The signing of two Ashes winners ahead of the 1987 season and the sensational form of an England batsman-in-waiting propelled a burgeoning Worcestershire side to the most successful period in their history. Martin Claytor recounts their story.
By the mid-eighties, over a decade had passed since Worcestershire’s last major honour. However, there were signs of a talented side emerging at New Road, with three one-day semi-finals during the 1985 and ’86 seasons hinting at greater success to come.
Mike Vockins (Worcestershire county secretary 1971-2001): At the start of the 1987 season Phil Neale had been captain since 1982 and Tim Curtis, Graeme Hick and Neal Radford – who we’d recruited from Lancashire – were senior players. John Inchmore had just retired and Paul Pridgeon would finish in 1989. But, importantly, that 1987 team included players of a slightly younger age group, such as Steve Rhodes, David Leatherdale, Martin Weston, Damian D’Oliveira, Phil Newport, Richard Illingworth and Stuart Lampitt.
Tim Curtis (Worcestershire 1979-97 & England 1988-89): I think the fact that there were five of us – Illy [Illingworth], Newps [Newport], Weso [Weston], Damian and myself – who had won the Second XI Championship in 1982 with Basil [D’Oliveira] as our coach, was a factor. It gave us a core as we developed. Steve Rhodes then joined in 1985 as Graeme Hick emerged as a dominant player. There was certainly a strong group of young players who developed alongside each other.
Phil Newport (Worcestershire 1982-99 & England 1988-91): When key players were added, such as [Graham] Dilley and Radford, the team became very competitive in both one-day and Championship cricket.
MV: As in any dressing room, there were different temperaments but this group got on very well together and gelled as a team. They recognised and respected each other’s particular skills and talents.
The major breakthrough came in 1987; a season that started with two surprising and headline-grabbing signings that had a dramatic impact upon the club as a whole, as England internationals Ian Botham and Graham Dilley arrived at New Road.
MV: The signing of Ian Botham was very much down to Phil Neale. He had pressed the county to go for Beefy when it was known he was leaving Somerset. It helped that [Worcester-based] Duncan Fearnley was Beefy’s bat-maker and a friend. Honesty requires me to say that I spoke against us signing ITB during the committee debate – not because I was against him or had any fear that he might be difficult to handle, but rather because we had all those good young players coming through and I didn’t think that we should sign someone who would take the place of any one of them.
TC: We might have been settled, but we hadn’t won anything. There were no worries, therefore, from my point of view. Both was always going to add a bit of glamour, but to get Dill as well. Wow! He swung it out and late at 90mph. As an opening bat, you want someone like that on your side.
PN: Dill and Both were very keen to join and be part of a happy squad after unhappy conclusions to their time at Kent and Somerset. There was no disruption at all. It made some of us work harder to keep our place and enjoy times when both of them could win games almost single-handedly. They were simply the finishing couple of pieces in a competent jigsaw.
Paul Pridgeon (Worcestershire 1972-89): There was a strong feeling amongst both players and supporters that we were on the brink of winning things. Throwing Botham and Dilley into the mix was the icing on the cake. Putting two world-class players into an already strong squad created so much belief.
MV: I hold my hands up and admit I was wholly wrong. Beefy did indeed win some games for us with his own performances, but by far his greatest contribution was the self-belief and confidence he instilled in the team and this was absolutely fundamental to our successes in this period. We should also not overlook Dilley’s contribution. There were plenty of times when he played for us when less than 100 per cent fit but he was ready to go on the field if the captain felt it was critical. Coupled with that, Dill had the great gift of making fast bowling a simple art and science and he was brilliant at sharing this with young players.
In front of a capacity crowd, Worcestershire finished the 1987 season by beating Northants at New Road to become Sunday League champions.
TC: I felt that Both really targeted the Sunday League that year as something that he could deliver as short-term success. For the rest of us, after some frustrating previous semi-final losses, it gave us belief that we could win. We were no longer afraid. We could not be tagged as ‘losers’ and the belief followed.
PN: Winning is certainly a state of mind and the transition from playing as players looking to secure professional careers to a side who felt we could beat anyone happened at this time.
Greater success was to follow. The 1988 season began with Graeme Hick becoming only the eighth player to score 1,000 runs before the end of May. His innings of 405 not out for Worcestershire against Somerset was the second-highest ever score in first-class cricket in England at the time.
