22 fielders and no batsmen: triumph and tantrums at a minor counties final

Tom Hicks has had a life in cricket’s margins. No household name, he did however rub shoulders with cricketing royalty in a career that took in periods with Oxford University, Dorset, and the MCC as well as top-class league cricket in Surrey. In the last of three extracts from his book: Bowler’s Name: The Life of a Cricketing Also-Ran, the off spinnerreveals that despite the relative lack of scrutiny, tensions run deep even in cricket’s lower realms

Let me take you to the Minor Counties final of 1999, at Netherfield CC in Cumbria. A beautiful traditional ground, nestled in the lee of Netherfield castle in Kendal, right in the heart of the Lake District, and flanked by a bowling green. Picture perfect, but what is known in cricketing terms as a ‘postage stamp’, i.e., a ground with a very small boundary – one imagines that the host county chose this venue specifically to counter the threat posed by Dorset’s spin attack. Not me, I must add, but our leg-spinner Vyv Pike, who had already taken 65 wickets in the season and who was the scourge of batsmen across the country at this level.

We thought Vyv was something really special. Approaching the crease at pace from an oblique angle, he fizzed the ball out and spun it sharply, with the added weapons of at least two different googlies and a vicious top-spinner. His googlies were a joy to behold; if you were standing at slip, that is. Often, he would bowl a really wide, obvious, back-of-the-hand wrong ‘un which the batsman would read and feel a sense of relief that he could ‘pick’. This would then normally be followed a ball or two later by a completely disguised googly which the smug batsman would leave, or pad up to, looking foolish as it spun not safely away towards the slips but back into his stumps, to the accompaniment of knowing sniggers from the fielders. So good was this disguised googly that Vyv had to develop a signal for it, as our keeper Tim Lamb could not pick it either and had got into the unhelpful habit of conceding four byes on a regular basis as he shifted to the off stump to gather a ball which disappeared two foot to his left, rather defeating the object of the surprise.

So integral was Pikey to our chances of winning that our captain Stuart Rintoul was christened ‘No Plan B’ and usually if Vyv did not take at least ten wickets in the match, we would be half the side. So much so that in one match we bowled our entire 90 allotted first-innings overs with just three bowlers; Vyv bowled all 45 from one end and I bowled 29 overs of off-spin from the other. On that day, he left the field more beetroot red and beading all over in sweat than ever, and celebrated his eight wickets with his customary beverage – the ‘Muddy Puddle’, a teeth-rotting combination of orange juice and Coca-Cola, which I never saw drunk by anyone else.

Dorset had never won the Minor Counties Championship, let alone the Western Division, in its history, and then won three divisions in a row from 1998 to 2000, coinciding with Vyv’s heyday. Coincidence it was not. We used to joke that VJ would become the first player since the legendary Staffordshire bowler Sydney Barnes to make the jump from Minor Counties straight to Test cricket. I honestly don’t think there was a better leg-spinner in the country at that time.

He did play for Gloucestershire, but ankle injuries, family responsibility and a lack of opportunity stood in his way (these were the bad old days of English seamers being produced for English conditions, with spinners playing a bit-part as medium pacers benefited from green-topped pitches and the helpful Dukes ball). Professional cricket’s loss was our gain, and we certainly backed him to do a job against a Cumberland side with its fair share of old pros: Ashley Metcalfe from Yorkshire and another of my boyhood heroes Steve O’Shaughnessy from Worcestershire, to name a couple. And having lost the final to Staffordshire the previous year, we were keen to go one better this time.

Frustratingly, we failed to win the toss, which would have given us the huge advantage of bowling last, making full use of our spin attack. But, with the aggressive Cumberland side racking up an imposing 315/7 having been three down for 12, we were very much behind the eight-ball. So much so that, after a lacklustre batting display on our part (from 86/0 we ended 130 all out), we were well over 150 runs in arrears, short of the follow-on mark when our tail-enders trudged off. I was rapidly going off O’Shaughnessy, who scored a battling hundred in that first innings.

Now, of course we knew that we would be expected to bat again, but it had not been a good-natured game and so we took it upon ourselves to play to the very letter of the law (if not the spirit). It is customary for the bowling captain to ‘invite’ the other team to follow-on (there’s a cricketing euphemism for you), but the Cumberland captain Simon Dutton had not formally approached our skipper with such an invitation and so we decided to do the childish thing and got dressed in our whites ready to field and waited for the umpires’ bell to ring before emerging at the same time as the Cumberland side also came out to field again. Twenty-two players, no batsmen, two umpires and the temperature rising. The joke was on us in the end as the umpires failed to see any humour in this and ordered our batsmen to pad up and face one solitary over before the tea break. You could sense now that everyone in the ground was against us. Despite a quite magnificent 196 from Andy Sexton – enough to get us a lead we could bowl at, and to earn him a contract with Hampshire the following season – the only other real memory I have of the game is Lamb’s dismissal in the first innings. A diabolical decision by the umpire to give him run out was met with mutters and shakes of the head by the knowledgeable and fair Kendal crowd, which turned to fierce reproval of Lamb when he put his bat through the door of the pavilion in anger, precipitating a disciplinary visit to Lord’s.

Pike was largely anonymous and Cumberland’s other big gun Metcalfe scored a ton in the chase. I was actually Dorset’s top wicket-taker in that final, with four in total, but I’m not sure you can count 4-195 as any sort of success. I also know now that it is a hell of a long way from Kendal to Dorset when you’ve just lost a final. Happily, revenge would be ours 12 months later.

More information @ pitchpublishing.co.uk

Yesterday: Wrists like iron and as flexible as wilting celery: what it’s like to bowl to Jos Buttler

Our first extract: In every way John Emburey was a bigger a man than me: the perils of playing with your hero