Thursday, 31 May 2012

1987: Northants heartbreak

The choice of my county cricket team was made on a purely geographical basis, as a lot of sports fans often stress should be the method used on such matters. With football I wasn't really given a choice by my dad, who possibly would have disowned me if I had chosen anyone else but Arsenal. However, he wasn't particularly into county cricket, thus allowing me to make this seismic decision on my own. Growing up in Milton Keynes didn't really give me a great amount of choice, as Buckinghamshire were not, and still are not, a first-class county. My selection was obvious: Northamptonshire.

The first couple of years of my new found devotion were fairly uneventful. And then came 1987. A year so exciting, but ultimately crushing, full of highs and lows aplenty, thrills and spills, and any other good/bad adjectives that you can think to use (elation/deflation, ecstasy/despair, Larkins and Lamb/Love and Hadlee, are some off the top of my head). The kind of year that one can now look on with even a hint of fondness, even though at the time it seemed that it wouldn't be possible to ever watch cricket again.

Northants were on the face of it a good county to follow. Their star player was undoubtedly the South African born England batsman Allan Lamb, a man who to this day remains one of my greatest sporting heroes. Skippered by the experienced Geoff Cook, the team contained England test and ODI players from the past (Cook himself), future (Rob Bailey and David Capel) and both past and future (Wayne Larkins and spinner Nick Cook). Northamptonshire's overseas star was the West Indian fast bowler Winston Davis (backed up very occasionally by Roger Harper), who at the time held the best bowling figures in a World Cup match of 7/51 against Australia. The rest of the side comprised of solid performers such as Duncan Wild (mid-order batsman and medium pace bowler), Richard Williams (mid-order batsman and off spinner), David Ripley (wicketkeeper), and Alan Walker (right-arm fast-medium bowler). In essence they had all the ingredients for a successful one day team, and it was certainly going to be entertaining following their fortunes throughout the season.

The first domestic one-day trophy up for grabs was the Benson and Hedges Cup, a 55-over competition that I always viewed in the same light as the League Cup in football (rightly or wrongly I always perceived the NatWest Trophy as the FA Cup of cricket). That said, it was still a major tournament to win, and the final day out at Lord's was an event that all counties wanted to be at. Northants were drawn in the initial group stage with Gloucestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, so to progress to the quarter finals they would have to finish in the top two of a group packed full with Midlands derbies. The tournament would sadly start for Northants as it would end: a defeat on the amount of wickets lost. Derbyshire's 300-5 was within Northants' grasp, but Alan Walker's run out off the final ball of the innings meant that although both teams had scored 300, Northants wickets column gave the two points to Derbyshire. Portents of an unhappy ending unfortunately.

A comfortable 58-run victory over Gloucestershire got things back on track, skipper Geoff Cook scoring 108, and Rob Bailey 134. But a 15-run defeat against Notts at Trent Bridge made the final game against East Midlands rivals Leicestershire a must win encounter. Going into the final two group matches, Notts had completed their program and sat on four points, although they were, barring some odd results, pretty much out of the equation due to their inferior balls per run rating (the number of balls faced divided by the number of runs scored in the tournament). Derbyshire and Gloucestershire would meet at Derby with both teams on four points, meaning the winner would be guaranteed a quarter final place, as both Northants and Leicestershire had just one win apiece. Fortunately for Northants, their scores of 300, 283 and 241 left them in a healthy position in regards to balls per run, so a win against Leicestershire was likely to be enough to see them into the quarter finals.

Gloucestershire's win at Derby made things that much easier for Northants, and although they only made 224/9 against Leicestershire, they managed to restrict their rivals to 187/9, Winston Davis with figures of 11-3-20-3, and David Capel returning a none-too-shabby 11-3-35-2. When the quarter final draw was made, Northants would have to travel to Taunton to take on Somerset for a place in the semis.
Somerset away was not as daunting as it would have been a few years earlier, the west country county now without the services of Messrs Botham, Richards and Garner. Batting first, Northants made 212 all out from 54.2 overs, Richard Williams top-scoring with a vital 72, and things were looking decidedly shaky. But David Capel took 4/38, as Somerset failed to recover from a disastrous start of 15/3. A 29-run victory and Northants were now one step from Lord's.

