Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Dave Mackay

Of course, this is and will always be a blog on Derbyshire cricket, but I cannot allow the night to pass without acknowledging the passing of one of my childhood heroes, Dave Mackay.

A couple of years ago, when Derbyshire signed Shivnarine Chanderpaul, I wrote on these pages that it gave me similar shivers to when Derby County signed Mackay for the (even then) piffling amount of £5000.

At 33 and after broken legs he was past his prime. He wasn't especially fast, but Brian Clough sat him alongside young players in Ron Webster, Roy McFarland and John Robson and they did his running for him. In turn, Mackay told them when and where to run, arranging the back line like no one else in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Igor Stimac.

I got his autograph once, standing outside the old player entrance at the Baseball Ground. It took pride of place in my autograph book and I still recall him smiling at me as he said 'There you go, son' and handed it back. I lived off those words for weeks.

I will always remember him, barrel chest jutting out, as he led the Rams onto the mud bath we laughingly called a pitch. They came out at a fair pace and Mackay looked like a man with no time to waste. On the pitch he exuded calm and control. I remember him 'flipping' a ball to Ron Webster in a crowded goal mouth on one occasion, effectively saying to the opposition 'you might be attacking, but you're going nowhere'. There was a back heel pass another time, the confidence it showed almost tangible. He shouted and cajoled his young charges, his example making McFarland one of the country's greatest-ever centre-backs and Webster and Robson far better players than ever looked likely.

Mackay was simply fantastic and I still recall a tackle on the former Aston Villa winger, Willie Anderson, as the George Best lookalike burst towards the penalty box. Mackay hurtled across like a runaway train and took the ball off his toe as he prepared to cross, albeit taking the player too. It was the only time I ever heard a player squeal on a football pitch and there were plenty of laughs in the old Osmaston Stand as the Villa man picked himself up off the floor.

Signing him for Derby County was akin to picking up a 33-year old Beckham, except Mackay was better at most of football's disciplines. He didn't take many free kicks or set pieces, but at everything else he was a master. To watch him play was a privilege. He could spray passes, tackle harder than anyone, head the ball and organise a side. Whatever Brian Clough did off the pitch, Mackay did on it. Like Clough, he was better than most.

As a manager he showed bravery in his handling of the fall out over Brian Clough's departure, then set about building a side that was arguably more exciting than his predecessor's. How could it fail to be, with players like Charlie George, Bruce Rioch and Francis Lee, alongside Kevin Hector, Archie Gemmill and Alan Hinton?

He won the league and was sacked when we were subsequently far higher in the table than we have ever been since. It was silly and unnecessary, the only people suffering being the fans, who never saw their side reach such heights again. It was a team of all the talents, with footballing defenders like Todd, McFarland and the graceful David Nish. Mackay managed a team in his own image, perhaps a little gung-ho at times but wonderful to watch.

The word 'legend' is bandied about unnecessarily today. You acquire such 'status' by scoring a goal against a local rival, or playing for more than two seasons for your club. Dave Mackay won the lot at Hearts, then did the same at Tottenham Hotspur. At a time when most players are winding down their careers, he perhaps climbed his highest mountains at Derby, turning a rag, tag and bobtail outfit into an established and good First Division side inside three golden seasons.

They are years that will live long in the memory for those lucky enough to see them.

Just like Dave Mackay. He is up there tonight in the football pantheon and would be in my all-time team every single time.

Rest in Peace Dave. And thank you for the golden memories.

It truly was a privilege.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

An interview with Alan Hill part 6

Who was the best batsman you saw?

Oh.. Garfield Sobers. He was unbelievable and just had so much time. He allowed the ball to come on to him, which made that time, but was a fantastic player. If he played now he'd be a multi-millionaire, as he had it all. He bowled pretty quick left arm, or could slow down and swing it; he bowled orthodox left-arm spin and could switch to bowl chinamen; he was a terrific fielder...he was genuinely the complete cricketer and would probably have been a decent wicket-keeper too!

At any one discipline he was outstanding, but he was a top-drawer performer in them all. A remarkable, extraordinary cricketer.

Majid Khan was a fine player too and a character. I remember him coming to Derby one time and being surprisingly scratchy when he batted. When he was out, he asked for the groundsman and requested a saw. Keep in mind that this was a time when you had to pay for your equipment, and we all sat incredulous, watching him saw this bat in half. All the time muttering “This bat is a piece of ****”

I'd have loved to have seen Walter Hammond at Gloucestershire. He carried them for years and scored thousands of runs at a time when the game had evolved sufficiently for his scores and records to be taken seriously. He played pace and spin with equal ability and must have been a remarkable player.

