Last Wednesday, there were several reported deaths, amongst which that of Clive James stood out as the most monumental for me. Another Wednesday and another name who looms large in my memories has come to the end of his run-up, the former England and Warwickshire fast bowler and Captain, Bob Willis.
Of course the first thought is Headingley, 1981. The match may be inevitably associated with Ian Botham, who won the Man of the Match, but essential though his performance was, it was still, in cricketing terms, the prelude to Willis’s last day bowling, his relentless charging in, very much ‘in the zone’, to take 8 Australian wickets for 42, figures engraved on any English Cricket fan’s heart.
And Willis put so much into his performance, concentrated so hard, that his response to the Press was to attack them for their criticism of England over the first three days of the Test, because what they had actually done did not make itself felt for hours after the match, and he had to pull over whilst driving home, because it had suddenly hit him.
I honour him for that, and always will, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t mention the other things I remember about Bob Willis, the cricketer. One was a Warwickshire – Lancashire County Championship match at Edgbaston, where Lancashire, batting third, had agreed to declare at a specific total, to give the host County a fair total to chase. The game was notable for the debut of Neil Fairbrother and, with the total in sight, Fairbrother was also in sight of a century that would have made him the first Lancashire player to do that since the Nineteenth Century.
With about two overs left before the total would be reached, Willis set a tight field around Fairbrother, denying him any chance of the runs to achieve that feat, and them promptly opened up the field to make it easy for the other Lancy batsman to knock them off. Miserable sod.
And I remember another occasion with Lancashire, a Benson & Hedges Cup Final win in a low-scoring game, in which Man of the Match was awarded to John Abrahams for his captaincy and skilful management of the game, which drew a miserable and bitter response from Willis, live on TV, about how he didn’t know how the Award could go to someone who didn’t bowl and didn’t score any runs. Maybe he was still in his ‘zone’ at that point, but it was an unpleasant display.
Gold and clay: can’t remember one without the other. But he took those wickets, and I will never forget the shock I had when I found out England had won.
I made my Test Match début in 1968, an Ashes summer, when I inadvertently discovered BBC TV coverage of each day’s play. All day, every day, that summer I would sit in black and white fascination. All but the crucial final day at the Oval, when England raced time to mop up the Aussies on a drying pitch and square the series, whilst my Mam had taken my sister and myself to Southport for the day, and I had to try to follow the score from people’s transistor radios along the promenade. It was the start of a lifelong fascination with this wonderful game.
I made my real Test Match début, my first attendance at a Test, thirteen years later, again in an Ashes summer, on the third day of the Fifth Test between England and Australia, at Old Trafford, naturally. Popular opinion now, and for a very long time to come, will nominate the 2005 series as the Greatest Ashes Series ever, but for those of us who are a bit older, it doesn’t quite dislodge 1981 from our affections. There were all the same thrills and dramas, and England coming from behind, but that summer of the first Six Test series, of the first experiment with Sunday play, had more twists, more aspects, more turns. And where 2005 had Andrew Flintoff, 1981 had Ian Botham.
The series started at Trent Bridge with the 25 year old Botham as England captain. He’d made his début in the Test team in 1977 and had already made his name as a charismatic all-rounder, an exciting, aggressive batsman, a vigorous, dynamic bowler: so much so that, when Mike Brearley had stepped down after winning the Ashes in Australia in 1978/9, against a Packer-decimated Aussie team, Botham had been the popular and Selectorial choice to succeed him.
It’s an arguable point as to what was the cause, but Botham hadn’t won a Test as Captain, and his form had undergone a severe dip: he had scored a half-century in his first Test as Captain, but hadn’t achieved a similar score after that, and he’d taken no five-fors. The press and the public were sure that it was the pressure of captaincy affecting his performance, Botham that it was simply a coincidental loss of form, and the fact that all those Tests had been against the West Indies was certainly more than a contributory factor. Any Captain would have struggled to make an impression upon them at that time, and this was before the ‘Blackwash’ series’ of the Eighties.
The England selectors’ response at this point was to re-appoint Botham as Captain, but only for the First Test, which England lost. He was then appointed Captain for the Second Test only. This was virtually unheard of and served as a focus for Press attention, which was redoubled when England drew the Test at Lords, and Botham was out for a pair.
