Concentrating on the last 15 years, 1978

100 years of Leicestershire cricket

E E Snow

In 1978 Leicestershire will complete one hundred playing seasons since the re-formation of the Club in March 1879 and will then celebrate its Centenary. Probably formed by 1820, and certainly by 1835, the Leicestershire Club has had an unusual history. Early days and fluctuations up to the end of 1963 were covered admirably by Brian Chapman in his article Following Leicestershire in the 1964 Wisden.

The next two seasons, after 1963, were still under the leadership of the talented, likeable, if too self-effacing, Maurice Hallam. Little improvement was shown in spite of attractive batting by the two Sinhalese, the quick-footed Jayasinghe (whose stay in English cricket was all too short) and the elegant left-handed Inman, the erratic hard hitting Marner from Lancashire, with sound support from the solid Brian Booth. In 1964 the bowling was woefully weak but next season saw the portentous arrival of Tony Lock, who had been persuaded to participate once again in county cricket although he was only available to play at first in eight mid-week matches.

Lock's effect on Leicestershire was immediate and electrifying. The players were captivated by his infectious enthusiasm and came to believe, for the first time in Leicestershire's history, that they were capable of beating any other county. Lock's utterly remarkable example in the field brought about a great improvement in the side's out-cricket and 1966, with Lock's new captaincy, saw a rise in the table to eighth position.

Another reason for the team's increased confidence was the purchase, at last, of the Grace Road ground and the building of the fine new pavilion suite which provided a headquarters of which all could be proud. Grace Road has now become one of the most attractive urban grounds in England and has undoubtedly helped the persuasive Michael Turner, the Leicester born one time professional who has become one of the leading administrators in the game, to attract a series of top-class players to Leicestershire during recent years.

In the second season of Lock's captaincy the side achieved the highest position -- second (equal with Kent) -- that Leicestershire had held in the first-class history of the Club. On July 4 they went to the top of the table for the first time since 1953, but this eminence was lost in the next match to Yorkshire who finished champions only ten points ahead of Leicestershire. Lock's confidence and dynamism improved the side which developed great all-round strength. Inman, Hallam, Booth, Norman (from Northamptonshire) and Marner all exceeding 1,000 runs. Lock, still a great bowler, and Birkenshaw each gathered over 100 wickets and were well supported by the fast bowler Cotton (from Nottinghamshire) and Spencer. Two of the younger players, Dudleston (who is Cheshire born but developed his game with Leicestershire) and Roger Tolchard, from Devon, showed great promise and markedly good temperament on many occasions.

There had been high hopes that the season of 1968 would prove to be as successful as 1967, but unfortunately Lock, at a very late date, decided not to return from Western Australia. So Hallam again led the side; it was inevitable that Lock's restless enthusiasm, tactical vitality and all-round aggression would all be seriously missed and there was a sharp drop to ninth place. The batting was still strong but only Birkenshaw, in all games, reached 100 wickets. Barry Knight, the all-rounder, who had now qualified from Essex, had a fairly successful first season.

Probably 1969 can be recorded as the real turning point in the club's fortunes for Ray Illingworth left Yorkshire on appointment as Leicestershire's captain and he was joined by that great and amiable Australian fast bowler, Graham McKenzie. Unfortunately, from a playing point of view, Illingworth was also appointed England's captain and missed nine county games whilst Knight missed seven through Test match duties. This was the first time that the County had two men playing for England in this country simultaneously. With reduced resources the County dropped to fourteenth position; McKenzie was the leading bowler but no player reached 1,000 runs in Championship games. With his enormous experience and excellent temperament, Illingworth undoubtedly became the best post-war captain in the game world-wide and one of the greatest leaders of all time.

At the end of the 1969 season came the retirement of two players who had each given almost twenty years' service to the club -- Hallam and Spencer. As native-born players they have a special niche in Leicestershire cricket annals. Fortunately neither was lost to the club; they have taken a leading part in training the younger players. Spencer, showing extraordinary fitness and freedom from injury for a fast bowler, reappeared occasionally in first-class games and many times in limited-over cricket when he performed exceedingly well to the age of 45. Next season was also disappointing for similar reasons; Illingworth captained England in five games against the Rest of the World whilst McKenzie played three times for the Rest of the World and Knight had decided to live in Australia. Marner, Dudleston, Inman and Illingworth achieved their 1,000 runs whilst Roger Tolchard, the wicket-keeper, finished with 996. McKenzie bowled very fast throughout the season and took 91 wickets.

The long expected improvement in Leicestershire's fortunes arrived in 1971 when the county finished fifth; if the captain had not been absent for six Test matches the side might have been nearer the title. Inman claimed the batting honours but Davison, from Rhodesia, in his first full season, Dudleston and Balderstone (from Yorkshire, whose appearances were limited by football commitments) gave useful support. McKenzie was again the most successful bowler, closely followed by Birkenshaw and John Steele, from Staffordshire and brother of David of Northamptonshire.