An away semi-final at Kent was never going to be an easy game, and it turned out to be yet another classic, the sort that always seemed to take place in one-day games during the 80s. Kent posted 275/7 (Chris Cowdrey 87, Chris Tavare 78, Winston Davis 3/37) and the total looked a long way off when Kent all-rounder Eldine Baptiste started his spell with figures of 6-3-8-1. But as soon as Baptiste's ankle turned, so did the match, and Baptiste's missing five overs proved crucial in the final outcome. A vital fourth wicket stand of 111 by Lamb and Capel brought Northants within range, and although this soon became 211/5, crucially Lamb was still at the crease, and as long as he remained then Kent knew there was trouble ahead. Lamby was imperious, playing one of his many fine one-day innings. When Northants crept home with two balls to spare, Lamb's 126 not out proved the match winning contribution. Of the 68-run sixth wicket partnership, Duncan Wild only contributed 10, which highlights Lamb's dominance come the tail end of the match.

Saturday July 11: Northants v Yorkshire at Lord's. As I sat down to nervously watch my first Northants final, I shared the same kind of excitement that I often experienced on FA Cup final day back in the 80s. Indeed, the relative lack of coverage of cricket on the BBC made occasions such as this feel that much more special, and this is probably why I tend to look back on this period with a wistful gaze. Yorkshire won the toss and elected to field, and Northants were soon wobbling on 92/4, Cook, Larkins, Bailey and Lamb all back in the dressing room. A superb knock of 97 by David Capel and a battling 44 by Richard Williams, helped the pair put on 120 for the fifth wicket, and Northants final score of 244/7 was a lot better than they may have hoped for at one point. Above all it was competitive, and Yorkshire, weighed down with the burden of the trophyless years of 1970-1986, would be under great pressure chasing down the total.

Any optimism quickly began to seep out of my body, as Moxon and Metcalfe put on 97 for the first Yorkshire wicket. But in the blink of an eye, Yorkshire were soon 103/3, as Northants spinners Cook and Williams started to tie the batsmen into knots. When Williams took his third wicket, Yorkshire were 160/4, and it was very much game on. Then the trickle of torture began for both sets of supporters: every run and dot ball cheered depending on which side of the fence you sat. Through all this nail biting one man remained firm: Yorkshire's Jim Love, and as a Northants supporter you really wanted to see the back of him.

But he wouldn't budge, and although David Bairstow and Phil Carrick were run out (at 223 and 235 respectively), you began to get the same feeling as Kent supporters must have encountered during Lamby's semi-final innings. Come the start of the final over, Yorkshire needed five runs for victory, and unfortunately for me Love was still there. Winston Davis did his best, and with only three runs scored from the first four deliveries I began to dream again. But it is the hope that kills you, and an easy run out was missed off the penultimate ball of the match (from memory I thought this was by Alan Walker, but the Daily Express seems to disagree, stating that Rob Bailey missed the chance from three-yards - funny how the mind can play tricks) and the race was up. Jim Love defended the last ball, meaning that both teams finished on 244, with Yorkshire winning the final on the basis of losing fewer wickets. As I held my head in my hands I realised that I had spent nearly half a day of my life watching every twist and turn of an epic sporting clash, only to be left crushed come the very last ball. Heartbreak in my first final. Preparation for the next tournament unfortunately.

Phil Carrick with the B&H Cup: Do I not like that...

By the time of the B&H final, Northants had already progressed to the quarter finals of the 60-over NatWest Trophy, albeit not without a fright against Ireland in the first round. Northants only managed to reach 198 all out from 59.1 overs, but Alan Walker came to their rescue, taking 4/7 as Ireland limped to 110 all out. In the second round, Surrey visited the County Ground, Northampton, and were handed a five wicket defeat, West Indian Roger Harper taking 3/40, Duncan Wild 3/43, and Allan Lamb top scoring with 88, as Northants comfortably chased down their target of 212.

Essex at Chelmsford awaited in the quarter finals, a tough task with the likes of Gooch, Border, Pringle, Foster and Lever in the opposition ranks. After the first day was washed out completely, Northants limited Essex to 204/5, Davis dismissing Gooch for just 2 proving a key moment. In reply Northants were struggling on 22/2, but a supreme innings of 121 not out by Wayne Larkins, and a half-century from Lamb, enabled the visitors to stroll home with a full 3.2 overs to spare. An away semi-final at Leicestershire stood between Northants and their second Lord's final of the year.

