Originally told in The Cricketer magazine, former Warwickshire batsman John Claughton recalls the year that Bob Willis led Warwickshire to an unlikely Sunday League title in 1980.

It’s not surprising that the passing of Bob Willis should stir memories of the deeds enacted at Headingley in 1981. However, those brief days from the age of heroes should not overshadow Bob’s greatest and most unlikely triumph, his leadership of Warwickshire CCC to the John Player League title just a year before, in 1980.

Let me explain. In 1980 Warwickshire were paddling in the slough of despond. They had not won a trophy since the 1972 Championship success with a team populated by giants, nine giants in fact: John Jameson, Dennis Amiss, Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharran, MJK Smith, Deryck Murray, Lance Gibbs, David Brown and Willis. Nor would they win another one until the NatWest Trophy in 1989, nine years later. It was a long way from 1980 to the golden age of Dermot Reeve and Bob Woolmer.

In 1979, Warwickshire had come 15th in the Championship, lost their first game in the Gillette Cup, got nowhere in the Benson & Hedges Cup and been bottom by a clear 12 points in the John Player League, losing 13 out of 15 games.

Nor was 1980 an obvious time of hope. The briefest of visits to any faded copy of the 1980 Playfair Cricket Annual does not tell of a playing staff bursting with riches: the great warhorse, Brown, had crossed over from warhorse to trainer; John Whitehouse, the previous year’s captain, had been despatched to the Elban exile of the 2nd XI; Kallicharran was touring with West Indies; and Bob himself would be absent at those same Tests for some of the summer. It also has to be said, in the pursuit of truth, that John Player League cricket had not always been his favourite way of passing a Sunday afternoon.

And what about the rest of us? Of course, there was still the timeless Amiss and loyal men and true like Steve Rouse, but a oneday teamsheet bearing an assortment of the names, in order of age, of Geoff Humpage (26), Steve Perryman (24), David Smith (23), Phil Oliver (23), Claughton (23), Andy Lloyd (23), David Hopkins (23) and Chris Maynard (22) was not likely to worry many opponents as they ate their pre-match Sunday lunch. And then there was, youngest of all, the entirely unknown quantity of Gladstone Cleophas Small, aged 18. It was only in 1978 that he had given up his embryonic off-spin career and turned to fast bowling and so, even in 1979, he was still capable of the occasional inadvertent beamer. There were in those days, of course, two overseas players: Anton Ferreira, a South African former boxer who was not, to be honest, always at his fighting weight and Dilip Doshi, a bespectacled Indian left-arm spin-bowler whom Bob nicknamed Joe 90, much to his confusion. He had been hired, it was assumed, to do half the bowling in the Championship. He certainly did that. Even so, neither of them looked likely to be a match for Garth Le Roux or Imran Khan or Vintcent van der Bijl or Wayne Daniel or Richard Hadlee or Javed Miandad or… I won’t go on.

And yet, and yet, by mid-June this unlikely gathering had won eight games in a row, a record at that time, and immortal glory was all but ours. How could this be? Well, there were some reasons, some decisions, some events, some people, some moments that made it happen. Man is not all chance.

One reason might have been the introduction of a fitness regime – up to a point. As has been recorded elsewhere, in the late 1970s Willis had identified his own need for greater stamina and thereby, despite his scar-torn knees, he had taken to a regular routine of running. It certainly wasn’t pretty, but it was dogged and soon it was at the core of what we all did. In the winter we ran round the outside of Edgbaston in the dark after indoor nets. Pre-season training ended most, or at least some, days with a three-mile run around the Birmingham University track. Sadly the effectiveness of this and our desire to improve was somewhat undermined by the wondrous Alan Oakman, 2nd XI coach and time-keeper, another loss in 2019. Since his watch didn’t seem to have a second hand, he could only give us our finishing times in minutes. During the season everyone, well almost everyone, ran six times around the ground after every day’s play. And then there were the horrors: half a dozen 200-metre sprints on the outfield when there was an idle moment or a wet day. Of course, this looks serious, almost scientific, but perhaps it was not sufficiently embedded in our overall lifestyle choices. Pre-season training sessions usually ended with a sausage sandwich and a few lunch-time pints in The Plough in Harborne; and post-match drinking in the Prince of Wales, tucked away behind the Repertory Theatre, was all but compulsory, especially for the uncapped. Even so it was a start, if only a start, on the road to nutritionists and rehydration.

