Teams: Yorkshire (1966-1980)
Tours: D H Robins to South Africa 1975/76
MCC to India and Sri Lanka 1976/77
England to Pakistan and New Zealand 1977/78
Most runs in a season: 471 (av. 20.27), in 1976
Best batting average in a season: 30.66 (92 runs), in 1979
Most wickets in a season: 93 (av. 24.13), in 1976
Best bowling average in a season: 13.82 (40 wkts), in 1967
Most catches in a season: 11, in 1970
Highest score: 78, Yorkshire v Essex (Middlesbrough), 1977
Best bowling: 8/73, Yorkshire v Gloucestershire (Bristol), 1975
In Test cricket:
Highest score: 22, England v Pakistan (Hyderabad), 1977/78
Best bowling: 3/102, England v Pakistan (Lahore), 1977/78
It could not have happened in the olden days. Geoff Cope, as director of cricket in Yorkshire in 2002, has come a long way from his days as a professional player with the county.
Geoff grew up in the Crossgates area of Leeds, from where he attended Manston Junior School, his first encounter with the organized game. He came from a sporting family, although the favoured sport was not cricket. His father, also a concert hall pianist, had been offered a contract as a professional footballer, although turning it down in favour of ‘playing it safe’ in the family business with his uncle.
Geoff considers himself fortunate in that his junior school headmaster was a man named Ernest Smelt, who had played Minor Counties cricket for Durham, and was a good influence. The man who shaped Geoff’s future, though, was Ken Fletcher, ‘still alive today at 92’.
According to Geoff, Ken was enthusiasm personified. He described how in the summer they would run a mile to the park and play football there until it was dark, and in the summer walk there for cricket. “His enthusiasm was brilliant, he was always willing to encourage youngsters along, yet he was a very dour, modest sort of person,” said Geoff. He described how Ken’s teams had a remarkable record of success, but only found out years later that Ken himself had no co-ordination, had never played sport and was merely a ‘bucket man’ at football matches.
Geoff remembers at the age of 10 playing in the Under-11 cup final. School was due to close on the Friday, but after bad weather the team had not played the semi-final. They played and won it that Friday, thanks to Geoff scoring 36 not out of the 53 needed for victory. The following day they played in the final at the Wortley School in Leeds, but with the summer holidays having started they lost their two quick bowlers, a batsman and one of their best fielders. Ken told Geoff to open the bowling, with his off-breaks, and he returned figures of 16.1-4-26-10. At that age he had little idea of the importance of the feat, but realized that when Ken congratulated him with tears on his cheeks. Batting number three, Geoff virtually repeated his score of the previous match as he took his school to victory.
Geoff showed such promise at junior school that when he left, at the age of 11, Mr Smelt approached his mother for permission to play him in his men’s team, Leeds Zingari, with the promise to look after him. Geoff remembers travelling in an old Morris Minor, sitting there and talking about the game, watching and learning whenever he was not on the field, and only three years later realized that the adults had a drink after the match! He also remembers great encouragement from the wicketkeeper Norman England.
Geoff was an off-spinner right from the start. Leeds Zingari second team, where Geoff started, was in the Dales Council league, while the first team played in the Yorkshire Council. He played for them until the age of about 14, by which time he was also playing for the Leeds Cricket Club with its headquarters at Headingley; its first team played in the Yorkshire league. This was Geoff’s club for the next 25 years.
His school career continued apace, and he was also selected for England Schools. In 1964 he was invited to play for the Yorkshire second team, in which he continued for two years before making his first-team debut in 1966. He was alongside players like Barrie Leadbeater, Peter Stringer, Chris Old and John Woodford, playing both Minor Counties and Second Eleven cricket. Barry Wood and Chris Balderstone were two others who failed to make the grade with Yorkshire but won England Test caps while employed by other counties.
Geoff’s debut was against Hampshire at Bradford Park Avenue, and not unnaturally coincided with the absence of Ray Illingworth, selected for the England Test team. He remembers people saying, “We recognize you can bat and bowl, but can you field?” His first move in the field was at fine leg, where he went down on one knee to stop the ball and threw it back right over the stumps into the gloves of keeper Jimmy Binks. He remembers feeling, “Good, I’ve got that one out of the way; I feel a lot better!” Then he saw captain Brian Close staring at him and heard him say, “Do you realize while it was in the air they ran another one?!”