TC: Hicky was unbelievable. What a privilege to stand and watch from the other end. I think it was [former Glamorgan and England seamer] Steve Watkin who said that it seemed like Hicky never played and missed. We played on some pretty ropey pitches at New Road, but Graeme played so straight and hit the ball so cleanly that he could get on top of bowlers when others struggled. My job was to nudge singles, give him the strike and keep him company. We held the second-wicket record for a while of 287. Of those, Hicky scored 219!
PN: Hick was the key player – the talisman that gave others confidence. The 1988 campaign was a triumph: Championship winners by one point over Kent in a thrilling finale; the Sunday League title retained after another final-match victory; runners-up in two other one-day competitions and quarter-finalists in another. Curtis, Newport and Dilley all played for England, while Hick topped the national batting averages with 2,713 runs at 77.51, including 10 centuries.
PP: Graeme deservedly got a lot of the headlines but there was so much batting depth in that side, as well as the ability to take 20 wickets in a game. That is irrespective of who played and Test calls. The strength of that group of players was the bowling depth. Botham, Dilley, Radford and Newport were all in contention for England places, but we had plenty of back up with myself, [Ricky] Elcock, Lampitt and [Steve] McEwan all pushing for places.
TC: After winning the Sunday League in 1987, suddenly there was no fear. Once you take the fear factor out, you become a lot better as individual players and as a team.
High-profile signings and the winning of trophies were also bringing welcome benefits to the club off the field.
MV: One of the biggest effects was a huge increase in membership. Before the start of the 1987 season the membership rocketed by almost 3,000, to the extent that, with the limited facilities then available at the ground, we put a limit on membership of 7,000. What a buzz that created within the club! Home gate-receipts almost doubled and it certainly made for an exciting atmosphere. Another effect was that I stopped advertising Sunday League matches. In addition to adverts in the local press, we regularly took space in the Wolverhampton, Shropshire, Birmingham and mid-Wales papers. The crowd-drawing power of the team and its success meant that we had to close the gates or suggest to late arrivals that they could come in but without guarantee of finding a seat. The team’s success also drew more local companies to get involved in local sponsorship and hospitality opportunities.
While the all-round strength of the squad was clear to see, the parts played by Phil Neale as captain and Basil D’Oliveira as coach were vital to the team’s continued success.
TC: Phil complemented the talents of the rest of the team very effectively. He did the thinking and worrying for the rest of us, keeping us grounded and focused. Basil was a figurehead. We all loved him. Possibly without realising it, we all desperately wanted to impress and win things for him.
PN: Phil was crucial as a calm captain who organised a bowling attack efficiently. We all knew our roles, who was likely to bowl and when, and it worked so smoothly you could almost set your clock on when you would be starting and ending spells. He rarely raised a voice or showed disappointment and managed to oversee an attack where most players would want choice of ends and be reluctant to bowl uphill or into the wind.
MV: Phil’s great strength was his immense self-discipline. He was always well prepared, had thought things through, practised assiduously and was disciplined in his fitness and general approach to life – other than on match days when he seemed to live on Mars bars and Galaxy chocolates! He would have fun, but when it mattered he was focused. Basil was a keen and ready student of technique. He watched avidly. However, his greatest contribution as a coach was in the mental approach: how to build an innings, bowl a spell and the psychology of the game. He was brilliant at this and could talk to both the youngest and most experienced players because he had ‘been there and done it’. He had an excellent relationship with Phil Neale and they worked well together. Steve Rhodes also offered support for the captain, reading the game well and ensuring the fielding was at a high standard by mirroring the example he set.
PN: Ian Botham and Basil were excellent for self-belief as they kept the game simple, believed that superior talent would ultimately triumph and focused on attacking cricket. Bowling was all about taking wickets and batting about winning sessions through reversing pressure on the opposition.
The County Championship title was retained in 1989, albeit after Essex were docked crucial points for a sub-standard pitch, and Worcestershire also turned over the touring Australians inside two days and finished runners-up in the Sunday League. Three years of continued success had reflected the side’s talent and team spirit and the honours didn’t end there, with the county winning the Benson & Hedges Cup in 1991.
PP: The biggest difference between the very talented 1974 Championship winning team and the side of the late eighties was the strength in depth of the later squad. Both sides had an abundance of match-winners who could turn a game on its head.
MV: These were wonderful and heady times for all connected with the county.
First published in October 2016