When a rusty Jonathan Agnew 'got away with it'
Players coming back from retirement to have one last tilt at the windmill are not uncommon. Occasionally they return in glory; usually it turns out to be a damp squib. One of the more unusual comebacks involved the long-time BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew.
Although he is self-deprecating about his abilities when on air, Agnew was a decent bowler, initially quick before adapting to become a good seamer, and in 1988 he was named one of Wisden's five cricketers of the year after taking 101 wickets. By then he had played his only three Tests, in which he took four wickets at 93.25, and had been discarded.
In 1990, Agnew, still only 30, retired to try his luck as a journalist. He initially worked for the now defunct Today newspaper before in 1991 being appointed to succeed Christopher Martin-Jenkins as the BBC's cricket correspondent.
By late July 1992 he was well ensconced in his new role, while his old county, Leicestershire, had won through to the semi-final of the NatWest Trophy, the premier 60-over knockout tournament. But Leicestershire had a problem in that two key players - quick bowler David Millns and allrounder Vince Wells - were both ruled out of the match through injury.
A fortnight before the game the county contacted Agnew and 39-year-old former fast bowler Les Taylor to see if they could play should the need arise. The pair had shared the new ball when Leicestershire won the Benson & Hedges Cup in 1985. Agnew's only cricket had been eight overs in a charity match earlier in the summer; Taylor, working as an installer of cold-storage units, was at least playing club cricket regularly.
"If Leicester think I can help them out, and the BBC agree, I'll play," Agnew said "It would be nice to fire a few balls instead of questions at Graham Gooch again."
The decision was almost taken out of Agnew's hands when a day later he was electrocuted after touching a live wire on a garden strimmer at his home. Neighbours, hearing him scream, rushed over and turned off the power. Agnew was left shaken but still on stand-by.
In the days before the game he dusted off the cobwebs in the nets and come the day of the match he was required, with Millns and Wells still out of action. The press interest was high - as was the public's, with Grace Road sold out for the first time in history - and Agnew worried the expectations were too high.
"As long as people understand they're getting the 1992 Agnew model and not the 1990 version then that's fine," he told the Daily Express on the eve of the match. "I was worried about having a nightmare and letting everyone down. But Nigel [Briers, the captain] has assured me that whatever happens, they want me. Under those conditions I'm happy to give it a go, although I know I'm going to find it very difficult.
"I have played in a couple of charity matches and I've done some light training since the county asked me to come back, but there's a huge difference between that and playing in a NatWest Trophy semi-final. I don't want to look a fool. I'm only medium pace now and I just want to get through my 12 overs."
County coach Jack Birkenshaw admitted it was "a big gamble asking Aggy to play but he's still a high-class bowler and he won't let us down. I just wish he was still here full-time."
The start of the semi-final was delayed by overnight rain but when it eventually got underway at 4.30pm, Essex batted and Agnew was soon called into action.
Understandably looking a little stiff and a yard or so slower than of old, he nonetheless found his line and length straight away after a gentle full toss with his first delivery. In his fourth over, by which time he had conceded just three singles, he had Jonathan Lewis caught behind.
"Agnew continued to bowl tightly, although as each over passed the walk back to third man became progressively more weary, and the swigs from his drinking bottle ever more frequent," wrote Martin Johnson in the Times. "As his normal tipple now is gin and tonic, interspersed with the occasional small cigar, this was hardly surprising." The Daily Mirror noted he was "sustained by frequent drinks, sticking plasters and pain-killing spray".
Agnew bowled right through his 12 overs - Briers probably and rightly reckoning he would be too stiff for a second spell - to finish with a creditable 1 for 31 as Essex ended the day on 188 for 6 off 52 overs. Agnew did not concede a boundary in his spell.
"I don't know how I got away with it," he admitted. It was better than I dared hope. I was absolutely exhausted in the final few overs but the reception I got from the crowd was marvellous."
Leicester returned the next day to beat Essex by five wickets with a ball to spare and that appeared to be that for Agnew.
As the final against Northamptonshire approached, Leicestershire were still troubled by injuries but Millns and Wells recovered in time for the match. However, on the eve of the game Wells collapsed with chest pains and was taken to hospital, and then on the morning of the final Millns hurt his back in the nets.
With minutes to go until the teams had to be exchanged, Briers ran from the Nursery End to the commentary box at the top of the pavilion to ask Agnew and another former player, Peter Willey, who was about to help out as a summariser, if they could play.
"I was in the commentary box and Briers was waving frantically at me," Agnew said. "I went down to see him in the changing room and he asked me to play. But I turned them down. I wasn't very keen to play in the semi-final, but had got away with it, perhaps on my reputation, and I didn't want to risk it again."
A registration was rushed through for Willey, although in the event Millns decided to play.
What happened next?
- Leicestershire were beaten by Northamptonshire by eight wickets in one of the most one-sided finals in NatWest Trophy history
- Wells, who remained in hospital for cardiac tests over the weekend, made a full recovery
- To date, Agnew has not been called on again by his former county. He remains the BBC's cricket correspondent
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa