The sudden death of former Eastbourne Cricket Club captain Alex Halliday at the tragically young age of 46 has revived memories of the club’s greatest triumph – the winning of the National Club Cricket Knockout Championship.
Alex himself was not one to regularly capture the headlines but his shrewd captaincy won him huge respect among his team-mates and played a considerable part towards this prestigious success back in the summer of 1997.
It was a hard-earned triumph. Eastbourne played no fewer than eight qualifying games before they reached the final hurdle against Harrogate at Lord’s.
It was fair to say that the Saffrons players were apprehensive about their chances of landing the coveted title. Northern sides inevitably provide tough opposition and Harrogate’s opening batsman John Proud had scored a whirlwind unbeaten century in the semi-final.
Needless to say, Eastbourne’s appearance in the final created great excitement in the Gazette & Herald office. As outstanding pace bowler Roger Myall put it at the time, it was the equivalent of Langney Sports football club reaching the final of the FA Vase.
For myself, colleague Barry Rabbetts and photographer Gareth Connolly, it was an unforgettable experience to take up our seats in the Lord’s press box and even more surprising to see a battery of national newspaper reporters tapping away on their type-writers including the legendary Daily Telegraph cricket writer, the late Christopher Martin-Jenkins.
But sadly, they were not there to watch Eastbourne v Harrogate. They were reporting on a press conference in which the Michael Atherton was making a statement on his future as England captain during a particularly controversial period.
The final of the 45-over competition itself was quite amazing. Eastbourne had won each of their eight qualifying rounds batting second and here they were again, fielding first against a highly powerful team whose team had won the toss.
Wherever your allegiance lay, one could only sit back and admire the excellent standard of Eastbourne’s bowling and fielding. Halliday’s team gave absolutely nothing away and Paul Hacker got his side off to a perfect start by trapping semi-final hero Proud leg before early on.
The Yorkshire team were finally all out for a modest 158, a total that seemed well within the capabilities of the Sussex team.
And this feeling was soon confirmed by a magnificent opening partnership between Richard Halsall (who went on to become England’s fielding coach and is now Sussex Academy director) and Paul Stevens, both of whom completed half-centuries.
Stevens, who had earlier performed superbly behind the wicket, made a fine 63, finally departing for with the score at 135.
The remaining 24 runs were knocked off with relative ease with Halsall the hero of the hour, hitting the winning runs as he was left unbeaten on 82.
It was an easy decision for man-of-the match adjudicator Mark Nicholas to nominate Richard Halsall for the award which also included the presentation of Halsall’s weight of 13stone 7lb in ale, the competition having been sponsored by Abbot Ale. I loved the headline at the time in the Independent - ‘Halsall’s ale and hearty performance.’
As I made my way back to Sussex, determined to give the Eastbourne triumph the best possible coverage in the Herald, I felt I had completed my own personal double.
Two decades earlier, I had travelled to Chelmsford to cover Hastings and St Leonards’ Priory’s famous victory in the same competition on the Essex County Ground.
That was in my capacity as sports editor of the Hastings Observer and only a few days ago I met up with one of the Hastings heroes of that day, slow bowler Graeme Mounsey, who is now 84.
Eastbourne and Hastings have for long been fierce rivals in the Sussex League but I have no doubt that each would have celebrated the other’s triumph in this particular competition.
For me, it was a privilege and pleasure to watch them both, but nothing can really compare with being on official duty in the press box of Lord’s. The home of cricket, a ground on which the world’s best have performed.
Alex Halliday deservedly took his place at the home of cricket and it was his fine captaincy and subtle man-management that guided Eastbourne to their finest hour. He was a man who had the respect of all. Our thoughts go out to his family at this time.