As Derbyshire County Cricket Club celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2020, we have asked the Club Heritage Officer, Photographer and Statistician, David Griffin, to write a series of articles covering some of the county’s greatest moments and players.
The series will include accounts of the 1936 County Championship-winning season, the 1981 Nat West Trophy-winning campaign, as well as the triumphs of 1990, 1993 and 2012 in the RAL Sunday League, the Benson and Hedges Cup, and the County Championship Second Division, respectively.
Also, there will be a focus on Derbyshire’s England Test Cricketers, their finest batsmen, bowlers and wicketkeepers, and a feature looking at Derbyshire’s overseas players.
Finally, with a rich history of playing at a multitude of home venues, there will be an article covering the history of Derbyshire grounds.
Well, after 10 articles covering the best of Derbyshire cricket we arrive at the 11th and final one.
Derbyshire’s 1936 County Championship-winning summer has still to be matched despite the presence of some outstanding cricketers and teams in the 84 intervening years.
John Shawcroft wrote the definitive version of that season; Local Heroes, published in 2006 and Shawcroft has written shorter accounts in his Derbyshire histories of 1970, 1989 and 2020.
Edward Giles also offered a comprehensive examination of the 1936 season in his book The Derbyshire Chronicles published in 2007.
So, whilst another match-by-match account of that year would certainly be rather inadequate in comparison, perhaps it is worthy to consider how remarkable was Derbyshire’s triumph and consider why it’s not been replicated since.
Between 1897 and 1926 Derbyshire never finished in the top half of the county championship. Nothing, absolutely nothing, suggested that Derbyshire would ever have the quality of personnel to become a powerhouse in English cricket; they had been stripped of their first-class status between 1887 and 1894, and in 1920 suffered the ignominy of losing 17 out of 18 championship matches, while the other game was abandoned without a ball being bowled.
There had been some useful and long-serving players during these years; William Mycroft was the first champion fast bowler in the 1870s and 1880s, and fellow fast bowler Bill Bestwick was a legendary figure; Bill Storer was a fine batsman, as was Levi Wright, and the all-rounders Sam Cadman and Arthur Morton both played for the county for more than two decades.
However, the back-up players to these fine cricketers was generally of insufficient standard to allow the county to compete with the bigger counties.
The ‘Big Six’ of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex, Surrey, and Kent had dominated the game since 1878 with only Warwickshire – in 1911 – winning the county championship over the next sixty years.
On reflection – and it was certainly the prevailing view within the county at the time – Derbyshire were actually fortunate to be in the competition, never mind having the nerve to consider winning it.
Breaking the Big Six near-monopoly then, was not seen as a likely occurrence, and certainly not by Derbyshire, but after the disaster of 1920, Derbyshire turned their attention to the Nursery – a form of academy of the day – under the watchful and experienced eye of Sam Cadman, a Derbyshire cricketer for a quarter of a century and one the county’s finest all-rounders.
Under his tutelage, players who would become legendary names at Derbyshire were introduced into the side; Harry Elliott (1920), Leslie Townsend (1922), Stan Worthington (1924), Denis Smith (1927), Tommy Mitchell (1928), Albert Alderman (1928), and Alf Pope (1930).
Additionally, Arthur Richardson (1928) made his debut, and would eventually take over the captaincy from Guy Jackson in 1931.
All of these young cricketers were born within Derbyshire and were able to take advantage of Cadman’s guidance with support from the Rev Henry Ellison who captained the Second XI until 1928, when he was 60.
In fact, on 14th July 1936, the only day on which there was play, against Lancashire at Old Trafford, Derbyshire fielded an entire eleven born within the county. It’s never happened again since.
Gathering together some of Derbyshire’s greatest players, 6th place in the county championship in 1933 hinted at the possibilities and over the course of the following five seasons, the county finished third, second, first, third, and fifth – a run of performances never matched in the club’s history.
This stellar side included seven England Test cricketers, Denis Smith, Stan Worthington, Leslie Townsend, George Pope, Harry Elliott, Tommy Mitchell, and Bill Copson.
