Thursday, 13 September 2012

1985: NatWest Trophy Final

If you're a reader of a certain age, then I'm sure you can remember a time when the end of season one-day final at Lord's was a special occasion in the domestic cricket season. Tickets would be sold out for the final weeks in advance (as I found out to my cost when trying to see Northants v Warwickshire in 1995), and every match seemed to go down to the wire in the gloaming of St. John's Wood. Of course, this wasn't always the case, but the beauty of writing this blog is that it allows me to remember my sporting childhood in a more favourable light than maybe was the case. However, in the heyday of the 80s, the NatWest final (or Gillette if you're even older than me), was a must see event, and the 1985 final between Essex and Nottinghamshire would join the hall of fame of classic finals.

There was a little history between the two finalists: in the previous year Notts had finished as runners-up to Essex in both the County Championship and John Player League, the former one of the most spectacular and heart-wrenching defeats a team could possibly experience. In the lead-up to the final, the tension mounted, with Pat Gibson of the Express reporting that a war of words had started between the teams. Allegedly, Essex's captain, Keith Fletcher, had lobbed the first grenade, pointing out: "Take (Richard) Hadlee away from Notts and what have they got?", which was a little tactless to say the least. Nottinghamshire's skipper Clive Rice, diplomatically responded: "I'm delighted that's what he thinks. If he's starting to write players off, that's fine by me." Admittedly, it was hardly Ali-Frazier, but it was noticeable that neither leader was going to backward step in the week leading up to the final.

Fletcher was obviously trying to point out, that from a bowling point of view, the Midlands county had an over reliance on the genial qualities of the New Zealander Hadlee, which was an easy accusation to make (Hadlee had warmed up for Lord's by taking 8/41 against Lancashire in a county match). You could say he had a slight argument, as Hadlee did dominate the Notts attack, but Rice and Eddie Hemmings were hardly shoddy bowling options, supported ably by Kevin Cooper, Kevin Saxelby and Andy Pick. Nottinghamshire's overall strength did lay in their batting department though, with Tim Robinson, Chris Broad, and Derek Randall, providing international quality, and wicketkeeper Bruce French had made his one-day cricket debut for England earlier in the year. Notts had reached the final relatively comfortably, with big wins over Staffordshire and Warwickshire, a tight ten-run quarter final win over Gloucestershire, and a narrow four-wicket last over triumph over Worcestershire in the semi-final.

Keith Fletcher, aside from stirring up controversy, was aiming to complete his domestic trophy collection in the forthcoming final, and was leading a strong team that had won trophies aplenty in recent years: two county championships in 1983 and 1984, and the John Player League in 1984. If Hadlee was Nottinghamshire's star with the ball, then Graham Gooch was very much the leading light in Essex's batting line-up, aided by the South African Ken McEwan, who would be leaving Essex at the end of the season. Their bowling attack was led by the experienced John Lever, backed up by Stuart Turner, Derek Pringle, and Gooch. Neil Foster did not make the final however, his illness on the morning of the final allowing Ian Pont to make the final XI. Essex too had enjoyed a reasonably straight forward route to the final, until their nail-biting semi-final. After easily disposing of Oxfordshire, Middlesex and Kent, Essex made the final after a nerve wrecking semi-final win over Hampshire at Southampton. Their victory in two days came down to the very final over, Turner seeing out the last five balls to ensure Essex progressed on the basis of losing less wickets than Hampshire. It was just the type of win that the best teams in sport always seem to pull off and, as it turned out, the nature of the match proved ideal preparation for what was to follow in the final.

The toss in September one-day finals at Lord's has always been a crucial moment, perhaps a little more significant than the flip of a coin should be in cricket. The norm for the captain winning the toss was to field first. In the 1980s alone, six teams won the final after winning the toss and inserting the opposition, two decided to bat first and then lost (Kent 1984 and Middlesex 1989), and only two teams bucked the trend of winning after being inserted: Somerset in 1983 and Essex in this very final. Facing Hadlee early on would not be easy, but any Essex fans unduly worried about losing the toss were soon able to cast any concerns aside.

