Northamptonshire's cult heroes
In public, Northants fans might have whinged that Brookes won only a single England cap, at Bridgetown in January 1948. In private they were probably thanking their lucky stars. Throughout a career that lasted 25 years and straddled the Second World War, the Yorkshire-born Brookes was a reliable, unobtrusive, at times remorseless presence at the top of the order - a ray of hope during some desperately dark days for the club. He scored more first-class runs for the county (28,980) and hit more hundreds (67) than anyone; he was their first professional captain; he was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1957 after leading Northamptonshire to second place in the Championship; and in 1982 he was made club president. Inevitably, the main gates at Wantage Road bear his name. But his greatest achievement was less tangible: he managed to infuse the smallest and least fashionable of counties with genuine pride.
For Northamptonshire supporters of a certain generation, the summer of 1995 will for ever trigger misty eyes and goosebumps. The county won nothing, of course. But, heck, they did it in style. Aged 41, Lamb was playing what turned out to be the last of his 18 seasons for the club and captained with what Wisden described as "a blend of confidence, arrogance, enterprise and sheer willpower". At one stage Northants were clear favourites to win their first Championship. They also reached the final of the NatWest Trophy. Warwickshire pooped the party both times but Lamb had gone out on a typically adventurous high, and he fell 11 hundreds short of Brookes's county record only because he won 79 caps for England. Yet statistical yardsticks feel inappropriate. Lamb's bullocking bottom hand, his barked orders, his busy gait, his buckle and swash - these were the qualities that made the man. Born in Langebaanweg, he was Northampton through and through.
In their History of Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, Andrew Radd and Matthew Engel refer to the fate of Milburn as "the most heart-breaking of all the heart-breaking stories in this book". Driving home in May 1969, he was thrown through his car windscreen after being hit by a lorry. He lost the use of his left eye, and that, pretty well, was that. The sporting gods have rarely been crueller. Like the man, Milburn's middle-order batting was joie de vivre itself. There were hits and misses but that made him more endearingly human: only the opposition ever wanted "Ollie" - after Oliver Hardy, another well-rounded figure - to fail. He had the charisma of a film star, the humour of a stand-up and the power of a small elephant. He would surely have added to his nine Test caps (average: 46.71). And throughout the otherwise drab 1960s, Northamptonshire were lucky enough to call him their own.
For Milburn in 1969, read Bakewell in 1936. He had just taken an unbeaten 241 off Derbyshire at Chesterfield, and his team-mate Reg Northway was driving him home when the car came off the road in Leicestershire. Northway was killed, while Bakewell, at the age of 27, suffered such severe injuries to his right arm that he never played again. Northamptonshire, already in the doldrums, plunged even deeper. Bakewell was a free spirit with a characteristically unorthodox open stance, a cut shot to die for, and a natural gift for close-fielding. "When his mind and fortune were warm," wrote RC Robertson-Glasgow, "he could have batted with Bradman on not uneven terms." Once, in 1933, he hit 246 against Nottinghamshire followed by 257 against Glamorgan, and in six Tests he averaged 45.44. But it is the thought of what might have been that lingers as much as anything on his CV.
Tyson's spell of 7 for 27 at Melbourne during the 1954-55 Ashes might well be his his defining moment. But his dedication to Northamptonshire - he blew his chances with his native Lancashire after arriving late for a 2nd XI game, then pulling a muscle after five overs - is less well known. "Not one player has derived more enjoyment than me out of Northants cricket," he said. The feeling was mutual. Wantage Road was packed when Tyson made his county debut against the Indians in 1952 and he took a wicket with his sixth ball. The following year, he struck twice in his opening over against the Australians and a legend was born. His energy-sapping action meant his stay at the top was brief, but his 525 cheap wickets for the county illuminated the 1950s.
This article was first published in the November issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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