“You could really hear the ball fizzle when Duncan Carter bowled.”
It was just the sort of thing I wanted to hear when I spoke to one of Heywood’s best amateur batsmen and my current neighbour Jimmy Porter recently.
A left-handed opening bat and one-time wicket-keeper Jimmy, 68, played in some of Heywood’s greatest teams from 1959 through to his retirement in 1983, winning the CLL title with legendary West Indian pro Clairmont Depeiza in 1960 and the title with Colin Lever in 1974 and 1976.
He held the record score for a Heywood amateur – 129 v Walsden in 1980 – before current skipper Bobby Cross broke it in 2007 with 162 not out against Middleton. In one of those great coincidences, Bobby told me it was the same day he was introduced to Jimmy for the first time!
During his 23 years – separated by a gap of 11 years away due to work commitments and a spell with Middleton – Jimmy amassed 4,463 runs at an average of just under 20, scoring 500 runs in a season twice. To modern eyes, these figures may not seem astounding, but in the days of uncovered wickets, rapid West Indian professionals and no helmets, these are excellent statistics.
Naturally, of course, the first thing I wanted to ask Jimmy was just what it was like to face some of the world’s most lethal bowlers, and who were the best players he’d played with and against.
“Duncan Carter was the fastest I faced, without a doubt. He was a West Indian and pro at Littleborough in the mid 1970s and when I saw him coming out of the dressing room I knew he would be lively. He really made the ball fizzle, and remember, there were no helmets in those days.
“Joel Garner was probably the best bowler I ever faced as he was always there at you, consistently making you play at awkward deliveries.
“But I played against lots of the great pros of the era. Franklyn Stephenson, Andy Roberts, Cec Pepper. With Pepper, I wondered what I’d come into because he effed and blinded like nothing I’d heard before.
“However, the best player I ever played against was Sir Garfield Sobers. As a batsman, fielder and bowler he was simply the world’s best. I remember him pro-ing for Radcliffe when he got some big runs against us at Crimble. He was in his early days then, but he knocked us all over the place and wherever I fielded he kept knocking the ball past me. It was something to behold, and I’m proud to say I faced him, especially as I was only 15 or 16 at the time.
“Nowadays the players wear all sorts of protective gear, but we never had any. But you know what? I was never worried about injury. It never entered my head.”
A groundsman and gardener by trade – about which more later – Jimmy returned to Heywood after a decade away in 1972 to bolster the batting and return an ailing Heywood square to pristine condition, which he undertook as a labour of love.
It was also Jimmy who was the key to bringing to Heywood one of the finest servants of the club.
“It was January 1976 and I had worked my way up from an apprentice gardener to parks manager at Rossendale Borough Council. The office secretary told me there was a David Fare to see me, who was working at the time for Durafencing.
“Anyway, it wasn’t long before we got talking about cricket. I told him I played for Heywood and David told me he was playing for Worsley but was looking for a new club.
“I wasted no time in asking him to come down to Crimble on a Sunday morning to come and see what we were all about. He took one look at the ground and decided to join that season.
“What a great signing he was! Along with Bob Cross, he became one of the most wonderful and loyal members of the club, being captain on many occasions and chairman for a long period of time. Well done to these gentlemen.”
But back to the beginning. Jimmy was born in Middleton and grew up near Middleton junction. A keen footballer – he played for Blackburn and Oldham A teams – as well as a talented cricketer, he grew up playing on the local croft, where in summer the one lamppost was used as a wicket and in winter was used as one side of the net. As you can imagine, a jumper was used as another goalpost!
In his second year at Moorclose Senior School, Jimmy became a regular in the school’s first team. In his third year he played for Middleton Boys and by his fourth year played for North Lancashire Boys at Old Trafford before being selected for the full Lancashire Boys team and playing at places like the County Ground at Northampton and Chester-Le-Street.
His great early influences at school were PE teacher Dai Bevan – the former Halifax, Wigan and Great Britain rugby league winger – and George Howarth, his maths teacher, who played in the second team at Heywood. These two were responsible for polishing his obvious talent and for him attending the trials that saw him play for representative sides.
Jimmy continues the story.
“In 1958 and just 14 years old I was encouraged to join Heywood CC by these two teachers, and I played my first season in the second team under captain John Oddie.
“I left school in 1959 and was playing cricket for Lancashire Boys and football for Blackburn Rovers, and it was this year I made my first-team debut as wicket-keeper batsman, with Keith Slater as professional and Ray Purser as captain.
“In 1960 we had Clairmont Depeiza as pro, who was an excellent player. He bowled medium-quick off a few paces and was a good batsman and under Ray and Clairmont we won the CLL title that year.
“I played in 1961 and had great memories of those early years. The crowds were in their thousands and Manchester Buses used to stop outside the Municipal Buildings to take players and supporters to away matches. Brilliant days.”
At that time, Jimmy was working for Middleton Council as an apprentice gardener and was told that if he was to further his career he had to work weekends in the greenhouses at Jubilee Park, near Middleton Parish Church, which made it impossible for him to play for Heywood and which – for a decade at least – caused him to leave the club he had come to love.
As luck would have it, however, part of his training was in groundsmanship so he was always in touch with the game he loved. In 1966 he was approached by a member at Towncroft to become part-time groundsman at Middleton CC, and although this meant he couldn’t play for the senior sides, Jimmy talked the club into allowing him to net with the first team to keep his skills honed.
Then, in 1969, his father retired and he took over the ground allowing Jimmy to play again. In 1970, ten years after his first league title, Jimmy and Middleton won the CLL title again before in 1972 he returned to Crimble to help restore a square that had seen better days – this time on a voluntary basis enabling him to play again for his first love.
He continues: “1972 was my first season back, under Bob Cross, at Heywood and I played until 1983. It was the right decision as it allowed me to develop my cricket skills at a higher level. I never regretted coming back.
“Bob Dearden became captain of the first team in 1974 and I was then asked to open the innings with Colin Lever. Colin was the perfect pro, you could rely on him to get 80-100 wickets a season and 800-1000 runs. He was probably the best professional we ever had and he was a proper gentlemen too, and in his last season – 1976 – we won the league title again.”
Not known as the most free-scoring batsman, Jimmy was, however, a proper competitor who sold his wicket dearly. He scored more than 500 runs in each of the 1979 and 1980 seasons when professionals were usually of international class and quick. Very quick.
It was in 1980 that Jimmy achieved the highpoint of his career.
Bob Cooke was professional and Heywood batted first against Walsden.
“It was May 24, a warm summer’s day and David Fare won the toss and elected to bat. I opened the batting with Vinny Kay and when the score reached 86 Vinny was out.
“That brought in Bob Cooke and we slaughtered the home attack to all corners of the ground. Now, I wasn’t renowned for hitting sixes but this was my day and I hit two sixes into the river and 16 fours in total out of an unbeaten 129, then a club record. Bob ended on 109 not out and we finished on 279-1 off 48 overs, including a then record second-wicket partnership of 193.
“In 1980, club records show I was only one of 14 amateurs to have scored more than 500 runs in a season since 1904 for Heywood CC.
“These are all achievements I am really proud of and I can only say thank you to Heywood CC and its members for these wonderful years.”
Jimmy still lives in Heywood with his wife of more than 40 years, Marjorie.
He now plays bowls for Queen’s Park Veterans, where he is a fierce competitor and knows all his statistics down to the last full stop.
His lovely semi-detached house and garden is a tribute to the pair of them, and he is excellent company and a lovely man.
Let’s hope we see him down at Crimble very soon.
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