Derbyshire's great Dane

In the 1980s, a young fast bowler from Denmark set out to play cricket for an English county. He was fierce, disciplined, popular, and lived to regret bouncing Sylvester Clarke

Scott Oliver
Derbyshire bowler Ole Mortensen bowls  during a match at the Festival in Scarborough, September 1, 1985

Ole Mortensen: a "self-taught" cricketer  •  Getty Images

If Carlsberg made reliable seamers for English conditions, there's a fair chance they'd come up with something along the lines of the moustachioed 6ft 4in Dane with the angular, windmilling action seen squaring batsmen up at verdant Derby in the eighties and nineties - someone rated by Kim Barnett, his captain for the duration of his stint in county cricket, as "the best bowler never to have played Test cricket". Possible bias notwithstanding, there's little doubt Ole Mortensen's 434 first-class wickets at 23.88 make him the comfortably the best Norseman yet to have donned whites.
Carlsberg don't make reliable seamers, of course, but in 1985, after Mortensen's first Derbyshire deal had expired, they did try and sign him on behalf of Northamptonshire. Spotting a branding opportunity, the brewer offered to double their countryman's wage while picking up the tab for the county where they had their UK base. However, "Stan", as his team-mates knew him, decided to stay at Derby because he "felt that we were going places under Kim Barnett's leadership and sincerely believed we were going to win some trophies".
One can almost hear the slurps of appreciation from Ilkeston to Glossop, and if the omnipresent Viking helmets of his testimonial year in 1994 are any guide, Mortensen is among the county's most cherished post-war cricketers. The loyalty was vindicated by the fact that two of the four trophies Derbyshire have won came during his dozen years on the staff.
But how does a young Dane get involved in cricket of all sports? "Pure coincidence," Mortensen says. As a boy he played everything from handball to ice hockey but it was while waiting for his lift after soccer practice that he found himself watching a cricket match. The chairman of Svanholm CC wandered over, explained what was going on in this strange game, and invited the eight-year-old Mortensen down the following week. With the team short, Mortensen stepped in and duly top-scored, his debut 30 not out providing "quite a motivation", if little portent of where his cricketing talents lay.
With no cricket at all on Danish television, the occasional videotape and copies of Wisden and The Cricketer were the meagre resources available to spark the imagination of a young seamer who had already started to idolise Dennis Lillee. However, it was a local summer cricket clinic organised by the former Derbyshire captain and Derby County footballer Ian Buxton that provided the big break for a bowler who, Barnett said, was "entirely self-taught". Mortensen impressed enough to be subsequently invited to trial and, a few years later, offered a contract.
"As the first Dane trying to break into first-class cricket there was no pressure on me," he says. "I just thought, 'Okay, let's give it a go.'" That debut season in 1983 netted 66 Championship wickets, 26 more than any of his team-mates - including career-best innings and match figures of 6 for 27 and 11 for 89 in a 22-run victory against Yorkshire. Mortensen is quick to acknowledge the "enormous help" of wicketkeeper Bob Taylor during his first few seasons in Derby. "He knew all the weaknesses of all the players and also took some phenomenal catches."
In the early days, he was renowned for bird-scattering, eardrum-splitting appeals, occasionally crude sledges against the likes of David Gower, and a propensity to swear in Danish
In the early days, he was renowned for bird-scattering, eardrum-splitting appeals, occasionally crude sledges against the likes of David Gower (on 120 not out), and a propensity to swear in Danish ("Satan" did not mean what people thought) that earned another nickname: "Eric Bloodaxe". He was the quintessential "character", endearing himself to fans and team-mates alike with his diehard attitude: "I got out there and said, 'Today's gonna be the best day of my life' and tried to give Kim and the boys 100%."
Yet for all his cult status, this was no circus act. In his middle six seasons at Derby - his peak years in the Peaks - Mortensen topped the bowling averages four times and was otherwise nudged into second only by Ian Bishop and his other hero, Michael Holding, with whom he remains good friends. Barnett considered the Dane a "controlling factor", to whom, if necessary, he could set 8-1 fields, yet also one who regularly dismissed top batsmen, including the two men Mortensen regarded as his most difficult opponents: Wayne Larkins and Viv Richards.
Despite the idiosyncrasies of a chest-on, wide-of-the-crease action that was all knees-and-elbows, like a Swiss Army knife suddenly opening out, his method was distinctly uncomplicated: pitch it up and vary line according to whether it was swinging. "We wanted him to bowl the odd bouncer," laments Barnett, "but he'd never do it. He just bowled immaculate line and length with an angry nature."
Not quite never. There was one occasion when, at the behest of Geoff Miller, Mortensen - with customary accuracy - bounced Sylvester Clarke at The Oval, resulting in a gloved slip catch to England's current national selector, and a few seasons of Mortensen fending off bumpers from a bowler renowned for targeting tailenders, regardless of how far they backed away. "He was quite a formidable bowler to be standing 20 yards from," deadpans Mortensen - who was dismissed hit-wicket in his next game against Surrey. Barnett jokes that when a fax announcing Clarke's retirement came through at the Racecourse Ground, Mortensen had it framed.
With a forward poke the limit of his batting prowess - an undefeated 74 from No. 11 was his sole half-century - he is thus renowned for the bowling parsimony that was fundamental to Derbyshire's 1990 Sunday League success. In that pre-Powerplay era, Barnett often bowled "Stan" unchanged at the start, on the proviso that he went for under 25 runs in his eight overs (which he managed in nine of 14 games). This strategy, which he recognises was "a luxury", incurred good-natured ribbing from the likes of Dominic Cork and others sharing death-bowling duties, but Mortensen repaid the faith with an economy rate of 3.11 for the season, comfortably the best in the country. In the must-win final match against Essex, he recorded figures of 8-2-10-1.
This was "the stepping stone that showed us we could win", and Derbyshire proceeded to beat red-hot favourites Lancashire in the 1993 Benson & Hedges final. Mortensen was called up for Lord's having not featured in the earlier rounds, and turned in the second-most economical analysis (1 for 41) in a six-run win, helping erase the memory of heavy defeat to Hampshire on a damp pitch five years earlier.
Despite this limited-overs success, he believes Derbyshire ought to have achieved more in the Championship, especially given their pace-bowling resources. They managed a best finish of third place, in 1991 (their highest since the early '50s), during his time there, as part of an attack that included Bishop, Cork, Devon Malcolm and Allan Warner, before Mortensen's career wound down to a single first-class outing in his final, benefit season. His only other regret was not attending more to his fitness, but he is quick to add that the 12 years in Derby "were an absolute ball, probably the best time of my life".
He finished coaching the Danish national team in 2001, since when they have slipped down four divisions, and finally hung up his boots in 2010, aged 52, after helping Glostrup CC to their first Danish title. He now splits his time between teaching English, maths and PE at college, and a business venture supplying formal clothing to sports teams, but will also be commentating on the World Twenty20 in September for Eurosport. And he always, always checks ESPNcricinfo for Derbyshire's results.
If they can return to challenge for domestic honours, then somewhere in Copenhagen an old favourite will be cracking open a cold lager in celebration.

Scott Oliver tweets here