At the end of the game, Botham spoke to the Selectors and asked them to show their confidence in him by appointing him for the remainder of the series. When they refused to do so, he resigned, confirming this to the Press and explaining that the pressure on his family was unacceptable if he was to be appointed in this drip-drip manner. All resolved, painlessly and sensibly – except that Chairman of the Selectors Alec Bedser then bluntly told the Press that if Botham hadn’t resigned, he’d have been sacked anyway. A cheap, nasty, unnecessary, heartless statement, and absolutely typical of a dictatorial and impervious body of men.
So Brearley was back – a 37 year old man who was a good first slip, a respectable but not Test Class batsman, and a genius at the art of captaincy. That is what he was picked for, to straighten out the England side and get it to function again.
Brearley’s first self-imposed task was to contact Botham and sound him out about his mental readiness for the Third Test. Botham, of course, was up for it: no challenge refused.
Which is where the tenor of the whole series changed. At Headingley
Though Botham managed to hit 50 in England’s first innings, this was still Australia’s test, for the first three and a half days. They’d only made a modest first innings score, but England, despite Botham’s contribution, made a much more modest one and were invited to follow on. And only once in the whole history of Test Cricket had a side won after being asked to follow on. England’s only hope was survival, and that didn’t look too hopeful as wickets fell steadily.
At that time, I was working in Romiley to the south east of Stockport. It meant I got home about 5.50pm on the Monday afternoon, just ten minutes ahead of close of play. I went straight to the TV, switched on BBC2. I caught a shot of the Scoreboard and refused to believe it.
I thought it had said 326-8, but that just wasn’t possible. I had to have misread it, probably 226, that was more like it. But it was 326, and come the highlights I marvelled at the hitting of Botham and Dilley, the sustained attack on the Aussie attack, weakened by the decision to choose left arm spinner Ray Bright on a seamer’s wicket. At close of play we had a lead of 125. Not much, obviously not enough, and a complete surprise.
The next morning, I was in Stockport, at the Magistrate’s Court. As I walked back to my car, at 12.00ish, I passed a television shop and saw Australia were batting again. Obviously we hadn’t added much more, and they were on the way to winning, but at least we’d restored some pride in defeat.
The next thing that happened was, as the clock struck 2.00 pm and I came back off lunch, I stopped off in the Off-Licence opposite, to buy a cold can of Coke – and heard the radio news announce that England had just won the Test! How on Earth had that happened?
Well, we’ll all know about Botham’s 149 not out, and Willis’s 8-42, and what a game it was to watch as the tide of fortune swung so decisively in England’s direction in the last day and a half of the game, making history, overturning expectation in the most spectacular of fashion. Or what it would have been like to watch that, even on TV, which is something that I did not get to do.
It was a dramatic moment, but all it had done was to level the series, and there were few indeed who, at that time, expected better than that England would be better equipped to complete in the last three Tests.
Back in 1981, Test Match Summers had a smooth, enviable rhythm. Headingley ended on the Tuesday, and Edgbaston began on the Thursday of the following week, each Test occupying the traditional venues, at regular fortnightly intervals. We were ready and rested for the resumption of the fray, but it was a nondescript, low-scoring Test – one of the few in which not a single batsman scored a 50 – and once again Australia were chasing a low fourth innings score to regain the series lead. We were already calling the Third Test victory “The Miracle of Headingley”, but no-one expected miracles to repeat themselves. History seemed less flexible, the unexpected more unexpected, and certainly not a serial event.
This was one of the three Tests that were experimenting with no rest day, so the climax ended up on Sunday afternoon. The BBC’s schedules were not prepared for all day cricket coverage on Sundays, so the game was dipping in and out of visits to Birmingham, just like the stop-start nature of the usual Sunday League coverage, where equal time was devoted to other sports. To keep me going, I had on Test Match Special on Radio 3 MW.
It was Australia’s game again, making slow and unspectacular progress towards a low target, more time than anyone would need to get there, five wickets down and accumulating without worries. Then Ian Botham came back into the attack.
