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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