They came in their hundreds on the trains from Leicester, singing songs and wearing their Foxes bucket hats. It has been 22 years since Leicestershire reached a one day final, and 38 years since they had won one, and these fans were determined to make the most of it.
Those of us of a vintage that could politely be described as middle aged will all have our favourite memories of one day cup finals. It used to be the showpiece event of the cricket season, the game’s equivalent of FA Cup final day, with thousands of fans travelling from the two competing counties to a sell out ground to see players who would regard the game as one of the highlights of their careers.
Depending on your age you might remember it as the Gillette Cup or the NatWest Trophy or even, for younger readers, the C&G Trophy. Regardless, you will all have those moments that stand out from its history, from the days when a Lords final was the crowning glory of the cricket season.
For me, it is the years around the turn of the century when Gloucestershire dominated the one-day county scene. Under innovative captain Mark Alleyne and coach John Bracewell they won four successive limited overs trophies across two seasons, the other in those days being the long forgotten Benson & Hedges Cup, cricket’s equivalent of football’s League Cup, if you will. They were a team of characters too. There was vetran opening batsman Kim Barnett with his broad moustache and hunched stance over his bat. Barnett was 40 when the Gloucestermen played in their last NatWest final but age had not affected him. There was Jack Russell, with his frayed hat and remarkable ability to stand up to the stumps to keep to even the quickest of his team’s bowlers. Russell’s ancient hat would probably be in fashion these days, with similar bucket hats all the rage. It’s doubtful whether Ben Stokes’ one will ever see that many years of wear though.
As with the FA Cup, the build up to a NatWest final would begin long before the game with The Cricket Roadshow on Channel 4 broadcast live from the ground before play including interviews and features with many of the players due to take part that day. Mark Nicholas would host, a man who always seemed to have such a feel for presenting such things.
These days cup final day has lost some of its’ lustre. It is no longer the showpiece event of the English season, replaced first by the T20 Blast Finals Day and then again by the crisp packet jamboree at Lords. Indeed, in the first season of the Hundred the cup final was relegated to a Thursday, two days after the semi finals with almost no chance for fans of either competing team to plan journeys or take days off work. Thus, a rare Glamorgan trophy passed by almost unheralded.
The Hundred also robs the counties of many of their best players for the rounds leading up to the final, making the competition seem even more of a second class event, one now not even deemed worthy of a Lords final, although Trent Bridge is an excellent replacement.
This year, though, felt different. For one, it was hard not to root for the underdogs from Leicestershire. The county has been through some turbulent times in recent years They went two years without winning a first class game between 2019-2021 and suffered heartbreak in last year’s Blast when a harsh points deduction denied them the chance to play for a quarter final place just before a sold out Grace Road tie against Yorkshire. Articles were written questioning the point of their continued existence for whenever the suggestion of slimming down the 18 first class counties comes up Leicestershire always seem to be the first name on people’s lips.
However, the Foxes have been fighting back. Under the excellent stewardship of Sean Jarvis, the county seems to be turning a corner and yesterday’s final was a glorious chance to realise some of the pent up frustration of the recent wilderness years. The fans certainly felt that, chanting and dipping into their songbook throughout the afternoon, easily out singing their Hampshire counterparts.
Hampshire should have won the game quite comfortably though, but, to borrow a slogan from a well known football team in the area, Foxes Never Quit. From 19-4 and 89-6 Leicestershire simply would not say die. Two Leicester born academy players, Harry Swindells and Sam Evans dragged their team back into the game with a 7th wicket partnership of 151. Wicketkeeper Swindells brought up his first ever limited overs century as “Harry Swindells, he’s one of our own!” rang round the ground from the Leicester faithful. Swindells spoke afterwards about the years that he and Evans had spent in the junior ranks talking and dreaming about having a moment like this for their home county.
While The Hundred has done some good things for the game, it is hard to imagine any youngsters growing up dreaming of scoring a match winning hundred for the Trent Rockets in quite the same way.
Everything about this Leicestershire team warmed the cockles of those of us who remember the game of cricket as it once was and hopefully will be again. Hampshire, it should be mentioned, also played their part in a wonderful game and, indeed, having only required 11 runs from the final two overs, will wonder how they did not go home with the silverware.
However, with 8 runs required, Leicestershire skipper Lewis Hill, held his nerve and gave the final over to 19 year old left arm seamer Josh Hull, who up till that point had been their most expensive bowler. It was an extraordinary gamble and consistent with Leicestershire’s belief in backing young players in recent times, a belief that has seen the emergence of Rehan Ahmed among others.
In a dramatic last over, Hull abundantly repaid his captain’s faith in him with a nerveless performance. Liam Dawson, who had batted superbly for his 57 and seemed certain to see Hampshire home, inexplicably launched a scoop shot at the 4th delivery of Hull’s over and was caught at long leg. From there, the young seamer was able to see the Foxes to victory. As Leicestershire’s players celebrated on the pitch after their two run victory, it was possible for the club’s supporters to forget all the hard times and bask in the glory of a long awaited one day triumph. It might be called the Metro Bank Trophy these days and not the NatWest or Gillette, but the old cup still has its magic and on a sunny September day in Nottingham, Leicestershire and Hampshire certainly restored some of its’ shine.
To celebrate their victory, Leicestershire announced today that they were making entry free to everyone for the first day of their Championship match against Yorkshire tomorrow. Hopefully even more people will come along and discover the joy of this thing we call county cricket.