            He once told his team mates that Tom Goddard, who took thousands of wickets for them with his
off-spin, hadn't bowled especially well in a game and that it was just poor batting that got him
wickets. He proceeded to go out and bat against him in a turning net, using just the edge of his bat - and Goddard didn't get past him once.

That takes a serious eye and major talent...

Who was the best batsman you played with? I assume either John Wright or Peter Kirsten?

They were top lads. I didn't see it, as I wasn't playing, but John made 96 against the West Indians at Chesterfield when they had a strong pace attack and a fast track to bowl on. David Steele said it was the best innings he ever saw, which was quite an accolade, but it illustrates what I mean about good players. Wrighty got bigger scores, but against lesser attacks and in more favourable conditions. That one would have been special for him.

I saw John last winter in New Zealand, after going to see some Ashes cricket. He's still doing well and looking good. Peter was a more fluent player, but there were plenty who thought that on all pitches and against all attacks, John maybe had the edge.

He used to lead sing-songs on buses and play his guitar – he had a kind of residency at a local pub called the Woodlark for a while. He makes a lot of money now as coach to the Mumbai Indians but he is exactly the same.

Kirsy was a good lad too, a top cricketer. He was a brilliant fielder and on his day he was unstoppable. David Steele used to call him 'The Don', which is a pretty good accolade.

A couple of bowlers of real talent retired prematurely in your era. Alan Ward and Fred Swarbrook. How was that from the playing perspective?

It was a shame. Fred was a really good cricketer and a really gritty player. I once saw Mike Procter give him a really tough time when he came out as night watchman. He was peppering him with really fast, short deliveries into his body, but Fred stood his ground and he didn't get him out.

He was a fine bowler. He was taking a good number of wickets for Derbyshire every season and then came back one year and simply couldn't pitch the ball. It was a great shame for Fred as it brought about the end of his first class career.

He's still living and coaching in South Africa at a highly reputable college in Port Elizabeth and Fred was a super lad.

Alan I also saw last winter and he is living on the Gold Coast in Australia with his wife, Helen. It's a lovely part of the world to live! He met her when he toured with England in 1970 and although they moved to this country, I think they went back to Australia around ten years ago.

It was a great shame what happened to him. He was one of the fastest bowlers in the country, possibly the world at one point. Certainly Majid Khan reckoned that he was, and he was a good judge. When I saw him at 18 he was a fantastic sight, like Concorde taking off. He had this long approach, with his body leaning forward, then he would arch back and unleash this missile at the batsman.

But he wasn't a confident guy and used to get really nervous before he bowled. Can you imagine, bowling at that pace at batsmen who themselves were nervous at facing his thunderbolts? It was a shame that he didn't have that self-confidence, because he was seriously quick.

Who were the characters of your era? Always involved in funny incidents?

Well, I've mentioned Mike Page and Colin Tunnicliffe was a great personality. He would come in every day with a smile on his face and there were always jokes and stories flying around the dressing room.

The camaraderie of that time is something that I remember fondly and Colin and I remain good friends after all these years. He's a lovely lad. It's the great thing about the game and I always tell young players that if they play it the right way they will get so much from it.

Things were said on the field – it's a man's game after all – but we didn't get hugely personal and you gave it and took it in equal measure. It was competitive stuff and you had to be prepared for it.

I was batting against Yorkshire at Chesterfield once and their opening bowler, the late Tony Nicholson, stood halfway down the wicket, arms akimbo, as he stared at me, having beaten my outside edge once more without success. He shook his head and said “I tell thee what Hilly. If tha were battin' on my front lawn, Ah'd draw the bloody curtains...” Now that is proper, funny, humorous sledging!

You became a first-class umpire on retirement but only for a couple of seasons. Why was that?

I wasn't decisive enough. It didn't work out for me and I will admit that. My talents were better suited to coaching and the pressure of umpiring is considerable, especially now, with instant replays and referrals.

Did getting sacked by Derbyshire as a coach change your opinion of the club?

No. It changed my opinion of some of those involved, but this is and always will be my club. I'm down at the ground regularly and if I can't get here I follow the scores closely. It's given me some heartache over the years, but it's given me many wonderful memories too.

As a coach, what is the X Factor that separates a very good club cricketer from one capable of the next step?

Desire. Once your ability has got to a certain level, you will get opportunity at second eleven, or first team level. Then you need to work at your game and be prepared to keep doing so. You can always learn something and as soon as you think you have cracked it, that's generally when the game will come back to bite you.

If you are prepared to do the hard graft and have the requisite talent, you can make it. But you can't do it without both of those attributes.

And what of the youngsters. Who has impressed you?

There's a good few lads have come through the Staffordshire system that I am involved with, players like Alex Hughes, Ben Cotton, Tom Taylor..they have worked hard to get to this stage in their careers and they now need to step it up to make the next level.

I'm always wary of making predictions, because a lot of things can go wrong, but if they maintain the desire and keep listening to the right people and working on their games, they have every chance of success.

ENDS

Something for the weekend

Apologies for the lack of blogging in the week but it has been fiercely busy at work and domestic responsibilities and other things have rather taken up a lot of my time. Don't for a minute think that the blog is losing its appeal for me, just that there's a few balls being juggled right now. No tittering now at the back...

I heard this week that a shortened version of my interview with Walter Goodyear is appearing in this month's issue of Groundsman magazine. Astonishingly, given that he has been a member since 1946, it is the first time that Walter, at 98, has appeared in it, so I am thrilled for him. As I said at the time, meeting him was one of the highlights of my time in doing the blog and I have kept in touch with a most remarkable man with a rich fund of stories. He's also told me a few more things and I intend to visit him again in the coming weeks and have the voice recorder switched on...such memories are priceless and I am glad that I was able to capture them for posterity.

I've also been doing some prep work in advance of doing some umpiring in the coming season up here. I have had to retire from playing because of the hand problem that affected the blog pre-Christmas, but want to remain involved in the game and getting a qualification seemed the ideal way to go about it. So I will be doing some league games up here in the season ahead and am looking forward to it. I just need to cultivate an image now...hmmm...an umpire wearing a sombrero...don't think that's been done yet...

Congratulations to Will Davis on his selection for England under-19s. From what I have heard, this is a young lad with every possibility of a fine career if he works hard. I look forward to reporting on his career in the months and years ahead.

Thanks also to those who have been in touch with comments and suggestions by email. Special thanks to Simon, for alerting me to Mick Newell's suggestion of a regional 'super academy' to cover the East Midlands. The unstated aim, presumably, must be to save them petrol money flitting between Leicester and Derby to look at players worth taking, while the cynical, myself among them, might suggest that they already have one at Trent Bridge.

But it is at Leicester...

For a county of its size and status, Nottinghamshire's record in producing county players is shockingly bad and there are many who dislike them for the ensuing poaching of the players from other counties. I don't mind saying that I am among them and it must be frustrating for Leicestershire fans to see their erstwhile favourites lining up just down the road.

I am pleased to see Derbyshire's policies bearing fruit, the work started by Karl Krikken and Howard Dytham now being brought to fulfilment by AJ Harris and Steve Stubbings. There is as rich a crop of talent coming through now as there has ever been and I expect to see several of them make substantial steps forward in their careers this summer.

With less than two months to go, that's an exciting way to finish a blog!

Friday, 20 February 2015

Something for the weekend: Madsen for England?

I awoke before my alarm this morning..half an hour early to be precise, at 5.30am.

After the usual stretches and yawns, realisation hit me that I could grab an extra half hour of the cricket if I got up at that time and I pottered through to the bathroom, showered and went downstairs.

That's when I found it was all over.

Notwithstanding a fine spell of seam bowling by Tim Southee, a very underrated bowler, the England batting was as limp as a two-week old stick of celery. Maybe Geoff Boycott's much-vaunted Mum could have done as well, with the proverbial stick of rhubarb.

The highlights made uncomfortable viewing but the reality is that the tour selection was muddled. We take the captaincy from one player out of form and give it to another who is only infrequently in it. Morgan is a decent cricketer, but an eye player who will never be consistent. He will have days when it all falls into place, but his technique isn't up to examination by the very best.

We left out one of our best one-day opening batsmen, a man who did very well in the Big Bash, Michael Lumb, as well as an all-rounder who is capable of brilliance in Ben Stokes. That's before we go over the old ground of KP. Should he be in the side? On talent, it is hard to say no.

The brutal reality of the first two games is that we have no bowlers once the openers have been seen off. The support attack has been treated with disdain and Steve Finn had two horrendous overs last night that will give him nightmares. In his defence, Brendon McCullum has done that to better bowlers and is a beast with a bat in his hands. Anyone who can leave Martin Guptill in his wake has serious talent and McCullum slaughtered an England side that was very ordinary at best.

