Back row (l-r): Steve Leven, Robin Booth, David Brew, Ian Harris, Peter Hodder-Williams, Ben Nicholas, Ben Thorne.
Front row: Michael McGrath, Robert Morrison, John Price (capt.), Paul Bourdillon, Paul Scanlon.
This summer marks the thirtieth anniversary of the unexpected appearance in the semi-finals of the Universities Athletic Union (UAU) national cricket tournament of the UEA Cricket team in what remains the finest achievement of the boys from Colney Lane.
Some things today aren’t what they used to be but the UAU (polytechnics excluded) tournaments as they were in the 80s were always fiercely-contested in whatever sport. UEA successes were few and far between – there were some outstanding athletes but generally our teams were gallant participants rather than medal winners.
And we were ALWAYS in the same group as Essex. Add in whichever London colleges may have entered a team, and they usually weren’t that strong, and there was your group. If UEA got past Essex, then they would face another southern university or two, before bowing out for another year.
And so it was as the 1988 cricket season commenced, plenty of hope for a good run but little expectation it would lead us so far. Let’s be fair, there were some good cricketers in that year’s team who had played at county age-group and other representative levels, but the lack of a pace bowler was worrying and the standard at some of the other universities was known to be very high.
But for UEA that season, things seemed to click. Captained by second-year John Price from Newport, the team was well-balanced geographically – northern and south-eastern counties were well-represented, as well as Wales and Zimbabwe. Rough London diamonds mixed with loaded ex-public schoolboys and everyone played for the team. Clint the scorer added an eccentric and often grounding presence.
In fact, the first match was a defeat away to Essex with a dreadful failure by the batsmen to chase a low target. Four days later, however, Brunel were put to the sword at Colney Lane and a big win meant that UEA qualified for the knockout stages. Now the bowlers began to shine, the metronomic efficiency of ‘old man’ Dave Brew (a mere 25 year-old postgrad, but older than the rest of us, of course) backed up by Ian ‘Chopper’ Harris, with his accurate left-arm spinners and the zippy Paul ‘Scally’ Scanlon, about whom batsmen complained they couldn’t see him releasing the ball from behind his flowing mane.
Away to the University of Kent at Canterbury, the fun really started as the team salvaged a win from the jaws of a victory which had quickly looked like it would become a defeat. Having restricted the home team to a mere 129 runs UEA were coasting at 59-0 but it took an unbeaten tenth-wicket partnership of 17 between six-hitting Peter Hodder-Williams and over-my-dead-body Robin Booth to see us home.
One week later, the minibus was on the road again this time for another overnight trip, this time to Southampton. Batting first on a windy and overcast day, UEA’s score of 160 was felt to be below par and would have been worse but for the stocky Ben Thorne’s 42. Indeed the home team were 89-2 in pursuit, but the accuracy of the bowling again played a significant role, and the last eight Southampton wickets fell for just 40 runs. The teamwork factor had been crucial in another victory and the feeling was heady on the way home (except Rob Morrison, who always fell asleep).
The next trip was for the quarter-final tie the following weekend at Reading. The team was billeted at Chopper Harris’s mum’s house and those of several neighbours in her suburban Berkshire street. Well, it saved the Sports Centre a few quid. In a tense match, the team played to its maximum, posting a score of over 200 (thanks to Rob Morrison’s excellent 86) and challenging the hosts to exceed it. At 124-6 UEA were in control, but Reading rallied, and the final wicket fell with three balls remaining and Reading seven runs short. It was an exciting and momentous day.
Soon, we learnt of the semi-final draw. All three possible opponents had daunting reputations but UEA were paired with Durham, probably the strongest. In their line-up were three county cricketers, including Nasser Hussein who would go on to play 96 Test matches for England (and he knew he would). The match was played at the Steetley Colliery ground deep in the Sherwood Forest coal belt – a lovely setting but a devil to find in pre-GPS days.
In humid conditions, Durham won the toss and put UEA in to bat. After eight overs, the score was 4-3. Oh dear! It was a “dismal start” according to the following year’s Wisden report. Ben Thorne and captain Price put on fifty for the fourth wicket (earning both a mention in the almanack). UEA did manage to bat out the full 60 overs but the score of 135 was clearly short of requirements. The only joy of the Durham innings was when Nasser Hussein was bowled by Chopper Harris, but Durham got home with more than half of their overs to spare to win by seven wickets. UEA were “not strong enough” as Wisden succinctly concluded.
Still, the following day, with the team still in the Midlands, there was an opportunity for reflection as we cheered on Swansea to victory versus Durham in the final at the County Ground in Derby. The UAU run was a fantastic experience for those who were part of it, with the fact that it was so unexpected making it all the more enjoyable. Thirty years, eh? How time flies!
Steve Leven (EUR85)