Wily Whittle ignores advancing years

Kearsley's 53-year-old bowler still heads Bolton League averages after marathon trip around the northern circuit
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As test cricket rolled back into Lancashire this week, the outstanding bowler in one of the county's major leagues was a tearaway of 53.

As test cricket rolled back into Lancashire this week, the outstanding bowler in one of the county's major leagues was a tearaway of 53.

Mel Whittle has been around the leagues since before most of the England team - and certainly most of his victims this season - were born, yet he tops the averages in the Bolton League. "It says something about me and something about the standard," says Whittle, the key member of a local cricket dynasty.

His strike partner at Kearsley is Fazal-e-Akbar, a genuinely rapid young Pakistani who has played in a couple of Tests. "He's been timed at 90 mph, but batsmen would rather face our pro than face me. Mind you, he comes to me for advice. English bowlers don't want to do that. I'm a qualified coach, but I won't coach kids of 14, 15 and 16. They think they know it all."

The experience that younger bowlers could tap into began 40-odd years ago at Crompton, of the Central Lancashire League. "I was born 200 yards away from the ground and I started going down there as a kid and was very successful as a junior with them."

When he broke into the first team, the first professional he played alongside was the West Indian Cec Wright, another indestructible of the local leagues, who is still playing this season at the age of 66.

Since then, his ports of call - alongside pros like Franklyn Stephenson, Ezra Moseley and Carl Rackemann - have included Shaw St Paul's in the High Peak League, Blackpool of the Northern League and pro-ing at Greenfield in the Saddleworth League.

"They paid me £8 a match and I got 92 wickets and 600 runs. They asked me to sign again, but I told them I wanted double the money, so they signed Roy Gilchrist instead."

There were two more spells with Crompton, two - including this one - with Kearsley, three years with another Bolton League side at Little Lever and two as pro with Micklehurst.

He is the only amateur ever to have taken 100 wickets in a Bolton League season and another of his records, maintained even this year, is to have always been in the representative side of whichever league he was playing in.

Not that the Whittle family's achievements stop with Mel. His elder brother, Frank, captained Crompton Nomads, and played into his late 40s, while his younger brother, Les, has bowled with great success for sides like Crompton and Little Lever.

Les's son, Gavin, is the professional for Friarmere in the Saddleworth League. Frank's grandson, Craig, plays at Crompton and Mel's lad, Tom, plays alongside him at Kearsley. If there was a family tree, it would be a bat-quality willow.

Mel regards Frank as having retired almost indecently early and has no thoughts in that direction himself.

"You just keep going," he says, acknowledging that his years can give him a psychological advantage. "If I were a batsman in the Bolton League and I saw someone of my age coming in to bowl, I'd be very, very wary."

He has inevitably changed his style over the years. "I bowled quick when I was younger. I used to tear in and I loved making batsmen jump around. But no-one ever told me to bowl line and length, the way they ruin bowlers these days.

"They've taken everything away from the fast bowler. They've banned the beamer, almost done away with the bouncer, taken a couple of millimetres off the seam of the ball, taken all the grass off the wicket. What fun is that for the bowler?" Despite his complaints, the administrators have not stopped Whittle, a joiner by trade, continuing to nail batsmen, his guile and variation replacing sheer pace.

"What I can't do with a cricket ball isn't worth doing. It's swing and seam - a bit of each - but I can get it to do anything. Knowing what I know over the years, it should be passed on to other people." It isn't quite as simple as that, because Whittle admits to giving short-shrift to those who try to acquire his mysteries without being prepared to put in the work. "They say 'How do you do that?' and I say 'That's for my knowledge and not yours'."

As a pillar of the league scene in Lancashire, Whittle believes that the establishment of a county-wide premier league - the proposed route to take young cricketers from local to first class cricket - is a non-starter. "They want to change our system, but it's not feasible for someone like Milnrow to travel to Barrow-in-Furness. It will never, ever happen."

As someone who should know by now, he says that reports of local league cricket's demise are premature and exaggerated. "And the leagues do still produce quite a lot of county cricketers. Ronnie Irani and John Crawley came up that way. I faced Glen Chapple when he was 15 - and he was a bit sharp."

If the answer lies in youth, Whittle has a stake in the future stretching for several decades ahead. "I'm coaching my grand-son, Ryan. You've never seen anyone play as straight. He's going to be a good 'un." Ryan is four years' old.