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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