Chris Balderstone, the last great footballing cricketer

Former Doncaster Rovers footballer Chris Balderstone batting for Leicestershire County Cricket Club

Records, they say, are made to be broken: I write this on a weekend when Wayne Rooney has equalled Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal tally for Manchester United. Rooney will soon break that record, I’m sure, but in these days of sporting specialisation no-one will match one particular record with a strong Doncaster Rovers connection. I refer to the events of Monday 15 September 1975, when one man became the only one to play in a County Championship cricket match and a Football League fixture on the same day.

John Christopher Balderstone, better known to all as Chris, was born in Huddersfield in November 1940 and had a talent for both football and cricket. He signed for Huddersfield Town in May 1958 making his first team debut just over a year later. He also joined Yorkshire CCC, and made his first appearance for them in 1961.

Footballer-cricketers were not unusual in those days – two of Balderstone’s Yorkshire team mates, Ken Taylor and Brian Close, had played professional football – but two moves really advanced his winter and summer careers. In 1965 he signed for Carlisle United and he went on to enjoy ten seasons there, helping them gain promotion to the top flight in 1973-74. In 1971, he moved from Yorkshire to Leicestershire, where his captain, Ray Illingworth, moulded Leicestershire from perennial strugglers into a team capable of winning competitions. Balderstone’s first honour came when Leicestershire won the Benson & Hedges Cup in 1972. By 1975, with Balderstone aged 34, Leicestershire were challenging for the County Championship and ‘Baldy’ was in the form of his life.

Former Doncaster Rovers footballer Chris Balderstone batting for Leicestershire County Cricket ClubIn the summer of 1975 Chris Balderstone had left Carlisle and Doncaster Rovers’ manager Stan Anderson believed he was just the experienced head to bolster a rather youthful side. Cricket commitments meant Balderstone didn’t make his debut until 6 September 1975 when he helped Rovers to a 1-0 win at Bournemouth. He then played in a thrilling League Cup tie at home to Crystal Palace, managed by Malcolm Allison, whom Rovers beat 2-1. The next game, a home Division Four fixture with Brentford, had been moved to a Monday evening due to the St. Leger taking place on the Saturday.

There was a problem though for Balderstone. Leicestershire started a vital County Championship match at Chesterfield against Derbyshire on the Saturday and play continued on Monday and Tuesday. If Leicestershire won they would clinch their first-ever County Championship; Balderstone was desperate to play in both matches, and a plan was hatched to ensure he could do so.

Leicestershire batted first on the Saturday but were bowled out for a disappointing 226, Balderstone batting at No. 3 bowled for six by England paceman Alan Ward. Derbyshire ended the day 41-0 and would probably feel they had had the better of events. On Monday, Balderstone’s big day, Leicestershire fought back, dismissing the home side for 211. Balderstone’s left arm spin accounted for Derbyshire’s top scorer, Alan Hill, for 42. Leicestershire then lost two early wickets, but Balderstone held firm and at 6.30pm, he was undefeated on 51. However, he had the little matter of a football match to play in an hour’s time!

In order to execute this feat of logistics, Stan Anderson had taken on an important personal role. Along with a driver he arrived at Chesterfield at 3.30pm, when Leicestershire were still in the field. When Balderstone went out to bat, just before 5pm, Anderson must have secretly hoped every ball would bring his player’s dismissal but he was going strong when stumps were drawn. Balderstone, still in cricket gear rushed off the field, jumped into the car and sped away towards Doncaster. They hit town just after 7pm, but faced a further problem.

Rovers’ recent good form had attracted a bigger than usual crowd and over 6,000 were heading to Belle Vue. The car was held up in traffic and Balderstone was forced to start changing in the back. Fortunately, a helpful policeman recognised Anderson and waved the car through the traffic. Soon Balderstone was running out along with his team-mates.

Chris Balderstone, Doncaster RoversThe game itself was a bit of a disappointment. Brentford, who knew a win would put them top of the table, eventually took the lead through Terry Johnson after an hour. With eight minutes left Steve Uzelac received a pass from a free kick and hammered a 20 yarder into the roof of the net. A 1-1 draw meant Rovers were level on points with the League leaders, but Balderstone had more work to do on the morrow.

On the Tuesday he resumed his innings and went on to 116, his fifth century of the season before being run out. Illingworth declared at 260-6, and although Derbyshire never looked like reaching their target of 276, they seemed like they might earn a draw, Enter Balderstone, who took three decisive wickets as the home side were out for 140. Leicestershire were Champions.

Although Balderstone went on to make 45 appearances, scoring twice, in a promising but ultimately frustrating season for Rovers, it was to be the end of his professional career, in England at least. He left Rovers at the end of the season and although he played a while for Queen of the South his cricket took priority. In 1976 on the back of another fine season he was selected twice for England against West Indies, although he achieved little. He carried on with Leicestershire until 1986, and then became a distinguished umpire, standing in two international matches. He was still an active umpire when he died, following a short battle with cancer, in March 2000, aged only 59. His unique ‘double’ will surely survive for all time.

by John Coyle

front cover of issue 86 of popular STAND fanzineThis article was first printed in issue 86 of popular STAND fanzine, published in January 2017. Subscriptions to the fanzine are available in both the UK and overseas.

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