Monday, 18 September 2017

1984: County Championship drama

Essex recently won their first County Championship in 25 years. But for sheer drama, surely nothing could match their 1984 triumph.

As far as I know, no one has ever written a film based on the County Championship. But if a budding writer wanted to take a step into uncharted territory, and pen the first Hollywood blockbuster on this subject, then the person involved would do themselves a big favour by taking a look at the events of the 1984 season. A campaign running from April to September, came down to the penultimate ball of a match in Somerset, with the fate of two counties hanging in the Taunton air.

The script would involve an underdog who nearly became a hero; a substitute fielder earning himself legendary status for a county that he never played for; panic on the streets of Chelmsford; a case of so near, yet so far for one team, and unadulterated delight for another. There might not be the angle of a love interest, but come the end of September 11, 1984, Keith Fletcher would quite probably have kissed Richard Ollis in relief.

In a topsy-turvy season, there was a sense of inevitability that the championship would be decided during the final set of fixtures. Defending champions Essex, and 1981 winners Nottinghamshire, had been neck and neck for most of the year, with both taking it in turns to claim the ascendancy.

On August 21, Essex took charge, claiming a maximum 24 points in their victory over Hampshire, with Terry Alderman frustrating Notts by seeing out the final Eddie Hemmings over of the match, where every Notts fielder was immediately surrounding the bat.

Notts had a game in hand, but trailing by 38 points they were getting close to the requiring snookers stage. Yet a Kent win over Essex, coupled with maximum points for Notts against Lancashire, put the Midlands outfit back in contention.

As August drew to a close, it appeared as if Notts had made the decisive move; their win over Northamptonshire, and Essex's frustrating draw with Middlesex in their penultimate match, saw Notts move to within a point of their title rivals, but crucially with a game extra to play.

With county matches played over three days, the bargaining ability of captains and the timing of their declarations was crucial throughout the season. Essex skipper Keith Fletcher expressed his anger at Middlesex's go-slow approach to his final innings target of 340 from 95 overs, although Mike Gatting hit back stating that the equation was unrealistic. The sight of Derek Pringle fielding on a chair, Graham Gooch keeping wicket without pads, Brian Hardie drinking a pint on the boundary, and wicketkeeper David East bowling, gave an indication of the frustration enveloping Essex's players.

"I have to admit it's looking a bit dodgy now," Fletcher said, as Notts journeyed down to Sussex for their game in hand. "We're just hoping for a monsoon to hit the South Coast over the next few days." Fletcher had every right to be concerned. Notts had won their last three matches, and Richard Hadlee had recently completed the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets, the first since Fred Titmus in 1967.

Due to his influence, some labelled the county "Hadleeshire", but in skipper Clive Rice, Chris Broad and Tim Robinson opening the batting, county wicketkeeper of the year Bruce French, and with spinner Hemmings performing well, Notts were far from a one-man team.

"Ideally, I would like to beat Sussex so that we can go into our last match with Somerset needing only a few bonus points," Rice admitted. "But it rarely works out the way you want it." Very true. Sussex batted ponderously first time round, taking over 150 overs to score 436/9. Notts only just about avoided the follow-on, but Sussex skipper John Barclay delayed his second innings declaration, leaving Notts an unrealistic target of 276 from 35 overs. The draw meant that Notts would go into the final week of the season leading by four points.

Rice was critical of Sussex skipper John Barclay, stating that his late declaration "killed a good game of cricket". Meanwhile, Fletcher was delighted. "We would have settled for that beforehand," Fletcher said. "It was the best we could have hoped for, and now I fancy our chances. I always thought it would go to the last match, which is good for cricket because it keeps the interest alive all the way through." With both teams away, Essex looked slight favourites; their opponents Lancashire were one place off the bottom of the table, whereas Notts faced a tricky looking match at Somerset.

Essex thumped a poor Lancashire side in just two days at Old Trafford, to increase the pressure on Notts. John Lever, Neil Foster, and Pringle combined to dismiss the home team for 229, and a century from Ken McEwan (132 from 117 balls), and Paul Prichard's maiden first-class ton, saw Essex amass 446 in reply. When Lancashire could only match their under-par first innings total, Gooch and Prichard knocked off the winning runs at 7pm on Monday September 10, and all eyes turned to Taunton.

"All we can do now is wait," Fletcher stated, claiming that he would stay at home during the final day of the season. With Essex taking the full points in Manchester, Notts knew that they simply had to beat Somerset to wrest the trophy from Fletcher's hands. Going into the final day, Somerset led by 84 with all second innings wickets intact. Somerset captain, Ian Botham, would play a significant role in deciding the destination of the 1984 County Championship. "I owe it to Essex not to declare at the wrong time," Botham said on the eve of the championship conclusion.