Almost immediately, he ripped out Rodney Marsh, clean bowled. It was a start, at least until the next ball, with which he did Bright, leg before! Two in two, the balance of the game changing in an instant, on a hat trick and I’m screaming at the screen for the Beeb to get their coverage over to Edgbaston, before that third ball, come on, move it!
With the slowness of tectonic plates grinding, they did shift their monolithic direction, in time for a third ball that zipped past Lillee without taking a wicket, but now we were at the cricket, there was no going back. Botham struck again, and again, suddenly driving England to the edge of a second unexpected victory, the Botham whirlwind suddenly blowing away everyone in its path, and this was unfolding in real time, not something you come home from work to, done and recorded. And he did it, bending the world to fit around him, five wickets, five wickets in five overs and one ball, and only a single run conceded in that breathless rush. It was England now who, from a Test down, had taken the series lead. No-one who saw the post-match interview with the Captains will ever forget the look in Kim Hughes’ eyes. It was described as the look of someone who’d been sandbagged around the back of the neck just before going on, and in thirty years I’ve never come up with something to surpass that.
And so we moved to Manchester and the Fifth Test, and me.
Old Trafford was the last of the Sunday play Tests that summer. In later years, I would arrange my holidays in Ashes summers (and the West Indian ones) so that I could go to all five days, but this first occasion I hadn’t thought that far in advance and I was only going to the weekend, and Monday.
It was going to be a sunny weekend, August at its best. The first day’s play was pretty nondescript, England struggling towards a low total, and only being boosted past 200 on the Friday morning thanks to a maiden unbeaten Test half century from Lancashire’s fast-medium bowler Paul Allott, making his England début in this Test, thanks to a lot of hacking, slashing and Chinese cuts! It carried England to 231.
I’d been in Court again and now I was back to the car to go back to my Office, and straight to Radio 3MW, where the cheers were still reverberating for Bob Willis’s second wicket in an over. He’s had Johnny Dyson caught at slip off the first ball and, though Kim Hughes had struck a 4, the Aussie Captain was then leg before off the fourth ball. And it wasn’t over: off the last ball of the over, Willis had Graham Yallop caught at slip and then Allott took his first Test wicket, trapping Graham Wood leg before off the first ball of the next over! 20 for 0 to 24 for 4 in seven balls!
It knocked the guts out of the Aussie innings, and England established themselves a 101 run First innings lead which they’d extended to 171 at close of play, having lost the still-far-from-established Graham Gooch cheaply.
The Saturday was a sell-out, Old Trafford was at capacity, 25,000. I’d never seen the ground remotely full so far, so I was completely unprepared for the realities of the situation. There were none of the individual plastic-bucket seats of today: the terraces were adorned with park-bench type seats, in cracked and peeling blue paint, on which people sat and sprawled out as they choice, relaying on primacy of arrival. The ground might hold 25,00, but my inexpert guess was that it could only seat 21,000, and I wasn’t one of them.
Health and Safety be damned, people were sitting themselves on the long, low concrete steps of the gangways between sections on the Warwick Road End, and I followed suit, taking my thin summer jacket off and folding it into as thick a pad as possible (not very) and sitting on that for almost the whole day. It was hard and cold under… well, not foot, was it?
And for half the day, the cricket matched my bum-numb perch. In the morning session, two hours play, England lost three wickets and advanced their score by 29 runs. 29 runs in two hours of play, and a single boundary, a straight drive for 4 by Mike Gatting in the final over before lunch, through long off. And then, typical Gatting, he went and padded up to a straight one next ball, and was out lbw.
It wasn’t much better for most of the first hour after lunch, although it was getting warmer as the fringes of grey cloud were dissipating. Brearley came and went, bringing Botham in. At the other end, Chris Tavare pottered and nudged and nurdled and defended and generally advanced his score at a pace that would have had snails looking back at it, and anyone frustrated at Jonathan Trott rapidly revising their stories.
I decided I needed a drink and squeezed round to the bar under the back of C stand, only to discover when I returned that Botham had hit two fours in the same over off Bright – the second and third boundaries of the day, and I missed them. This was not an introduction to be remembered.
