The history of the Bradford Cricket League

By Reg Nelson

The Bradford Cricket League was formed on Wednesday, 17th September 1902 at the prestigious Queens Hotel in the city centre. Seven clubs from the West Bradford League including Allerton, Clayton, Great Horton, Lidget Green, Manningham Mills, Queensbury and Thornton, met to discuss their future.

The outcome of the meeting was that a new league should be formed called the Bradford League with a view of increasing competition from prospective new clubs.  This proved to be a wise move as the initial seven clubs were joined by Bankfoot, Dudley Hill, Eccleshill, Shelf and Undercliffe. The new 12-strong league commenced in 1903 enjoying healthy gates with Shelf the inaugural title winners.

The league grew rapidly with Saltaire and Windhill joining in 1905, and Bingley, Esholt, East Bierley, Baildon, Farsley and Bowling Old Lane following during the next ten years to create a 2-division set-up.

Great Horton was the early dominant team with four title wins, led by Joe Haley who topped the League Bowling Averages in 1903, taking 52 wickets at 7.25.

The leading batsman in the early years was undoubtedly Schofield Swithenbank who was a prolific run-getter for Yorkshire 2X1. He topped the league’s batting for Saltaire in successive seasons, and also scored the highest innings in the season on four occasions.

The league soon developed into a truly competitive set-up, but the golden years were just around the corner as the First World War saw the cancellation of county cricket. Many First Class cricketers looked at the Bradford League as the next best option to county cricket, and  Sydney Barnes played at Saltaire, and Jack Hobbs at Idle, both travelling considerable distances by train.

These were world class players and they faced the likes of Frank Woolley, Herbert Sutcliffe, Cecil Parkin and Percy Holmes in a league that lured the best.

Idle, Saltaire and Bowling Old Lane were successful teams after the Great Horton era, but in the late twenties Bradford (Park Avenue) became the first team to dominate the league for a long period.

Bradford won the title five times in eight seasons, including a hat-trick of titles between 1927 and 1929. Their star players were Frank Luckhurst, Stanley Douglas, Alfred Hutton and Jack Crossley.

Brighouse took over Bradford’s mantle by recording a hat-trick of title wins between 1930 and 1932, while Undercliffe prevailed in 1935 inspired by Yorkshire bowler Alec `Sandy’ Jacques who in 1932 took all ten wickets for 25 against Bankfoot- all clean bowled.

Remarkably, the hat-trick of title wins feat was achieved again when Windhill clinched the top place during the years 1937 to 1939, and extended the sequence to five by 1941.

Leg spinner Johnny Lawrence, who later played for Somerset, was the main star in 1937, opening the bowling with Squire Render.

Windhill ensured their great run would continue when they made arguably the biggest signing in the league’s history when Learie Constantine arrived at Busy Lane. The world class all-rounder drew big crowds home and away as he helped Windhill to unheard of domination in the league.

The league might have imported brilliant players beyond the Broad Acres, but they continued to breed their own. Len Hutton established himself at Pudsey St Lawrence in the early 1930’s, and Jim Laker arrived at Saltaire in 1938. In the next decade Ray Illingworth would also emerge.

On Friday 1 September 1939, the British government issued its warning to Hitler and two days later war was declared. On that same Friday, first-class cricket in England ground to a halt, and it was to be nearly seven years before it resumed in 1946. The cricket leagues of the north and midlands were the happy beneficiaries.

The Birmingham League prospered, becoming a top competition virtually overnight. It was, however, the Bradford League which really attracted the stars and, in turn, pulled in the crowds. It was reminiscent of the 1914-18 seasons when Jack Hobbs, George Gunn and Frank Woolley had acted as professionals in the northern leagues. Wisden spoke wistfully of, `the talent which migrated to the Bradford neighbourhood’.

Despite the exigencies of war service and war work and the troublesome nature of public transport, practically all the Bradford clubs fielded Test and county personalities, and sometimes two or three of them.

There were some devastating all-round performances. Learie Constantine took 76 wickets and made 366 runs- including a century in less than an hour, for Windhill and Derbyshire’s George Pope had 88 wickets and 641 runs for Lidget Green. Wilf Barber, of Yorkshire scored a thousand runs in league and cup games for Brighouse, including a hundred in thirty-six minutes against Bradford.

D.Smith (Derby & Lidget Green), A.Mitchell (Yorkshire & Baildon Green) and L.G.Berry (Leicester & East Bierley) were three more local heroes. Len Hutton returned to his home township and opened the batting for Pudsey St Lawrence. However, it was Eddie Paynter (Keighley) who took the chief honours, scoring 1,040 runs in league matches alone, a feat only performed once before, by Oldroyd for Pudsey in 1933. Every Saturday one could watch three, four, sometimes five established cricketers, alongside a decent sprinkling of excellent club cricketers, ambitious to keep pace with the maestros.

During the war years there was no charter for elite clubs to rule the roost. Virtually every club would be a threat with their assortment of `guest’ players. This made the very ethos of the league very open. The powerful Windhill sides enjoyed glory but so did Saltaire and Spen Victoria who won the First Division title in 1943 and 1944 respectively. Eddie Paynter eventually scored 4,426 wartime runs with Wilf Barber (3,746) his nearest batting rival.

The Derbyshire trio of G.H.Pope, A.V.Pope and W.Copson were the most successful bowlers. In addition to taking 445 wickets, George Pope also scored 2,236 runs in Bradford League cricket. D.Smith, another Derbyshire player, scored 2731 runs. A record number of 70 first-class cricketers were engaged in the Bradford League in 1943, among them eleven England and three West Indian Test cricketers.

Crowds flocked to the league grounds and the grass banking at Roberts Park, Saltaire was often full of spectators watching First Class cricketers like Cyril Washbrook, Les Ames, Tom Goddard and Bill Copson.

The best club achiement in the war years came from Spen Victoria who pulled off the cup & league double in 1944. Amongst Spen’s best players were Will Barber, Arnold Hamer and Arthur Booth.

Throughout the league’s history quality clubs from other leagues joined the Bradford League and in doing so increasing its strength. In 1946, Salts joined the league from the Yorkshire Council and had spectacular success winning the title four times in eight seasons from 1947- 1954. Their leading players were Percy Watson, Bernard Henry and Freddie Jakeman.

One of Salts neighbouring clubs Baildon took their mantle as the leading club recording a hat-trick of title wins between 1950 and 1952, completing the double in 1952 by also winning the Priestley Cup. Led by Ronnie Burnett, who would latterly take over the captaincy of Yorkshire, they could call on Dennis Dobson, Wilf Burkinshaw and Tom Tetley.

Bradford (Park Avenue) won the Priestley Cup in years 1953 and 1954 which proved to be a springboard for future success. Gaining the reputation of cup specialists they won the cup again four times between 1957 and 1962, and also won the league title in 1958.

They had access to Yorkshire players Bill Holdsworth, Bob Platt, Mel Ryan, Phil Sharpe and Richard Hutton at differing times, as well as possessing seasoned league players of stature like Joe Phillips, Tony King, Eric Barraclough, Mike Fearnley and HV Douglas.

Into the sixties and it was Idle who carved their name in history by winning a hat-trick of titles, and performed the double in 1965. Led by Ken Woodward they took all before them with the potency of the Sherred Brothers (Richard & Martin) being often the decisive factor.

The strength of the league was tested when they entered the League Cricket Conference Cup for 1966. In a nationwide test of the best senior leagues in the country the Bradford League won. The unwieldy nature of such a competition meant that the league were not regular participants.

Amongst the best performers in the later sixties were Frank Lowson, David Batty, Barrie Leadbeater, John White and Bob Fisher.

Herbert Sutcliffe, looking back on his career and time in the league, espoused “From Land’s End to John O’Groats or from Pudsey to Brisbane you wouldn’t find a better league than the Bradford League. No one can deny that the standard of cricket throughout the league has always been of the highest, in fact at one period it almost reached county standard”.

Nobody dominated in the seventies, but Undercliffe won two titles and three Priestley Cups, whilst Pudsey St Lawrence took three titles. Bingley were gaining a reputation of being a cup team with three final victories, often indebted to the mercurial leg-spinner David Batty.

Derbyshire appeared to be using the Bradford League as a breeding school for their young and not so young players, feeding Undercliffe with amongst others David Smith, Les Jackson, Ashley Harvey-Walker, Jim Brailsford and John Harvey.

The start of the newly augmented Yorkshire Champions Club Trophy in 1976 gave the league the opportunity to boost its reputation further with Pudsey St Lawrence winning it in 1977, followed by Bowling Old Lane in 1979.

East Bierley gave a hint of what to come when in 1979 they won the Haig Village Trophy at Lords.

In 1980 Hanging Heaton joined the league after enjoying unprecedented success in the Central Yorkshire League.  By the second part of the decade they had arrived in style winning two titles, and two Priestley Cups with a team containing the virtuoso batsman Ronnie Hudson, and the penetrative seamer Harry Atkinson.

Arguably Pudsey St Lawrence were the team of the eighties decade by virtue of winning three more Yorkshire Champions Trophies to go with their two titles and one Priestley Cup. The 1984/1985 St Lawrence team was heralded as their greatest ever side with Mark Greatbatch, James Dracup and Keith Smith, Peter Graham and Mike Bailey all capable of turning a game.

Yorkshire Bank, who joined the league with Manningham Mills in 1974, began to make an impact winning the title in 1983 and the Priestley Cup in seasons 1989, 1992 and 1993. They could call on players of the calibre of Tony Page, John Marshall and Peter Graham.

However, East Bierley took over the mantle of the league’s top side when they won the elusive league & cup double in 1981.

They went on to win the title again in 1988, 1993, 1994 and 1996, and also the cup in 1984 and 1991. Bierley had a talented side in this era and had Murphy Walwyn, David Jay, Andy Cutts and Dermot McGrath in their ranks. To illustrate their power at the time they won the Yorkshire Champions Club Trophy on three occasions.

The aforementioned competition became a prolific trophy for Bradford League clubs as they enjoyed a spell of 13 wins in eighteen seasons. Spen Victoria, Hanging Heaton and Bradford & Bingley (twice) also won it in this period.

The league, who in the post-war years provided Ronnie Burnett, Vic Wilson, Brian Close, Raymond Illingworth, David Bairstow and Phil Carrick as captains of Yorkshire, continued to breed and nurture players for county cricket. Ashley Metcalfe, Kevin Sharp, Neil Hartley, Steve Rhodes, Richard Illingworth and Phil Robinson all started in the league, while Neil Mallender, Nick Cook and Les Taylor gained experience for other counties.

When Chris Gott of Pudsey St Lawrence was appointed captain of the league’s representative side he pulled together a side that would win the Yorkshire Senior Knock-out five times on the trot (1993-1997). Gott was a virtuoso all-rounder who could get the best players to make themselves available for the task, and with the likes of Murphy Walwyn, Richard Robinson, John Carruthers, Neville Lindsay and Alan Mynett at his disposal they were unbeatable.

In 1987 Pudsey Congs and Ben Rhydding were elected to the league, and they could not have had more contrasting fortunes to come.   Congs won their first trophy in 1994 when they beat Yeadon in a one-sided Final, but it was East Bierley who really made their mark in this famous competition. They performed the first ever hat-trick of cup wins between 1998 and 2000.

Hanging Heaton negotiated a way for Bradford League clubs to participate in the Heavy Woollen Cup competition from 1995. The league clubs began to dominate this competition with nine successive wins between 1996 and 2004, and Hanging Heaton reaching four finals and winning it once in 2000.

Hanging Heaton, who had won the league title in 1999, went on to perform a unique double of winning both the Heavy Woollen Cup and the Yorkshire Champions Club Trophy in 2000. This team was built on seasoned campaigners which included Steve Foster, John Carruthers, Alan Mynett, Steven Bartle and Elliot Noble.

In 2000, Matthew Doidge skippered Pudsey Congs to the title and began a run of unprecedented success- the like not seen before in the league’s history. They won five successive titles, and also won the Priestley Cup five times in six years, playing a well-drilled, but entertaining style of cricket.

To further prove their class they also took the Yorkshire Champions Club Trophy four times during a spell of five successive finals. During the period just after the Yorkshire ECB County Premier League was set up in 1999, the Congs were ironically proving to be the county’s top league side.

It was a team for all seasons with no passengers, but the five constants in the team throughout this era were Matthew Doidge, Neil Gill, Barbar Butt, Gary Brook and Andy Bethel. The influence of Pakistani pace bowler Rana-ul Hassan was massive, but equally important was Glen Roberts who later captained the side to the 2010 title after the good times were supposedly over.

Woodlands, who had joined the league in 2001, became the Congs closest rivals, and by 2005 had taken over as the league’s outstanding side. Having won the Heavy Woollen Cup in 2004, they then proceeded to win the title for four successive years, adding the Priestley Cup in 2006. They also added the Yorkshire Champions Club Trophy to their collection in 2006 and 2007.

These were Woodlands peak years when their bowling strength was arguably the best in the league in the post-war years with Sarfraz Ahmed, Pieter Swanepoel and Chris Brice proving too good for most batting sides. Led by Lancastrian Tim Orrell, who could also call on batsmen of the calibre of Richard Pyrah, Russell Murray and Scott Richardson, they ran Pudsey Congs close as the outstanding side of the 21st century.

Although they were past their peak years Pudsey Congs again won the title in 2010 and Woodlands also did in 2011 and 2012, and later won the Priestley Cup in 2016.

In 2006 the league issued a blueprint for an updated Management Board and also made radical changes to the points system. All matches would have a positive result if both innings had the same amount of overs and the old `playing for the draw’ would no longer be possible.

A total of 20 points for a win could be obtained depending on a team acquiring maximum batting/bowling points. It also gave a team facing defeat every incentive to play to the end in pursuit of bonus points.

