Think today's county schedule is hectic? Stephen Chalke recalls 1961 when Yorkshire did 900 miles by mid-May
From 1960 to 1962 eight counties played a full 32 Championship matches. Add in the tourists and universities and the total could reach 35 or even, in the case of Yorkshire in 1961, 39 matches, all blocked into a 20-week period. The only days off were Sundays when often the same cricketers would be playing benefit games.
Each Tuesday and Friday evening their coaches and cars headed off across country, navigating their ways through the town centres that punctuated the pre-motorway roads. Somerset's Bill Alley loaded the team kit into his Morris 1000 van; Kent's Dave Halfyard squeezed himself into his Messerschmitt bubble car; and all the Yorkshire players tried to avoid Brian Close's passenger seat.
In 2004 Yorkshire's schedule contained 95 days of cricket spread over nearly 24 weeks, with only one occasion - Derby to Southgate - when they played the next day more than 100 miles away. Even then the Southgate game was a one-dayer, followed by an eight-day break.
Yet in 1961 Yorkshire were scheduled to play six days every week from April 29 to September 5 and, with seven home grounds, not once did they stay put from one game to the next. Twenty of their journeys were more than 100 miles, with their season starting at Lord's, then up to Cambridge, back to Bradford, down to Oxford, across to Swansea and up to Hull: nearly 900 miles by the middle of May. Later they would visit Taunton between Chesterfield and Bradford. For Hull-based Jimmy Binks, the ever-present wicketkeeper, even the home games in Bradford and Leeds required a daily round trip of 100 miles for his Beetle.
"It was a game of stamina," Yorkshire's Bryan Stott says. "We weren't as finely tuned as they are now."
"We were fairly fit carthorses," says Gloucestershire's David Allen. "Nowadays they have to be thoroughbreds. And thoroughbreds break down a lot."
Then it was the cars that broke down. "Our team van, with all the kit, broke down once on the way to Middlesbrough," Glamorgan's Don Shepherd remembers. "They got a lorry driver to tow them he wasn't very happy. The rope broke and off he went. They arrived next morning on a double-decker bus."
In 1961 Glamorgan found a trip to the Isle of Wight wedged between matches at Neath and Swansea. They went by rail and ferry but, according to Shepherd: "We finished so late that they had to lay on a Vosper power boat to get us across to the mainland for the last train back to Wales."
Northants went everywhere by coach and at the end of August they had a journey of 250 miles - with no Severn Bridge - from Swansea to Dover. "We got there about two in the morning," Brian Crump recalls, "and when we reported into the hotel, we found the secretary had booked us in for the following week. We finished up in Folkestone, with several of us sleeping with blankets on a stage." Inevitably the next day was hot and they were in the field.
Commander Babb had Somerset zig-zagging from Taunton to Westcliff to Taunton to Hull to Dudley: 700 miles in four journeys. In August they went from Weston-super-Mare to The Oval via Liverpool. The driver of the van, Bill Alley, hit 3,019 runs, bowled 624 overs, organised a testimonial and worked his way through a healthy ration of black-and-tans, all at the age of 42.
His secret was a bottle of pills, prescribed by a doctor in Portishead as part of an experiment. He took three each day and, he wrote: "I never felt fitter or stronger in my life than I did that year." He never did find out what the pills contained and, with the doctor's name still on the GMC register, I took it upon myself to ring the surgery. "One moment please," the receptionist said, and I waited eagerly, wondering what I was about to unearth. Then the voice returned: "I'm afraid Doctor Collins passed away recently."
The following year, without the pills, Alley was still in grand form. Now 43, he bet £50 at 10-1 that he would do the double, and finished with 1,915 runs and 112 wickets. That was a summer when Commander Babb's start-of-season schedule had him driving the Morris 1000 van from Taunton to Lord's to Hull to Peterborough and back to Taunton.
"The legs did get very tired at the end of the season, especially if it was hot," Bryan Stott says. "But that was the routine. It's what we all expected."
This article was first published in the January issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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