Though Botham was beginning to show a little more aggression, starting to drive the score on a little faster, the second new ball was due before long, and we all knew what that would mean: back into the shell, playing defensively.
The first over with the second new ball was bowled by Terry Alderman from the Warwick Road End, pitter-pattering away from us with that never-too-fast run. Botham was cautious for a couple of balls, then he tried to launch one over long-off and got under it a bit too much. Mike Whitney, the left arm seamer who, a week before, had been the Pro at Fleetwood, up the Fylde Coast, was racing back with arms outstretched but didn’t quite get there: the ball fell to earth and Botham ran three.
That left him on strike for the next over, Dennis Lillee from the Stretford End. This was Dennis Lillee – no longer the flat-out tearaway of 1972 who made me feel scared just running in on TV, but still, this was Dennis Lillee. And first ball he unleashed a bouncer at Botham’s head.
And Botham swayed out of the way, swung the bat round in a vicious circle and smashed it into the crowd behind square leg for 6.
I’ve said before of cricket’s peculiar virtue whereby a game can be fixed solidly in a certain groove, the weight and the power running strictly in one direction, and then in a single ball, the whole edifice is smashed and the game revolves into a completely different thing in an instant. That one shot destroyed the frustrating grip on the game of the austerity so far. The crowd were electrified. When Lillee came up to deliver his second ball, all things had changed.
Botham pushed a single. Tavare, unbelievably, scored 3. Lillee’s fourth ball was another bouncer to Botham, which he again hooked behind square on a flatter trajectory, the howls of the crowd running with it to the boundary. A dot ball, then off the last of the over, a third bouncer and this time Botham wasn’t even looking at the ball, head ducked as he swung and sent the ball back of square for another 6 and out of the ground too!
Funnily enough, after that first over, and those three strikes that I can still see in my mind, as exact as if I were still sat there on the stone step, I remember very little of the rest of Botham’s innings. The sweep for six over long leg, off Bright, with Lillee on the boundary stretching but not reaching the ball, to send us into lunch, the almost perfunctory snick when he edged Whitney behind and waked off briskly, as if he’d just completed a decent 38 at Taunton, these are all that have stuck with me.
But there were three more 6’s than I’ve already mentioned in an innings of 118 that tore the game away from the Australians. It was just powerful, aggressive hitting, the kind that often inspires the word ‘flaying’ to describe it. Botham’s been described as hitting the ball about like a mad baseball player, of scoring so fast that the scoreboard wasn’t able to keep up with him. That at least is hype, but he more than scored so fast that his partner Tavare couldn’t keep up with him. But then, he didn’t try.
Tavare, who’d come in on the Friday evening, after the fall of Gooch, had progressed to 35 not out when Botham came to the wicket. By the time Botham departed, the partnership having added 149 Tavare’s score had gone on to 63. That kind of disparity in a partnership is not surprising when you’re batting with the tail (Viv Richards/Mike Holding, remember?) but it’s highly unusual when the non-scoring partner is the no. 3 batsman. But, until the end of his career, that was Tav. He just stuck to keeping his end up. This really was a one-man show.
Botham’s innings had changed the game. There was a sense of inevitability to things thereafter that, under a hot August sun, filled the crowd with easy enjoyment, fuelled by the drink, of course.
Brearley opted to bat on, to bat Australia out of any prospect of coming back into the game, there being two days and six sessions after the Saturday. So Knott and Emburey, overnight and into a simply glorious and uproarious Sunday, piled on the runs, despite a certain impatience on the crowd’s part to get at those Aussies. When England were finally out, for 404, Australia’s target was 505, a fourth innings total out of all imagining, but still only 100 a session for five sessions.
And they were obliged to go after it. Not just because they were Australians but because there was so much of the game, in perfect conditions, to play. Yallop made a ton, Border made an unbeaten ton, 123 not out, batting with a broken finger.
I remember the uproarious atmosphere, especially on the Sunday, with a capacity crowd revelling in English superiority. The batting and the bowling was of a very high quality – the very best moment was when Alan Knott tried a controlled ‘uppercut’ towards third man and Johnny Dyson, who’d been a bit of a butt of the English crowd’s taunting all summer, sprinted a dozen yards to his right before diving to take a one-handed catch.
