Leicestershire's unexpected Championship triumph, 1997

Years of the fox

Martin Johnson

Homespun, unfashionable, unglamorous, prosaic ... all these descriptions were applied to Leicestershire in 1996, and when the County Championship went to Grace Road, it was greeted with the kind of embarrassed silence associated with a rag-and-bone man's horse winning the Derby. In fact, if they ever built a ring road next to Leicestershire's ground, they would probably have to call it the Charisma By-Pass.

Not that there were ever many traffic jams when Leicestershire were playing. They won the Championship by using only 13 players all season, and were roared on towards the coveted pennant by much the same number of spectators. Not the least of Leicestershire's achievements was in clinching the title against Middlesex at home in their final game, when they faced the unfamiliar pressure of performing in front of an audience which almost qualified as a crowd.

It was a long way removed from Leicestershire's only previous Championship, in 1975, even though there were parallels involved, such as having a Yorkshireman as captain and losing only once, to Surrey at The Oval. However, if James Whitaker became known for orchestrating the mid-pitch "huddle", the only time Raymond Illingworth was ever likely to call for a huddle was when a bit of loose change dropped out of his trouser pocket.

Under Illingworth, the 1975 side was as close to glamorous as Leicestershire have ever got. Apart from llly, they had players of the stature of Ken Higgs, Graham McKenzie, Brian Davison, Roger Tolchard, and the embryonic David Gower. There were times in those days when getting around the ground was harder work than elbowing your way through Marks and Spencer on Christmas Eve, whereas the average 1996 spectator required a loud-hailer to converse with his neighbour. This had more than a little to do with the side being all but ignored by the local evening newspaper, for whom sport appeared to begin and end at Filbert Street. A booking for Leicester City's No.5 would be greeted with the largest headline available, while a double-century for Vince Wells could just about be located with the aid of a magnifying glass.

There was a different atmosphere in 1975, when no home match was complete without a local character nicknamed The Foghorn, who would announce his impending presence from the front door of his house a couple of hundred yards away. "I'm on me way" he'd bellow, at about five past eleven, and would regularly circumnavigate the ground clutching (or to be more accurate, spilling) a pint of mild, yelling: "Get Birky on!" He knew full well, of course, that Jack Birkenshaw, the present manager, would be bowling only if llly had first ascertained that the pitch was in no danger of taking spin.

Those were the days when Leicestershire not only had crowds, but sponsored marquees on the outfield. Illy protested on a daily basis that t'bloody tents were compromising the long boundaries he demanded for a team that had no less than five decent spin bowlers, and, on one memorable occasion when a down-the-order slogger had launched him into a plate of salmon mousse, Illy stalked up to the committee balcony and launched into a five-minute, finger-wagging tirade.

They were also the days, long gone now, one imagines, when players used to combine two professional sports. Graham Cross was Leicester City's centre half as well as a county player, and when Leicestershire won the Championship in their final match at Chesterfield, Chris Balderstone interrupted an innings of 51 not out at close of play, dashed up the M1 to play soccer for Doncaster Rovers, and returned to complete his century the following morning.

After Illingworth left in 1978, Leicestershire had their moments, but made more headlines for the number of players heading for the exit gate than for their exploits on the field. Nick Cook, Phillip DeFreitas, Chris Lewis, Peter Such and, finally, David Gower, all left for various reasons, and Leicestershire slipped back into their previous existence as a team with no stars. The structure known as The Meet, a sort of cross between an aircraft hangar and a farmer's barn, symbolised a kind of cobwebbed decrepitude, where a handful of elderly punters peered through opaque windows, swapping stories about the good old days.

It was this general perception of a run-down club that masked a succession of highly respectable seasons in the early nineties, and presumably persuaded some bookmakers to quote them at 40 to 1 for the 1996 Championship. Even when they began the season well, and remained at or near the top of the table as it went on, the general belief was that they would eventually slide away into mid-table anonymity.

Their failure to do so had a lot to do with the newly elected captain. Admirable cricketer though Nigel Briers, Whitaker's predecessor, had been, he was a more naturally cautious leader than the gung-ho Whitaker, who, as a youngster in his first season, had greeted the first three deliveries that Ian Botham had ever sent down to him with thundering off-drives for four. Leicestershire are known as the Fox County, and if Briers and Whitaker had both belonged to the Quorn Hunt, Whitaker would have been out front with the bugle, while Briers would have been more practically engaged at the back, collecting fertiliser for the roses.

Whitaker had taken inspiration from the idiosyncratic methods employed to such good effect by Dermot Reeve at Warwickshire, and also concluded (partly as a slightly nervous newcomer to captaincy) that team spirit would best be fostered by democracy rather than dictatorship. This led to the famous huddle, as Leicestershire plotted their tactics for the next man in. Quite how and when the huddle first started, even Whitaker is not sure, though he thought it might have been against Yorkshire. "They were top of the table at the time, but we posted a massive first-innings total and then started running through them. Everyone was on such a high that suddenly we all had our arms around one another, and would start talking about how to bowl at the next man in."

There were times, Whitaker admits, when the conversation ran along more traditional lines, such as: "Where shall we go for dinner tonight? or Have you seen that girl in front of the pavilion?" But mostly, he said, it was about tactics. "It was never planned, it just happened. I like to think it reflected the way we all played for one another, and how everyone was made to feel that their input was important."

Whitaker also backed his admiration for Vince Wells - an apparently workaday cricketer transferred from Kent as someone who could bowl a bit, bat a bit, and keep wicket a bit - by promoting him to open the batting. Wells then proceeded to make two double-centuries and a 197 in the space of six weeks. David Millns and Allan Mullally formed a formidable new-ball partnership. Meanwhile, Gordon Parsons, whose one-time belief that he was at least 40 m.p.h. quicker than Jeff Thomson was rarely shaken, even when he had to wait for the ball to be thrown back by a pedestrian from the adjacent Milligan Road, had developed into a cagey, and highly effective, medium-pacer. However, the individual who most of all turned Leicestershire from an averagely decent side into a title-winning one was, according to Whitaker, the West Indian Phil Simmons. He made runs, took a lot of wickets with his deceptive pace, and had flypaper hands in the slips, but it was his infectious enthusiasm and tactical input that made him so valuable.

Birkenshaw reckoned that the 1996 side would have been more than decent opposition for the one he played for in 1975; as someone who watched them both, I would take minor issue with that. However, I would not quibble with his contention that the 1996 model was out in front in terms of team spirit.

As for Whitaker, he missed the boat as a Test player after winning his one and only cap in Australia on Mike Gatting's 1986-87 Ashes tour. But he now regards himself as a cricketer fulfilled. "If I had to point to one single factor for our success," he said, "it would be enthusiasm. At the start of the season we sat down and asked ourselves why we were all playing professional cricket, and the answer was obvious. To enjoy it. Once you've focused in on that, the game doesn't seem half so difficult."

In 1975, Martin Johnson was cricket correspondent of the Leicester Mercury. He is now a sports feature writer on the Daily Telegraph.

© John Wisden & Co