When Walsall ruled the glorious summer of 96
With cricketers across the region unable to get out in the middle due to the coronavirus pandemic, we take a trip down memory lane to 1996 and what proved to be a glorious summer for Walsall CC.
They haven’t been short of silverware over the years at Walsall, but even by their lofty standards the trophies gathered in 1996 hold a special place in the club’s history.
It was a summer when the men from Gorway Road dominated locally, with the Birmingham League title secured along with the second and third-team equivalents. But it was also the year when Walsall could lay claim to being the best club side in the country after lifting the National Knockout trophy at Lord’s.
Having won the Birmingham League title three times in the 1980s and again in 1992 and 1994, Walsall were one of the powerhouses on the local scene.
But success nationally, and at the home of cricket, had eluded them.
Defeat at the hands of Teddington in the 1991 final had added to the desire to follow league rivals Old Hill and Stourbridge in lifting the trophy, four times in Old Hill’s case.
And under the astute leadership of Nick Archer that box was finally ticked in a never-to-be-forgotten campaign.
The quest for glory in the league didn’t get off the best start as Walsall lost their opening game of the season at home to Wolverhampton. But that was to be their only reverse of the summer as 11 wins saw them take the honours by 21 points from Wolverhampton.
And while league matters were taking care of themselves – thanks in no small part to Steve Dean’s 997 runs and 77 wickets from Keith Arnold – the journey to Lord’s started to take centre stage.
“That probably is THE golden year in among a lot of golden years,” said skipper Archer. “Wolverhampton were our nearest challengers in the league and we lost to them in the first game of the season. But, gradually, we got better as they fell off a little bit.
“The achievement of winning first, second and third-team championships is big enough, as would winning the National on its own, but to do that all in the same season is pretty extraordinary.
“Not winning the National had become a little bit of a thing for some of us, particularly for myself, Steve Dean, Phil Oliver and Jim Mayer who had played in the final in 91. We had a serious thing about that and were pretty determined about it.”
“I wouldn’t say we were blaise about it, but we were use to winning the league. But the National Knockout was a big thing.”
The road to Lord’s started at Chase Park with a victory over Cannock before Shifnal and Wellington were seen off in the following two regional rounds.
“We were missing five first-teamers for the Cannock game, due to Minor Counties representative games,” said Archer, who shared a 205-run first-wicket stand with fellow centurion Steve Jenkinson on the way to victory. “But Cannock were missing Laurie Potter and as it happened they missed him more than we missed our five players.
“We played Shifnal in the second round at Gorway and won comfortably and then beat Wellington away in a rain-affected game.”
Victories over Shifnal and Wellington took Walsall through to the regional semi-final, where they took full advantage of the rules to get past Hinckley.
“We were drawn at Hinckley, who were a strong side,” continues Archer. “On the two Sundays that were on offer for the game, we would have been missing a lot of players but we managed to negotiate a midweek. We played the rules a little bit because they had to offer you a midweek date as well. It was a game that was played three times. We started off as 45-over game, but it rained after a while. So it was then revised as a 20-over game and it rained again, and then we started it a third time as a 10-over game and we chased down 72 for the loss of one wicket.
“One of the things that probably did play into our hands was that for the first time they split the regional groups up that year.
“Normally we played in a group that has 16 sides in and 12 of them were probably from the Birmingham League.
“There were only four Birmingham League clubs in our group and we were the only one in the bottom half of the draw.
“So really and truly we did what was expected off us by getting to the area final.”
A five-wicket success over West Bromwich Dartmouth then sent Walsall into the national stages, where they faced a tricky-looking test against a Finchampstead side containing five Berkshire players.
But it was a tie that gave Archer added belief that this could be Walsall’s year.
“I think this game was were things started to fall into place for us,” added the skipper. “Keith Arnold was due not to play because he was playing for Oxfordshire.
“But in the league, the day before, Jim Mayer and Arnie both pulled up injured.
“Jim couldn’t play the next day but Arnie decided he wasn’t fit enough to play in a two-day Minor Counties game but he came and bowled his nine overs for us. That’s where we had that little bit of luck.
“They also had a player, Harry Hall, who 10 days earlier had scored a hundred for Berkshire against Leicestershire in the C&G Trophy.
“He whacked seam bowlers so we took a bit of a punt and opened the bowling with Richard Mills, who bowled leg-spinners.
“He just caught them completely on the hop. This guy spent four or five overs trying to locate the ball. Millsy bowled his nine off the reel and took 1-27, which set them back big-time chasing our 204-8 and they never really recovered from that.
“That gave us a bit of a selection problem about who to play and who not to play going forward. But Millsy solved it himself by getting married and going on honeymoon!”
A trip to Brentham in the quarter-finals proved straightforward as Jonathan Batty (92 not out) and Archer (60 not out) shared a century stand in a two-wicket triumph.
And then it was back down south again for a last four date with East London side Wanstead.
“They were a better side than the two previous sides we had played,” said Archer. “But we kept them to 194-8. We then went off like a train. Olly got 85 and we were 101 for none in 17 overs. But then we started to lose wickets and we ended up 155-5 with 14 overs left. There was a big crowd there and they were getting quite chirpy. But I batted seven that day and the day before I had scored 128 against Barnt Green. I chipped a 20-odd not out, Paul Wicker got a few and we won by four wickets.”
Walsall probably didn’t need any extra motivation for the trip to Lord’s to take on a Chorley side chasing a third straight National KO triumph, but they received some on the eve of the game.
“We fancied our chances, but I don’t think anyone else did,” recalls Archer.
“We went to the pre-match dinner the night before and it was all about them and how they were going to win it for the third time on the trot,” recalls Archer. “There was a presentation made to their captain’s wife and the sponsor from Abbott Ale made some crack about she is getting the prize tonight, but you will get it tomorrow. That probably didn’t them any favours, really.”
Some insider knowledge then gave Archer the edge when he won the toss the and batted the following day.
“It was a poorish wicket at Lord’s, right on the edge of the square,” he said. “One of our players, David Clarke, had played on it the day before in the Minor Counties one-day final and he said it just went slower and lower,” revealed Archer. “Had we not had that knowledge of what happened before we might have bowled first. It was a pretty accurate assessment from Clarkey because we struggled to get 152-7.
“And although that didn’t look like any sort of score those of us who had batted for any length of time on it felt that it was certainly competitive.”
And that proved to be the case as Terry Rawlinson (2-15), Matthew Robinson (3-25), Arnold (2-24) and Mayer (2-21) combined to dismiss Chorley for 127.
The celebrations started at Lord’s, continued in the nearby Lord’s Tavern and then resumed on the side’s arrival back at Gorway.
“We got back quite late, around 11pm and I know curries were ordered in and there were more beers,” said Archer. “I have a strong suspicion that some of us wouldn’t have gone home. We would have just stayed there and got up ready to play the next day at home to Stratford in the league. But we won that game by nine wickets and we never really looked back then in the league.”
Having secured a league and National double – the only Birmingham League outfit to achieve the feat – 1996 will always be a special year for the club, but Archer believes the hat-trick of league titles in the following decade stands up alongside his side’s achievement.
“Although this was a fantastic year for Walsall, it should never be forgotten what the sides in 2005, 2006 and 2007 achieved,” said Archer. “That is a hell of an achievement to win the league three years running and no-one else has done that. I think that is comparable to what we did in 1996. I don’t think they should be separated.”