Nottinghamshire must have been sick and tired of the sight of Graham Gooch and Brian Hardie by the end of that weekend. As fate would have it, the two teams would face each other the day after the final in a John Player league match in Nottingham. On the Sunday, Gooch and Hardie compiled an opening partnership of 239, an impressive encore to their efforts on the Saturday. During their partnership at Lord's, Gooch (91) was for once overshadowed by his partner, Hardie's 110 eventually earning him the man of the match award. Unsurprisingly, a 202-run opening stand allowed McEwan and Pringle to play freely, taking the Essex score to 280/2 after their 60 overs, a fine score in the era before six runs plus an over. Essex were now firm favourites for the trophy, their total the second ever highest in a Gillette/NatWest final (behind Yorkshire's 317/4 in 1965).

It was stating the obvious that Notts needed a solid start in their pursuit of such an imposing target. Fortunately for their supporters and any neutrals watching, Robinson (enjoying the summer of his life) and Broad provided the county with just the platform they needed. Their 143-run opening partnership ended after Broad (64) was run out, and when Turner dismissed Robinson (80) shortly after, the pendulum had swung back in favour of Essex. As Turner claimed his second wicket, dismissing Rice for just 12, Notts stood on 173/3, in desperate need of a partnership that would get them back into the match.

Randall and Hadlee provided the innings with just the impetus needed, taking the total up to 214/4, Hadlee scoring a rapid 22 from just 17 balls before Pont bowled him. Randall was then joined at the crease by 21-year-old Duncan Martindale, making his debut in the competition. If Martindale was nervous then he didn't show any signs of unease, as he and Randall continued the recovery mission. Yet with just one over to go, and eighteen runs needed, it looked realistically that Essex had one hand on the trophy.

Not having been in the situation facing Derek Pringle on that day in 1985, I must say I find it hard to describe the mindset that he must have encountered before bowling that final over. He was pretty much in a no-win situation; he was expected to win the game with eighteen runs still needed, but lose it and he would be castigated. So when the first five balls of Pringle's over were smeared for sixteen runs by Randall (2, 4, 2, 4, 4), Pringle must have been in a state of shock. Randall's brilliant hitting had reduced the equation to two from the final ball, and Fletcher could see the trophy slipping from his grasp, later admitting that "When you must have four fielders in the circle there are always going to be some huge gaps around, and I could see the ball going through one of them." Fletcher took his time analysing with Pringle where to bowl the ball, and painfully setting his field, before Pringle finally began his last torturous run to the delivery crease.

Alas Randall could only clip Pringle's delivery straight to Paul Prichard at mid-wicket, who held on to the catch, giving Essex a thrilling one-run victory. As the crowd streaked on to the pitch, a varying array of emotions must have washed off the pitch as the players fled; delight for Fletcher at completing his medal collection; relief for Pringle; and total despair and deflation for the brilliant Randall, so near but yet so far.

Essex celebrate their victory

As it transpired, the delay prior to the final ball had not helped Randall: "I was trying to hit the last ball on the offside but it took them so long to bowl it I got into a bit of a tangle and could only chip it to mid-wicket. If I had gone inside the line and bit it to long leg we would have won." Although the time taken by Fletcher had ultimately helped Essex, he did later concede that Pringle had been a little lucky to get away with the final ball: "We decided we were going to bowl it leg stump or outside. It turned out to be a slow full toss and fortunately for us he chipped it straight to mid-wicket." For Notts, the loss bore an uncanny and sour resemblance to their equally painful last over defeat in the county championship the previous year, where Mike Bore's heroics were not quite enough to bring the title to Trent Bridge. That Essex had been the beneficiaries on both occasions probably did not help matters.

This match helped cement my new found love for the sport of cricket in 1985, giving me the perfect introduction to the beauty of a tense limited overs finish. For years to come I would settle down on the relevant September Saturday morning and watch every minute of the BBC coverage until the conclusion of NatWest Trophy final. Many more were as dramatic (1989 and 1993 spring to mind), but I'll always have a soft spot for the Essex-Nottinghamshire clash in 1985. I'm not sure any Notts fans would agree though, but at least they would have their moment of glory two years later.

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