He suddenly realized that this game was different from the one he knew. “Fortunately with ten internationals around you, you learned pretty quickly. If you didn’t, you went by the wayside.” He omitted to mention, though, that he took three wickets in that match, although he did not take a wicket in bowling just five overs. He played three matches for Yorkshire that season, but was only given 36 overs and failed to take a wicket.
Geoff pays tribute to all the help he received from the senior players. His first major season was 1967, when Close was captaining the England side and Geoff Boycott and Illingworth were often playing in the Tests as well. Fred Trueman as vice-captain took over the side for many of the matches and Geoff says he was “quite superb with the kids. He fathered them without a doubt and taught them many things about the game of cricket – and outside.”
Geoff recalls how in a match against Northamptonshire on a seaming pitch at Bramall Lane in Sheffield, Colin Milburn was scoring freely and at lunch, Fred asked Geoff, who hadn’t yet bowled, how he would bowl at Milburn. He wouldn’t accept Geoff’s customary answer of bowling an off-stump line, but made him think it out. When Geoff admitted he didn’t know, Fred suggested that Milburn couldn’t hit a leg-stump line due his bulk, and Geoff duly took his wicket following those instructions.
“There were a lot of good pros in that side,” says Geoff. “Illy was super: he’d read a wicket and be able to tell you when it was going to turn and when not; Jimmy Binks, never a spectacular keeper because he saw the ball so early and he’d already moved, and he made few dives but was such a good keeper; people like Sharpey stood at slip and if the pigeon passed he caught it. It was a wonderful side and a wonderful way to learn your cricket.”
In 1967 Geoff played more regularly, as Brain Close and Ray Illingworth were in the England side, and he took his opportunities superbly. Although dropped when Illingworth was available, he took 40 first-class wickets at 13.82 each and finished second to Derek Underwood in the averages. Even so, he only received five first-team outings the following season, when he again averaged below 15.
He did not win a regular place in the team until 1969, after Illingworth had moved to Leicestershire after a dispute over terms with the Yorkshire committee. The attack was also weakened by the retirement of Trueman, and with less support from the other end Geoff never quite repeated the remarkable figures of 1967 and 1968. He was only to average below 20 once again in an English season – ironically in 1972, when he was suspended from bowling for a time for a supposedly suspect action.
The late sixties was a sad time for Yorkshire, as their great team broke up prematurely, with the departure to cause the most outrage being the sacking of Close as captain after the 1970 season, to be replaced by Geoff Boycott. “When you took out seven international players, you were taking basically 130 years of experience out of the side,” says Geoff. “Boycs was left very much with a young side, short on experience, and a lot of them found it very difficult. I was one of them.”
He had to change his role under different captains. “With Closey, it was very much ‘I want wickets, I want wickets.’ A lot of my job with Boycs towards then end, not thrust upon me but I was put on to bowl long spells, obviously for the benefit of the team, but obviously I became more of a defensive bowler rather than an attacking bowler. But I didn’t mind; I was playing, and I was playing for Yorkshire, and that’s all I wanted to do.”
During much of his career, Geoff had to endure investigations – and worse – into his bowling action. The trouble started with ‘a whimper’ in 1968, again in 1970, and in 1972 he was effectively banned from bowling. “It was a bad time because you were never allowed to defend yourself,” says Geoff. “A committee met and made a decision, which was then passed on down the lines. You didn’t know who was on that committee or what they thought. But Dickie Bird and a ,lot of other people have said, ‘Geoff, there’s nothing wrong; if you were guilty, then an awful lot of others were.’ I think that’ s a fair comment; it was just one of those periods.”
This led to a long relationship with former Yorkshire spinner Johnny Wardle to help him satisfy the experts. Johnny, at first very supportive and encouraging, and said to him, “Look, lad, when I’ve finished with this, you’ ll play for England. If you don’t, I’ve failed.” Geoff every day for eighteen months drove over 200 miles there and back to Johnny’s house to have his problem rectified, and pays the highest possible tribute to Johnny as the man who became a second father to him.
“Johnny got me to bowl from behind my back very much as he bowled,” Geoff says. “But the main difference was the attacking bowler against the defensive bowler. When I’d got it behind the back, the left shoulder would come round more and I ended up in an up-and-over action and got a bit more bounce from it and was able to underspin it if I wish.”
Geoff feels he reached the peak of his career in 1976 and for a couple of seasons afterwards. After good seasons in 1974 and 1975, he played in an England Test trial at Bristol at the beginning of the 1976 season, playing alongside Underwood. In the second innings Underwood took four for 10 while Geoff took five for 27, and they dismissed the rest for 48. However Geoff was not selected for the home series against West Indies but that winter he was selected for his first major tour, to India, Sri Lanka and Australia for the Centenary Test.
1976 proved his most successful season, when he took 93 wickets at an average of 24 in a long, dry batsman’s summer. “I bowled something like 1000 overs, and when I said I was tired Johnny Wardle said, ‘Well, I bowled them in June, lad!’ That’s how the game has changed dramatically.”
Tony Greig was the England captain for Geoff’s first tour. Geoff began quite well in India, taking wickets on low, slow, flat pitches, when after three weeks his father died and he, as an only child, had to return home. His mother had died when he was 15, and now his father did not live long enough to know whether his son would play Test cricket for England. It was a tragic and unnecessary death due to carbon monoxide poisoning: he had moved into a new cottage, with all the facilities rewired, including a new gas fire, and the fraudster who fitted it was unregistered and blocked up the flue.
Geoff returned to India and continued to take wickets, but without making it to the Test team, although he took nine wickets in one match. A reasonable year in 1977 was, however, enough to earn him selection for Pakistan and New Zealand the following winter. This was at the time when cricket was disrupted by the Kerry Packer breakaway, and also the first tour on which the team travelled as an official England team rather than an MCC team. He was to play his only three Tests in Pakistan and should have had a Test hat-trick. Geoff, his disappointment still evident, tells that story like this:
“This was the Test match in which they came out and batted on on the third morning in the first innings and declared just before lunch at 404. So we’d had two very long days in the field before that morning and Mudassar Nazar got the slowest Test hundred ever. Really, it was a nightmare. I got Wasim Raja stumped by Bob Taylor, and then I did Sarfraz Nawaz.
“Iqbal Qasim came in, a little left-hander. I chose to go round the wicket and obviously we put men round the bat, ‘Brears’ (Mike Brearley the captain) at first slip, Roopey, Bob Willis, ‘Both’ all round the bat. I just bowled it right and it was magic really; it just turned a fraction and bounced, and ‘Iqqie’ nicked it. Brears just dived to his left and caught the ball about a foot off the ground, landed in front of Roopey and Willis, Iqqie just looked up the wicket at me, nodded, said, ‘Well bowled’; the umpire went bananas, shaking hands and saying, ‘I’ve never seen a hat-trick before, well bowled.’ And ironically this was on my debut. 12 months previously, on the same ground, Peter Petherick of New Zealand had just done the first hat-trick ever on debut, so it would have been 12 months to the day and it would have been a unique place in history.
“But Mike in landing got a lot of gravel on the back of his hand. Iqqie left the field and all the lads were up there when suddenly Brears started saying, ‘I’m going to bring him back be I don’t think I caught it cleanly.’ All the lads around him were adamant he had caught it a foot off the ground, but he said, ‘No, for the best interests of this series I’m going to bring him back.’ So he brought him back – and for the best interests of the series, six of us were lbw in our first innings. It happened, but it was a moment of disappointment because something like that on a Test debut is very special. As somebody once said, ‘If bad luck hadn’t been invented, we’d have had none at all!’”
As far as the game at the top level was concerned, Geoff’s luck was about to expire. There were more rumblings about Geoff’s action back home in 1978, which ended in another suspension at the end of the season. This effectively ended any chance he had of playing Test cricket again.
Even when he was allowed to return to first-class cricket, the critics continued to get on his back. With his confidence probably shaken, he had little success in the following two seasons. Wisden, though, praised his dedication, and his batting in the final match of the season when, coming in at number eleven with an injured hand, he shared in an unbeaten last-wicket stand of 33 with Graham Stevenson to take Yorkshire to a one-wicket victory over the new champions Essex.
But in 1980 the queries about his action began all over again. “There was nobody coming out, nobody saying anything, and I’d never been no-balled in my life; no umpire was big enough to tell me, ‘I think you throw’, or anything of that nature.” Yorkshire, affected by this, proposed to offer him a match-by-match contract instead of a basic contract for 1981.
By now Geoff had two young sons, and told Yorkshire he couldn’t afford to play on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday and then receive a phone call on Wednesday telling him he was out of work. He had been working outside cricket in the paper trade, having had three years’ experience before taking up a fulltime contract with Yorkshire and then returning to work for them every winter. He had an agreement he would never go on any ‘gin-and-tonic’ tours, but if he was selected for an official tour they would release him.