Their records at county level are outstanding; only Kim Barnett has scored more runs than Smith; Townsend and Worthington are the fifth and seventh highest run scorers for Derbyshire and the former also took 969 wickets while Worthington took 624.
Pope was an outstanding all-rounder (although injury meant he only played four games in 1936), a fine fast medium bowler, and a dynamic attacking batsman; Elliott ranks second only to Bob Taylor in the wicket-keeping stakes; Copson was a genuinely fast bowler with a magnificent record, and leg break bowler Mitchell was unarguably the best spin bowler in the club’s history.
For these players – as well as the non-internationals like Albert Alderman, Charlie Elliott, Alf Pope, Harry Storer, and others – to all emerge together was both fortuitous and a credit to Cadman’s work in the Nursery.
Factor in the hugely impressive captaincy and man-management of Arthur Richardson – and his predecessor Guy Jackson – and this was a highly effective cricketing unit with stylish and aggressive batsmen, genuine fast bowlers, a superb specialist wicket-keeper, a plethora of all-rounders, and an outstanding, match-winning leg-spinner.
A large number of these men were products of the Derbyshire coalfields – like many of their predecessors and successors – and cricket for them must have seemed like a (literal) breath of fresh air in comparison to the cramped, uncomfortable, and dangerous conditions underground.
Maybe their backgrounds formed them; working together, under pressure and as a team mining a seam of coal surely prepared them for beating the cricketing odds out in the open.
Shawcroft, in Local Heroes points out that there has not been a more fully representative side of their county win the championship since Derbyshire in 1936, offering only the footballing parallel where Celtic won the 1967 European Cup with a side born within 30 miles of Glasgow.
So, what made this side so special and why, despite the greats who followed them, has the championship not been won again?
Well, the obvious conclusion is that some of Derbyshire’s greatest ever players all came to maturity at the same time, and with firm and dynamic leadership from Richardson, maintained high standards and fitness. By 1936, they were experienced, with good career records and confident in their ability to win on all surfaces against allcomers.
And, critically, there were several outstanding all-rounders in the side; Les Townsend, Stan Worthington and George Pope could all have secured a place in the side as batsman or bowler, and with the former two batting in the top six, it meant the side was beautifully balanced.
Fitness was also key; the championship season consisted of 28 matches and five of the side played all 28, with a further four playing 26; rarely did Richardson need to look for replacements.
And the cherry on the top of the cake were the personal qualities of this band of tough professionals; as T Prettie wrote at the end of the 1936 season; ‘Derbyshire’s is a victory of perseverance, determination and dependability…guts and keenness”; while John Arlott asked the question; “Shall we ever see a side of quite such gladiatorial quality in the English county game again?”
Eighty-four years later and Derbyshire supporters are still awaiting another county title; the 1950s saw the county finish fifth, four, third and fifth – although not consecutively – under the positive captaincy of Guy Willatt and then Donald Carr, mainly on the back of some fine fast bowlers, but the side lacked the weight of runs which would take them any higher.
Kim Barnett’s side rose to third in 1991 and fifth in 1992 when he and Bowler formed an outstanding opening partnership, and John Morris, Chris Adams, Dominic Cork, Devon Malcolm, Ole Mortensen, Allan Warner, Karl Krikken, and others featured strongly. This was a side of one-day winners but fell just short in the longer form of the game, arguably because they lacked a high-quality spinner once Geoff Miller had retired.
Miller at his peak in that side of 1991/2, might have made all the difference.
And then in 1996, Dean Jones took over the captaincy from Barnett and took the side to second place in his first season, leading from the front with the bat and in the field. For some time, it seemed as if the 60th anniversary of the ’36 title would be celebrated with another triumph, but it was not to be as Leicestershire pipped them to first place.
That 1990s side was another example – just as in the 1930s – of top quality players all coming to their peak at the same time.
However, despite those post-war and modern-day wonderful teams and equally wonderful players, the county championship title has still only been won once by Derbyshire, by that remarkable band of locally-born men in 1936. What a glorious summer it must have been!
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