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.
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.