But it was the sense of fun I remember most of all. The pitch invasion, in the afternoon session, by the bloke wearing a gorilla costume and trying to get to shake hands with Botham (whose nicknames included ‘Guy the Gorilla’). The even better pitch invasion by two blokes who simply climbed over the fence in front of H stand and, side by side as if they had every right to be there, strolling across the ground towards the wicket, ignoring the umpire going to meet them and, as soon as they reached the wicket, grabbing the bails at each end and sprinting off into the crowd, to raucous cheers.
The best moment however was restricted to those sat in my section of the Warwick Road End. There were girls wandering around, selling ice creams, and some guy, six or seven rows behind me, had cadged from one a piece of the dry ice being used to keep the ice creams from melting. he wanted to cool his beer down, so he dropped it in his glass, and it started foaming and bubbling, the glass vomiting broiling liquid from its rim, and he held the glass up for all to see, the dry ice kicking and spitting and the foam streaming down his arm, and everybody collapsing in laughter at the sight of it.
Monday was a complete contrast, the ground only about a third full and though the sun was still high and full, a certain coolness crept into the air. England bowled on, Australia batted on. They’d been 210 overnight, for 5, still needing almost 300 runs for the impossible victory, but in terms of scoring rates, they had clearly set themselves for the steady 100 runs a session, and they weren’t losing wickets. In the afternoon, with Lillee supporting the immovable Border, the nagging doubt began to creep in that maybe, just maybe, they might do it, or even get as close as the New Zealanders had done in 1972, less than a decade earlier, when I was still at School, in chasing down a 500 plus target and giving history a real fright.
But this was Botham’s year and it was his Test for the third time in a row, and Paul Allott was bowling at the Warwick Road End, to Lillee, with Botham in that position of arrogance at second slip, hands on knees until the batsman’s played his shot, and Lillee edged the ball wide of Botham, and he snatched it in both hands, the ball behind him.
From there it was merely time. The ninth wicket went down before tea, which was delayed a half hour, but Border managed to keep enough of the strike away from Alderman to extend the game into its final session. And then there was a bomb scare in the Warwick Road End, and we all had to evacuate to other parts of the ground, but the game didn’t last long after tea, and we were all running onto the pitch in the manner of the early Eighties, not that there were that many of us, because we’d won the Test, and won the Ashes. My first test. My first Ashes Test. The only time I’ve seen England beat Australia.
It was Botham’s summer, or at least those three Tests were. No-one could fail to support him then, falling, like the Australians before his invincible form. Like everyone in that summer of 1981, I wanted to see him play far more than any other cricketer alive.
The years were not kind to that veneration. Nowadays, I try to ignore Botham, rather than endure the sort of stuff that’s totally destroyed my respect for him, such as his public declaration that he would hang me if he had the opportunity (he being a Monarchist and I a Republican). I’d rather remember the days when he was an exciting and flamboyant batsman and bowler, rather than a 14 carat ****.
Like when he batted like a madman at Old Trafford, and I was there.
For better or worse, a Roses match at Headingley was always an event: three days of daily trips from Manchester to Leeds and back along a road that became so familiar that I could almost have done it in my sleep and, on one occasion, returning from watching United at Newcastle on a horribly foggy Sunday evening, did do in five yard visibility fog, judging every twist, turn, dip and rise with my body and memory as much as my eyes.
I never considered staying in Leeds – what, in Yorkshire? – not with it being so easy to reach – ninety minutes from gate to door, or seventy-five if you tested the speed limits for their elasticity as I did on one memorable occasion where I had to be back quickly. I even bought my first car to avoid having to mess with buses and trains for three days, when I paid my first visit in August 1981.
That was an experience in itself. Saturday was fine. I discovered the Winter Shed, enjoyed the cricket, found my way there and back by a mixture of luck and judgement. Unfortunately, on Bank Holiday Monday, I had barely got half way up the Saddleworth Valley when my car overheated rapidly and I had to pull up.
