Just before lunch on May 6, 1981, the opening day of the season at Edgbaston, Warwickshire captain Bob Willis, in search of a breakthrough with Yorkshire’s openers Geoffrey Boycott and Bill Athey having added 58, threw the ball to Chris Lethbridge.
It was a special moment for the 19-year-old all-rounder. Yorkshire born-and-bred, but rejected by his native county, he had joined the Bears instead and here he was making his first-class debut against the White Rose.
A special moment, then. And it was about to become even more special – so much so that it will remain forever in the Bears’ history books.
Players had been making their first-class debuts for Warwickshire ever since 11 chaps did so in the county’s inaugural first-class match against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in 1894. In those intervening 97 years, not one of them had taken a wicket with his first ball.
Geoffrey edged my first ball to second slip. I knew him quite well because I’d bowled at him in Yorkshire’s nets so it was a great moment though, to be honest, I enjoyed scoring the runs more because that lasted longer.Chris Lethbridge
The strapping, moustachioed 6ft seamer marked out his run, charged in to deliver his first ball – and Boycott edged it into the hands of Dennis Amiss at second slip. Lethbridge had a wicket with his first ball in first-class cricket and went on to complete a highly impressive debut by top-scoring with 69 in the first innings.
It was quite a start for the young miner to whom the National Coal Board had given leave to take up a six-week trial with the Bears.
Thirty-seven years later, back in his native Yorkshire where, having first returned to the mining, he now works as a service engineer in a quarry, Lethbridge fondly recalls how it all started for him at Edgbaston. On a filthy night in February.
“I’d been on the MCC Groundstaff and Don Wilson told me Yorkshire didn’t want me so to look around,” he said. “I went to Warwickshire for a trial on a cold, dark Tuesday night in February and was asked back for a two-week trial.
“When the season started the team-sheets were put up for the first games and I looked at the 2nd team and my name wasn’t there so that was a bit disappointing. Then I looked at the first team and I was there. I’d never even played a 2nd XI game so it was a bit of a surprise.
“Then Geoffrey edged my first ball to second slip. I knew him quite well because I’d bowled at him in Yorkshire’s nets so it was a great moment though, to be honest, I enjoyed scoring the runs more because that lasted longer. David Bairstow, Arnie Sidebottom and Phil Carrick were giving me plenty of stick – “reject” and stuff like that.
“We had a bit of a tail in that game because David Hopkins went in before me and Hoppy wasn’t the best with the bat! I went in at eight with Willie Hogg, Bob Willis and Dilip Doshi to come. I was on 47 with Doshi, the last man, at the other end so thought this might not last long so ‘muck or nettles’, I went for it. Peter Whiteley had bowled eight overs for two runs and I took him for 22 in an over. That took me to 69, then Dilip and I got in a mix-up and I was run out.”
It was an eye-catching start to a career which would bring Lethbridge 50 first-class and 58 limited-overs appearances in five years – 1981 to 1985 – with Warwickshire. It was not, to say the least, a golden era for the club, especially in the championship in which they finished bottom in 1981 and 1982, though they did reach the NatWest Trophy final in ’82 and the Benson and Hedges Cup final in ’84.
“We seemed to concentrate more on one-day cricket for some reason,” Lethbridge recalls. “I played in the NatWest final against Surrey which was a real thrill and was 12th man for a B&H final.
“It wasn’t the best era, but I loved it at Warwickshire. The National Coal Board released with me with an understanding that I could go back after my cricket career, so it was just great to get that chance. The Birmingham people made me ever so welcome and I made some lifelong friends. I’m still in touch with Gary Shaw from the Villa and Gladstone Small.”
I didn’t go to Edgbaston for 30 years, not for any bad reason but just because I was so busy working, but then I went back to the ground last year and it was like I had never been away. I’m coming back next season.Chris Lethbridge
Released by the Bears in 1985, Lethbridge played minor county cricket for Cambridgeshire for six years before returning full-time to his native county, clocking back on at the colliery and playing cricket in the Bradford League.
But it had been a pretty stylish hiatus to his career down the pit, at a time when county cricket brimmed with world’s best players. Ian Botham, for example – and Lethbridge was in the Warwickshire side on the receiving end of Botham’s stunning 138 from 65 balls for Somerset at Edgbaston in 1985.
“Botham was tough to bowl to – such a big bloke and just a bit of a bully on the pitch, to be honest,” said Lethbridge. “There were some amazing players in county cricket back then. You’d play Middlesex and they would have pretty much a team full of Test players. Week after week you’d come up against great players – Allan Lamb, Ian Botham, Viv Richards. At least I can say I got Botham and Richards out in three balls!”
That’s a proud claim indeed, though you get the feeling it is one that the down-to-earth Lethbridge rarely makes. He reflects upon his time as a pro cricketer only with warmth, humility and good humour.
“I was released by Warwickshire – that happens doesn’t it?” he said. “Then I had six great years at Cambridgeshire where sometimes the team was ten public schoolboys and me! They went from bottom the year before I arrived to top and I opened the bowling and batted up the order which I could never have done in first-class cricket. Then it was back down the mines.
“I didn’t go to Edgbaston for 30 years, not for any bad reason but just because I was so busy working, but then I went back to the ground last year and it was like I had never been away. I’m coming back next season!”