@reverse_sweeper 15 minute read
Scott Oliver talks to the key players at Nelson CC and beyond about Steve Waugh’s season in the Lancashire League, when he stared down Viv Richards and plenty others besides.
November 1988, a hot Brisbane Saturday at the Gabba. West Indies, having rolled the home team for 167, have ambled to 135-0 on day two when Steve Waugh – playing his first test against the Caribbean machine, his twenty-second overall, still without a century to his name – lands a couple of punches, nicking off Desmond Haynes and Carl Hooper. At 162-3, out sways the West Indies’ captain, Vivian Richards, playing his 100th Test. Steve Waugh, future Professor Emeritus of Mental Disintegration at the University of Baggy Green, is pumped, and greets the Master Blaster with a series of I-don’t-give-a-shit-who-you-are-mate bumpers, just on the pedestrian side of medium pace but dripping with attitude.
This was the thick of Waugh’s short-lived phase as a bona fide all-rounder – the period of Bill Lawry’s giddy assertion that he was “surely the best all-rounder in the world right now” and Ian Chappell’s timeless retort: “Mate, he isn’t even the best all-rounder in his family” – and one of the bouncers even caused Viv a flicker of concern. But it was the follow-up, a back-of-the-hand slower ball, that discombobulated the great man, Waugh missing his length by several metres and causing Richards, who had lost the flight path, to avert his purple-capped head, the ball hitting him square between those middleweight’s shoulder blades.
Waugh’s response to his borderline beamer was to bellow an appeal at the umpire, look bewildered when it wasn’t upheld, and decline even a cursory apology to the now bristling legend at the other end: precisely the attitude that would lead Australia to knock Windies off their perch seven and-a-bit years later. On this occasion, though, Viv made a 78-ball 68 and West Indies won by nine wickets.
In a certain corner of East Lancashire, the young Aussie upstart’s stoush with King Viv would not have come as much of a shock. In fact, it was déjà vu, reprising a confrontation from 16 months earlier when Richards had become the most glamorous overseas pro in the history of a league synonymous with glamorous overseas pros and ‘Tugga’ Waugh was a 21-year-old fresh off a home Ashes defeat to Mike Gatting’s team. Even better than front-row seats, the players of Rishton and Nelson were actually on the stage as Waugh bowled Richards a bouncer that put him on his backside, that famous purple cap almost dislodging the bails.
“That was Steve,” says Marcus Phelan, Nelson batsman and brother of Manchester United assistant coach Mike. “Off the pitch he was very quiet, shy almost, but on the pitch the fire came out of him. He was very aggressive, a different personality altogether.” His teammate, wicket-keeper Michael Bradley concurs: “On the field he was in people’s faces, but off the field he was an introvert with a really dry sense of humour. He’s not the kind of guy who sits and chat with you for 30, 40 minutes but he’s really good at the one-liners. He wasn’t super-serious, unlike a few pros we had. He liked a laugh. But he wouldn’t do big speeches or anything. He wasn’t the great orator, even though he obviously became a great leader for Australia.”
It was Waugh’s second summer in England. In 1985, he’d won an Esso scholarship to play for Essex, turning out for the Second XI and Under-25s, for whom he made 200 not out in a 55-over game the day after turning 20 (suggesting a remarkable ability either to shake off a hangover or avoid them in the first place). At the weekend, he played for Ilford in the Paladin Plastics Essex Cricket League, alongside a 17-year-old Nasser Hussain. A couple of weeks after blazing that double century, he took a 28-ball hundred off Chingford in the prestigious South East region knockout, the Bertie Joel Cup.
But the cricket in Lancashire was a bit more grizzled – more Shane Meadows than Sam Mendes – and there were a few decent pros around besides the two chaps who’d finish their Test careers with an aggregate of 19,467 runs at 50.7 from 289 Tests. Nelson had won more titles than any other Lancashire League club and their past professionals included Learie Constantine – seven titles in nine seasons during which he was reputedly the world’s highest paid sportsman – Ray Lindwall, Sarfraz Nawaz, Larry Gomes and Kapil Dev.
They were reigning champions, too, a campaign in which South African seamer, now Supersport commentator, Eric Simons was the paid man. Simons missed the final match, mind – a playoff, after Nelson had failed to take the point they needed from their final game and finished level with Todmorden – because he had booked what he thought was a post-season holiday to the Greek islands and his wife insisted it would not be cancelled. Neal Radford deputised and a first title in 17 years was secured, with the Nelson players meeting Simons at Manchester Airport the following day to give him his championship medal as he waited for his connecting flight.
Not that expectation – or history, or reputation – was anything to cow Steve Waugh, even as a 21-year-old, and so when Viv strolled out in front of a large crowd at Rishton that July afternoon as though he owned the place, the Australian let him have one. In his autobiography, Out of Comfort Zone, Waugh describes “the serious bouncer I let rip that ended up hitting him right between the eyes,” a version of events that is disputed by Richards’ partner, David Wilson: “He swayed backwards did Viv, like a boxer evading a punch, but it did put him on the seat of his pants and his cap fell off, almost onto the stumps. It was a real effort-ball. I’m thinking: ‘Crikey, this guy’s military medium and he’s just done that to the best player that’s ever lived, apart from Bradman.’ It was a surreal moment.”
Either way, he went on to make 79 before being caught by Phelan, a former professional goalkeeper at Burnley and Bury, who ran twenty yards round the mid-wicket boundary and took a one-handed diving catch in his ‘wrong’ hand inches from the turf. It was so good that Viv even took a detour to congratulate him before leaving the field, and later told him in the bar it was the best catch that had ever dismissed him. “That made me feel 10 foot tall,” says Phelan, while teammate Paul Garaghty, although on holiday that day, still has the catch on an old VHS tape, local TV station Granada having showed brief highlights on a news report. Different times.
Chasing Rishton’s 205-6, Waugh made a grafting 54 before being undone by Colin Kuhn, a Zimbabwean swing bowler who drove buses in Blackburn. Three outswingers were followed by an inswinger, to which no shot was offered and which thudded into the front pad: all over, red rover. Nelson lost by 36, a major dent in their title aspirations, but Richards and Waugh would lock horns again three weeks later.
Waugh had signed for Nelson after a visit to Australia by the club’s chairman, Ken Hartley, who spoke with Bob Simpson and Don Bradman, among others, both of whom highly recommended the young Sydneysider. Upon arrival, Waugh and his fiancée Lynette were whisked to a meet-the-pro night in the clubhouse attended by local dignitaries. It was only a short stroll from Nelson’s Seedhill ground to the two-up, two-down terraced house on Ball Street that would be Steve and Lynette’s digs for the summer.
In his autobiography, Waugh describes getting “a bit of a shock” when he first saw a house that was “not more than four metres wide,” although “the real concern for Lynette and me was the seven different latches and accompanying bolts that covered the door. This wasn’t exactly a reassuring sight, and when all our washing was stolen from the clothesline in the back courtyard two days later we knew the neighbourhood wasn’t about to throw a party to welcome us. Having to put pound coins into an archaic gas heater to thaw us out quickly went from having novelty value to being a pain in the butt when we ran out of coins and had to sit frozen in front of a TV”.
“It was in a poor part of town,” confirms Bradley. “A really dark and dismal place and the house was in a pretty poor state of disrepair. My missus had our first son that summer, so Steve and Lynette would come round to our house and sit with Julie while I was out at work. They also went out on day trips to Wales, the Lake District, York, Blackpool, and the four of us went to Paris for Steve’s birthday [June 2]. We all drove down to Dover and got on the ferry in my Austin Maestro.”
