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The 1968 county season - here come the overseas players

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County_Cricket_EnglandAs the 2018 English season draws to a close, it is worth noting that this season marked the fiftieth anniversary of a significant change in county cricket - one that was to have long-term repercussions in the domestic game as a whole. In 1968, qualification rules were controversially relaxed for the first time - allowing overseas players to sign for counties without having to serve a residential qualification. Counties could now sign one player each under the new rules - paving the way for further extensions in the future. Not all counties took advantage of the change in the first season, but established stars Garry Sobers and Rohan Kanhai were amongst the 1968 newcomers - causing huge anticipation amongst cricket followers.

Not all clubs could afford to hire the big names - Hampshire and Gloucestershire opted for two relatively unknown South Africans. Inspired choices - little did they know that their picks would soon become not only loyal county stalwarts but also international superstars.

Barry Richards and Mike Procter had played some 2nd XI cricket for Gloucestershire in 1965, after previously touring with a South African schools side the year before. Neither had any thoughts of playing county cricket at the time as the residential qualification rules were prohibitive. Three years later, the opportunity arose:

Mike Procter (Gloucestershire): "Gloucestershire offered me a contract as soon as the rule changed. There were no other offers, but during my time with Gloucs I was approached on a few occasions."

Barry Richards (Hampshire): "Before 1968, we were intent on getting SA colours so missing a home season to stay in England was out of the question. After the rule change, I still hadn't got international honours so was down the pecking order for counties!
Only Sussex and Hampshire offered terms - Sussex would pay £700 for the summer; Hants £900. Simple decision as I didn't have a clue about either at the time."

Although Richards' potential was known, Hampshire's signing came as a surprise to some - as explained by one of their first team players at the time:

Keith Wheatley (Hampshire,1965-70): "Not sure why Hampshire were keen to sign an overseas player, maybe because we were going through a transition at the time...Barry also came very cheaply, his basic salary was no more than any other but it was made up by a local businessman who promised one pound for every championship run. He scored 2,500!"

The qualification rule change was not welcomed by everyone and there was the potential for dressing room unrest, with an overseas player taking the place of a home grown player. However, the impact made by the newcomers soon quelled any doubts.

Mike Procter: "I always felt I was accepted in the dressing room and never felt any animosity towards me."

Keith Wheatley: "We welcomed Barry into the side. He was a normal, likeable guy and nobody resented him - especially when we quickly saw how good he was. We were delighted to be able to pit ourselves later against some of the world's best players - including Sobers, Glenn Turner, Procter, Graham Mckenzie and Clive Lloyd...You can't resent that although I can't say for sure that all overseas players were as popular as Barry was with us."

This view is echoed by one of Procter's future team mates at Gloucestershire:

Andy Brassington (Gloucestershire,1974-82): "He was always 100% confident in his own ability which rubbed off on the rest of us; always gave 100% on the field even if not 100% fit himself...we wanted to play and support him. At Gloucestershire, we have been very lucky with our overseas players - Zaheer; Sadiq; Walsh; Alderman, to name a few. We loved them all."

With the limited influx of overseas players proving such a success in 1968, only Yorkshire had resisted such a signing by 1970. Two of the previously reluctant counties had welcomed a new player by then:

Graham Mckenzie (Leicestershire): "Once the opportunity came up, I was very interested in playing more cricket and living in England...Leicestershire had the more attractive deal for me and I took it up. Alan Connolly went to Middlesex. The new rules came in during 1968 but I was not available as I was touring with the Australian team that season."

Chris Wilkins (Derbyshire): "I would [have] loved to have gone earlier in my career, but this did not happen. I only had this one offer and accepted it with open arms...I think the time for change for an overseas player was going to happen for Derbyshire"

With counties now looking to their overseas stars to bring results, there was pressure on these players to retain their contracts. There was keen rivalry when they met up in the county matches:

Keith Wheatley: "...They were always checking the papers to see how each other had done. Barry was always wanting to put one over the rival stars, especially his great mate Mike Procter. Likewise Procter, who always seemed to bowl at the speed of light against us?"

Graham Mckenzie: "I imagine all of the overseas players wanted to do well but we enjoyed each other’s company and no doubt had a friendly rivalry."

For the South Africans, such as Richards, Procter and Wilkins, there was an extra incentive to do well in county cricket. Their country's growing isolation from Test cricket, soon to be permanent for many years after 1970, gave an opportunity to star on another stage - although it was never going to compensate fully:

Barry Richards: "It didn't really compensate as you were never tested against the very best. Later, with Andy Roberts and Gordon Greenidge in our side, the loss of internationals was really brought home."

Mike Procter: “No compensation for Test cricket as that is the ultimate but enjoyed the later Rest of World series very much and Packer WSC was very tough."

Now playing throughout much of the year, at home and in England, the players had to be careful not to burn themselves out - which could have jeopardised their county contracts. Adapting, especially for the players who stayed longer, was always going to be a problem:

Barry Richards: "Cricket became a chore at times, particularly from 1976 onwards, as no 'off' season. Finish at Hants say 9th or 10th September and on duty coaching and playing on 12th in SA! Cramming twenty seasons into ten years with no international incentive became harder."

Mike Procter: "Playing twelve months of the year was pretty hard and injuries told in the end...I played just as a batsman for a while and didn't really enjoy it as much."

Graham Mckenzie: "I did find it hard work, especially being a fast bowler. I remember the first year, 1969, finding it hard towards the end of the season - I had to learn how to pace myself. The following years I found it easier, particularly as I did not play in Australia in two of the last three years at Leics as I was needing the break and there was no money in those days playing in Australia."

Chris Wilkins: "It wasn't too hard as the SA season was not too intense. Anyway, playing the game you love is not stressful."

Keith Wheatley: "In the latter years Barry got bored because he found it so easy to score against county bowlers. He came over last year and told me one of his greatest regrets was not scoring a hundred 100's in first class cricket. He scored 82 and the times he got bored and gave it away were many more than the eighteen he needed."

The overseas player qualification change, at the start of the 1968 county season, was a dramatic change in English cricket. Brought in partly to help stimulate a game that was losing its appeal to spectators, the overseas players made an immediate impact - increasing club memberships and overall attendance at matches. Whilst the issue of overseas players in county cricket has often been a contentious one since that first relaxation of the rules, and not everyone has been successful, there is no doubt that counties have enjoyed a beneficial relationship with many of their overseas stars.

For Hampshire and Gloucestershire, their members of the groundbreaking 'class of 68' proved to be inspirations - as their teammates confirm:

Andy Brassington: "I cannot think of an overseas player who has done more than Mike Procter for their county."

Keith Wheatley: "Barry inspired a lot of players and I feel certain that Trevor Jesty would not have gone on to be the wonderful player that he became without being able to watch and learn from the master. Barry made a massive contribution to Hampshire cricket."

 

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