It had often been said that Botham was pure box office, and on September 11 he helped to create entertainment and excitement that would produce a thrilling climax to the 1984 County Championship. Setting Notts a target of 297 from a minimum of 52 overs, at first Rice thought this target a little on the high side. But spinners Vic Marks and Steve Booth bowled in tandem for 51.5 overs unchanged, allowing Notts to face just under 60 overs in total. "A lot of thanks are due to Ian Botham for making such a fantastic game of it," Rice declared after the match. Amen.

Broad and Robinson set the foundation for the run chase, their opening stand of 70 crucial in establishing the tone. Reaching 159/3 with 20 overs remaining, Notts needed a further 138 to clinch the title, and as long as Rice was at the crease, they remained in the driving seat. Paul Johnson, Hadlee, and French all played cameos around their skipper, and with four overs remaining, Notts had reduced the target to 42 runs. But then came the first intervention of the day from substitute fielder Richard Ollis.

Marks bowled a full toss at Rice, and the Notts skipper could only look on in horror as he hit the ball high on the bat and was caught at deep square leg by Ollis. Rice's 98 from 109 balls had pushed his team to the brink of glory, yet when Kevin Cooper and Hemmings were both stumped charging Marks and Booth respectively, it looked as if Notts would fall just short. They would, but perhaps not in the way everyone expected. Enter Mike Bore.

Described as a "roly-poly Yorkshireman with a career batting average of eight" by the Daily Express' Pat Gibson, not many in the Notts dressing room would have had much expectation, as the 37-year-old walked to the crease. Playing in just his third championship match of the season, Bore had previously excelled with the ball, taking 9/124 in the win over Northants. But his batting average indicated that the Champagne would soon be flowing in Chelmsford. Bore had different ideas, though.

Requiring 27 from two overs, Bore went on the attack, finding the middle of his bat with alarming regularity to send ripples all the way to Essex. "When I went out to bat I didn't think we had a chance," Bore professed. "But I started to hit the ball well and we got closer." Thirteen runs from Marks' final over brought the equation down to 14 from the final six balls of the season. "With the title going to the last over, nobody could possibly have written this story if they tried," Rice said.

First ball: Booth to Bore, four runs (almost six) towards long-on. Second ball: Booth to Bore, four runs through the covers. Third ball: Booth to Bore, two runs. Four needed from three balls. "I thought we had had it as I drove into the ground," Fletcher later admitted. He'd spent the day fishing, and painting his garage door in order to avoid putting himself through the misery of grabbing updates from Taunton. Now, as he made his way to Essex's Chelmsford ground, it looked as if the scheduled party might now turn into a wake.

Fourth ball: Booth to Bore, blocked. Two balls left, and the tension at Chelmsford and in the Notts dressing room was tangible. Fifth ball: Booth to Bore...."If it had been a longer boundary I would have probably tried for two, but it was there to be hit over the short boundary and I went for it." As the ball sailed towards the boundary, Bore thought he had won the title, and possibly the freedom of Nottingham. But just three yards short of glory, Ollis moved into focus, taking a catch above his head that would hand the title to Essex.

"I'm terribly disappointed to lose out by just three yards with that final blow," Bore stated after the dust had settled. "I should have had an extra lunch for strength." Just after 6pm on the final day of the county season, and with only one ball left after Bore had tried to clear the rope, the county champions were finally known. "I'm really relieved we've got all winter to recover from it," Rice said, shocked by the nature of the defeat. "I'm 35 and feel 50."

The devastation of the Notts players was contrasted by the elation felt at Chelmsford. "When Bore got out I thought the roof of the clubhouse had come off as I ran in to join the rest of the lads," Fletcher said. Becoming the first county to successfully defend the title since 1968, Fletcher immediately targeted a hat-trick of championships. But for now, the celebrations that had started during this ITN News clip, would continue into the night.

Nottinghamshire must have been sick of the sight of Essex players lifting trophies in 1984. As well as the County Championship, Essex won the Sunday League, with Nottinghamshire again finishing runners-up, the bridesmaid once more.

1985 wasn't much better; in a microcosm of the conclusion to the 1984 championship, Notts missed out at the death of the NatWest final, losing by one run as Derek Randall attempted to hit the winning runs. The pain of that defeat would have been hard to take; that it came against Essex, wouldn't have made it any easier.

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