Fortunately, there was a call-box not too far distant, so I phoned my Uncle in Droylsden, who was the car expert in our family, and half an hour of lovely, sunny, cricket conditions later, he and Grandad turned up to refill my radiator and lead me back home, where he patched up the hose leak that was draining the radiator and causing the overheating.
(A year later, it would have been very different, for both would be gone).
Emboldened, I set off again, only for the engine to overheat a second time. By then, I was across the Pennines and running downhill towards Huddersfield, so I topped the radiator up again, with the water canister my Uncle had given me, and carried on. I had to do that a second time, north of Huddersfield, but I got to Headingley by Lunch. In Yorkshire, it was growing overcast, so much so that play was abandoned for bad light before Tea.
The car was frustratingly worse going home: I could barely managed five miles at a time before having to pull over, and I was lucky to find a tap at which I could refill the water canister halfway.
On Tuesday, I wasted no time in taking the car back to the garage where I had bought it, only a fortnight ago. They reluctantly agreed to repair it free of charge, so I set off for Headingley again: bus to Piccadilly Station, train to Leeds, bus to Headingley. I walked into the ground at 12.30pm, just in time to see the fourth Yorkshire wicket falling.
By Lunch, half an hour later, the Tykes were eight down, and within fifteen minutes after Lunch, they had lost their last two wickets and we had won by an innings.
All that messing around, for about 45 minutes of cricket.
I made a day of it, coming home, wandering the centre of Leeds on the way back then, on a whim, taking a train home that went via Bradford to Victoria Station. It was older, slower, stopped everywhere, but reversing out of Bradford, I found myself alone in the back carriage, staring through the windows of an empty drivers cab, as the train climbed into and snaked its way through the Pennines, in soft, early evening sun, travelling backwards through strange, remote, narrow valleys that seemed to go on far longer than the map would allow. It lent a lustre to the day that made up for the paucity of the cricket I’d seen.
One of my favourite memories of Headingley was of the Roses Match of August 1990. I was on my third car by then, a very reliable Nissan Polo that carried me back and forth without the slightest issue. As for the cricket, there was a substantial Lancashire First Innings, with only Fairbrother out of the top eight failing to contribute runs, and two quick Yorkshire wickets before close of play.
On Monday, one of Mike Atherton’s best bowling performances – he took a career best 5 – 26, as well as two catches – forced Yorkshire into the follow on, in which a match-saving 146 by Ashley Metcalfe contributed to a substantial Second Innings score that was taking the game towards a tame draw, until Atherton snatched the last two wickets.
By then, we were in the Twenty Overs in the last Hour period. In fact, after the break between innings there would be fourteen overs left and a notional Lancashire target of 148 . At least, you’d have assumed it was notional.
But Lancashire in 1990 were a fast-scoring, attacking side, full of batsmen who were full of runs. We were very strong in One-Day cricket: we had won the Sunday League the previous summer, and would create history that year by becoming the first County to win both the Benson & Hedges cup and the national Westminster Bank Trophy in the same summer. And this was a one-day run-chase.
There wasn’t another County in the Championship that would have gone for it, but we expected it of our Club, and the batsmen fulfilled our hopes.
The target was 10 an over from the beginning, and it was very rapidly 12 an over, with Graeme Fowler and Gehan Mendis falling early victims, and Fairbrother not long after. That left the methodical, cautious, accumulating Atherton at the wicket with young Graham Lloyd, nicknamed Bumblebee, after his father, David Lloyd’s nickname of Bumble.
And, in glorious fashion, they went for it! And they were hitting the ball extraordinarily hard and accurate, and within a couple of minutes every Yorkshire fielder was on the boundary. Because it might have been a One-Day target, but it wasn’t a One-Day match. There were no fielding restrictions here and if Moxon wanted to stick everyone equidistant on the boundary, he could do so. The target rate was two a ball: we’d never maintain that with the field so widely spread.
So we didn’t try. Athers went for power, and placement, pulling, cutting and driving with such precision that the ball would be at the boundary before either fielder could reach it, accompanied by Lancashire roars every time. And Bumblebee went for power, murderously smashing the ball to all parts, high, hard and handsome, out of any fielder’s reach on boundaries that suddenly seemed too short.
