Although cricket in the county dates back at least as far as 1741 – when the Gentlemen of Northamptonshire played those of Buckinghamshire for 20 guineas a side on Northampton’s Cow Meadow (now Becket’s Park) before adjourning to the Fleece Inn in Bridge Street for refreshments– it was to be many years before a properly-constituted county club came into being.
An important step was the formation of a new Northampton Cricket Club in 1820. It eventually (and at ‘very considerable expense’ according to the local press) made its home on the town’s Racecourse in 1834, and matches between the club’s ‘Town’ and ‘County’ members attracted big crowds including (in August 1849) a ‘considerable sprinkling of the fair sex.’ The label ‘Northamptonshire’ was used loosely and intermittently from around 1850 but there was no credible county-wide organisation, and by 1875 local enthusiasts were becoming seriously concerned at the lack of proper representative cricket when town and village clubs were flourishing across the area. That season saw the side bearing the county’s name arrange just two fixtures, against MCC and Uppingham Rovers (12-a-side!), and at least one letter-writer to the Northampton Mercury asked ‘are we to acknowledge a club without discipline, management or funds?’
The situation was rectified three years later. Following two matches between the Gentlemen of the North and South of the county, a meeting at the George Hotel in Northampton – on the evening of Wednesday July 31, 1878 – backed a proposal that ‘the County Club be re-organised, and that gentlemen from all parts of the county be invited to support it.’ The 5th Earl Spencer (whose father had presided at the ‘Great Match’ between the North and South of England on the Racecourse in 1844, with Alfred Mynn the star attraction) was the new club’s President, and Jim Kingston – one of eight brothers to represent the County – its first captain. To emphasise the crucial ‘all parts of the county’ aspect the committee boasted members from Wellingborough, Kettering, Daventry, Oundle and Stamford as well as Northampton.
Problems with enclosing the Racecourse (a public right-of-way, which led to at least one brawl involving long-time groundsman Alf Stockwin and the driver of a brewer’s dray) for big matches gave impetus to the search for a private ground. At the end of 1884 a general meeting of members, chaired by Sir Herewald Wake, opted for a piece of land in Abington owned by Sir Robert Loyd Lindsay and offered on a 21-year lease for £200 an acre. Alfred Cockerill prepared the ground and accepted payment in shares in the new Northampton County Cricket and Recreation Grounds company. It was first used for cricket on May 15 1886, when Northamptonshire entertained Surrey Club and Ground. In 1923 the same Mr Cockerill chased up all the other shares, wound up the Company and handed over the County Ground to trustees on a 1,000-year lease. This arrangement only ended in 2012 when NCCC bought the freehold for £150,000.
Northamptonshire achieved first-class status in 1905 after winning the Minor Counties Championship in both 1903 and 1904 and sharing it in 1899 and 1900. Two men – a professional cricketer and a peer of the realm – might fairly be described as the principal architects of this promotion. George Thompson was born in Louise Road, close to the Racecourse in Northampton, moved to the village of Cogenhoe as a boy, attended Wellingborough School and turned pro in 1897 after a brief spell as Northamptonshire’s assistant secretary. In all matches for the County – first-class and Minor Counties – he took 1,829 wickets and scored over 13,000 runs. He played six times for England, retired in 1922 and a plaque on the ground proclaims him ‘the greatest player the county has ever produced.’ Off the field, the 5th Baron Lilford – President from 1903 to 1921 – was the driving force, keeping the club afloat out of his own pocket for many years. A hugely enthusiastic cricketer himself (he turned out for Oundle Town as a young man, ran his own team at Lilford Hall and made a solitary first-class appearance against All India in 1911) Lord Lilford died in 1945, two years after Thompson.
Northamptonshire came within a whisker of winning the Championship in 1912 under the captaincy of local solicitor GAT ‘Tubby’ Vials – but the inter-war years were tough ones for the club. Despite the emergence of talented cricketers like batsman Fred Bakewell and fast bowler ‘Nobby’ Clark – plus all-rounder Vallance Jupp who joined from Sussex as player-secretary and did the ‘double’ of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season six times in County colours – it was a perpetual struggle to compete on the field and survive financially. In September 1931, as the global depression bit hard, the position was sufficiently grim to prompt an EGM at which the committee suggested dropping out of the Championship altogether. That didn’t happen, but famously – or infamously – Northamptonshire went four years, from May 1935 to May 1939, without winning a single first-class match. The drought eventually broke, amidst much local rejoicing, in the final season before the Second World War, by which time another towering figure had made his mark at Wantage Road. A Yorkshireman by birth, Dennis Brookes played more times (492), scored more runs (28,980) and logged more centuries (67) for Northamptonshire than anyone else in the club’s history. He subsequently became the club’s first regular professional captain in 1954, was honoured with the presidency in 1982 and lived to see the gates at the Abington Avenue end of the ground named after him. Stephen Schilizzi, President from 1929 to 1938, proved a worthy successor to Lord Lilford as benefactor-in-chief. He in turn was succeeded by the 7th Earl Spencer, the second member of his family to hold the office; the present Earl would become the third in 2005.
