To begin a new series celebrating county greats, here is an assessment of the career of Surrey's recently retired double beneficiary Martin Bicknell.
In this age of globalisation and a virtually constant stream of international fixtures that rob counties of their best players, Surrey fans were highly fortunate at being able to watch a master craftsman, almost uninterrupted for two decades.
Martin Bicknell, though he won just four Test caps, will long be remembered at the Oval as a model of consistently and an exemplary professional. His nagging swing bowling, considered too slow by the England management, claimed the staggering total of 1061 first-class wickets. Staggeringly, over 21 seasons, he only twice averaged over 30 - and one instance was during a sadly truncated final campaign.
So what are the secrets to the success of a bowler wrongly perceived to be so limited? Bicknell benefited from an insatiable love for the game that allowed him to face the same side, at the same ground every year, in front of what seldom amounts to more than simply friends, family and a trickle of devoted county fans. Moans from international superstars who have earned a lifetime’s worth of cash from the game are plentiful, but no one would ever catch Bicknell doing anything other than relish the prospect of playing at Derbyshire on a drizzly Wednesday morning when even the die-hards opt to stay at home.
In this respect, Bicknell, sadly, may soon be viewed as something of a freak. There is a real sense that he is the last of the line of stalwart bowlers who remain at the same county for two decades and who tend only to receive the credit they deserve from supporters of their own county. Think of contemporary quicks who contributed comparably to their side and only Andy Caddick comes close. It is surely no coincidence that the man Bicknell lists as his cricketing idol, Tom Richardson, claimed over 2000 first-class wickets. This is also testament to Bicknell’s devotion to the game - how many other players would even have heard of the great bowler of the 1890s?
Though Bicknell only played four Tests - his 2nd and 3rd were the small matter of a decade apart - he still has much to cherish. In the final Test against South Africa in 2003, with his country 2-1 down, Bicknell delivered a superb performance, picking up 4-84 in the second innings (and six wickets in the match) as he secured victory in his final test, appropriately enough at his home ground.
One moment from this match perfectly epitomised Bicknell’s enduring qualities. With the score 120-4 and England in need of wickets late on the fourth day to give themselves the time to chase the runs down and secure victory, Bicknell produced a memorable spell of classic swing-bowling. First he tempted Jacques Rudolph with a couple of away swingers, both of which were cautiously left alone by the left-hander. Then came possibly the game’s defining moment. Bicknell bowled a seemingly identical ball to his previous deliveries, which Rudolph again left alone. But this was an in-swinger. The bowler’s celebration as he saw the wreckage of Rudolph's stumps was reward for the many years he had spent meticulously honing his craft at scarcely populated county grounds.
It is ironic and symbolic of the unlucky nature of Bicknell’s career that his two sets of test appearances - against Australia and later against South Africa - were both probably made a few years either side of his prime. However, the fact that the 34 year-old incarnation was better than the 24 year-old was hugely significant. It was testament to his constant search for self-improvement - apparent also through his gradual transformation to a batsman worthy of the number seven spot in county cricket - that he managed to defy age in such a way.
During Surrey’s glorious four seasons between 1999 and 2002 – in which they won three championships out of four – Bicknell was always at the forefront of their success, every bit as significant as any other member of the side, Saqlain Mushtaq included. In the four seasons from 1998, he claimed at least 60 wickets at an average of 21 or less. Given the general mediocrity of the England side at this point, and especially considering Bicknell's tremendous lower-order batting - he averaged at least 28 in his last 8 first-class seasons - it is incredibly unfortunate he was never granted a reasonable run in the England side.
His efforts, with bat and ball alike, were consistently magnificent, and it was perhaps only the seemingly less-than-extraordinary manner in which these were accomplished which prevented him earning more recognition. Against Kent in 2001, Surrey were comprehensively outplayed. When Bicknell came to the wicket in their second innings, Surrey were effectively 1-6, despite his fine efforts before in the match – top-scoring with 78 with the bat and picking up 4-47. However, he wasn’t finished yet, and, in his 16th season, finally recorded his maiden first-class hundred to steal a draw which probably only one Surrey player could have felt they deserved.
The benefit system has rightly received huge criticism recently following the cash-rich benefits enjoyed by Messrs Vaughan and Flintoff in recent years. But Bicknell is exactly the kind of person the benefit system was designed for, and fully deserved a second benefit before he slipped into life as a school cricket master. He may have deserved nation-wide recognition, but one suspects this most genial of individuals will be more than contented with a place in the hearts of every Surrey supporter.
Adapted from an article written two years ago.