Ending the six-year drought
It would not be unfair to say that Northamptonshire started the 1939 season with few expectations of glory. Since 1934 they had finished bottom every season, and in that period they had managed only one win, and that in their opening game at Taunton in 1935. Since then, they had played 99 Championship matches, losing 57 and drawing the remainder. They were also living on the edge of a financial precipice, and each season threatened to be their last.
The 1939 campaign started with a win at Cambridge, and there followed two draws and two defeats. When Leicestershire visited Northampton at the end of May, it was a bottom-of-the-table clash. Northamptonshire had only gained their first points of the summer in the previous match, courtesy a narrow first-innings lead in a defeat by Glamorgan, while Leicestershire had yet to break their duck despite a battling draw against Lancashire the day before.
On a spongy pitch Leicestershire won the toss but were quickly bowled out for 134. That actually represented a distinct recovery - they had crumpled to 8 for 5 inside the first half-hour. By the close on the Saturday, Northamptonshire had raced to 280 for 2, with Dennis Brookes unbeaten on 120.
When play resumed on the Monday, a public holiday, the weather was glorious and more than 6300 people were crammed inside Wantage Road. With world events growing increasingly ominous - arrangements for the evacuation of schoolchildren from cities was the lead story of the day - people wanted a distraction, and the prospect of a rare home win was not going to be missed. They were not disappointed. Brookes went on to 187, and by the time Robert Nelson declared soon after 3pm, Northamptonshire had amassed 510 for 8, a lead of 376 and their highest score in six seasons.
On the second ball of Leicestershire's innings, John Buswell sent Les Berry's leg stump cartwheeling; the crowd roared but they had not heard the no-ball call. To add insult to injury, Berry smacked the next ball for six. At tea Leicestershire were 53 for 0 and threatening to spoil the party. But then Bill Merritt, an offspinner who had played six Tests for New Zealand, ripped through the batting, and 20 minutes into the extra half hour, an innings-and-193-run win was completed when Merritt had Gerald Lester caught at slip. The last nine wickets had fallen for 83 runs in under two hours.
The spectators rushed onto the field as if it were the end of a cup final. "Small boys dashed to the wicket and seized some of the stumps and the players were cheered to the echo as they made their way to the pavilion," reported the Guardian.
The pavilion was soon surrounded by a cheering mob, and after a few minutes Nelson, responding to demands from the crowd, emerged and made a speech. "We are naturally pleased to have broken our spell of bad luck," he said. "We hope further victories are in store." There were no more at all for Nelson, who less than 18 months later was killed in action serving with the Royal Marines.
Almost endlessly the players were given three cheers, and it took more than an hour for the spectators to disperse. The players lingered longer, celebrating into the night (the two-day win meant they had the Tuesday off). Even the Leicestershire team, also with no need for an early start the next day, joined in.
It was Northamptonshire's first win at their headquarters since Leicestershire had been beaten in the same fixture over the same Bank Holiday in 1933, and their first at home since 1934 when they had seen off Warwickshire at Kettering. For the first time in too long they rose to the dizzy heights of third from bottom.
There was, however, no dramatic turnaround. They did not win again that summer, and with war interrupting, it was to be their last victory until 1946. They gained some satisfaction in that they did not finish last, kept off that spot by Leicestershire, whose one win later that season was not enough to give them more points than their conquerors.
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo