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Chris Old: Yorkshire, Warwickshire and England

Chris Old was a cricketer who was just coming to prominence when, as a child, I began to take a serious interest in the game. There were a good few injuries along the way, and he wasn’t always an automatic choice for England, but when he was fit he was always in the frame for selection. England’s seam attack in those days consisted of two quick men, Bob Willis and John Snow. Until Ian Botham came along and became a fixture in the side there were a gaggle of medium fast bowlers jostling for positions behind them. In the early part of Old’s career the competition included Surrey’s Geoff Arnold and Lancashire’s Peter Lever. In the latter years Essex’s John Lever came into the picture, and Old’s career and that of Derbyshire’s Mike Hendrick ran in parallel.

Old was first recommended to Yorkshire as a 13 year old. He came from Middlesbrough in the far north of the county, a big old place but one that has produced very few First Class cricketers. It was the town’s main club that put forward their starlet’s name to the county, although in those days Old was seen very much more as batsman than bowler.

In addition to his hard hitting left handed batting however Old was also a useful right arm pace bowler and it was that facet of his game, rather than his batting, that continued to develop. Old was only seventeen when he made his First Class debut in the County Championship in 1966. He had not done too much in the second eleven, so his place was earned more by promise than achievement. The game was at Hampshire and his teammates demolished Hampshire’s first innings without the need for skipper Brian Close to look in Old’s direction. The game turned into something of a non-event for the youngster as he was then called on to bowl just three wicketless overs in the second innings.

Despite that limited involvement against Hampshire Old was retained for the next match against Essex. He was batting at ten, and run out for a duck in his only innings. Essex were bowled out twice and Close used five bowlers each time, but Old wasn’t one of them. It was the end of the youngster’s first team cricket for that summer.

Moving forward Old got more opportunities in 1967 and 1968 and demonstrated much promise before, in both seasons, injury restricted him. It wasn’t until 1969, by which time he had turned twenty, that he played anything like a full season. That summer he headed the Yorkshire bowling averages with 55 wickets at just over 17 apiece. He was certainly nursed along, bowling in short spells, but at times with considerable pace. Old’s action was easy on the eye. His run up was not unduly long, but he accelerated smoothly towards a sideways on delivery stride that was a picture of orthodoxy.

Inevitably in view of his appearance at the end of Fred Trueman’s career many hoped Old would take over the old warhorse’s mantle, and indeed their actions were not dissimilar. They were men with markedly different personalities however, and in the end Old took more from the approach of swing bowler Tony Nicholson than he did from Trueman. He was a good deal quicker than ‘Nick’, who wasn’t much over medium pace, but although he could hurry the best of batsmen Old was never the like for like replacement for Fiery Fred that his earliest appearances had hinted he might be.

In 1970 Old took 74 wickets, but he bowled almost half as many overs again as he had the previous season so he paid rather more for them. He was still top of the Yorkshire averages, but his overall figures were spoiled somewhat by his returns in the first of his two Test debuts. In 1970 England played a series of five matches against a Rest of the World side which, at the time, were treated as full Tests. Old was called up for the last two. It was hard work – his return was a disappointing 2-184.

Before that poor start there had been hopes in Yorkshire that Old would have been taken to Australia with Ray Illingworth’s side that winter, but in the end he missed out. Given that in the New Year he had to have surgery in Middlesbrough on a cracked bone in his right knee it was probably just as well. The summer that followed was a poor one as well, and after the season ended Old had a similar operation on his left knee.

Finally fully fit in 1972 Old, if not his county, had a fine season and he ended up behind only Alan Ward and Mike Procter in the national averages. He was selected to join the England team that toured India and Pakistan that winter and in the second Test he made his second England debut.  He did well against the Indians, taking 15 wickets at 24 in a series that England, lacking Illingworth, Geoff Boycott and John Snow, lost 2-1. In Pakistan his sting was drawn by the slow wickets, and after a wicketless first Test he did not play again on that leg of the tour.

The following summer saw Old in action against New Zealand and West Indies, although he was by no means sure of his place. He did well against the New Zealanders, but was less effective against West Indies. Back in Yorkshire the county slipped further down the Championship table and also had the indignity of becoming the first side in history to lose a List A match to a minor county. In fact Durham’s victory was a comfortable one, and one of their matchwinners was Old’s brother, Alan, an England Rugby Union international and, in common with his younger sibling, a right arm pace bowler.

In the Caribbean in 1973/74 Old appeared in four of the five Tests, but took just five wickets at 62.60. The fact that even with those figures he was the pick of the England seamers says all that needs to be said of the benign nature of the wickets that were prepared.

India and Pakistan were England’s visitors in 1974 and Old did well with the ball against a disappointing Indian side who were easily beaten 3-0. In the second half of the season Pakistan proved rather stronger, and all three Tests were drawn. Old was noticeably less successful with the ball than against India, but innings of 41 and 65 in the second and third Tests raised hopes, never really fulfilled, that perhaps the early batting talent was now going to fully flower.