In an age of higher emphasis on entertainment with the burgeoning of interest in Twenty/20 cricket, it was the appropriate time for a change and the clubs endorsed the idea.

The Bradford League instigated a Twenty/20 competition in 2009 after hosting experimental challenge matches under floodlights at Cleckheaton. The first Final, played at Bradford & Bingley CC under floodlights saw Pudsey St Lawrence win the inaugural competition.

Cleckheaton who joined the league in 1976 tasted silverware for the first time winning the title in 2013 and 2014 under the captaincy of John Wood.

In 2011 Pudsey St Lawrence set on a path of glory by winning the Priestley Cup, and repeated the feat in 2014. This proved to be a forerunner for things to come when they won back-to back titles in 2015 and 2016. Led by James Smith, he provided the power batting after the consistent openers Adam Waite and Mark Robertshaw had invariably laid the foundation.

Several inner-city clubs had disappeared from the Bradford League landscape over recent decades- Eccleshill, Laisterdyke, Lidget Green, Great Horton and Manningham Mills to name just a few, but well-run clubs were joining from the Central Yorkshire League. After the arrival of Cleckheaton (1976) and Hanging Heaton (1980), others followed- Gomersal, Morley, Woodlands and more recently New Farnley and Scholes.

With further applications from Methley and Birstall forthcoming, it was clear that the Central Yorkshire League were in trouble. This coincided with the period when the Yorkshire Cricket Board considered changes to the Yorkshire ECB County Premier League. This league suffered with two famous clubs preferring to play in other leagues in an era when the vast travelling distances in the fixture list took its toll on player’s availability.

It was agreed that the Bradford League would be an ECB Premier League effectively covering the West Yorkshire area. The Central Yorkshire League agreed to come on board and filter into the newly named Bradford Premier League. In addition, the Halifax League agreed to become a feeder league.

This was the most radical move in the league’s history and led to a Premier, 2-tier Championship and Conference set-up of 48 clubs beginning in 2016.

The consequence of the new Yorkshire Premier League structure led to an end of season Play-Off between the champions of the four leagues, and Pudsey St Lawrence reached the final after beating the North Yorkshire/South Durham Premier League representatives Great Ayton at Headingley. In the Final they were beaten in a high scoring final in Abu Dhabi by South Yorkshire Premier League champions Wakefield Thornes.

Amidst numerous new rules for 2017, the match point system was amended to allow clubs maximum points even when chasing a small total. In addition, the Duckworth Lewis Stern method would be used to calculate the result in rain affected matches in the Premier League.

It was a golden year for Gary Fellow’s Hanging Heaton in 2017 after his side became the first Bradford League winners of the Yorkshire Premier League end of season Play-Offs to decide the champion club of Yorkshire. This was the icing on the cake after they had convincingly won the title, and also the Twenty/20 Trophy.

Callum Geldart had an inspired Headingley `Play-Off’ weekend when he scored the decisive innings in the defeats of York and Wakefield Thornes. Nick Connelly had a season to remember with 1,165 league runs, and with Fellows formed the most prolific opening partnership.

The demise of the historic Idle club during November 2017, due to financial factors, was a blow to the league.

Some of the traditional inner-city Bradford clubs continued to struggle with few volunteers and team make-ups of players that don’t patronise the bar or take part in fund-raising. The more rural clubs that have joined the new set-up might have played in lesser standards historically, but their community based ethics have engendered real progress on and off the field. This might be a simplistic appraisal, but there is real evidence that this is the case.

Two years on from the enlarged Bradford League, it is clear that the Premier League has the potential to be stronger than the old First Division, and Championship 1 is certainly a higher standard than the old Second Division.

Increased travelling is an issue, but the decision to include the old Central Yorkshire League clubs was made when the leading clubs from that league was applying to join the Bradford League, and leaving their league in disarray. As a result, there are several small clubs who would not normally have been accepted into the Bradford League, but given the opportunity to build from the Conference division.

Reg Nelson has had lifetime involvement with Bradford League cricket and is currently the history writer on the BCL Website. He is a Life Member of Saltaire CC and currently League Representative for Woodlands CC.

You will find articles about a broad range of sports on VINCIT with new features published monthly. We welcome contributions about the sporting history of Bradford and are happy to feature any sport or club provided it has a Bradford heritage.

Planned articles in the next few months include features on the story of Bradford Northern’s season at Greenfield; the story of Keighley AFC; Bradford soccer clubs in the 1880s and 1890s; Bradford soccer in the late 50s / early 60s; the impact of the railways on Bradford sport; the origins of cricket in Bradford; the story of Shipley FC; the meltdown of Bradford PA in the 1960s; the impact of social networks on the early development of Bradford sport; and the politics of Bradford CC. 

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