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When a rusty Jonathan Agnew 'got away with it'

One of the game's more unusual comebacks involved the long-time BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew

Martin Williamson

November 9, 2013

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Press coverage of Jonathan Agnew's comeback, Grace Road, August 13, 1992
A job well done... © Daily Express

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.

Some you win, some you lose

Wally Hammond makes a final - ill-advised - appearance for Gloucestershire, August 10, 1951
Wally Hammond takes to the field in 1951
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
  • Some one-off comebacks work, others are less successful
  • Phil Edmonds Short of players, and in particular a left-arm spinner in the absence of the hospitalised Phil Tufnell, Middlesex turned to 41-year-old Edmonds, a committee member, who had been retired for five years. He arrived at Trent Bridge in his Rolls Royce and rolled back the years, landing the ball on the spot from the off in taking 4 for 48. "He still broke bounds by fielding aggravatingly close, he still ostentatiously wore a watch, probably still pretended he was paid a fortune to do so, still disdained calisthenics, still clapped his hands, still rubbed them in the dust as he prepared to bowl," wrote Peter Roebuck. He also took too many painkillers, spent the latter part of the second day in a haze, and stiffened up so badly that it was a blessing when the last day's play was washed out.
  • Ehteshamuddin By the end of their 1982 tour, Pakistan were ravaged by injuries, and at Leeds they were barely able to raise a fit XI. In desperation, they summoned Ehteshamuddin, a seamer who had played a handful of Tests, from the Birmingham Leagues. A surprised media politely described him as being slightly overweight and a little unfit. Both were understatements, and it was to nobody's surprise when he tore a hamstring early in England's second innings and hobbled out of the match.
  • Wally Hammond One of the game's greatest batsmen was persuaded to return in 1951, five years after retiring, to help his old county which was in financial straits. A capacity crowd turned out but Hammond was simply past it. In the Gloucestershire dressing room the players turned away in dismay as he struggled to lay bat on ball. "They kept asking 'Why, Wally, why…' as he dabbed away and missed,'" Tom Graveney recalled. "What did they expect?" Hammond asked later. "Not a hundred from me as well?"
  • Ranjitsinhji In 1920, eight years after his last match, Ranji turned out three times for Sussex. But he was almost 48, overweight, and cruelly had lost an eye in a shooting accident. His 39 runs at 9.75 were a sad finale.

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

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Posted by   on (November 9, 2013, 15:33 GMT)

great story........maybe Jon should have played in the final but glad he decided against it.......brilliant win for Northants, Jonathan is a great character and I am looking forward to hearing him this winter

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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