In Conversation: John Shawcroft

Tuesday 19th January 2021
& News

John Shawcroft first watched Derbyshire in 1946 and it seems as if he’s been writing about the club ever since. His CV includes books about the 1936 county championship winners, Donald Carr, Cricket Grounds of Derbyshire, and latterly his third complete history of the club, A Celebration of Derbyshire County Cricket Club, published in 2020 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the club.

Heritage Officer, David Griffin, recently spoke to John about the book, and to ask him to reveal his all-time Derbyshire XI.

John, 120,000 words; it could have been 220,000 – clearly you weren’t suffering from writer’s block as you compiled the excellent new ‘A Celebration of Derbyshire County Cricket Club’ – was it any different to write in comparison with your previous Derbyshire histories of 1970 and 1989?

Once we knew the format – a coffee table style book and a proper, detailed history – I decided that rather than just tag on to what I’d written before in previous books, I’d look at each decade separately and write shorter chapters with more variety which I think worked well.

Were there any new nuggets of information which you unearthed during the writing of the book?

Plenty, really, because a lot has been written about cricket in the last thirty years and while the early history, to some, can seem rather academic, I wanted to make sure that I’d covered those early years about which there is now more information coming to light. I learned a lot more about Sam Richardson’s later life in Spain, for example, which was really fascinating. Nothing major came to light, but lots of little snippets.

You first watched Derbyshire in 1946 at Ilkeston when Nottinghamshire were the opponents but what sparked your early interest in the game?

My first club game was at Marehay; I had a keen interest in playing cricket anywhere really; my dad had explained what three-day cricket was about and why the game lasted so long, and in 1946 I went to two days of that game at Ilkeston – one day with mum, one with dad and loved it. Trent Bridge was easy to get to from Waingroves, so I saw a fair bit of Notts too. I remember during school holidays my dad taking me to the Bank Holiday games which always attracted big crowds.

The games against Notts were always wonderful occasions but I remember Yorkshire being bowled out for 44 at Chesterfield and them being saved by the rain. I was 12 years old and I was scoring; spectators all around me kept asking what Pope’s figures were! Getting on top of Yorkshire would always prove to be difficult but at that young age I thought it was always like that.

I also remember going to see Worcestershire at Ilkeston a day after Derbyshire had beaten Yorkshire for the first time in decades. John Kelly was fielding on the boundary and he talked to us about that win and how Dusty Rhodes had turned the ball square. I remember moments like this so well, it was just enthralling.

And for all its stark reputation, I always loved watching cricket at Derby and sitting in the concrete stand – great fun, and Queen’s Park is just an outstanding place to watch the game, although I’ve rarely been unhappy on a cricket ground.

In order to make up for the lack of cricketing action in 2020, largely resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, lots of cricketing publications, plus broadcasters and county clubs, carried out polls of cricketing best ofs, and Derbyshire, as part of the 150th anniversary, used an online poll to produce an all-time XI.

I know that we rarely talk without discussing our personal all-time Derbyshire XIs and having completed the book and watched Derbyshire for just about half of their existence, are you willing to publicly reveal your team?

Certainly, and with two conditions; firstly, no overseas players in the side, and secondly, they’re all English-qualified players.

For openers, you’ve gone with Kim Barnett and Denis Smith; were they easy selections for you?

I was tempted to add Peter Bowler instead of Smith; his record with Barnett is outstanding, but Smith was a left-hander and, in his heyday, scored runs against the best attacks – he could destroy the best teams in the country – he played for England and was both stylish and aggressive. I also like having the left hand / right hand combination at the top of the order.

Barnett was an extremely easy selection. He could murder any attack and if I had to pick one player who has given me the greatest pleasure over 70 or more years of watching Derbyshire it is Kim Barnett. A fine fielder, and a good leg spin bowler, too.

At number three, you’ve selected the only Derbyshire player to score a Test hundred for England, Stan Worthington. Did you see Stan play?

Yes, it’s a vague memory of him playing against the touring South Africans – we went on the bus, me, and mum, and we were about to leave the ground when a wicket fell, and Worthington came in and I asked if we could stop a bit longer to see him bat. I remember this burly figure walking out to bat but not a lot more. I was only 11.

There were two parts to Worthington’s career; – he started as a bowling all-rounder, and there was a worry that he wouldn’t excel at either batting or bowling, but then as the Derbyshire attack developed, he was able to concentrate on his batting which is what his captain, Arthur Richardson, wanted. He moved up the order to number three and became an outstanding batsman. He made 87 and 128 against India in Test matches, and 44 against Australia. Undoubtedly, he was one of Derbyshire’s most successful batsmen and such a dynamic player; during the period between 1935 and 1939 he was truly the complete batsman.

At four, John Morris – I can’t imagine that was a tough call?

No, there were other contenders, but Morris was so destructive – arrogant to a certain extent – stylish and powerful. You can’t leave Morris out of this team because even when he wasn’t on song, he still looked the part. Taking nothing away from those other contenders, especially Chris Adams and Wayne Madsen, Morris had that extra something about his batting; he was good against pace or spin and treated bowling attacks with disdain at times. He was marvellous to watch and could destroy any attack in no time at all.

And at five, Donald Carr.

