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An Extraordinary July Day in Ulster

An Extraordinary July Day in Ulster

In the mid 1960’s the West Indies were entitled to call themselves Cricket World Champions. In successive series between 1963 and 1967 they beat England twice as well as Australia and India and it was not, of course, their fault that they were unable to play the very powerful team that was starting to take shape in South Africa.

Towards the end of the decade a decline began and in 1967/68 England won in the Caribbean for only the second time, courtesy of a generous declaration from Gary Sobers in the fourth Test and a magnificent rearguard action from Alan Knott in the fifth. In the following Australian summer Sobers’ side was beaten comfortably by the Australians. The West Indies team that came to tour England for the first half of the 1969 season was therefore one on the way down but there were still some fine players available despite the failure to adequately replace the likes of Seymour Nurse, Conrad Hunte, Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith. In addition Rohan Kanhai spent the season playing for Warwickshire to further deplete the West Indian resources.

The West Indians were beaten in the first match of the three Test series by ten wickets but showed a marked improvement in the second Test at Lords where a fascinating match was left drawn with England requiring 37 runs to win with three wickets in hand. In a strange piece of scheduling on the very next day, 2nd July, the tourists were due to play a one day match at the tiny Ulster town of Sion Mills in Londonderry. The tourists’ captain, Gary Sobers, stayed in London nursing an injury but the rest of the party duly travelled to the Emerald Isle after the Test concluded. The West Indian side that took the field against the Irish contained six of the players who had done so well at Lords those being opening batsman Steve Camacho, captain for the day Basil Butcher, future captain Clive Lloyd, all rounder John Shepherd, wicket keeper Mike Findlay and pace bowler Grayson Shillingford. Into the team came reserve batsmen Joey Carew and Maurice Foster, reserve pace bowler Philbert Blair and left arm spinner Pascal Roberts. The eleven was made up by the tourists’ manager which, ordinarily, might weaken a side considerably although on this occasion the gentleman concerned was the great Clyde Walcott, retired for more than a decade but still only 43 years of age.

Of the West Indian side only Roberts and Blair would not at some point play Test cricket and while only Butcher and Lloyd, along with Walcott of course, could be considered to be top class players there certainly should have been more than sufficient quality in the West Indian side to comfortably see off the threat of the Irish club cricketers who opposed them.

There had been heavy overnight rain in Ulster and there were no covers at Sion Mills so conditions underfoot were sodden next morning despite the ground being bathed in sunshine. The town of Sion Mills had just one major employer in 1969, a linen mill, and the entire workforce of some 700 was given a holiday on the day of the match (and indeed one of their number, Ossie Colhoun, was to keep wicket for Ireland) so a healthy crowd gathered. As the match was, in some ways, an exhibition game there was an expectation all round that the tourists would bat first and the toss was just a formality, taking place on the outfield without the captains bothering to look at the square – Butcher, who had arrived at the ground a little late and had not yet changed when the toss took place, was to say later “If it was a normal game it probably wouldn’t have been played, but after discussions with the management we decided to go ahead. The players weren’t very happy about it, and I wasn’t particularly happy about it either, mainly because of the risk of injury from the unpredictable bounce, but we didn’t want to let people down.”

If Butcher was prepared to observe etiquette his openers, Carew and Camacho, were staggered at the decision to bat first. Camacho has subsequently been quoted as saying they were so angry with Butcher that they decided to get him out to the wicket as soon as possible. True to those intentions after Camacho took an early single Carew threw his bat and was out in the first over, caught after putting up a skier. Camacho went in the next over and Butcher joined Maurice Foster at 1-2. Butcher did not enjoy his innings. One delivery jumped and struck him a painful blow on the arm and after the ball pitched spots of mud spat at the batsmen. Foster was soon run out and after Butcher was well caught in the gully Clive Lloyd played a loose shot and the West Indies were 6-5 and in desperate trouble.

