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Worcestershire's splendid performance in winning the county championship last season was also a unique achievement on the part of their astute captain, Norman Gifford, who combined the guidance of his team to the top of the table with the exacting task of administering his benefit year. It was typical of the Worcestershire captain that he was able to accomplish this feat in the face of heavy pressure on and off the field. He displayed his usual tenacity, the feature of his play ever since he joined the midland county, and in the end emerged with a great deal of personal satisfaction.
Gifford's approach to cricket, which has not changed from the day when as a young boy he turned up at New Road for a trial as a result of an advertisement in a cricket magazine, has been reflected many times during his career and none more so than last summer when Worcestershire, written off by everyone as possible champions, hit back bravely to take the title by two points from Hampshire.
NORMAN GIFFORD, born on March 30, 1940 at Ulverston, a market town on the far side of Morecambe Bay in the Furness district bordering the lakes, freely admits that when Worcestershire were conclusively beaten by Hampshire at Portsmouth in early August even the players thought the leeway was too great for them to make up. Then occurred such a strange twist of fate that Worcestershire picked up 53 points out of a possible 54 in the next three games to turn the tables in dramatic fashion on Hampshire, who were surprisingly defeated at Cardiff by Glamorgan.
The four points gained from Essex at Chelmsford proved a big talking point, Gifford claiming seven wickets for 15 runs in the rout of the home side, though Gifford said that winning the toss was the key to his success. Essex could have won if they had been fortunate enough to put Worcestershire in on a wicket which was ideally suited to Gifford's type of left arm spin bowling.
Worcestershire's luck on this occasion must have revived Gifford's own personal memories of his first county championship match at the Neville ground, Tunbridge Wells, on June 15, 1960, when his county were beaten by Kent in a day. Following heavy over-night rain the wicket dried out very quickly and as a result Worcestershire were dismissed for 25 and 61 - a nerve shattering match which was subsequently proved an invaluable experience in his successful career.
Gifford admits that living in the backwaters of Ulverston, which was some three hours away from Old Trafford before the advent of the motorways, he did not have any great aspirations as a cricketer. He played for his local school and North Lonsdale District Schools XI before he was selected for the town side at the age of fifteen. He did not watch his first county game until he joined Worcestershire.
He was following in the footsteps of his father, John, and his brothers, Derrick, Tom and Alan. Even at this age there was a competitive spirit to do well because of the respected family name. The big difference was that he was left handed and his spinners, pushed through quicker than normal with a low, flat trajectory which has remained unaltered over the years, proved difficult to combat in any class of company.
Worcestershire soon spotted his potential, but had to inform Gifford's native Lancashire of their intention to offer him terms. This information from the midlands quickly resulted in an invitation for Gifford to attend Old Trafford nets. Lancashire offered him a contract, but Gifford decided to return to New Road - a decision he has never regretted.
At Worcester, he came under the guidance of Charles Hallows, the former England and Lancashire player. Hallow's success at Worcester, which was marked in later years by the emergence of several county players, was his ability to encourage without browbeating. The modest Gifford relates: "He would watch me over a long period. Occasionally he would offer advice which, upon reflection, was always sound. I remember he once told me to bowl nearer the wicket but to this day I still bowl wide on delivery despite attempts to correct myself."
It is interesting to recall that following Gifford's first team baptism against Kent he was recalled against Cambridge University and returned a match analysis of ten for 59 and then dropped for the next match against Glamorgan at Stourbridge.
Characteristically, undeterred by this set-back Gifford, who faced strong opposition from another left-arm spinner Douglas Slade, again emerged to finish the 1960 season as the leading Worcestershire bowler with 41 wickets. The following year, his first full season, he reaped a rich harvest of 133 wickets, which is still his best performance, and won his county cap.
In the sixties his best match bowling performances were seven for 23, which included his first and only hat-trick, against Derbyshire at Chesterfield in 1965 and a return of eight for 28 against Yorkshire at Sheffield in 1968.
An early and memorable milestone in his career was undoubtedly Worcestershire's county championship success in 1964 - the year he was selected for two Test matches against Australia. This had an important bearing on his later play because he was able to observe at first hand the vital contribution made to success in 1964, and again the following year when Worcestershire retained the championship, by the experience of such players as Graveney, Kenyon, Flavell and Coldwell.
Gifford obviously assimilated a great deal of knowledge from the experience of playing with such talented performers. He had disappeared from the Test scene but with the departure of the stars from New Road he began to emerge in a new light and after two years as vice-captain under Graveney he was appointed Worcestershire's captain in 1971.
A serene type of player, he celebrated his appointment as Worcestershire's captain by being recalled by England. He derived a great deal of pleasure from being a member of the side which defeated Pakistan by 25 runs at Leeds after England had left their opponents a seemingly easy target of 231 runs to win.
Even after this success his appearances for England have been infrequent because of the strong competition from Derek Underwood. To date he has played in 15 Tests and captured 33 wickets. He now feels that his Test career may be over, but Gifford is a player who cannot be written off, as he had proved on countless occasions.
Over the years he has emerged a formidable opponent with Worcestershire one of the most competitive teams. Gifford emphasises that it is very much a team effort at New Road with regular tactical discussions on the opposition.
Gifford, who outside the game works for a West Bromwich firm of industrial and domestic decorators on the costing and estimating side of the business, is, however, disturbed by the present attitude, engendered by the public, of winning at all costs. He feels the fear of losing has been detrimental to the game. Gifford says there is no disgrace in losing - if the game has been played in the right sort of spirit. It was, after all, this approach which enabled Worcestershire to win the county championship last summer for the third time in a decade when all hope was seemingly lost.