LANCASHIRE COUNTY LEAGUE 1994-2015 PART 3

Thornham lost a stalwart member in the death of Harold Hare. Harold did not play cricket himself, but served the Club for many years in a range of roles including Assistant Treasurer and Secretary, and had proved a loyal and generous supporter of the Club throughout his life. Nor was this generosity to be curtailed by Harold’s death, as he left a very generous portion of his estate to Thornham. This legacy was to prove to be pivotal in securing funding for the longed-for improvements, as the Club could finally show evidence of substantial assets to meet any commitments to match grant awards. We owe Harold an enormous debt of gratitude. An influx of players had ensured that 2008 was an improved season, with the First XI finishing a creditable eighth in the league.

 

The impact of the new players was complemented by a late flourish from the everreliable Alec McClure. Having scored 445 runs in the Second XI, Alec was promoted and scored a further 298 in the last eleven innings of the season. Alec’s career has been rather enigmatic: elected Cricketer of the Year after scoring 461 runs in the First XI in 2005, he played no games in that team in 2006. 2007 saw him back in the First XI and amassing 876 runs, before playing most of the 2008 season back in the Second Team. The “green shoots” of a potentially hopeful future were appearing in the form of a new generation of talented home-grown players. The 2009 Under-15 side was very strong, and won the cup for their section, easily overwhelming a strong Prestwich side on their own ground. The triumphant team featured, among others, a very promising fast bowler - Saqib Mahmood. Saqib, who was born in Birmingham but raised in Rochdale would go on to play for England Under-19 at the age of 17, and won his first professional contract with Lancashire in 2015. Unfortunately, he would no longer be a Thornham player through this period, having been advised by the county that if he wished to see his Lancashire career progress, he needed to be at a “bigger” club. Consequently Saqib joined Middleton. It was another largely undistinguished year for the senior teams apart from Jim Clarke’s Third XI, who finished a close second in the NMCL Third Division. It was a summer of isolated highlights for the Club’s batsmen, though: Mohammed Shakir, one of the 2007 intake, dismantled the individual scoring record for an amateur with 161 in June, against 69 Flowery Field, including 15 sixes! Normally one might expect such a feat to last a long time in the records, but his short-lived record was surpassed the following month, by Alec McClure, back in the Second XI and scoring an undefeated 165 against Glossop. This innings came the day after Tim Walsh had set a new Second XI record of 135. Also in the Second Team, James Burke and Mohammed Tayyab established a new record partnership, against Woodbank, with an unbroken stand of 250.

 

A succession of poor summers and wet winters had taken its toll on the quality of the outfield on the Slattocks ground, with frequent waterlogging, and the increasingly common sight of the culvert at the farmer’s meadow end overflowing, and a stream of water crossing the pitch to cascade back into the field by Grange Road. Flooding led to the cancellation of an inordinate number of games, with the attendant loss of revenue through the bar bringing a double penalty. Many hours of discussion were exhausted in determining the best way to address the flooding issue, and it was decided that a new drain would be installed inside the boundary at the meadow end. As in the working parties that extended the ground back in 1972, a swarm of members covered the ground for the cutting of the drain, which was successfully installed, with the only casualty being the landmark sycamore which had stood in isolation behind the bowler’s arm at Drake’s Field End. An additional step would be the jet-washing of the culvert beneath the ground, so often blocked by wind-borne fertiliser bags and debris. The steps worked, and the culvert began to boil up once again in its proper place in the field in front of Grange Road, allowing the scarred ground to heal without further extremes of flooding. Between the rain breaks, it was the Club’s Third XI that continued to keep the flag flying. Their runners-up spot in 2009 was followed by another - sadly .. unsuccessful - Cup Final outing in 2010, and the deserved award of “Captain of the Year” for the NMCL to Jim Clarke. Runners-up once again in their division in 2011, they finally achieved the top position in 2013. The picture of the team was taken at Farnworth, where they played against a very young Haseeb Hameed, later to open the batting for Lancashire and England. It also marks a significant achievement for two team members: Jim Carnegie and Ian Heywood entered the history books having won league championships with each of the three senior teams.

The First XI languished in the doldrums throughout this period, but the Second Team almost achieved a memorable Hulme Cup Final victory, under Paddy McMahon’s captaincy. Needing eight runs to win, the Denton St Lawrence last man was bowled by Liam Grey - another home grown talent - apparently presenting the cup to Thornham. The ensuing celebrations deafened most on the ground to the umpire’s call: no-ball! Reprieved, the DSL team edged past the Thornham total, and the devastated young side was deprived of a deserved place in the record books. Liam Grey would be another county prospect who, under advice from Lancashire, sought further to improve his game elsewhere, departing to play for Northern CC.

The financial pressures on a club like Thornham were once again highlighted by the demise of Cheetham Hill CC. Club cricket nationally began to face up to the pressures that were besetting it; in an age of instant gratification, many young people were not drawn to the sport, and those who were faced increased pressures to seek part-time employment which invariably impacted on availability. Thornham’s inability to dig deep financially to pay for new players left it in a precarious position when faced with a number of clubs who were finding ways around the rules prohibiting payments. The Lancashire County League itself opted to become an “open” league, with unlimited numbers being paid in any side. The necessity of attracting sufficient funding to acquire facilities that would entice players to join the Thornham, by common consent the most attractive of settings in terms of rural scenery and quality of wicket, became increasingly urgent. The quality of the setting enticed the touring Kenyan cricket team to spend two days on the ground in 2013. On the first of these, they played a game against a representative Thornham team, then stayed for another day training in preparation for a match against Scotland. Negotiations with Sport England, conducted through Lancashire Cricket Board, suggested that, now that Thornham had amassed - courtesy of Harold Hare - assets in the bank, support in replacing the changing rooms might well be within grasp. The ambition to provide a new pavilion and bar would not be supported - understandably - as the SE imperatives for development are those areas related directly to the playing of the game, and specifically those impacting on widening participation. However, changing rooms with an attached community room - which could serve in season as a tea room facility - ticked the right boxes. There would still be a shortfall, unless another major funding stream could be found. Unusually perhaps, government policy presented an opportunity: waste disposal companies are able to offset landfill tax if they are shown to be supporting community projects within a certain radius of one of their operations. Fortunately, Thornham lay within the requisite distance from a landfill site owned by Viridor. With dedication, determination and sheer bloody-mindedness, complementary bids could be submitted to both Sport England and Viridor, with the awards from each acting as matched funding for the other.

 

Such qualities characterised Sam Micklethwaite, ably supported by his wife, Marie. Sam had never represented Thornham, though he had played in the North Manchester League. He joined the Club to follow Andrew and Matthew, his sons, and picked up the gauntlet of realising the dream of building new changing rooms with awe-inspiring resolve. Anybody who has ever been in the position of writing bids for funding will remember too painfully how comprehensive they need to be, and how easily they can falter over an apparently insignificant detail. Sam and Marie embarked on two! The resulting volumes were textbook examples of thoroughness, and both were successful. Sam defied a diagnosis of lung cancer to undertake the project management of the demolition of the “temporary” portable building, and a frenetic winter of building, mobilising a small army of volunteers, and bartering most local building suppliers into submission! Amazingly, the new facility was completed on time - and considerably below budget - to a superb standard, for the start of the 2014 season. It was determined that the building would be named in honour of another “giant” of the Club, and on 25 May 2014, the “A. J. Crook Pavilion” was formally opened by former international umpire John Holder. Torrential rain throughout the day could not dampen the enthusiasm of a large crowd gathered to celebrate not only the addition of a truly impressive facility, but also the immeasurable contribution of two remarkable contributors to the history of our Club. The Club extended its horizons overseas to expand its playing staff for the 2014 season, with the arrival of two players from the Cayman Islands – Corey Cato and Ramon Sealy. Cato would play just the one season but Sealy returned in 2015 for part of the season, before becoming the first player in the Club’s history to leave during a season having been called up to represent his nation in an international football competition!

 