On the field, the season began with a defeat to Enfield, Waugh taking 1-93 and scoring 38, batting at number four. Above him were two of the four Lancashire League players he singled out for praise in a late-season interview with the Nelson Leader: skipper Ian Clarkson, a destructive opening batsman who would finish third in the league’s run charts for the season, 42 behind Waugh and 89 behind Richards; and ‘Carrots’ Garaghty, then running the family butchers business, who provided the new pro with both quality cuts of meat and something of a shock when Waugh discovered he used a four-pound cricket bat.
They also lost their second home game, against Todmorden, who knocked off from the last ball of the match, Waugh making just 19. Between those defeats, they beat Lowerhouse, Waugh managing only 13 this time, either side of a break for snow. “It totally covered the ground,” says Garaghty. “Me and Steve came off and he started taking his pads off. ‘Flipping heck, end of another game’, he says. I said, ‘What you on about? See that big hill there? Once the clouds clear from Pendle Hill we’ll be back on in half an hour’. And we were.”
Garaghty justified keeping the future world number one batsman at second-drop by making 96 in that Lowerhouse game. No-one has made more Lancashire League runs than his 13,123 (from 548 innings at almost 30) without scoring a hundred, and his heart-breaking dismissal – caught by a full-length diving catch in front of the sightscreen – saw Nelson fold from 161-5 to 161 all out with 72 balls unused. Even so, Waugh – definitely the best all-rounder in the Nelson first team, if not in his family – took 7-58 to get the campaign up and running.
In mid-May, Waugh headed down to Taunton to play for Somerset against the touring Pakistanis, and a work-out against a 20-year-old Wasim Akram sharpened him up for the return fixture against Lowerhouse. (In one of its many quirks, the Lancashire League doesn’t operate symmetrical half seasons, but blocs organised around local holidays and rivalries; players also had to live or work within six miles of the club, which were fined £200 for not playing a pro.)
Waugh was finally moved up to number three, too – “it wouldn’t have been because Steve moaned,” says the demoted Garaghty, “because he just got on with it” – and he made 103 not out in a comfortable win, his sole hundred of the campaign. “Three times he skipped down to hit our left-arm spinner Dave Whalley for effortless, flat straight sixes onto the adjoining speedway track,” recalls Stan Heaton, the guy whose catch denied Garaghty his ton, “leading to delays while a ladder was found to climb the 12-foot wall.”
This was the first of a run of seven victories in eight games leading up to that first Rishton encounter, by which time Nelson sat within three points of the leaders, Rawtenstall. With four points for a win, a bonus for dismissing the opposition, none for a defeat, one for an abandonment, they were in the thick of the title shake-up.
Highlights of Nelson’s muscle-flexing mini-run included a two-wicket win against Rawtenstall, Waugh adding 62 not out to figures of 4-81 as he steered his team home. However, he was sufficiently impressed by the visitors’ left-arm spinner, Keith Roscoe – who had also snaffled him caught and bowled in Nelson’s first-round Worsley Cup exit – to recommend the 25-year-old to Somerset. Roscoe trialled strongly, but regime change in Taunton meant a return to both the family’s racing pigeon accessories firm and his Lancashire League bread and butter, where he’s still playing 33 years later, second on the all-time wicket charts.
There was also a career-best 130 for Ian Clarkson in the revenge win over Todmorden, whose pro, Fanie de Villiers, returned figures of 4-1-35-0. “De Villiers literally pulled out a white handkerchief,” says Phelan, “waved it in the air and said: ‘I surrender. I can’t bowl at this guy any more’ and took himself off. No word of a lie.”
But still, Waugh had only passed 40 in four knocks out of 13 by the end of July, failing to reach 25 in eight of those innings – a sign of the strength of the league, with eight current or future Test players among the pros, and the difficulty of the pitches. He had bowled an awful lot of overs, though – all bar 19 from one end, taking 45 wickets at 18.18 – and, in Out of my Comfort Zone, describes how he “would pay the price when fractures in my back revealed themselves the following year”.
Boosted by high-quality midweek cricket, the last two months of the campaign saw Waugh average 68.5 with the bat. In the lead-up to the Rishton sequel, he played two one-dayers up at Jesmond alongside Allan Border, Malcolm Marshall and Gordon Greenidge for the Rest of the World team preparing for the MCC Centenary match at Lord’s. Richards would decline his own invitation for that showpiece in order to honour his contract with Rishton, and their return match at Nelson proved to be a humdinger. With the memory of being dumped on his backside three weeks earlier still fresh, Viv had brought his gameface.
“It was a really wet wicket,” recalls Garaghty, “and Viv walked out to bat with training shoes on. I said, ‘Viv, you’re going to slip over. Go and put some studs on’. He says, ‘Don’t worry about me, man. I’ll be fine’. His first scoring shot was a six over point off our opening bowler!” The Antiguan maestro anchored the Rishton innings, scoring 103 out of 199. Waugh took 0-52 off 12.
Clarkson fell in the second over of the reply, but Howard Lonsdale, Garaghty and Phelan all made 20-odd in support of Waugh and, with seven balls left, six were needed with six wickets in hand. Kuhn dismissed Chris Hartley from his final ball, Viv taking the catch before stepping up to bowl the final over – seamers, because of the damp conditions – with Waugh on strike for a classic superstar-pro toe-to-toe.
Rishton’s veteran ‘keeper Frank Martindale came up the stumps and Richards began with two dots. Third ball, Waugh advanced, trying to win it in one hit, but the ball popped a touch and a smart piece of work from Martindale did the rest, Waugh falling for 93. Three singles from the final three balls meant the game was lost by two runs, with Viv jubilant.
The following Saturday’s game brought another loss, against high-flying Haslingden, whose pro was everyone’s favourite Zimbabwean chicken farmer, Eddo Brandes. Between those two defeats, Waugh had made the first of four County Championship appearances for Somerset, for whom he would play the full season in 1988. Drafted in as injury cover for Martin Crowe, he scored 340 runs at 113.33 – twice his final Lancashire League average – yet returned from an unbeaten 71 against Hampshire to be clean bowled for the first and only time that year, for just nine, Haslingden’s Alan Barnes, a post office counter clerk, succeeding where Malcolm Marshall had failed. “It was a straight yorker,” says Barnes. “The umpire said it slanted in. I don’t know about that but he had travelled up late on Friday night so probably wasn’t in the best of nick.”
With it already the middle of August and 10 fixtures still to be played, including some rescheduled games, the final five weekends were all double-headers. Crunch time. And it began well, with wins over Church and Burnley (who, incredibly, had just one point on the board heading into August), Waugh making 52 and 80, both unbeaten.
He followed up with 111 not out at The Oval against Sylvester Clarke’s Surrey, in what he described as “the most ferocious and awkward spell I ever encountered,” but was prevented by rain from carrying the form into the following Saturday’s Lancashire League game against second-placed Rawtenstall, which was abandoned. On the Sunday, however, Nelson got a huge break, beating Colne in the local derby – Waugh contributing just five, Clarkson making his third ton of the campaign – as the other six fixtures succumbed to the weather.
They were now just five points behind leaders Haslingden, who would tie against rock-bottom Burnley in their next outing, taking two points, while Nelson were hosting second-bottom East Lancs. The visitors from Blackburn had just two wins all season, but posted a testing 157-5 on a damp pitch. With the pressure on, Nelson came up nine runs short, despite 87 from Waugh, who nicked off on the Aussie bogey number to compatriot Dave Gilbert, the man who had shared the new ball with Craig McDermott on Waugh’s Test debut.
If that was a body blow, the following day’s two-run defeat at Ramsbottom left their hopes of retaining the title on the canvas. Rammy’s 40-year-old opening bowler, Brian Fielding, who spent his working weeks visiting far-flung factories selling industrial felts for paper-making machinery, had a good deal more joy than ST Clarke, nicking off Waugh second ball for his only duck of the summer.
