Warwickshire captain Alan Smith is chaired by his team-mates

Warwickshire celebrate their Gillette Cup win in 1968. Pakistan's Khalid "Billy" Ibadulla is second from left

© PA Photos/Getty Images

Remember when Britain was invaded?

Fifty years ago, the English domestic game underwent a revolution. Players who were part of it look back

Luke Alfred  |  

In April 1968, English domestic cricket went in for a rare bout of self-improvement, relaxing the mandatory two-and-a-half year residence qualification for overseas professionals. Each county was allowed one, and the new rule unleashed a flood of the great and the good into the game.

Garry Sobers put his sought-after signature on a contract with Nottinghamshire. Rohan Kanhai plumped for Warwickshire. Intikhab Alam found his way to Surrey, and Greg Chappell headed into the West Country, for a spell with Somerset. The dynamic South African allrounder Mike Procter went to Gloucestershire, while his schoolboy compatriot, Barry Richards, vacillated between Sussex and Hampshire. Eventually he chose the latter - because they offered £150 more.

Elsewhere in the world there was political restlessness. The Viet Cong had begun their Tet Offensive in January. It was a year for widespread protests, like that at Grosvenor Square in London and in Nanterre, a Paris suburb, where Daniel Cohn-Bendit (otherwise known as Dany Le Rouge) led a months'-long student revolt.

The Beatles' "Hey Jude" entered the charts in 1968, as did Dionne Warwick's "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" If you were after a slightly different listening experience, you could listen to an Irish actor called Richard Harris mooch his way through a song called "MacArthur Park". Melancholy and slightly portentous, it spoke of dashed dreams and unrequited love; it was one of the soundtracks to an age.

As luck would have it, Hampshire's first game of the season was against Sussex at Hove. Batting first, Sussex were bowled out by Bob Cottam for 140. Richards, batting at four for Hants, arrived at the crease at 15 for 2. John Snow, barrelling down the Hove slope, had his tail up. It was cold and miserable and some way away from the muggy comforts of Durban's midsummer heat. Richards was bowled for a duck.

Roy Marshall bats in the nets, West Indies tour of England, Lord's, April 14, 1950 © Getty Images Foreign players in county cricket in 1968

Players who signed up as overseas pros for the 1968 County Championship:

Hylton Ackerman (Northamptonshire), Greg Chappell (Somerset), Farokh Engineer (Lancashire), Vanburn Holder (Worcestershire), Asif Iqbal (Kent), Lee Irvine (Essex), Rohan Kanhai (Warwickshire), Majid Khan (Glamorgan), Mike Procter (Gloucestershire), Barry Richards (Hampshire), Garry Sobers (Nottinghamshire)

Overseas players already in the County Championship by the time the residence rules were relaxed in 1968 included:

Younis Ahmed (Surrey), Keith Boyce (Essex), Carlton Forbes (Nottinghamshire), Lance Gibbs (Warwickshire, who played no Championship matches before 1968), Geoff Greenidge (Sussex), Khalid "Billy" Ibadulla (Warwickshire), Roy Marshall above(Hampshire), Mushtaq Mohammad (Northamptonshire), Deryck Murray (Nottinghamshire), John Shepherd (Kent), Glenn Turner (Worcestershire; he played only one first-class game for them the previous season), Tony Cordle (Glamorgan), Danny Livingstone (Hampshire), Stuart Leary (Kent), Clive Inman (Leicestershire), Ray Steart and Harry Latchman (Middlesex), Bill Alley (Somerset), Ron Headley (Worcestershire)

Worse followed. That night some of Richards' team-mates ended up thwacking him with a toilet brush, part initiation, part drunken prank gone wrong. He woke the next morning with a black eye, and batted bravely in Hampshire's second innings with a shiner. The Sussex committee members'schadenfreude at Richards' first-innings duck was short-lived. In Hampshire's second he scored 53 not out in a drawn game - just pointed enough to remind them of what their failure to stump up an extra £150 had cost them.

Nearby Essex already had Keith Boyce on their books, but they added another pro in the form of Lee Irvine of South Africa, who was a year or two ahead of Richards at Durban Boys High. Irvine was 24 at the time, had yet to play Test cricket, and was keen to pit himself against the emotional and technical challenges of a wet summer. Since leaving school he had worked as a clerk for the SA Perm Building Society and didn't want to be stuck in an office for the rest of his days. When the Essex chairman, Doug Insole called, saying that he was looking for someone to join Gordon Barker in the team's middle order, Irvine was all ears. "Let's put it this way," he said, "It didn't take long for me to get on a plane.