Like the quarter final, the semi stretched into two days, Northants posting 249/6 on day one, a solid score, but a touch frustrating seeing as Cook and Larkins had put on 116 for the first wicket. Leicestershire closed day one on 37/2, leaving many facing an anxious night wondering what lay in store the next day. We needn't have worried, as Leicestershire folded meekly for 164, Williams taking 4/10 and Capel 3/43, with extras the third highest scorer for the home team. So we had made it back to HQ, and had a chance to stub our B&H nightmare out on Saturday September 6. Standing in our way was a fine Nottinghamshire team that would go on to win the County Championship that year, as well as finish runners-up in the Refuge Assurance Sunday League. And above all they had Richard Hadlee.

The weather reports are getting a little repetitive admittedly, but yet again there was interruptions to the play on the scheduled day of the final (I wonder if Michael Fish predicted this correctly, after all, a little over a month later he wasn't exactly spot on with one of his predictions). It was a damp squib to a sad youngster intent on spending a whole day in front of the TV watching his team attempting to go one better than last time. The match was reduced to 50 overs (that will never catch on) and Nottinghamshire had no hesitation in inserting Northants when Clive Rice won the toss. Northants did manage to bat their 50 overs on the Saturday, amazingly keeping Hadlee wicketless, although the New Zealander's 10 overs only went for 29 runs. Larkins scored 87, Lamb 41, and Bailey (39 not out from 40 balls) and Capel (29 not out off a blistering 24 balls - blistering for 1987 at least) got Northants up to 228/3. At the close of play Northants were sitting pretty: Notts 57/4 from 21 overs. Eighties Ashes heroes, Chris Broad and Tim Robinson were quickly dispatched by Davis, as Notts slumped to 12/2 and after Randall and Johnson were dismissed, Notts were looking down and out on 38/4. With no play on the Sunday due to Refuge League matches, the final was pushed back to the Monday, hardly ideal for people at work or school, but that was our lot I'm afraid.

As for the rest of the Nottinghamshire innings on the Monday, all I can say is that I'm glad I was at school after all, as I think if I had witnessed what would unfold on that fateful day then I may have started to wonder if someone really had it in for me. At 84/5 Northants could almost smell the silver polish, although Notts still had Clive Rice at the crease, and with Hadlee joining him, the pair took the score up to 146, before Williams accounted for Rice. I'd never particularly rated Bruce French as a batsman when he had played for England, and now along with Hadlee, he was about to prove me horribly wrong on this occasion and leave me totally demoralised for a second time that season.

How Northants didn't win that final still needs explaining to me. Hadlee was dropped from four (yes FOUR) consecutive deliveries by Cook, Lamb, Bailey and Lamb again. Notts needed 73 from 7 overs, 58 from 6, 51 from 5, 40 from 4, and 27 from 3, and still we couldn't seal the deal. As Geoff Cook so aptly put it after the final: "You begin to wonder if you'll ever win anything." French scored a timely 35 from just 27 balls before Capel ran him out with Notts eight runs short of their target. By then though the damage had been done by Hadlee, who led his team home in style with a six and a four off of David Capel. Hadlee's was the very definition of a match winning innings of 70 from 61 balls and Notts had got home with just three balls to spare. As I sat down in front of the 6 o'clock news that evening to find out the score (no Internet or smart phones to bring me that misery in 87) I comforted myself with the fact that at least I hadn't experienced it in a live capacity as I had for the B&H final. And for that I am still grateful, as even now, studying that scorecard has left me with a nagging 'what-if' feeling. The sort of regret that plays on the mind of a sports obsessive like myself, when I get a few rare moments to myself to think about the ones that got away.

That Northants team really did deserve to win a one-day trophy in 1987. They may have failed in their goal, and at the time I didn't think I'd ever get over the twin disappointments of that season, but looking back on it now I'm glad I was there in my armchair watching such great matches, such talented players like Allan Lamb and Wayne Larkins, in an era that now seems so detached from the modern game. Of course I know that makes me sound like a grandad, but I don't really care, as my formative years of following Northants are some of the fondest of my cricket supporting life. Now, where did I leave those Werther's Originals?

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