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Geoff Cope: England off-spinner whose career was plagued with obstacles

Geoff Cope © Getty Images
Geoff Cope took a hat-trick on his Test debut against Pakistan © Getty Images

Geoff Cope, born February 23, 1947, was a long serving off-spinner of Yorkshire who played three Tests for England. He might have played many more if his action had not been repeatedly questioned. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who almost took a hat-trick on Test debut.

A troubled career

Strangely, the last name of Geoff Cope took on curious proportions during his cricket career. The tenure was long, success slow in coming and short-lived, and challenges aplenty, and he had to cope with every obstacle along his way.

The long serving Yorkshire off-spinner took aeons to break into the county team because of the presence of Ray Illingworth in the equation. Later, he was plagued by an action that was deemed questionable – leading to suspensions.

He painstakingly remodelled his delivery, fought against a deteriorating vision, wore glasses and later switched to contact lens, and finally made it into the England team.

He almost took a hat-trick on his Test debut, but was denied by a curious — and perhaps overdone — sporting gesture by captain Mike Brearley. And after playing three Tests, he had to face all the questions regarding his action yet again.

Cope remodelled his action yet again, and continued to play First-Class cricket, but never made it to the England side again. After moving away from the scene, his eyesight deteriorated further, and the almost total absence of peripheral vision saw him officially registered as blind.

It was not the ideal life for a cricketer. Yet, he became Yorkshire’s Director of Cricket.

An early all-ten

Born in Burmantofts, Leeds, Cope was the son of a French polisher. His father was also a concert hall pianist and had been offered a contract as a professional footballer. However, he had turned down the sporting career in favour of playing it safe in the family business with his uncle.

Spending his boyhood in Crossgates, Cope played his first cricket at Manston Junior School. His junior school headmaster was Ernest Smelt, who had played Minor Counties cricket for Durham. He was an encouraging influence, but the man who shaped Geoff’s future was coach Ken Fletcher.

In the Under-11 Cup final, Cope performed the perfect act with his off-breaks, capturing all ten wickets for 26. He was also a pretty useful batsman in his young days, and went in at number three to guide his side to victory. Fletcher congratulated him with tears in his eyes.

Soon Cope made it to the England Schools team.

He started playing for the Leeds Zingari second team in the Dales Council league. He turned out for them until the age of about 14, by which time he was also representing the Leeds Cricket Club with its headquarters at Headingley. For the next 25 years, Cope played for the Leeds Cricket Club in the Yorkshire League.

The Close and Trueman lessons

In 1964, the young spinner underwent trial for the county and started playing for the Yorkshire Second XI. Two years later, with Illingworth away on national duty, he made his First-Class debut, playing against Hampshire at Bradford Park Avenue, bowling just five wicket-less overs.

However, there was an important lesson learnt during his first game. His first move in the field was at fine-leg, where he went down on one knee to stop the ball and threw it back right over the stumps into the gloves of keeper Jimmy Binks.  Feeling rather pleased with himself, he was surprised when captain Brian Close stared him down and said, “Do you realize while it was in the air they ran another one?”

In the summer of 1967, Cope captured 40 wickets at 13.82, including match figures of eight for 53 against Surrey. But in spite of the success, he had to wait till 1969 to become a regular in the side, and did so only after Illingworth moved to Leicestershire.

While the regulars were away, the team was handled by veteran pace bowler Fred Trueman. It was the canny captaincy of Trueman which made Cope think about his bowling.

In a match against Northamptonshire on a seaming pitch at Bramall Lane in Sheffield, Colin Milburn was scoring freely.  Trueman asked Cope how he would bowl at Milburn. When the bowler suggested an off-stump line, Trueman made him reconsider. The legendary fast bowler explained that Milburn couldn’t hit a leg-stump line due his bulk. Indeed, Cope soon got his wicket following those instructions.

Suspension

Cope was awarded his Yorkshire cap in 1970. But, two years down the line he faced his first major problem. His action was brought under scrutiny and he was suspended by a review committee.

It was unfortunate. According to Cope, “It was a bad time because you were never allowed to defend yourself. A committee met and made a decision, which was then passed on down the lines. You didn’t know who was on that committee or what they thought.”

Respected umpire Dickie Bird was one of the many who thought there was nothing wrong with his action. In fact some went on to say that if his action was illegal, many others should not have been bowling.

However, Cope was not disheartened. He worked hard, under the guidance of former Yorkshire left arm spinner Johnny Wardle.

Cope drove over 200 miles to Wardle’s house every day for eighteen months. According to him, “Johnny got me to bowl from behind my back very much as he bowled. But the main difference was the attacking bowler against the defensive bowler. When I’d got it behind the back, the left shoulder would come round more and I ended up in an up-and-over action and got a bit more bounce from it and was able to underspin it if I wish.”

He returned magnificently in 1975, soon claiming eight for 73 against Gloucestershire and five for 28 against Somerset. He ended the season with an 11-wicket haul against Northamptonshire.

This catapulted him into an England side against the Rest, in the Test trial held at Bristol in May 1976. Bowling in tandem with Derek Underwood, Cope had a fantastic game. In the second innings, Underwood finished with 15-11-10-4, and Cope with 14-7-27-5 and the Rest of England were bowled out for 48.

It was perhaps fortunate that even after this performance, Cope was not selected for the Tests against West Indies in the summer. No one knows how Gordon Greenidge, Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd would have treated him. However, he did make it to India for the winter’s tour under Tony Greig.

To India and Pakistan

He was among the wickets in the early matches taking a six wicket haul against the Indian Universities, but he had to return home when his father passed away. By the time he returned to India, Greig had opted for a seam based strategy. England won the series 3-1 and Cope did not feature in any Test.

After another good season at home, his opportunity arrived in Pakistan in the following winter. He made his Test debut at Lahore, under the captaincy of Brearley. After a long spell, he almost bagged a hat-trick. Abdul Qadir was dismissed leg before, and the very next ball went through the defences of Sarfraz Nawaz and bowled him. Iqbal Qasim was the next man in and Cope came round the wicket at the left-hander. The first ball turned away and the edge was taken low down in the slip by Brearley diving to his left. The umpire’s finger went up and Qasim had already started on his way back, acknowledging Cope with a nod and a muttered, “Well bowled.”

Umpire Amanullah Khan was flushed with excitement, saying that he had never seen a hat-trick before. Exactly a year earlier, Peter Patherick of New Zealand had claimed a hat-trick on debut and it would have been a remarkable coincidence. However, Brearley got up and noticed a lot of gravel on the back of his hand. Doubt crept into his mind about whether he had taken it cleanly. Graham Roope and Bob Willis, both fielding close in, insisted that he had taken it a foot in the air, but Brearley insisted, “’No, for the best interests of this series I’m going to bring him back.” As Cope put it, “So he brought him back — and for the best interests of the series, six of us were lbw in our first innings.”

Cope played all the three Tests in the series, capturing eight wickets at 34.62. He also played two of the three One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and finished with two wickets for 35 in the 18.4 overs he sent down.

Ken Barrington, manager of the England side, said that Cope was more accurate than Underwood. However, it was the last time he would ever play for England.

The second suspension

When Cope started the summer of 1978, more questions raised about his action. By the end of the season, he had been suspended again. That effectively ended his chances of playing any more Test cricket.

He did get back to First-Class cricket, but the hounding of the critics continued. His confidence took a hit and there was little to show in the two following two seasons. The only highlight was perhaps his batting with an injured hand at No. 11, and sharing an unbeaten last-wicket stand of 33 with Graham Stevenson to take Yorkshire to a one-wicket victory over the new champions Essex.

In 1980, his action was questioned yet again. Yorkshire was affected by this continuous controversy and proposed to offer him a match-by-match contract instead of a basic contract for 1981.

With problems with employment outside cricket, and a family to support which now included two young sons, Cope was not enjoying the game anymore.  None of the umpires or administrators even explained where his action was going wrong. He was no longer prepared to spend months and years travelling long distance to Wardle to try and resolve the perceived problem.

He continued playing league cricket for Yeadon, but did not play First-Class cricket again. He ended his career with 686 wickets at 24.70.

The player

Cope’s main strengths were his concentration and accuracy, which enabled him to bowl long spells. He could bowl to his fields. With the years, Yorkshire became a weaker bowling side and Cope was forced to turn into a containing rather than attacking bowler. He did not turn the ball a great deal, maintained a consistent line on flat pitches and posed difficult questions on turners.

As a batsman he began his county career at No 11, but was always first candidate for night-watchman for his ability to hang on and hold the fort. He was also used as a stopgap opener for Yorkshire. He did not have too many strokes, getting most of his runs through deflections and edges behind the wicket, but did possess extreme concentration and a solid defence. He did get five fifties for Yorkshire.

Later Cope was elected as a member of the Yorkshire Cricket Committee and was appointed Yorkshire’s Director of Cricket in 2002.

(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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