Shane Warne bowls to Ian Cockbain

One Shane Warne bowls to Minor Counties' Ian Cockbain at Stone in 1993

The piranhas that ate tourists

A look back at how sundry teams of ordinary folk performed stunning acts of giant-killing for the Minor Counties against Test teams visiting England

Scott Oliver |

Three weeks to the day before India came of age as a cricketing power with the shock World Cup victory against the mighty West Indies in 1983, they ventured just beyond the M25 London Orbital to the Buckinghamshire village of Monks Risborough for a hastily arranged practice match against a hastily put together Minor Counties XI at Molins Sports Club, the now disused factory ground of a firm that made tobacco vending machines.

The dank and chilly conditions might not have been especially subcontinental, but an Indian team featuring Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Kris Srikkanth, Mohinder Armanath and Roger Binny - the core of the side that would down West Indies - might have been expected to make relatively light work of a makeshift team of farmers, policemen, solicitors and salesmen. "It wasn't a formally selected side", recalls Minor Counties' captain Frank Collyer, "and wasn't our best XI."

A former Cambridge Blue, Collyer didn't believe in the unwritten amateurs' convention of inserting their superior opponents to ensure the latter got as much out of the game as possible, and thus being perfectly accommodating hosts. "We weren't there to make up the numbers," he says.

Minor Counties eked out 154 for 6 off 50 overs. Ravi Shastri took 3 for 10, and Kapil Dev only deigned to send down two lacklustre overs with bigger battles ahead, before Gavaskar and Srikkanth reduced the target by 30 from the opening six overs, prompting Collyer to introduce spin.

Gavaskar immediately fell lbw for a laboured single, departing with a rueful shake of the head. "I don't think I even appealed," shrugs Collyer. "Let's just call it a generous decision." The adjudicating umpire, Terry Wilkins, remembers giving "three or four lbws, all Indians. In the bar, a friend of mine made me Man of the Match and presented me with a cupcake!"

Sachin Tendulkar on his way to 65 in the draw against Minor Counties at Trowbridge in 1990

Sachin Tendulkar on his way to 65 in the draw against Minor Counties at Trowbridge in 1990 Patrick Eagar / © Getty Images

The bowler - appositely or ironically - was Norfolk's Steve Plumb, a farmer and part-time offspinner who would finish with 4 for 24. Amarnath made 21, and having by that stage played three seasons for Durham in the Minor Counties Championship, he might well have warned his team-mates that the opposition weren't to be taken lightly. If so, it was to no avail, as the Indians subsided to 135 all out and a 19-run defeat that didn't exactly augur well for the coming tournament.

No disrespect to today's Minor Counties XI - or the "Unicorns", as they have been rebranded - but it would be difficult to imagine them turning over a side featuring Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni and Rohit Sharma, whatever the conditions. Partly this is because the Minor Counties have struggled to beat county 2nd XIs in recent times, but mainly it wouldn't happen because it is 20 years since the Minor Counties versus the tourists has been a fixture.

It probably wasn't too often that a touring side felt relieved the Minor Counties' top bowler was unavailable, although that was almost certainly the case for the 1912 South Africans. They had come to take part in a Triangular Tournament of Tests, during which, in three very one-sided games against them, Sydney Francis Barnes would bag 128-28-282-34. Now the Staffordshire maestro was busy playing against Australia, and in his absence the Minor Counties' inaugural match against full international tourists finished a rain-blighted draw. They won two of their next three, however, starting with the same opposition in Norwich in 1924.

The Minor Counties team that took on West Indies in 1973. David Bailey is third from left, back row. Frank Collyer back row, far right What is Minor Counties cricket?

The Minor Counties Championship was first played in 1895 - five years after the birth of the County Championship - and was open to all English counties not involved in what that year had become known as "first-class" cricket. Since players then had to be born or reside in the county for which they played, plenty of talented cricketers tied by their work to specific places outside that system were left without first-class cricket. Minor Counties partially filled the void.

Worcestershire, Northamptonshire and Glamorgan all competed in the early seasons before moving up to the first-class ranks, while each of the first-class counties has entered a 2nd XI at one time or another. Somerset IIs were the last to leave, replaced by Wales Minor Counties in 1987. Herefordshire came in for Durham in 1992, since when it has been the same 20 sides.

Until the structure was overhauled in 1983, teams used to arrange their own fixtures, a minimum of eight, with titles decided on the basis of average points per game (or after a "challenge match" if the top two hadn't met). However, once the top minor counties started to qualify for the newly launched Gillette Cup, with its relative financial rewards and chance of fairy-tale upsets, a two-divisional round-robin structure was introduced.

The Minor Counties XI also played competitively in the Benson and Hedges Cup between 1972 and 1998, as well as in a variety of other fixtures. Between 1912 and 1998, they played 61 matches against full international touring teams, winning eight.

Barnes had by then returned from a ten-year Minor Counties hiatus at the ripe old age of 51, but was again unavailable, probably for financial reasons. Instead, the team comprised seven Norfolk players, two from Hertfordshire, one from Durham, and the 23-year-old Berkshire batsman APF "Percy" Chapman, who two months earlier had played the first of his 26 Tests. The star home turn was provided by Michael Falcon, erstwhile MP for East Norfolk, who took 5 for 103.

West Indies toured England for the first time two years later. Their star attraction was Learie Constantine, reputedly the world's highest paid sportsman at the time. They lost all three Tests by an innings, however, and were also beaten by the Minor Counties down in Exeter, despite enforcing the follow-on. The hero was Aaron Lockett, a coal miner from Staffordshire who played football for Stoke City and Port Vale. Coming in at 59 for 4, Lockett struck 154 in what was the first of his two first-class matches, leaving the West Indians a target of 146. Buckinghamshire's Edward Wyndham Hazelton then took 6 for 45 and Karl Nunes' men became the second international side to taste the ignominy of defeat to a Minor Counties XI.

The latter would go undefeated for eight games against visiting Test sides - Barnes even turned out in 1929 against the South Africans, aged 56, taking nine wickets - although they would have to wait another 31 years for the next giantkilling.

After their unbeaten streak was ended by the 1935 South Africans, the Minor Counties discovered that the new Test nations had grown some teeth, while the old powers were willing to indulge the festival atmosphere only so far. The nadir came against the 1953 Australians at the Michelin Ground in Stoke-on-Trent. Barnes, 80, sent down a ceremonial first delivery, later informing the Aussies that he had declined to take the new ball in case he induced a collapse. Instead, 109 from Neil Harvey saw the Australians to 289, before the hosts were routed for 56 and 62, neither innings making it past the 25th over.

This was big boys' cricket, and the Minor Counties' selectors responded by drawing increasingly from the county 2nd XIs participating in their Championship. It paid handsome dividend against the Indians in 1959. Home captain Jack Ikin, the former England batsman returned to his Staffordshire roots, scored 118 out of 228 to keep the first innings arrears to 59, and after a third-innings declaration, Minor Counties were set 334 to win. They got them at a canter, with tyro Yorkshire batsman Philip Sharpe, who would go on to average 46 in 12 Tests, making 202 not out. Already 1-0 down in the Tests, India would be whitewashed 5-0, three lost by an innings.

Civil servant Stuart Wilkinson bowls in the 1977 game where Minor Counties upset Australia. Craig Serjeant is the non-striker

Civil servant Stuart Wilkinson bowls in the 1977 game where Minor Counties upset Australia. Craig Serjeant is the non-striker

Following Sharpe's success, more players who would become pillars of the dominant Yorkshire team of the 1960s were drafted into Minor Counties sides: John Hampshire played against the Australians in 1961 and Geoffrey Boycott against the West Indians two years later. Wicketkeeping genius Bob Taylor made a first-class debut against the 1960 South Africans, and in 1965, Lancashire's future England bowler Peter Lever played alongside his brother, Colin, of Buckinghamshire, against the same opposition. Yet despite this welcome sprinkling of quality, the next victory would be 18 years in the making.

