The 1980s is often viewed as the era of characters! And this month we’re speaking to not only one of them but also someone who was one of the most destructive opening batsmen of the decade; a player who should most definitely have represented England far more than the 13 Test matches he has to his name – former Northants and England opening batsman Wayne Larkins, the player who in 1990 famously hit those winning runs in Jamaica against the West Indies.
“But, only because of a mis-field,” he jokes. There’s a lot to cover in this piece. That series in the West Indies, a World Cup, a couple of Ashes tours, his magnificent 124 against Australia in the Nehru Cup, his ‘coaching’ of Graham Gooch, successes at Northants, a rebel tour to South Africa and what it was like being involved in the early first-class years of Durham. Sitting comfortably?
So, let’s rewind as we always do, back to the very young Wayne Larkins and what got ‘Ned,’ as he is widely known, into cricket? “My Dad was an umpire and my brother played a lot of cricket. Growing up I always scored for my local village in Roxton. I remember my first game, when the side was a player short and I was drafted in and batted at number 11 – I did hold my own though! The pitches were always awful. You had to shoo the cows off the field before you could start playing. Bowlers would bowl, and the ball would come on to the bat full of cowpat, which had to wiped off before the ball could be thrown back to the bowler. It was fun times!”
I’m not sure club pitches have changed too much!!
And who were Wayne Larkins’ idols in the game growing up? “There were a few. Bob Barber who was an excellent left-handed batsman. Brian Bolus, Ken Barrington, Peter May, but probably number one was Ted Dexter. I used to love watching him on the black and white TV. He was a classic, classic player, who just went for it.”
Ned obviously learnt a lot from this group as he quickly rose up the batting order from number 11, and it wasn’t long before he was on the radar of the coaches at nearby Northamptonshire.
“I enjoyed playing junior cricket. As well as playing local cricket for Roxton I also did well at school. I used to score the majority of the runs, but never really thought much of it. If as a team we’d get 140, I’d be scoring 110 of them. People I guess took notice and I got selected for Huntingdonshire county school’s side. We had a game against Yorkshire schools at Peterborough. There was us, little Huntingdon against a county like Yorkshire. Word went around that they had this player called Peter Booth, who was extremely quick. It was a really damp and miserable day, we won the toss and batted first and I remember feeling a bit apprehensive and thinking this kid looked a bit quick. But my natural ability took over. At that age you don’t really take it all in. You just think he’s bowling a bit quick I’ll try and smash him about a bit. That was the way it was. I scored 80 odd, out of 140/150, and we won the game. A guy called Dennis Brookes was there watching, who was coach at Northants, and the next thing I knew I received a letter through the door inviting me down to Northants for Saturday nets, every week for the next 6 weeks. And that’s how it started.”
It’s fair to say Ned did alright in those net sessions as a year later he was offered a contract at just 15 years of age. “Dennis had said I was technically the best youngster he’d had his hands on at Northants and when I left school at 16, they wrote to me again and offered me a contract. The only sadness was my Dad wasn’t around to see it as he’d passed away on Christmas Day the year before, after 3 months of illness. But that made me even more determined to go for it with my cricket.”
It was the right decision. Ned was making his first-class debut at just 19 years of age, but those initial years at Northants weren’t easy. “It was too early for me. I always did well for the 2’s but then I would go up into the first team and struggle. I wasn’t ready for it. I’d be regularly scoring 50s and 60s in the 2’s and taking wickets – but for whatever reason I couldn’t handle it in the 1’s. I guess I wasn’t quite mentally prepared. It took me three years to get to grips with it. In the professional environment you needed to be streetwise and I wasn’t.”
So, what eventually clicked? “My captains. Both Jim Watts and Mushtaq Mohammad gave me belief. Both of those guys were a massive help to me in my career.”
And it was thanks to Jim Watts that Ned moved from the middle order to open the batting. “Roy Virgin retired and Jim told me he thought it was my time to open and that I was tailormade for it. The rest is history.”
I asked Ned if he was in favour of the switch. “To be honest, I was more nervous batting down the order. I’d get really anxious waiting to go out to bat. But as soon as I opened, that all left me.”
Ned’s breakthrough at Northants coincided with arguably the most successful period in their history. They finished runners-up in the County Championship in 1976, won the Gillette Cup – their first ever trophy – in 1976, won the Benson & Hedges Cup in 1980 as well as being finalists in the domestic tournaments on numerous other occasions.
“We had a very good side. That win in 1976 really moved Northants on big time. It was the first trophy we had ever won.”
And what were those Lord’s finals like to play in? “Unbelievable. Lord’s is an incredible place to play. In those days they would bring the ropes in to fit more people in. Supporters would sit on the grass. There were people sat on top of roofs, it was mental really. They would say Lord’s could hold 25,000 but there must have been 35,000 on those occasions.”
And what made that Northants side so successful? “We just had a very strong team spirit. Everyone was together and we all enjoyed each other’s company. We’d always be going out for beers and everyone was just happy. Our overseas players, Mushtaq Mohammad, Bishan Bedi and Sarfraz Nawaz all fitted in. Every summer we’d get invited to their houses and have some great curry nights. The squad was just full of great people.”
Ned’s form for Northants saw him gain international selection for the first time, when he was named in England’s 1979 World Cup squad. He made his ODI debut in the semi-final win over New Zealand at Old Trafford.
“England had started to get on my radar, the press were always pumping me up a bit, so it wasn’t a total surprise when the call came.”
And how did he celebrate the call-up? “I was straight down the pub for a few bevvies – think of the consequences afterwards! We had a quite a young side, and it was good to be in the squad with players like Mike Gatting, who I’d been on a Whitbread scholarship tour to Australia with. That was a great help.”
And how did the debut go? “I scored 30 odd but it was the final (against the West Indies) that was disappointing. I was initially meant to be batting at number 3, like I did in the semi-final. Boycs and Breals opened as we chased their 286. At the start of our innings we needed four/four and a half runs or so an over. When the 1st wicket fell after 30 or so overs, we needed 7 an over. I was then told to drop one place in the over, then another place, then another and so on. I ended up going out to bat at number 7, facing Joel Garner bowling his yorkers, needing 11 an over with 10 overs to go! I ended up having my middle stump out of the ground first ball, so not a great memory of that final! I just think we made a huge mistake messing around with the batting order. Oh, and don’t get me started on the umpire not giving Viv Richards out with a stone wall LBW, off of Mike Hendricks!!”
World Cup heartache aside, Ned was named in England’s tour of Australia later that winter. The ODI leg of that tour was to be the first ODI series to be played under floodlights. “Australia was great. It was the first international series after the start of the Kerry Packer era and so we were the first series under lights. There was us, Australia and the West Indies. That was an unbelievable experience to play under those lights.”
I asked Ned, how easy/hard was it for him to adjust to playing under lights for the first time? “To be honest we had a lot of practice with the white ball, but I actually found it better. I could definitely see the ball a lot clearer and more so fielding when the ball was up against the black sky. It just made sense. But what an experience. Every ground was packed to the rafters. There was 100,000 at the MCG, 60,000 at the SCG, you genuinely $hit yourself walking out to the crease.”
The topic of ‘$hitting yourself’ got me intrigued and I asked Ned in terms of being in that environment, how much as an opening batsman when you’re up against the new ball, against seriously quick paceman, does instinct plays it part? “You’re always nervous walking out, but when you reach the crease, you forget all about the nerves. Something else clicks and you just think about the person whose trying to get you out. You have to trust your instinct. At the end of the of the day it doesn’t matter what your opponent is doing, you have to concentrate on what you’re going to do. I made mistakes early in my career thinking about them rather than what I’m going to do it. But as an opening batsman you have to trust your ability; believe in what you’re good at it, oh and stand up for yourself if they’re giving you a bit of crap!”
As well as adding to his ODI appearances on that tour, Ned also made his Test debut in the final Test of the series at the MCG. “That was a very proud moment and I felt another step forward in my career. I didn’t let myself down scoring 20 or 30. “
The squad then travelled home via a one-Test match series in India. “I got out for nought in that Test in Bombay. Left arm over and the ball would comfortably have hit a next set of stumps. Totally sawn off! But in the second innings there Gooch and Boycott put on an unbelievable partnership of 150/60 to win the game for us on the last day. Beefy scored a hundred in the 1st innings, then took five wickets and six wickets. What a cricketer he was in all conditions. He could turn it on anywhere.”
Bar that one Test against India, all of Ned’s Test match appearances for England were against either the West Indies or the Australians. On one hand I’m sure that is great, testing yourself against the very best, but I asked Ned if there were frustrations in not getting a chance against a slightly weaker bowling line-up which could give him the chance to get some scores under his belt. “It was very frustrating. Both myself and my Northants team-mate Peter Willey always seemed to be selected against the best attacks. I’d of loved a few Tests against some medium-pacers, but it just felt that we’d score our 30s/40s against those quality attacks, but then would be left out for Middlesex, Surrey, Kent lads to come back in against the weaker oppositions.”
Despite this, Ned never seriously contemplated leaving Northants, for a so called ‘bigger’ county. “I had a few people saying do you fancy going here or there, but I felt loyal. Northants were there for me through my bad times, early in my career, when I struggled to get into the first team. So, I wasn’t going to jump ship. I probably could have earnt a few more quid elsewhere and gained a few more Test caps but it was loyalty. It was always a pleasure to go and play for Northants.”
Another series against Australia saw Ned part of the squad for the famous 1981 Ashes series, including an appearance in the 6th Test at The Oval. “That was a fantastic series to be involved in. I was 12th man at Headingley. I was on the brink of playing in a couple of the Tests, but it was just fantastic to be involved in something like that.”
Despite scoring 58 runs in that final Test, Ned was overlooked for the winter tour to India. A decision by the selectors that led Ned to having to make his own decision to go on the rebel tour to South Africa instead. “Northants played in a cup final that year, in which I scored 50. I then played in that Test match at the Oval and got some runs, so I felt sure they were going to pick me to go to India. I remember we had one last game of the season away in Scarborough to play against Yorkshire. We were practising at Northants a few days prior to the game, when the press arrived and came running over to the nets. The India touring squad had just been announced. I saw them running over and thought great I’ve been selected, but they ran past me and straight up to Geoff Cook. They selected Geoff over me. Not one person phoned me to say sorry or anything, despite playing in the last Test. That was it for me. I got disillusioned with the whole situation. I said to Cooky I couldn’t play at Scarborough and that I needed a few weeks to get my head around it all. Then someone knocked on my door, not a phone call, and said ‘I’m from so and so and I’ve got something you might be interested in.’ So, I invited him inside, he put a pile of papers on the table and explained about the tour to South Africa. We had a glass of wine and I said I’m very interested in that. He then left and said he’d be back in touch in a month’s time. About an hour later, Peter Willey knocked on my door and said, ‘have you just had what I’ve just had?’ I said yes. So, he came inside and we had a few more glasses of wine; we thought about it and agreed we should at least go down and have a chat. About a month later we travelled down to a secret location in London. We had no clue who was going to be there, it was all very secretive. Once there, there was also Boycott, Gooch, Emburey, Lever, Knott, Amiss, Hendricks, Old etc in the room. This was going to be some team!”
I asked Ned, if he knew that a three-year ban would follow, would he have made the same decision? “It wouldn’t have changed my mind. I was so cheesed off with how I’d been treated; left out of the India squad, being selected for the odd Test here or there, never being given an opportunity against any weaker opposition, etc.”
And how did the tour go? “It was great. As far as apartheid went, we went to all the townships coaching the kids, but that was never reported back home, which was so sad. I would honestly argue we helped improve the situation out there. Everyone in the townships loved us.”