Walcott batted at number six and was, by all accounts, distinctly angry with his players and he did at least show some concentration in grinding out six singles before he perished to a catch in the covers after yet another loose stroke. Walcott’s resistance did not, however, influence his partners as Shepherd, Findlay and Roberts all failed to trouble the scorers as the tourists subsided to 13-9. In his autobiography published many years later Walcott clearly had to mention the match but he disposed of it in little more than a single page and clearly could not bring himself to look at the scorecard as he states specifically that Clive Lloyd did not even travel to Ireland for the debacle, let alone play. He did however make the curious observation, in view of Camacho’s comment, that after the toss his men were, due to tiredness, happy not to be fielding.

Grayson Shillingford scored just 32 runs on the 1969 tour at less than five runs per innings and Philbert Blair, the number eleven, scored no more than 142 runs in his entire First Class career. There was never any chance of these two rescuing the innings but in scoring 12 before Blair was bowled (the only time the stumps were hit in the innings) they at least raised the score to 25 and Shillingford, unbeaten at the end on nine, struck the only two boundaries of the innings. The tourists capitulation had taken only 90 minutes and just 25.5 overs, the Irish opening bowlers Alex O’Riordan and skipper Dougie Goodwin bowling unchanged throughout. Fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, cameras were present and some of the carnage can be viewed here

The rest of the game was, inevitably, an anti-climax. By lunch Ireland were 19-1 and they passed the West Indies total shortly after the resumption. To entertain the crowd the sides agreed to play on Ireland declaring at 125-8 to give the West Indians another chance to show the Irish crowd they could bat. Butcher at least, who scored exactly 50, did so, but when time was called with the visitors on 78-4 they were doubtless relieved the game was over – there was just time for Goodwin to take 2 for1 in order to, following his first innings 5 for 6, achieve the beautifully symmetrical match figures of 7 for 7.

The game made front page news all over the UK sharing the headlines with the death of Rolling Stone Brian Jones and Englishwoman Anne Jones reaching her singles final at Wimbledon. The Daily Mail in London, for example, had a photograph of O’Riordan and Goodwin on its front page and the headline “Supermen”. From a West Indian standpoint they had a hugely disappointing tour and, according to Walcott, were relieved to get home and away from the game after their all their troubles. The tour, which had followed on from their disappointments in Australia, culminated in the loss of the third and final Test although it could have been different. The close finish at Lords has already been highlighted and at Headingley the tourists could and perhaps should have won. They were set 303 to win in the last innings and seemed to be cruising at 177-2 before the loss of regular wickets, including the talismanic Sobers for nought, saw them all out 30 runs short of their target.

So why did the match go the way that it did? A theory often put forward for the West Indies’ performance was that the players were suffering the effects of a night of drinking Guinness and Irish Mist but that is mischievous nonsense with no foundation in fact. It is true that the team were tired, as would be expected from their having been at Lords until 8pm the previous evening followed immediately by travelling to Heathrow for the trip to Aldergrove airport without even an opportunity for a shower. They then didn’t reach their hotel until after midnight and after managing to get some modest refreshment and just a little relaxation were in bed by about 2.30am. It should not be forgotten however that most of the Irish players had also done a day’s work and had then had to make their varied ways to Sion Mills from all over the country.

There can be no doubt, on viewing the footage, that the West Indian batsmen failed to apply themselves and did not give the Irish bowlers the respect they deserved. It is to be assumed that the tourists had little knowledge of their predecessors appearances on Irish soil as if they had they may have been more wary of suffering the same fate as the 1928 West Indians who lost a First Class fixture in Dublin. That West Indian side had a thoroughly miserable time against the full England team losing all three Tests (the first ever played by a West Indies side) by an innings but they still had some quality and should not have found it difficult to beat the Irish students and club players. The Irish hero on that occasion was a 21 year old student, George McVeagh, who came in to bat in the Irish second innings at 92 for 6 with a slender first innings lead of 31. McVeagh scored a magnificent unbeaten century as the last four wickets added more than 200 to put the match beyond the tourists. Such was McVeagh’s alround sporting talent that he also represented Ireland at Squash, Hockey and Tennis his prowess at the latter meaning his talents were seen on the cricket field far too infrequently.