Another possible reason was related. Somewhat by chance, Warwickshire hit on the notion that fielding, and fielding as a team, might make a difference in short-form cricket. In the past there had been great fielders, Colin Bland or Derek Randall, but they were perceived as soloists. This felt like a new device, but it wasn’t an obvious device.  After all, Dilip hadn’t been hired for his athleticism, Bob himself was not the most agile and Uncle Dennis had neither the desire nor the pace to be more than 18 yards from the bat. Indeed, we thought that he thought he wasn’t allowed outside those little white discs. Even so, the rest of us in our early 20s decided that it was often easier to field well than to get a lot of runs or wickets. So that’s what we did.

And then there were some visionary, if not inconceivable, decisions. At the beginning of the season, our bowling attack wasn’t much of an attack. Plan A was to pretend, for a few weeks, that Humpage, a wicketkeeper, was, in fact, a bowler. We seemed to do this by clapping a lot and getting through six balls as quickly as possible. Plan B, when Plan A was being exposed as a con trick, was the signing of John Snow (38), who had been retired for four years. Messrs Brown and Willis must just have decided to phone a friend. I remember – or I think I remember – Bob ringing Mr Snow from my parents’ house to seal the deal. On the other hand, I don’t think I can remember how well he bowled. That didn’t seem to matter: perhaps the opposition, facing such a legend, couldn’t decide, either. For the rest of us, it was enough to have the hero of our teenage years on the same ground, in the same dressing room – and even occasionally diving in the field.

If Snow was a moment of genius from the management, it wasn’t entirely obvious that Dilip and Gladstone were the answer to our Sunday prayers – and yet they were. Gladstone, gliding in off 15 yards, heels clicking together, was Jofra Archer before Jofra Archer was created. He kept on getting good players out: Gehan Mendis, Paul Parker, Frank Hayes, Alan Butcher, Roger Knight, Graham Roope, Keith Fletcher, Geoff Cook, Wayne Larkins – and quickly. Brown and Willis could not believe the jewel they had discovered and they were careful to look after him, lacing his boots, running his bath, sending him to the opticians and the dentist. Dilip, strolling in off 10 paces, may have cost plenty of runs in the field and his constant chess-playing with the fielders may have cost Bob his sanity, but he, too, was a premonition of the future; the centrality of really slow bowling in short-form cricket.

And then there were events which gave us hope and belief. The first one in my mind wasn’t even a John Player League game, but a Benson & Hedges game at Headingley in early May. Wisden confirms the strange truth that Dilip, batting at No.11 for good reason, scored 10 runs off Chris Old’s last over to win the match, by hitting five balls in a row to long-on and running. The attentive reader will already know that running wasn’t Dilip’s strength so the old Headingley pavilion, side on to the square, was not the best spot from which to watch his five 40-yard trips. How we laughed after his 200-yard marathon, not least when Bob told Geoff Boycott to clear off when he came into our dressing room to lament the fatal flaws of his own team.

On the next day, after an evening of Tetleys, we won the John Player League game at Fartown, Huddersfield, a ground that is no more, and completed a weekend double. There was a sense that anything was possible.

Another event was several weeks later, against Middlesex at Edgbaston. There’s a Ken Kelly photo of the end of that match. Humpage is running off triumphant, pursued by the Bears’ fans and accompanied by Messrs Graham Barlow, Mike Selvey, John Emburey and Mike Gatting. Mike Brearley, Clive Radley, Ian Gould, Roland Butcher, van der Bijl and Daniel weren’t in the picture but they were there, too, and they all lost. How could we beat a team with 10 internationals?  Humpage was the answer to that question. From 37 for 3 (Lloyd run out by seven yards, perhaps the worst of his five run-out dismissals in the competition, Claughton lbw Daniel 0), Geoff scored 108 not out. The last 73 runs came in eight overs and it was over with three overs to spare. What would Geoff have done, what could he have done, in today’s brave new world?

