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Derek Randall: Shimmering brilliance with willow and electric fielding

Derek Randall © Getty Images
Derek Randall © Getty Images

Derek Randall, born February 24, 1951 was an attractive batsman when he got going and one of the best ever fieldsmen produced by England. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who doffed his cap at Dennis Lillee after just about avoiding a bouncer.

 

The word that characterises Derek Randall is ‘sparkling’. His career progressed like a sequence of brilliantly formed colourful bubbles, a large number of which perhaps remained short-lived, but none of which ever failed to delight.

 

With which incredible bubble do we start?

 

With those incredible cartwheels executed to perfection between deliveries as he stood at cover? Those impish moments of mimicry when the severe authority of the Indian policeman patrolling the boundary finished helpless against the titters of laughter — with the madman from Retford carelessly looking away when the officer turned suspiciously towards him?

Or do we recall the magical innings during the Centenary Test at Melbourne? In front of the hundreds of past Ashes greats and in the presence of the Queen — when he scored 174 in defiance of the supreme Australian bowlers, was struck on the head by a Dennis Lillee bouncer but continued to bat, and doffed his hat when Lillee bounced again?

 

What about the handspring at Headingley?  His way of celebrating the Ashes win of 1977. Standing in the covers, loose-limbed, with a low centre of gravity, blessed with incredible anticipation and penchant for hurling himself around, he was talked of in the same breath as Colin Bland and Neil Harvey. And when the side triumphed, he was prone to celebrate in a way that added an extra item to the day’s entertainment.

 

However, perhaps the career of Randall can be summarised with a description of his feats at Melbourne in January 1979.

 

In the first innings, Randall had perished to a hook shot essayed off the second ball. England, facing a deficit of 142 runs, started the second innings disastrously. Geoff Boycott fell first ball. David Gower, Bob Willis and Ian Botham were variously ill or injured.

 

And Randall picked up his 2 lb 7 oz bat with its extra layer of rubber on the handle, murmuring, “Come on, Rags, England needs you.”

 

He stayed at the wicket for the little short of 10 hours, continuously chattering to himself. “Wake up, Rags, concentrate. Get stuck in. You idiot, Rags. Concentrate, Rags, come on, come on. Come on England.” He batted with a technique of his own, underlined by his famed shuffle, sometimes moving across to hide all three stumps. He hardly played two balls the same way. And he made 150, prevailing over the Australian bowlers and the Sydney temperatures of 105 degrees. England won by 93 runs and effectively secured the Ashes. It was just Randall’s second Test hundred — the Centenary Test had seen the first one. And, for a player of his ebullience and irrepressible attitude, it was incredibly the slowest century in the history of cricket between the two countries.

 

He was mostly a buoyant character on the cricket ground, but when the situation demanded he could sometimes turn hard as nails — nails that were chiselled and crafted with exquisite artistry. Unfortunately, that did not happen too often, but when it did, even the stiffest upper lips would spread into delighted smiles.

 

In the Centenary Test, after being hit by a Lillee bouncer, he famously doffed his cap after another ball streaked past his nose, rolled over his shoulders to avoid a third. When yet another short ball from the menacing Australian paceman was flat-batted to the midwicket boundary, the prosaic Wisden jotted down with rare poetic flourish,  “He tennis-batted it to the midwicket fence with a speed and power that made many a rheumy eye turn to the master of the stroke, the watching Sir Donald Bradman. Words cannot recapture the joy of that moment.”

 

Randall could make the severest spectator delight in the luminous joys of the game.

 

Early days

 

Randall was born at Retford, Nottinghamshire, in February 1951. He attended the Sir Frederick Milner Secondary Modern School, but played very little cricket there.

 

However, his cricketing education was started early enough. Randall’s father Frederick was a local player of some repute and younger brother Stephen was always enthusiastic. The two brothers played with their father in the back garden, picking up the basics of the game.

 

Randall joined Retford, playing in the Bassetlaw League. The side was led by Michael Hall, also the skipper of the Nottinghamshire Second XI side. From there to the Trent Bridge staff was a logical step. When he joined the Nottinghamshire in 1970, the first side was led by none other than Sir Garry Sobers.

 

It was in 1972 that Randall first made his mark, striking five well timed sixes in scoring 78 against Essex on his First-Class debut. The bowling attack of Essex included Keith Boyce and John Lever, and hence it was quite an achievement. He did not quite sustain the momentum, but it was obvious that a young batsman had arrived, with a refreshing approach and a penchant for hitting the ball hard. Additionally, his fielding proved to be breath-taking. He enjoyed every moment on the ground and his brisk approach from cover would frequently take the possibility of sharp singles out of the equation. Within a few seasons, he developed a fearsome reputation for his throws as well. It was the result of long hours spent aiming at a single stump.

 

In 1973, Randall got his Nottinghamshire cap. That year, he did not really have an excellent time with the bat, but represented Young England against the West Indies.

 

Three years later, Randall made his way into the side for two One Day Internationals (ODIs) against the visiting West Indians. On his debut at Lord’s, he hit 10 fours and a six in a lone hand of 88 against Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Bernard Julien and Vanburn Holder. In the next game at Birmingham, he struck eight fours in a 29 ball 39. England lost both the matches, but Randall was named Man of the Series for the hosts.

 

Doffing your cap at Dennis Lillee (right) has never been a good idea, but trust Derek Randall to come up with something like that© Getty Images
Doffing your cap at Dennis Lillee has never been a good idea, but trust Derek Randall to come up with something like that © Getty Images

 

Test cricket as a comedian

 

The young Randall was ushered into the side for the tour of India in 1976-77, which was to be followed by the Centenary Test. He took his time to get used to the wickets. On his debut, he scored a fighting 37 in Calcutta. He did go on to get a big hundred against South Zone, but the great Indian spinners did not quite allow him to enjoy his trips to the wicket in the Test matches. His knock on debut was followed by Test match scores of 2,0,10,0,22,15.

 

However, he did have a significant role to play in the English fortunes. Under the astute orders of captain Tony Greig, he delighted the crowd with acrobatic stunts on the field, and slapstick mimicry on the fence. He borrowed the hat, and gun of the patrolling policemen on the boundary and marched along the fence, leaving the crowd in splits. It was part of Greig’s strategy to win the crowd over, and it ended in grand success. England won the series 3-1, and the crowd was often vociferously behind them.

 

The Centenary Test

 

Following his debut series, Randall flew to Australia for the Centenary Test. Perhaps his most memorable triumph. With England needing a colossal 463 to win at Melbourne, he walked in at 28 for one. What followed was an innings of surprising bravado and nonchalance. With Lillee looking as menacing as ever, Randall counter-attacked, pulling him with marked disdain.

 

After the fourth day, Bill Lawry said that Randall’s approach towards dominating fast bowlers was what England had been waiting for ever since the retirement of Ted Dexter.

 

The final day saw Randall get to a century full of valour and zest. This was followed by the game of bouncers with Lillee. He ultimately left for 174, acknowledging cheers by taking off his cap, smiling and waving in the jaunty manner which made him such a darling of the crowds. England finished at 417, losing the Test by the exact margin as the first ever Test match a hundred years ago.

 

He returned as the great young hope of England cricket. But after 53 at Lord’s and 79 at Manchester in the Ashes encounters, he was soon plagued with the malaise that would dog his entire career — that of inconsistency. It required a return to Australia for another glimpse of the brilliant Randall.

When Mike Brearley’s team went Down Under to play a Packer depleted Australian side, Randall hit 75 and 74 not out at Brisbane in a Man of the Match winning performance, closing the match with a scintillating 96 run partnership with young David Gower. It was sublime timing from both ends, and the drives through the covers bringing even the partisan Australian crowd to their feet. He then went on to score that extraordinary 150 at Sydney to win the Ashes.

 

Ups and downs

 

However, Randall’s tale of ups and downs continued. The World Cup in 1979 saw him brilliantly running out Gordon Greenidge in the final, but that remained the sole highlight of a progressively poor summer in international cricket. Surprisingly,Randall had a wonderful domestic season, scoring over 1000 runs and hitting 209 and 146 against Middlesex to become the first Nottinghamshire cricketer to score a double and a single hundred in the same match. He was even named one of the Wisden cricketers of 1980. However, by the time he had returned to Australia and played two Ashes Tests by 1980, he had just one half century to show for his 11 innings since the 150 at Sydney on his previous visit.

 

Randall soon found himself out of the England side. He continued to score heavily in the county circuit, but it was two and a half years before he got back into the national team.

 

When he did get back, it was in striking manner. In his comeback Test against India at Lord’s, Randall came in to bat with England in a spot of bother, having lost the fourth wicket for 96. He batted almost six hours, hitting 11 fours and a six in his 126. He followed it up with 95 at The Oval before being stumped off Ravi Shastri.

 

The Pakistanis followed the Indians to England that summer to play three Tests. At Edgbaston, this batsman who was at his best in the lower middle-order, was sent up to open the innings. With the game delicately poised, with a slim first innings lead, he batted with grim determination, scoring 105 in a little more than four hours, before being the eighth out at 188. England won by 113 runs, and Randall once again had made a telling contribution.

 

Some scintillating innings

 

He had another superb match when he returned to his favoured wickets of Australia. On the quick but rather easy Perth wicket, Randall, back at No 6, hit 78 in the first innings and followed it up with 115 in the second. If one looks at the scorecard now, it seems like a drab draw, but during a period in the England second innings it did look that Australia could run away with the match. However, Randall batted them to safety.

 

There were three more memorable knocks, all against New Zealand, made special by the associations with Botham. The first came on his home turf of Trent Bridge in 1983. The two entertainers came together at 169 for five. They were separated at 355, when Botham left for 103. Randall did not get a hundred, falling for 83 to his Nottinghamshire colleague Richard Hadlee. However, he did have his moments against the great New Zealand bowler. Hadlee sent down three deliveries, with their minute variations, all in the course of an over, all with the potential for an edge to the waiting slips. And Randall hit them through the off-side, each time the stroke slightly varied, and each time they crashed into the fence. It was cricket for the gods.

 

Travelling to New Zealand that winter, Randall found himself walking out to join Botham at 115 for five at Wellington. This time they added 242, with Botham looking to bludgeon the ball and Randall more intent on caressing it. Botham left for 138 with 22 fours and two sixes. Randall was once again snared by Hadlee, but this time he made 164 against his name, with 20 fours and two sixes to his credit. He got 104 in the third Test at Auckland, adding another 87 with Botham. It was his last Test century.

 

The tour of Pakistan that followed got him just one fifty. And when the West Indian pace attack came steaming in during the summer of 1984, Randall was sent in at No 3 at Birmingham. He fell to Joel Garner in both innings with zero and one against his name. He never played for England again. Allan Lamb, Mike Gatting and David Gower in the middle-order did not allow him any more opportunities.

 

Randall’s Test career ended with 47 matches in which he scored 2470 runs at 33.37 with seven hundreds. In 49 ODIs, he scored 1067 runs at 26.67 runs with five half centuries.

 

He continued playing for the great Nottinghamshire side for eight more years. His runs did not flow as smoothly in the late eighties, but in 1991, at the age of 40, he had a superb summer with 1567 runs at 62.68 with five hundreds. His fielding remained sensational even as he crossed over to the wrong side of 40.

 

Randall carried on playing till 1993, finishing his First-Class career with 28,456 runs at 38.14 with 52 hundreds.

 

The style

 

Of a slight build, and just about five feet eight inches, Randall prowled in size 11 boots. He was named Arkle after the famous racehorse. He was by far the most gifted athlete among cricketers of his era. He often lost his way while out on a training run before the cricket season, but nevertheless always managed to arrive back before anyone else.

 

His batting was not copybook, the shuffle a bit too pronounced, the movement at the crease almost distracting. He nibbled a bit too much at the balls outside the off-stump. A nervous starter, he often looked as if he was uncomfortable holding the bat. However, when the ball started hitting the sweet spot, he was one of the most rewarding sights at the crease. He also had the ability to often hit unbelievable shots off deliveries that other batsmen would have be content to defend or leave alone.

 

Prowling in thecovers all his life, Randall was known to save at least 20 runs a day with his interceptions. He was seen galloping in as the bowler approached the crease. His long limbs and large hands ensured quick and safe pick-ups and the expertly honed throw rattled the stumps with unerring accuracy.

 

After retirement from First-Class cricket, Randall coached the Cambridge University side and the Bedford School team. At Bedford, one of his wards was Alastair Cook. It was Randall who recommended the young lad to the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) National Academy. He also coached Bedfordshire in the Minor County Championship.

 

The ‘Derek Randall Suite’ at Trent Bridge was named in his honour by the Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club.

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix

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