The first three post-war summers saw the team in its accustomed position at the wrong end of the Championship table – but Freddie Brown changed all that. A leading all-rounder with Surrey and England before the war, he took over the captaincy of Northamptonshire in 1949 – one of many players attracted to the club by the prospect of employment with British Timken, courtesy of their cricket-mad boss John (later Sir John) Pascoe. Brown’s ‘New Look’ side surprised the game-at-large by finishing sixth in his first season at the helm, and success at county level proved a stepping stone to the England captaincy for ‘FRB’ who took the MCC side to Australia in 1950-51. His five seasons with Northamptonshire saw several undisputed all-time greats come to the County Ground: Ashes-winner Frank ‘Typhoon’ Tyson, wicketkeeper supreme (and future captain) Keith Andrew and Australian wrist-spinner George Tribe who bamboozled batsmen around the county circuit to the tune of over 1,000 wickets in just eight full seasons.
The club’s active recruitment policy earned it the ‘League of Nations’ tag in the 1950s, although sustaining a local identity was never an issue with Brian Reynolds was in the dressing room. Every inch a man of Northamptonshire, and specifically Kettering, his involvement spanned over half-a-century as player, coach and latterly cricket development officer. Northamptonshire finished as Championship runners-up in 1957 (under Brookes) and again, by just four points, in 1965, when Andrew’s team contained another genuine star in Colin Milburn. Still remembered fondly for his buccaneering approach to batting and to life in general, ‘Ollie’ had his career shattered by the loss of an eye in a car crash in 1969 when at the height of his powers with the County and England. He died in 1990, aged only 48.
From 1958 to 1985 Northamptonshire could boast a genuine cricket visionary in the secretary’s office. Ken Turner pioneered many ‘modern’ fundraising methods including a football pool that raised thousand of pounds, and rock concerts in the club’s first indoor cricket school – built on the old tennis courts, opened in 1959 and now bearing his name. It was said for a time he studied ‘New Musical Express’ more closely than ‘The Cricketer’ in search of up-and-coming acts. No stranger to controversy but respected by his peers (and a shrewd judge of a player to boot), Turner built a powerful side which challenged strongly for honours in the 1970s. New arrivals including Bishan Bedi, Sarfraz Nawaz, Bob Cottam, John Dye and Roy Virgin blended successfully with established County men like Jim Watts (who shared a dressing room with both Dennis Brookes and Allan Lamb), David Steele, George Sharp and Mushtaq Mohammad to raise Northamptonshire back among the leading counties. The process paid dividends in 1972, when the Australians were beaten at Northampton, and in 1976 as Mushtaq led the side to victory over Lancashire in the Gillette Cup final at Lord’s – the club’s first major trophy. By then, Steele had become a national hero (and BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1975) for his exploits on the Test scene against Australia and West Indies.
The emergence of the ebullient Allan Lamb (brought over from South Africa in 1978) ensured that Northamptonshire were trophy contenders and a team worth paying good money to watch. With him around there was rarely a dull moment, either side of the boundary rope. An England regular from 1982, he comprised one-fifth of the ‘Famous Five’ at the top of the County’s batting order – Geoff Cook (skipper in 1987 when the club reached two one-day finals, losing them both), Wayne Larkins, Richard Williams, Lamb and Peter Willey – and scored over 30,000 runs for the club in all competitions. Lamb was a common denominator in two limited-overs titles, the Benson and Hedges Cup in 1980 (Man of the Match in the final against Essex) and the NatWest Trophy in 1992 (captain in a comfortable victory over Leicestershire). Lamb’s ambition to see the Championship pennant flying over the County Ground looked likely to be realised for a good chunk of his final season, 1995, when Indian spinner Anil Kumble topped 100 wickets. Unfortunately, a tally of 12 wins – usually sufficient to top the table – was only good enough for third place that year.
One significant change in this era was the demise of Northamptonshire’s diverse collection of out-grounds. As far back as 1906 the club took Championship cricket away from Northampton to Peterborough, and other venues followed – Kettering (1923), Rushden (1936), Wellingborough School (1946) and Luton (1986). Three tourist matches were staged at Bletchley’s Manor Fields ground in the 1980s thanks to business sponsorship from Milton Keynes, while one-day fixtures went to Brackley, Bedford School, Tring, Horton House, Finedon, Stowe School and Campbell Park in Milton Keynes. But the club’s heavy investment in its own County Ground – from the new pavilion, a major fundraising project to mark NCCC’s centenary in 1978, to the bigger and better indoor school named after another of the club’s most passionate and generous supporters, Lynn Wilson – dented the business case for putting on ‘home’ cricket elsewhere. Wantage Road is Northamptonshire’s headquarters now more than ever, especially since Northampton Town Football Club’s departure to Sixfields in 1994 which spelled the end of duckboards on the cricket outfield and the cavernous Hotel End.
The next generation of players – led by Rob Bailey, David Capel, David Ripley and, later, David Sales – carried the club into a new millennium and the era of Championship promotion and relegation. But the recurring story of recent seasons has been the Steelbacks’ glory nights in the county game’s newest and most hectic format, Twenty20. Alex Wakely (a product of the Northamptonshire academy, launched by Ken Turner’s successor Stephen Coverdale in 2000) lifted the silverware in 2013 and again three years later – becoming the first County captain to secure two major trophies, Ripley sharing the plaudits as head coach. In another significant development, members voted in September 2016 to support the proposal put forward by chairman Gavin Warren and the board of directors to turn the club into a limited company with the objective of attracting capital to secure the long-term future of cricket at the County Ground.
The story continues…