And even before that, there had been the ‘Strange Incident of the Team that Didn’t Want to Win’. That team was Surrey, almost as densely populated with talent and experience as Middlesex. Warwickshire scored 170, often a winning total in those ancient times. Surrey ended up 16 short for no fathomable reason. The aforementioned Humpage assures me that they didn’t hit a four in the whole match. I’m not sure that’s so but they certainly barely played a shot in anger in the last 10 overs although there was a certain amount of anger to be heard through the dressing room wall at the end. 

Sadly, we couldn’t stay to listen. In 1980 the fixture list encouraged a good deal of evening driving and we were due in Cambridge the next morning to continue the three-day game we had started on the day before. This was perhaps not our finest hour. On the Saturday we’d had an ordinary day in the field at Fenner’s. On the Monday, fresh from our Surrey triumph, things got worse and we ended up being the first county team to follow on against a university side for generations. By Monday evening, we were a long way down the road to a historic defeat. This was not good for me, not just because I missed two straight ones and my only bat broke but because I had been made captain, for my one and only time, another bright idea from the management. However, even such a humiliating position did not distract the Warwickshire players and management from their deeper purpose, an early morning visit to the gallops at Newmarket. So, as the game started on the Tuesday morning, there were only five of us on the ground and some of the five had already batted. Somehow Gladstone, Gladstone of all people, batted us to safety with his new glasses and better teeth.

The frailty of Fenner’s showed that John Player League invincibility could not last for ever. In a return to normal service we lost to Worcestershire – my fault, I fear – and Nottinghamshire and plucked a tie from the jaws of victory: we needed two off the last over (TA Lloyd on 89 not out) and only got one. So, on one August afternoon we stumbled over the line with John Whitehouse, who had returned from Elba, at the crease. His runs in those final games were of vital significance. On that day the triumphant road from Leicester led to only one possible place, the Prince of Wales, where, to complete this season’s madness, Bob left the trophy on the bar.

By now dear reader, you may be adapting Talking Heads and asking, “How did he get there?” After all, there hadn’t been many run-chases or close finishes or even attacking shots in my four years averaging in the teens for Oxford. My best-known capacity as a player was to kick or occasionally tread on inswingers. I wasn’t called ‘Trapper John’ for nothing. As Brian Brain, the walking anagram, so generously, and correctly, put it in his own diary of that season, “John Claughton had looked out of his class in previous years”.

Somehow Willis and Brown, probably out of a lack of alternatives or impressed by how many minutes it took me to run three miles, added me to their list of visionary decisions. I made my debut at Southampton where, on the Sunday morning, Smith, my room-mate, opened the curtains to a sunny day and said, “There’ll be a good crowd in.” It hit me at that moment that I’d never played in front of a crowd before. About nine hours later I joined Uncle Dennis at the wicket, when we needed 80 in about 15 overs, a score totally beyond my imaginings. So, I blocked a few, or perhaps more than a few, because soon Dennis came down the wicket to offer me some advice. “Get some fire in your belly,” he said and turned away. I thought this was encouragement. He has told me recently that it was desperation lest he’d never face another ball. So, next ball, I ran down the wicket, hit Nigel Cowley into the houses over long-on and I was on my way. And when my friends and relations get entertainment from imagining me playing T20, I have to point out to them that I was Warwickshire’s leading six-hitter in the season.

And I was on my way only because Messrs Willis, Brown and Amiss, the three surviving giants from the 1972 side I watched as a boy, had been kind enough to take me aside one evening and tell me that they had picked me because they thought I was good enough. I don’t know now whether they meant it but I believed them then and, for about two months, that belief and their trust enabled me to pretend that I was good enough. Perhaps it was the same thing as Humpage pretending that he was a bowler. Perhaps others, too, were carried along that season to play at a level way beyond their experience because these senior players created a world and dressing room where we felt we belonged and could actually enjoy playing together. That’s not always been the way of professional cricket dressing rooms and that’s what made the difference.

For me 1980 was the end of the road. For others, like Gladstone and Andy Lloyd, it led on to fortune and, in Andy’s case, misfortune in the shortest of Test careers. Humpage went on to become one of Warwickshire’s greats. For others, the end of their careers came too soon, but I don’t suppose that any of us will ever forget how good it was to walk out on a Sunday behind RGD Willis, to travel with the Good Beer Guide as our road map, to stand in the Prince of Wales alongside players you’d only read about, as if you were their equals, with the westering sun streaming in through the windows.

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