Ned’s love affair with South Africa continued for the next three winters, when he played in the Currie Cup for the Eastern Province. “That was very strong, tough cricket. Players like the Richards, Pollocks and Proctors could still handle themselves big time. And it was all very organised for youngsters coming through. You could tell they were getting very well prepared for when they were going to get back into Test cricket.”
Ned and all the players who went on that rebel tour received bans from international cricket for 3 years. “During those three years I was possibly the best English player in county cricket. I just thought to myself that if they were going to ban me, I wanted to prove a point and show them that I am the best. I’ll be honest when the ban was lifted, I expected a different outcome. They picked Goochy straight away for that 1985 Ashes and I was never mentioned. That did stink. I thought they should have picked both me and Goochy to open. We had a great admiration for each other and were the best two opening batsmen in the country. I honestly believe we should have been a partnership that played together for four or five years.”
As it was Ned didn’t get another opportunity until 1989, when under the newly appointed Graham Gooch, he was selected for the Nehru Cup in India; a tournament held in India to celebrate the centenary of Jawaharlal Nehru’s, birthday.
“If I’m honest in terms of England I was losing a bit of interest by that period. Previously, every time I played for Northants, I wanted to better myself to play for England, but I never thought it was going to happen. But then Goochy saw it in me and got me back involved. The Nehru Cup was fantastic. It was like a mini-World Cup and we should have won it. We got to the semi-finals but lost to Pakistan. We really should have won that game, but dropped a few catches – I won’t name names! We played some fantastic cricket and that was a really good team to be involved with. And that was the thing about Goochy as a captain, he had that knack of getting teams to play tough cricket but also to enjoy themselves.”
England may not have won the tournament, but it was a tournament that saw Ned score his only international century, a magnificent 124 against the Australians in Hyderabad. “That innings was by far the highlight of my career. It was the best innings I ever played. There was a bit of a story to that innings. The summer before that tournament, England lost heavily to Australia and Goochy really struggled against Terry Alderman. On the Thursday before the game, we’d gone out for dinner and I shared a table with Goochy, Lamby and Robin Smith. After several bottles of wine, and a few other drinks in between, I said to Goochy, ‘this Terry Alderman, he’s just a medium-pacer who swings it in and out, what are you doing? You’re moving too quick, just wait until he releases it and then make your movement.’ Anyway, he just stared at me, took in every word, but just stared and didn’t say anything. I’m sat there thinking ‘f$ck’ what have I said/done. The following morning, we went out to the nets and he said ‘Ned, stand here and watch what I’m doing’. I was coaching Graham Gooch! I just again said, ‘wait a bit longer, wait a bit longer,’ and it seemed to work. But I’m now thinking ‘$hit’ I’ve got to face this bowling attack myself, there’s no way I can get out. The pressure was on. We were chasing 280/90 but it completely went to plan. Goochy went on and scored 80 odd and we put on 170/80 together. I’ll never forget that innings and I sorted Goochy’s problems out!”
Ned’s performances in the Nehru Cup saw him selected for that famous tour of the West Indies later that winter. A series that saw England, after so many heavy defeats over the previous decade, win the 1st Test famously, in Jamaica. A win that saw Ned hit the winning runs.
“That was something else and one of the best feelings. You’re out there in Jamaica, a fortress for the West Indies, on a nightmare of a pitch, but we put in a great performance, especially the young lads. Forget Gooch, Lamb and Smith, they were experienced players, the young lads like Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain and Angus Fraser, were tremendous. I got sawn off in the 1st innings for 48, when I thought I could bat all day, but to score the winning runs was an incredible feeling.”
Getting sawn off got me thinking and I had to ask Ned as an opening batsman, those deliveries with your name on them happen, so is it more frustrating as an opener when you get out in the 30s/40s than it is if you get a first baller?
“Absolutely. If you get out in the first 5 or 6 overs when the ball is darting about, particularly against those West Indian and Australian attacks, it happens. You’re going to get a good’un every now and again. It’s when you get to 30/40, do all the hard work and you get sawn off, having done all of the tough work, because of a bad decision, that’s when it really kicks you in the teeth.” I totally get it, alebity that 30/40 for me was always 9/10!
Back to that West Indies tour though, and if it wasn’t for weather England could well have won that series. 1-0 up, England were heading for victory when the bad weather intervened. The Test in the Port of Spain ended in a draw, the West Indies drew confidence, England lost theirs, and the rest is history.
“We could have won. That dark cloud was unbelievable. I still have nightmares about it, hanging around those hills. It was ridiculous, we had it in the bag. We’d have been two up with two to play. They were gone. We had them in our pocket. But that draw gave them belief. We lost all of the momentum. And it was only a week before the next Test, so we had no time to really get over it. We needed to just go out and have a few nights getting bladdered to get it out of our system and go again.”
Ned’s next tour of duty was down under later than year for another Ashes series. A series that England lost heavily. “That tour wasn’t the same and I didn’t particularly enjoy that series. There was a lot of backbiting and not a particularly pleasant dressing room. During the 1st Test, an abscess appeared on my tooth. It came up really quick. I said to the physio to take a look at it. He laid me down at lunch, got out a scalpel and tried to slit the abscess. Who does that?! Blood was everywhere and I still had the abscess. I eventually got to a dentist who sorted it out, but when I returned to the ground I wasn’t keen on going out to open the batting but was told to ‘come on and get out there.’ It was fair to say it was a groggy 10 that I scored! That was the kind of tour it was.”
It might well have been a groggy 10 in that Test but the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne saw Ned repel a strong Australian attack with scores of 64 and 54 – sadly not enough as the Australians wrapped up an 8 wicket victory.
The final Test at Sydney was to be his last Test for England, and it wasn’t a memorable one as he was run out by Mike Atherton. “I was going like a train, but Athers hit one to mid-wicket and I was run out by three yards. That was my last Test and Athers took over at the top of the order.”
Domestically, Ned made the move from Northants to Durham in 1992, the county’s first season in first-class cricket. I asked Ned if that move was for one final fresh challenge?
“No, not really. It was more circumstance. Northants had actually asked me to captain the side, which I’d love to have done. I had a couple of meetings, but I turned it down. I’d just separated from my wife, met my current partner Debbie, and we just thought it would be a good idea to get away and make a fresh start. We still talk about it now, and I think I probably should have stayed and captained. That said, Durham was fantastic. I met some great people there. We had a lot of fun and played some good cricket. We didn’t finish bottom in that first season which was important. But, my god, the wickets! It had ripples in it and was rock hard. One ball would go past your ankles, the other straight over your head! But it was great. There was me, Beefy, Dean Jones, Paul Parker, Phil Bainbridge, we had a good squad. And before we moved to the new ground we’d be playing games at Durham University, Stockton, Darlington, Chester-le-Street and Hartlepool in front of full packed full houses, with temporary stands up, it was great fun.”
And was it a difficult decision when retirement eventually came? “The decision was made for me. It was upsetting as I’d have loved to have stayed one more year and have the opportunity to say a proper goodbye, but it wasn’t to be.”
But what a career Ned had. Across formats he represented England on 38 occasions. He scored over 27,000 first class runs, with a highest score of 252 and scored over 13,500 List A runs, all in an era when some of the finest fast bowlers to have ever graced the game, played.
Reflecting on that career I asked Ned who the best player he played with was? “Ian Botham. As I said before, he could do it anywhere in world on any surface, which takes some doing.”
And the toughest bowler faced? “Sylvester Clarke was a real menace. He could let it rip in and out. He knew exactly where it was going. He’d bowl short of a length, he wasn’t ever going to push it up, but he bowled with such pace. A serious bowler. Mind you there was also Andy Roberts who was a bit special. Then there was Malcolm Marshall, and Michael Holding, and Joel Garner, oh and Colin Croft!”
What an era and what a character Wayne ‘Ned’ Larkins was! You just wish he’d had the opportunity to play as many Test matches as his ability deserved.
Ned – thank you!