Which makes the news that Wayne Madsen is now qualified to play for England all the more interesting.

Over the past two summers, the Derbyshire skipper has been as consistent a batsman as any in the country. Perhaps last year he could have done with converting more of his fifties into centuries, but Madsen exudes a confidence and exhibits class that has not always been the preserve of Derbyshire batsmen.

There was a feeling that he couldn't play the one-day game, but that was laid to rest last summer with a series of sparkling innings in all formats, without any discernible weakness. With shots all around the wicket, Madsen is the complete batsman now, the lynchpin of a batting side that has displayed frailties but looks a better unit after prudent winter recruitment.

Is Madsen good enough for England? In my opinion, yes. Whether he will be picked, given the backlash against overseas players, especially those from South Africa, is a moot point, but if he gets off to a flyer he has to put his name in the frame.

He will need to be much better than the alternatives elsewhere though, because our players do. Yet in Madsen and Mark Footitt, at the very least, we have two players who can have genuine aspirations for the international arena.

Our chances of success are better if they stay with us, of course, but we are getting a side together, beyond doubt. Next up, again if he hits his stride early, will be Shiv Thakor, a batsman who bowls but with genuine potential as an all-rounder. There's others behind them too, with a host of young seamers who could easily have horizons beyond the county game.

Will Davis is the latest. Behind Messrs Cotton, Taylor and Cork in the pecking order right now, but a bowler about who I have heard only good things. It will be fascinating to see who makes the most progress in the coming season, but Davis looks set for experience with England's under-19s, where I hope he gets better treatment than Tom Knight did.

Davis is the latest, after Taylor and Cotton, to emerge from the rich source of Staffordshire cricket and they are doing fine work there. Alex Hughes is another and all of them could play major parts in the county club's glittering future.

Enjoy your weekend. I'm working tomorrow, but on the up side, the season is only two months away.

PS Nice marketing and PR work this week, as the skipper delivered memberships to lucky individuals. They are not missing many tricks down at the 3AAA County Ground these days and it is great to see.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

An Interview with Alan Hill part 5

I have to ask you about Lords 1981 and that game against Northamptonshire. Tell me about that.

It was an amazing day wasn't it, between two of the less fashionable counties! Lords was bursting at the seams, unlike for this year's one-day final when it was barely half full. I found that quite sad.

The thing I always remember was that we had to play the next day, despite all the nervous energy that went into a last-ball finish. Things come flashing back at times: watching Jim Griffith running in to bowl that last ball from the dressing room window. Bob Taylor, who had played for England, had his head in his hands and couldn't watch. Neither could a good few others. Some of the guys stayed up, others – including me- went to bed because we were mentally shattered and had to drive to Hove the next morning!

We didn't get back to Derby after the Sunday game until 1.30am on the Monday morning, with the wives and girlfriends in tow. We were all very aware that but for that one ball, it could have been an eminently forgettable weekend.

It was an emotional time. Bob Taylor had played for us for twenty years and never tasted success. The Duke of Devonshire was in tears, so too was Gerald Mortimer of the Derby Telegraph. They knew what we had been through as a club and how much it meant to us all.

And what about that catch?

The way Richard Williams shaped to hit it, I thought he was hitting it towards mid-wicket and I set off in that direction, not having sighted the ball against the crowd.

Then I heard Barry Wood, who knew my brother and thought we were facially alike, shout “BERNARD!”. I realised then it was coming my way and then I saw the ball just to my left and dived for it. Thankfully, I held on and, as I have told people ever since, it's amazing what you can do with your eyes closed!

I didn't bat very well though and got out to one of the worst shots I ever played. Mind you, that brought together John Wright and Peter Kirsten and they were much better players than me...

I've heard stories that despite the success, that wasn't always a harmonious dressing room?

No, that's been exaggerated. Barry Wood was a black and white cricketer and he told it very frankly. But he was super-committed and a very fine player. He expected people to follow his lead and sometimes, when he called a spade a shovel, it didn't go down too well.

But that wasn't a bad dressing room – certainly not compared to what you hear of dressing rooms of a later vintage. Woody had a sense of humour and there was a lot of banter. There were times he might have put things differently, but you couldn't fault his commitment and ability.

In the early 1980s you were Mr Consistency. You reeled off 1300 runs plus in 1983 and 1984 and in 1986 had your record aggregate of 1438 runs at 42 – and then retired at the age of 36. That always struck me as premature. What happened?

