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Heritage Insight: The 1936 County Championship win

Saturday 28th August 2021
& News

If you were 18 years old when Derbyshire clinched the County Championship on 28th August 1936, you’d now be 103, so it’s possible that someone remembers it, but for the majority of us, contemporary accounts and photographs are all we have to remind us of that towering achievement.

As we reach the 85th anniversary of the date on which the title was secured, Heritage Officer David Griffin, reminds us of that golden moment.

Derbyshire’s 1936 County Championship-winning summer has still to be matched despite the presence of some outstanding cricketers and teams in the 85 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 that triumph was.

Between 1897 and 1926 Derbyshire never finished in the top half of the County Championship. 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 became a legendary if controversial 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 allrounders.

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), Alf Pope (1930), and George Pope (1933).

Additionally, Arthur Richardson made his debut in 1928, 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 14 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 5th and 7th 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 4 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?

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 5 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 penned probably the most moving and appropriate words about that summer; “Indeed, it is difficult to recall a side more purposeful or more ruthlessly abrasive than that Derbyshire winning side. Their success was more the remarkable for the fact that a major all-rounder, George Pope, did not play after injury late in May; that Denis Smith lost form quite alarmingly until August; and at the end Tommy Mitchell effectively missed three matches. Their extremely hostile bowling was matched by absolutely aggressive, if not always faultless, fielding…Essentially, though, this was a single unit, and it may seem hard to convey to the ordinary follower of today what an atmosphere they could create: especially on south country grounds they made the cricket bristle with competition. Shall we ever see a side of quite such gladiatorial quality in the English county game again? There is no sign of it.”

Eighty-five years later and Derbyshire supporters are still awaiting another county title; the 1950s saw the county finish fifth, fourth, 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 including Cliff Gladwin and Les Jackson, plus off-spinner Edwin Smith, 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 Peter 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.

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.

And what of the game which saw Derbyshire crowned champions? It was against Somerset at Wells. Yorkshire were hot on their heels and Derbyshire needed to avoid defeat in one of their two final games, the last of which was against Leicestershire at Oakham.

Derbyshire batted first at Wells after winning the toss and made 216, and with their usual formidable bowling secured a first innings lead of 70. Derbyshire slipped to 98-7 in  the second innings before captain Richardson made a half century. Somerset required 271 in the fourth innings; a total considered well beyond their capabilities against the best attack in the country.

Overnight they were 98-2 and soon 140-5 but Arthur Wellard, known for his hitting prowess, smashed five consecutive sixes off the final five balls of a Tommy Armstrong over, and although wickets continued to fall, Somerset got home by one wicket.

As the unsurprisingly disappointed players left the field, they had to wait several hours before the news came through from Hove that Yorkshire’s match against Sussex had ended in a draw and thus Derbyshire had won the County Championship.

They followed it up with an easy victory over Leicestershire at Oakham and Arthur Richardson left the field for the last time as a Derbyshire cricketer. An average of just 12.60, scoring just 378 runs in 26 matches suggests, rightly, that he was a modest player, at best. But as a leader, he was revered and respected by his charges and; among Richardson’s most treasured possessions was a silver cigarette case, inscribed with the signatures of the Championship side. It carried a simple dedication: “To the Skipper, from the lads.”

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