Happy Birthday, Jack Birkenshaw, MBE
Jack Birkenshaw, MBE (born 13th November, 1940)
Happy Birthday Mr President (well…our JB has the same initials as the ‘other’ President elect)
Cricket has been fortunate that Jack has shared his enthusiasm for cricket with Leicestershire over so many years, in so many different ways!
The 1950s saw him learning the game. He first played for a Yorkshire schoolboys team aged just 14. He learned to bowl the hard way. He lived next door to Johnny Lawrence’s freezing cold Indoor school and winter mornings would find him bowling at a young and equally determined Geoffrey Boycott. He first played for Yorkshire aged just 17, a space in the team arising because Ray Illingworth was making his debut for England. Jack was part of Yorkshire’s championship winning team in 1959.
Being Ray Illingworth’s understudy had its drawbacks, and in 1961 he joined Leicestershire, very much a Yorkshire dominated team with Willie Watson as captain, Dicky Bird opening the batting and Jack van Geloven another regular. Even now he was for several years in the shade of that fine off spinner John Savage, and a serious illness raised doubts about a cricketing career.
His determination shone through, his batting developed (930 runs in 1964) and his bowling partnership with Tony Lock brought 100 wickets in 1967 and he repeated the feat in 1968. He modestly attributes his success to Lock’s accurate bowling, and the need to take a chance against his.
Having moved to Leicestershire to ‘avoid’ Ray Illingworth, he would have been entitled to be less than enthusiastic about Ray’s arrival at Grace Road as captain in 1969. As things turned out Illingworth was often away on test duty in the early years and as his back increasingly caused him trouble Illingworth bowled less and less as time went by.
The 1970s saw Jack play 5 times for England, the first three on the tour of India and Pakistan in 1972/73 and the final two on the tour of the West Indies the following winter. His top score was 64 in his first innings at Kanpur, and best bowling 5 for 57 at Karachi. Great frustration must have followed in the summer of 1974. Illingworth had now retired from Test cricket, so the offspinner space was vacant. On no less than four occasions in that summer of 1974 Jack was ‘in the 12’, only to be excluded on the morning of the test.
Another frustration must have been his exclusion from the three 1970s county cup finals at Lord’s. He did however contribute importantly to the 1977 Sunday League win. He formed a successful left handed opening partnership with the young David Gower, and of course there was his 4 for 15 spell against Kent, which clawed victory out of certain defeat.
Retiring from playing after a season at Worcester, Jack became a first class umpire and rapidly ‘rose to the top.’ In 1986 he umpired in his first test, and his second in 1988. There is no doubt he was excellent, with his authority coming from having played at the highest level himself.
The ‘Test Match Special’ commentator, Vic Marks, writing in Jack’s 2002 Testimonial brochure, tells an interesting story. Whilst umpiring, especially when at square leg, he would often pass a helpful comment to a fielder. He mentioned to Vic, that the batsman was a fine player, but a bit impetuous. I’d keep him tied down for a few balls and then ‘toss one up in the air, anything could happen.’ Marks followed Jack’s advice and the batsman was stumped by yards. He swung round at shouted at the umpire ‘Well done, Jack’. The opposing captain, standing at the non strikers end was not impressed.
The point being, coaching and encouraging players was really important to Jack and there followed a couple of years coaching Somerset, followed by the move to Grace Road.
There followed more than a decade of building and encouraging a great Leicestershire team; one that won the championship in 1996 and 1998. The 1998 win was especially memorable, with Leicestershire remaining unbeaten, and winning 11 out of 17 matches. Two Lord’s cup finals and being runners up in the one day league were disappointments in comparison, but would have been satisfactory achievements in any other era in the club’s history. After Grace Road came a spell coaching Guernsey and then he helped coach the England women’s team to their World Cup Victory in New Zealand in 2009.
420 matches, 11,040 Runs, 908 wickets, 265 catches.
Highest Score: 131 v Surrey at Guildford in 1969
Best Bowling: 8 for 94 (Match 12 for 143) v Somerset at Taunton in 1972
All First Class cricket
12,780 runs and 1,073 wickets