In the '70s, the Minor Counties won back-to-back matches against Test tourists, having drawn a blank in the 1960s. The first came in 1977, against the Australian tourists, who were already 2-0 down in the Test series with two left by the time they arrived at Ashbrooke, a leafy Victorian suburb of Sunderland.

Their tour was being played out under a large media tycoon-shaped shadow. While Greg Chappell and Rodney Marsh held talks with Kerry Packer in London, a side containing Kim Hughes, David Hookes, Doug Walters and Len Pascoe lost a two-day game to a team whose seam attack comprised a civil servant from Durham, Stuart Wilkinson; a policeman from Hertfordshire, Brian Collins; and a schoolmaster from Devon, Doug Yeabsley, who together ripped out the Aussies for 170 in 41.3 overs.

The captain, David Bailey, had played a handful of games for Lancashire, and was a wily operator well accustomed to the horse trading of two-day cricket. With heavy overnight rain delaying the restart, he declared immediately, four down and 37 behind. Oxfordshire's Mike Nurton, a lay Anglican preacher, trained magician, and eventually all-time leading run-maker in Minor Counties cricket, top-scored with 40, grateful that Jeff Thomson was on the boundary kicking around an Australian Rules football rather than sharing the new ball.

With the ground full on the second day, Walters played ball, setting Minor Counties a generous 207 in a smidge under three hours, at which point the Staffordshire batsman Peter Gill, who ran his own industrial-insulation firm, played "the innings of my life", caught and bowled for 92. "There were still 40 or so to get", he recalls, "but I got a bit excited and had a slog at one from Gary Cosier.

"I can't top that one. As an amateur, you play occasionally against professionals in the Gillette Cup. Playing against the tourists is a different thing altogether. To make some runs - you ain't gonna do that if you're not any good. I was given a hundred quid, and bought a few drinks. The Aussies certainly got it in the neck in the press the next day."

For the two opening bowlers, there was no question of their opponents hiding behind the unfolding Packer situation. "They had all played Test cricket," says Collins. "There were no passengers. That was something that was levelled at us: 'You've only beat a second-rate Australian side.' Okay, we didn't play Chappell, Marsh or Thomson, but this was still an international team, 11 of the best 17 in their country."

Syd Barnes: Minor Counties' ace in the hole in their early years

Syd Barnes: Minor Counties' ace in the hole in their early years © PA Photos/Getty Images

Durham's Neil Riddell, who slog-swept Ray Bright for six to level the scores before "kicking a leg-bye" was phlegmatic in victory: "Playing the touring sides - as opposed to the Benson & Hedges or Gillette Cup - was very much a PR exercise, taking cricket to an environment outside the first-class game. It's more 'showbiz' than a hard game of cricket."

These games also allowed the Minor Counties to put on their Sunday best, for local dignitaries to soak up hospitality, clink their chains of office and bask in a little stardust. For the visitors they offered some relaxed, low-key practice, while they sampled the recreational possibilities in venues as far-flung and exotic as Torquay and Tyneside, with its fabled neet oot in the toon. Not that they wanted to lose, of course, and although Lance Gibbs' 1973 West Indians swerved an extended one-hour lunch break in Torquay in honour of the sponsors, ducking out of the marquee and down to a nearby fish and chip shop, they finished a fine three-day game doggedly hanging on at 202 for 8 in pursuit of 249.

Five years later, also down on Basil Fawlty's "English Riviera", the New Zealanders came unstuck. Jack Ikin's son Michael came in at 122 for 6 and top-scored with 39 not out as the Minor Counties overhauled their 211-run target.

The late 1970s through the 1980s can be considered Minor Counties cricket's short golden era. Shropshire, Durham, Buckinghamshire and Cheshire all pulled off giantkillings in the NatWest Trophy, adding to Durham, Lincolnshire and Hertfordshire's pioneering wins in the 1970s. The Minor Counties XI also finally broke their Benson and Hedges Cup duck, winning a game in each of the 1980, 1981 and 1982 seasons, while the Championship was lent some cosmopolitanism and competitive edge by the likes of Winston Benjamin, Lance Cairns, Dilip Vengsarkar, Wasim Raja, Mohinder Armanath, Franklyn Stephenson and Mudasser Nazar, as well as a smattering of former and future England Test players.

And yet, just 20 years after the New Zealand victory of 1978, with tours becoming ever more streamlined, the Minor Counties would play their final fixture against a full international side. That same year, the Benson and Hedges Cup was wound up, and in 2005, the cricketing landscape having shifted a little more with the arrival of T20, the C&G Trophy was rejigged, depriving the individual minor counties of their big day out against the first-class boys, for whose chairmen and CEOs finance increasingly trumped romance.

Pushed even further to the margins, Minor Counties cricket still provided a stepping stone on what the ECB likes to call the "performance pathway". Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar and Alastair Cook all played for Bedfordshire between 1996 and 2001, while several players who have represented England in the last 18 months passed through the Minor Counties game: Craig Overton for Devon, Jack Leach for Dorset, Mark Wood for Northumberland, Tom Westley for Cambridgeshire, Liam Dawson and James Vince for Wiltshire, and Alex Hales for Buckinghamshire.

But for many others down the years - either because they weren't good enough, or, in earlier times, perhaps had more financially secure jobs than uncapped county cricketer - it was the pinnacle of the game, while playing international opposition was the pinnacle of the pinnacle. And in the final decade before the last hint of glamour left Minor Counties cricket for good, they turned over two very decent teams, the final victory coming against the 1995 West Indians in a 55-over game at Reading.

Brian Collins, who took four wickets for Minor Counties in their win against Australia in 1977

Brian Collins, who took four wickets for Minor Counties in their win against Australia in 1977

The tourists were coming off the back of defeat to Australia, the slow slide from superpower status having begun. Even so, they would have expected to beat a team of amateurs. As it was, Cumberland seamer Marcus Sharp had an afternoon for the grandkids' scrapbook, dismissing Carl Hooper, Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams. "Lara and Adams were ranked in the top five in the world at the time", recalls Sharp, "so to get them and Hooper on the same day was a fairly good day's work".

Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh sat the game out, but the West Indies second-string of Vasbert Drakes, Kenny Benjamin and Ottis Gibson were still no doubt bemused to see the Staffordshire opening pair of Steve Dean and Laurie Potter sprint past them on their way out, both superstitiously eager to face the first ball. Potter won the race, yet Dean played the match-winning innings, flaying 91 as the Minor Counties, aided by a colossal 78 extras, including 45 no-balls, most for breaching new bouncer regulations on height and frequency, won with three and a bit overs to spare.

"They got a right royal rollicking off Wes Hall [tour manager]", says Sharp. "Understandably, they didn't want the headlines back home to be 'West Indies beaten by a bunch of amateurs.' They were still a good international side then. There was probably an expectation that we'd fold like the proverbial damp bag. But then, there was never any particular pressure on us to perform. As long as we didn't get bowled out for 60 or go for 400, it was okay. And we never did. Partly because we upped our game a little, and partly because the opposition weren't trying as they might have in a Lord's Test".

It was a memorable win, "one in a hundred" according to Potter, but the most astonishing Minor Counties victory of all had come three years earlier, against "the forgotten Invincibles".

Pakistan's 1992 tour of England was a spiky, fractious affair. Allan Lamb and Ian Botham were fined for accusing the Pakistanis of ball-tampering, while the third Test at Old Trafford saw the "sweatergate" brouhaha between the Javeds, Aqib and Miandad, and umpire Roy Palmer.

England set up a series decider by winning the fourth Test, in Leeds, and between these games the tourists headed to Marlow in Buckinghamshire to play a two-day game against a Minor Counties XI who had beaten Sussex on the same ground earlier that season.

