1976 September 26, 2009

Luck and a helicopter

The 1976 John Player League went down to the wire... and left the BBC relying on guesswork to avoid backing a losing horse
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The final fortnight of the 2009 English domestic season was hardly a humdinger with all but a few secondary issues done and dusted. But the final Sunday of the 1976 summer, one of the hottest of the century, provided an afternoon of almost hourly twists and turns.

The day before, Northamptonshire had beaten Lancashire in the Gillette Cup final at a sold-out Lord's to secure the first trophy in their history. With Middlesex wrapping up the Championship - their first in 27 years - earlier in the week, all that was left to decide was the 40-over Sunday League.

Five sides started the day in with a chance of the title, including co-favourites Sussex and Somerset, the only two first-class counties who had never won a competition of any kind. They led the table by four points from Essex, Kent and Leicestershire, but both faced tricky away matches.

In the event of a tie, the counties would be divided by the number of away wins and if that also failed to separate them, on net run-rate. With five away wins, Kent and Essex were ahead of the other three sides (with four wins each), and Kent had their noses in front on net run-rate.

The BBC, who covered the Sunday League, wanted to be on hand to present the trophy to the winners but faced the conundrum of where to go. They had cameras at the three grounds, but only one gold trophy (this was the days before the cunning ruse of duplicates were thought of).

A decision was made to have a helicopter on standby at their Birmingham studio to head to the relevant ground. At that point it was expected they would need to go to Cardiff (where Somerset were facing Glamorgan) or to nearby Edgbaston, where Warwickshire were hosting Sussex. Kent's game against bottom side Gloucestershire at Maidstone was considered little more than an outside bet.

But the BBC's plans soon started to come unstuck. Sussex, after a good start, lost six wickets for 14 runs in four overs and could only limp to a dismal 149. After an early wobble it was soon clear Warwickshire were coasting to victory.

Meanwhile, at Maidstone an Asif-Iqbal hundred gave Kent a total way out of Gloucestershire's reach. That meant the destiny of the title came down to whether Somerset could beat Glamorgan. If they could, then the helicopter would need to head to Cardiff; if not, then it faced a longer journey, to Kent. But the logistics meant Bob Duncan, the BBC producer, could not wait until the end. He had to gamble an hour or so before the finish where to send presenter Peter Walker and the John Player League trophy.

Thousands of vociferous Somerset supporters had travelled to Wales, giving Sophia Gardens the feel of a Somerset home game. So determined were they to get a seat that thousands turned up at the crack of dawn, and by the time the gatemen arrived they had already got into the ground. Glamorgan's frustrated secretary estimated they lost thousands of pounds.

By teatime the Somerset faithful seemed to be set for a party as their side had restricted Glamorgan to 191 for 7, a score that would have been far smaller had veteran Somerset captain Brian Close not dropped Alan Jones when he was on 21 - he went on top score with 70. Nevertheless, the BBC made provisional bookings for hotel rooms in Cardiff for the Sunday night.

But that decision quickly looked premature as Malcolm Nash took three quick wickets, including the key one of Close, caught at square leg. "His bowed head spoke volumes as he walked back to the pavilion," wrote Henry Blofeld in the Guardian.

In Birmingham, Duncan again revised his plans - prompted by Bill Frindall, who simply said: "I fancy Kent" - and dispatched the helicopter to Maidstone. "We'll have to put all our eggs on Kent," he said. "Unless they end up all over our faces."

As the helicopter flew south-east towards Maidstone, Duncan's nerves were put to the test as Somerset recovered, and by the time Walker and the trophy landed, the last over at Cardiff had just begun.

It all came down to the final ball. Nash to Mike Burgess, Three needed for a tie, and that would be enough. Burgess heaved the ball over Nash's head. They completed two but Jones' throw went to Nash, who seeing Burgess was likely to make his ground, hurled the ball to the wicketkeeper, where, going for the third, Colin Dredge was run out by a yard. Glamorgan had won by one run, Kent had won the league and poor Somerset hadn't even the consolation of second place as they had been edged out by Essex.

To make matters worse, the scoreboard showed Somerset needed two to win - fortunately the players were aware of the true situation - and so their supporters began celebrating at the completion of the second run. It was only a minute or so later when the public address announcer explained that the reality sank in.

With only seconds of transmission time remaining, a relieved Walker hurriedly usher Kent captain Mike Denness and presented the trophy to him in fast-fading light. The crowd of around 8000 who had almost all stayed on, cheered themselves hoarse.

Denness admitted it had been nerve-racking being kept updated with the score from Cardiff, "but it was even worse when we got off in time to watch the closing overs".

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