These days, precious few bowlers achieve the traditional target of 100 wickets in a season. In 1983, four reached the milestone (Lever, Emburey, Underwood and Gifford); in 1984 only two (Lever and Hadlee) did so; and in the wretchedly wet summer of 1985 there was just one bowling centurion, a man whose odds, when the season began, to be the only bowler to complete the feat would have been astronomical.
Neal Victor Radford was, it would be true to say, largely unknown in England outside the cloistered confines of the county dressing-rooms. He had spent five seasons with Lancashire, taking a modest number of wickets and attracting minimal attention, and the fact that he continued, each winter, to play with some distinction in South Africa's Currie Cup meant little to the average English cricket-watcher.
In 1985, all this was to change quite dramatically. Radford took 100 wickets in Championship cricket alone and made such an impression on the people in power that he was named, in September, as bowling standby for England's two winter tours, the full trip to the West Indies and the B team mission to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Even Radford himself, who flew back to South Africa for another term with the formidable Transvaal side, was hard put to explain why his English career had undergone such a transformation at the relatively advanced age of 28. There were, however, several contributory factors.
The first, oddly enough, was his sacking by Lancashire at the end of the 1984 season. Perhaps Radford, who was born in Luanshya, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) on June 7, 1957, and has a degree of the native Southern African confidence about him, did not quite hit it off with the earthier temperaments at Old Trafford. Certainly, after five seasons in which he never once totalled 50 wickets, let alone 100, Lancashire appeared to have few regrets about letting him go. But hereabouts events began to conspire in Radford's favour. He was now officially considered English, having completed his qualification period. He was a free agent of the right age and bowling type to suit any number of counties. Offers began to filter through. Hampshire and Warwickshire pursued their interest in him, but Radford chose Worcestershire. He had chosen well.
After the almost inevitable lean spell which followed the adoption of an ambitious youth policy, Worcestershire began last summer to fulfil the air of promise which had persisted for some while around New Road. Radford became an important link in a thriving and ambitious young outfit.
Michael Vockins, Secretary of the county, explains: We had been building a side over a period of years and Neal seemed ideal. Clearly, he had ability and potential which had not been fully justified. We took a chance on the theory that a change of county would provide him with the right stimulus, and we soon found that we had a great worker and a super chap.
Radford, who had married a Lancashire girl, Lynne, in the close-season, moved into a new home in Worcester and began his English cricket career all over again: he was a new bowler. Mike Gatting, the Middlesex captain, recalls: "I had faced him before when he was with Lancashire but he was nothing like as dangerous. When we played Worcestershire he consistently moved the ball off the seam. He is not very quick but he does enough with the ball to be dangerous."
Radford, thriving on the emergence alongside him of such talents as Steve Rhodes, Graeme Hick and David Smith, began to play an increasingly significant role in the Worcestershire side as the season progressed. The story was told by his bowling returns. Vockins says: "Neal is the type who wants to bowl every day and is not happy unless he is involved. We were able to give him a lot of bowling, which did wonders for his confidence and showed through in his figures."
Consistently, he would take three or four wickets in an innings. Then, on a late-July Eastbourne pitch which helped him just enough, he took six for 76 against Sussex, impressing all those who faced him with his ability to move the ball. August was even more successful, launched by probably the most satisfying of all games as he scored runs (57 not out) and took wickets in a comprehensive defeat of his former employers, Lancashire. Many at Old Trafford now understandably felt aggrieved that a bowler of such capabilities had been released, but question persists: would he have shown such an advance without a change of scene?
Later in August, Radford was to cause more devastation, taking five wickets against Essex and then crowning his season in the Bank Holiday matches against Worcestershire's local rivals, Warwickshire. He came to the crease on the Saturday morning with his side in ruins at 41 for six, rescued the innings with a top score of 34, and then bowled Warwickshire out for 94 with his Championship-best figures of six for 45. Worcestershire won that game, and won also in the John Player League on the Sunday, when the now buoyant Radford took four for 24.
Dark-haired, a little under six feet tall and with an economical build for one who bowls so many overs, Radford was undoubtedly county cricket's success story of 1985. His parents, Edith and Victor, would have been proud, and so too his brother Wayne, who has played for Glamorgan's second team and as a professional in the South Wales leagues. What is more, Worcestershire deserve to be proud: this was an instance of a county taking a chance with a discarded player whose talent and temperament had been questioned, backing their judgement by giving him ample opportunity, and then being richly rewarded.