“It was back of a length, just outside off, seamed away and bounced a touch; he pushed at it defensively but edged through to Jack Simpson behind the wicket. When you look at the career he went on to have, it was a nice scalp to take. But then a spongey one at Acre Bottom was a little bit different to a rock-hard pitch at The Oval…”
It was a fatal setback, but they remained in third spot and, this being Lancashire, runners-up earned you a trophy. On the Saturday, with both the teams above them washed out, Nelson managed to beat Church – Waugh scoring 60 not out to follow 137 not out against Courtney Walsh’s Gloucestershire in the week – but the entire Sunday fixture list was again lost to inclement weather. As was the following Saturday’s schedule, barring one match. Nelson had been due to play joint-leaders Haslingden, and the abandonment put a mathematical end to their title hopes.
However, the rain cleared for the final Sunday (mercifully for neighbours, and co-leaders, Rawtenstall and Haslingden, who would otherwise have ended the season with four abandonments and left to contest a playoff). While Haslingden were clinching the title, Waugh’s last outing for Nelson was a nail-biting one-run victory over Accrington, for whom the Lancashire seamer Ian Austin was sub-proing. His opposite number wasn’t taking things easy, the white-line fever remaining as strong as ever.
“I remember Steve Waugh being a complete arsehole,” says Austin, who made 66 to Waugh’s 25. “I came into bat and the first nine deliveries he bowled at me – every one was a bumper; every one went about a foot and a half over the top of my head. He just stood there and abused the shit out of me. Next ball I ran down the wicket and flat-batted him for a one-bounce four. He never said a word to me after that. Anyway, I went in the bar afterwards, as I always did, and went over to him. ‘Are you having a drink?’ He just turned around and blanked me.”
Nelson had finished third, Waugh scoring 851 runs at 56.73 – not a million miles above his Test average – while bagging 69 victims at 19.36, to put him second on the wicket charts, above de Villiers (7th), Brandes (8th) and, yes, Viv Richards (11th). Waugh wasn’t quite done yet with English league cricket – he turned out in three games for Smethwick in the Birmingham League in May 1988, scoring 2, 124 and 135 not out – and he wasn’t done with his mates up in Nelson.
He remained fast friends with Michael Bradley, who was willing on his mate when he bowled the clutch penultimate over in the World Cup final a few months later – against England! – and who travelled out to stay with Steve for two weeks at Christmas in 1990. “He was playing the one-dayers against India but wasn’t in the Test side. I sat in the back of the car, with Mark and Steve in the front, all the way into the SCG. It was fascinating. It was a 45-minute trip and they didn’t say a lot to each other. Mark was a bit of a lad – girls, gambling – but Steve was very much focused on cricket.”
Waugh has been back to the former mill town on a handful of occasions, too, most recently in 2013. With the old two-up, two-down on Ball Street unavailable on AirBnB, he and Lynette, as well as their three children, spent three days chez Bradley, during which the legend of 168 Test appearances (only Tendulkar played more), captain of one of the game’s greatest ever sides and three-time World Cup winner enjoyed a reunion and a few coldies with his old teammates in the Nelson clubhouse. Before that, in 1999, he scored World Cup tickets for Clarkson, who watched Waugh’s seminal hundred at Headingley against South Africa. And in 2005, doing a promotional tour for Out of my Comfort Zone, he called an old friend from across the time zones.
“I was working in a paper mill, doing a night shift,” recalls Garaghty. “We’d sold the butchers by then. About three in the morning, my boss came to me and said there’s a phone call for you. I said, ‘No-one calls me at work’. He says, ‘It’s a guy called Steve Waugh. From Australia’. Steve was being interviewed on the radio about his book, so I ended up talking for three or four minutes on Australian radio about his time with us at Nelson. I said, ‘He was a great teammate, a great player, but I was just taking my forklift truck driving licence and if you don’t mind you’ve gone and interrupted me’.”
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