It was glorious, it was astounding, and with every over, we were getting closer and closer to the amazing possibility that, from this unlikely position, we could very well win it!
But it didn’t last. First Atherton, then Lloyd, caught in the deep going for his sixth six, for 70 runs scored off only 35 balls, fell. With the first of them, the task became exponentially harder: with the second it became impossible.
We still tried, for a moment or two, but a sixth wicket turned the tide too much. Now it was Yorkshire who had the prospect of victory more clearly in their sights.
So we shut up shop. The Tykes were still using their opening bowlers, Paul Jarvis and Steven Fletcher, but De Freitas and Hegg were aiming to bat out time, and though Jarvis eventually broke through and got De Freitas out, with another eight balls left in which to try to snatch the last three wickets, the draw was offered and accepted, and the players left the field with honours even (except in bonus points, where we came out with 8 to Yorkshire’s 5).
But we’d gone for it. And we were making it. And it was glorious to watch, to hope and to dream. I’m very glad I was there.
I’m something of a rarity among Lancastrians in that I actually like Headingley.
There are plenty of reasons not to, not least the preponderance of Tykes around the place. The playing area is surrounding by a concrete track, around which, throughout the day, endless numbers of folk of the White Rose County perambulate perpetually, halted only by stewards closing the barriers at alternate ends to keep them from walking behind the bowler’s arm.
So, if you want a view of the cricket uninterrupted by Yorkshire bodies, you must either take one of the glorified school-type chairs ringing the boundary boards, or must seek somewhere to sit with a little height.
Unfortunately, in the glory days of my regular visits to Headingley, this was limited to three places, the Football Stand, the Western Terrace and the top deck of the Winter Shed. And the Football Stand (which was named for how it was two-faced, backing onto the Rugby ground), was inside that half of the ground that was only accessible by Members, Yorkshire or Visiting.
(There was, I discovered by chance, a way around that restriction, as described in my novel Tempus Infinitive (https://mbc1955.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/tempus-infinitive-the-tempus-trilogy-book-2/), though becoming a Lancashire member in 1986 removed the need to sneak about).
The Football Stand was superb, and you could get yourself a seat directly behind the bowler’s arm at that end. As for the Western Terrace, which now rings with controversy at Test level, lies 90 degrees to the pitch, and is of such a low camber that, by the time you reach the highest row of seats, you are nearer to Bradford than to Leeds.
Which left me, at first, with the Winter Shed, high, exposed, with a glorious view, albeit from a widish long on/long leg position vis-à-vis the wicket.
Mind you, as the photo above demonstrates, it’s all changed now.
I’ve had a variety of experiences at Headingley, but one in particular stands out as especially outstanding. Given Headingley’s reputation as a bowler’s wicket, it seems utterly improbable that I should spend a day there during which 382 runs would be scored, in three successive unbroken century partnerships. Yes, 382 runs, in a single day of County Cricket, without a single wicket being taken. At Headingley! How did this come about?
This was, of course, taking place during a Roses Match, there being no other game below Test Matches that could lure me to Headingley. It took place over the 1st, 3rd and 4th August 1987, in the days when County Cricket was still all three day games. Lancashire scored 356 all out in their first innings and Yorkshire, beginning their reply on Monday, had reached 125 when the second wicket went down in the middle of the afternoon session.
I was sat on the top deck of the Winter Shed, as usual, enjoying the sun, and a good, exposed tree-top level view towards the centre of Leeds. That’s how I picked up early on the clouds beginning to mass.
The ground was still in sunshine, but the clouds in the distance were merging into an increasingly dark mass, and they were drawing slowly nearer. The combination of approaching dark clouds and a clear, sunny sky overhead is a definite sign of trouble, and I decided to gather my things together and make a break for the Football Stand and the only realistic shelter in the ground if it started to pelt down, which I was convinced was going to happen with at most the next thirty minutes.
I walked around the concrete track, mingling with the Tykes, diverted to the Gents down the side of the Football Stand, quickly exercised the facilities and emerged out the other end into the Rugby Ground. I’d been here often enough to know what to aim for so it was a simple case of across and up, through the door (once the ongoing over at this end finished) and slip into a seat. Once you were in the charmed half-circle reserved for members, you were never challenged for a member’s card.