Yes, my captain, too, which would free up Barnett to play to his batting strengths. Donald was a great leader, and a stylish batsman who I saw a lot of during that hot summer of 1959 when he scored more than 2,000 first class runs. He had so much time to play the game and was a fine captain, great fielder, and more than useful bowler.

Derek Morgan and Dominic Cork were very differing characters, but you’ve found room for them both in your side, at 6 and 7.

Yes, Cork always looked every inch a cricketer – a matchwinner for Derbyshire and England; Morgan was a good solid batsman, a brilliant fielder anywhere and a particularly good bowler later in his career when he developed his off-cutters. And he could bat in any circumstances – an ideal selection at six.

Cork just can’t be left out – a brilliant cricketer. John Arlott described Derbyshire’s 1936 championship winners as gladiatorial and Cork – and others in this side – had that quality too.

George Davidson or Les Townsend could have been alternatives to Morgan, but I think Morgan offers more balance to the side.

The easiest selection, I suppose – is your wicket-keeper?

Taylor was a better batsman than his figures show which was often held against him outside Derbyshire, but how can you leave out the best keeper of them all? Immaculate and unobtrusive, unless you actually watched Taylor closely, you never noticed him; Knott was flamboyant, but Taylor was truly supreme. There is no other choice and although Harry Elliott and Bill Storer were potentially contenders, in reality Bob was the only option behind the wicket.

Of the more recent keepers, Krikken was particularly good if not in the Taylor class, but as good as any of his contemporaries standing up to the wicket.

Tommy Mitchell is your spinner – another selection where there was presumably little room for debate?

Well, I think his record speaks for itself; the only batsmen who were a match for him in the 1930s were Bradman and Hammond; he was a match-winning bowler, and probably only Geoff Miller could be considered as an alternative, but he was an all-rounder and not really in Tommy’s class as a spinner.

His strike rate was remarkable, and even on unhelpful pitches, he was still able to bowl sides out. Temperamental, but brilliant.

Your last two selections – your opening bowlers – are Les Jackson and Bill Mycroft.

Well, there can be no debate about Les, surely?

Harold Rhodes told me that Jackson bowled at about the mid-80s mph, and although his run up was not fast, he had huge shoulders and a strong, powerful action. At Chesterfield one day, against Somerset, Les brought a ball back from outside off stump to dismiss Graham Atkinson and as the batsman walked off, a spectator in the pavilion said; “Bad luck”. Atkinson replied; “I could never have played that ball if I faced it 100 times over”.

He might have never been able to spearhead the England attack; he probably wasn’t quite fast enough, but he was worth more than two Tests. Day in day out, most batsmen rated him highly and he was remarkably consistent. Quick enough to be nasty and rarely collared, and like the absolute best, his record against the top players was exceptional.

Mycroft was left arm and fast and this side would need an injection of pace. He had great battles with WG Grace at his peak in the 1870s and he dismissed him 12 times. Really, a strike rate of a wicket every 36 balls – unmatched for Derbyshire – demonstrates just how good he was.

I always look at how much a player dominates his contemporaries – Bradman is the best example – and Mycroft absolutely dominated his era and without him we might not have survived as a county.

You have mentioned several players who missed the cut, but who were the candidates for a John Shawcroft Second XI?

Well, Madsen has been a fine player for more than a decade and scored runs in the first division when the opportunity arose in 2013; Peter Bowler has already been mentioned, as have Les Townsend and George Davidson.

Then there’s Cliff Gladwin – so difficult to leave Cliff out, but I couldn’t leave out Mycroft! Then there’s Devon Malcolm, a genuine fast bowler, and a real match-winner, and of course, Mike Hendrick.

I couldn’t find room for George Pope because I already had Morgan and Cork in the side, and batsmen like Arnold Hamer, at the top of the order, and Chris Adams in the middle order, were also contenders.

Then there’s Bill Copson, Harry Elliott, Arnold Warren, and Bill Bestwick; but I can’t pick them all although another XI from this list of omissions might well match the side I’ve picked!

In the end, though, I need to look at who I would drop to find a place for someone else. The only player who I’d consider putting in my first XI would be Arnold Warren, but who would I drop? Certainly not Les, so it would have to be Mycroft.

Although all of your selections are English-qualified, if you had to select one overseas player, who would it be and who would he replace?

I’d pick Michael Holding because of his exceptional pace and his influence on Barnett and the side in general. In this instance, I’d leave Mycroft out for Holding.

Before we began this interview, you indicated that you’d selected another XI, of players all born in Derbyshire. Can you now please reveal that side?

One of the downsides of selecting a side of Derbyshire-born players is that the bowling strengths significantly outweigh the batting strengths, and so some fine bowlers are omitted. My Derbyshire-born XI is;

Denis Smith, Alan Hill, Stan Worthington, Les Townsend, Chris Adams (Captain), George Davidson, Bill Storer (WK), George Pope, Tommy Mitchell, Les Jackson, and Bill Mycroft.

Another good side, but even so I’ve had to leave out Cliff Gladwin and Geoff Miller, both of whom could have been selected.

John, it’s been a fascinating exercise, thank you so much for your contribution to Derbyshire cricket.

A Celebration of Derbyshire County Cricket Club

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