June 7, 2012

Derbyshire's great Dane

In the 1980s, a young fast bowler from Denmark set out to play cricket for an English county. He was fierce, disciplined, popular, and lived to regret bouncing Sylvester Clarke

If Carlsberg made reliable seamers for English conditions, there's a fair chance they'd come up with something along the lines of the moustachioed 6ft 4in Dane with the angular, windmilling action seen squaring batsmen up at verdant Derby in the eighties and nineties - someone rated by Kim Barnett, his captain for the duration of his stint in county cricket, as "the best bowler never to have played Test cricket". Possible bias notwithstanding, there's little doubt Ole Mortensen's 434 first-class wickets at 23.88 make him the comfortably the best Norseman yet to have donned whites.

Carlsberg don't make reliable seamers, of course, but in 1985, after Mortensen's first Derbyshire deal had expired, they did try and sign him on behalf of Northamptonshire. Spotting a branding opportunity, the brewer offered to double their countryman's wage while picking up the tab for the county where they had their UK base. However, "Stan", as his team-mates knew him, decided to stay at Derby because he "felt that we were going places under Kim Barnett's leadership and sincerely believed we were going to win some trophies".

One can almost hear the slurps of appreciation from Ilkeston to Glossop, and if the omnipresent Viking helmets of his testimonial year in 1994 are any guide, Mortensen is among the county's most cherished post-war cricketers. The loyalty was vindicated by the fact that two of the four trophies Derbyshire have won came during his dozen years on the staff.

But how does a young Dane get involved in cricket of all sports? "Pure coincidence," Mortensen says. As a boy he played everything from handball to ice hockey but it was while waiting for his lift after soccer practice that he found himself watching a cricket match. The chairman of Svanholm CC wandered over, explained what was going on in this strange game, and invited the eight-year-old Mortensen down the following week. With the team short, Mortensen stepped in and duly top-scored, his debut 30 not out providing "quite a motivation", if little portent of where his cricketing talents lay.

With no cricket at all on Danish television, the occasional videotape and copies of Wisden and The Cricketer were the meagre resources available to spark the imagination of a young seamer who had already started to idolise Dennis Lillee. However, it was a local summer cricket clinic organised by the former Derbyshire captain and Derby County footballer Ian Buxton that provided the big break for a bowler who, Barnett said, was "entirely self-taught". Mortensen impressed enough to be subsequently invited to trial and, a few years later, offered a contract.

"As the first Dane trying to break into first-class cricket there was no pressure on me," he says. "I just thought, 'Okay, let's give it a go.'" That debut season in 1983 netted 66 Championship wickets, 26 more than any of his team-mates - including career-best innings and match figures of 6 for 27 and 11 for 89 in a 22-run victory against Yorkshire. Mortensen is quick to acknowledge the "enormous help" of wicketkeeper Bob Taylor during his first few seasons in Derby. "He knew all the weaknesses of all the players and also took some phenomenal catches."

In the early days, he was renowned for bird-scattering, eardrum-splitting appeals, occasionally crude sledges against the likes of David Gower, and a propensity to swear in Danish

In the early days, he was renowned for bird-scattering, eardrum-splitting appeals, occasionally crude sledges against the likes of David Gower (on 120 not out), and a propensity to swear in Danish ("Satan" did not mean what people thought) that earned another nickname: "Eric Bloodaxe". He was the quintessential "character", endearing himself to fans and team-mates alike with his diehard attitude: "I got out there and said, 'Today's gonna be the best day of my life' and tried to give Kim and the boys 100%."

Yet for all his cult status, this was no circus act. In his middle six seasons at Derby - his peak years in the Peaks - Mortensen topped the bowling averages four times and was otherwise nudged into second only by Ian Bishop and his other hero, Michael Holding, with whom he remains good friends. Barnett considered the Dane a "controlling factor", to whom, if necessary, he could set 8-1 fields, yet also one who regularly dismissed top batsmen, including the two men Mortensen regarded as his most difficult opponents: Wayne Larkins and Viv Richards.

Despite the idiosyncrasies of a chest-on, wide-of-the-crease action that was all knees-and-elbows, like a Swiss Army knife suddenly opening out, his method was distinctly uncomplicated: pitch it up and vary line according to whether it was swinging. "We wanted him to bowl the odd bouncer," laments Barnett, "but he'd never do it. He just bowled immaculate line and length with an angry nature."

Not quite never. There was one occasion when, at the behest of Geoff Miller, Mortensen - with customary accuracy - bounced Sylvester Clarke at The Oval, resulting in a gloved slip catch to England's current national selector, and a few seasons of Mortensen fending off bumpers from a bowler renowned for targeting tailenders, regardless of how far they backed away. "He was quite a formidable bowler to be standing 20 yards from," deadpans Mortensen - who was dismissed hit-wicket in his next game against Surrey. Barnett jokes that when a fax announcing Clarke's retirement came through at the Racecourse Ground, Mortensen had it framed.

