Geoff Humpage: Unwavering Warwickshire (part 2)

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[Read part one here]

“You can’t win singlehandedly…”

St John’s Wood, postcode NW8.

Once part of a Royal Forest, now the most expensive rental area in London.

In the 692 years since ownership of the woodland passed to the Knights Hospitaller, it has gone from forest fragment to the fifth highest house prices in London.

Since 1811, the home of Thomas Lord and his cricket ground; in 1813, he shifted 250-odd yards to the north-west, and in 1877 Middlesex came to call Lord’s ground home.

Middlesex County ceased to exist in 1965, but Middlesex County Cricket Club was going nowhere.

So in 1980, on Sunday, June 29th, having made their trek from the old forest to the prehistoric plateau of Birmingham, Middlesex took on Warwickshire.

The Londoners had an enviable side. The hostility of Wayne Daniel was complemented by the bite of Mike Selvey and Vintcent van der Bijl, all of which was tempered by the guile and cunning of Mike Brearley and John Emburey.

Mike Gatting, Roland Butcher: raw. Brearley, Clive Radley, Graham Barlow: refined.

No wonder the Middlesex side of that era is still regarded as one of the best county teams ever seen.

Having made 216 in their 40 overs – courtesy of a Graham Barlow spectacular – they then reduced their Edgbaston-homed foes to 126-5, and it seemed inevitable that the match was in the pocket of the three swords-men.

But, as many a former-Warwickshire teammate will tell you, Geoffrey William Humpage was a “genuine match winner.”

And a match winner cannot be brushed off.

“You can’t win a game singlehandedly, but that was as good a performance in a one-day game as I played.”

To make virtually half the runs off your own bat – 108 in total – is a remarkable achievement. To do so when shepherding the lower-middle and lower order, facing a bowling attack including Daniel, van der Bijl and Emburey, is more than outstanding.

It might not be possible to win a game singlehandedly, but Humpage went about as close as humanly possible.

“It was a huge shock, but goodness me. You can’t get prouder.”

Performances added up, results compounded, and it presented a compelling case for Humpage’s inclusion into the national side. And so, in 1981, he was selected for the one-day side to play against Australia. It went on to become one of England’s finest cricketing summers, but when Humpage entered the fray, Botham was still captain, and the great transition of ’81 was yet to take place.

“No, I wasn’t expecting it … but I’d had a hint. We were playing up in Scotland, in a place called Titwood in Glasgow, and we then caught the milk train back on the Sunday – which was a bloody six hour journey or something ridiculous – and Bob Willis told me that they’d rung him up, and that he was in, and would he tell me that I’d been selected for the one-dayers against Australia.

“In fact, my family knew about the same time that I did! It was a huge shock, but goodness me. You can’t get prouder. Somebody’s said ‘right, for that series you’re the best man in England’. It’s just a shame I didn’t prove to people that I could play a lot better.”

His maiden match came at Lord’s, as one of two English debutants, in front of 22,844 people. Humpage doesn’t remember much from that match, something he speaks of with a slight tinge of regret.

“To say the nerves were huge, would be an understatement. I can remember the Edgbaston game, I can remember the Headingley game, but I unfortunately can’t remember a huge amount from Lord’s, which is a shame.”

If he were to remember that match, he’d recall an Australian side ill-prepared, but given some spine following a dogged Allan Border knock. He’d remember Rodney Hogg and Dennis Lillee doing their best to tie England up, but let down by the other bowlers.

He’d remember England going one-nil up.

His second match was at home, Edgbaston, but saw him batting at eight – rather than the four he batted at for Warwickshire – and dismissed for just five. The third game, again batting eight, saw him do just one run better, as England were hammered – conceding the series two-one.

“If I’d have batted in the right position, I think I would’ve proved that I was worthy of my selection.”

Going into the side, it was those such as Ian Botham, Geoffrey Boycott, and Bob Willis who formed the ranks of ‘senior’ players. They, along with the others in the English team, made Humpage feel comfortable in the international environment.

“I’d known them for a number years, playing county cricket, and the youngsters – Gatting and Gower – I’d been on a Deryck Robins tour to Canada with. So, yeah, they made me feel welcome. It’s a big step to international cricket, even though you’re playing against players you’ve played against, you know you’re with the big boys now. There isn’t much laughing or messing about.”

But that was it. Jack Richards and Bob Taylor got the call-up for the tour of India, and shared the gloves until Ian Gould made a niche for himself. After that, even Graeme Fowler was forced to keep sticks before a Humpage return was considered.

A career of three ODIs, and zero Tests, fails to adequately reflect the talent, ability and performance that Humpage demonstrated over his 17 seasons in the Warwickshire firsts.

“I think it was just timing. In the early ‘80s, I feel as though I could’ve made a tour, even as a second wicket-keeper. And I think, had I done that, I might’ve proved the point with the bat – like Roger Tolchard did, when he went to India as a second wicket-keeper, but batted so very well that he made the Test side as a batsman.

“I feel as though, had I been lucky enough to be given a chance to go on a tour – not necessarily as first choice ‘keeper, but even second choice – then I might have been able to force my way in. So that’s a disappointment and a regret, but I did 16 years a professional sportsman, and did my best – and the records prove I did okay.”

1981, retrospectively, means something else too – when Don Topley made his famous (perhaps infamous?) comments about match-fixing in English cricket 15 years ago, Humpage suggested things about matches in that 1981 summer.

“I didn’t quite go as far as what he [Topley] said, but I think there are things that have gone on. When you had the three-day games, you used to come to some agreement – that’s for sure. All I said [in 2001] was that we were favourites to win the Sunday League, and the county who we were playing, were one of the favourites for the Championship. And the side we played on the Sunday was very different to the side we played in the three-day game, with a number of youngsters batting for them. We won the Sunday game, and they won the three-day game. It just seemed very strange to me that there was such a big difference in the team that they put out. That’s about as close I can get without slandering somebody.”

“It was totally unfair and unjust.”

There’s a lot of talk that it was Humpage’s omission, following that 1981 one-day series against Australia, that led to him jumping ship and joining the 1982 ‘rebel’ side that toured South Africa. In fact, this isn’t the case – Humpage had been in South Africa anyway, and got a late phone call.

“That was just coincidence, really. I was coaching in South Africa – Andy Lloyd should have been there, but he dropped out for personal reasons, and asked me if I’d like to go. … It was just pure coincidence, that when they eventually came over, I was there – we’d heard nothing, certainly in Bloemfontein we knew nothing until literally the day before they arrived. It was all kept very hush hush.

“They only had Knotty keeping wicket, and they phoned me up to see if I’d just be on standby for them. It was difficult, I did ring home to talk to Val, to see what was happening – and she said they’re all against it. But what am I doing? I’m earning money playing cricket, which is exactly what I do for a living. So they asked me if I’d go on standby, and I said yes.”

Humpage was player-coach for the Orange Free State, and that was his real task in South Africa – the three matches he played for the ‘South African Breweries XI’ came right at the end of their tour. For the Free State (as it has been known since 1995), Humpage played four First Class matches, making a couple of fifties.

“I played for the Free State in all their games, and that was nice as well, to play in a different environment. To play at Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban at Kingsmead, it was just a fantastic experience. The more you can play cricket around the world, it gives you a greater advantage when you play against bowlers of that quality.”

Three games, when already in South Africa, being nothing more than a professional cricketer. For all attempted spins or perspectives, that is the essence of what Humpage did. The term ‘rebel’ always seems out of place.

But, alongside his fellow ‘rebels’, Humpage received a ban from international cricket on return from South Africa; an unwelcome present to lead him into the 1982 county summer.

“It was totally unfair and unjust. And really, the Professional Cricketers’ Association should have fought it. It just wasn’t right. Nobody ruined anybody’s life out there, it was just playing cricket. It was great to see some of their top cricketers playing cricket again, and I’m sure fans of whatever colour loved seeing Barry Richards and everybody else playing. It was just fantastic to see.”

Humpage sums up his views on the matter succinctly:

“You can’t stop people wanting to watch sport at the highest level. If you start using politics in every way, then there’d never be any sport around the world. There’d be some reason for a politician to make a name for themselves, by making an excuse or reason to stop a sporting event.”

“I loved being involved in the game.”

Whilst Humpage might have returned to Britain with a ban from international cricket, and an unfortunate tag, borne out of the political furnace that the apartheid era created, he didn’t let it affect his performance in 1982.

But things were changing, too: in 1981, he had been the permanent number four, and batted beautifully – runs flowed, and his average for the First Class summer was over 50. In ’82, he tended to shuffle between four and five, and in 1983, he slotted into the number five slot regularly.

“I loved [balancing batting and ‘keeping], because I loved being involved in the game. It’s very difficult to just stand by and watch. Batting up the order gave me a little more time to bat myself in, and yes it was tiring, but I enjoyed it. The disappointing thing was when, for some unknown reason, I found myself batting at five, rather than four. I did ask why, and didn’t really get a good answer.

“But I loved the responsibility. I remember a game against Gloucestershire, at Gloucester, when apart from forty minutes I was on the field for three days – either batting, or ‘keeping. I made a hundred in both innings, and that was really tiring! But it’s a lovely sort of tiredness, when you know you’ve performed really well.”

In 1982, putting all else behind him, Humpage went about setting a record fourth-wicket partnership with the great West Indian, Alvin Kallicharan. Humpage himself made 254, and batted exceptionally well – but, surprisingly, Warwickshire lost.

And lost by ten wickets to boot.

“Oh yes, I can remember that game really well! I think, if you look at hard mental attitudes, that’s exactly why we lost. Some of our batsmen thought it must be easy, because of the way Kalli and I played. They took it too easily, and we were bowled out very quickly in the second innings. It was just a joke, seeing people get out. They should’ve been able to take advantage, and they should’ve been getting hundreds.”

Dennis Amiss was Warwickshire captain – and his muddled signal to the batsmen in the middle probably robbed Humpage of his best chance at a First Class triple-hundred.

“We thought he meant one more over, and he actually meant one more wicket. When it was the last over, as we thought, I just swung the bat. If there was ever a chance at getting three hundred, that was it. So I didn’t forgive him a couple of hours!”

Humpage laughs about that.

“I was almost in tears when I read Jack Bannister’s piece on me.”

The two seasons 1984 and 1985 were possibly the peak of Humpage’s career. His performances with the bat were outstanding in the former, and it led to him being named one of the 1985 Wisden Cricketers of the Year.

It’s an honour few cricketers receive – especially those outside of Test cricket – and it spoke volumes of the value Humpage held for his Warwickshire team.

“That was a wonderful surprise, and I must admit – I was almost in tears when I read Jack Bannister’s piece on me. That was very kind. And it’s when you read things like that, that you realise you’re not too bad at what you do. So that was a great honour.”

That success, which kick-started the 1985 season for Humpage, got even better, when he set a new record for First Class dismissals in a season for Warwickshire. It really validated Humpage’s glovemanship – he was now, indisputably, a pure ‘keeper, not just a batsman machined into the role.

“I did start to feel like I could actually do the job as well as most. I was never flashy – I was maybe a little bigger than the average ‘keeper, but as Rodney Marsh, Wally Grout, Godfrey Evans and others proved, if you work hard enough – my flexibility was still there – you could do a job. Obviously you have to rely on bowlers and others, but that was a very good season. And yes, I was happy to stand up and say ‘you can count me as a wicket-keeper now’.”

“I thought the captain just wanted me out of the side.”

Eventually, the sun sets on even the most fantastic of cricketing careers. There’s a beautiful Neville Cardus quote to that effect;

“But sure as sure, the day will come too soon when (happily he never knows it) the cricketer hits a ball for the last time, bowls a ball for the last time, fields a ball for the last time, and for the last time walks home with his companions to the pavilion in the evening glow, his sweater flung across his shoulders.”

So it was with Humpage – it just happened that his final trek to the pavilion happened much sooner than it probably ought to have.

It all started so well in 1989. Having made a Lord’s final several times prior, without ever tasting success, Humpage was driven.

“We’d effectively lost [the other finals] by lunch, either through a wet wicket or batting collapse. That final, we really felt we could compete. Even though Middlesex had some magnificent players, lots of Test players, we thought we could actually beat them. The disappointing thing for me was getting out when I got out – I got 36, and then hit a Cowan half-volley straight to Mike Gatting at extra-cover. A yard either side, and it was four runs – we wouldn’t have needed to go to the last over, if I hadn’t found the one fielder in a catching position on the off-side.

“But to actually win that final at Lord’s was magnificent – and also the 15,000 Warwickshire supporters, if not more, that were there, that was great for them. To actually win a Lord’s final.”

But despite that success, and despite Humpage’s consistent performances – combined with nearly two decades of loyal service – he was pushed out part-way into the 1990 season. For Humpage, it was hard to take.

“How did I feel? I thought the captain [Andy Lloyd] just wanted me out of the side, I don’t know why. I certainly wasn’t a challenge to the captaincy. But I thought he wasn’t very honest, making some reason or excuse. I had no idea, because I’d only just scored 183 against Glamorgan. I know a lot of the lads in the dressing room were shocked, and were telling Lloydy that I should be playing. I went into the second team and scored hundreds. But at the end of the day, he was captain, he makes the decisions.

“I think there was something else going on behind the scenes, and I was the scapegoat. It happens, and that’s the way it is. I didn’t want to go anywhere else, I was of that age, so I can’t have any regrets. I just wish Lloydy had been really honest with me, and said for what reason I wasn’t playing. It certainly can’t have been that I wasn’t good enough.”

So, at the end of the 1990 season, Humpage hung up the gloves for good and decided to retire. Humpage could’ve kept playing, if the door to the firsts had still been open, but with the second-XI the only opportunity available to him, it was time to pursue other avenues of life.

It meant his career closed with one notable absence – over and above the lack of a Test cap, was Warwickshire’s inability to win the Championship during Humpage’s time with the side. He managed one-day titles, but the ultimate county trophy eluded his grasp.

“You have to accept that there were some very, very good sides about. Until we got the likes of Allan Donald – although Gladstone Small was a very fine bowler – we never really had the same sort of attack as others. Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee at Nottinghamshire, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts. There was some firepower. We also lacked a really good spinner, so it was difficult. And you have to accept what you’ve got, and all you ask is for people to give 100% – and you’ve got to enjoy what you do.

“I have to laugh, really, and I use it if I do an after-dinner speech – they were a Championship-winning side in 1972, just before I joined, and then they were a Championship-winning side in 1991 after I’d retired! So maybe I was the one that caused us not to win a Championship, but it’s just the luck of the draw I think.”

Despite the way it ended, Humpage certainly shows no bitterness, and he recalls the environment of the dressing room with fondness.

“It was always, always a good atmosphere. It was always fun to play.”

Looking back over his career, Humpage remembers his favourite moments vividly – his maiden hundred (versus Sussex), the Yorkshire knock (see part one), the John Player League knock against Middlesex, and watching Dennis Amiss and John Jameson bat.

He speaks with a quiet pride of what he achieved in the game – and rightfully so. Humpage will go down as one of Warwickshire’s finest: not one of his successors – not Ambrose, nor Frost, nor any other – has yet knocked Humpage off his perch as the greatest of all Bears ‘keepers; and it seems unlikely he’ll be usurped any time soon.

“You’re not recognised when chasing car thieves, no!”

Humpage, post-cricket, returned to the profession which almost stole him away from his sport in the first place. Working for the Police brings with it fresh challenges, and huge dangers, but in many respects, cricket has a metaphorical connection with what Humpage does now.

“When I went back, where I worked … was a very violent place. So it was very similar to a dressing room – if you look at the Police station as your dressing room, and you’ve got to go out and put yourself in a dangerous environment, and you need a good team spirit. And that was exactly what we had, you all looked after each other when fighting the baddies!”

While he’s not often recognised as Geoff Humpage the Warwickshire wicket-keeper when trying to nab car thieves, there is the odd occasion when he’s remembered:

“The most interesting thing, is when you stopped the odd driver wherever you were, and you’d give them a ticket – and they’d go ‘that’s an unusual name, are you related to Geoff Humpage the cricketer?’ and you’d go ‘well, no I’m not related, because I’m him’. But it was nice occasionally, that somebody would recognise my name!

“You do what you’ve got to do – and the sad thing is you get recognised as a sportsman, but you do a good job in a Police uniform, and the bottom-line is, unfortunately, through the media, the Police aren’t the favourite people. Nobody trusts them, and all they are is really good people doing a really good job, and you get no credit for it, which is a great shame.”

Humpage says that “without any shadow of a doubt,” he’s as proud of his Police work as his cricketing career.

“The sports side of things was excellent, but now it’s a hard job, and there’s some seriously nasty people, who aren’t concerned if they do you harm. So you have to accept that and get on with it, but you’re not going to get any thanks, and you have to accept that as well.”

So while Humpage might be, as I’ve termed him, “unwavering Warwickshire,” he’s also a man dedicated to his post-cricketing life.

In that regard, he deserves huge admiration: Geoff Humpage, the Warwickshire hero, is now very much an off-field hero too.


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