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Cricket news - When World Cup stars played club cricket

Imran Tahir and Moddershall celebrate their remarkable league title. The author is in the middle of the front row [Photo courtesy: Chantal Lemaitre of The Staffordshire Newsletter]

Shane Warne, Vivian Richards, Malcolm Marshall, Wasim Akram, Gary Sobers, Jacques Kallis, Michael Holding, Javed Miandad, Allan Donald, Curtly Ambrose, Dennis Lillee, Allan Border - many of the game's bona fide all-time greats have plied their trade in English league cricket at one time or another, some at the peak of their powers.

Although expanded international programmes and the stratospheric spike in player earnings in Twenty20 franchise cricket have largely consigned all this to the past, a sprinkling of the World Cup's genuine stars have dipped their toes into English club cricket. Cricbuzz recalls those stints and speaks to those who played with them.

Steve Smith | Sevenoaks Vine CC (Kent), 2007

When a 19-year-old Kevin Pietersen played for Cannock in the Birmingham League in 2000 as an off-spinner and lower-order batsman, the story goes that after a few weeks, his captain, the former Kent and Leicestershire all-rounder Laurie Potter, offered the following observation: "Mate, I don't rate your bowling, but you're a helluva f*****g batsman!" He was immediately moved up to number three.

Sevenoaks Vine didn't quite reach such a verdict about the 17-year-old Steve Smith in 2007, back when he was still predominantly a leg-spinner. They were just happy he was playing for them. "We got a phone call from a local resident," explains Vine's opening bowler, Tom Parsons. "He said they had a family friend from Sydney staying with them in Maidstone for the next eight weeks and asked if he could come down and play for us."

"We said, 'yeah, sure', expecting him to play some second team games, but he came to the first training session and was just incredible: the energy doing fielding drills, the time he had to play the ball, the timing, decent leg-spin. He was just a different species."

On debut, for the 2nd XI, chasing 366, Smith made 187 as they won at a canter, and it wouldn't be long before he was promoted. "You could only play one overseas player per team," recalls Parsons, "and after a couple of weeks the guy we had for the first team, Matt Wallis, a grade cricketer, just said: 'Guys, this kid's better than me. He needs to be playing in the 1sts. I'll drop down'."

On his Premier League debut, Smith made a golden duck, lbw to Parsons' university colleague Johan Malcolm, but followed up with scores of 59, 62* (on his 18th birthday), 0, 48, 76, 23 and 41, while chipping in with 11 wickets. He was also playing for Surrey and Kent Second XI - "I gave him a lift to a game where he was playing for Surrey and I was playing for Kent," recalls Parsons, "and he got me out [lbw for 0], so that wasn't a fun journey back" - and both counties were keen to sign the boy with a British passport through his English mother. But it wasn't to be. One or two glitches aside, he's done alright since.

Jofra Archer | Horsham CC (Sussex), 2016

Watching Archer bowl 95mph rockets and rough up world-class opening batsmen in this year's World Cup, it's difficult to believe that only three years ago, when he signed as overseas pro for Horsham CC in the Sussex Premier League while still an uncontracted player, the club's former Somerset leg-spinner Mike Munday remembers feeling "a bit underwhelmed, a bit 'whatever'. We'd played against him the previous year [when he was at Middleton-on-Sea] and he didn't take a wicket. He didn't bowl in one of the games. But guys at Horsham with connections to Sussex said they'd seen something in him."

Archer played two seasons at Middleton: one in the second tier, when he hardly bowled due to a back injury, and one in the Premier, when they were relegated despite him taking 28 wickets and scoring over 500 runs. He would only take 12 league wickets for Horsham - second in their wicket charts, albeit 50 fewer than Munday - but, the latter recalls, "it soon became obvious he was very, very talented. He'd come to nets and bowl left-arm spin and you'd be forgiven for thinking he was a left-arm spinner."

There were three performances that really stuck with Munday: "a spell against the Sussex Academy side when he was seriously quick; a game against Bexhill when he came in at 80-odd for 5 and smashed 128 off 78 balls; and the final of the Sussex T20 cup against Roffey, our big rivals, when Jofra and the Sussex left-arm quick George Garton opened the bowling together and basically won the game inside four overs. It was almost slightly unfair."

Horsham didn't see much of Archer for the second half of that 2016 summer as the scalps of Mohammad Hafeez, Misbah ul-Haq and Azhar Ali on first-class debut against the Pakistanis led to a contract offer and regular appearances in the NatWest Blast. He hasn't looked back.

Last year, he made one further appearance for Horsham - again in the derby against Roffey - returning figures of 14-7-24-4 in a 171-run victory. "Obviously at that point he's a superstar," recalls Munday, "so I don't think it went down too well with the oppo. They ended up winning the league, as they did in 2014, '15 and '16, but they certainly lost that game quite badly."