Well, I was 36 and had a draining benefit year. If I'm honest, I hadn't planned my future away from the game as well as I might have and had an opportunity to stay in it. I'd qualified as a teacher, but hadn't decided between that and coaching, so when the chance came to take up a coaching role with Derbyshire I thought about it, long and hard. My knees had been giving me problems and I felt the aches and pains more at the end of the day.

I reckoned that the opportunity may not have been there again, so I took it. I had played for seventeen years and I felt that physically, I was done. The expectations were considerable and for me, irrespective of how well I had been doing, I had to keep scoring a thousand runs a season and I wasn't sure I could keep doing that against really top bowlers. At 36, your eyes aren't as sharp as in your prime either, nor are your reflexes, so it would have been an increasing challenge.

Whenever people talk about the current side, depending on their age, they refer to us needing either a Steve Stubbings or an Alan Hill. That must be a source of pride?

It is! I did my best and I never went out to give any less than a hundred per cent. Perhaps people recognised that and I've always been grateful for their kind words and support.

As must be a first-class average over thirty in a tough era?

Yes, especially on some of the wickets that we played on and against the bowlers I've mentioned. Places like Chesterfield, Trent Bridge and The Oval – and there were many others – you knew that your first two hours of batting would be very hard work. If you could get through that, you could go on to decent scores, but it needed a willingness to graft in that opening session.

That opened my eyes to batting really. I regard the best batsmen as those who score runs when the conditions are against them, not the flat track bullies who boost their average with two hundred on a shirt front.

I spoke with Peter Willey recently and we agreed that it was a golden era. I envy- but don't begrudge - players today with their year-round contracts, but I wouldn't have swapped the time that I played for anything. I faced some of the greatest bowlers of all time – people like Richard Hadlee, Malcolm Marshall, Imran Khan, Andy Roberts and so many more.

You had to be at your best to survive and yes, I am proud to have finished as I did.

To be continued...

Friday, 13 February 2015

World Cup prediction - New Zealand

In response to several emails - and just before the tournament begins tonight - here is my fancy for the cricket World Cup.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you - New Zealand.

Australia are the team for them to beat, especially when both sides are on home turf, but that New Zealand batting side, even without Jesse Ryder, is an awesome machine.

Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Brendon McCullum, Corey Anderson, Luke Ronchi - any of those players can take a game away from you in quick time. Their attack is less potent, but the return of Daniel Vettori will give them important control in the middle overs and if they can bowl decently that batting machine will win plenty of games.

Of course Australia will be in there, but I feel they need Dave Warner and Aaron Finch to fire at the top of the order, as the middle order, with the exception of Steve Smith, looks more fragile.

As for the rest, South Africa can be in there, but have a nasty habit of 'choking' at the last hurdle. Much will depend on Amla, De Villiers and du Plessis with the bat, while Steyn's fitness and form is crucial to their chances.

The West Indies have no chance, as the game is sixty overs too long for them. India won't win it, simply because it is not in India and Sri Lanka rely too heavily on aging maestros who are lacking in quality support.

You never know which Pakistan side will turn up on a given day, but if you were looking for a dark horse, they might spring a shock. Zimbabwe and Bangladesh won't. Scotland and Ireland will acquit themselves well but ultimately in vain.

Which leaves England. I see them as much the same as South Africa. There is special talent in the side, but an impressive batting line up too often sees only one man contribute and that's not enough.

Similarly, after the opening bowlers, I am not convinced there's anyone that teams will worry about. Given that Sussex and Kent couldn't decide who wanted James Tredwell last year, it doesn't suggest he will wreak havoc in the opposition. The back up seamers can be very expensive and I see England as quarter-finalists, unless a few more players step up to the plate.

I would love to see your thoughts...so, what do you think?

Thursday, 12 February 2015

An interview with Alan Hill part 4

Your career seemed to kick on in 1975 with the arrival of Eddie Barlow. What did he do to improve your game?

Eddie was a terrific bloke. On the surface he was supremely confident, yet he must have had his demons. He was 36 when he came to Derbyshire and past his best as a batsman. There were times that he struggled for runs, but you would never have known it.

He was very shrewd, always positive, good fun. We thought the world of him and it was good to be able to bring him back to some player events towards the end of his life. He was never happier than in the company of cricketers, having a laugh and a beer.

He used to take us to a pub at Darley Abbey after training sessions. They call it bonding now, but Eddie started that at Derbyshire and he pulled us together, both on and off the field. His bowling won us a lot of games and he really was a fabulous player.

There was one game when we were playing Middlesex and Tony Borrington had been injured in the first innings. Wayne Daniel was seriously quick and we were all panicking a bit, wondering who was going to open against him with me.

“Calm down lads” said Eddie. “I'm going in.”. He did well too and it was just typical of him to lead from the front.

He used to take me into the nets and just get me to hit the ball. “See the ball, hit the ball” was his maxim.

So was it Eddie who helped with the winter in South Africa?

I think he might have, behind the scenes, but I never knew. I got a phone call asking me to go over and play club cricket, as well as for Orange Free State and I did pretty well. I would have liked to go back, but I had just met my wife-to-be and she had a secure job in nursing. It wasn't to be, but it is one of the regrets of my career that I never went back.

I suppose the dour reputation was cemented by making a century with no boundary for Orange Free State in the winter of 1976-77. What do you remember of that innings?

We'd been hammered in the previous game by Northern Transvaal in Pretoria and we were playing against Griqualand West in Bloemfontein, our nearest neighbours, though around a hundred miles away.

We bowled them out for 59 and Geoff Arnold, who was coaching at the time, came to me and told me to go out and get my head down. I did that and we ended up winning the game. I had no idea when I came in that I hadn't reached the fence and my excuse was that the mower had broken! The grass was very long in parts and some of them would have gone for four easily on a shorter outfield.

I got a slow hundred and a team mate got a quick one - so you could say that the end result made it all worthwhile.

Despite your reputation, you were the first Derbyshire batsman to make a John Player League century. That must be a source of pride?

That was at Buxton and was the best I ever played. If you're going to have one special innings, you want it to be on your home 'turf' and I was really pleased with that one. I was feeling confident, despite a poor pitch and I made 120 out of around 200. I was out in the 32nd over, so I could have gone on further, but everything felt right that day, against a good Northamptonshire attack.

I searched for that innings for the rest of my career, but never felt that fluent again. My hands, eyes and feet were all in synch that day and I loved every minute I was out there.

I did get 150 in the Nat West Trophy against Cornwall and that felt good, but it wasn't a first-class attack, of course.

I've chatted many times with Tony Borrington, who said that as an opener you played in an era with the quickest bowlers the game has ever known. So who were the quickest?

The quickest weren't necessarily the best. It depends on the wickets you play on and The Oval at that time was fast and bouncy. The quickest ball I ever faced was there against Sylvester Clarke. He bowled me a bouncer and Jack Richards, thirty yards back, could only finger tip it 'over the bar' for four byes. It was seriously quick...

Chesterfield was fast then too and I remember facing Australia there and Len Pascoe was very fast. Malcolm Marshall was always very quick at Portsmouth, but of course, he could do it all.

And the best?

Malcolm Marshall and Richard Hadlee. Richard dissected your technique and was a wonderful bowler, though he bowled on some very 'sporting', green wickets at Trent Bridge that were specifically prepared for him and Clive Rice.

Overall I would say Malcolm shaded it, as he was a fine bowler and competitor who took wickets all over the world, even on the sub-continent. That was often a bowler's graveyard, but Malcolm adapted his style to suit conditions. He was a delightful man too, unless you were twenty-two yards away from him when he had a cricket ball in his hand...

He never said much to you on the field. He didn't need to. When you can bowl at ninety miles an hour, the ball does all your talking. It was funny, you'd see opposition batsmen offering to carry his bag from the car before a game, hoping that he would then go easy on them! They did the same with Michael Holding here at Derbyshire and we asked him if it made a difference.

“Oh no,” he said in his deep Jamaican voice, “They will still get it...”

The other thing Michael used to say was “If you want to drive, go buy a car...”

To be continued...

Role Models

In an era when the public perception of top sports stars is one of people with far too great a sense of self-importance, it is refreshing to write on a few people who do not conform to that stereotype.

First this week comes news of a 'no swearing' initiative at Derby County. While not a zero-tolerance policy, it is refreshing to read of a top sports club taking its responsibility to fans, especially younger ones, to a different level.

Most people swear occasionally. As my old Dad has always said to me, down the pit if a load of coal dropped on you and hurt, as loads of coal tend to do when they connect with the human body, you either cried or swore to get it out of your system. Somehow it seemed to help, much as it does if you stub your toe or trap a finger.

Yet swearing shouldn't be accepted and for me isn't acceptable in mixed company. Call me old-fashioned, but I switch off if in the company of those whose every sentence is accompanied by an Anglo-Saxon utterance. Or I say something about it, depending on the company I am in.

