PUDSEY, WHERE STARS ARE BORN
John Fuller looks at some of the leading players to have graced one of Yorkshire’s top leagues
What do Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Martin Crowe, VVS Laxman, Mohammad Hafeez, Anil Kumble & Mohammad Yousuf have in common?
Glad you asked...well, they’ve all sent stumps cartwheeling or lofted fast bowlers out of the ground and earned their brass as overseas professionals in the Bradford Cricket League.
The Bradford League as everyone refers to it (now officially the ‘Bradford Premier League’ since merging with the Central Yorkshire League last year) has deservedly held a stellar reputation as a school of hard knocks; an uncompromising arena where emerging and future stars of first-class and international cricket test themselves.
At Pudsey Congs, they know a thing or two about high-profile signings and quality cricketers down the years. For club chairman Ralph Middlebrook, fast bowler Rana Naved-ul-Hasan (signed in 2001) was the model professional and the complete package:
“He could crush your toes, he could throw in flat and hard like Viv Richards and he could murder the bowling.”
Rana Naved has gone on to play 74 ODIs and nine Tests for Pakistan, compete all around the world (including back-to-back County Championship titles with Sussex) and excel in the short formats with his mastery of a subtle change of pace and deadly inswinging yorker.
But as a lad in his early 20s in the Bradford League, what impressed most was a willingness to roll up his sleeves, and get the job done time after time.
From 2000, Pudsey Congs won five consecutive Bradford League titles and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan was an integral cog. He took 67 wickets as Congs retained the championship by 14 points from Baildon and Pudsey St Lawrence in 2001.
A Bradford League stalwart from the history books is Babar Butt who won 17 trophies in 15 seasons with Pudsey Congs; he came over as an overseas cricketer from Pakistan to play in his teens for Bowling Old Lane in 1984.
Butt retired in 2015 but is back in competitive action this season after being tempted out of retirement to captain Pudsey Congs’ 1st XI.
Further back, another who shone at Pudsey Congs was India’s VVS Laxman (described by Middlebrook as “a very modest bloke...pure silk”) who won the Bradford League batting average prize in 1996 with 1,253 runs at 65.95.
A few months later, Laxman made his Test debut for India, scoring 51 in the second innings against South Africa in Ahmedabad – and a batting bedrock had been born. Apparently, VVS still keeps in touch with the club and when India tour England, he will make a point of visiting the Britannia Ground in Pudsey.
Spotting and recruiting talent on the cusp of international recognition has been something of a trend for Pudsey Congs; they had signed Pakistan batsman Yousuf Youhana in 1997 – now known as Mohammad Yousuf – and he snapped up the league batting trophy with an average of 58 before making his Test debut against South Africa in Durban the following year.
Youhana had come to Congs from Bowling Old Lane; the only other club who have won five consecutive Bradford League titles when they dominated from 1937 to 1941.
West Indian allrounder Learie Constantine played his part in that run as his first season yielded a hat-trick against Spen Victoria and 76 wickets.
Overseas cricketers have continued to leave an indelible mark as part of the league’s colourful past. In 2004, Bowling Old Lane stunned everyone when unknown overseas signing Mohammad Siddiq wreaked havoc in the second division.
The Pakistani pace bowler bowled a whopping 456 overs and finished the season with 110 wickets at 11.44 to become only the fourth player to record 100 wickets in a season in the league’s history.
While Siddiq stayed just for a year, other overseas cricketers have put down roots; none more so than Pakistani allrounder Sarfraz Ahmed who had 16 seasons with Bradford-based Woodlands CC during which time they won the league title six times.
Ahmed, famed for his pace and forensic economy rate, ended his Bradford Premier League career in 2016 with 787 wickets at an average of 14.65. According to league historian Reg Nelson, Sarfraz’s enduring ability to win matches with bat and ball makes him stand out:
“I remember the Black Sheep Cup tie at Barnsley in 2007 when he had the early batsmen jumping about in a creaky start that led to their downfall. The damage by Ahmed against the top Yorkshire League side at the time had rendered them defeated.”
He goes on to add: “I also recall the many occasions when Woodlands were 35-4, 68-7 and even worse and he has turned the match on its head with the most outrageous unorthodox shot selection.
“Has a batter in the league hit the ball further? Even his mis-hits over cover carried comfortably over the boundary edge.”
Talking to those that watch the Bradford Premier League week-in week-out, the days of superstars plying their trade in Yorkshire league cricket has been and gone.
That’s partly the fact that the money isn’t there for clubs to bag the likes of an up-and-coming Chris Gayle or a Virat Kohli but also that the regulation around bringing overseas cricketers to the UK has tightened considerably around visa requirements.
Home Office rules as to what constitutes a professional and the dizzying paperwork has flummoxed and freaked out even the most meticulous administrator – with punitive fines that could run to tens of thousands.
It didn’t go without notice that for this 2017 season, only four Bradford Premier League clubs (in the top division) chose to sign an overseas professional.
VVS Laxman won the Bradford League batting average prize in 1996 with 65.95, a few months later he made Test debut
Big noise: Sarfraz Ahmed won six titles with Woodlands CC