With a forward poke the limit of his batting prowess - an undefeated 74 from No. 11 was his sole half-century - he is thus renowned for the bowling parsimony that was fundamental to Derbyshire's 1990 Sunday League success. In that pre-Powerplay era, Barnett often bowled "Stan" unchanged at the start, on the proviso that he went for under 25 runs in his eight overs (which he managed in nine of 14 games). This strategy, which he recognises was "a luxury", incurred good-natured ribbing from the likes of Dominic Cork and others sharing death-bowling duties, but Mortensen repaid the faith with an economy rate of 3.11 for the season, comfortably the best in the country. In the must-win final match against Essex, he recorded figures of 8-2-10-1.

This was "the stepping stone that showed us we could win", and Derbyshire proceeded to beat red-hot favourites Lancashire in the 1993 Benson & Hedges final. Mortensen was called up for Lord's having not featured in the earlier rounds, and turned in the second-most economical analysis (1 for 41) in a six-run win, helping erase the memory of heavy defeat to Hampshire on a damp pitch five years earlier.

Despite this limited-overs success, he believes Derbyshire ought to have achieved more in the Championship, especially given their pace-bowling resources. They managed a best finish of third place, in 1991 (their highest since the early '50s), during his time there, as part of an attack that included Bishop, Cork, Devon Malcolm and Allan Warner, before Mortensen's career wound down to a single first-class outing in his final, benefit season. His only other regret was not attending more to his fitness, but he is quick to add that the 12 years in Derby "were an absolute ball, probably the best time of my life".

He finished coaching the Danish national team in 2001, since when they have slipped down four divisions, and finally hung up his boots in 2010, aged 52, after helping Glostrup CC to their first Danish title. He now splits his time between teaching English, maths and PE at college, and a business venture supplying formal clothing to sports teams, but will also be commentating on the World Twenty20 in September for Eurosport. And he always, always checks ESPNcricinfo for Derbyshire's results.

If they can return to challenge for domestic honours, then somewhere in Copenhagen an old favourite will be cracking open a cold lager in celebration.

Scott Oliver tweets here

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  • AdrianVanDenStael on June 8, 2012, 9:52 GMT

    @Chris_P: I indeed don't remember Mortensen ever being openly discussed as an England prospect. I notice he appears to have retained close links to Denmark throughout his career, playing for Denmark in the ICC Trophy regularly. This would not have stopped him seeking to qualify to play for England; a roughly contemporary player, Dermot Reeve, played for Hong Kong in the ICC Trophy in 1982 and later became an England player, and, as you'll be aware, more recently, Danish-born Amjad Khan, who also played for Denmark, later obtained British citizenship and played 1 test for England. I suspect however that Mortensen never actually sought this option and instead maintained his connections with Danish cricket. His Danish background would have been useful to Derbyshire in the late 1980s since because of the connection to the EU Mortensen (like Hampshire's P.J. Bakker and Gloucs and Northants' Kevin Curran, who I believe had an Irish passport) he would not have counted as an overseas player

  • Chris_P on June 7, 2012, 22:41 GMT

    There may have been others before him, but I can only recall Ole being the first of Associate players to really stamp their mark in country cricket. Given his outstanding figures, perhaps one of my English friends can explain the reason why he wasn't considered for English selection? Was it due to him living away in the off season or he didn't want to play? I have recollections of impressive performances against Australian touring teams, so he definitely had something worthwhile to consider. Nice article.

  • AdrianVanDenStael on June 7, 2012, 10:11 GMT

    My memory of Mortensen is from a NatWest Trophy match against local rivals Notinghamshire in 1987. Mortensen had just come onto bowl, bowling to Stuart Broad's father Chris (then an England player) and was having a problem with leg-side wides. He bowled another delivery outside leg stump, albeit slightly closer to the batsman's pads than previous deliveries. However, Mortensen was not finished yet. As the umpire started to set himself to signal another wide, Mortensen barked out a loud and ostensibly enthusiastic appeal for caught behind. It was a ridiculous appeal, but the gusto with which he appealed just succeeded in putting a moment of doubt in the umpire's mind. While the umpire was thinking about the appeal, he omitted to go through with his signal of wide. Mortensen thus had at least succeeded in recording his first dot ball of the day, albeit through conning the umpire.

  • dummy4fb on June 7, 2012, 8:36 GMT

    I never saw Stanley in his pomp but had the priveledge of playing under him for Denmark during his stint as National Coach. The fact that he would rather chase trophies for Derby than chase higher wagebills at Nothampton says just about everything about the man. What a legend :)

  • StoneRosesRam on June 7, 2012, 8:27 GMT

    Great article, brings back so many good memories for a derby boy, i remember going down to London for the Lord's final against Lancashire, it was a cracking day and one of my first cricket games i saw in person. That Derby team of the late 80's early 90's was so good both in terms of the domestic players (Malcolm, Cork) and the overseas players (Holding, Bishop) something we will probably never see at the club again

  • dummy4fb on June 7, 2012, 7:41 GMT

    Not "Satan", "satans", with a lower case "s".

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