"I arrived at Heathrow and made my way to Wanstead, where I boarded for a couple of weeks with Johnny Welsh, who was a wealthy engineer. After that, board and lodging was provided by Ron and Janice Mouldey for one pound per day. Their daughter had left home to get married and I took her room. They were Essex supporters and he was a Spurs man. I remember he had an entire room devoted to his collection of Spurs programmes."

Essex had yet to make Chelmsford their home ground, and played "home weeks" at a variety of outgrounds, including Leyton, Ilford, Romford, Southend-on-Sea and Colchester. Such pitches were always uncovered and often tended by the local or village curator. They could be charming and quaint but also deadly and malicious, spitting from ball one. The summer was wet, with pitches either drying out or getting progressively wetter, in a constant state of uneasy equilibrium with the weather.

Arriving on a jet plane: Sobers lands in Heathrow in April 1968

Arriving on a jet plane: Sobers lands in Heathrow in April 1968 © Getty Images

The conditions weren't to everyone's liking. Irvine remembers Kanhai cursing like a midshipman, intentionally getting out cheaply in both innings in a game against Essex at Leyton in August. "Ray East was turning it sideways and he basically gave his wickets away. To preserve his form, he said. He went back to Edgbaston and scored big."

As the summer progressed, Irvine began to get a feel for the Essex pecking order. He noticed that wherever Essex went, Barker - a conscientious 1000-runs-a-season man - would approach the groundsman and address him by name. After chatting, he'd declare that a certain number of runs was a useful score on such a wicket. Impressed by Barker's clairvoyance, Irvine came to trust and understand him.

"We played a game at Chalkwell Park at Westcliff, where Gordon, a tiny fellow originally from Durham and the ultimate professional, inspected the pitch and said '20' as we walked off. I asked him what he meant. 'You've done well to score 20 on this,' was his answer, and he was proven right because we batted first against Hampshire and were bowled out for 95. Gordon got 30 of them before being bowled by 'Butch' White, and I got 9.

"I noticed as Gordon played forward, he took the bottom hand off the bat to kill the ball and prevent the edge from travelling. Sometimes we batted out of our crease. It was all immaterial because in reply Barry [Richards] got 176 out of 301. He was brilliant, absolutely fantastic. None of our guys got close to fifty."

Elsewhere in the country, teams were ploughing up and down the highways, often forcing two three-day games plus a 40-over game on the Sunday into a week of cricket. Robin Jackman, who made his debut for Surrey in 1966, was thrilled at the prospect of bowling at the overseas pros because it gave him an opportunity to grow his game. He was aware that there were Little Englanders who complained about the foreign invasion but says that the consensus on the circuit was mostly positive.

With so much cricket on offer, the professionals loved it, too. "Zaheer Abbas was down with Proccie at Gloucester, although it could have been a season or two later," says Jackman. "We played them across a weekend and it included a 40-over game on the Sunday. I don't think Zaheer took his pads off for three days.

There's a riot goin' on: the student uprising in Paris

There's a riot goin' on: the student uprising in Paris © Getty Images

"Younis Ahmed had already qualified for us [at Surrey] and our pro that season was Intikhab, the legspinner, a lovely man. I asked him how he dealt with the rain and the wet outfield as a leggie and he just said, 'I grip the ball a little harder.' He was magnificent. I once remember him bowling a no-ball and, cocky as ever, I said, 'Blimey, you can't have bowled too many of those in your career.' Quick as a flash, he says, 'Yes, the last one I bowled was in 1958.'"

It might have seemed the world was aflame in 1968. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in early April and throughout the year the Americans tried to pretend they weren't losing the war in Vietnam. Emaciated children starved in Biafra, and Russian tanks thundered menacingly into Prague. One of the iconic photographs of the year showed a hippie putting a daisy into the barrel of a National Guardsman's rifle. If you were in a little need of perking up, you could always hum along to Aretha's "I Say a Little Prayer".

Irvine took out a subscription to the Daily Telegraph and watched television - which only arrived in South Africa in 1976 - when he could, trying to keep himself informed about current events. Jackman says that there was little time to register what was going on in the rest of the world because of the gruelling travel.

He remembers one particularly challenging week when Surrey were in London on a Saturday before driving to Swansea in the west for either a Gillette Cup or Sunday League game. On Sunday night it was back to London for the completion of their three-day game, before heading up to Scarborough on the Tuesday night. Surrey's game against Yorkshire began on the Wednesday and lasted three days. On Friday night they were on the road down to Eastbourne for a game which started the following day against Sussex.

