CRICKETER OF THE YEAR - 1985

Geoff Humpage

With an aggregate of 1,891 first-class runs in 1984, GEOFFREY WILLIAM HUMPAGE scored more runs in a season, with the exception of Leslie Ames and Jim Parks, than any other regular wicket-keeper in the history of cricket.

His total has been surpassed on only six occasions - four times by Ames, once by Parks, and once by J. R. Freeman of Essex; but Freeman did not keep wicket after July in his benefit year of 1926.

The various aggregates are 3,058 (1933), 2,482 (1932), 2,347 (1937), 1,919 (1928), all by Ames; Freeman's 1,958; and, in 1959, Parks's 2,313. Statistical comparisons become more valid when other factors of Humpage's magnificent season are evaluated. He played only 47 first-class innings, nine fewer than Parks and at least a dozen fewer than Ames managed regularly, and in addition he had an outstanding one-day season, scoring 777 runs in twenty completed innings. This combined output, allied to the 66 first-class victims which gave him fifth place in the county wicket-keeper's list, justifies a lofty position in the all-time list of wicket-keeper-batsmen.

Humpage has improved steadily as a glove-man. "I am still learning standing up," he said at the end of last season, "although keeping to Dilip Doshi for two years taught me a lot. Unlike most 'keepers, who are slim and around 5ft 6in, I'm taller and, like Rod Marsh, I have to work very hard physically to maintain fitness." The merit of Humpage's performance lies in his ability to withstand the twin pressures of the never-ending involvement, both physical and mental, in each game in which he plays. Such pressures have proved too much for a long list of good wicket-keeper-batsmen in the past, who, after a brief flirtation with the top of the batting order, have soon dropped into one of the more comfortable middle or lower positions in the order.

The physical problems are obvious, but first-class cricket also calls for immense concentration. Whereas, for instance, a specialist batsman can switch to automatic pilot when in the field, and vice versa for a bowler, Humpage has to contend with problems posed by both batting and wicket keeping.

Often, immediately after a long innings (he scored five centuries last season), he has to don the gloves. Conversely, after a long stint in the field, he can be batting within a few overs. The problem is to develop two different types of concentration, and to be able to switch from one to the other. Batting is a more individual part of the game, but behind the stumps you are the focal point of your side's out-cricket, and therefore never out of the game.

Born on May 24, 1954, in Sparkhill, Birmingham - no more than two miles from Edgbaston - Humpage came under the Warwickshire umbrella at the age of ten. Under the watchful influence of coaches Derief Taylor, Tom Cartwright and Billy Ibadulla, he progressed as an off-spinner who also batted through all Warwickshire's age-graded teams - under thirteen, fifteen and nineteen. He played club cricket with Moseley Ashfield - also no more than two miles from the county ground - and enrolled as a police cadet in 1971, the same year as his Second XI début at The Oval under the captaincy of Peter Cranmer.

While toying with the idea of a full-time police career, he was released from a course of Ryton-on-Dunsmore to play more Second XI cricket in 1973, and his mind was made up in cricket's favour when he was offered a contract at Edgbaston for the following season. By this time he had kept wicket occasionally for the Colts and also in the Under-25 competition exclusively on a standing-back basis. His big chance came in 1975, after his first-class début against Oxford University, when the regular county wicket-keeper, Deryck Murray, was away on World Cup duty with West Indies. Humpage deputised for him in the county side against Glamorgan at Swansea.

How did a manufactured wicket-keeper progress? "I never missed a chance to speak to other 'keepers, and by the time I had a regular place in 1976, when I was capped, players like Alan Knott and Bob Taylor were particularly helpful." Humpage is also quick to pay tribute to his county colleague, Dennis Amiss, for his general advice.

So began the slow progress of a backstop turning himself into an authentic wicket-keeper. "In my first few years I worked hard to try to learn this other job, and now my concentration [that vital word again] in a six-hour day has greatly improved." In 1981, against Australia, Humpage was chosen by England for the one-day internationals. Although an imaginative choice, it was immediately devalued by his being put down at eight instead of higher in the order where his batting talents, which are based upon selective hitting rather than slogging, would have been better deployed.

Disappointingly for him, he was not chosen to tour India in the winter of 1981-82, so he was ripe to be plucked for the South African harvest when fifteen English cricketers played there in March, 1982. "Had I gone to India, I would not have accepted the South African offer," he says. He regards the decision to join the Breweries' XI in South Africa as a personal one, taken with his current professional situation in mind. Since then his improved wicket keeping, allied to a new-found maturity of batting approach, has rekindled a burning ambition to play five day Test cricket.

Already, in the nine years since his first-class début, Humpage has topped 1,000 runs seven times and scored 23 hundreds, including two double-hundreds. He picks out for innings from the many of value he has played for the county of his birth. His highest score - 254 against Lancashire at Southport in 1982, including a share of the English fourth-wicket record stand of 470 with Alvin Kallicharran - does not get a mention; but he thinks he played pretty well for his 205 on a hard and bouncy pitch at Chesterfield last year after his side had been 23 for three. His best innings he rates at his unbeaten 141 to achieve an improbable one-wicket victory over Yorkshire at Edgbaston in 1983 on a broken pitch. He scored all but 32 of the last 166 runs from the bat. Just behind that effort he puts his 89 last year on a Hadlee Trent Bridge green-top.

Of his many sizeable one-day scores, an unbeaten 108 against Middlesex in 1980 in a John Player Sunday League match, in which the combined tactical talents of Mike Brearley and John Emburey were reduced to tatters, is by far the most meritorious. But all the signs are that the best of Humpage is yet to come. "Dennis Amiss has always told me that a batsman comes to his best from 30 onwards, and I have now realised that there is more to batting than hitting 4s and 6s. I want to play at Test level, and, now my ban is over, I shall try to force the selectors to pick me for a tour."

Bearing in mind the emergency use made of the batting of other England wicket-keepers on tour (Binks, Tolchard and Murray for instance), Humpage is mounting a substantial challenge. From a standing (back) start to statistically the third best wicket-keeper-batsman of all time in just nine years is quite something. And the best is yet to come.

© John Wisden & Co