Five-star Berkshire eyeing record

Winning one title is tough. But claiming four in a row puts you in elite company.

For Berkshire, this season could have seen them re-write the record books with a fifth National Counties Championship win in five years, beating the previous record they currently hold with Devon, who completed their quadruple run of triumphs between 1994 and 1997.

As it is, the champagne is on ice in this part of the country, and if they do achieve their stated ambition, the realisation is that their entry in the record books will contain an asterisk. Not that that will lessen an achievement that no county side has matched since Surrey won the last of their seven successive titles in 1958.

That’s a measure of the scale of Berkshire’s dominance. And an indication that the strategy implemented by Danny Hall, the county’s director of cricket, alongside coach Tom Lambert, has paid off in a way that neither man could ever have imagined.

“Up until nine years ago, Berkshire, like a lot of other counties, would bring in a couple of pro players and try to win a Championship,” Hall tells TheCC.

“We said ‘we’re not going to do that anymore; we’re going to develop our own cricketers’. And with Tom Lambert in charge, we’ve gradually got there. We had a couple of lean years, which we expected because we were playing a very young side.

“But if you start playing kids when they’re 16 or 17, then by the time they’re 19 then they’re actually pretty experienced Minor Counties cricketers and they perform.

“We have had 19 and 20-year-old players mentoring 16 and 17 year olds. We weren’t trying to win trophies; it was all about developing young cricketers.”

As it happens, the two don’t appear to be mutually exclusive, with Berkshire’s approach now helping to produce players who don’t just win the odd match but totally dominate the National Counties long-format scene.

Not that it was easy last time around, with Berkshire’s record-equaling four-in-a-row sealed with a nerve-shredding one wicket win over Staffordshire at Banbury Cricket Club back in the dying days of September.

“We did make it slightly tough for ourselves,” says Richard Morris, who scored an ultimately crucial 89 in Berkshire’s first innings in that match.

“It’s frustrating not to be able to try and make it five this season but we completely understand the reasons for it. We just have to be patient. When you look at the bigger picture, then not playing the Championship this season is a bit of a no-brainer really.

“We’re fairly philosophical about things.”

Newbury-born Morris has played a crucial role in Berkshire’s rise, playing alongside his brother, and captain, James in a side that last lost a match in the County Championship in 2014.

“We have had 19 and 20-year-old players mentoring 16 and 17 year olds. We weren’t trying to win trophies; it was all about developing young cricketers.”

DANNY HALL

It’s an astonishing record and one that puts Berkshire in lofty company across any sport, not just in the UK, but globally.

Little wonder that Morris feels it’s a privilege to lead a side that, quite simply, has forgotten how to lose.

“You have to appreciate the amount of work that goes into winning competitions,” he says. “As a one off that’s a big deal, but to be able to sustain our time at the top for such a long period now is what makes it so special.

“It’s not the cricket that is the main challenge, it more about managing the various characters that you’ve got in your side and your squad and working out what you need to do to get the best out of them on any given day.

“We’re like any other side that plays any sport under the sun – we have some very different characters in our team and getting them to gel together is the big challenge every year.

“No-one wanted this delay and it would be nice to have that record outright. But more importantly, hopefully this time will allow everyone to reflect on just how much they enjoy the game.

“You don’t get opportunities to reflect that often. As amateur sportsmen, we give up our time to play the game for no financial reward. There’s no payment involved so you have to enjoy what you’re doing. Hopefully everyone has missed the game and comes back fully refreshed and ready to go.”

Morris (Richard) is the second oldest member of this Berkshire side behind Chris Peploe, the county’s pro who has represented Berkshire for over a decade. Now 39, the former Middlesex man remains a vital component of a team that has forged close links with his former county in recent seasons.

“It’s not the cricket that is the main challenge, it more about managing the various characters that you’ve got in your side and your squad and working out what you need to do to get the best out of them on any given day.”

Richard Morris

Indeed, the tie-in between Berkshire and Middlesex is delivering big wins for both, as Hall explains.

“That’s obviously something for the future at the moment. We currently have a partnership with Middlesex which works very well indeed.

“The player pathway is now interrupted between Berkshire under-11s and Middlesex first team cricket.

“They approached us three or four years ago and said: ‘you seem to be very successful at producing young players – it costs us a lot of money to buy in our players and only one in four actually ends up making it’.”

The biggest hurdle in the past for a National County cricketer would be breaking into the academy of a first class county, with the 18 teams at the top of the game prioritising those in which they had already invested potentially vast sums of money.

That’s no longer the case, with partnerships like the one between Berkshire and Middlesex now opening doors that would previously have been closed.

“Our best young players now have a very good chance of getting a Middlesex Academy contract,” says Hall.

With this in mind, it’s little surprise that Hall plays down any chance of Berkshire ever applying to join that elite band of 18 at the top of the domestic game.

Instead, he believes that Berkshire may have a bigger role to play in the future if English cricket goes down the regionalised route exemplified by The Hundred.

“The ECB policy isn’t to increase the number of first class counties, I think ultimately we could see the current number of 18 being reduced to 10 or 12,” he says. “So, I think it’s going to work the other way. You could find that some first class counties actually end up being part of the NCCA set-up.

“That’s the way it’s going. Personally, I think the Hundred is the first step to more teams being run on a regional basis – a London team, a Birmingham team, a Bristol team and so on.”

That’s a debate for another day.

For the time being at least, Berkshire have bigger things to concern themselves with.

Like winning five titles in a row. And writing their name into cricket folklore in the process.