The soundtrack to the times was provided by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones ("They were considered a bit left-wing," Jackman says) as well as those old standbys Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. Mostly it was travelling and cricket; sometimes it was cricket with a little travel on the side. One of Irvine's team-mates at Essex, the legspinner Robin Hobbs, found that his racing green Mini was in high demand. Not only was it the envy of the Essex squad, he pocketed the petrol allowance. "The guys loved it - it went like shit off a shovel," said Hobbs.

Barry Richards bats during his 82 against Middlesex at Lord's in August

Barry Richards bats during his 82 against Middlesex at Lord's in August © PA Photos/Getty Images

The 1968 season not only saw the relaxation of the rules relating to overseas professionals, it was also the last year in which all counties played 28 matches in the County Championship. The following season the Player's County League (otherwise known as the Sunday League) was introduced, which reduced the County Championship fixture list to 24.

The BBC televised one match per weekend in the 40-over Sunday League and a virtuous circle was created whereby television didn't take fans away from the game but drove them towards the live experience. Sponsors quickly realising that national television was the place to be. Gillette were already sponsors of the 60-over competition and the Sunday League was picked uo by Player's cigarettes. Within a season, English domestic cricket stepped into a more commercially sophisticated, television-driven age.

"At first I roomed with Geoff Arnold and I was then Pat Pocock's roomie and I don't think that changed for 12 years," says Jackman. "Pat was a tremendous man. He often went to bed early - I had a reputation for lingering in the bar - and when I got to the room, the door would be slightly ajar with nothing blocking the way. The bathroom light would be on and there would be toothpaste on my brush. In the morning he'd make the tea and deliver the newspaper."

What happened in the bar was almost as important as what happened in the middle, sometimes more so. Sobers wasn't shy of a pint, and neither was Procter. Sometimes, when the teams were criss-crossing London, they all used to congregate at Raymond's Revue Bar in Soho.

Irvine talks about the price of drinks and who would pay for them occasionally being an issue. Hobbs talks wistfully of free love and a breathalyser-free world. "It was a wonderful time to be involved," he says. "When you look back on the number of great players in '68, it was a pleasure to play against them."


Carlton "Cha Cha" Forbes: cricketer by day, nightclub owner after sundown © PA Photos/Getty Images

Cricket was played on a truly national scale. In late June, for example, Somerset played Worcestershire in Glastonbury of all places. Newark held a game (Notts v Somerset), as did Gillingham (Kent v Hampshire). Bath, Peterborough and Southport all held matches during the summer, as did Hastings and Hull. Fans could be heard whistling the tune from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the way to a day at the cricket.

"Some of my disappointment in not going on the cancelled South African tour of England in 1970 was because it would finally have given me an opportunity to play on good pitches," said Irvine. "We never got to places like Headingley because we always played Yorkshire on outgrounds."

Most of the counties had overseas professionals or naturalised overseas players, like Kent's John Shepherd, or both, so matches would see the pros come together, an arm wrestle within the larger game. Such contests were magnified the following season, where cricketers became minor celebrities thanks to the 40-over Sunday League.

With his golden locks and easy destructiveness, Richards became a paragon of the high-profile overseas achiever, attuned to the game's widening commercial opportunities. "Sexual intercourse began," according to the poet Philip Larkin in "Annus Mirabilis", "in nineteen sixty three (which was rather late for me)" but in cricket sex took its time; it came - so to speak - with the arrival of Richards in his Ford Capri, in 1969.

Irvine's first exposure to Sobers' radiance was on a sticky track at Tent Bridge in late June. Irvine had a torrid afternoon facing Carlton "Cha-Cha" Forbes and Sobers after being hit under the armpit early in his innings by Mike Taylor, the Notts medium-pacer. Sobers bowled quick, then orthodox left-arm spin, then left-arm leggies. To round it all off, he took the second new ball.

Warwickshire captain Alan Smith is flanked by West Indian imports Rohan Kanhai (left) and Lance Gibbs

Warwickshire captain Alan Smith is flanked by West Indian imports Rohan Kanhai (left) and Lance Gibbs © Getty Images

"You batted like a Pommie clown," Sobers said to him as they walked off.

"Hey, hang on a minute," replied Irvine. "So I'm scratching, what of it?"

Sobers shook his head and laughed, telling Irvine that they could talk it over later that night in one of Forbes' Nottingham clubs. Irvine duly arrived but Sobers was nowhere in sight. He ordered a drink, then nursed another. Eventually, with no sign of Sobers, he headed back to the team hotel.

The following morning he met Sobers on the physio's table, considerably worse for wear. He asked where Irvine had gotten to the previous night. It took the two a few seconds to figure out that Forbes owned two clubs and Irvine had gone to the wrong one.

After a pre-start nap, Sobers wrapped up the tail, snuffling Irvine for 95. He and Forbes shared all ten of Essex's first innings wickets between them.

Sobers then made good on his previous night's boast - that he would show the "Pommie clown" how to bat. "He was magnificent," says Irvine. "He went back to almost everything with this high, scything backlift and hit it properly hard. If I remember correctly, he got about 80-odd.

"When I got to know Garry a little bit better, I realised that, boy, he could party. He used to have a bit of a flutter too. In the end I think Notts ended up giving him a weekly allowance, otherwise he'd just fritter the money away."

At the fag end of August, Nottinghamshire travelled south to play Hampshire in Portsmouth, both sides still in with a vague shout for the title. Richards always rose to an unusual cricketing occasion. He'd been watching how the press gravitated to Sobers and reckoned he should take advantage of the West Indian's presence to make a point or two.

Robin Hobbs bowls against Glamorgan in Ilford

Robin Hobbs bowls against Glamorgan in Ilford © PA Photos/Getty Images

With Hampshire batting first, Richards had some early luck: Forbes induced the inside edge, but the ball hit the leg stump without dislodging the bail; the catch was dropped by Deryck Murray, the keeper, so Richards was doubly reprieved. He went on to make 206 immaculate runs, and Hampshire scored 400-plus at more than four an over.

Nottinghamshire made a slower but decent-enough reply, but despite some sporting declarations, the game petered out, Sobers scoring 22 and 12. "Whenever Garry was around," Richards is quoted as saying of the innings by his biographer, Andy Murtagh, "there were plenty of media and press people there. That definitely gave me reason to concentrate."

Yorkshire, without an overseas professional, captured the title. Kent, Glamorgan, Nottinghamshire and Hampshire followed in that order behind. They harvested 114 bowling points. Only one other side (Lancashire, who came sixth) broached the 100 barrier. It was a formidable attack, as Richards found out during an early-season trip to Harrogate. Fred Trueman was playing his last season but one, and was still a daunting prospect, bowling cutters with canny control. Tony Nicholson, the former policeman in Rhodesia, opened with him, while Don Wilson bowled his left-arm spin. Ray Illingworth was often close to unplayable on uncovered wickets up and down the country.

After their missed appointment and exchange at Trent Bridge, Sobers and Irvine met again, so to speak, one last time. Irvine was leading the annual competition for most sixes in the Championship by 12 with a game to go. Then came the spectacle journalists who had been following Sobers round the country had been waiting for. In his final game of the season he smashed six sixes in an over off Glamorgan's Malcolm Nash, and another six in the match - and he was suddenly all square with the South African.

Kanhai at slip in a game at Lord's

Kanhai at slip in a game at Lord's © PA Photos/Getty Images

Irvine, though, had a trick up his sleeve: he knew Sobers wouldn't be batting again that year, and against Lancashire, in Essex's last game of the season, he smashed the single six needed for victory. Whenever they met after that, he says, Sobers would complain that his explosive hitting in Swansea was far more deserving of the £250 prize. Irvine would smile inwardly and think back to the afternoon he was called a "Pommie clown".

Fearing South Africa's imminent isolation in cricket, both Richards and Irvine went back to England the following year. They travelled in slightly better style this time, both catching the Edinburgh Castle from Durban before it berthed in Southampton. It was an eventful trip for Irvine because on the voyage he met his wife to be.

For both of those players - and many of their ilk - 1968 was a once-in-a-lifetime season, and that feeling was sharpened in retrospect by the widening commercialisation of the game in the years to come.

Irvine remembers the little things. Catching tubes and British Rail overground trains from his first digs in Wanstead to Chelmsford. Barrelling about in Scotland in a hired car at the end of the season looking for traces of his ancestors. The fact that Essex's secretary lugged a sponsored caravan around the country in which to do his work. Like his team-mate Hobbs, he remembers the cold, the constant travel, and songs on the car radio. It was a special season.

From 1969 the claws of commerce attached themselves to cricket's flanks. After that, the sport in England was palpably different.

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg