Geoff Humpage: Unwavering Warwickshire (part 1)

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“That’s probably the best one.”

Ray Illingworth, a 51 year old veteran-to-end-all-veterans, was trundling in to bowl his winding off-spin. Despite having supposedly retired several years earlier, and despite having been a First Class cricketer for over three decades, Illingworth’s performances in 1983 were more than commendable.

Leading a Yorkshire side ruptured by internal schisms, Illingworth had to try and guide his flock of bowlers by taking the absolute brunt of the workload.

Their eventual last-place finish was perhaps appropriate, but on this day in June, they were very much in control. The opening bowlers, the incisive Simon Dennis and affable Graham Stevenson, did their best work in the first innings.

The teenaged Paul Jarvis had caused jitters, while Illingworth himself had been paired with the left-arm twirl of Phil Carrick (who ended with over 1000 First Class wickets) to make use of a degenerating deck.

The wicket really was sub-par – no innings of the first three had surpassed 239, and no one had made more than 69.

By tea, the batting side – Warwickshire – were eight down. About a hundred required. The two batsmen were Geoff Humpage and Norman Gifford. The former usually a ‘keeper, the latter very much a tail-ender. Only Bob Willis to come.

“We’d lost it at tea time, that’s it, goodbye Vienna. It was only a question of when we were going to get bowled out.”

Of the last 166 runs off the bat to be added to the Warwickshire total, 134 came from Humpage’s blade. While the final bunnies did their best to hold up an end, the 29 year-old bearded lad from Sparkbrook laid into the opposing bowlers.

“A lot of the time, I took attack to them, which was something Giff said, and Bob Willis when he came in: ‘you’ve got to win it from your end’. So that’s what I tried to do, and it was my day. So I was very pleased with that one.”

Humpage has a right to be more than pleased. Finishing the game off with a boundary, off Illingworth, he had guided his side from 80-3 when he came in, and from 100-5, 136-6, 180-8 as the innings progressed, to chase down the target of 299 with a wicket to spare.

Walking off the Edgbaston ground with a not-out 141 to his name, Humpage had played one of the more remarkable innings County Cricket had seen in a long time.

“…and I really do wish you well in your career…”

I was slightly apprehensive dialling in Geoff Humpage’s phone number. We so often hear the phrase ‘never meet your heroes’, and I was concerned that perhaps I should be applying that to Humpage.

Humpage’s career ended seven years before my life commenced, yet my love of cricketing history – especially regarding my beloved Bears – mean that Warwickshire legends such as Humpage are rated very highly in my personal rankings.

This is a man who spent more than 15 years as a selfless team-man, happy to play to the team needs, happy to help any young cricketer moving into the side, never striving for limelight. What if this wasn’t the man on the other end of the line today?

My concerns were sincerely misplaced. Humpage couldn’t have been a more accommodating, kind and interesting interviewee.

“I only ask that you be kind to me,” he said, speaking of what I would end up writing.

He certainly made that an easy request to comply with.

“At primary school, I think I played one game of cricket.”

Sports creates romantic stories – the idea of a spark, a moment that transfixes the youngster. It grabs him into the game, shakes him down, shows him light, and instils in him a desire to be the best.

Realistically, however, this isn’t often the case.

In Humpage’s tale, despite being born within very close proximity of the Edgbaston ground, his childhood didn’t see cricket as a major force for some time.

“Believe it or not, where I lived there wasn’t really anybody [who got me into cricket]. At primary school, I think I played one game of cricket – that’s the all the school played at primary school level. So really, it was just a matter of changing sports in the summer – I preferred football.

“Coming from a big city like Birmingham, it was mainly football with some rugby. But in the summer it was cricket, I just joined in really. And it seemed I had an aptitude for a round ball.”

His aptitude saw him brought under the Warwickshire umbrella aged just ten – and it was a system he never left, even though the temptations of football nearly swayed him.

But whether football, cricket, or anything else, sport was Humpage’s overriding passion. Aged about fourteen, cards were dispersed amongst his class relating to employment. Included was the student’s desired occupation. This is where a bit more of a Hollywood story kicks in:

“So I put ‘professional sportsman’. I didn’t say whether it was football, cricket, whatever it was, sport was my love. So I put that down.”

Had it been for a bit more luck in football trials, Humpage may have been lost to the ‘beautiful game’. But his success was much more in the other sport – “so it looked as though destiny was telling me which one to follow.”

That was cricket.

“He said, ‘you’ll regret it the rest of your life, if you don’t take it up’.”

Things progressed for Humpage, from the days of high school trials, through what might be termed ‘the usual avenues’. He notes the coaching influence of Billy Ibadulla, and Tom Cartwright, who guided many an Edgbaston youngster in those days, but “the young coaches as well.”

People like Neil Abberley and Steve Rouse: each of whom became great servants of Warwickshire cricket, with the former a dedicated administrator, the latter Edgbaston groundsman for 17 years.

But for Humpage, it was in club cricket where his cricket really developed. Playing for the Mosely-Ashfield club, “they had some lovely players, and nice people. They made cricket fun.”

“I think that really helps: if you can play your sport, and you can really enjoy it – and just accept that there are bad days as well as good days.”

Humpage points out that if you’re going to “be any good at it”, you do have to have more good days than bad, but “you have to be able to accept defeat.”

“Well, playing for Warwickshire, I had to accept defeat in my early days!”

Then came 1973, and the offer of a contract from the Warwickshire board.

It threw up an issue. His budding policing career would have to be put on hold: not something to be easily bandied about.

“If I was on my own, no problem.”

The issue came about because he wasn’t; he had a woman in his life, and the uncertainty of a life in professional sport meant he had to seriously consider all angles of such a decision.

“When I spoke to the Chief Superintendent, and I said ‘look, this is what I’d been offered,’ he had no doubt whatsoever. He said, ‘you’ll regret it for the rest of your life, if you don’t take it up.’ It’s what I wanted to do, but there’s always a little bit of uncertainty … when you’re involved with somebody, you have to ask yourself the question. But I knew in my heart it was the right choice.”

It was during the 1973 off-season that Humpage was offered his contract, and he has no difficulties recalling that it was to join them “from the first of April, 1974.”

So started Humpage’s career on the Warwickshire books; the place that he stayed until the end of the 1990 season.

“There were some nice people on the way, who encouraged me.”

Those initial years saw Humpage go from specialist batsman to frontline wicket-keeper in a remarkably short amount of time. Where some great ‘keepers have learned their trade behind the sticks from childhood, Humpage was a slip-fielder who took three strides to his left through necessity.

“There was a competition called the ‘under-25s’ [the second-XI equivalent of the John Player League], and because slip was one of my better positions, and I was a goalkeeper in some of the football sides I’d played for, Alan Oakman said ‘look, if you play as ‘keeper, we can play an extra batsman.’

“So I kept wicket in one or two of these games, and that sort of, I suppose, opened the door to try. I can’t think that I ever thought to myself ‘ooh, good, I’m going to be a wicket-keeper,’ I just did the job because they asked me to.”

In 1974, Humpage made his debut for the Warwickshire senior side, and then had his first real spurt in the side the following season when Deryck Murray, the West Indian keeper, was away on World Cup duty.

“I don’t think I ever met Deryck in that short period of time.”

It meant that the man who is (according to Tony Cozier) the West Indies’ greatest wicket-keeper ever had no influence on Geoff Humpage, and his surprisingly quick rise from first taking the gloves to being a First Class-standard gloveman.

“It was basically self-taught, with a little bit of help from people like Dennis Amiss, John Jameson and Alan Oakman. A.C. Smith, who was the former Warwickshire wicket-keeper, he did a little bit – but no, it was literally self-taught, and then taking a little bit of advice from the likes of Bob Taylor and Alan Knott, who were very kind to speak to me.

“I think, really, it was all my own hard work that got me through from being a stopper, to a better stopper.”

That last comment, regarding Humpage’s “own hard work,” could be easily misconstrued as arrogance – it couldn’t be further from the case. His career was one that saw him as a true icon of Warwickshire cricket, and that he never played a Test is – to say the least – surprising.

Yet he doesn’t hold any grandiose views of his own career, and when he refers to his hard work, he’s accurately reflecting the dedication he put into the game. It started as a youngster, where his love for sport drove him to put the hours in.

“I think it was all the things I did as a child, and all the practise I did in the back garden, or playing on concrete and on crap wickets when I was a kid, helped. It was being a bit hardnosed really, and just wanting to succeed, that got me where I went.

“And as I say, there were some nice people on the way who encouraged me – the lads in the team. One youngster, KD Smith, he was four years younger than me, but he was very good – we became very good friends. He encouraged me all the time, so that was nice. And as I say, Dennis Amiss and John Jameson.”

“It is a confidence thing.”

In 1976, the West Indies had a full tour of England: meaning Deryck Murray was away, unavailable.

So opened the slot for a young GW Humpage to enter the fray. Receiving a full season in the first team, Humpage performed adroitly and made himself secure as the first-choice gloveman.

It resulted in receiving his county cap; an honour somewhat diminished in recent years, but in 1976 still very much a tribute to performance.

“It was a bit of a surprise [to receive my cap], but I was fairly consistent throughout the year. I didn’t look to myself as anything but a very average wicket-keeper, but I always thought I could get into the team as a batsman – but obviously the wicket-keeping part pushed me forward.

“I suppose it’s a lot easier if you know you’ve got a full season, you can go out with a bit of confidence. And I have to say, Warwickshire was quite flat – so when you got in, you wanted to take advantage of a very good batting wicket! There were a few not-outs, because of the system then of 100 overs; so if you’re there at the end, you could knock up some nice little not-outs as well as getting bonus points and things like that.

“It is a confidence thing, when you know you’ve got the season to bat – and you’ve got to bat really badly if someone’s going to take your place.”

Among the factors that shaped Humpage’s cricket, one that hit on the mental side of the game was the season he spent in 1978-79 as captain-coach of a club side in Perth.

While, as with a young Australian playing in League Cricket, the technical elements of the game aren’t the major point of development, the psychological strength is something that really isn’t generated elsewhere. The combination of the pressure of being the overseas pro, combined with the cut-throat nature of Australian cricket, meant Humpage certainly didn’t have an easy task. Despite that, he averaged over 50.

“I loved the way they play; they work hard during the week, and at weekends they play hard. Even though there was some verbal abuse – coming from all over the field – as long as you stood up, the bowlers were the first to have a jug ready for you, when you got to the bar.

“They were lovely to coach as well, because they took what you said on board, and tried it, and I really did have a great six months in Australia – with some really good players in Perth. You played against the likes of Lillee and Marsh, Alderman, and Craig Sarjeant, and Woody [Graeme Wood]. That was just in club cricket – to play against Test players week in, week out was absolutely fantastic.”

A solid but not spectacular 1979 season, following that summer in Australia, paved the way for the 1980s – a decade in which the most exciting moments in Humpage’s career took place. His England call-up, rebel tours, and even the chance to captain his county.

But before the ‘80s rolled around, and before the national selectors came calling, Humpage had already been under the Warwickshire umbrella for two decades. It was those years that prepared Humpage for the success which would follow.

Read part two of Devon’s interview with Geoff Humpage here.

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