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When White Lightning terrorised the Lancashire League – Allan Donald’s season with Rishton

Scott Oliver by Scott Oliver
@reverse_sweeper 10 minute read
Lead image credit: Bill Yates

He was the most fearsome bowler in the world – and he was playing club cricket in England. Scott Oliver goes back to 1996, when Allan Donald rocked up at Rishton and sent shivers down the spines of every living soul in the Lancashire League.

Friday night, eve of the match, end of the working week. You’re down the local, as you often are before a big league game, only this time, instead of a couple of steady, relaxing beers (“one’s not enough, two’s too many, three’s just right”, as the adage has it) and the usual chit-chat with the pub’s cricketing infidels – people who don’t know their trigger movement from their trigonometry and couldn’t care less whether you’re going to shorten your backlift tomorrow – you’ve lost your beverage-discipline and are ordering chasers with each pint, soon foregoing the beers altogether and vaguely justifying it to yourself as an occasional pre-match ritual of Garry Sobers.

Instead of winding down, you’re getting wound up. And with justifiable reason, too, for tomorrow’s new-ball spell, away at Rishton in the Lancashire League, is going to be brought to you by Allan Donald. White Lightning. You pop to the offie on the way home. For a bottle of White Lightning.

The year was 1996 and the 29-year-old Donald was still very much in his pomp, still two years out from his iconic Trent Bridge tussle with Michael Atherton, at which point he sat directly above Ambrose, McGrath, Muralitharan and Warne at the top of the ICC bowling rankings. He had been Player of the Match in his most recent outing, against England in Cape Town, and would record figures of 42-17-69-7 in his next, on a featherbed in Ahmedabad. The previous summer, he had topped the County Championship bowling averages (88 at 15.48) as Warwickshire lifted the trophy.

Allan Donald celebrates bowling Mark Ramprakash, December 1, 1995

However, the Bears had already pre-signed Brian Lara for the 1996 campaign. He pulled out of the deal, though, citing “exhaustion” (before attempting a U-turn), with Shaun Pollock, not AD, stepping into the breach at Edgbaston. Donald was already set on his sabbatical season, working as Warwickshire’s fitness coach during the week while testing his newly learned stretching regimen on the soft outfields of east Lancashire each weekend.

Donald wasn’t the first big name to have been lured to Blackburn Road by the chutzpah of Rishton’s cheeky-chappy chairman, Wilf Woodhouse: Michael Holding had pro’d in 1981, Viv Richards in 1987, and Mohammad Azharuddin the year after that. But still, this was Allan Donald, the quickest bowler on the international circuit, a man who put the willies up the best of the best.

Awesome as he was, Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards wasn’t necessarily someone who’d have you necking pints of Anxiety Quencher on a Friday night amid feverish dreams of ambulances and A&E. Whereas yer Allan Donalds… Announcing the South African’s signature the previous November certainly gave the top-order teachers, taxi drivers, tree surgeons and travel agents of the Lancashire League plenty of notice to book their holidays at a different time of year than usual.

Rishton opening batsman Craig Smith’s first impressions of the new pro when he arrived for his debut at home to Ramsbottom were that “he probably didn’t realise what he was coming to, because he turned up with a briefcase of multi-coloured Oakley sunglasses. There must have been 10 or 15 pairs. I don’t know when he intended to wear them”.

The visiting skipper, Jack Simpson, the man who would face Donald’s first ball in English club cricket, remembers there being “about three or four thousand people on the ground; you couldn’t move. Sky Sports were also there – I used to have the DVD of this – and as me and Ian Bell [not that one] came down the steel staircase from the dressing rooms to begin our chase [of 146], Rob McCaffrey collared us and said, ‘So what’s it like going out to face the world’s quickest bowler?’ Instinctively, I said, as a bit of a joke: ‘Well, he’ – meaning Belly – ‘is absolutely sh*****g himself’. McCaffrey said, ‘Cut, cut; we can’t have that’ and had to ask me something else”.

Simpson, father of Middlesex keeper Jonny, would hook the first ball for four and go on to make 44, while sub pro Meyrick Pringle, Donald’s new-ball partner in the 1992 World Cup, also made a nuisance of himself. “He’d been picked up at Preston station with just a bag for his boots and whites”, recalls Simpson. “When I was batting, unbeknown to me, he’d been in the Rishton changing room, got Donald’s gear and walked out to bat in it. As Donald came in to bowl he pulled up, realising his gear was being used. There was a mighty altercation in Afrikaans which went on for a couple of minutes. I asked Pringle what was going on and he told me Donald has gone berserk because the gear was so new even he hadn’t used it”.

Rishton went on to win by 30 runs, following up with victory over Rawtenstall, but then lost three of their next four games, starting with Burnley – by which stage, perhaps appositely, Donald’s wicket haul was four, four, two. After a one-wicket loss to Nelson, whose No.11 survived nine balls, the quirks of the fixtures then brought back-to-back games against Todmorden, the first of which saw Rishton skittled for 97 on a wicket that Craig Smith considers the quickest he ever played on at Blackburn Road.

“Before starting to chase our target”, recalls Todmorden opening batsman Brian Heywood, “our lads were terrified. I knew they were terrified and I had no confidence we were going to do anything against him at all. I’d always felt it was the short straw, playing them early: if he was ever going to throttle back, he wasn’t going to toss it off in the first half-dozen games. Maybe later, but not in May. But I told the lads, ‘We just have to sell our wickets dearly. Make him work for every one and we’ll get ‘em’. The pitch was flat”.

Allan Donald steams in at Rishton – credit: Bill Yates

Todmorden started well, reaching 35 without loss in seven overs as Donald “bowled from the wrong end, up the bank”, says Heywood. “He bowled me a bouncer and I hooked him for four. He gave me a little clap but I thought, ‘That’s all well and good but it wasn’t your proper bouncer. I’m not getting involved again because the next one will be.’”

At that point, Heywood’s partner, Stuart Priestley ran himself out, and Tod duly subsided to 70 all out, Donald snaring 8-38 – although not Heywood, who finished unbeaten on 29 from 82 balls, with negligible support from the middle order. “Heath Kennedy turned his back and was hit up the backside first ball, while Dave Whitehead, usually a pugnacious cricketer, couldn’t have stood further toward square-leg if he’d tried. Donald came round the wicket and throated Dave about a yard outside leg stump and the ball deflected onto the stumps. Mind you, one lad, Mohammad Saleem, came out to bat without a thigh pad…”

Nevertheless, Todmorden exacted revenge the following Saturday, chasing down a rain-adjusted target for the loss of just one wicket – Priestley was again run out, although this time for 55, one of only four amateurs to take a half-century off Rishton all season – with Heywood making an unbeaten 44 and AD going wicketless.

Having won a first league title for 40 years the previous summer, with a little help from Phil Simmons, Rishton needed to get their act together and promptly won the next seven games, a run that began with the Nelson return game, the only match Donald missed all year. This was followed by a three-run victory over Enfield, then revenge against Burnley, for whom a 16-year-old Michael Brown – later of Middlesex, Hampshire and Surrey – opened the batting with his father, Phil.

“Second ball of the innings, Dad lost his off stump, having played a textbook forward defence. Unfortunately it was at least a second, maybe two too late. My second ball, I also played a forward defence, which went for four between the keeper and first slip off the toe of the bat. I just thought: ‘Wow, this is rapid! How are you meant to score runs against this?’” It was indeed a problem: Donald returned figures of 16.5-9-14-6.

Allan Donald bowls against East Lancs – credit: Bill Yates

Next up came back-to-back wins over Lowerhouse, for whom Chris Bleazard made 60 (out of 131) and 58 (of 136), the two highest amateur innings against Rishton all summer. Colne’s Gary Hunt, these days presenting a cricket show on BBC Radio Lancashire, became the third local half-centurion the following Saturday, scoring a 42-ball 54 as Donald finished with 1-93, giving him 46 wickets at the halfway point, while the four points bagged for winning – for once not accompanied by the bonus point for bowling the opposition out – left Rishton 11 points clear at the top of the table. On the final day of June, however, the winning streak was brought to a halt by East Lancs, who would emerge as Rishton’s chief rivals over the second part of the campaign.

The July sun brought harder pitches and more supple muscles, and Donald duly eased into that familiar, menacing stride, like Concorde coming into land at JFK. Indeed, the visit of Haslingden, champions in seven of the previous 11 years, produced what Donald considered his best display of the campaign: 7-18, all clean bowled, as the visitors were routed for 31 in just 12.3 overs to lose by 133 runs.

After that they travelled to Roger Harper’s Bacup, where Rishton’s destructive top-order batsman Russell Whalley – son of Eric Whalley, a cardboard box tycoon who the previous winter had bought a controlling stake in Accrington Stanley FC and who has a lounge named in his honour at Rishton CC after 26 years of first-team cricket there – remembers Donald’s finely-tuned fast-bowling machinery not being best pleased with the conditions. “It was a fine day, cracking flags, and Allan put his feet down where he was going to bowl and it was p**s wet through. They’d watered the ends, hadn’t they. They said they hadn’t, but at the end of the day we didn’t give a toss ‘cos we bowled ‘em out for 42 and won the game. They p****d him right off and it backfired on ‘em, big time”. Figures of 7-22 would bear the analysis out.

A five-wicket win over Accrington – AD chipping in with 8-47 – was followed by a trip to Haslingden and one of the most extraordinary games in the history of the Lancashire League. The home team scrambled to 104 all out, with Mike Ingham, who finished his career as the league’s all-time leading run-maker, top-scoring.

