It is 55 years ago since the North Staffs and South Cheshire League won the first-ever Rothmans Cup. CHRIS TRAVERS talks to Stuart Wood, Peter Harvey and Barry Coates about the victory… and having Gary Sobers and Wes Hall as team-mates in the competition…
NESTLED in a drawer in the depths of Stuart Wood’s South Cheshire home is a rare piece of cricket memorabilia.
It’s not one which would fetch thousands of pounds at auction, but Wood is one of just 11 men in possession of this solid silver momento.
The piece in question is a winners’ medal from the inaugural Rothmans Cup – a new cricket competition launched in 1965 where the top leagues around the country faced each other in a knockout format.
And it was the North Staffs and South Cheshire League who were the first champions as they defeated the Yorkshire Cricket Council in the final on a sunny afternoon at Great Chell.
Specific memories of that August day 55 years ago are understandably hazy, but what remains crystal clear are the firm friendships which developed during the golden age of local cricket.
It would be hugely remiss to call Wood, Peter Harvey and Barry Coates ‘makeweights’ in the side which defeated Yorkshire. But when two of your team-mates are West Indies legends Garfield Sobers and Wes Hall, the majority of the focus was inevitably on the Caribbean kings. And that’s before we mention the talents of Nasim-Ul-Ghani.
The team selection rules were relatively simple. Each league was allowed to pick four professionals and seven ‘up-and-coming’ stars in their line-up.
The NSSCL opted for Sobers, Hall, Pakistan all-rounder Nasim-Ul-Ghani and former Surrey player Dennis Cox, who skippered the side.
At the time Sobers was in the middle of his title run with Norton, Hall was frightening batsman for Great Chell, Nasim was weaving his magic at Longton, while Cox was the doyen of cricket at Crewe LMR.
Rather unsurprisingly, it was Hall and Sobers who took centre stage in the final as they shared nine wickets to dismiss Yorkshire for 82 as they attempted to chase down the NSSCL’s 102 all out.
And as each Yorkshire batsman emerged with no shortage of trepidation at facing the new-ball duo, Wood could sympathise.
As an elegant opener for Crewe LMR, he’d experienced first hand what it was like standing 22 yards away from the West Indies pair, armed with a new cherry.
“I became very friendly with Garfield, he was a great fella,” said Wood, now 80 and living on the outskirts of Nantwich.
“He was so clever at how he bowled to you. When he let himself go he was as quick as anything I faced in my career.
“He bowled a lot of his slow stuff in the league, though. He came to play for Norton at Crewe one day and a thunderstorm affected the wicket, which slowed him down a bit.
“I must have got 80 or 90 that day. In the bar afterwards he said: ‘Stuart, we will get you at Norton’. Sure enough he did.
“I only played against Wes a couple of times and he was a bit scary to face.
“He bowled a short one at me at Great Chell and the wicketkeeper, Jonny Bailey, who was stood miles back, pushed it one-handed straight on to the sightscreen.
“There was some debate as to whether it should be six byes!
“But what a line-up we had in the Rothmans Cup final. Nasim was a tremendous player, and then there was Dennis Cox.
“He was a nearly man. He played for the wrong first-class county and was the constant 12th man.
“Dennis was such a talented player and he would have been better off playing for another county, but what a delightful man.
“The opposition never knew what was going to happen. When he was bowling he’d throw the ball in to the sky and I’d say: ‘Dennis, what are you trying to do. Land it on top of the stumps?’.”
Cox’s bowling prowess wasn’t required in the final, but while it was Hall (4-51) and Sobers (5-10) who applied the finishing touches to the victory, it was Stone’s Paul Shardlow who had made the win possible.
He made a crucial 32 early in the afternoon to dig the league out of trouble and give them a score to defend after Yorkshire bowlers Bob Platt and Bill Foord had made inroads.
Sadly, Shardlow passed away just three years after the final. He collapsed and died while training with Stoke City – where he was a goalkeeper – at the age of 25.
“There was some rain overnight and it was a low-scoring game,” recalls Harvey, a team-mate of Shardlow’s at Stone. “It was still wet because I remember when Wes Hall was bowling, Paul was at short leg and scrambled to take a catch, but slipped. It was the days before sawdust.
“Yorkshire had some experienced players in their team. They threatened us at one stage, but it was down to Paul to get us out of the cart.
“The early batsman got a start (openers Wood and Brian Griffiths made 16 and 15 respectively) but the innings then disintegrated. Platt was a seasoned pro at Yorkshire.”
Rain on the Saturday had made batting conditions uncomfortable, but the sunshine had gradually dried the wicket out as the final progressed.
And despite having just 102 on the board, there was still great confidence in the NSSCL dressing room that they could emerge victorious.
“Paul Shardlow was a tremendous player and he held the innings together,” recalls Sneyd all-rounder Coates.
“We must have had about four or five opening batsmen in the team and then a middle order of Dennis Cox, Sobers and Nasim.
“I used to open the batting for Sneyd and John Broad opened for Longton. We found ourselves down at numbers eight and 10.
“Dennis gave us a bit of a beefing in the dressing room, but on that wicket – with Hall and Sobers bowling – we were favourites.”
The testing nature of batting was soon evident when Hall immediately found his rhythm.
Yorkshire had 40 eight-ball overs to knock off the runs, but trouble soon hit the visitors’ task.
Hall’s first over took 15 minutes to bowl – it contained two no-balls – as a couple of Yorkshire batsmen were sent packing to leave them 2-2.
