Scott Oliver headed to Knypersley CC to celebrate Staffordshire’s 1,001st fixture amongst some familiar faces. Photos: Anthony Hayward
You’d be forgiven for thinking that getting nearly 700 people to see 22 pristine white unicorns at the same time would require collective ingestion of some exotic mushrooms, but the crowd gathered in late August sunshine to watch Staffordshire’s 1,001st game in the Minor Counties Championship – since rebranded as the Unicorns Championship, of course – were by and large free of hallucinations, if not entirely without intoxication.
Thanks to some sterling organisational work by a specially formed sub-committee, the onlookers at the final home game of the campaign against Buckinghamshire at Knypersley CC – once home to Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson – included 70 former players, from five decades’ worth of Staffordshire teams. There were many memories to share and salty tales to be told – good at the time, no doubt, yet polished to perfection down the years.
It ought to have been Staffordshire’s 1,000th fixture, but the players had gone and ruined the synchronicity by thoughtlessly winning the Eastern Division in 2014, going on to beat Wiltshire at Salisbury to win the Championship. It was Staffordshire’s 12th success, making them the most successful club in Minor Counties history. They are also only the third county to pass the 1,000-game landmark, after Norfolk, who didn’t even realise it, and Hertfordshire, who celebrated with a game against an MCC side including Brian Lara at Lord’s.
With such success and history, the county is entitled to think of itself as a powerhouse, a view expressed by the Stoke-born former Leicestershire and Glamorgan allrounder, later a first-class umpire, John Steele, in attendance at the celebratory luncheon. Steele was adamant that Staffordshire ought to have pushed to become a first-class county, a position shared by his brother, David, the silver-haired former BBC Sports Personality of the Year and one of 11 players to represent England having first played for the county. ‘Steeley’ was unable to attend, but his old county teammate Bob Taylor was there, despite a recent heart attack, reminiscing about how, as teenagers, he and Steele used to catch the bus across the Potteries to Staffs training sessions.
The most famous Staffordshire player of all, Sydney Francis Barnes – 1,441 wickets for the county at 8.15 apiece, including 29 of the 30 best innings analyses – was represented by a great grandson, tracked down by a professional genealogist. Also present were the six living former captains, three of whom – former and current Presidents, Dave Hancock and Peter Gill, and Secretary Nick Archer – have served as officers of the club, both flesh-and-blood continuity with the past and passionate devotion in the here-and-now.
Archer captained the club through its most bounteous period. As the 1980s clicked over into the 1990s, he had at his disposal four pace bowlers who would go on to play Test cricket for England: Joey Benjamin, Dean Headley, Paul Taylor and Dominic Cork. Between 1991 and ‘93, Archer’s side won three successive Championships and reached three Lord’s finals, a loss to Devon sandwiching victories over the same and Wiltshire.
Thankfully for the organisers, a week of inclement weather cleared into a skin-crispingly balmy afternoon. Two days earlier there had been ducks on the outfield, an inauspicious omen for Staffs No.3 Tommy Steele (no relation) as he was cleaned up second ball. Meanwhile, the CCTV cameras up on the Members Bar were turned toward the square so that play could be followed on screen – an unusual angle on proceedings, but not quite technologically advanced enough to reprieve Staffs captain Kadeer Ali, Moeen’s brother, who looked a little aggrieved at his lbw decision.
Kadeer was later able to hand out county caps to Tim Maxfield, Michael Hill and Alex Mellor, the golden-roped Staffordshire knot signalling a player’s entry into the county’s rich history and a symbol of the regional pride in the club – both as an aspiration for the area’s best amateur players, and as an emblem of involvement in a living, breathing community.
That symbol was ubiquitous at Knypersley, adorning specially commissioned shirts and polo shirts, on the miscellaneous memorabilia and souvenirs being sold, and on the front of a commemorative brochure in which former skipper Richard Harvey articulated exactly what the county means for those bubbling beneath first-class level: “I always used to remind the team when the going got tough that we were in a privileged position, as probably hundreds of cricketers in the county wished they were right where we were, wearing the shirt, no matter how tough the going may have got!”
All in all, it was a day that showed cricket below the professional game to be thriving. Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that the Minor Counties had the significant carrot of an annual tilt at the big boys in the Gillette Cup, carnival occasions when top-level cricket was taken to Cornwall, Norfolk, Northumberland and other corners of the country where kids weren’t used to seeing it.
But this is the 21st Century. Finance trumps romance, and the prospect of being dumped out by a group of amateurs – which happened 10 times, Staffordshire’s nearest miss coming with a two-run defeat to eventual winners Sussex in 1978 – was replaced by the guarantee of several round-robin home fixtures.
Not that all of the Minor Counties’ revamping has been bad. Three-day cricket has replaced the wheeler-dealer declarations of the two-day game, offsetting those lost glamour fixtures that once provided a ‘shop window’ back into the first-class game. Nevertheless, the county has links with a number of the counties, and with the talent identification net so widely cast and so rigorously monitored, there’s still a pathway into the first-class game for the late developers. Evidence of this is provided by 21-year-old Staffs keeper-batsman Alex Mellor, who, having made a chanceless double-hundred in the previous home game, will next year take up a contract at Warwickshire.
The Staffs members will be hoping he can eventually follow Cork, Bob Taylor, Paul Taylor, Headley, Benjamin, Steele, Barnes, Jack Ikin, Ken Higgs, Kim Barnett and Rob Bailey into England colours.