Having stated that 2005 was my favourite season watching the ‘House, I have to get another entry in by calling 1991 an interesting and eventful season. Lowerhouse had ended the 1990 season in eleventh. This was despite in the last game at Rawtensall, Chris Bleazard setting a new amateur batting record for the club with 857 runs. It passed Steve Gees record of 803 and still remains a record there to be beaten. A new regime was gradually taking over at the clubs hierarchy and one couldn’t fault them for lack of ambition when they signed Manoj Probhaker, the Indian Test all-rounder, to be pro in 1991. He was a bowling all-rounder but good enough to be a makeshift opener for his country in Tests and ODIs.
It was thought that Probhaker would be a significant upgrade on 1990’s professional, the Jamaican Delroy Morgan, and that the club could then challenge for long awaited honours. To be fair Morgan had a better season than he is given credit for, making 803 runs and taking 54 wickets. He was a small, frail looking player, very unimposing. Nobody could accuse him of having a napoleon complex. A problem looking back in the signing of Probhaker would be that the club had spent a good deal of money on a top ranking player; but did they have the amateur strength to back up the expectations they’d awakened?
I was especially keen at the start of the 1991 season, as much as anything, because I’d belatedly got my driving licence the previous September, and getting to away games would be so much simpler from now on. At least in those days if I was forced to miss a game I could keep up via Radio Lancashire, with its then excellent match day coverage. Those were the days. Phil Bird, Don Ormerod, Jim Kenyon, Mark Briggs, etc. WE MISS YOU ALL! It’s not quite the same on Twitter… The scores from all the games were usually accurate but at Lowerhouse they could be slightly dubious depending on the skittish mood of ‘House super-fan Brian Moorhouse. His position at the top of the steps was close to the telephone in those days and he could take a liberty or two when asked the current score. He said it was part of his flirting routine with the secretary from Radio Lancashire.
There are people better place to myself who would know when the relationship between Probhaker and the clubs amateurs soured. I suspect it didn’t take too long! It kind of reminds me of a member of the Scottish Jacobite army in 1715 on meeting James II son, the Old Pretender. He found in less than inspiring, “We were disappointed in him, and I think he was disappointed with us.” I don’t know on Probhakers side whether there were personal or cultural differences with his new teammates or whether he didn’t respect their playing ability. To some extent Lowerhouse and signed Lewis Hamilton giving him the keys to a car park at the back of the grid.
It pains me to say it but Lowerhouse didn’t have a strong amateur side in 1991. They had a smashing batsman in Chris Bleazard who would score 788 runs, just 65 short of his own record, and the third best of a total by a Lowerhouse amateur. No the batsman reached the 400 mark in 1991. Lowerhouse’s amateur bowling was if anything even weaker period Jez Hope had by sheer determination and willpower, transformed himself from a moderate batsman to a very good bowler, and he took 42 League wickets in 1991. James Capstick and Ryan Hesketh showed promise but neither got 20 wickets and there was no spin threat.
Lowerhouse lost four out of their first five games and we’re knocked out of the Worsley Cup by East Lancs. Probhaker was playing well but he was having to do too much. This was emphasised by the double defeats vs Church. In the first of those games he made 65 out of 120 all out and Lowerhouse fell to an 8 wicket defeat. In the return a few weeks later Probhaker and Blez made half centuries but that only lead to a 159-9 total, and a 7 week it loss this time.
By now I sensed Probhakers performances depended on his mood. He’d taken to standing apart from the team’s amateurs even at the fall of an opposition wicket. He looks like a man fulfilling his contract but not enjoying the cricketing experience of league cricket.
What ensued was a series of Jekyll and Hyde performances period excellent century at Rawtenstall as Lowerhouse overturned their crushing defeat there in the last game of the previous season. I got the impression that he would give his best as a batsman when it was a flat track but not on a surface that called the patience and graft. One such flat track was Todmorden. Probhaker played a brilliant innings making 129 out of a Lowerhouse final total of 245-3. It was such a good pitch that day I fancied the home team might well have made a good game of it. That was until the 1st over when Todmordens professional the hard-hitting Clint Yorke hit a Probhaker half tracker like a tracer bullet over the head of the beanpole figure of John Proctor at mid-on. From my vantage point I thought it had a cleared him but Proctor had taken a stunning one-handed grab and the game was effectively over, despite Stuart Priestley’s defiant 80 runs. Yorkes brother Dwight would become a top Premiership player. Even I felt sorry for Clint that day in missing out on such a good wicket, especially with the Todmorden Committee making a great fuss about the visit from their former professional Mohsin Khan. Khan was an ultra-stylish player who had retired from cricket to become a Bollywood Heartthrob actor.
The other side of Probhakers character was too often on show. On a poorish track at Bacup, Lowerhouse had set a modest target of 116 for the home team. This might as well have been beyond them had not Probhaker falling out in big style with the umpire. This resulted in him getting no favours on many close LBW appeals and his 2-50 would be insufficient in preventing a Bacup win. If any match show the bad side of Probhaker it was the game at Acre Bottom. There were rumours circulating that Probhaker had been out most of the night at the casino. He did go through the motions at least as a bowler as Ramsbottom made a slightly above par 140 on a tricky wicket. Probhakers batting effort was disgraceful and an insult to his colleagues and the travelling Lowerhouse fans. It was almost like he was trying to get out! Facing a young Jonathan Fielding, who would soon have a spell at the County side, he got away with a rash hit that luckily avoided anyone in the infield circle, only to repeat the shot and hole out. He had sold his wicket cheaply, looked grateful to get off the field and it left his team doomed to defeat.
At about the seventy percent mark of the season Probhaker would play his last two games for the club. At Bentgate even a Chris Bleazard century couldn’t prevent a classy Haslingden side cruising to victory and a 70-run defeat at Nelson followed. It was announced that an injury would prevent Probhaker playing on and a convenient parting of the ways “quickie” divorce ensued. Lowerhouse would finish the season with sub pros.
The last period of the season started poorly for Lowerhouse who engaged the Leicestershire stalwart Gordon Parsons to be acting professional. He got a duck as Todmorden took revenge. In the next game Jez Hope took his season best 6-38 and sub pro James Sutherland back team up with 4-54 and 19 not out and Rishton were easily seen off.
David Callaghan did duty for us in two games (Home and Away) vs Accrington. His opposite number in the game at Liverpool Road would become one of the most famous players in the history of this boy but nobody suspected it then. Shane Warne had had a relatively quiet season and speaking to a few Accrington fans before that game; that was a polite way of putting it. Actually Warne bowled very well taking 6-27 off 19 accurate overs. Rarely, though, have I seen such a disparity between the runs scored at one end rather than the other. Chris Blizzard made 75 out of a 200 runs score as Lowerhouse targeted the amateurs from one end and batted cautiously against the impressive Warne. Lowerhouse won by 40 runs in Accrington we’re heading for a tailspin lasting nearly 15 years, as they were almost always parked close to the bottom of the league standings for that period.
The next game of the 1919 season was at home versus East Lancs and is still often recalled by those who attended it. Robert Haynes was engaged as sub pro! He was in the midst of a multiyear spell at Morecambe in the Northern League. As a previous stint at Accrington had shown, he was a potentially exciting player. A twist to this game was that Haynes had been a sub professional for East Lancs 3 weeks earlier when they’d been well beaten by Enfield in the Worsley Cup Final. He’d had an off game that day and some said there was an undercurrent of criticism about his poor performance from the East Lancs committee and fans. Was there anything in that or had somebody from Lowerhouse made it up to motivate Haynes is an open question. If somebody hatched such a plan then it certainly came off in style! He took 7-59 and executed 2 run outs as East Lancs made 189 all out.
It was 86-2 when Haynes strode out to the crease. If anybody hit the ball harder on our ground then I haven’t seen it! I remember one hapless fielder at long on who only had 10 feet to move to prevent a boundary but saw the ball beat him easily. Out of the 106 runs scored for victory, the tall Haynes scored 91. There was a fantastic atmosphere as Haynes was nearly carried off in triumph. An impromptu mob formed, with Mark Whitehead its apparent leader, demanding that Haynes signed on for 1992. Lowerhouse though had paid top dollar in 1991 with Probhaker, and sadly couldn’t meet the fee Haynes would command. It was a shame, Haynes was a great entertainer, very much in the Kirti Azad mold. A player with enough faults not to make it at the highest level, but a real bully at league level.
Lowerhouse didn’t face Shane Warne at Accrington in the next match as he’d returned early to Australia. Accy managed their revenge but the ‘House did get a win at Colne when Ian Austin of Lancashire took his turn as Probhakers deputy.
So to Seedhill, Nelson for a marvellous ending to this curious season. England all-rounder David Capel had come up from Northamptonshire and he bowled tightly taking 5-40 in 18 overs as the home side were dismissed for 138. After driving up on the day and bowling a long spell I’m sure Capel would have been thinking of putting his feet up for a while as he’d been stated to bat at 5. His feet weren’t rested for long at 12-3 he came into join Chris Bleazard to stop the early rot. It wasn’t quite Robert Haynes stuff but Capel played a great knock making 78 out of a 122 run partnership which ensured Lowerhouse an easy victory. He left his collection for the lads to have a drink and drove off forever a hero to us. Yet as fans what a fine margin we hold players to. Capel’s innings was almost faultless but early on he completely miss-hit a straight drive. It was a horrid shot but fell just short of long off. If he’d have been out and let us at 20-odd for 4 and almost certain doom, how would we have felt? That ten yards made the difference between Capel being a passing legend and completely irresponsible. Like I said, it’s a very fine line that sportsman tread.
So the season was over. We have been spurned by Manoj Probhaker who through he was too good for us. He may have been right but that is no the mentality of a good league professional. Probhaker leaving the stage early left us with some excellent performances by our sub professionals and great cricket matches to end the 1991 season. The Haynes and Capel games, in particular, are still mentioned 25 years later. We finished the season on such a high that we didn’t really notice we finished only 11th in the league, just the same as 1990. Perhaps the greatest lesson from the breathless 1991 season was that if the club was to succeed in shaking of its “Cinderella” tag, it had to do it from the bottom upwards. It had to bring on or sign amateurs of high talent and ability not rely on throwing money at the professional position.