John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.
There is evidence that cricket has been played in Leicestershire since the early 18th century, with the self-employed frame-knitters of towns such as Loughborough and Hinckley taking time off for the occasional game. Local sides started regular fixtures against each other, although documentary evidence is sketchy for the early years.
It is known that a Leicester team played a team from Nottingham at Loughborough (close to the border between the two counties) in 1781. The report in the Leicester Journal states that the match was abandoned when the players argued over whether the game was being played fairly, and it was not until 1789 that the teams are known to have played each other again. In the meantime, the Leicester team played matches against other teams, including one from Coventry in Warwickshire.
The Leicester team was constituted as the Leicestershire and Rutland Cricket Club (Rutland being the much smaller county that adjoins Leicestershire to the east). This can therefore be regarded as a precursor of the current county side, and it played matches against other early county sides and also the MCC (the Marylebone Cricket Club based at the Lord's Ground in London).
However, the early impetus was not maintained, possibly because the quality of cricket played in the midland counties was nowhere near as good as that in the south, where cricket had been played at a competitive and high level for many years.
The Leicestershire and Rutland Cricket Club therefore faded away, and it was not until 1820 that another County Club was formed. This club played at a ground at Wharf Street close to the centre of Leicester until 1860 when the land was sold for building and the club had to play at various inadequate grounds around the town and had no regular fixtures against other counties.
Becoming a "First Class" County
The true foundation of a county side for Leicestershire therefore dates from 1877 when a company called the Leicestershire Cricket Ground Co Ltd bought a plot of land off Grace Road on the south side of Leicester and was able to open it for cricket matches the following year. The County Club rented the ground and played a match against the visiting Australian tourists as an early fixture, attracting a massive crowd for all three days.
The County Club became Leicestershire County Cricket Club in 1879, although it was not able to join the “first-class” group of counties until 1895.
An early problem for the club was that its base, some two miles south of the town centre and its railway station, was inconvenient for cricket fans who did not live close by. The decision was therefore made in 1901 to relocate to a ground in Aylestone Road, much closer to the centre of Leicester and also close to other sporting facilities at Filbert Street (football) and Welford Road (rugby). This arrangement continued until 1946 when the Club moved back to Grace Road. Although the facilities were very poor at what would become the Club’s permanent home, public transport had improved considerably and the southward growth of what was now the City of Leicester meant that more fans could reach the ground with ease than was formerly the case.
During these early years of first-class status, Leicestershire CCC was never a high flyer in terms of cricketing success. The county had a reputation for producing better bowlers than batsmen and so could rarely offer a balanced side. At that time, all county sides only recruited locally, and Leicestershire, as a sparsely populated farming county with only one town of any size, simply did not have the manpower resources to produce competitive sides.
Things started to change in the 1960s when Leicestershire CCC was able to attract two star players to join and captain the squad. These were Tony Lock, the England spin bowler in 1965–67, and Ray Illingworth, the all-rounder, who joined the county from Yorkshire in 1969 and stayed until 1978.
Lock’s assistance had much to do with Leicestershire achieving second place in the Championship in 1967, giving the players a self-belief that had been lacking in the past.
However, it was Illingworth’s arrival that made the real difference. He had a proven record of success as a player with Yorkshire but had never captained a county side. He now found himself as captain not only of Leicestershire but, a month later, of England as well, and in both capacities, he achieved remarkable success.
For Leicestershire CCC, this meant the one thing they had long dreamed about but never managed—naming the winning of silverware. This did not happen immediately, largely because Illingworth’s England duties made him unavailable for many county matches, and Leicestershire also lost a second strong all-rounder, Barry Knight, to the national side (although this was Knight’s final season for both Leicestershire and England).
Indeed, it was not until 1972 that success finally came Leicestershire’s way with the winning of the inaugural Benson and Hedges Cup (a one-day knock-out competition played originally over 55 overs per side). They also came second in the John Player 40-over Sunday League.
The Golden Age
This triumph ushered in Leicestershire’s “golden age” with five trophies won in five years, the peak coming in 1975 with the achievement for which the Club had waited ever since 1895, namely winning the County Championship. They also won the Benson and Hedges Cup for the second time.
One of Leicestershire’s star players at this time was Chris Balderstone, who achieved a unique feat in the final Championship match of the 1975 season by finishing 51 not out at the end of the second day’s play against Derbyshire at Chesterfield, playing football for Doncaster Rovers in an evening match, and resuming his innings at Chesterfield on the following day, completing his century and taking three wickets.
Leicestershire’s successes were more sporadic in the 1980s, despite the County having the services of another great England player (and later captain), namely David Gower. Their only trophy during the decade was a third (and last) Benson and Hedges Cup in 1985.
However, things improved in the 1990s, especially under the captaincy of James Whitaker who, although a fine player, was only once called up for England Test duties. Leicestershire won the Championship twice more in 1996 and 1998.
The key to the Grace Road trophy cabinet has not been in much demand in more recent times. Since 2000, the County Championship was split into two divisions, and Leicestershire slipped into the lower division in 2003. They have been there ever since and finished bottom in 2009. The only bright spot has been in the Twenty20 evening competition, run since 2003, which the “Leicestershire Foxes” have won twice, in 2004 and 2006.
Leicestershire CCC’s current problems are largely financial, in that they cannot retain high-flying players who are attracted away to play for richer counties. The squad therefore consists mainly of older players nearing the ends of their careers and young, locally-recruited players who show great promise but are necessarily inexperienced and who may not be willing to commit themselves to the County side for the long term.
Whether Leicestershire CCC will ever return to their winning ways remains to be seen. A lot depends on whether the young side can stay together and if the promise shown by the Club’s crop of current and former under-19 internationals can be realised.
John Welford (author) from Barlestone, Leicestershire on April 09, 2019:
In that case, thanks for reading this piece! I agree with you about "very English"!
Jo Miller from Tennessee on April 09, 2019:
I found this very interesting even though I know absolutely nothing about Leicestershire or cricket. Very well researched and written. It all sounds very English. I plan to visit your country again this fall. We're going to London and Yorkshire.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 02, 2019:
Hi, thanks for sharing.