Back in 1994, there were four trophies on offer. Warwickshire won three out of the four – the County Championship, the 55-over Benson & Hedges Cup and the 40 over Axa Equity & Law league. And they were runners-up in the fourth, the NatWest Trophy.
In fact, with a NatWest win in 1993 and then the double of the Championship and the NatWest again in 1995, the Bears actually won an unprecedented six titles in the space of 24 months.
Who better to tell the story than Patrick Murphy, for many years the BBC’s ‘Mr Sport’ in the Midlands? He covered Warwickshire’s key matches at the time and quite rightly regards many of the players as good friends.
Those who are old enough to remember the season will enjoy re-visiting the events that unfolded – Brian Lara’s world-record innings of 501 against Durham, the progress to the B & H final that involved a controversial quarter-final bowl-out and, in the 40 over league, a title clinching win on the last day against Gloucestershire, achieved despite an early scoreline of three runs for three wickets.
Those too young to remember 1994 may well be fascinated to see the seeds of so many aspects of cricket today starting to germinate.
The Warwickshire batsmen, guided by coach Bob Woolmer and captain Dermot Reeve, assiduously practised the (then) much despised premiditated reverse sweep. Woolmer also had the players practising range hitting which is standard T20 fare now but was unknown then.
Neil Smith was used as a pinch hitter at the top of the batting order, which was itself subject to change depending on the state of the game. And team spirit was bolstered by the rule that no-one said anything negative – no slagging off of colleagues, just an appreciation of their efforts.
Of course, if it had all been that simple, the story would be, especially for non-Bears fans, somewhat tedious. The real entertainment lies in what was going on below the surface.
The overseas player initially signed for the season was India’s Manoj Prabakhar, who arrived with a previously undisclosed ankle injury. Murphy describes how Chief Executive Dennis Amiss and long-term backroom man Keith Cook had to visit Prabakhar to tell him that the contract wasn’t going to be fulfilled – and also to prise his company car away from him!
And so Lara was signed for £40,000, a significant sum in those days but, with 2,000 extra members soon signed up, an absolute bargain.
Lara was often at odds with his captain Dermot Reeve. He would turn up late for matches, miss practice sessions (“I’ve just scored 501 and you think I need to practise?”) and complained of a sore knee but would go off to play golf after the day’s play.
There were at least two major bust-ups with Reeve during matches, watched with bemusement by the rest of the team.
Dermot Reeve himself had to swallow the bitter pill of being dropped mid-season from the Championship side, replaced as captain by Tim Munton. Tactical genius he may have been, but 1994 was not a happy season for him. “I enjoyed 1995 more,” he said recently.
As for that bowl-out against Kent at Edgbaston, the visiting team were furious that the all-covering “Brumbrella” was not used to protect the outfield, leading to no play on either of the two days allocated. Letters of complaint to the authorities were to no avail – and in the bowl-out, when a Kent player who is now an international umpire missed the stumps, the Bears went through.
Murphy is lucky that, as well as the major protagonists, he has a cast of distinctive and quirky support actors each of whom gets a chapter.
How about these four?
Roger Twose who was branded ‘a pain in the neck’ by Alec Stewart. Twose greeted Lara’s arrival by pinning a note to the great man’s locker saying “Welcome to the second-best left hand batsman in the world.” Twose, of course, was also a left hand batsman.
Paul Smith who, like Oscar Wilde, could resist everything except temptation. The long drag in his bowling action was matched by a similarly long drag on a Rothman’s cigarette. Later, confessions of drug-taking in his autobiography would lead to a ban on working in English domestic cricket.
Keith Piper was described by Paul Nixon as the most naturally talented wicket keeper in the world at the time. Bubbly and confident on the field, he was insecure and full of self-doubt off it. His troubled early life, partly shrouded in mystery, has sadly been matched by difficult times post-cricket.
Gladstone Small was a fine bowler. He was most often known as “the man with no neck”, about whom the Warwickshire fans would affectionately sing “Doing the Gladstone Small” to the tune of the Lambeth Walk. In 1994, when not on the field of play, he could invariably be found asleep in the changing room – except when Brian Lara was batting.
There are plenty more characters described by Murphy with affection and an eye for the revealing anecdote or quotation.
Not the least interesting – and certainly the most moving – chapter is the one about Dickie Davis who bowled his left-arm spin successfully in 1994 before being superseded by Ashley Giles. Dickie died of a brain tumour aged just 37, but it is clear that he is not forgotten, either by the players or by his widow Sam who now works for the Professional Cricketers’ Association.
The book has an introduction by Ian Bell, who was a Junior Bear back in 1994. Graham Morris provides some excellent photographs that illustrate not just the action but also the personalities of those involved.
All round, this is a book that I can unreservedly recommend to cricket fans of all ages. Entertaining and informative, it fizzes along with never a dull moment. Just like a Brian Lara innings.
The Greatest Season by Patrick Murphy is published by Fairfield Books, price £20.