Faf du Plessis | Mansfield Hosiery Mills CC (Nottinghamshire), 2006

"We were just given a list of names by a clubby agent and picked him out," recalls Steven Musgrove, Faf du Plessis' top-order colleague at Mansfield Hosiery Mills in the Nottinghamshire Premier League (NPL) in 2006. "He'd played a couple of games for Titans but you never know how good they're going to be."

It was only Hosiery Mills' second season in the NPL, flush after selling their old ground to home and garden giants B&Q, and needing their overseas to be good. "He arrived on Thursday morning," Musgrove remembers, "and I didn't go to nets that night. I phoned the captain: 'How did he look?' He says: 'He looks really, really good.' First time I see him is on the Saturday on a typical April wicket, a piece of rolled mud, and he makes 120. You knew then he was just a different level of cricketer."

Du Plessis had played for Liverpool CC a couple of years earlier, scoring 854 runs at 45, but "it was still luck of the draw that we signed him," says Musgrove. Despite MHM finishing one place above relegation, Faf would finish seventh on the NPL run list, with 769 at 48.1 (top was former England batsman Samit Patel, with 943 at 104.7). "We were a poor side, playing on a poor wicket, often chasing huge scores, and with a huge price on his wicket. He'd have made loads more in a good side."

If adapting to the challenge of making runs on iffy league pitches for a struggling team was tricky, Du Plessis made mountains of runs for Notts 2nd XI, starting with a limited-overs double-hundred, followed by three tons. He certainly left a major impression on Musgrove, who later moved to South Africa, built a house with Faf and became his agent. "He was always very professional: training, eating, gym-ing every day. Some young pros piss it up. There was none of that. The success that eventually came his way was built on a lot of hard work when he was younger."

Du Plessis wasn't quite done with league cricket: he played the following season for Todmorden in the Lancashire League, living in a flat above the scorebox, but only averaged 36.3 in a truncated season. Before Tod could decide whether to retain his services, Du Plessis signed as a Kolpak for Lancashire, staying for two years, and returned to the Lancashire League in 2010 for a short stint at Ramsbottom, this time averaging 65 to prove to the locals that the future Proteas' skipper wasn't a total duffer.

Wahab Riaz | J&G Meakin CC (Staffordshire), 2007

When J&G Meakin finished third-bottom of the third tier of the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League (NSSCL) in 2006, despite the presence of Pakistani ODI star Imran Nazir, the club felt they needed a change of direction with the pro. Nazir's first seven innings at the compact former factory ground in Stoke-on-Trent were 227, 9, 21, 149, 134*, 59 and 168, including 54 sixes, and the 40-yard straight boundaries were just about long enough for his replacement's run-up. The 'keeper and slips didn't have huge wriggle room when he really let fly, either.

Meakin's Chairman James Menzies, vice-captain in 2007, remembers Wahab being "a quiet character who stayed in Manchester and caught the bus down to Stoke on a Saturday morning. He was 22, first time overseas, and he was cheap." He picked up 18 wickets in the first four games, including a season's best 8 for 56 against Whitmore, but was inconsistent, going at almost 4.2 runs per over.

Wahab returned to Pakistan for a three-week fast-bowling camp and came back feeling bullish, even if it wasn't always appropriately expressed. "He used to do stupid things like running in with his arms out, mimicking a plane," recalls Menzies. "So we had to get him to stop that, as it was disrespectful."

The post-camp bowling was devastating, though, says Menzies. "We had a renegotiation of his wage, including a wicket bonus and a few other bits and bobs, and it sort of galvanised him. His parents came over, too, which helped him settle."

All in all, and despite being removed from the attack in one game for running on the wicket without even being issued with a warning, Wahab took 77 wickets at 13.66 in 19 league games. He finished the season with seven consecutive five-fors, beginning the run with 6 for 9 against poor old Whitmore, who were bowled out for 22 chasing 82. With Meakins securing promotion, he was immediately signed on a five-year contract, which failed to pan out, says Menzies, "because he was never available. But he's definitely the best pro we've ever had."

Angelo Mathews | Stanmore CC (Middlesex), 2006

Last year's English National Club Championship runners-up, Stanmore from Middlesex, alma mater of Angus Fraser, have quite a tradition of Sri Lankan overseas players. Dhammika Prasad and Farveez Maharoof have both played there, while in 2005 the great Aravinda de Silva turned out in a few games. The following summer, an 18-year-old Angelo Mathews, fresh from the U19s World Cup, arrived on a five-month cricket scholarship, eager to develop his game.

"The minute you saw him in the nets," recalls that year's 1st XI skipper, Marc Reingold, "you thought 'Wow! This guy can really bat'." That said, Mathews made three ducks in his first five Middlesex County League innings and didn't record his first league half-century until August, when he made a season's best 92 not out. He finished with 408 runs at 27 and took a slightly disappointing 17 league wickets at 32.8, which Reingold puts down to "arriving with a slight shoulder injury. Yes, he took time to acclimatise to English club pitches, as they all do, but you could see he oozed class."

Mathews did contribute a couple of breezy fifties on a run to the county cup final, which Stanmore lost by three runs, and he scored a century in a T20 knockout game (all stats courtesy of the club's website, if you search for "Angela Matthews"). Whenever Stanmore didn't have a game or Mathews was ineligible, he turned out wherever he could get a game, even making a double-hundred as a ringer for Casual Nomads XI.

Reingold recalls a teammate who was "very intense with his cricket, but he spoke good English and away from the games he fitted in well and was happy to be one of the guys. He regularly pops into the club to see everyone when he's touring with Sri Lanka."

Glenn Maxwell | South Wilts CC (Wiltshire), 2012

"James Tomlinson, an old South Wilts teammate who was on the staff at Hampshire called me," recalls 2012's 1st XI skipper, James Hayward. "He said: 'This lad has just come over from Delhi Daredevils in the IPL but isn't registered to play first-class cricket for us, only T20. He's looking to play some cricket. Would you be interested?' It was all very last-minute. We were up till midnight the night before his first game trying to get him registered, as you need coaching qualifications to be an overseas in our league."

With i's dotted and t's crossed, Maxwell debuted against the Hampshire Academy, starting with a 24-ball 46. "He played and missed at his first ball and the next three disappeared over long on for big sixes," laughs Hayward. "I thought: I think we've got a good one here!"

He followed up with another 46, this time from a snail-like 35 balls, but that was as good as it got for Maxi with the bat in his eight league games. "It was disappointing not to see him get a big one," reflects Hayward, "although playing on green seamers, with no pace on the ball, probably wasn't ideal for him. But his fielding was phenomenal and he did a great job with the ball, bowling with real control - although, as captain at the time, I had to put up with some of his crazy theories, like having a fly slip."

Fly slip or no, Maxwell signed off with 7 for 33, 5 for 42 and 6 for 94, giving South Wilts a push to the first of four straight Southern Electric Premier League titles. He still pops in to see his mates in Salisbury whenever he's in the country. "Fame and fortune haven't gone to his head. His friends are his friends. He was a great professional, really mucked in, was very generous and just a really clever cricketer."

Imran Tahir | Moddershall CC (Staffordshire), 2008

By the time Imran Tahir signed for Moddershall in 2004 (full disclosure: I was his captain), he had already played five seasons of NSSCL cricket: three with Kidsgrove, then two with Norton-in-Hales, who he helped become just the second promoted club to win the top division at the first attempt by taking 104 wickets and breaking Garry Sobers' league record. They came third the following year, and although we had beaten them four out of four, their Pakistani leggie looked handy. So we signed him.

That first year, we reached two knockout finals, winning the Staffordshire Cup for the one and only time. The following season we led the league all year, only to be pipped at the post by our arch-rivals. Both Immy and I then had two years away from Moddershall, but reunited in 2008 to find a very different dressing room. Retirements and departures had gutted the team, particularly of bowling strength. Not good when they had endured two relegation dogfights. I wasn't optimistic, even after a few last-minute signings.

Five weeks into the campaign, we were winless and Immy had eight wickets at 31 apiece (a 45-year-old ex-wicketkeeper who had never before bowled in 1st XI cricket had seven at 10.4). I'd have settled then for finishing third bottom. Snatched your hand off. But then we got on a roll - six wins and three draws - to surge to the top of the table. Immy's contribution was 212-73-437-51. At which point, disaster struck.

Imran signed for Hampshire. They offered us derisory compensation. We feigned playing contractual hardball, but he'd been trying to get a foot in the county cricket door for years and we were never going to stand in his way. We looked around for a stand-in pro, the dream of the 'miracle' title evaporating before our eyes. Then Imran called. He said he'd looked at Hampshire's fixtures and thought he could play five of our last eight games. He told us not to get a replacement. Implored us.

He took a club record 12 for 189 on his Hampshire debut. And, as it turned out, he managed to play six of our remaining games. On one occasion he phoned on a Thursday afternoon, day two of his Championship game, and told us it wouldn't make the final day and that he'd therefore be available. He was right - just - and so drove 300km up from Southampton for the game, then 270km to Taunton for Hampshire's Sunday League fixture.

We headed into the final match needing five points for the title. But it had rained for a fortnight and the outfield was a swamp. We mopped up from sunrise, brought the boundaries in to the legal minimum, and persuaded the umpires it was fit. However, I lost a crucial toss and we were soon 22 for 5 (Immy with a first-baller) and the shit was being funnelled in the general direction of the fan. We scraped 125 - three points! - with yours truly making a career-best 71, which meant four wickets would seal it.

At 65 for 2 with their best player having bunted two sixes over the dinky boundaries off Immy, things were getting twitchy. A 'Superman' catch at mid off saw the back of him, which meant one more bit of magic would give us our improbable league title. Step forward Imran Tahir's soon-to-be-world-class googly, which fizzed back through their number five's defences and into the stumps, at which point Immy ran off toward deep point, screaming like an absolute maniac, the ten of us (and maybe some supporters) in hot pursuit. It was a celebration the world would get to see quite a lot of over the next decade.

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