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Match from the Day

Huddles and hustle: How Leicestershire won the 1996 County Championship

Unfancied Leicestershire clinched one of the closest title races there has ever been

Paul Edwards
Paul Edwards
Leicestershire's celebrate news of their title on the balcony at Grace Road  •  Allsport/Getty Images

Leicestershire's celebrate news of their title on the balcony at Grace Road  •  Allsport/Getty Images

June 24, 1996
Leicestershire 681 for 7 dec (Whitaker 218, Wells 200, Simmons 69) beat Yorkshire 342 (Bevan 82, Stemp 51*, Gough 50, Parsons 4-83, Brimson 3-57) and 188 (Bevan 65*, Vaughan 54, Millns 4-67, Parsons 3-40) by an innings and 151 runs
September 22, 1996
Leicestershire 512 (Simmons 142, Whitaker 89, Mullally 75, Fay 4-140) beat Middlesex 190 (Ramprakash 71, Mullally 4-53) and 248 (Ramprakash 78, Millns 4-48, Mullally 3-40) by an innings and 74 runs
In 1996 Leicestershire began their County Championship programme away at Derby. Let us assume the match was not an all-ticket affair. And although this was still the era when the Times and the Daily Telegraph covered every first-class game, let us also hazard the view that the press box was not crammed. Heavy rain fell on the first day and play was abandoned, so the journalists, whether local or national, could repair to one of the city's many fine pubs. The second morning was equally dreich but Derbyshire's skipper, Kim Barnett put on an extra sweater and made an unbeaten 200. So bleak were the conditions and so isolated Leicestershire's successes that James Whitaker's players gathered in a huddle at the fall of each wicket.
Visiting supporters probably regarded their attendance on such deliciously grim days as a demonstration of devotion: "My County Wet or Dry". Yet Whitaker later replied with a century and the left-arm seamer Alan Mullally took half a dozen cheap wickets in the home side's second innings to set up a six-wicket victory. By the season's end Leicestershire would be champions for only the second time in their history and Derbyshire would be runners-up, their best position in 60 years. This took place only 24 summers ago.
Whitaker's team stuck with the huddle. "It was windy and cold, and we were a bit disconnected, as you can be when it's windy and the fielders are spread out," the skipper recalled. "After a long partnership a wicket fell, and we all came together in a huddle, part out of coldness, part out of a feeling of 'Bloody hell, we've got a wicket.' Then we got another one quickly so we decided to do it again. And the more we did it, the more we found we were enjoying it."
Nobody predicted Leicestershire's triumph in 1996 apart from Whitaker. They had finished seventh the previous year and were 40/1 outsiders when the season began. Apart from Phil Simmons, their overseas signing, the team was hardly stacked with stars. Yet their unity of purpose was sufficient to defeat a Derbyshire team that included six Test cricketers and they were to go through the 17-match season losing only to Surrey and defeating ten teams, most of whom were far better financed than the Grace Road club.
Members of successful sides almost always cite collective spirit as a factor in their triumphs. Has there ever been a successful team - in any sport - whose members did not encourage each other yet still managed to win trophies? What was different at Grace Road in 1996 was that a team of mostly young, ambitious cricketers came together with relatively little expected of them while expecting much of themselves. Moreover, Whitaker and Jack Birkenshaw, the captain and coach, were prepared to try fresh approaches. "It was in that age when a lot of county cricketers seemed to be doing just enough to hang on," Whitaker said. "We wanted to do something different from that. We decided right from the start that we'd get back to the basics of why we were all professional cricketers - and that was to enjoy it."
Birkenshaw suggested that Leicestershire's players would savour away matches a little more if they arrived at lunchtime on the day prior to the game and had a net at the venue where they were to spend the next four days. This was possible now that teams were no longer playing two three-day games each week. The result was that five of Leicestershire's victories were achieved on the road and they came within one wicket of defeating Glamorgan at Swansea in August. However, Neil Kendrick and Colin Metson survived the final eight balls of the game and when Hampshire's last pair, James Bovill and Simon Renshaw, blocked out the last six overs a fortnight later at Grace Road, Leicestershire's players were entitled to believe this might not be their summer of jubilee.
We were like the closest family you could imagine. It's the best team environment I've ever known. Every morning we leapt out of bed and galloped in to work
Paul Nixon
