1971: A trip down Lowerhouse Lane

In 1971 Idi Amin became a household name when he staged a political coup and became leader of Uganda. In this year East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh. At home we were coming to terms with decimal currency. People’s understanding of the new-fangled money was usually in inverse proportion to their age. Older people struggled with the conversion tables especially my gran, who wanted to convert back to old money to test if she was being robbed. I’ m glad I don’t have to tell her that her favourite bilberry tarts from Oddie’s, are now 19 shillings. 1971 saw the birth of football stars Andrew Cole and Stan Collymore, as well as a cricketer still playing, in Dominic Cork. Perhaps the most eminent sports star to be born in ’71 was multi-Wimbledon winner Pete Sampras.   Lord Reith, who more than anyone had helped fashion the B.B.C. died in 1971, as did Louis Armstrong and actor Pete Duel. The latter had just become famous in the hit T.V. series ‘Alias Smith and Jones’ but sadly took his own life. The saddest demise of ’71 in our part of Lancashire, particularly Nelson, was that of Sir Learie Constantine, perhaps the most influential of Lancashire League professionals.

The pop charts reflected the country’s shock that the Beatles had split up. The year started with Clive Dunn’s No1 ‘Grandma’ and ended with Benny Hill’s milkman Ernie. Marc Bolan and his band T Rex emerged as group of the year, at least in the singles charts. Two of the biggest films of the year couldn’t have been more different. One was the violent, futuristic nihilism portrayed in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, the other the weepie ‘Love Story’.

In the Lancashire League of 1971, the up and coming Dennis Lillee was in his only season at Bentgate, whereas Des Sparks was in his fourth year at Lowerhouse, the third as pro.

DENNIS KEITH LILLEE was born in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia in 1949. It is impossible in a short space to do his career justice so pardon this summary. He had made his Test debut just 3 months before joining Haslingden for the 1971 season. He went on to play 70 Tests taking 355 wickets at under 24. He became the player to better Lance Gibbs’s Test bowling record. The year after, sometimes appearing a little wild and wayward at Hassy, he returned to our shores and took 31 Test wickets in a drawn Test series. England’s grasp on the Ashes was emphatically ended in 1974-75.

Lillee combined with Jeff Thomson to destroy the English order. They were backed up by the under-rated Max Walker. Dennis Lillee had a fine copybook action and an intimidatory stare as he flicked the sweat from beneath his ever present headband. He and that aggressive wicket-keeper Rodney Marsh, combined for 95 dismissals in Tests. Dennis could have got even more wickets but a serious back injury in 1973, and then later, his time off with Kerry Packer’s cricket circus, curtailed his final number of Test matches. His return in the early 80’s saw him bowl at a reduced pace but he was wilier than ever and his wickets per Test was hardly affected. For our younger players too young to have seen Lillee, it would be his duel with England’s Derek Randall, in the 1977 Centenary Test in Melbourne, that I’d recommend watching, to show what this legendary player was all about.

JOHN DESMOND SPARKS was born in Bethlehem, Orange Free State in 1944.His father Henry and Uncle Dudley had both been first class cricketers. Sparks was just a club cricketer when he and his friend, Graham Pedley, travelled to England in 1967. They both got jobs in the area and thus had a qualification to play for Lowerhouse. Both players impressed, particularly Sparks with a bowling tally of 50 wickets at just 14. In 1969 Sparks was engaged as ‘House’s pro and had his best year taking 78 victims with his fast medium bowling. His next 2 seasons saw him take 64 and 69 wickets respectively. His batting skills were definitely lacking. Between 1969 and 1973 Lowerhouse employed pros , who had at the time of their engagement played only one first class game between them With an amateur pool of players below League average, a fight for honours was nearly impossible.  When Sparks returned to South Africa in 1972, he did make his first class debut following in his family footsteps. In total he played 16 games for Northerns, taking a respectable 56 wickets at 27 and having five 5 wicket hauls.

In the Lancs League that season, a youthful Lillee was only on par with Sparks in wickets but did outshine him with the bat. It wasn’t a vintage season for either club. Haslingden finished eleventh whereas only a dismal season at Nelson kept ‘House off the bottom. Under the quirks of the League’s fixtures, the two sides didn’t meet until Sept. 4 at Liverpool Rd. In this game Lowerhouse were skittled for 62. Although Lillee took 4-24 he wasn’t as impressive as veteran Rupert Jackman, who had 6-27. Hassy won by 7 wickets.   A week later the two teams met again at Bentgate to close out their seasons. Haslingden made 178-7 with Lillee making 46 before being run out. Sparks took 2-73. Lowerhouse refused to fold and were 161-8 when a draw was declared. (Lillee 4-72)     I wonder how many present at the 1971 season finale would have predicted that one pro would be the talk of the cricketing world and a legend of the game, while the other would be forgotten except in a small Lancashire village!