Turning to the conditions these were undoubtedly favourable to the Irish, the footage suggesting there may be some merit in the West Indian complaint that the pitch was the same emerald green colour as the rest of the ground, but both sides had to cope with the sporting wicket and the pitch drying through the day and however one looks at it the tourists were outplayed by their hosts and in particular by an exceptionally good pair of new ball bowlers.

Alex O’Riordan was a tall left arm fast bowler. He was not genuinely quick but on hard wickets with sound run-ups was rather sharper than he appears on the footage of this game. Accuracy was his main attribute as he conceded little more than two runs per over through his career, and on helpful wickets he was adept at extracting enough movement to run through sides. He was, in the eyes of some, the finest cricketer produced by Ireland and in an International* career stretching over almost 20 years he was never dropped by his country. In addition to his bowling he was also a fine batsman scoring three centuries in his 72 match career. As a bowler O’Riordan’s overall International record was more than 200 wickets at 21 apiece and at club level he averaged a Sydney Barnes-esque 8.88 per wicket. O’Riordan was 28 at the time of the West Indies match and at his peak – he had a number of approaches from English counties over the years and in the post Statham/Trueman and pre Snow lacuna there were many who thought he would have achieved Test honours had he accepted one of those offers. Certainly the legendary Australian all rounder Alan Davidson believed that had O’Riordan been born in Australia that he would have played at Test level and described him as being “four times better than Fred Rumsey”. Rumsey was a left arm pace bowler who played five Tests for England in 1964 and 1965. He was no failure taking 17 wickets at 27 so the comment is a little harsh but doubtless was made primarily to praise O’Riordan rather than denigrate Rumsey.

In contrast to O’Riordan, Dougie Goodwin was a right arm medium pacer but like his opening partner he had excellent control and accuracy. Goodwin was 31 at the time of the Sion Mills match and was Ireland’s new captain. He had a wonderful temperament and was never overawed as he had amply demonstrated the previous year when, in what turned out to be a heavy defeat, he had taken five wickets against Bobby Simpson’s Australians at Ormeau and, despite having no great pretensions as a batsman, had top scored with an unbeaten 18 in a disappointing Irish total of 92. Goodwin generally found a good deal of lateral movement in helpful conditions and as his figures at Sion Mills all too vividly illustrated in favourable conditions he could be unplayable. While his International career did not consist of as many appearances as O’Riordan his average and economy figures are very similar and testament to what a fine partnership they were.

Years later the defeat still rankled with the West Indian players and their comments illustrated the strength of their feelings and poor Basil Butcher is the man who was blamed. Foster rounded on him when interviewed many years later saying “He was too casual about the whole thing and hadn’t taken the Irish team seriously,” and further that “A couple of us called him the ‘submarine captain’ because he seemed to prefer to bat underwater.” Carew added to Foster’s criticism, whether in jest or in earnest is unclear, that Butcher “wasn’t fit to captain a submarine” and added “I know I was damned annoyed and a lot of indignant remarks were made. I told him, ‘You put the West Indies through some humiliation there’. He wasn’t happy about it.”. This all seems rather harsh on Butcher who was, after all, the one West Indian batsman who had shown real application at the crease, albeit long after the game was lost.

Butcher was a fine player who had batted well in that difficult series in Australia in 1968/69 in recording two Test centuries and had comfortably topped the tour averages in 1969 with more than 60 runs per innings in the First Class matches. If he is to be remembered for a piece of trivia then that shouldn’t be for what happened at Sion Mills but for his Test match bowling record of having taken just five wickets with his occasional leg breaks in his 44 Tests – what is unique is that all five wickets came in the same innings, England’s first in the fourth Test in 1967/68 that is mentioned at the beginning of this feature. Sion Mills should be remembered above all for the bowling of Alex O’Riordan and Dougie Goodwin – now that they are seriously trying to achieve Test status how Cricket Ireland must wish their like were available today.


A great day in Irish cricket. Almost got England this year as well.

Our bowling is solid, but Alex could certainly be handy all the same

Comment by Steph Major | 12:00am GMT 29 November 2009

Terrific piece, Martin.

Comment by zaremba | 12:00am GMT 30 November 2009

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