In this week’s ‘The Greatest’, Richard H Thomas winds the clock back to the summer of 1977.
The thing about being a Glamorgan fan is that travelling hopefully is usually better than arriving. My formative years of cricket watching were between the County Championship title in 1969, and the Sunday League triumph in 1993. That’s the whole of a school career, a decade of a sales career and the birth of a first child without the sniff of any silverware. Well, actually, one sniff.
True, for some of that time, what with that other stuff going on, the county’s empty trophy room was not my main preoccupation. But I still shook my head and clicked my tongue like everyone else when we perished in the first round of the Benson and Hedges Cup, or lost the first six games in the Sunday League, or followed on for the third Championship match in a row.
In fact, people used to make jokes about Glamorgan, and I remember a particularly bad one cracked by the usually genial Trevor Bailey on TMS. He was talking about what players did when they started to creak with age. Retire, or sign for Glamorgan was the crux of his argument, and I remember bristling at the very thought of it. Before the days when the old county was awarded full nursing home accreditation though, we made the semi-final of the Gillette Cup in 1977. A home tie with Leicestershire at St. Helens at Swansea beckoned, and my brother Andy and I arranged to stay with Nana, a dozen or so miles away in Port Talbot.
On the morning of the match, the sky was foreboding. But there is no fool like a cricket fool, and so we bounded downstairs regardless to find Nana busying herself over breakfast. I remember noticing, perhaps during my third or fourth piece of toast, that the local radio station favoured by Nana – Swansea Sound – was playing nothing but Elvis. Soon we realised that the King had passed the day before. We had no idea of the cultural significance of what had happened in Memphis, distracted as we were, with the local weather forecast.
In the event, the match took three days to complete, and we were there for all of them. In those days there was oodles of cricket crammed into daylight hours; don’t forget it was 60 overs an innings back then. Any score more than about 240 was pretty decent. In all the Gillette Cup games that year, for example, the average score for the side batting first was exactly 200. There was one score more than 250 and one, by Leicestershire, of over 300, courtesy of a ton by 21-year-old David Gower. Even against a relatively modest Hertfordshire attack, this was extraordinary. If you’d have told triumphant skipper Raymond Illingworth that one day an England team would get 444 in 50 overs against a tidy international attack, he’d have sent you to the nurse for a full medical.
That day (the second of the three), and amid leaden skies, the sea mist and a partisan Swansea crowd, the visitors batted first and came nowhere near 313, having to settle instead, for a below par looking 172-7. My abiding memory of the Leicestershire innings was not anything storming on the field, although you can bet that the 43 from Gower was probably dreamy. Instead, my clearest memory is of a testy exchange between Glamorgan’s Bajan quick bowler Tony Cordle and an away fan, just as the players retired from the field. Peter Booth had finished on 40 not out and captain Illingworth on 22. They’d put on 63 for the eighth wicket and saved the Foxes’ blushes.
Cordle was hugely popular in the Principality for his stalwart service, his huge smile and genial nature. This was no grump – there is footage of him on YouTube crooning The Christmas Song in a mellow, fireside voice with a Welsh scarf around his neck. But he wasn’t smiling this day in Swansea. He’d bowled seven tidy overs for 21, and trapped Chris Balderstone in front, and had every reason to be reasonably content, but a Leicestershire fan congratulating Illingworth for his rearguard action was too much to bear.
Cordle explained, fairly bluntly, that the former England captain had actually edged one to the keeper some while ago, and that everyone in the ground had heard it, apart from the umpire. Splinters in the ball there were, he suggested, following it up with the promise that revenge would be sought. “Game on,” we thought, or whatever version of the phrase existed in 1977.
After that, it was fairly straightforward to be honest. Revenge was duly extracted and Glamorgan took the tie by five wickets. There wasn’t much to celebrate for the visitors – a tidy spell of 2-21 by Jack Birkenshaw, and seven parsimonious overs from the late, great Ken Higgs. He went for 19 runs and no doubt cursed every single one of them. Alan Jones addressed a delirious crowd from the balcony at Swansea. “We will see you at Lord’s,” I remember him saying, very deliberately, and very calmly.
We all went potty. Elvis may have left the building, but we were leaving for NW8. The final was played at Lord’s on a scorching day on September 3, 1977. Our party consisted of Dad, Andy and myself, our cousin Pete and his cousin. Way Down by Elvis was Number 1 in the charts, and we had similarly lofty hopes for Glamorgan in St. John’s Wood.
I have three abiding memories of the day. The first was my first glimpse of the Lord’s pavilion. I reacted with a single word, much as I did when for the first time I saw the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Not a particularly polite word as it goes, but one that expresses complete awe as well as any other word.
The second highlight of the day was Glamorgan left-hander Mike Llewellyn whacking the last ball of John Emburey’s miserly spell onto, and almost over, the roof of the pavilion. Probably the second biggest hit on the ground of all time, Brian Johnston waved a white hanky out of the commentary box window. “If I’d been swinging half a tree like they use now that ball would still be travelling,” he told Charles Randall of The Telegraph years later, recalling that Wayne Daniel had “cricked his neck trying to see where it had gone.”
If I tell you that third highlight of the day was a tannoy announcement, you will gather than Glamorgan did not win this particular match. Steve Jobs had not yet imagined that telephones might not need to be plugged into the wall; if someone wanted you at a sporting event, they called the ground and someone made a PA announcement. When the velvety-voiced Johnny Dennis appealed for a “Mr Terry Cobner of Pontypool” to please come to the office, the Welsh contingent stood and applauded. Cobner was a Welsh rugby international, and had, within the last week or two, returned from a valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful British Lions tour of New Zealand.
As Cobner he got up from his seat in the Mound Stand, the London sun bounced off his bald head, and we cheered him all the way to pick up his message. On the field though, Middlesex were doing to Glamorgan what the All Blacks had done to the Lions a few short weeks before. The stranglehold applied, they just continued to squeeze the life out of us.
In those days, if you were batting second in a limited-overs match, and you had to pick a finisher, plenty of captains around the circuit would have chosen Clive Radley. He was a scruffy, untidy looking chap who clearly possessed not a jot of vanity about how spruce he looked in his kit. But he knew how to make runs in one-day cricket. Smashing it to all corners was not for him, since there were others with the style and swagger to do that better. Instead, he scored excruciatingly annoying runs. If you moved a fielder from over here to over there, he’d hit the next one through the newly created gap. If your square-leg was five yards too deep, he’d spot the chance for a single. If one of the senior chaps couldn’t throw, Radley would follow him around the field.
If you had a man down at third-man for the thick edge along the ground, Radley would snick them off the inside-edge to fine leg where there was nobody. Most importantly of all, he made runs just when they were needed the most, and that day he made 85 priceless ones. None of his teammates made more than 27. Middlesex won the cup, and we went back over the Severn Bridge, vanquished but glad for the experience. Coming close was not far from actually winning, we concluded. We’d had the time of our lives and I had three memories that are still crystal clear to this day.
The only footnote I can add that in 2016, three of that party of five went to Lord’s for the first day of England’s Test with Sri Lanka. It was the first time that Dad, Andy and I had watched a match at Lord’s since that day almost 39 years earlier. Watching a sumptuous ton by Jonny Bairstow was thirsty work, since the weather was as hot as we remembered it had been that day in September 1977. On one of his regular refreshment trips to the Nursery End bar, Andy totally unexpectedly bumped into someone he knew. It was cousin Pete. “I think it’s the first time I’ve been back since went to that final – do you remember it?” he asked. We did, and I for one will never forget it.