Two County Championships: 43 Years Apart
In 1973, I played a small part in Hampshire’s success in winning the county championship. In 2016, another Murtagh, my nephew Tim, played a much bigger part in Middlesex’s triumph in the same competition. I started to ponder how much the old girl, the championship, the one everybody wants to win, had changed and adapted to the new order, despite the birth of her younger, glitzier cousins. There are of course obvious differences. We played 20 matches; Middlesex played 16. Games were of 3-day duration back then; now they are 4. We wore caps; they wear helmets. We won 10 games. Middlesex won 6. And both teams were undefeated throughout the season. But for all that, cricket remains more or less the same game, doesn’t it? For answers, I sought the opinion of Middlesex’s finest, their opening bowler who favours the Nursery End at Lord’s, namely Tim Murtagh, or Trim Tim, as he is known in the family.
At a dinner to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Hampshire winning the championship, our captain, Richard Gilliat, was asked what was the key to the team’s success. He answered unhesitatingly that there were two main factors. Our explosive batting, led by Barry Richards and Gordon Greenidge, perhaps the most dynamic opening partnership in county cricket, which put runs on the board swiftly so that the bowlers had time to take 20 wickets. And the superb catching. He could remember barely a single chance that went down throughout the entire campaign. What about your success?
“Catching, especially in the slips, was vital. Also, we usually got off to good starts with the bat, which helped a lot. We’d be 100-0 or 100-1, which sure takes the pressure off. Ollie Raynor, our off-spinner, came good, taking 50 wickets on dry surfaces. Halfway through the season, we’d only won one match, largely because the wickets were so dead, following the new toss rule. Then they became dryer, suiting the spinners, and reverse swing came into play.”
Hmm….reverse swing. That’s something we never encountered, other than at that nightclub in Brighton. How about the influence of the captain? It is my opinion, shared by others, that Gilliat was an excellent captain, tactically astute, a great team man, with no ego himself, who managed to gel together a number of talented players with enormous egos.
“We had two captains, in point of fact. Adam Voges left halfway through the season to fulfil his Australian commitments and his place was taken by James Franklin. Both are seasoned internationals, vastly experienced, who are winners and kept us focused at all times.”
We were known as Happy Hants. Of course, it’s always easier to maintain a good team spirit when you’re winning but I truly believed we enjoyed our cricket, both on and off the field.
“We enjoy each other’s company too and there’s a good camaraderie about the place. In that last game against Yorkshire, both sides, who get on well with each other, would have been happy for the other side to win if they couldn’t themselves because we both play the game in the right spirit. A lot of this is down to Gus Fraser, our coach, a no-nonsense guy who believes in rolling up the sleeves and getting on with the game. No one individual was bigger that the team.”
“You said that, Uncle Andy, not me.”
A coach, eh? That has changed. The role of the cricket manager never really existed in our day. The club coach looked after the 2nd XI and brought on the youngsters. Nobody accompanied the 1st team to matches except the scorer. In 1973, we were 66-1 outsiders. You were not exactly underdogs, were you?
“Well, we had come second last year, we had been the only team to beat Yorkshire when they were champions so I guess we fancied our chances. When we were up at Scarborough, Dickie Bird, the Yorkshire president, predicted we would win. ‘You know, I think it’s your time,’ he said, which is pretty generous from a Yorkshireman.”
And, as we know, President Dickie is never wrong. What about luck? In any sporting endeavour a certain amount of luck comes into play at some stage. We were lucky in that we steered clear of injuries and the main men were rarely missing. Only 13 players were used all season. What about you?
“I stayed pretty fit. Good genes, Andy.”
No, I meant the team.
“We too were fortunate that the bowlers, in particular, managed to stay on the field most of the time. We were also lucky that Straussy is in charge at the ECB.”
“Because he let Finny play for us in the title decider but not Bairstow and Root for the Yorkies. Ha ha!”
Finally, to round off our little trip down memory lane, how about this as food for thought? Middlesex received £500,000 for winning the pennant this year. Guess how much was our prize money? £3,000! Of which I received 2/6d.
“More than you deserved, Uncle Andy, more than you deserved.”