Just suppose that Cook, and other players conclude they have to conform and go off in search of a new lid, only to find one that is from a different manufacturer to their current favourite. Some difficult meetings with players kit sponsors may well follow, and while I’m no commercial contract expert I imagine claims for compensation might also be a consequence.
Make of all that lot what you will. I think the ECB have brought in the new regulations with all good intent and for us club cricket oiks and youth players it’s the right thing to do. However, at the elite level some compromise is going to be required to avoid the whole issue becoming rather messy to say the least. Happy Summer!
Written by Bob Bowden (@54bobb)
When my son asked me to write something for the website I confess I scratched my head a bit. This may be explained by the fact that I am of a certain age that entitles me to grumble a lot about anything and everything (it’s one of the few perks of getting older), including the state of modern cricket. Having said that I’m not about to bore you with my opinions on any of that and I can almost hear the sighs of relief as I type this!
Having looked at the season preview I was struck by the baffling array of different players for different competitions over different time periods in the season. So instead I’m going to take you back dear readers to a view from the outfield in 1985, where my immediate thoughts are that cricket was so much simpler then. We’ll see I suppose. Straight off, let me come clean. My county team are Essex – there, I’ve said it - so forgive if my ramblings are from that perspective.
So let’s go back in time. For those of younger years, domestic cricket in 1985 comprised four competitions:
All of this could, if a county had a good season add up to a lot of cricket. In 1985 for example, Essex played 52 matches across the four competitions – more of this later. There were few breaks in the schedule and it was the norm for JPS Sunday games to be shoehorned into the middle of a county game.
Counties also took the game out to people in their county by holding festival weeks, a concept today fast disappearing sadly. Back then, Essex played at Ilford, Southend, and Colchester in addition to their Headquarters at Chelmsford. Typically a festival week comprised of two 3 day County Championship matches plus a Sunday League game. Of course facilities at many out grounds weren’t great and sometimes neither were the pitches so perhaps players didn’t enjoy these weeks as much as us spectators but they attracted excellent crowds and were very popular. My friends and I would usually take a week’s holiday to watch Essex down in dear old Southend on Sea. “Tides comin’ in off the estuary, ball ‘ll start doing a bit” some old sage would remark, and they were usually right! As the esteemed Editor of this site has pointed out previously, Southend was where he got his cricket baptism and love for the game.
Travelling for players and officials – most of whom to my recollection drove themselves to matches, would today simply be seen as plain daft and not necessarily conducive to top performance. Here’s one week in the 1985 season to illustrate the point.
On Saturday June 8th, Essex commenced a County Championship game against Lancashire at Ilford. For those of you not familiar Ilford was a small club ground situated in a public park, in effectively east London although then it was still technically in Essex. The small dressing rooms were immediately either side of the clubhouse bar which was always rammed with people enjoying their day out, and not averse to giving advice or opinion to players trying to get some peace and quiet a few feet away! Anyway, I digress. On the following day, Sunday 9th the two teams played a John Player Special league game. Day two of the county championship game resumed on the 10th finishing on Tuesday 11th.
On the following three days 12th – 14th Essex hosted Northants in a championship game at Ilford. The match would have concluded at around 5.30 – 6.00 pm on the 14th whereupon the Essex players would have duly jumped in their cars to drive to Swansea (remember this is a Friday in the rush hour in London) for an 11.00 am start the following morning. The three-day game against Glamorgan finished on the 18th June, interspersed on the Sunday of course with a JPS league game. Time for a rest? Not a chance. At the conclusion of the game at Swansea it was straight back down the M4 and beyond in time for a 10.30 am start the next morning at Chelmsford for the small matter of a Benson & Hedges Cup semi final against Middlesex. I’m tired just thinking about it, Lord knows how the players felt and there wasn’t really such a thing as squad rotation in those days either.
The County Championship remained the premier competition to win, a summer long marathon to determine the best team of the purist form of cricket. This was the era before central contracts for test players, so counties continued to have the use of players who were selected for their country. In addition to playing 6 Ashes tests and 3 ODIs Graham Gooch also played 35 matches for Essex during the summer of the 1985 season. Don’t think the Yorkshire public will see Joe Root too often!
The two cup competitions were considered prestigious trophies, especially the NatWest Trophy which was pretty much cricket’s equivalent of the FA Cup. Finals of both these competitions provided a great day out at Lords for supporters and finals were played to packed houses.
