IDEALLY, county cricket’s trophy winners are saluted by an ecstatic home crowd or by a full house at Lord’s. Four of Derbyshire’s five major honours fit this category: the NatWest and Benson and Hedges finals of 1981 and 1993, the Sunday League title clinched at Derby in 1990 and promotion and the Second Division championship ensured at the County Ground in 2012.
But the most glittering prize of all, the County Championship, was a horse of a very different colour. Eighty years ago, in 1936, Derbyshire won the Championship for the only time in what remains the most remarkable rags-to-riches story in the history of the competition. Given this Cinderella aspect it was, perhaps, appropriate that the climax occurred on an unprepossessing ground some 150 miles from Derby and was shaped by events even further afield in Hove.
In those days, the Championship was the only prize on offer and it was the playground of the Big Six, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex, Surrey and Kent. During 42 seasons of the official Championship from 1890-1935, only Warwickshire in 1911 proved an exception but their success was qualified. They did not meet either Kent or Middlesex, who finished second and third, and most of their fixtures were against teams in the lower half of the table.
Small fry such as Derbyshire counted themselves lucky to keep such company. By the time Will Taylor took over as secretary in 1908 – he was to remain in post for more than 51 years – things were dire. The club nearly folded and it was only Taylor’s acumen – his scrutiny of players’ expense claims became legendary – and the generosity of the president Victor Cavendish, the Ninth Duke of Devonshire, that Derbyshire stayed in business.
They hit rock bottom in 1920. Eighteen fixtures were arranged. Seventeen were lost and the other abandoned without a ball being bowled. After a brief revival, Derbyshire went 36 matches without a win from 1923-25, finishing last again in 1924.
There had to be change. A talented young amateur batsman Guy Jackson, from the family which owned the Clay Cross Company, the coal and iron firm, had been made captain in 1922. Harry Elliott, the wicketkeeper, and Harry Storer, who became a fine opening batsman and even better known in football circles with Derby County and England and later as a successful manager, were becoming established. But the master stroke was the appointment of Sam Cadman, from Glossop, as coach in 1926. Cadman, who had spent 26 years with the county as a reliable allrounder, was placed in charge of the Nursery, the equivalent of the modern academy. The quest for new blood began and the new coach found riches in the cricketing sense amidst the county’s most precious asset, its coalfields.
Within a decade, Derbyshire became one of the most powerful teams in the Championship. In 1931, Jackson was succeeded as captain by Winchester-educated Arthur Richardson, a member of a family which ran a tanning company in Derby. He was a useful batsman and a skipper who quickly earned the respect of his team. The county finished sixth in 1933, third in 1934 and were runners-up to Yorkshire in 1935. The batting – the left-handed Denis Smith, Albert Alderman, Stan Worthington and Les Townsend, backed by a middle-order which included Charlie Elliott, Alan Skinner, Elijah Carrington and Storer in his final seasons, was more than adequate.
But it was the bowling, supported by the wicketkeeper and senior pro Harry Elliott, which was the key: the pace of Bill Copson, sharp fast-medium from the brothers Alf and George Pope, Townsend’s medium-paced off-breaks, the sorcery of Tommy Mitchell’s leg-spin and googlies and Tommy Armstrong’s slow left-arm meant that Derbyshire possessed an attack second-to-none in county cricket.
It was all essentially homespun. In 1936, 21 players appeared in Derbyshire’s 30 first-class matches – 28 in the Championship, Oxford University and the Indian tourists. Fifteen were professionals; 14 county-born plus Storer, who was born on Merseyside during his father’s time as Liverpool’s goalkeeper before his parents returned to the Ripley area when he was four. Of six amateurs who played in 1936, three were Derbyshire-born and one came from a Derbyshire family. An all-Derbyshire-born side was fielded on six occasions, increasing to 15 if Storer is included. In 27 matches, at least ten Derbyshire-raised players took the field, with nine in the remaining three.
