Here’s a singular cricket team, well balanced, hard to beat: Dick Spooner, Geoff Cook, Colin Milburn, Tom Graveney, David Townsend, Peter Willey, Alan Hodgson, George Sharp, Alex Coxon, Jim McConnon, Bob Willis. No-nonsense openers, some glistening strokeplayers, a mean and hostile pace attack, two Test match off-spinners, and Spooner and Sharp can share the gauntlets. A clue to provenance: at Chester-le-Street’s Test match this weekend I’ll be reverently downing a stiff one in the Milburn Lounge in fond memory of that bonny Falstaffian which the bar honours — good Colin, 17 years dead this year, still grievously mourned. It is hard to believe that Durham weren’t even a first-class county in 1990 when Burnopfield’s Milburn died, just 48, of a heart attack in his favourite pub, the Britannia at Newton Aycliffe, near Darlington.
It is a Geordie XI, of course. No room for Durham’s current England trio, Collingwood, Harmison and Plunkett. The former may be a doughty enough stickler, but he’s a long way to go before being as cussedly indomitable at the crease as Willey (born Sedgefield); nor can the sulky lank, Harmison, remotely match the tiger’s rage and intensity of Willis (born Sunderland, when his pa was chief sub on the Echo). Another life-president of the awkward squad, Coxon, may have been born in Huddersfield but, as his obit in Wisden noted this spring, he had long been an honorary Geordie for his fiercely combative bowling for Durham, ‘in particular his nasty off-cutter aimed at the batsman’s groin’.
Before Durham were admitted to the County Championship 15 years ago, their players had to drift south: Teessider Cook remains Northamptonshire’s longest-serving captain and as well as Milburn and Willey the Tudor Rose has also been worn with distinction by enthusiast Hodgson (born Consett) and stumper-umpire Sharp (West Hartlepool). The latter two had been out at a party with Milburn on that fateful night in 1969 when Colin’s Austin 1800 winged a lorry at Moulton and England’s batsman of grandeur took a header through the windscreen and lost his left eye. It remains a JFK moment for English cricket — where were you when you heard Milburn had lost his eye?
Stylish, upright Wykehamist D.C.H. Townsend (born Norton-on-Tees) stayed in Durham and was the last Minor Counties player to win an England cap (in 1934 on the strength of his 193 for Oxford in the University match). Spooner (born Stockton) was an appealing Warwickshire stalwart and seven times behind the stumps for England, and nice Catholic off-spinner McConnon (born Burnopfield, he played with Milburn’s father Jack) took 800 wickets for Glamorgan and captain Len Hutton took him instead of Jim Laker on the Ashes-winning 1954-55 tour but, as the manager Geoffrey Howard later revealed: ‘Poor Jim was desperately homesick by the time we got to Aden on the way out.’ Last winter, apparently, Ashington’s Harmison suffered from similar discontent: in Jim’s case he entered a monastery or, rather, taught cricket with the Jesuits at Stonyhurst for years.
His batting charms so redolent of the warm West Country, it will surprise some to see maestro Graveney leading my Geordie XI. Tom was born at Riding Mill when his engineer father was at Vickers-Armstrong in Newcastle. By the war, the family had come west and the boy was learning his cricket with Mr Tulloch at Bristol Grammar School. In the Milburn Lounge today, I’ll be ordering another double for a further toast — for this very Saturday 16 June is the great Graveney’s 80th birthday.