The JPS Sunday league had been around for years in one guise or another, and my recollection was it was something to be enjoyed but many thought it ‘not proper’ cricket at only 40-overs per side. At least back then players all had to wear whites even in the one-day competitions – the ghastly pyjama strips hadn’t quite arrived. What some of those naysayers would make of T20 is anybody’s guess! The problem with the 40-over game was that it wasn’t quite long enough to warrant a paced innings and not short enough to encourage explosive hitting. As a result quite often it could be a bit tedious in my opinion. Run rates were nowhere near what the are today in one-day cricket and batsmen rarely improvised – no ramps, scoops or reverse sweeping back then!
So, what of Essex and 1985? You will not be surprised dear reader to learn that it was a fairly miserable English summer! Essex lost 16 days to the weather including an early stop to play on the opening day of the county championship at Chelmsford due to a snowstorm – poor old Northants lost 25 days. Middlesex, the eventual county champions unsurprisingly fared better losing only 9.
Following Essex has always been a roller coaster ride and 1985 captured that perfectly.
Essex went into the 1985 season as defending champions of both the County Championship and the JPS Sunday competition. By the middle of July they were bottom of one and second bottom of the other championship. They had however shown decent form in the Benson and Hedges and reached the final. The B & H final was played in July so optimism reigned that we could salvage something from the season. Sadly it proved to be a false hope as Leicestershire and David Gower won a fairly mundane contest comfortably. The wheels had truly come off.
However, cricket being the game that it is, the B&H final proved to be a turning point for Essex. After that defeat the team didn’t lose another game for the rest of the season. A mixed run of draws and wins in their final 11 matches saw them climb the County Championship table to finish 4th.
In the NatWest Trophy they reached their second final at Lords of the summer. Now, the NatWest final, being the showpiece of the county season was played in September. One hundred and twenty overs in the day, with intervals meant these finals could well finish at best in fading light or at worst stygian gloom. That was certainly the case as this time they triumphed beating Nottinghamshire – Clive Rice, Richard Hadlee, Derek Randall et al in one the great one day finals, winning by one run as Randall was caught off the last ball of the innings needing two to win.
Winning the NatWest salvaged the season of that there was no doubt. However the season, for so long a damp squib until the triumph at Lords was not quite done. Having amassed only one win from their first 7 John Player Special matches, Essex went on a run in July of winning 7 out of 8 in the competition. They went into the final game of the season needing to win at Chelmsford against Yorkshire to be crowned JPS champions again and thwart Sussex at the last.
Naturally, being Essex they did it by testing the cardiac robustness of their supporters all the way, squeezing the win off the penultimate ball off the day.
So a season that for so long promised little, in the end delivered much. It seemed to be the catalyst for change at the County at a time when stability and constancy of personnel seemed commonplace at most counties. Keith Fletcher decided to step down a skipper after 11 years at the helm. Having led Essex to their first trophies in 1979 (after a pot-less 104 years!) and after a decade of unprecedented success it was a shock to think ‘Gnome’ would no longer be scheming and pulling strings. There was continuity though as Graham Gooch, another Essex ‘lifer’ stepped into the void. Other change took place with the departure of two overseas stars. Today, I look at the list of overseas players for the forthcoming season – overseas, ‘foreign’ UK passport holders, Kolpaks etc. and can’t keep pace of who will be playing what and when or for how long! At the end of 1985, Ken McEwan and Norbert ‘Nobby’ Phillip departed Essex after 12 and 7 years respectively. McEwan was an elegant, classical South African batsman deprived of a Test career due to South Africa’s exclusion from international cricket. International cricket’s loss was Essex’s gain for many years. Nobby Phillip was a lively, fastish medium pacer from the West Indies. Wayward at times, destructive with the bat when in the mood, Essex supporters held him in great affection.
All this felt like the end of an era. Other players were getting older. Some younger players were coming through although few had a real lasting impact. One who would, in 1985 had won the U19 player of the year. A mop of curly hair (you’ll find this hard to believe) and with a reputation for arrogance, a certain young Nasser Hussein was waiting in the wings.
So things were changing, slowly at first, but little did we unsuspecting supports and cricket following know that off into the not too distant future massive change was on the horizon.
At the beginning of this ramble, I said I wouldn’t get into a today v yesterday rant, and I won’t. What I would say, is that back in 1985 it felt simpler, there was a sense of stability, a sense of calm in the County scene. And maybe, ultimately that’s where the problem lay.
Written by Bob Bowden - Follow him on Twitter @54bobb.
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