The last occasion on which Derbyshire have fielded on all-county born team was against Lancashire at Old Trafford on Tuesday July 14 1936, a week after they had moved to the head of the table, ahead of Kent, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Middlesex. Despite the absence of George Pope, who appeared in only four games due to injury, they retained the lead, although they were defeated by a Larwood and Voce-inspired Nottinghamshire at Ilkeston. Then, after a wobble in August when Mitchell was injured, they made the journey to Wells in Somerset for their penultimate match with the title all but sewn up.
If Derbyshire lost their two remaining matches and Yorkshire won theirs, the two counties would share the honours. So Derbyshire needed merely to avoid defeat in one of these to become outright champions.
Wells was an unlikely venue for such a crucial match. The cathedral city at the foot of the Mendips was justifiably famed for its Bishop’s Palace and associated theological college but the Wells Athletics Ground on Rowden Road was a basic little arena, originally without sightscreens or a scoreboard. The match details to a crowd containing a healthy sprinkling of students and clergy were broadcast from the scorers’ box by loudspeakers. Not all the cricketers were impressed. Somerset’s slow left-arm bowler Horace Hazell did not take kindly to having to find a penny to visit the toilet and the fast bowler Bill Andrews described the pavilion as “only the size of a small cowshed.” Only eleven Championship matches would be played at Rowden Road from 1935-51.
At least the sightscreens were in place for Derbyshire’s visit. Although Somerset were a happy-go-lucky side which finished seventh in 1936 and had shocked Derbyshire by winning at Ilkeston in June, the return game seemed straightforward. Derbyshire led by 70 on the first innings but collapsed against the fast-medium bowling of Arthur Wellard before a crucial 50 from Richardson steadied the innings. It meant that Somerset needed 271 to win, a tall order even against an attack which lacked Mitchell. And with half the team back in the pavilion on the final morning, they still required 131.
At this point the tall and burly Wellard arrived at the crease to face Armstrong’s spin. Wellard was a useful batsman and a destructive hitter who could wreak havoc. When he had made a single he put one foot down the pitch and lashed a ball from Armstrong to Smith in the deep. The fieldsman could not hang on to a difficult chance and in the same over Wellard struck two massive drives over the sightscreen.
Richardson removed his slow bowler from the slaughter but brought him back again with the score 180. Wellard pushed the first ball to short leg and then struck the next five for sixes. Two were driven over midwicket into the car park. The next three, hit straight, cleared long-off, two raining down on some disused pigsties in a field. Thirty from the over. It placed Armstrong, who otherwise had a successful if limited career, in the record books for all the wrong reasons.
Wellard made 86 (seven sixes and eight fours) out of 102 scored while he was at the crease before he skied a ball from Copson and was caught by Townsend at mid-off. Sweat pouring from his face, he made straight for the beer tent. The score was 242 for seven and shortly after lunch the ninth wicket fell at 265. Six runs needed, one wicket remaining.
Horace Hazell had a seasonal batting average of nine but he now surpassed himself, driving Copson to the boundary and lifting Townsend’s fifth ball over cover’s head for the winning runs. Astonishingly, Somerset, 274 for nine, had won by one wicket and Derbyshire were left frustrated and angry, not least Arthur Richardson. His son William recalled:
“My father told me about some of the team over-indulging and celebrating the Championship prematurely during the course of the match. He was very angry when he learned about this. Travel arrangements had to be made for the next match the following day at Oakham School ground against Leicestershire, which, I believe, involved getting to Bristol and changing trains at Leicester. Charlie Elliott, the junior professional, was sent to ask father about the arrangements for leaving Wells. Still furious, father replied: ‘Tell them to bloody well walk.”
However, with Yorkshire failing to win at Hove, Derbyshire were crowned champions late on that Friday afternoon (28 August), rounding off their season in style with a win at Oakham. But it was Arthur Wellard who made the headlines.
John Shawcroft is the author of Local Heroes – The story of the Derbyshire team which won the County Championship. It was runner-up in the The Cricket Society’s Book of the Year award.