Careful with that Axe, Eugene!
When I was a little lad I was in awe of county bowlers. South Yorkshire had just broken away from Yorkshire when I started playing, so the players I looked up to were virtually all newbies on the county scene. You see, hardly anyone from the south of the county had threatened to break into the Yorkshire county side, which had the same aura as the Yorkshire County Cricket Club, dominated by high standard, respectable clubs and leagues in the western part of the county. Occasionally someone from the south broke through, but to do so they had to win something big, showing genuine class (Boycott) or just sheer scary ruthless talent (Truman). In the decade from my birth until the breakaway only ten players from South Yorkshire played for Yorkshire: Raymond Brookes, Ray Green and the great Bob Wilby won big, definitely fitting into the former category. Harold Higgins, David Hodkinson, Colin Hudson, Derek King, Graham Rothery and Ian Ross either showed class transcending their locale or possessed enough local knowledge of the home venues to break through. Johnny Bissell definitely fitted into the latter category of sheer ruthless talent.
The first county match I went to watch was in 1982, South Yorkshire versus Shropshire at Mexborough Athletic, a venue with two very tricky sloping greens, huge pace differences, now sadly gone from the game. South Yorkshire were finding their feet at that stage, the second season since breaking away from the big county. They would go on to upset the bowling world the following year, winning the Martell Cognac County Championship in great style, with awesome performances both home and away.
I was really at Mexborough to watch two clubmates, two guys I looked up to in a big way. Many will know Alan Brown as Chris’s dad, a great servant of the game, but Alan was a hell of a player back then. He possessed the ability to look carefree on the green, laughing and joking, lulling you into a world where winning didn’t matter with his charm and fun, whilst nailing the points against you with his weak-biased bowls, or “watter woods” as we called them locally.
Tommy Fletcher was the other clubmate, the poster boy from the Deep South (of Yorkshire) who became South Yorkshire champion twice and, if his hips had allowed him, would have won much more. Frank Cave was also in the side, a miner and trade unionist who went on to become the Vice president of the National Union of Mineworkers during the industry’s latter years, also helping arrange aid convoys to Cuba and meeting Fidel Castro in person. Cave’s clubmate, Jimmy Hart, was a character on the green, running after his bowls and possessing an infectious sense of humour. Colin Hudson, one of the few who had represented Yorkshire too, anchored the side, but for me the undisputed star through those years was an unsung, wiry Barnsley man called Don Clarkson. Don was unbeatable on local greens, particularly Barnsley ones. Having never played for Yorkshire, even when they had played a home tie in the town where he was invincible, he won his first 14 county matches for South Yorkshire.
The programme shows that Eric Burling from Hickleton Main did not play, his place taken by reserve, clubmate and previous county regular, Eugene Kirkham. The other reserve, the late great Frank Beesley from Dinnington Miners Welfare, a local hero in my neck of the woods, is a story in his own right. Frank won everything in the coalfield between Maltby and Worksop, was a superb natural talent, didn’t drive so didn’t travel far, but most definitely liked a beer or ten. I remember turning up to a local tournament at Firbeck on the Nottinghamshire border one Sunday, with the club closed due to the archaic rules we lived by in the 1980s. Frank rocked up in someone’s car, plonked his canvas bowling bag on the bench, unzipped it and produced a perfect full pint transported from Dinnington Colliery Institute. Not a drop spilled. The story goes that Frank was told he would be in the South Yorkshire side, that he should get to the green to practise, but he decided to stay in the pub instead. He was class but on his own terms. The George Best of South Yorkshire bowls.
In the away side that day at Pontesbury, a whole host of South Yorkshire legends took to the field, eventually not quite pulling up enough trees on one of Shropshire’s banker home greens. Graham Rothery, the great Bob Wilby, the classy Maurice Turner, pocket dynamite Malcolm Tonge, who drew all the attention to himself on the green so that the cool assassins in the team could do their jobs. Kenny Booth. What can I say? I used to love watching Kenny play, bowling up to the button, running after every bowl, screaming “Runaway Kenny, runaway man!”, conning his opponent into thinking they hadn’t got much to lick, then turning back towards the mat having produced yet another front nodder. Then two very different Sheffielders, the very competitive and very loveable ruffian, Jack Fowler, and the classy parks bowler superstar Bryan Ross. These must have been exciting times for South Yorkshire lads, finally exposed to the county scene, having been greyhounds in the traps through all those years.
I’ll end this chapter about awestruck hero-worshipping with a tale about youth upsetting the status quo and a snapshot of Friday nights in South Yorkshire circa 1983. Introducing the BDS Super League! That’s the Barnsley Doncaster Sheffield Super League, a Friday night feast of fun played on neutral greens by the best teams in the county. It’s where I cut my twelve year old teeth, winning a few games amidst lots of cut-throat beatings from the county’s finest, but also earning respect and learning from the best. Like a single figure loss at Brodsworth/Woodlands against Graham Rothery, one of that select club of players who represented both South Yorkshire and Yorkshire, after which he put his arm round me, bought me a coke and gave me loads of tips on how to improve.
One such Friday evening was at the curiously named Adwick Allotment Holders. Only it wasn’t. Adwick Allotment Holders, a successful side in Doncaster bowling history, had been reformed with a selection of top local players. I’m not sure where their original green was, or even if they ever had their own green. Maybe by the early 80s it was the home of beans and brassicas rather than bowlers, but for the purpose of the BDS Super League their home (and our neutral) venue would be Hexthorpe Flatts number two green, the unloved, underused flat bed overshadowed by its superstar neighbour, the number one green with its 18 inch crown you needed a rope and crampons to climb.
Opponents were Hickleton Main, with assorted Bromley brothers and the very fine player, Eric Burling, who went on to be South Yorkshire champion. When we arrived a disagreement was in full swing at the side of the green. South Yorkshire county player, Eugene “Euie” Kirkham, was taking exception to being dropped to reserve for the next game. His last outing had been that home tie against Shropshire at Mexborough’s rock hard slope. A creditable 17, but seemingly not enough to keep him in the starting 12 of South Yorkshire’s fast improving home side of the time. With one of our players on the county selection committee, Euie was taking a big verbal swipe at him. It was getting very heated.
“Anyway, Euie, get yer woods, you’re on now!” said my teammate, looking forward to a break from the barrage of criticism from the county reserve.
“Who do I play?” replied Hickleton’s on-off South Yorkshire county man.
Euie looked his twelve year old opponent up and down, rolled his eyes and muttered something about “little kid”. What happened next? Well, the card says it all. Eugene Kirkham became my first county scalp at the ripe old age of 12. Battered to single figures by “little kid”, there wasn’t much point in continuing his argument after the game. When the humiliation was finished, Euie simply put his woods in his bag and, without a word, climbed onto his moped and scooted off into the Doncaster night. I hope he got over it. He was clearly upset. The Pink Floyd song “Careful with that axe, Eugene” springs to mind. He didn’t play for South Yorkshire again.