DEC Classics: The best catch I ever saw

DEC Classics: The best catch I [n]ever saw

In the latest edition of our visit to classic matches, Terry Wright revisits the Gillette Cup of 1972.

I need to take you back to 1972, to a time of IRA bombs, of inflation at 6% and of a Cod War with Iceland over fishing rights.  

Edward Heath is Prime Minister, ABBA rule the pop charts, The Godfather is the top film and Monty Python’s Flying Circus is starting its penultimate series. In order to be a 1972 fashion icon, flared trousers are de rigueur.

As Charles Dickens said, of a different age: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

In the world of cricket, England retained the Ashes by drawing the home series 2-2. Warwickshire, unbeaten in 20 matches, walked away with the County Championship. Leicestershire won the 55 overs a side Benson & Hedges Cup and Kent won the 40 over John Player League.

And then there was the Gillette Cup: the 60 overs a side premier domestic one-day competition, eventually won by Lancashire.  

There is a whole story to be told about the final of that competition at Lord’s. But that is for another day.

Let us focus instead on a second round match at Edgbaston, on 19 July between Warwickshire and Leicestershire.

The home side won the toss and compiled an unexceptional 218-7 off their 60 overs. An unbeaten 66 from their captain, M.J.K. (Mike) Smith helped to boost the score. With Smith getting support from the lower middle order, 72 came off the last ten overs. But for that, it would have been a fairly pathetic effort from a side that boasted five Test batsmen in the top six of the order.

The Leicestershire reply was equally pedestrian. The first nine in the order all reached double figures but only two of them (Chris Balderstone and Paul Haywood) progressed beyond 30.

After 59 overs, Leicestershire were 214-8, needing five more to win off the last over.  

Australian fast bowler Graham McKenzie was on strike with 40 year old medium pace bowler Terry Spencer at the non-striker’s end. Spencer had no great batting credentials whereas McKenzie, with a couple of Test fifties to his name, was a good man to have at number nine in the order.

Smith entrusted the last over to Bill Blenkiron, a wholehearted fast-medium bowler who had come to Warwickshire from Durham. His son Darren was later to play for the North-East county.

All is set for a thrilling finish.

First ball of the over: McKenzie takes a single. A wise move or not? We shall see.

Second ball of the over: of all the deliveries to bowl, Blenkiron sends down a leg stump half volley.  

Terry Spencer’s eyes must surely have lit up. With a full swing of the bat, he hits the ball through square leg. Like everyone else in the crowd, my eyes go to the boundary. There are fielders at long leg and deep mid-wicket; but no-one at square leg. That’s it! Game over!

Leicestershire win by two wickets.  Except…..

Slowly, our eyes are drawn back to an area close to the square leg umpire.  A figure is lying full length on the turf with right arm outstretched. And in his hand is an object that looks remarkably like a cricket ball.

The figure is M.J.K., the Warwickshire captain. It is indeed a ball in his hand. He has pulled off an incredible catch.

At this point in the re-telling of the story (which I do frequently, whether people want to hear it or not), I can’t help but recall the description by the great Neville Cardus of the Lord’s Test of 1930.  

Largely thanks to a double hundred by Don Bradman, Australia needed just 72 to win in the second innings. They lost an early wicket. And then Bradman played a full-blooded cut to a ball from Maurice Tate. Cardus describes how England captain Percy Chapman caught the ball half-an-inch from the grass and threw it in the air. Cardus then tells us that he was watching the game in front of the Tavern with Sir James Barrie, the writer who created Peter Pan.  

“Why is he going away?” asked Barrie of Cardus, as Bradman left the crease.  “But surely,” said Cardus, “surely, Sir James, you saw that marvellous catch by Chapman?”

“Oh yes,” replied Barrie, “I saw it all right.  But what evidence do we have that the ball that Chapman threw up in the air is the same ball that left Bradman’s bat?”

The comparison with the 1972 incident at Edgbaston is obvious.  

Neither I nor anyone else in the sizeable crowd could present any evidence to show that the ball in Mike Smith’s hand was the one that Terry Spencer hit. Maybe the square leg umpire had a good view, although he could well have been ducking to avoid decapitation. Possibly Terry Spencer saw it off his bat into Smith’s hand. 

In any event, he accepted that the catch had been made. Slowly and sadly, he departed the crease.

The sequel is that last man Ken Higgs failed to score off his first ball and then took an almighty swing at the next delivery from Blenkiron. The ball soared high into the air and was jubilantly caught by wicket keeper Deryck Murray.  

Warwickshire were the winners by three runs.

And that is the story of the best catch I never saw.

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