Another formidable competitor bowed out at the end of the 2014 season. Jim Carnegie played his last game for Thornham, representing the Third XI, on 14 September 2014, having been a consistently distinguished performer for each of the senior sides, and a junior team manager for a long spell. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport, and an undiminished appetite for a game of cricket, Jim was universally respected by team-mates and opponents alike, and always one of the most prized “scalps” for any opposing bowler. He had joined the ranks of the L&CL umpires when he stepped down from the Second XI, umpiring whenever Third Team fixtures permitted. His characteristic good humour and common sense led to his being awarded “Umpire of the Year” in his first season, and he was the runner-up to this award four times between 2008 and 2012, featuring in the “top two” more than any other individual in the last ten years of the league. During his playing career, always desperate to play, he was renowned as the - often lone - figure trudging across a sodden square pushing the “Waterhog”, trying to salvage any chance of a game from the vagaries of the weather. A pleasure to bat with, Jim could teach more during conversations between overs than hours of professional coaching could impart, and took a genuine delight in the successes of his colleagues. During his time with Thornham, he scored more than 20,000 runs for Thornham teams, passing the landmark of fifty runs in an innings on 137 occasions. His league tally of 1218 runs in 1997 places him as the all-time leading run- 75 scorer in an LCCL league season, While, for the majority of the Club’s tenure in that league, he played in the Second XI, he had previously dominated the Lancashire and Cheshire League’s First Division batting statistics, and was a mainstay of that league’s representative XI. With Thornham, Jim won championships in all three adult teams. He is also the author of “In a Different League: Cricket’s North-South Divide”, an hilarious collection of reflections on a long and truly distinguished career, from its beginnings with Old Quintinians to life in the Central Lancashire, Lancashire and Cheshire, and Lancashire County Leagues. He deserves the accolade of being one - if not leading the select group - of the greatest cricketers the Club has seen.

 

As Sam Micklethwaite turned his attention to the new goal of achieving a new pavilion, the very foundations of the league structure were being shaken. The long-held ambition to initiate a Premier league in the Manchester area led to the proposal that a pyramid league structure be established, subsuming all the existing leagues. Months of protracted negotiations were held, aiming to minimise or overcome the obstacles that had previously been presented to block just such a move. The Club Chairman, Ian Heywood, guided the Club through the potentially stormy waters of a proposed change, and an Extraordinary General Meeting of members unanimously voted to allow the committee to pursue the “best standard of cricket possible” in the ensuing restructuring. Given the poor performance of the First XI over a number of years, and the associated lack of confidence and team morale, Thornham would not find themselves in as high a division as might be hoped, but it was in his final game. generally agreed that it would be beneficial to feature in a league where our senior teams could reasonably expect to be competitive. As ever in sporting politics, progress was not without contention: the majority of Central Lancashire League and Saddleworth League teams combined to establish a rival premier league - the Pennine Cricket League - and it was even mooted that Thornham’s wisest course of action would be to ally themselves to that group. The decision not to do so proved very perceptive.

 

Comparative lack of success over these years should not eclipse the contribution made by a good number of Thornham’s players. Ian Heywood stands out among the bowlers with his 76 wickets, in 2002, but he was pushed close by Andy Holmes the following year; in Andy’s 73 wickets for the season is the considerable achievement of having taken five wickets or more on seven different occasions. However, professionals Hamilton and Doyle apart, it was the batsmen who shone, partly no doubt, because of the quality of batting wickets prepared at Thornham. Of the First XI batsmen with the highest number of scores above fifty, six have represented Thornham in the LCCL. Phill Sutcliffe - with 80 scores over fifty, including 13 hundreds - also played for Woodhouses and Denton St Lawrence; Ian Walker (75, including 11 hundreds) played for Cheetham Hill and Prestwich as well as Thornham; James Maurice-Scott (25, including 4 hundreds) represented Denton Saint Lawrence and Flowery Field. Those who made this honours table while representing only Thornham in the LCCL are headed by Stephen Grey, with 35 scores above fifty, including 4 hundreds. John Willman scored 30 scores above fifty, astonishingly without ever converting a big score to a century. Kevin Dufeu scored one century and 23 further scores above the 50 landmark. 77 Unsurprisingly, the Second XI’s places on their respective “highscorers’” table shine: five players who represented this team scored more than fifty on more than thirty occasions. Alec McClure scored eight centuries among his 34 fifties; with just one century (again a surprise), Dave Harrop passed fifty on 36 occasions. A remarkable three of the four top performers in this measure were Thornham players. In fourth position in league history is James Burke, with 44 scores of above fifty including five of 100 or above. In second place, with ten centuries in his sixty scores over fifty is Jim Carnegie. The league record holder in this list is Tim Walsh. An elegant and unhurried left-handed bat, who never gave his wicket away with a loose shot, Tim was a model of consistency at number three in the batting order. With 65 scores of fifty or above, including seven of more than one hundred, Tim Walsh is worthy of his place at the head of a most distinguished list.

 

The end of the 2015 season, then, saw the end of the Lancashire County League. The final positions - the First XI in thirteenth place and the Second XI in eleventh bore testament to a decline in Thornham’s fortunes, but a new spirit of determination and ambition was blossoming in the Club, and it could face a rather uncertain future with optimism.

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