John Player’s County League. Somerset v Yorkshire. 10th August 1969. Taunton.
Some memories of the format of the iconic John Player League in its first season and of the first match attended by the author. An Australian teenager by the name of Greg Chappell had been signed as Somerset’s overseas player.
Toss. Somerset. Elected to field.
2019 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the John Player League, or as it was formally called in 1969, the John Player’s County League. Like T20 three and a half decades later the new competition was designed to attract a new audience. And perhaps re-attract an old one as County Championship match attendances fell through the 1960s and the Gillette Cup revealed an appetite for ‘limited-overs cricket’ as it was called at the time.
Matches were strictly time-limited not just overs-limited. In T20 the full number of overs is bowled and penalty runs are awarded to the batting side if the bowling side does not complete its overs within the alloted time. In the John Player League, if the side bowling first did not bowl its allocation of 40 overs within the specified time the innings simply ended at the end of the over in which the time limit was reached. The side batting second would then have the same number of overs as the side batting first. A rule which curiously seemed to advantage the side which was dilatory in bowling its overs in that it was not their innings which was abruptly cut short. In practice it was not uncommon to have 39 or even occasionally 38-over matches.
To assist fielding sides in completing their overs within the specified time, bowler’s run-ups were restricted to 15 yards. A white line was duly painted to mark the 15 yards.
The time limit ensured that matches, which in 1969 and for many years afterward, were always played on a Sunday afternoon, were completed in the allotted time. One of the beneficiaries, and shades of T20 here too, was broadcasting. Every Sunday, one match was televised live in its entirety on BBC 2. Whether it was intentional or not the strict time limits meant broadcasting schedules were not disrupted.
Apart from the over limits other attempts were made to encourage attacking cricket. Two prize funds of £1000 (£16500 in 2019) each were divided proportionately. One among batsmen for each six scored during the course of the season. One among bowlers for each four-wicket haul. Newspapers of the time would publish the six-hitting and wicket-taking ‘leagues’.
My first contact with the John Player’s County League was not at a ground or through watching a match live on television. To receive BBC 2 you had to have a set capable of receiving 625-line transmissions. We still had a 405-line set so no cricket. However, a friend’s family did have a 625-line set and the BBC used to broadcast a review programme of the day’s cricket scores later in the evening.
I used to go to my friend’s house to watch the review of the day’s matches. My recollection is that the programme concentrated as much on the size of the crowds, which were well in excess of Championship crowds, as on the cricket scores. That seemed to be an important consideration at the time.
I was drawn to my first actual match because Ray Windsor, a local big hitting club batsman who had scored runs for Somerset 2nd XI, was in the Somerset squad.
And so off a couple of friends and I set to the County Ground for our first Sunday League match. We became Somerset members for the day. There was no other way to get in if you were not already a member. It was illegal in 1969 for clubs to charge entry on a Sunday. Only club members could attend matches. However, it was legal to sell memberships on a Sunday and so the temporary membership which expired at the end of the day was born.
We found ourselves sitting on a wooden bench near the old scoreboard somewhere near the gap between where the Colin Atkinson Pavilion now stands and where the recently demolished Scoreboard Stand held sway for so many years. We sat in front of a group of cigar smoking spectators who had probably seen their first cricket when JC White and RC Robertson-Glasgow were in their heyday in the 1920s.
The opponents were Yorkshire who batted first. Some miserly Somerset bowling, especially from Brian Langford, JK Roberts and Greg Chappell, who between them bowled 24-6-50-5, restricted, to use the term of the time, Yorkshire to 132 for 7 from 40 overs. Greg Chappell, 19 years old only three days before and a revelation, took 3-14.
I remember nothing of the Yorkshire innings except a 20-year-old Chris Old looking the part and impressing the 1920s contingent with an innings of 22 having come in with Yorkshire at 70 for 5. My friends and I thought the Somerset bowlers had done pretty well. The 1920s ‘elders’ sitting behind us thought otherwise. “Too many for Somerset,” said one to knowing grunts of agreement.
The assessment was not an unrealistic one, for by the end of the season Somerset had won just five and lost ten of their 16 matches and finished 16th of the then 17 counties.
When Tony Clarkson was out to Richard Hutton for one and Somerset were 6 for 1 our youthful enthusiasm bowed to our elders’ experience. Fortunately for Somerset, Greg Chappell’s youthful enthusiasm and talent did not. Neither did Roy Virgin’s elder’s experience. A partnership began to develop, as the newspaper reports of old used to say, and my friends and I dared hope.
We hoped for two things. For Somerset to win and for enough wickets to fall for Ray Windsor, marked down to come in at five, to get a bat. But, of course, cricket only works like that in the mind. Chappell and Virgin began to forge a different reality. Chappell raised the spirits, the expectations and the tension with an exhibition of attacking batting which belied his years. Virgin kept an end tight, and Ray Windsor from the wicket, whilst keeping his own score moving neatly along. Between him and Chappel they grew the hope that Somerset might actually win.
As the Somerset score mounted and accelerated the hope began to promise reality and the tension began to ease. My friends and I felt secure enough to leave our seats and go on an expedition to the beer tent which, as far as I can place it, used to reside where the Ondaatje Pavilion now stands or just to the front of it. The knowledge of what we bought must remain between me and the barman. I doubt anyone noticed, for as we queued and peered back through the open entrance to the tent the sky suddenly seemed to rain sixes which flew in our direction. Greg Chappell was the man responsible for the barrage as he added to his share of the six-hit prize fund.
Now, I am sure the sky did not rain sixes. I imagine there were actually one or two, perhaps three or four and a few one bounce fours but the memory, like an impressionist artist, emphasises the thing which most makes an impact at the time. Chappell had made the match Somerset’s and the team romped home by nine wickets with over 12 overs to spare. Chappell’s hitting and the overly pessimistic view of the elders are the impressions that have stuck in a young Somerset mind as it has aged.
Ray Windsor of course did not get a bat, but I have as compensation embedded deep in my memory a package of glimpses and a sense in my mind of a young Greg Chappell in full flow which has lasted a lifetime.
Another such image, from another Sunday afternoon earlier in that summer, is of a television screen with 625 lines in a lounge many miles from home. The family had been visiting the scene of the start of my first exile. Whilst accommodation arrangements were discussed elsewhere I found myself in the presence of that 625-line television. On the screen Greg Chappell, then only 18, was scoring the first ever Sunday League century, Roy Virgin was keeping an end tight again and Tony Clarkson had been out cheaply again, this time for nought. The match was at Brislington and Somerset beat Surrey, as with Yorkshire by nine wickets.
Within days of my watching the Yorkshire match the family’s accommodation arrangements were taken up and I had embarked on my first exile. I was to spend 42 of the next 47 years living through four exiles, all of them more than 200 miles from the County Ground. The ‘Elders’ match was a good match to carry with me as a memory of home.
Result (Taunton): Yorkshire 132 for 8 (40 overs) (GS Chappell 3-14). Somerset 134 for 1(27.3/40 over) (GS Chappell 76*, RT Virgin 50*). Somerset won by 9 wickets. Somerset 4 points. Yorkshire 0 points.
Result (Brislington) Surrey 173 for 7 (40 overs) (GRJ Roope 52). Somerset 175 for 1(38.2/40 overs) (GS Chappell 128*, RT Virgin 42*) Somerset won by 9 wickets. Somerset 4 points. Surrey 0 points.
N.B. In the early days of the John Player League 4 points were awarded for a win and 1 for a no result.