Reflections on Yorkshire cricket, 2002

To be disliked again

Roy Hattersley

On a warm afternoon in the late summer of 1946, my father - normally the most reticent of men - danced a little jig on the promenade in Morecambe. He had, as was his invariable summer habit, bought an evening paper to find out the cricket scores. To his delight he discovered that Yorkshire, already the county champions, had lost to Hampshire. He addressed my mother and me in a voice of triumph. "At least they haven't gone all season without being beaten." It was then that I realised that the Yorkshire County Cricket Club attracted the animosity that goes with near invincibility. With any luck, we will soon begin to attract it again.

The complaint, in those days of constant Championships, was that the three Ridings were so big that the county club had a bottomless pool of talent from which to choose. Now, the contract system, which regrettably grows ever more like the football transfer racket, has ended all that. But when I first watched Yorkshire, there was an abundance, in a way an excess, of potential first-class players within the Broad Acres. In 1946, a 43-year-old spin bowler called Arthur Booth took a hundred wickets and topped the national averages. Before the war he had played only the occasional game when Hedley Verity was on Test match duty. But he had soldiered on in the Yorkshire Colts without a thought of playing for another county.

For years, Yorkshire ignored cricketers of the highest quality. Bob Appleyard took 200 wickets in his first full season with the county, 1951, and, as he was a "mature" man at the time, John Arlott (commentating later on a Test in which Appleyard was playing) wondered aloud how he had spent his summers during his early twenties. Long after his retirement, I met the overnight sensation and asked him the same question. "Bowling myself silly in the Bradford League," he told me. Nobody has been able to explain why it took the Yorkshire committee so long to discover him.

League cricket - particularly the Bradford League - was half the secret of Yorkshire's success. Hundreds of tributaries flowed from the club grounds towards Headingley. The two Pudseys - one produced Sir Leonard Hutton, the other Raymond Illingworth - are the most famous examples of that secret strength. But there were dozens of other clubs that thought it their duty to prepare players for the county. In Sheffield, border country in the far south, we always suspected the northern leagues were as far as the county committee ever looked. The prejudice, if it ever existed, has clearly passed - though the young Darren Gough and Michael Vaughan were far too good to be ignored whatever part of the county they came from. What a pity that, now there are South Yorkshire players in the county team, the county team never plays in South Yorkshire.

Perhaps the idea that South Yorkshire got a raw deal was always a myth. But we certainly believed it. In the week that I was born, my father, a temporary Labour Exchange clerk after years of unemployment, was sent to work in Wath upon Dearne. Eating his midday sandwiches in the deserted cricket ground, he fell into conversation with the groundsman and naturally told him about the baby boy at home. "He'll never play for Yorkshire," the groundsman said. Thinking the dismissal of my cricketing ability a little premature, my father asked why he was so certain. The reply allowed no contradiction. "Comes from South Yorkshire." The pessimist's name was Turner, and his boy, Cyril, was finding it hard to break into the team. He became a regular member of the side that won the Championship four times before the war and once immediately afterwards.

Sixteen years on, when I was batting in the nets behind Spion Kop at Bramall Lane, the anti-Leeds feeling still persisted. There were rumours that a great fast bowler, a colliery electrician by profession, was about to emerge from Maltby and there were dark suspicions that "the committee" would not do him justice. But nothing could hold Fred Trueman back. To the day of his death, my father (a Nottinghamshire man) argued that Harold Larwood was both more accurate and more aggressive. Filial piety requires me to conclude that Larwood and Trueman were the two greatest English fast bowlers of all time. Neither of them should be anything other than flattered by the comparison.

In the years that followed the war, we Yorkshire members grew used to success. Indeed, in the 1950s, when the team began to fail, we felt that the natural order of things had been disrupted. In 1958, when we came 11th in the Championship, Johnny Wardle, an ingenious spin bowler, prehensile close fielder and irresponsibly entertaining batsman, was sacked for defending himself from committee criticism in a newspaper. I attended the annual meeting with the intention of causing trouble about his treatment. The chairman welcomed members to the "AGM of the champion county" and added, "We know which the champion county is, whichever team happens to be at the top of the table at the end of any one year." After that, no criticism was possible.

After the 1950s the county recovered but continued in its profligate ways. Ray Illingworth left for Leicestershire - and became a highly successful England captain - following an argument about his contract. The accusation was that he was disloyal because he did not regard a year with Yorkshire as better than three with any other county. Brian Close, who led the last Championship-winning team, moved on to Somerset. Bill Athey went to Gloucestershire, and dozens of other players, less talented but highly able, drifted away. For a time it seemed that nothing could go right for Yorkshire. After the pride of a century was forgotten and an overseas player recruited, two of the world's greatest batsmen wore the white rose for a single season. Neither Sachin Tendulkar nor Richie Richardson was a success. Yorkshire remained in the wilderness.

Perhaps, even in the early 1990s, Yorkshire were still suffering from the repercussions of "the Boycott affair". Whatever the merits of the argument - Boycott versus the committee - the damage that the conflict did to the county was immense. In 1978, members were asked to vote on what some thought were rival propositions: endorse sacking Boycott as captain or ask the committee to resign. I voted "yes" to both, hoping that a clearout would put the damaging disputes behind us. It dragged on for year after year, making life impossible for some of the best Yorkshire cricketers of the age, John Hampshire, captain in impossible circumstances, amongst them.

It was all desperately different from 1938 when, as well as winning the Championship, Yorkshire provided five players for the final Test at The Oval. More than half of England's highest-ever total of 903 for seven was made by Len Hutton, with his record-beating 364, and Maurice Leyland, whose century he overshadowed. Hutton, the greatest English batsman of his time, remains the example of what Yorkshire cricketers should be. Genius is not enough. Determination and dedication are equally essential. When I read of Yorkshire fast bowlers who worry about the strains of playing two Championship matches in a week, I wonder if they recall that Hutton lost two inches of bone from his arm in a wartime accident, came back to first-class cricket and almost immediately faced Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.

Not all the Yorkshire fast bowlers whine about being over-worked. Much to his credit, Matthew Hoggard, asked if he had fears about touring India, replied that he wanted to play for England and therefore had never considered refusing to go. Suddenly - partly owing to their academy and the new coaching regime - Yorkshire have a surfeit of fast bowlers and enough batting strength to make a second successive Championship a strong prospect. I still regret that Darren Lehmann, the star batsman of 2001's success, is Australian, and I wish that Michael Vaughan had been born in Yorkshire as well as being a clear candidate to succeed Nasser Hussain as England's captain. But the clock cannot be turned back - except in one particular. There is a real hope that Yorkshire will become so successful that we are really disliked again.

Lord Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1992. His many books include A Yorkshire Boyhood.

© John Wisden & Co