Having appeared to have established himself Old was then picked just twice against Australia in 1974/75. One of those two games was the final Test when, Jeff Thomson missing and Dennis Lillee lame, England shrugged off the indignities of earlier in the series and comfortably took a consolation victory. Old played in just the second Test against the fearsome twosome. He polished off the Australian first innings with three wickets, but the hosts still had a first innings lead of 273. At the fall of the seventh wicket Old came out in the second innings with 54 still required to make Australia bat again. The reputation he has always had is that he was not happy against fast bowling, and it is fair to say that he always appeared fidgety and nervous when facing pace. He didn’t always get behind the ball either, but then he was by nature a batsman who liked to open his shoulders, and the 43 he then scored was the second highest score of the innings.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins watched the innings and reflected thus, Chris Old produced his own special brand of defiance. For a long time his courage against fast bowlers has been openly questioned but I wondered as he played a bold and entertaining innings if this does not do him a serious injustice. I think it is more that with his questionable eyesight (he bats either in glasses or contact lenses) he sometimes loses the ball altogether early in an innings. Certainly his defence has gaping holes and his powers of concentration at the crease never suggest a prolonged occupation, but at times on this occasion he hit the ball with effortless grace.

Interestingly, as a result of an ulcer on his eye, Old was wearing neither glasses or contact lenses in Australia in 1974/75. He found that rather than make batting more difficult it mattered little because the light was so bright he could see the ball much more easily than in England. On his return from Australia Old’s batting certainly improved. In 1975 he scored 850 runs at more than 36 and recorded the first of his five centuries, an unbeaten 115 against Leicestershire. All five were scored in the next three years, so he was never quite an all-rounder, and although he scored another half century in India in 1976/77 that 65 against Pakistan in 1974 would remain his highest Test score.

One of Old’s centuries was, like his caps against the Rest of the World in 1970, in the record books and then out again. In 1977 he scored 107 against Warwickshire at Edgbaston. He passed the hundred after 37 minutes, then the third fastest of all time. His first 50 came in twenty eight minutes and the second in just nine. The bowling consisted of England off spinner Eddie Hemmings, as well as John Whitehouse and Rohan Kanhai, neither of whom were noted for their bowling. As far as Warwickshire were concerned the object of the exercise was to improve their over rate to avoid a penalty, and the three rushed through their deliveries not always allowing the fieldsmen enough time to get in position. Eventually, as with all centuries scored in contrived circumstances, the innings became a mere footnote in the list of fast hundreds.

The most notable of Old’s batting achievements came in the Old Trafford ‘Roses’ match of 1978. Lancashire won the toss and chose to bat. That was a mistake. The Red Rose came unstuck in overcast conditions which were skilfully exploited by Old and Graham Stevenson. In twenty one overs of disciplined bowling Old took 4-38 as Lancashire crumbled to 128 all out.  When Yorkshire slipped to 96-7 the smiles were back on Lancastrian faces, but not for long. Old saw them through to a total of 251 and was unbeaten on exactly 100 at the end. The innings calls for similar observations to those made by Christopher Martin-Jenkins that I quoted in the context of Lillee and Thomson. This time Old had to face plenty of deliveries from the fearsome West Indian Colin Croft, and a particularly truculent Croft who very early on in the innings had induced a catch at the wicket from Old only to be no-balled for overstepping. The famous century wasn’t enough for Old however. He still wasn’t finished with the old enemy. In the second innings he quickly reduced the Red Rose to 35-4 and ended up with 5-47 as Yorkshire won by ten wickets.

That same summer of 1978 also saw Old’s most memorable bowling performance as well. Statistically his career best figures were the 7-20 he took for Yorkshire against Gloucestershire on home turf at Middlesborough back in 1969, but in 1978 he achieved his Test best against Pakistan at Edgbaston. The Pakistanis started reasonably well, but by the time Old got to his nineteenth over they had slipped to 125-5. Old had two wickets. He was soon on a hat trick after having Wasim Raja caught behind and bowling Wasim Bari with a perfect off cutter. There was a huge sigh of disappointment as he managed to overstep on the hat trick delivery. Perhaps fortune felt he had been unlucky as the next two deliveries gave him another chance. First Iqbal Qasim was superbly caught low down by wicketkeeper Bob Taylor and then Sikander Bakht was caught at second slip by Graham Roope. This time the next ball was a legal one, but Liaquat Ali presented the broadest of straight bats to it and he and his bowling partner Sarfraz Nawaz then added 38 more before Liaquat became Old’s seventh victim, at a personal cost of 50.

Old’s Test career began to wind down after that high point. He played in just the first Test of Mike Brearley’s rather hollow Ashes triumph in 1978/79 against an Australia ravaged by World Series Cricket and not at all in 1979. It proved to be a case of gone but not forgotten however as he came back for the final Test against the 1980 West Indians before, despite the matches being only three years apart, he became the only Englishman to play in the Centenary Test here as well as the much more memorable match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in March 1977. Old played his part at the MCG, taking seven wickets, and in the disappointing drawn return he took six of the nine Australian wickets to fall.

The final two Tests of Old’s career, in 1981, were two of the most famous in English cricket history and he played crucial if largely unheralded parts in both. The first was on familiar ground at Headingley . Over the first three days, as pedestrian as any in the history of the game, Old contributed little on recall. As ever he bowled economically, his 43 overs costing just 91 runs, but he didn’t take a wicket. He was out for a duck in the first innings so his first opportunity to make a real contribution came in the follow on. Before he arrived at the crease following Graham Dilley’s dismissal the great turnaround had begun, although at 252-8 England were only 25 to the good so no one saw it as that at the time. Old then contributed 29 to a stand of 67 with Botham, and by the time he was bowled by Geoff Lawson there were some who had begun to dare to believe.

In the Australian first innings Old had opened the bowling with Bob Willis. In Australia’s pursuit of 130 for victory Willis was first change and Old second. The game was won by two astonishing spells of bowling by Willis either side of lunch after Botham had removed Graeme Wood. But Old’s contribution should not be ignored. Despite losing Trevor Chappell, Kim Hughes and Graham Yallop in a rush just before the interval which came with them on 58-4 Australia were still favourites to win, and every Englishman’s biggest worry was Alan Border. Half an hour of Australia’s next skipper would surely have been enough to take the game from England, but he and Australia never got a chance to settle as Old trapped Border in his first over after the resumption. The first delivery had angled across AB who moved his bat out of the way, and then had to watch the ball then come back in towards his stumps and get too close to them for comfort. The third delivery was almost identical and Border dithered before deciding to repeat the same evasive manoeuvre. He left it too late though, couldn’t get his bat out of the way in time and nicked the ball into his stumps. Coming as it did straight after lunch that dismissal made sure the momentum was still with England, and set up the unforgettable denouement.

At Edgbaston, finished off by Botham with his spell of 5-1, Old played his part as well. In a low scoring match eventually won by just 29 runs innings of 11* and 23 from a number ten are by definition crucial. In addition in the Australian first innings Old took three top order wickets as well as being responsible for the run out of opener Graeme Wood. He removed Wood in his first over in the second innings as well to set England on their way.

In the final analysis Old’s international performances indicate a bowler just short of the highest class. He was capped 46 times and took 143 wickets at 28.11 each. He was certainly well thought of though, and was one of three Yorkshiremen (Geoffrey Boycott and umpire Dickie Bird were the other two) who, on being offered the opportunity to join World Series Cricket in 1977, chose not to do so. At the time Old said that money did not come into his decision, and that he just wanted to play for England and Yorkshire for as long as possible. The truth was probably a little more complicated though. He was due a benefit from Yorkshire who, with their large following, generally did their beneficiaries proud, and it seems likely that his primary concern was not to jeopardise that.

In March 1982 Old, international career almost certainly ended anyway and benefit proceeds safely banked, went to South Africa with Graham Gooch’s rebels. It seems that Old toed the general line, that it was wrong for cricketers to have to limit their earning potential in circumstances where their self-denial solved nothing, and hypocritical when the country traded and competed with nations with much worse human rights records than South Africa. Old was not and is not a man of politics, and it must be unlikely that he thought too far beyond the issue of financial security for his family.

In those early 1980s, by a distance the most difficult period in the county’s history, Old was given his opportunity to try and make a success of the Yorkshire captaincy. The job was inevitably a struggle. The playing resources at Old’s disposal were thinner than at any time in the past. His first summer in the job was interrupted by his recall to the England side and like others before him he had to deal with the presence of Boycott, and later the return of Illingworth as coach. It is not difficult to imagine how Old must have then felt when the 50 year old Illingworth decided to make a comeback as a player, and of course take over the captaincy.

Unhappy at the fact of his removal of captain Old was even more irritated when the club implied in its announcement that he was not suited to the job. He was even less happy to learn in the close season of 1982/83 that he had been sacked as a player as well. This was particularly galling as he had been told, before leaving for South Africa and a coaching assignment, that he need not worry about a new playing contract. The excuse given was that the club did not want to hold back its young talent, although quite who that consisted of perplexed many.

In 1983 Old was still only 34 and was not short of offers from other counties. He chose Warwickshire and enjoyed three seasons there before retirement. He had lost a yard or two of pace, but was still a fine bowler and well worth his place in the side. In 1984 he must have taken some satisfaction for his role in Warwickshire’s 191 run defeat of Yorkshire. He scored 52 and 13* and his match figures of 11-99 made him the first man to secure ten wicket match hauls both for and against the county. That performance was no doubt also a major reason for the call subsequently received from Brian Close sounding him out about a possible return to the White Rose. Close had been Old’s first captain at Yorkshire, and his sacking as a player marked the beginning of the county’s dark days and Old, perhaps remembering how Close had ignored him in 1966, decided to stay where he was.

One festival match at Scarborough in 1986 apart Chris Old’s First Class career ended in 1985. His career record is a creditable 7,756 runs at 20.84 and 1,070 wickets at 23.48. His first job after leaving the game was as a cricket development officer on Humberside, a job he did for a number of years. He then left Yorkshire and moved with his family to Cornwall where for many years he ran a fish and chip restaurant at Praa Sands near Penzance. Following the most recent recession Old sold the business and took a part time job with supermarket giant Sainsburys, selling newspapers and magazines and, occasionally if asked, talking about his days as an international cricketer.


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