“I remember hitting Donald on the up over cover for four”, he recalls. “I thought, ‘What have you done?’ He gave me two quick bouncers, one past my nose, and then went round the wicket for what I thought would be a big in-swinging yorker, so was back and across waiting; but it wasn’t, and next thing I know I was waking up with a crowd around me. It took him three goes, but he got me in the end”.

The run-chase had reached 92-2 when Whalley, having flayed 56 from 50 balls, was castled by New South Welshman, Brad McNamara. A mini-wobble ensued, Rishton slipping to 94-5, but they made it to 103 without further loss, leaving them needing two runs from 14 overs, at which point came the mother and father of all chokes, the kind that ought to have girded Donald for the next phase of South African cricket: the Heimlich Manoeuvre Years. In the sort of passage of play for which the cliché “you couldn’t have scripted this” genuinely applies, Rishton lost five wickets for no runs in 18 balls – starting with a hat-trick by left-arm spinner Michael ‘Dick’ Tracey – to lose by one run.

Next up was Bacup, eager to erase their earlier, soggy-ended humiliation. On a quickish surface, Roger Harper threw some Caribbean shapes to the barrage of chin music, blazing 161 not out from 103 balls as Donald travelled to the tune of 2-119 off 21 unchanged overs, although rain had the final say. Not to worry, though: the following Saturday, having sent his first ball over the keeper’s head for four byes (which may not have entirely helped settle the home dressing room), Donald went on to return figures of 7-4-3-7 as Accrington were filleted for just 18, nine of which were extras.

Entering the final straight, AD recorded only his second 0-fer in the victory over Rawtenstall, after which came a two-run loss to Ramsbottom (Ian Bell, evidently not sh*****g himself, making 50), victory over Church, and a memorable encounter with West Indian paceman Franklyn Rose at Enfield. Donald took 6-25, all clean bowled, as the home team fell for 70, the tenth time that year Rishton had knocked sides over for under three figures.

But Enfield’s Jamaican, a few months away from winning Player of the Match on Test debut, wasn’t really one to meekly accept second-fiddle status and Rishton themselves soon subsided to 39-6, Rose bagging all six, with keeper Andy Bartley – advised by teammates it was safe to go helmetless – retiring hurt after being struck in the face first ball, the middle part of a de facto hat-trick. However, Craig Smith’s unbeaten 31 saw Rishton over the line without further damage. Another big step toward glory had been taken.

The penultimate game was a top-of-the-table showdown with East Lancs – Donald taking 5-49 to pass the 100-wicket mark for the campaign – which ultimately succumbed to inclement weather. Two points apiece meant Rishton required just one more from the final game to guarantee the league title.

The curtain-closer came up at Colne, whose pro, Ben Johnson, was en route to a season’s aggregate of 1,718 runs, which to this day remains the highest in the league’s 129-year history. AD’s final job, then, was to take Johnson out. The South Australian was duly nicked off for 26, Donald signing off with 5-58 – an eighth five-for in 13 outings over the second half of the season – as Colne were rolled out for 134 with 12 overs unused. A demob happy run chase then saw Rishton skittled for 74, but East Lancs – who won one more game than the champions yet failed to bowl sides out anywhere near as often – had been pipped by a single point and so the day’s only real dampener was provided by the celebratory drinks.

Donald had a decent time with the bat – credit: Bill Yates

“My Dad was happy we lost”, quips Russell Whalley, “because I found out years later, just before he died, that he was paying Donald a £100 win bonus out of his own pocket. I think he were on twenty grand overall”.

The cash prize for winning the league was, of course, minuscule by comparison, but that’s scarcely the point in such matters of parochial braggadocio. And with 106 wickets at 10.74, top on both counts, ‘White Lightning’ could scarcely have done more. Indeed, despite being a famously limited batsman, he even put together a mid-season sequence of 37*, 32*, 30, 40, 31*, 0, 22*, 20, 69*, 33 and 22*, testament to someone who, despite driving up from Birmingham on the morning of games and leaving shortly after the finish, took all facets of his job extremely seriously once he crossed the line, giving every drop of sweat to the Rishton cause.

“He absolutely gave it 100 per cent”, reflects Brian Heywood. “He must have done for Rishton to win the league because they were nowhere near as good as in 1995. And he played with great honour and dignity, too, competing fiercely, but a great sportsman at the same time.”

You suspect that no-one who played with him – much less those who had the dubious pleasure of facing him – will forget the year Allan Donald roared into bowl in the shadow of the east Lancashire moorlands.

Also read: How a young Shane Warne negotiated a tricky season in the Lancashire League

Scott Oliver is author of the Wisden Club Cricket Hall of Fame series for Wisden Cricket Monthly

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