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The past is a foreign country: 50 years of county overseas players – Almanack

by Harry Pearson 7 minute read

Writing in the 2018 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, Harry Pearson reflects on fifty years of overseas cricketers in county cricket, and their impact on the English domestic game.

The summer of 1967 was one of tumultuous cultural change. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar alight at the Finsbury Park Astoria, The Beatles released Sgt Pepper, and the musical Hair brought full-frontal nudity to mainstream theatre. English cricket appeared untouched by the turmoil.

While the rest of the world gave off heady and exotic scents, county grounds smelled of mildew and wintergreen ointment. Even on the sunniest days, the game was played with a sense of impending chill; every batsman seemed to have a dewdrop forming on the end of his nose. The cricket was dour and attritional, victories ground out with all the grace of Ray Illingworth chewing a day-old chunk of gum. Attendances slumped like a teenager’s shoulders during double maths. Summer of Love? Not in Scarborough, Taunton or points in between it wasn’t.

Yet change was coming. That autumn, after the BBC had launched Radio One to a mix of groovy elation and purse-lipped disapproval, a move by the Advisory County Cricket Committee was greeted by similar measures of excitement and tutting across the shires: they agreed to Nottinghamshire’s proposal that the rules on county qualification, first established way back in 1873, should be relaxed to allow the immediate registration of one overseas player per team.

Roy Marshall was an established presence in Hampshire’s side prior to the 1967 decision

For historians, May 1968 might best be remembered for the Paris student riots, but – 50 years on – county cricket fans of a certain age probably recall the first regular sightings of Majid Khan, Asif Iqbal and Rohan Kanhai. Beneath the outfield, the beach, as the soixante-huitards might have put it. The relaxation was overdue. Overseas professionals had been drawing crowds to league cricket in northern England for generations, and had already made an impact on the county game, despite the various obstacles posed by the complex residency qualifications.

Several overseas players had already opted for the security of county cricket over the uncertainty of the international game. The dynamic batting of Barbadian Roy Marshall helped Hampshire win their first Championship in 1961. Pakistan’s Khalid “Billy” Ibadulla had been a fixture at Warwickshire for a decade, and was joined at Edgbaston in 1967 by Guyana’s Lance Gibbs. Mushtaq Mohammad was playing for Northamptonshire, while his fellow Pakistani Younis Ahmed had gone to Surrey. Kenyan Basharat Hassan and West Indies wicketkeeper Deryck Murray were on Nottinghamshire’s books; the apparently ageless Australian all-rounder Bill Alley had spent a feisty decade with Somerset; John Shepherd was with Kent; and his fellow Bajan, the flamboyant all-rounder Keith Boyce, was on his way to making Essex one of the most entertaining sides on the circuit. Add to that Ron Headley and Tony Cordle, two West Indians who made their careers with Worcestershire and Glamorgan, and county cricket wasn’t quite the Little England some traditionalists might have wanted.

Even so, the rule change sparked a genuine frisson. Only Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Middlesex and, inevitably, Yorkshire remained unmoved. Yorkshire had vehemently opposed overseas players ever since Lancashire employed Australian fast bowler Ted McDonald in the 1920s and, to the snorting disgust of Lord Hawke, won a hat-trick of Championships.

The biggest furore surrounded the battle for the services of the world’s greatest all-rounder. Garry Sobers had been playing for Radcliffe in the Central Lancashire League, but it was his heroics for South Australia, where he had nearly doubled gate receipts, that were perhaps at the forefront of committeemen’s minds as three counties engaged in a bidding war.

Lancashire and Gloucestershire eventually lost out to Nottinghamshire’s offer of a salary of up to £7,000, a flat and a car. He repaid them by hitting six sixes in an over off Malcolm Nash at Swansea. Lancashire settled on the dashing Indian wicketkeeper-batsman Farokh Engineer, who was soon happily ensconced there. Asked about the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, he said he would worry only if the fighting reached his home village. And where was that? “Oswaldtwistle.”

Nottinghamshire landed the big-name signing of Garry Sobers

Gloucestershire, meanwhile, turned to a young all-rounder who had impressed during a season with their second XI in 1965. Natal-born Mike Procter had fair hair, a barrel chest and the beefy, determined look of a man you might have seen driving cattle in a Saturday-night western. He would stay for 14 seasons, captain them for five, score over 14,000 runs, take more than 800 wickets and help Gloucestershire win their first piece of silverware – the 1973 Gillette Cup, when Procter thrashed 94 against Sussex in the final, and picked up a couple of wickets in a parsimonious spell.

Like Sobers, he brought a panache and dynamism that lit up the grey county game like a lightning bolt. He surged to the wicket stiff-jawed, as if straining against a leash. His front-on delivery was such a whirling blur of arms and knees that most observers thought he delivered off the wrong foot. His killer delivery was a booming inswinger. To watch clips of him again is to realise that the vigour of his run-up and the brutal muscularity of his action made him look quicker than he actually was. It certainly worked on batsmen, who had palpitations at the sight of Procter galloping towards them like a bullock down a bank, to a chorus of “Prawk-taaar! Prawk-taaar!”.

He grabbed four hat-tricks in the Championship, and his haul of 109 wickets in 1977 – when Gloucestershire won the Benson and Hedges Cup – took them to within a nose of their first title.

“Prawk-taaar! Prawk-taaar!” – Mike Procter (centre) rose up from the Second XI to become Gloucestershire’s captain

The immediate effect of overseas players is hard to gauge, but a brief study of the Championship tables from 1967 and 1968 suggests it was considerable. Inspired by Sobers, Nottinghamshire – who had not won a match in 1967 – rose from joint-15th to fourth. Hampshire, for whom Procter’s South African team-mate Barry Richards scored over 2,000 runs, went from 12th to fifth; Lancashire climbed from 11th to sixth. Perhaps the greatest impact, however, was in Wales.

Majid Khan had impressed Wilf Wooller when he hammered 13 sixes in 147 not out for the Pakistani tourists at St Helen’s in 1967. Majid raced to a century in 61 minutes and struck five sixes in an over off Roger Davis. Bubbling over with grace and flair, he arrived at a team that had just finished 14th. In his first season, Glamorgan bounced to third; in his second, they won the title. One highlight was his superb 156 out of 265 on a beast of a pitch at Sophia Gardens: the subsequent win over Worcestershire helped secure the trophy.

If the new overseas players scored runs and took wickets, they also brought glamour and style: at Kent, Asif Iqbal’s flared trousers and billowing silk shirts hinted at disco nights to come. But, more than that, they brought an attacking attitude that drew spectators and was better suited to a time when one-day cricket was on the up: the Sunday League was launched in 1969, the B&H Cup in 1972.

Yorkshire might blame other factors, but it is surely no coincidence that 1968 was the last time they won the Championship in the 20th century. By the time they won it again, in 2001, they had abandoned the Yorkshire-only policy established by Lincolnshire-born Lord Hawke, and their batting was led by Darren Lehmann, a pugnacious Australian.

Australia’s Darren Lehmann (left) helped break Yorkshire’s 33-year County Championship drought

The number of overseas players a county could field remained at two, but some of the first wave of signings soon qualified by residency, and many teams grew associated with double acts – players whose names became as linked to each other in the minds of cricket lovers as Laurel and Hardy or Morecambe and Wise.

At Hampshire, Barry Richards was joined by Gordon Greenidge, and the title won for a second time; Clive Lloyd paired up with Engineer at Lancashire and helped them dominate the one-day game. At Somerset, Joel Garner and Viv Richards inspired Somerset to the Gillette Cup and John Player League in 1979, the B&H Cup in 1981 and 1982, and the NatWest Trophy in 1983 – easily the most successful spell in their history.

Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice, meanwhile, were Nottinghamshire’s most famous couple since Larwood and Voce, driving them to the Championship in 1981 – their first in 52 years – and again in 1987, when they also won the NatWest Trophy.

Despite the obvious benefits overseas players brought to the circuit, some felt they were having a detrimental effect on England’s Test team. The naysayers tended to focus on youngsters such as Viv Richards and Andy Roberts, who both played county cricket before Tests. In saloon bars across the land came mutterings that the counties were fifth columnists, training up England’s enemies so they could defeat the mother country. As Devon Malcolm later summarised in a manner as elegant as his run-up: “We are preparing these guys to come back and one day bite the hand that once fed them.”

In 1982, a new rule allowing the counties to field just one overseas player in Championship matches was introduced. In 1991, that was tightened to one per squad. But things had changed, and Ole “Eric Bloodaxe” Mortensen, a towering Danish seamer who joined Derbyshire in 1983, took action.

Citing the Treaty of Rome, which guaranteed equal employment rights to all European Union citizens, he won his case. This helped ruddy-cheeked Dutch medium-pacer P-J. Bakker and his compatriot Roland Lefebvre to prolong their stay in county cricket, and was also the reason Dieter Klein (a South African with a German passport) could play for Leicestershire last season.

Ole “Eric Bloodaxe” Mortensen (right) used the Treaty of Rome to good effect

The notion that the Treaty of Rome might see hordes of European cricketers flooding into the UK did not cause the administrators any lost sleep. At least not until 2003, when Maroš Kolpak, a handball goalkeeper from Prešov in Slovakia, appeared in the European Court of Justice.

Kolpak argued that, since he was a citizen of a country that had a free-trade agreement with the EU, he should not be categorised as a foreigner by the German Handball Union. The court found in his favour. From then on, citizens of any country with a free-trade agreement with the EU were eligible to work within it, and that included Jamaicans, Zimbabweans and South Africans.

The sudden influx of Kolpak players sent county cricket into a spin, culminating – or so it might be hoped – in an infamous game between Leicestershire and Northamptonshire at Grace Road in 2008, when less than half the players were England-qualified. There was little glamour; drama had given way to farce.

South Africa’s Allan Donald (right) established himself as a Warwickshire legend 

Overseas cricketers were increasingly looked on not as a long-term solution but a quick fix. Wayne Daniel had spent 12 seasons with Middlesex, Courtney Walsh 11 with Gloucestershire, Allan Donald 11 with Warwickshire. They, and many like them, had forged bonds with team-mates and supporters.

In the wake of Kolpak, the stars and even the journeymen seemed unwilling to stick around – they were guns for hire. And the rise of Twenty20 leagues meant better money could be made more quickly elsewhere.

In May 2015, Wahab Riaz flew in to London, played two T20 matches for Surrey in two days, then departed, like a ringer in a pub match. Dwayne Bravo’s career with Essex had been even shorter, consisting of a lone T20 game in 2010 (he was run out for five and leaked 11.5 an over). And in 2017, David Miller travelled over 6,000 miles from Potchefstroom to Cardiff, by aeroplane, helicopter and car, to get back for Glamorgan’s T20 quarter-final against Leicestershire – and didn’t even bat.

Time moves on, and cricket – usually several paces behind – moves with it. Rock musicians destroying their instruments is no longer headline news, and few worry that Radio One is undermining the morality of the nation. In the age of YouTube, the tingling thrill of seeing great cricketers in the flesh for the first time cannot be reproduced.

For those of us who grew up in the decade or so following the relaxation of the qualification laws, it looks like a golden era of county cricket, dappled with sunlight, speckled with sixes and splintered stumps – a game of heroes. The world changes, cricket changes, but nostalgia is always waiting.

Harry Pearson is a writer from Yorkshire. Despite strenuous efforts to maintain a modern outlook, he sounds increasingly like his dad.

Read more features from the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

Previous Almanack feature: Why cricket needs to improve its attitude towards sexism

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