July 22, 1972 is a red letter day in Leicestershire's cricket history; the county then won their first major trophy in the Club's long existence when they defeated Yorkshire at Lord's to become the first winners of the Benson & Hedges Cup. As the side were also runners-up in the John Player League, 1972 must be ranked as Leicestershire's best-ever season until then. But for injuries to the captain and several other players at a crucial stage of the season even better results would surely have been obtained. Illingworth again led England against the Australians but -- rather surprisingly -- McKenzie was not selected for the Australian touring party. Only Dudleston and Steele exceeded 1,000 runs in Championship games but Davison, Norman and Tolchard again gave good support at the most critical times. Birkenshaw was the most successful bowler, closely followed by McKenzie, who achieved a deserved landmark by taking his one thousandth first-class wicket over a space of only twelve years. Spencer, Illingworth and the newcomer, Higgs from Lancashire, all bowled effectively when fully fit. The destination of the John Player league trophy hung in the balance until the last day of the season when Kent, who won their last six matches, ultimately secured the title. Leicestershire had led the League since mid-June but in their last fixture, at Leeds, disaster overtook them when, with a much weakened side, they lost narrowly to Yorkshire.

After the spectacular success of 1972 and the high standards set during previous seasons, Leicestershire disappointed in 1973. The side was dismissed from the Benson & Hedges Cup at the semi-final stage and slumped to ninth in the Championship whilst three successive Sunday defeats brought to an end any serious challenge in the John Player League where they finished fifth. Once again Illingworth was absent when captaining England; he appeared in only eight Championship matches but after leading England in all the Tests against New Zealand and West Indies and in two Prudential World Cup games against New Zealand, he was then axed, unfairly, in the opinion of many good judges.

As events turned out later, what was England's loss was Leicestershire's gain. Davison had a fine season and he has been consistently one of the most attractive hard-hitting batsmen in English cricket, Balderstone, in his first full season, was very successfull, whilst Dudleston and Steele also again reached 1,000, runs and Roger Tolchard, although he had the formidable average of 46.35 failed by only 73 runs. Tolchard had been captaining the side when Illingworth was away, but asked to be relieved of these duties at the beginning of August and Higgs was appointed to succeed him as deputy captain, retaining this position to date.

Birkenshaw was again the leading wicket-taker but, in spite of the relatively slow pitches at Grace Road, McKenzie's average was slightly better although he only took 58 wickets. It was encouraging to see many of the young players given chances during the season, particularly the seam bowler Peter Booth and the opening batsman Briers. Birkenshaw was deservedly selected to tour the West Indies and although injured early in the Tour, he was able to add one more Test cap to those gained on the tour in 1972-73 of India and Pakistan.

H. J. (Walter) White retired from his position of head groundsman in the autumn; he was head groundsman at the old Aylestone Road ground from 1935 to 1939 and followed the club to the present ground in 1946. During his years of service he established the reputation as being one of the best groundsmen in the country and his pupil and successor, L. A. Spence -- a local born professional who had played for the county -- has maintained the highest standards.

If the season of 1973 had been unfulfilling then that of 1974 was one of great achievement, for the side finished fourth in the Championship, were winners of the John Player League, finalists in the Benson & Hedges Cup and quarter-finalists in the Gillette Cup. All-round team effort was the main reason but there is no doubt that the side benefited from Illingworth's ever-present leadership -- the first time that he had been available for a full season since joining Leicestershire in 1969. Davison again enjoyed a magnificent season and was well supported by Dudleston, Balderstone -- who had to return to football at the end of July -- and Tolchard. Illingworth headed the bowling averages but McKenzie took 71 wickets and McVicker, from Warwickshire, did well in his first season.

The main disappointment was the failure to beat Surrey in the Benson & Hedges Cup final in a match which really should have been won. But the side's record in the John Player League was astonishing and no side may ever equal their record of fifty-four points and only one defeat. Even with this marvellous sequence of wins the last match, on September 1 at home against Somerset, was vital since, if Somerset won and then beat Surrey in their last match, it was possible for them to overhaul Leicestershire. As it happened, rain washed out play after Somerset had closed their innings and the two points gained guaranteed the League title.

Although the three previous seasons had been ones of success and excitement with the winning of two of the major competitions, 1975 was Leicestershire's vintage year. It saw the fulfillment of the principal ambition of every side -- that of winning the County Championship and, in the case of this county, for the first time in its history. Not only that but the team won the Benson & Hedges Cup for the second time and, another tremendous ambition, beat the Australians for the first time since 1888. The inspiration went deeper, for the Second Eleven were runners-up in the Second Eleven Competition and the Under-25 Trophy was also won by the County. Outstandingly the most memorable season since Leicestershire first possessed a County Club, it was a summer of magnificent cricket, fit to match the glorious weather with some breathtaking finishes in the Championship matches, quite equal to those experienced in limited-over cricket. There were times when recovery seemed impossible but inevitably the situation was rescued by magnificent innings from McVicker, McKenzie, Birkenshaw, Jeffrey Tolchard, elder brother of Roger, and the other tail-end batsmen.

