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John Player’s County League

Jack Bond raises the trophy aloft

The 1960s was a decade of change and upheaval in English cricket. The old distinction between amateur and professional disappeared in 1962, and the following year saw the first outing for the competition that became the Gillette Cup in 1964. Sussex won the first Lord’s final, over 65 overs a side, and indeed they won the second as well.

It was all part of a drive for “brighter cricket” and various other things were tried. At Test level, aware that the television coverage that accompanied that made it the game’s showcase, at various times both Geoffrey Boycott and Kenny Barrington were dropped by England for scoring too slowly.

Other initiatives were less successful and the years of tinkering with the playing conditions and bonus points in the County Championship began – the nadir was reached when some games’ first innings were restricted to just 65 overs each – fortunately that experiment did not last long.

After the start of the Gillette Cup the best move that was made was to, in 1968, relax the archaic residential qualification rules that applied to players to permit the immediate registration of overseas professionals. Then in 1969 the 40 overs per side competition began, styled as John Player’s County League. Every Sunday a complete match was shown on BBC2 and the game had another opportunity to sell itself to the public.

It was the overseas stars who were the major draws. The biggest prize of all, Garry Sobers, was at Nottinghamshire, although not quite all of the seventeen counties had an overseas player in 1969. It was to be a couple of decades before Yorkshire relaxed their cherished “born within the county boundaries” rule, but the Broadacres apart only Derbyshire did not take advantage of the new rule. For the rest there had, once the door had been opened the previous year, been a rush to sign the cricket world’s greatest entertainers, and for 1969 the final line up looked like this.

Derbyshire – None
Essex – Keith Boyce and Lee Irvine
Glamorgan – Majid Khan and Bryan Davies
Gloucestershire – Mike Procter
Hampshire – Barry Richards
Kent – Asif Iqbal and John Shepherd
Lancashire – Clive Lloyd and Farokh Engineer
Leicestershire – Garth McKenzie
Middlesex – Alan Connolly
Northamptonshire – Mushtaq Mohammad and Hylton Ackerman
Nottinghamshire – Garry Sobers
Somerset – Greg Chappell
Surrey – Intikhab Alam
Sussex – Geoff Greenidge
Warwickshire – Rohan Kanhai and Lance Gibbs
Worcestershire – Glenn Turner and Vanburn Holder
Yorkshire – None

The playing conditions of the new competition were not particularly contentious, though the unfairness of the way the rules impacted on rain affected matches was clear from the off. But in those days Messrs Duckworth and Lewis were busy elsewhere, and no one else had any better suggestions. There was however a controversial rule, amongst fast bowlers anyway, that restricted bowler’s run-ups to fifteen yards. It was few years before that one went, though to a wide-eyed nine year old it didn’t seem unreasonable, and the quick men still looked pretty sharp to me.

Did we get exciting cricket? It certainly seemed like it at the time, although looking back perhaps not, and maybe my happy memories are too heavily influenced by the fact that come the end of the season my beloved Lancashire lifted the trophy.

Each county played the other 16 once, so there were 136 games altogether. There were just 14 innings totals of more than 200. Middlesex did so three times, and Kent, Essex, Lancashire, Leicestershire and Sussex twice, with solitary contributions from Hampshire and Nottinghamshire – so more than half of the counties never once managed what we would now consider a modest total in a 40 over game. The highest was 288 from Sussex, against Middlesex, and in that and two other games both sides passed 200 – so only 10 of those 136 matches saw a side go past the double century.

What was the reason for the low scoring? There were probably two main factors. The first was simply the pitches that were used. Many counties saw the Sunday League as a chance to get the game out on the road and a number of matches were played on grounds that had never or rarely hosted First Class players before, and the wickets prepared by their part-time groundsmen were simply not as good as those at the regular grounds. And then there was the lack of familiarity with the format. It took a while for some top order batsmen to realise that in fact they did have time to build an innings. For some the perceived need to attack from the off meant that they took foolish risks, and there were plenty of occasions when the middle order had to rebuild an innings caused by an early collapse. In that respect bowlers turned out to be cannier than batsmen, quickly realising that a few attacking field placings would usually reap rewards.

As to individual centuries there were only five all season. Chappell got the first, an unbeaten 128 against Surrey, but of the other overseas players only Kanhai reached three figures. The highest individual score of the season was an unbeaten 133 in 38 overs from the Middlesex journeyman Clive Radley at Lord’s. The Sunday before that his opening partner Mike (MJ) Smith got another one. The only other century-maker was the long forgotten Tony Clarkson of Somerset – he was a solid opening bat, not really cut out for the limited overs game, as was demonstrated by the fact that his 102 not out against Northamptonshire was the only score above 41 that he made in his 50 List A games.