While Derby County's approach is steeped in psychology and not allowing the 'inner chimp' of self-control to escape. it is refreshing to see sports stars moderating their language and being aware of their status as role models, on and off the pitch. 

It made me think of similar things at Derbyshire, where one doesn't have to look too closely for men of admirable character.

You have Tony Palladino, a man who was big enough to make a stand against corruption in the game at his former county. It would have been easy for Tony to have buried his head in the sand, once he knew what was happening at Essex, but instead he was big enough to say 'This is wrong' and do something about it. He will always be a sporting hero in my eyes, if only for that act alone and irrespective of his fine efforts on the field.

There is Wayne Madsen. As affable a man as ever walked on a cricket pitch, I cannot think of a better role model for a sports club than the Derbyshire skipper. His conduct, attitude and appearance are always first-class and we are fortunate to have such a man as captain. There are few who would walk, aware that he had nicked a ball to the keeper, as Madsen did at Chesterfield two summers ago and such an action both exemplified the man and highlighted that sport could be played in the right spirit, even at its higher levels.

Then there is Tom Poynton.

Few would have blamed the wicket-keeper had he kept a low profile after the tragic loss of his father in a car crash at the end of last season. Together with the injuries he sustained in that same accident, many would have been laid low and it would have been perfectly understandable. Surgery meant that he missed the entire season and he could have kept his head down and stayed out of the limelight.

Instead, he threw himself into the community role that he was given to build bridges with the city's ethnic communities and by general admission did a fantastic job. That work was a major factor in the club attracting Cheteshwar Pujara to Derby at the end of last summer and may well see him return for another spell this year. He also project managed the Club Golf Day at Morley Hayes and helped to deliver the Cricket Derbyshire Foundation Healthy Heart Campaign.

In raising the club's profile in the community, it made a good contribution towards the securing of Council support for ground redevelopment and the player's friendly, outgoing personality has won him many friends in the wider community.

It has also earned him massive respect within the game. He has faced adversity and the challenge of getting fit for his sport once more and while doing so has shown that sportsmen really can make a difference.

He is fit to resume his career this summer and I am sure that everyone will be thrilled to see him (and hear him!) back behind the stumps once more. The award of a Professional Cricketers' Association Personal Development Scholarship for his work is well-deserved


His Dad would have been very proud.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Weekend warmer

So memberships at Derbyshire are up on the same time last year...the Gup Factor seems to be having quite an impact.

While it is easy to pin the credit for this on our overseas batting star, I think the reality is that supporters realise that he will be the icing on the cake of what appears increasingly likely to be a very strong Derbyshire side.

You know why? Because I don't think anyone, hand on heart, could call a first-choice side for this summer right now. There are quite a few unknowns - will Jon Clare be fit, will Tom Knight's bowling have come on, will the young seamers come through - but they are all positives.

When was the last time that we had four seam-bowling all rounders, like Thakor, Hughes, White and Clare? Or two very good wicket-keepers, as in Poynton and Hosein? Or the quantity of seam bowling that we enjoy? Who will partner Martin Guptill? Who will get the nod in the middle order - and equally, be unlucky to miss out?

The depth and talent in the squad is impressive and the transformation in a few months quite remarkable. Wind back to early/mid summer last season and there were moans when Tim Groenewald left the club and results were hardly going our way.

Not any more. The emergence of Tom Taylor, Ben Cotton and Greg Cork would not have happened had Graeme Welch not made the brave decision to let Groenewald, a worthy player and good club man, leave the club, ultimately for Somerset. It may not have seemed so at the time, but it may well turn out to be a defining moment.

It showed that Welch is unafraid to make the big calls and, as was shown by subsequent events, he was absolutely right in that decision. He will doubtless be decisive in his selections this summer and he will ensure that this squad is perhaps better prepared than any in our history.

Of course, what matters is how it translates on the pitch. The pre-season tour will be important for staking a claim to an early season place, but by crikey they're going to have to play well to keep them this year.

All of which suggests that if you haven't got a ticket yet, you would be well advised to do so sometime soon...

Thursday, 5 February 2015

An interview with Alan Hill part 3

Your first team debut came in 1972. How did that come about?

It was towards the end of the season and at that time coaches are starting to give chances to young players, aware of others that are leaving and wanting to see who might be able to step up. I had been in and around the second team for three years by that stage, so I had a good grounding.

A lot of young players now are impatient and wanting to play the first-class game early, perhaps when they're not always ready for it. I felt I was ready and, in an era when batsmen had to face some seriously talented players, especially from overseas, you really had to be to survive.

You faced Somerset at Chesterfield, the wily Tom Cartwright and the lively Hallam Moseley. Quite a step up?

Cartwright was a master of moving the ball off the seam. They perhaps wouldn't look at him now, because he was a very gentle medium pace, but he zipped it around all day. I remember facing him one time at Weston-super-Mare and I must have played three or four balls an over with my front pad. It was a real education, as at his pace you had to move it in the air and off the seam, as well as bowling a 'forward' length.

You then faced Bob Willis at Edgbaston against Warwickshire, before going on to Blackpool, where you made your first senior fifty at Stanley Park. That would have been special against a decent attack?

My memory of that Warwickshire game is fielding at fine leg for Alan Ward. Their great West Indian batsman, Rohan Kanhai, got a quick bouncer from him and picked it up so quickly that, instead of top edging to me, he hit it over mid-on, one bounce for four. It was an extraordinary shot but, as I saw subsequently on several occasions, far from unusual for him. He was a fine player.

That first fifty was on an uncovered wicket, which was a little lively. It was very satisfying but I still had much to prove.

I think it's fair to say that it wasn't a great Derbyshire side at that time. How did you find it, coming into a struggling side?

We struggled at times, as there were some good sides around. We had some good players, like Peter Gibbs and Mike Page, but we never seemed to fire as a team.

Mike was a wonderful player, especially of spin, and I learned so much watching him play it with soft hands and quick feet. He loved the social side of the game and perhaps suffered from being seen to not take it as seriously as he might have done. He didn't smash spin all over the place, but I remember seeing him make two 90s against Ray Illingworth and Jack Birkenshaw at Leicester and he looked on a different level to the rest of us.

He was also a brilliant fielder at short-leg and held many catches off Brian Jackson and Harold Rhodes there. He did get hit badly once and that shook him for a while. There were no helmets and pads at that stage of course...

He was great in the dressing room. He was playing a second team game one day and had been having a bit of banter with Lancashire's wicket-keeper, Keith Goodwin, who he knew very well. During the tea interval, Mike persuaded our seam bowler, Michael Glenn to bowl a tomato to Keith, first ball after tea.

Michael bowled a full toss and Keith hit it, bang in the middle of the bat and was showered in tomato seeds as we all broke up, laughing! I think he got hauled before the committee, but that was the sort of man that he was. A really lovely guy and a very talented cricketer.

Chris Wilkins was coming to the end of his stint as our first overseas player. How did you find him?

He was one of the hardest hitters of a cricket ball I have ever seen. Only Clive Lloyd matched him and if you were batting in the indoor school at Derby, where there wasn't much room as the bowlers waited to bowl their next ball, you never turned your back on him.

He was a talented all-round player. He could bowl useful seam, kept wicket pretty well and was a fine all-round sportsman. He had an amazing eye and he made the first switch-hit that I ever saw.

It was in his last season and he was batting in the nets against David Wilde. He was a pretty lively left-armer and Chris switched round and absolutely hammered this ball. We all stood there with our mouths open, just wondering at how good an eye you must have to do something like that.

Then of course Lawrence Rowe came in for a summer, having put England to the sword for the West Indies. There must have been great expectations on his arrival that never came to fruition?

Well, he came off the back of scoring 302 against England that winter and expectations were high. In his first game at Derby, against Sussex, he made 94 in the second innings and batted with his red West Indian track suit underneath his whites – he was so cold!

He was a very cool, laid back West Indian and oozed calm and class whenever he batted, but he found the county grind very difficult. Various ailments and illnesses didn't help, but we never saw the best of Lawrence at Derbyshire. Michael Holding will tell you he was among the best batsmen he ever saw, so it is hard to argue with that

Your own style was usually described as 'dour' or 'attritional'. Was that always your style or were you conscious of a need to stay in there and minimise risks?

It goes back to my upbringing in the Peak District really. We played on uncovered wickets and you could never play forward with confidence, because the ball 'stopped' on you. I think that was a factor, but I was told that one of my roles was to see the shine off the new ball and ensure that the side made a solid start, so that meant that I tried to stay there as long as I could.

I wasn't blessed with great self-confidence either, and the demons took over when I had a bad trot. If I was batting well, I went out confident that I could make runs against anyone, but there were times when I would wonder where the next run was coming from, especially against the many fine opening bowlers of that era. 

To be continued