The Championship was in acute balance until the last match at Chesterfield, which was won in convincing style although, with Lancashire failing at Hove, the County could have failed to have taken a single point from the match and still have been champions. Essentially the title was won by great all-round team work under the superb leadership of Illingworth, who never wilted under even the most extreme pressures. The side's batting was very strong, almost to the last man; Davison had a brilliant season with an average of 53.50, but all returned good figures. Only Illingworth exceeded 50 wickets, but he was supported by Steele, McVicker, Birkenshaw, Balderstone, Higgs and McKenzie -- an almost embarrassing array of talent. Part of the recipe for success was that there were bowlers to suit all conditions.

Progress in the Benson & Hedges Cup was comfortable until the quarter-final against Lancashire and the semi-final against Hampshire, in both of which games there were exciting finishes. By contrast the final against Middlesex was somewhat dull and the County had an easy win by five wickets. At the end of the year Leicestershire said farewell to McKenzie, who had given such great service to the club and whose perfect action had been a model for every young fast bowler. A more modest or friendly man never stepped on to the field for Leicestershire.

No records were broken in the hot and dry summer of 1976 but with a little better fortune both the Championship and John Player trophy could have come Leicestershire's way. As it was, the side finished fourth in the Championship and, in a tremendously exciting finish, runners-up in the John Player League. Davison again had a magnificent season; his consistency since coming to Leicestershire has placed him in Leicestershire's career batting figures, based on average, second only to C. S. Dempster. Clift, another Rhodesian, showed exceptional promise as a medium pace bowler who could also score runs when required. Balderstone, with his stylish cover drives and left arm slow bowling, proved to be a good all-rounder player and had the satisfaction of being chosen for two Tests against the West Indies. Roger Tolchard, the best wicket-keeper/batsman to play for Leicestershire and surely the fastest runner between the wickets in the country, received much overdue recognition when he went to India in 1976-77 with M.C.C. and made substantial contributions to England's success by his batting and fielding in four Tests. His quick footwork proved very effective against the Indian spin bowling; he had been a member of the M.C.C. team which toured India and Pakistan in 1972-73 but, in spite of his excellent form with the bat, was not chosen for any Test.

Following the unparalleled weather of 1976, 1977 was generally wet and dismal but, in spite of losing over ninety hours' play in the Championship and a record crop of injuries, Leicestershire finished fifth in the Championship, again won the John Player League and, for the first time, reached the semi-final of the Gillette Cup. Usually the batting was rather brittle and the bowling was more consistent. Shuttleworth, from Lancashire, in his first season was one of the country's leading bowlers until a knee injury kept him out of the side; the other experienced newcomer, Ward from Derbyshire, looked dangerous but had little luck. Peter Booth took time to find form but then performed splendidly. Clift was the most dangerous bowler until he, too, was injured. Landmarks reached during the season were when Illingworth secured his two thousandth first-class wicket and became only the ninth man to score over 20,000 runs and take 2,000 wickets. Earlier in the season Birkenshaw took his thousandth first-class wicket. There was one remarkable new Leicestershire record when Illingworth (119 not out) and Higgs (98) added 228 for the last wicket against Northamptonshire.

What does the future hold for Leicestershire as they enter their Centenary season? For the past five years they have been the most successful side in the country -- County Champions, Benson & Hedges Cup winners (twice) and runners-up (once), John Player League winners (twice) and runners-up (twice). The club, with its enlightened management, will be certain to do its utmost to maintain this standard. Like most counties Leicestershire has to balance to yearly accounts by strenuous efforts during the winter but the organisation in this field is extremely efficient and still expanding.

Obvious Illingworth cannot go on much longer but at 46 he is still very fit and his captaincy as astute as ever, but he has decided to return to Yorkshire in 1979 as team manager. Higgs bowls as economically as he did fifteen years ago. Dudleston, who has been distinctly unlucky with injuries in the last two seasons, Davison, Steele, Balderstone and Roger Tolchard have probably not yet reached their zenith. The great-hearted Birkenshaw is playing better than ever and then there are the young players including Clift, Booth, Briers and Gower, who has been resident in Leicestershire since he was seven years old, and who is certainly one of the most gifted young batsmen in the country and should play for England very soon.

Naturally a Centenary Appeal Fund is being launched and, if circumstances permit, further improvement to Grace Road are envisaged, including a new dining block, indoor cricket school and additions to the members' seating facilities.

© John Wisden & Co