The batsman who scored the most runs, 517, was Smith. The tall and aggressive Middlesex opener never played in a Test match, but did play in a handful of the early ODIs. His First Class season was pretty good too, but there were 43 men above him in the averages. He had the fourth best average in the Sunday League. Top of the Sunday averages was Peter Willey. Young players did not generally do well on Sundays, but a 19 year old Willey was fully seven runs per innings above 20 year old Greg Chappell.

In the First Class season John Edrich had a fine summer, scoring well over 2,200 runs at all but 70 runs per innings. He was more than 10 runs better off than Mushtaq. Edrich didn’t find batting so easy on Sundays, averaging just 32, but he was only just outside the top 10. Mushtaq, the only man I recall from those days who used the reverse sweep was, surprisingly given that propensity to improvise, well down the Sunday list in 34th place.

And what of the bowling? The fast men did suffer. John Snow was as good a fast bowler as there was in the world game at that time, but he struggled more than most with the 15 yard rule. He was 15th in the First Class averages, and had a good haul of wickets, but on Sundays he was 44th in the averages, and went for more than four an over. His average does not look too bad at 21.68, but that must be measured against the top men who paid just 11.18 for their wickets. Top of the pile was one of the canniest medium pacers of them all, Tom Cartwright of Warwickshire, by then 34. On the same mark was Surrey’s Roger Knight, another medium pacer, but primarily a batsman so much so that he took only four expensive First Class wickets that year. He was not so economical as Cartwright, but no more expensive than Snow. In fact there was something of a trend here. Fourth and fifth in the bowling averages were Gloucestershire’s David Green and Lancashire’s John Sullivan, both military medium. Green was the more remarkable; 23 wickets at 12.13 and less than three runs per over. He played 24 First Class matches that season – his haul of wickets in the Championship? Not a single one – he bowled just 37 wicketless overs.

Sullivan was a different animal entirely, and perhaps the first one day specialist. His 19 wickets cost him 12.21 runs each for fifth spot – his batting was just as dependable – 278 runs at 34.75 and sixth in the list. In the First Class game he was picked for less than half of Lancashire’s Championship matches, 11 in all, but he scored fewer runs and had a lower haul of wickets than on Sundays, and with markedly inferior averages.

The fast bowlers generally did not do too well, the one exception being Boyce at Essex who took 25 wickets cheaply and economically. He was third in the averages. Procter was 24th but the other speed merchants, Dave Larter (Northamptonshire), Harold Rhodes (Derbyshire), Bob Cottam and Butch White (both Hampshire) and John Price of Middlesex were all behind Procter. The man who was at the top of the First Class averages, the very promising and very fast Alan Ward of Derbyshire, did not even take enough wickets to get into the Wisden table for Sunday afternoons.

And what of the spinners? The theory was that they would struggle, and the fact that there were only three slow bowlers in the 53 looks at first blush like confirmation of that (I use the word slow rather than spin as Kent’s Derek Underwood and Glamorgan’s Don Shepherd were there too, but they were no slower than the Greens and Knights of this world). Two of the three were the experienced pair of Fred Titmus (Middlesex) and Don Wilson (Yorkshire) but it was the third of the trio who was the most interesting. Essex slow left armer Ray East was just 22 but he was the highest placed of the slow men and, perhaps more importantly, was the leading wicket taker in the league. He wasn’t quite as miserly as the leading military medium men, but fractionally over four an over was better than many.

One immediate difference was noted in the way the successful sides changed their attitude to fielding and Lancashire, with Jack Bond leading from the front in that respect, exemplified a new keenness. That enthusiasm in the field carried Lancashire to the title – they were a desultory 15th in the Championship, with all but three of their 24 games drawn. As often with Lancashire the weather didn’t help, but the stranglehold they could impose on Sundays didn’t win three day matches.

Tactically there was not much that was particularly innovative and most captains followed the same sort of orthodoxy that they took into the three day games. Occasionally the unexpected was done, and on a few occasions the Somerset off spinner Brian Langford opened the bowling. Langford’s main claim to fame however came in a game where he came on later, and it was against Essex, one of the more free-scoring sides. At Yeovil on 27 July Langford bowled his full complement of eight overs without conceding so much as a single. It is a feat that has not been repeated in the 44 years of List A cricket that has followed and, realistically, is a bowling record every bit as impregnable as Jim Laker’s 19-90.

A curiosity was the performance of Sussex. Under Ted Dexter they had shown the way in the one day game, winning the first two Lord’s finals in 1963 and 1964. Six of the men who won the 1963 game were still available in 1969, but Sussex couldn’t get to grips with the Sunday game, and they were seven points adrift at the bottom of the table.

In his notes to the 1970 edition Wisden editor Norman Preston wrote There can be no question but that the Player’s Sunday League was an instant success ….. the majority of these games produced wonderful fielding as well as superb catching ……. there was a feverish tempo no one could expect in a Championship match, but he did sound a warning that is as applicable today as it was then; Nevertheless, this one day “instant” cricket must never be regarded as a substitute for genuine First Class cricket.

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