A temporary stand was erected and London's large Pakistani expat community came out in droves to see their conquering heroes. Miandad, Wasim Akram, Saleem Malik and Ramiz Raja put their feet up, but it was still a strong team.

The tourists subsided to 54 for 6 before lunch on the first day, and then to 132 for 8, before scrambling to reach the respectability of 226 all out, thanks to 57 from Waqar Younis and Zahid Fazal's 93. Minor Counties' reply was built around an unbeaten 84 from their captain, Nick Folland - the Devonian who won the Wilfred Rhodes Trophy for the Minor Counties leading batsman five times in eight years between 1992 and 1999 - ably assisted by the former Lancashire batsman Ian Cockbain. The pair repelled the threat of Waqar, who ran in down the bank in a pair of sneakers.

Eschewing personal milestones, Folland declared early on the second day at 175 for 2, and after Aamer Sohail, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Shoaib Mohammad had had some useful time in the middle, Shoaib declared, leaving Minor Counties to chase exactly 250 in what turned out to be 46 overs.

Mushtaq Ahmed bowling to Nick Folland of Minor Counties, 1992. Mushtaq took six wickets in the second innings but Minor Counties snuck a win by one wicket

Mushtaq Ahmed bowling to Nick Folland of Minor Counties, 1992. Mushtaq took six wickets in the second innings but Minor Counties snuck a win by one wicket © Marlow Cricket Club

Graeme Calway got things off to a rollicking start, scoring 57 out of an opening stand of 88, including a back-foot slap-drive off Waqar that he called "the shot of my life". A breezy 28 from Cambridgeshire's Nicholas Adams kept the board moving, but the wicket was taking spin, and when Mushtaq Ahmed breached Folland's defences, then bamboozled the middle order, 173 for 3 had become 196 for 7, with only Cockbain standing firm.

"It was spinning square, with trampoline bounce," he recalls. "Mushy had only bowled legspinners at me - leggie, leggie, leggie - and I was just waiting for the shorter one. I'd cut him a couple of times for four, but he was sort of setting me up. Then he bowled his wrong'un, but he dragged it down. I didn't pick it, but it was short, so I smacked it over midwicket for a one-bounce four. He looked at me long and hard, and I just grinned. He obviously though, 'Oh shit, he can pick me'. But I couldn't. I only smiled because he'd dragged it down. He didn't bowl me another wrong'un for the rest of the innings, which was perfect!"

Cockbain added 16 with Jimmy Lewis (0) and 26 with Keith Donohue (2), who was bowled by Mushtaq, leaving Cockbain on strike, nine down and requiring 12 runs to beat the world champions. Sohail would be the bowler, at which point Cockbain takes up the story.

"First ball I skipped down the wicket and hit him over extra cover for a one-bounce four. Then I had a big whoosh and could have been stumped. I fell over a bit and scrambled back. I remember thinking then: 'Come on, don't be stupid. Don't overhit.' Third ball, he tried to tuck me up and I swept him over square leg for six. I couldn't sweep very well, but the week before, Geoff Miller, who was playing for Cheshire at the time, had given me a sweeping lesson. It came as a bolt from the blue. That put the willies up them. They were all arguing among themselves in Urdu, which was great to see."

Two from three. Sohail then found a couple of dots. Cockbain, 83 not out, was reluctant to cede the strike to last man Tony Smith, yet to face - which meant two from the last ball and all four results possible. The financial advisor from Merseyside realised he had to speculate to accumulate. "I ran down again and hit him over the top for four, and I don't think I stopped running for 20 minutes."

"We'd beaten the world champions!" recalls Adams, who led the delirious pitch invasion in pursuit of "Coey". "Jimmy Lewis and I got royally pissed, going from one pub to the next around Marlow, where I had family. We ended up sleeping in Jimmy's car, thinking that someone from Breakfast TV would be contacting us in the morning to tell our wonderful story. It didn't happen, and when we went to the newsagent we couldn't find it in any of the papers, just two inches on the back of the Times".

Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper

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