He was to complete 38 years altogether before retiring, so he had something else to turn to. He discussed the matter with his employers there, and they told him it was his decision, but if he wanted to work fulltime for them, the job was there. They made him a good offer, he accepted it and returned to Yorkshire to tell them what he was doing. He did not go back to Wardle this time; Johnny perhaps cynically felt that they would never be able to satisfy certain people whatever they did, and Geoff in his mid-thirties was no longer prepared to spend months or even years travelling long distances daily to try to resolve the perceived problem.
“At that stage it was time to go,” he says. “They took away my love, they took a lot out of my life. I thought perhaps there were another five years in the tank, fitness was no problem, I loved my cricket and my way of life. The real crunch came in April when the others were all reporting back and I was in a car going to a meeting somewhere. So it was a very sad time. You can’t fall out of love with the game of cricket.”
As a bowler, Geoff feels that his main strengths were his concentration and accuracy, which enabled him to bowl long spells. Ken Barrington, manager of the England team on his second tour, stated that second to Derek Underwood was Geoff Cope for accuracy; it was accuracy they needed on that tour, and that was why they selected him. He took that ‘as a huge compliment’. He could bowl to his fields, though as the years went by and the situation at Yorkshire changed, he became a defensive rather than an attacking bowler. He did not turn the ball a great deal, but worked away on flat pitches and was sure he could pose as many questions as anybody else on a ‘turner’.
As a batsman he began his county career at number eleven, but was always first candidate for night-watchman for his ability to hang on and hold the fort. More than once he was a stopgap opener for Yorkshire. He was basically a limited batsman with great concentration and a solid defence, scoring most of his runs behind the wicket. “Ted Lester (the Yorkshire scorer) used to set me a number of runs to score in front of the wicket by the end of August each year, and when I whacked a four in front of the wicket I would always turn to the scoreboard, touch my cap and Ted would have a little laugh. We would spend many a time debating: was it in front of square? Oh, but it finished behind square, though it might have set off in front, so it’s behind!”
He scored several fifties, which were all ‘drawn-out affairs, but they were valuable to the club’. He reached the seventies and eighties at times, often enough in club cricket, but never reached a century. In his early club years he often batted high up the order, but after his Yorkshire career he went in lower down and only batted if necessary.
Geoff began his career wearing glasses, but in 1972 turned to contact lenses. Further deterioration in his sight means that he is now officially registered blind, with his peripheral vision very poor, but he can still see directly in front of him and watch play on the field.
Geoff continued to play league cricket, going to his local club Yeadon who had finished at the bottom of the second division in the Bradford League and had to apply for re-election. A friend had been invited to captain the team, and he told Geoff that if he played, several other top club players would also join, and if there was a nucleus of six good players there was a lot of tradition at the club that could be saved. Geoff accepted, the team won the second division that year, were promoted to the first division and held their own. It was a struggle, though, as many clubs had several professionals and they tried to keep Yeadon a family club.
“I said I’d go there and hopefully when I finished the club would be in a better state than it was when I arrived,” says Geoff. “We ended up with a new clubhouse, a new set-up and everything, and that was the time to go. We had about five junior sides, a Sunday side and three sides on a Saturday, a bit different from what it was when I first went there. So I felt I had been able to give something back both to cricket and the people at Yeadon.
“I never got away from watching Yorkshire, but I found it hard initially, when I was there and felt I could still go on the pitch and still do a job. That I found very hard. But a few years went by and I had played my league cricket, and finished at 40. I had a bad shoulder and it was getting worse. I was loosening it up to bowl, and once I had done that I could bowl 25 overs on the trot, but once I had finished it seized up; I got pins-and-needles, was in pain up to the next Thursday, and then suddenly thinking at the age of 40 was this worth it? I decided to finish the season, three games left, and didn’t play again. I could then go back, watch Yorkshire and enjoy it again, and that was the difference.”
He remained as an observer for ten years, but he was then approached by various people who wanted to see him involved on the club committee. At that time, though, the county was divided into districts for representation, with only one ex-player permitted for each; in his area the representative was Brian Close and Geoff respected his former captain too much to stand against him. But as soon as Close resigned, Geoff was prepared to stand and was duly elected to the cricket committee.
So highly regarded was he that, when Yorkshire’s ongoing problems reached a head in 2002 and a new committee of four was appointed to handle the club’s affairs, Geoff was one of them and named direction of cricket. He is now fully involved in the business of restoring financial stability to the club and restoring it to the glories of the past. “It’s a very hard task but I’m thoroughly enjoying it,” he says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity and I’ve got to make the most of it.”
(Article: Copyright © 2003 John Ward)
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