From here, I could no longer see the advancing cloud, but the sky above the cricket ground was getting increasingly dull, and I was congratulating myself on my fore-sightedness. And then it started. Big, heavy, single drops, splattering on the walkway, quickly turning into a continuous rain that had the Umpires halting play and signalling for the covers to come on, whilst the players started to disperse, rapidly, in the direction of the old Pavilion.
For this season only, the MCC were carrying out an experiment with leaving pitches uncovered during breaks in play. This had been the old way of things, and it had led to tense situations were the breaks were extended whilst the pitch dried sufficiently for play to resume, but came back as a ‘sticky dog’, a pitch on which spinners could work marvels, making the ball rear, spit, turn and misbehave in a way only possible on a drying-out pitch.
But for many years, breaks in play resulted in groundstaff racing out to cover everything in sight on the square: pitch, run-ups, the works. The result was play resuming much quicker after rain, but on blander pitches.
This season’s experiment was a hybrid. Run-ups etc. would still be covered, permitting play to resume quickly, but the wicket was left uncovered, to try to give the bowlers an old-fashioned chance.
And the rain came down, There was no thunder or lightning, not any that I recall, but the rain came down in a solid, unbroken wave, hard, heavy, sluicing, solid. I watched it in awe, as with horrible speed it took over the walkway, water rushing along it, one, two inches deep, as the fall far exceeded the capacity of Headingley’s drainage. Those supporters who had not been able to take shelter like me were trying to hunch under raincoats, with the rain turning the seats beside them slick with water. Others huddled in the limited shelter of overhangs, or under the Winter Shed stairs. It was a good, old-fashioned deluge.
And it ended after about thirty minutes, the rain abruptly turning to a trickle, as the storm cleared Headingley and moved away north. No longer swamped, the drains eventually conveyed away the copious surface water. The next question was when would play resume?
There was half the day left but, without even a halt for Tea, the Umpires took one look at the pitch and called play off for the day.
Thus we returned for the final day of the match, with Yorkshire on 168-2, Richard Blakeley and Kevin Sharp having already added 43. They batted on until declaring, having extended the score to 250. The undefeated Third Wicket partnership had added 125 runs
Lancashire started their Second Innings 106 runs ahead. With two full innings to play, the chance of a result was very slight, but with some fast scoring, it might be possible to engineer a target for a run-chase. The young Mike Atherton, still FEC, was promoted to open with Geehan Mendis and the pair ran up 180, exactly 100 to Mendis, runs before declaring without a wicket loss.
This set Yorkshire a notional target of 287 to win, but there hadn’t been the remotest sniff of a wicket in the day, everybody knew the game was heading to a draw as soon as the Laws permitted the acknowledgement, and at least one member of the crowd would have been bitterly disappointed if a Lancashire breakthrough had interrupted this quite unique spectacle.
And so batsmen’s averages continued to prosper whilst bowlers’ averages continued to be dumped on from a great height as this astonishingly blanded-out pitch performed to the last. Yorkshire duly racked up 102 runs for no wicket before the game was ended as soon as decently possible. To think that thirty minutes of rain should produce such a devastating effect.
Full days of First Class Cricket in which no wicket falls are very rare (except when it’s raining) and those instances I can recall have been when two batsmen have resisted, or commanded, the whole day. That one innings might conclude without a wicket on the day and the next remain wicketless until the close seems at least possible, but three? Each celebrating century partnerships? Even cricket’s equivalent of Roy of the Rovers would jib at trying that one on.
It’s my only experience of a wicketless day, and it added a layer of charm and fascination to a day that would otherwise have been an exercise in tedium: pure cricket, played for the sake of delivering the ball, with no aim or end in sight but the eventual entropy of time: not that much fun to watch, to be honest. Instead, I watched an unlikely feat unfold.
And, as I said at the outset, for it to happen at the Batsman’s nightmare that was Headingley was the icing on an improbable cake for me.
It’s never happened since. When it did, I was there.