The Neil Drysdale Column
Freuchie's triumph of 1985 (3)
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In 1985, Freuchie’s cricketers went in pursuit of glory in the National Village Cup and chased their ambition with a single-minded intensity which galvanised their whole community. Having progressed from the Scottish section of the tournament, the Fifers endured several nerve-shredding moments against Etherley and Cleator before advancing to the quarter-finals, but, as the campaign continued, and oblivious to the dreadful weather conditions, their supporters increasingly began to dream of a trip to Lord’s.
It was an infrequent occurrence when Freuchie took the easy route to victory, rather than discover new ways of testing their fans’ nerves. Yet, when they lined up against Oulton from Yorkshire in the quarter-finals, the afternoon turned into one of those sweet occasions where everything came together for the Scots. And it did so, largely through the efforts of one of their unsung heroes, Brian Christie, the son of the team’s captain, Dave, who produced one of the best spells of his career to spearhead victory.
Indeed, almost from the moment Dave (affectionately nicknamed “Dad” by his colleagues) won the toss and inserted the visitors, this was the one match in the schedule which developed as Freuchie would have desired. And even if they had to wait a few overs before sparking the collapse, while Oulton’s openers, Ian Hunt and Paul Faulkingham, put on 25, that simply made the ensuing carnage doubly emphatic.
“We were a wee bit under the cosh at the start, but there are days where you feel you can do nearly anything with a cricket ball and this was one of them,” recalled Brian, one of the more introverted members of that rollicking collective. “I had Hunt caught behind by Alan Duncan, for 22, and after that, we just seemed to relax and it was as if they got the stuffing knocked out of them. Suddenly, I slotted into a rhythm, I was swinging it all over the place, and we were in total command. I kept waiting for somebody in their line-up to fight back and launch a recovery, because we figured that if they were in the quarters, they must be a pretty handy team, but there was nothing in the tank. The lad, Hunt, was comfortably their top scorer, and, by the end of the innings, they had only managed 73 and I had figures of six for 15 [in 7.2 overs]. These times where everything clicks don’t happen very often, but when they do, and the crowd are chanting their approval, and the boundary edge is packed with hundreds of your fellow-villagers, it is a pretty magical sensation. And, to be honest, there haven’t been many better days than that one.”
As Christie, snr, remarked, this match simply seemed to pass in a flash and there was none of the drama which had surrounded the previous tussle with English opponents, and would be an integral part of their subsequent Cup contests. “They appeared ill at ease, they had no stomach for the fight, and whereas Cleator were clearly a well-marshalled side, who you could imagine marching on to Lord’s, my recollection of Oulton is that they fell apart when Brian came on to bowl, and it was a fairly straightforward win.
“He was an undemonstrative lad, not given to loud appeals or extravagant gestures, and perhaps because he was my boy, I always felt Brian had to do better than the other guys, so that I couldn’t be accused of showing favouritism,” said “Dad”, with a beaming smile. “Maybe that was harsh on him, but on his day, when the wind was in the right direction, if it was coming off the hill with a nice gentle breeze, you could bring him on at the bottom end and pretty much wait for the wickets to fall. Against Oulton, for instance, he was thoroughly in his element and, later in the day, a couple of the Yorkshire supporters told me that they hadn’t seen a better exhibition of swing bowling, outwith the English county circuit, in 30 years of following cricket, so he was masterly in that game.”
The one slight worry for Freuchie was the lack of form from their openers, and once again, they slipped to five for 2 when the action resumed, and Alan Duncan’s miserable sequence of ducks carried on. However, with Mark Wilkie and George Wilson steadying matters, as the prelude to Davie Cowan finishing off the proceedings with a towering six, there was no reason for the home aficionados to grow anxious. In anybody’s language, a six-wicket success with masses of overs remaining, was a cakewalk and it was hardly surprising that many of the villagers already began to plan their travel arrangements to London in late summer. Yet, if Oulton had been a stroll, there was nothing leisurely about the next round of the tournament, when Billesdon from Leicester came calling.
Instead, this match developed into a ferociously competitive joust between clubs who recognised that the losers would forever be consigned to vain reveries of how frustratingly close they had advanced to an assignation at the sport’s spiritual home. The English side had flown home their wicket-keeper-batsman, Ian James, from a holiday in the United States, so that he could participate in the semi-final, and bolstered by fine opening bowler in John Ford, who feasted on rivals like a latter-day cannibal on the village circuit, and a cerebral captain, Graham Butler, who had exhibited the same unstinting commitment and canny strategy throughout the Cup campaign as his counterpart, Christie, the stage was poised for an enthralling battle of wills. All that was left was for the heavens to open and they duly did so in the build-up, depositing a blanket of rain over Fife, and calling into question whether the conditions were fit for play.
Undaunted, the opposing skippers convened and decided that, whatever else transpired, they would reach a gentleman’s agreement whereby, regardless of how dismal the weather became, they would stay on the field and avoid the dreaded bowl-out if it was remotely feasible. It was a gallant gesture, although the pact provoked furious debate later in the proceedings, but when Christie lost the toss and his men were asked to bat, there were ample reasons for the 1000-plus crowd to be apprehensive as soon as Ford entered the scene, adroitly orchestrating the action and twisting the plot, after the fashion of his directorial namesake. Alan Duncan was the first to suffer the paceman’s wrath on a treacherous surface, dismissed for yet another nought, and, as a congregation of fretful Fifers watched with trepidation through half-shut fingers, a clatter of wickets threatened to leave the Scots’ hopes in tatters. Andy Crichton was the second to exit the crease, and Mark Wilkie and George Wilson soon followed him, to leave their team in dire straits at 19 for 4 in the 10th over, with their Lord’s aspirations sinking by the moment.
Thankfully, though, George Crichton, a grit blaster with a steely approach to wielding the willow, emerged to take centre stage, as the atmosphere cranked up. “We didn’t make a decent start in any round of the competition that year, and although we seemed capable of retrieving matters, Billesdon were a seriously good side and I knew that if we were all out for 80 or 90, we would be beaten, it was as simple as that,” said Wilson, who saw off Ford, defended stubbornly and nudged singles here, there, wherever there were gaps in the field. “It was one of those situations where you have to forget about the weather or the pitch and play every ball on its merits. That sounds simplistic, but when you looked at the faces of the spectators, who were packed into the ground, it was clear they feared a rout and, given how much Freuchie meant to me, that was enough incentive to do my Barnacle Bill act. I had nothing against the English, but the bottom line was that only one of us was going to Lord’s and I was determined to make sure it wasn’t them!”
Yet, irrespective of Crichton’s contribution, wickets kept tumbling at the other end, as the war of attrition continued. Briefly, Davie Cowan inspired cheers with a six, but fell soon afterwards to the medium pace of Bill Armstrong, whose efforts stymied the Fifers’ attempts to generate any sustained momentum. At 76 for 5, Crichton knew the hosts would have to settle for damage limitation, and Billesdon’s hopes rose when Terry Trewartha was removed without scoring, and the tension around the ground was palpable. The home fans applauded every run as 80 became 90 and they whooped when the 100 was achieved, but although Crichton clung on tenaciously until the 38th over before being bowled by John Elliott for 28, Freuchie could manage no more than 117 and the worry etched on the faces of their aficionados at the halfway point told its own story.
“None of us had any illusions during the interval – we knew that we would have to make quick inroads when their innings began and prevent any of their batsmen from getting into their stride, otherwise we were done for,” said Niven McNaughton. “All it would take was for one of their lads to hit 40 or 50 and we were snookered and, understandably, nobody was cracking jokes while we were eating our sandwiches. Our spectators were similarly concerned and you had to take your hats off to Billesdon; they must have brought 100 fans up with them, while we had over 1000, squeezed into every section of the park, but the visitors handled the occasion brilliantly and I actually think they were the best side we faced that summer – and I am including the finalists, Rowledge, in that assessment. Perhaps it was appropriate that it went down to the wire, but, believe me, it was hard to be involved in it, and some of us were sh***ing ourselves by the end.”
As sheets of rain enveloped the village, Billesdon’s openers, Butler and James marched out in the knowledge that all they required was patience, not pyrotechnics, and a run rate of below three an over meant their opponents were unlikely to stem the tide, unless they inflicted early damage to the English line-up. Yet, precisely when it was needed, Cowan was stinginess incarnate and although McNaughton’s opening over was a mixed bag, featuring as it did a wide, a six and the precious wicket of Butler, dextrously caught by Mark Wilkie, Freuchie dug in, and induced some rash strokes from the visitors as their hopes were revived. The same bowler and fielder combined as Rob Nourish was dismissed, with the score on 12, but James and the dangerous John Elliott remained as major obstacles, with the contest balanced on a knife edge. The competition regulations dictated that Billesdon had to bat a minimum of 20 overs before a result was possible and gradually their task grew more difficult, with the ball sticking in the mud, and the boundary beginning to resemble some distant mirage for the chasing pack.
By now, any pretence at sangfroid from the participants had vanished completely. They were slugging it out in classic Las Vegas heavyweight style for a Lord’s appointment and the civilities could go hang! Elliott crashed one Trewartha delivery into the car park, but perished in striving to repeat the feat for 27, where upon the resilient James slipped in the glaur and was run out for 15, as Billesdon were reduced to 62 for 4. But, whilst teenager, Andy Townley, was soon back in the hutch – another victim for McNaughton – the Ford brothers, John and Dave, batted sensibly, sprinting singles and rotating the strike, and their partnership mounted as the climax loomed into view, with the weather deteriorating and tempers fraying among several of the combatants, including George Crichton.
“It was crazy. The clouds were doing their worst, we were all soaked to the skin, and we would have won on run rate, with the umpires offering us the chance to abandon the match, but Dave kept harping on about gentleman’s agreements, and I just told him: Sod that!” recalled Crichton. “We shared a frank exchange of views and although I might have been reacting in the heat of the moment, I stand by my argument that we had already gone the extra mile to get the match finished and there comes a time where you have to put up your hands and decide that enough is enough. Looking back, I suppose I have total respect for Dave’s behaviour and it was really nothing more than you would have expected from the man. But, at the time, I could happily have shot him!”
For a few moments, Dad’s Army was imperilled by the risk of mutiny, but, mercifully, most of his personnel realised that Christie was doing the decent thing even if the fellow himself told me he was never as worried at any stage as during that fraught Billesdon denouement. “Basically, I had given Graham Butler my word that we would stay out there, come what may – short of a tornado or an electrical storm hitting Freuchie – and I had to stick to my promise, but I was vexed and the thought kept flashing through my mind: “Jesus, if this backfires, I’ll never be allowed to walk into the clubhouse again”, recollected Christie. “The ball was wet and the outfield was treacherous, so I guess that we were being penalised by the conditions. But equally, they had travelled all that distance to get to Fife, so it would have been pretty shoddy if the result had boiled down to us scraping home by a narrow percentage on run rate, due to the weather.”
The words embodied Christie’s philosophy to his beloved game and explain why he is held in such regard throughout the sport in Scotland. Despite the grumblings from the sidelines, he re-entered the attack, collected his thoughts, and steadied himself for what promised to be a critical period. With the Ford siblings still at the wicket, Billesdon advanced to 88 for 5 after 32 overs and they required 30 runs from the last 48 deliveries. But suddenly, in the space of three frantic minutes between 7.15 and 7.18, both these redoubtable characters had been removed, with Christie inducing the departure of Dave Ford, as the precursor to John being caught behind off McNaughton, and the balance was swinging inexorably in Freuchie’s favour. The English tail-enders had no answer to the nagging accuracy of Christie, who accounted for both Armstrong and John Stimpson, to finish up with figures of three for 11, and eventually, inexorably, Freuchie bowled out their foes for 105 to book their coveted place in the National Village Cup final.
“I remember just crumpling in a heap for a few seconds at the finish and I was knackered: mentally, physically, emotionally, the lot. It had been a titanic struggle and there was a huge outpouring of joy from all of us when we grabbed the last wicket and victory was ours, but it was definitely tinged with a massive feeling of relief,” recalled Christie. “I received the Man of the Match award and was given a Duncan Fearnley bat in the process, but without being disrespectful to the sponsors, that was fairly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things and I truly felt very sorry for Graham Butler, because both teams had given their all that Sunday and either of us might have prevailed in the end.
“It was funny. We had dreamt about going to Lord’s for so long, but there was a wee period at the end when things were pretty quiet. I am not over-dramatising it, but I am convinced that reflected the fact that we had been put through the wringer by Billesdon and we had been tested to the very limits of our abilities. What can you say? Yes, we passed the exam, but, believe me when I tell you it was a hellishly tough ordeal.”
Ultimately, Freuchie were where they wanted to be. They were where any cricketer with a sliver of romance in his soul would want to be. Their supporters began making travel arrangements, booking buses, faxing hotel reservations, and the club committee dealt with a splurge of media inquiries as Scottish cricket gained some well-deserved publicity. Soon enough, Christie’s personnel would learn that they were up against the supposedly crack Surrey outfit, Rowledge, in the showdown in London. But, by that stage, the Fifers were frightened of nobody and relishing the challenge which lay in store. It added up to an occasion which was unparalleled in the history of the Caledonian game.