All-rounder Tony Dutton has sampled huge success in his career at club and county level. He chats to Sentinel cricket writer CHRIS TRAVERS about his lengthy spell out in the middle…
FACING Allan Donald, Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose is enough to bring any club cricketer out in a sweat but it was in a league game where Tony Dutton really felt the heat.
Dutton had locked horns with those trio of great fast bowlers, although a Saturday afternoon at Bignall End in 1998 was right up there in the pressure stakes for the former Staffordshire all-rounder.
His Little Stoke side needed to win at Boon Hill to secure the North Staffs and South Cheshire League title for the first time in their 51-year history.
Bignall End had already been relegated but it wasn’t a championship procession for Dutton and his men as they sought to finish top of the table.
They were left needing 112 to win in an hour and 20 overs… and managed to reach their target with eight balls to spare.
It completed the most unlikely of title triumphs. Unlikely because Dutton, having arrived at the club a season earlier, had merely targeted survival as Little Stoke’s sole ambition that year.
Two defeats in their opening three matches appeared to have proved Dutton’s point, but in the second half of the summer they went on a stellar run which culminated in jubilant scenes at Bignall End.
“The focus was to stay up,” recalls Dutton. “I’m sure at the halfway stage of the season we were bottom of the table or not far off.
“Then we won 10 games in the second half to win it. May be we started to get a bit arrogant, but something changed and I’m not really sure what. We had a couple of games where we were bowled out for 70 or 80 but we still knew that we were going to win.
“I managed to score some runs, as did Rob Kyle, Adrian Butters and Haresh Patel, who was a great player and very under-rated.
“Alan Richardson got things right with the new ball and was unbelievable.”
A scrambled leg bye sealed the title and enabled the large Little Stoke contingent to get the party started at Boon Hill.
Dutton says that the achievement can’t be downplayed.
“I never thought we were going to get through the Bignall End game. I was very nervous because it was a massive deal for Little Stoke,” added Dutton.
“We were a small up-and-coming club and we’d come from nowhere, but we always had decent players.
“It was huge for the club and put them on the map. There was that edge with Stone and Little Stoke were always seen to be inferior.
“For the local lads it was a dream come to true. The club was just one big family.”
There had been some nervous moments on the way to Little Stoke breaking their top-flight title duck.
Not only had they required their bowlers, led by Staffordshire seamer Alan Richardson, to drag them out of trouble on occasions, but they also had to find a way of winning with only 10 men.
A tea interval exchange of views between Dutton and Tim Ecclestone at Longton resulted in the latter not taking to the field after the interval refreshments had been consumed.
But despite being a man down, Little Stoke – as they often did that year – found a way to win.
“Tim could hit it a long way,” explains Dutton. “Towards the end of our innings I thought ‘he’s going to go here’ but he kept blocking it.
“It was out of character. When he came off, I had a go and might have said ‘do you play for them?’.
“He didn’t field, but didn’t go home. He sat drinking with their players. It was soon forgotten, though. That game at Longton, if it wasn’t for Alan Richardson, we wouldn’t have won.
“I kept saying ‘bounce this lad, I don’t like him’. But Richo just said ‘no, it’s ok, I’ll keep pitching it up’. I had a shocker that day!
“Richo was outstanding but it was about the squad. We had lads that came in and wanted to play.”
Dutton might be self-effacing about his impact on that Little Stoke side, but Butters says the all-rounder’s arrival was a significant moment.
“Dutt led from the front and as a captain he was very good,” he says.
“We lacked someone at the top of the order who could dig in and Dutt brought that to us.
“We had probably got a bit lazy as a team, but Dutt came in and took us by the scruff of the neck and got performances out of us.
“That title team was probably, on paper, the weakest Little Stoke side for about nine years.
“But you could tell just by his captaincy that he’d played at a higher level. And if you wanted anyone to bat for your life at the time, Dutt was your man.”
Dutton was already well versed in winning a top-flight league title.
In the early 1990s, he had helped to mastermind Caverswall’s triumph – after a few little tweaks… and a controversial finish.
“We had some really good players at Caverswall but they never believed in themselves enough,” says Dutton.
“I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but ahead of the first game, the lads said that it didn’t matter if we won or lost.
“I thought ‘woah, hang on a minute’. We managed to change the mentality.
“The league was 100 overs back then and you could bat for as long as you wanted. It was between us and Ashcombe Park for the title.
“In the penultimate game Ashcombe Park played Stone and batted for 80 overs. We then had Stone on the last day.
“Stone said they wanted us to win the title, not Ashcombe. We needed four to win and they bowled four wides for us to win it…”
Dutton can draw comparisons with both Caverswall and Little Stoke’s title-winning teams.
“Both sides had character and at Little Stoke we had a couple of comedians in Rob Kyle and Adrian Butters,” he says.
“When I went to Caverswall it was lovely and I really enjoyed it. It was close to home as well.”
Dutton has been described as a nomadic cricketer in the past, with another spell at Caverswall, and times at Knypersley, Norton, Whitmore and Wolverhampton among his other ports of call.
However, his grounding took place at Sneyd where the likes of Jess Hall and Barry Coates oversaw Dutton’s initial development.
“I went to Sneyd as a kid because of a connection my mum and dad had with Phil Bainbridge, who went on to play for Gloucestershire and Durham,” he says.
“They were friends with Phil’s parents. Sneyd was 150 yards from home, so I went down and was given a bit of coaching, playing forward defensive shots.
“It went from there. The second team was struggling and I managed to get a few games.
“I got the bug. We were then down the club seven nights a week practicing. I was still playing my forward defensive shots while Vince Lindo was smashing them out of the ground one-handed!
“I used to try to bowl quick in my teens, but I didn’t really start bowling properly until my last year of Kidsgrove League cricket.
“The other bowlers were too old to play, so Jess Hall said I’d have to bowl, and it carried on from there.”
Dutton went on to play for Knypersley and Porthill Park, but it was the chance to return to Sneyd which helped to develop his game further.
And there were some tough lessons learned along the way.
“I became a better cricketer as I got older, maybe 24 or 25,” explains Dutton. “Frank Reynolds was the captain at Sneyd and asked me to go back to open the batting.
“He told me to play for myself and let the others bat around me. It was difficult to get my head around because cricket is a team sport. It didn’t make sense.
“We played Stone in the cup one day and were chasing 220. I made 85 and we lost by five runs. I got the blame for the defeat.
“You think ‘why are people having a go at me?’. Then as you get older you realise that I should have gone on to get 100 and win the match.”
Dutton’s talent was noticed in higher circles and he was handed his Staffordshire debut in 1984 in a Championship match against Cambridgeshire at Fenners.
But despite acquitting himself well, he had to wait until 1988 for another opportunity.
Once he returned to Staffs duty, though, his batting prowess and brisk medium-pace saw him settle in the middle order and become a key component of the county’s all-conquering side.
The greatest period in Staffs’ history saw them win three successive Championships between 1991 and 1993 under the captaincy of Nick Archer.
They also reached the one-day final at Lord’s in those same three seasons, with the silverware coming home following the first and third encounters.
“I’d made my debut in 1984. I played against David Hancock and Peter Gill (two established Staffordshire batsmen) and bowled well against them. But the call came out of the blue,” says Dutton.
“I didn’t do much in the intervening years, but started proing at Sneyd and got a chance.
“There was always competition for places with Staffs and you never felt secure. But I looked up to, and still do, the likes of Dave Cartledge, Nick Archer and David Banks.
“Over time we built our confidence up. Paul Newman came in as pro and in the first year hardly got any wickets. He probably thought he could just turn his arm over.
“Someone must have had a word with him because after that he was awesome for us.
“We had confidence and Nick was an unsung hero. If we were in trouble, he’d always get runs. If we had 200-odd on the board he might not, but at 50-5, Nick would always deliver.
“The team had plenty of options. Nick had his main bowlers and then could call on me and Simon Myles as back ups. We never relied on one person, you can’t do that.
“If the pro fails, someone else had to stand up. We just seemed to bounce off each other.
“I didn’t feel invincible because we know how easy sport can change. You have to be careful because it can come back to bite you. We just did a professional job.”
And those three appearances at Lord’s capped off a glittering period for the county.
A defeat by Devon in the 1992 showpiece was the one blot which prevented Staffs from completing a hat-trick of doubles.
“We used to go down to Lord’s the day before the final and just to step out on to the practice ground was unbelievable,” recalled Dutton.
“It was also unreal the amount of Staffs people who were in the crowd. Over the years people have said to me ‘I was there’.
“Walking through the Long Room and seeing the history of the game and what players have achieved gave you a real buzz, as did sitting on the balcony and seeing all of the Staffordshire supporters there.
“They are great memories and to play there three times was beyond my wildest dreams. It was a great time for Staffordshire cricket.”
Dutton ended his Staffordshire career in 1996 with a more-than-respectable batting average of 31 and a bowling average of 19.
And while those memories of being perched on the Lord’s balcony remain vivid, performing in those venues on a regular basis narrowly eluded him.
Dutton spent time with Leicestershire in 1984 and 1985 playing for their seconds, but didn’t make the first-class grade.
“I had a season and a half with Leicestershire and I did ok. The gap in standard was massive, though,” says Dutton. “It came about because of Jon Addison, who played for Staffs, and I got invited to nets and then to play.
“I got 70-odd against Worcestershire and dismissed Graeme Hick in that game as well. He hit me for a few sixes, but I managed to hit him for one as well.
“I played alongside Phil DeFreitas and Jonathan Agnew among others.
“I like Agnew now, but then he was a nasty piece of work in the nets. You’d be in the indoor nets and he would just bounce the sh*t out of you. That’s all he did!
“Tim Munton was there at the time and he went to Warwickshire and said I should go with him.
“But I wanted a job to get some money in. I probably gave up too early, which is not like me, but I gave it a go and have no regrets.”
Instead, Dutton’s battles with first-class players were limited to Staffs’ NatWest Trophy matches.
But that still provided him with the chance to rub shoulders with some of the finest talents around.
“We played Surrey at Burton in 1988 and I hit Sylvester Clarke through the covers for four,” says Dutton. “I didn’t see the next ball which bowled me. Dickie Bird was umpiring that day.
“He said to me afterwards: ‘I’ve reported Clarke two or three times for throwing and I think he threw the one which got you!
“One year we were drawn against Warwickshire. I went in to face Allan Donald at 12-3. I took guard and looked back – which I’d never done before or since – and thought ‘crikey, the keeper’s a long way back’.
“I nicked the first ball and it just fell short. That was the last ball of the over and he only bowled one more. I managed to get 34 that day.
“We walked around the ground and Andy Moles was fielding on the boundary and said ‘well batted, what was it like facing Donald?’.
“I told him it was a different level completely. He said a couple of days before, on the same wicket, Mike Gatting kept hitting Donald 10 rows back in to the stand.
“He bounced him and it kept disappearing. I thought ‘I can’t even get my bat that high!’.
“Ambrose was a great guy at Northants and we faced Malcolm Marshall when he played for Hampshire at Stone.
“Nick Archer hit him for six. I asked him how he’d done it and he replied: ‘I don’t know!”.
Dutton briefly retired from cricket at the end of the 1999 season because of a bad injury.
But after a lengthy absence he returned to the middle – and created new memories.
He guided Staffordshire Over-50s to the County Championship final against Yorkshire, where losing the toss ultimately decided their fate.
Dutton, now 57, also represented England in that age group… and is still playing club cricket.
He’s part of the Bagnall Norton success story which has seen them rise up from Division Three to the Premier Division thanks to three successive promotions.
“Paul Tomkinson got me to go to Bagnall Norton. He looked after my lad, Phil, at Norton, and I wanted to support him when the clubs merged,” says Dutton.
“We’ve managed to get to the Premier Division, which is a huge achievement. From a selfish point of view I’d love to play a couple of games again in the top division, but not to the detriment of the team.”
And making another Premier Division appearance – when cricket does get underway – would be another achievement in a career which has given him so much.
“It’s been fantastic. I’ve played with a lot of great players,” he adds.
“I’ve had a fair few clubs and people think I am a mercenary, which isn’t the case. A couple of times it was my decision to leave and others it was the club’s.
“But I’ve been lucky enough to be successful in my career and play well along the way.”