Other counties remained in contention until summer's last knockings. Six teams led the table in the last two months and Derbyshire looked likely champions when they won four successive games in August. A battle-hardened Essex side were favourites on September 1, only for Richard Kettleborough's single Championship century to transform their match at Headingley. By contrast, Leicestershire found their very best form in the final month of the season, winning their last four matches, including a couple of two-day hammerings of Somerset and Durham. And maybe Whitaker's players had "seen" it all coming. The Leicestershire skipper had introduced visualisation skills to his players and the 22-year-old Darren Maddy described their effects: "We'd think about how we wanted the day to go, what sort of effect we wanted to have on the opposition. It was all about self-belief and relaxation."
Supporters of other counties and many neutrals took the view that it was largely about Simmons. The West Indian's 1186 runs and 33 catches at slip were valuable enough but he also took 56 wickets with his seam bowling. That made him a perfect new-ball partner for David Millns in a summer when Mullally played all six Tests. But arguments about Simmons' dominance could go only so far. Six of Leicestershire's victories were achieved by an innings and the Trinidadian played a supporting role in the successive midsummer annihilations of Yorkshire and Essex.
In the first of these games Vince Wells and Whitaker both made double-hundreds as the visitors piled up 681 for 7 declared, which remains the highest total ever made against Yorkshire. Then Gordon Parsons - "Roaring Gordon" to his later opponents in Minor Counties cricket - took four wickets in the home side's first innings and Millns chipped in with another four in their second. As ever there were Leicestershire huddles. "We were squeezing up as close as possible just to warm up," Simmons said. But it was a sad ending to first-class cricket at Park Avenue, Bradford. The ground was once a Tyke stronghold with an imperial pavilion but by 1996 the only intimidation was provided by razor wire on the perimeter wall.
A fortnight later Leicestershire's players returned to Grace Road, where the problem was getting people in rather than keeping them out. Undaunted by the absence of acclamation found at Welford Road or Filbert Street, Millns and Parsons took four wickets apiece as an Essex side that included Graham Gooch and Stuart Law were put out for 163 on the first day. Wells, who was in the best nick of his career, then notched 197 and put on 187 with Millns, who made his maiden hundred before taking six wickets when Essex batted again. He thus became only the fourth Leicestershire player to make a century and take ten wickets in the same match. It was that sort of summer for players and supporters at Grace Road. Almost every match brought some delights. "We were like the closest family you could imagine," said Paul Nixon, for whom effervescent enthusiasm is a default position. "It's the best team environment I've ever known. Every morning we leapt out of bed and galloped in to work."
The Grace Road cavalry were no doubt particularly keen to leave their stables on the first morning of the season's final game. They knew that Surrey needed maximum batting points to have a chance of pipping them and that even that possibility would be removed if they took care of business against Middlesex. Whitaker's bowlers began that task by dismissing the visitors for 190 on the first day and a Simmons century built a formidable lead on the second. But at tea on the following afternoon, matters were taken out of Leicestershire's hands in the pleasantest way possible when Surrey forfeited their first innings against Worcestershire. "Leicestershire clinched the second Championship in their history over a pot of tea and ham sandwiches on the penultimate day of the season," reported Wisden's delighted correspondent Chris Goddard.
Something like 3000 spectators gathered beneath the players' balcony on that famous afternoon. To cap off a football summer that had featured Shearer, Skinner and Baddiel, Nixon led a conga of supporters onto the outfield singing "Cricket's coming home". Then more or less everyone got drunk. Next morning Millns sweated off his hangover by taking four of the last five wickets to complete an innings victory.
September 21 was the latest date on which the title had ever been won. So much was clear. Making sense of what had happened was trickier, although there was no doubt about Leicestershire's collective endeavour: four batsmen had scored over a thousand runs and eight had made centuries in Championship matches. Seven bowlers had taken at least 24 wickets each, including the frequently overlooked spinners, Matthew Brimson and Adrian Pierson. Stability was also important: the champions had called on only 13 players in the entire season. Other reasons, perhaps the most important ones, could not be quantified. They included self-belief, enthusiasm and the energy that fills any cricket dressing room when a team is doing well.
And yet still people were unsure what to say about it all. As so often, Martin Johnson captured the mood: "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 have to call it the Charisma By-Pass." Of course, you needed to be a former cricket correspondent of the Leicester Mercury to write such things.
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Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications