September 17, 2015

Reliving Gloucestershire's limited-overs glory days

Silverware has eluded the county for more than a decade, but their upcoming one-day final brings back memories of their domination from 1999 to 2004

Jack Russell and Mark Alleyne hold the 2001 Natwest Trophy after beating Somerset at Lord's © PA Photos

There's probably a half-decent book waiting to be written about all the great pre-T20 domestic sides that would have excelled at the new format: Lancashire's all-conquering one-day team of the 1970s, Transvaal's "Mean Machine", Barbados in the 1970s, Bombay in the 1960s, Queensland Bulls in the 1990s.

The old nostrum about the great sides - the great players - being able to adapt to any era probably holds true, yet the developments ushered in by T20 - developments largely to do with conceptions of what's possible, and which have fed back into 50-over cricket - have rendered the old limited-overs cricket barely recognisable (the inaugural Gillette Cup final in 1963, for instance, featured 25 maidens).

This Saturday's Royal London Cup final between Gloucestershire and Surrey is something of a throwback to a classic, pre-T20, turn-of-the-century rivalry, pitting the swaggering metropolitan plutocrats and unheralded West Country upstarts against one another. Indeed, the 2001 Benson and Hedges Cup final that these two sides contested is the only Lord's final that the Gloucestershire dynasty of 1999 to 2004 didn't manage to win.

Would this team, forged by the "mad scientist" John Bracewell, have been a great T20 side? Maybe, for they were already a consistently innovative team in the 50-over game, one that worked out a blueprint for success and were not only ruthless in executing the game plan but adaptable enough when an opponent threw a spanner in the works.

"We looked at the boundary distances and wind directions when targeting bowlers. Or patterns in opponents' dismissals before analysis software made it commonplace"
Jeremy Snape

As ever, necessity - here provided by a relatively limited budget - proved the mother of invention, and a squad without too many genuine stars became the most formidable one-day outfit in England, winning a "double double" in 1999 and 2000 (both the Benson and Hedges Cup and the C&G Trophy, in both seasons), while also pocketing the Sunday League in 2000.

The blueprint, particularly in Bristol, was to bat first, ensure a par score was reached, then slowly strangle the opposition on a slowish surface at the centre of a biggish ground. Key to all this was veteran opener Kim Barnett, who Bracewell described as "like Duckworth-Lewis before it was invented". It was Barnett who would first calculate the par score, then systematically plot the road map to that total. Unglamorous top-order names like Tim Hancock and Matt Windows, Robert Cunliffe and Dominic Hewson, would lay down the platform; Ian "Freak" Harvey would float, occasionally being used as a pinch-hitter; Jack Russell, Jeremy Snape and the captain, Mark Alleyne, were entrusted with finishing duties.

There was an air of calmness and control about things - partly the by-product of being serial winners and thus lacking some of the baggage of nearly men, partly wrought by the clarity of their plan. "The main competitive advantage," recalls Snape, "was our attention to detail and the team culture that we developed. For example, we looked at the boundary distances and wind directions when targeting bowlers. Or we looked at patterns in opponents' dismissals before analysis software made it commonplace."

Kim Barnett: resident Duckworth-Lewis expert © Getty Images

If the batting was easy to underestimate, on the field Gloucestershire were unambiguously dynamic. Barnett called it "The Wave": the off-side ring of Windows, Snape and Hancock pulsing like a jellyfish, slowly asphyxiating their prey. Meanwhile, Harvey and Mike Smith would swing the new ball, backed up by Jon Lewis and James Averis. Martyn Ball and Snape would compete to bowl the slowest, loopiest (in both senses) offbreaks possible (assuming those wind directions were in their favour), while Alleyne and Barnett might be called upon to bowl some idiosyncratic medium pace.

Conducting the whole show was the singular genius of Jack Russell - reckoned by Bracewell to have become the world's best keeper around this time when he stopped worrying about being picked for England and thus shed his conservatism - while the tactical strings were pulled by the vastly underrated Alleyne, described by his coach as "the most astute captain I've ever met". The latter, aside from his left-field ideas, instilled basic discipline and fitness standards for a team that probably became greater than the sum of its parts. (Alleyne and Snape were picked for England around this time, arguably because the selectors, headed by David Graveney, who played 19 seasons at Nevil Road, felt that Gloucestershire's dominance needed to be reflected at national level.)

It was something of a surprise to see a Gloucestershire side emerge to such pre-eminence. Despite having players of the calibre of WG Grace, Gilbert Jessop and Wally Hammond, they had never won a (official) County Championship, although they had experienced one-day success in the 1970s with a side containing the formidable talents of Sadiq Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas and Mike Procter.

Bracewell's team became a finely tuned, well-drilled winning machine that routinely saw off the big boys - Yorkshire, Lancashire, Surrey et al - but they were also far from the one-dimensional "homers" that ungracious visitors accused them of being. Indeed there was an eerie similarity between this year's crushing semi-final win over Yorkshire at Headingley, and arguably the most famous - certainly the most cherished - victory of that golden era. Barnett recalls how Yorkshire were still smarting two years on from losing to Gloucestershire in both the 1999 NatWest Trophy semi-final, by six runs, and the B&H final, by 124: "Goughie had said, 'Wait till we get 'em to Headingley.' They were looking forward to it, the Yorkshire seamers - 'We've got 'em on a bouncy track' - but I think we got about 270 and bowled them out for bugger all."

Alleyne's Gloucestershire may have started their journey as underdogs, but it wasn't long before they were expected to beat all-comers. Their overall knockout record between 1999 and 2002 was phenomenal: 28 wins and seven losses from 37 games, including 16 wins from 18 at "Fortress Bristol".

It has been a breath of fresh air to see this season's two showpiece domestic finals - the prestige of one, admittedly, hardly being reflected in its autumnal scheduling - contested by four different Division Two counties (albeit of different resourcefulness) in Northants, Lancashire, Surrey and Gloucestershire. It would be great for Gloucestershire - underdogs once more - to pick up their first silverware in over a decade.

Scott Oliver tweets here

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  • Assad on September 21, 2015, 12:02 GMT

    Very well written article. I was in college and university in those years. Although I am a big Pakistan cricket fan, but I used to watch nearly every game Gloucestershire played. They had this knack of winning. Mike Smith with his left arm medium fast swing bowling, the 'red eyed' power batting from Mark Alleyne (looked as he was stoned) and who can forget Ian Harvey with his freakish slower balls.

  • Ski on September 19, 2015, 4:15 GMT

    Even though, as a Yorkshire fan, I'm still smarting from our semi final loss, I hope Gloucestershire win this one. Remember their team of late 90s, early 00s and it was a cracking one day outfit. I think the main reason they were so good was everyone knew clearly what their job in the team was.

  • Ramalinga on September 18, 2015, 16:39 GMT

    This is Gloucestershire's moment to relive past Glory This is when hunger to perform transcends to present day Glory G for Gloucester, G for Glory and G they go for it.. Final G spot > Good luck!

  • Peter on September 18, 2015, 9:07 GMT

    Rarely has cricket looked more of a team game than when Gloucestershire played one day cricket around the turn of the century. The current Gloucestershire side look very similar in a number of ways. No stars but a team that understands its game plan and that plays for each other. Surrey are obviously favourites but only a fool would write Gloucestershire off.

  • Mark on September 17, 2015, 21:18 GMT

    Looking at the names of that Gloucs side of 1999-2004, what strikes me is how modestly talented they were: James Averis at gentle medium, Martyn Ball & Jeremy Snape no more than average county pros, Hancock & Windows hardly the terror of bowlers. Mark Alleyne played, I think, 10 ODIs with modest results, but the side gelled together so well in limited overs games without looking like cracking the Championship (1999, last; 2000 & 2001, mid-table in Div 2, 2002, last but one...) The current side is not dissimilar, although it has more potential with a potent young bowling attack & young batsmen, backed up by 3 of >35. As in the SF, where no one gave Gloucs a chance, on paper this looks like a catch weight contest. Surrey have a powerful and talented squad that is finally starting to perform consistently, although they were awful in the T20. The focus is on Klinger for Gloucs & the accusation of one-man band, but that will sell Gloucs short: there have been plenty of team performances.

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