Author: Alan Birkinshaw
There cannot be many cricketers who can say that they had the benefit of the advice of Geoffrey Boycott and Brian Clough in their teenage years, but Russell Heritage can.
The former Yorkshire and England batsman took a keen interest in Heritage’s early career, while Clough – the Bowling Old Lane version not the famous football manager – provided further advice and guidance as he made his first steps in league cricket.
Their words helped launch him on a career which saw him become a widely respected and admired cricketer in both the Bradford and Central Yorkshire Leagues.
Boycott first saw Heritage’s potential as a batsman and left-arm spinner in his teenage years. Heritage recalls: “When I was a youngster, I was a net bowler for him. He used to pick me up at Hemsworth and I would bowl to him at Ackworth Cricket Club where other youngsters would bowl and field for him.”
The young Heritage’s performances at those nets led to Boycott recommending him to join Yorkshire League club Barnsley in 1976., “Boycott, Arnie Sidebottom and Steve Oldham were all in the Barnsley side when I played there. With so many experienced players around, I did not get too many opportunities to bat or bowl, so Boycott suggested I joined Doug Padgett at Bowling Old Lane,” said Heritage.
Before he could benefit from the Yorkshire batsman’s guidance, Padgett was appointed county coach which meant he was out scouting on a Saturday afternoon.
It did not matter because Old Lane stalwart Jack Hill convinced him it was the right club for him. Hill was a former captain and had a shrewd cricketing brain.
Heritage recalls: “He told me that our facilities are not too great so it is necessary to stay out in middle as long as you can. Those players at the posh clubs with fancy dressing rooms are in too much of a hurry to get back to them.
“He also gave me a priceless piece of advice that I have never forgotten. He told me that it was not the number of runs you scored or the number of wickets you took that mattered, it was the number of games you won for your team that did.
“It always made me appreciative of the value of the player getting 20 runs when your team is in trouble or a bowler getting a couple of key wickets. Those contributions can be more valuable than taking seven for seven on a raging turner or scoring a ton on a track made for batting.”
Among his first team-mates were the rising Yorkshire batting star Bill Athey and the Bradford league legend Brian Clough (above).
“Cloughie was eccentric but his love for and knowledge of the game was unmatched,” he said. “Cloughie was a fine player and he was always happy to pass on help and advice. He seemed to know everything about every player and every team.”
For Heritage it was a thrill to have former Derbyshire and England fast bowler Harold Rhodes as his captain and play against the likes of the Yorkshire and England pair Phil Sharpe and Don Wilson who were at Manningham Mills, in his debut season in which Old Lane avoided relegation by three points.
What was to follow was a surprise to everybody. Under the astute leadership of Terry O’Connor, Old Lane won the league title in 1978. The arrival of Yorkshire fast bowler Steve Sylvester from Harrogate proved crucial.
Sylvester took 52 wickets and chipped in with 349 runs, while the young Heritage picked up 53 wickets with his left-arm spin at an average of 12.71 and made 252 runs.
“We weren’t a great batting side, but somebody always managed to chip in when we needed it. Our strength was our bowling and in Terry O’Connor we had a captain who was a great man manager. He got the best out of all of his players,” Heritage added.
It proved to be the best of his five seasons with Old Lane, a period which saw him take 176 wickets at 19.86. He also played for Yorkshire 2nds, England Under-19s and British Colleges when he started to train as a teacher.
He became surplus to requirements at Yorkshire and had a spell playing for Northamptonshire 2nds where one of his team-mates was a 16-year-old Chris Pickles, later to play for Yorkshire and shine with Spen Victoria and Cleckheaton.
The 1982 season saw him join Lascelles Hall where he played alongside the Huddersfield League legend John Shaw, scorer of 10,000 runs and taker of over 1,000 wickets.
Heritage got to know Shaw well through his regular winter net sessions under the guidance of the well-known former Bradford League and Central Yorkshire League cricketer Johnny Lawrence at his indoor nets in Rothwell and Tadcaster.
“It was a wonderful experience to net each week with players of the calibre of Ronnie Hudson (above), John Crowhurst and Roger Braithwaite from Hanging Heaton, the Huddersfield stalwarts John Shaw and Peter Dibb plus the long-serving Castleford player John Pearson.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that Ronnie Hudson just turned up and played. He worked harder and longer than anybody else to improve his game and when we all finished practice, we would go to the pub and talk cricket.”
Heritage moved into the Central Yorkshire League in 1983 and enjoyed great success. “It was a lovely club, a fine ground and had some good players.
“I soon discovered that there was a similar competitive spirit to the Bradford League and there were some extremely good players.
“People like Paul Blakeley at Birstall and Methley’s Mick Waite were fine cricketers and at Mirfield we had a talented overseas in Saeed Azad, and later there were the likes of Jamie Pamment and Steve Foster at Gomersal.”
In what Heritage describes as “the middle part of my career” he also enjoyed two successful seasons at Gomersal in 1991 and 1992.
Their first league title eluded them as they were runners up in both seasons, but they did the Heavy Woollen Cup and Jack Hampshire Cup double in 1991 and lifted the Jack Hampshire Cup again in 1992.
Tony Pickersgill was the captain and Heritage was man of the match in both the 1991 cup successes.
Heritage was eventually to embark on the “final phase” of his career in 1995. Long-standing Undercliffe member Jack Lee urged him to talk to cricket chairman John White.
The Intake Road club had been relegated to Division Two and Lee was desperate to see them get back to the top flight.
“I remembered John White as a mean, competitive opening bowler, but he sold the idea to me of going back as captain to try and revive the club’s fortunes,” Heritage recalled.
Under Heritage’s command, Undercliffe gained promotion as runners up to Lightcliffe in 1995. “We had a nucleus of good solid club men in Howard Reeve, Chris Burns, Andy Wilsdon and Ziarat Hussain, while Mark Gilliver was probably at the peak of his runscoring form.
“Reeve was my wingman. He was so knowledgeable and could read the game well. He was a huge help to me as he knew all the characters and their strengths and that helped me to get the best from them.
“Howard was also an elegant and fine batsman and having him in the side was a massive boost for any captain.”
Heritage took 50 wickets and scored 772 runs in the promotion campaign and followed up with 38 wickets and 655 runs as Undercliffe came ninth on their return to the top-flight.
Undetercliffe's 1997 title-winning team. Back from left: Matthew Wood, Russell Heritage, Howard Reeve, Andy Wilsdon, Ziarat Hussain, Alex Wharf, Mark Gilliver: Front: Iqbal Khan, Chris Burns, Glenn Yates, Chris Schofield.
Their young guns, Yorkshire opener Matthew Wood (482 runs) and all-rounder Alex Wharf (38wkts) – now an international umpire – both began to fire in 1997 in a side where overseas player Iqbal Khan (520) and Gilliver (707) scored vital runs as they took the league title.
“It was a lovely moment to win the league,” Heritage recalls. “It meant so much to the club and those players who had played there for many years. We played some good cricket and it was something I will always remember.”
Heritage spent two more years at Undercliffe before playing one season at Aston Hall in the South Yorkshire League where he had the privilege of being the first player to captain Bradford League legend Sarfraz Ahmed, above, in English cricket.
“Saffy used to travel on a bus from Bradford and it was my job to pick him up at Meadowhall Interchange and drop him back there after the game.
“He was an unknown quantity when he arrived, and he quickly made his mark. He was too quick for most of the batsmen in the league and he hit the ball harder and further than anyone else I can remember.
“In one game against Wickersley Old Village he hit their opening bowler Andy Harrison for four huge straight sixes from the first four balls of an over. We were just thinking about six from six when the fifth ball was hit with power and bounced just inside the ropes and went for four.
“Everybody loved him because of his talent and his beaming smile. Mind you, I am still waiting for Brian Pearson to buy me the beer he promised me when he asked if Saffy would be good enough for the Bradford League. I had no doubts and the rest is history after his performances with Woodlands.”
Heritage was to return to the Bradford League when he joined Undercliffe again. In 2005 he scored 1,014 runs for the second team and finally called time on his career playing against Old Lane in 2008.
“I wanted to finish where my league career started so I decided that Bowling Old Lane 2nds v Undercliffe 2nds would be my final game. I scored a century and it was the right way to go.
“It was nice that the Old Lane chairman, Michael Hope, presented me with a momento recording the fact that I started and finished my Bradford League career playing at Bowling Old Lane.”
Russell went on to play alongside son Ben at Methley before returning to Undercliffe once more as their Cricket Chairman.
“It was an honour to be asked by Brian Lymbery to take on the role, but I found it increasingly difficult and it was too like my work as a headteacher in Rotherham.
“There was a lot of paperwork, visa applications and I was frustrated by the fact that many times I would talk to a player about joining us, we would agree, then he would give backword. In my playing days once you agreed on a deal that was that.”
Heritage, who has now retired from his job as a headteacher, spends much of his time walking his pet dog. The suspension of recreational cricket has meant he has been unable to watch Ben captain Barkisland in the Huddersfield League.
Looking back at his own playing career, he said: “Do I miss it? Yes, I do. They say you are a long time retired and it certainly feels that way. I had a wonderful time playing cricket and I was lucky my wife Dianne was fully supportive and brought my children to every game.
“Cricket is a time-consuming game and it was good to have them there so that I could spend time with them. This is one aspect of cricket which seems to have changed today.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie and company of my team-mates, but the support of my family played a big part in allowing me to enjoy a long and happy cricket career.”