Former NSSCL secretary Lester Meredith recounted in a letter to The Sentinel several years ago: “I’m sure that the non-striking batsman, who had only been a spectator up to this point, breathed a sigh of relief that the over was complete.
“His problems started when Dennis Cox threw the ball to Garfield to open the bowling at the other end.”
However, despite early inroads, Yorkshire’s line-up was packed full of quality, so victory was far from a certainty. Plenty of their players had worn the White Rose during their playing careers and knew what it took to knock off challenging scores.
“Bob Platt could swing it like a boomerang and had a bit of pace,” explained Coates, who was out for a duck, but pocketed a couple of catches.
“And then Brian Stott came in for them and he looked like he was batting on a different wicket to the rest of us.”
Stott made 18 before being dismissed and Yorkshire were soon in a whole heap of trouble on 49-7 when Hall and Sobers were given a well-earned rest.
Harvey and Nasim-Ul-Ghani replaced them – providing a surreal moment for the Stone seamer.
“One of the most bizarre things about the final was the Tannoy system,” said Harvey.
“The announcement came on ‘replacing Gary Sobers at the scorebox end is Peter Harvey’. I had to pinch myself when I heard that.
“It wasn’t a very good cricket match, but for anyone coming up against us it must have been quite daunting with Wes and Gary in the side. Nasim was also brilliant and Dennis, the captain, was just a magician.
“He was a very good skipper. At Crewe he could bowl either seam or leg breaks and he was very astute.
“Dennis was a character and a member of the Magic Circle, if I remember correctly. When he later became president of Surrey, he invited all of the Crewe lads down to the Oval for the day.”
Harvey went wicketless in the final, and Yorkshire wicketkeeper D Lloyd made a fighting 28 to lead his side up to 81-8.
Cox, though, turned back to Sobers to help to wrap up proceedings.
Sobers dismissed Lloyd with his first delivery back, with claims that the roar which greeted the wicket could be heard in Bignall End.
Platt was then bowled in the same over to secure a 20-run victory for the NSSCL in front of a crowd rumoured to be 4,500-strong.
“The atmosphere was incredible,” said Coates. “It was a showpiece for spectators and the chance to see world-class players perform.
“It made cricket special at the time. We had these top players in the side, but all clubs had a quality pro in those days.
“And although we were ‘make ups’ the amateurs were very talented as well.”
Wood admits that the venue made it for a fantastic occasion.
“Great Chell was a famous old ground,” he reminisced. “It was quite a day out playing there. There would always be a dance on at night after the game.
“I was a guest at the league dinner last year and a chap came up to me and said: ‘I remember you, I used to sit in the stand at Chell and had to keep going to fetch the ball you kept hitting out of the ground’.
“At least I kept him active!”
That success against Yorkshire was the final chapter in a memorable first outing for the Rothmans Cup – and the local league players.
The NSSCL had beaten Northumberland at Great Chell in an earlier round, before travelling up to Farnworth to defeat Bolton in the semi-finals.
Northumberland had Rohan Kanhai opening the batting – he was pro at Ashington at the time – while Bolton’s side was chocked full of Lancashire and Cheshire stars.
“I remember Dennis Cox asking Sobers what Kanhai’s weakness was. Sobers replied: ‘When he gets in, he doesn’t have one’,” said Coates.
“I was fielding close on the leg side and the first ball of the match he’s got down on one knee and hit a Wes Hall delivery past me. It’s crashed in to the wall at Chell and travelled back to within five yards of me.
“And Bolton were a good side as well. Dennis told Wes not to drop one short to their opening batsman because he’d hook him. Wes insisted no-one hooked him.
“Sure enough he’s dropped one short to Arthur Sutton first up and it disappeared out of the ground. Wes didn’t bowl short after that.”
Sobers smashed a six to win the game for the NSSCL up at Farnworth to set up their clash against Yorkshire.
And for Wood, Harvey and Coates, it was a huge accolade to be named in the side for the league’s run through the competition.
For Wood, especially, it was a memorable time with the Rothmans Cup success coming a few weeks after he made his minor counties debut for Cheshire.
“I was playing for Crewe LMR at the time and just getting started,” he explained.
“I wasn’t a slogger, but liked to play my shots and got a few runs along the way.
“Before Crewe I’d been at Porthill Park and then went on to get the professional’s job at Stone. They were great times, but 1969 was probably my best year when I scored 800 runs for Cheshire.
“But Potteries people are great fun and it was an honour to be in the Rothmans Cup side. It was a great time to play cricket and I’ve still got my solid silver medal… somewhere.”
Harvey, meanwhile, was also making a name for himself on the local cricket scene.
“I was having a good season that year,” he said. “I’d come in to the Staffordshire side the year before, but 1965 was probably my best season.
“It was great to be selected and play in front of those big crowds, especially the final.
“But a lot of the lads were upset when Gary Sobers quickly put the free Rothmans cigarettes in his kit bag…”
Coates was also a familiar face on the minor counties scene with Staffs.
He says that lining up in the same side as Sobers, Hall, Nasim-Ul-Ghani and the like will stay with him forever.
“It was a privilege to play with them,” he said. “I was 22 at the time and there I am in the same changing room as Sobers and Hall.
“I was in awe of them a little bit, but I was quite confident in my own ability. I knew I was there for a reason.
“These were international cricketers, although the rest were good players as well.
“With Sobers, it was like being in the same ring as Cassius Clay. Sobers was the biggest name in world sport at the time.
“I would have loved to have watched that final, let alone play in it. It was a great occasion.”