Weekend interview: Guiding hand of Ralph Middlebrook that saw Yorkshire reap the benefit

THE summer of 2015 was a fairytale for Yorkshire CCC and particularly for James Middlebrook.

Back in 1989, youngster Darren Gough, 18, from Barnsley, picks up a tip from Ralph Middlebrook.

The off-spinner was plucked from the Bradford League in April to cover for England’s Adil Rashid, 14 years after he last played for the club before going on to represent Essex and Northants.

Middlebrook took eight wickets in his comeback game against Warwickshire at Headingley, having been released by Northants the previous winter.

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It was meant to be a one-off appearance, but with Rashid needed again by England later in the season, Middlebrook, 38 years young, went on to play six County Championship matches in total, taking 17 wickets at 25 as Yorkshire secured back-to-back titles.

James Middlebrook, left, helped Yorkshire retain their County Championship title.

Rewind the clock to the 1990s and Middlebrook – currently in Australia pursuing his long-term goal of becoming an umpire – was among those employed on Yorkshire CCC’s youth training scheme.

At any one time, up to eight boys, aged 16-17, took part in a two-year course based at the club’s indoor school, which was managed by Middlebrook’s father, Ralph, who helped oversee the development of a number of top players, including current Yorkshire pace bowler Ryan Sidebottom.

Next month, it will be 30 years since Yorkshire approved the purchase and development of that indoor facility on St Michael’s Lane, directly opposite the Headingley venue.

After £465,000 was raised through grants and through the club awarding itself a benefit year, the school opened for business in February 1987 ahead of an official opening by The Duchess of Kent.

James Middlebrook, left, helped Yorkshire retain their County Championship title.

Among the grants was £115,000 from Leeds City Council, which directly led to Ralph Middlebrook’s involvement. A well-known cricketer with Pudsey Congs, Middlebrook had recently been appointed the council’s first cricket development officer, with responsibility for improving cricket in Leeds schools.

In return for the grant, the council proposed that Middlebrook used the indoor school as his base while they continued to pay his salary. The club and the council thus entered into a marriage of convenience that suited both parties.

“The council wanted to help Yorkshire have an indoor facility and to give people who hadn’t much opportunity to play cricket from local schools and less well-off families the chance to experience top-class facilities,” says Middlebrook.

“We had the YTS scheme, which gave people the chance not only to practice cricket, but also to experience different aspects of cricket such as groundsmanship, administration, marketing, and so on, and an awful lot of schools visited too.

“Basically, the facility was available to all – not just professionals. We had adults courses, Under-9s courses, and everything in between.”

The first YTS intake of four teenagers included future first-class cricketers Paul Grayson and Jeremy Batty. Halfway through that first year, the number was swelled by a precocious lad from South Yorkshire.

“I got a phone call one day from the unemployment office at Barnsley saying that a young man had been released on a YTS scheme at Rotherham United Football Club,” says Middlebrook. “He was a good footballer, apparently, but not quick enough for football.

“They said, ‘Have you got any vacancies?’, and I said, ‘Who is it?’, and the chap said, ‘Someone called Darren Gough.’

“We decided to take him on, and it was the only time we ever took five lads on in one year.”

The indoor school not only helped a number of future first-class players, with the likes of Chris Silverwood, Alex Wharf and Ian Fisher also passing through its doors, but it also gave teenagers skills that enabled them to forge other careers in the sport, one example being Richard Damms, the current Yorkshire Academy and development coach.

Prior to the school’s construction, the Yorkshire players used to practice in the old Winter Shed at the Kirkstall Lane end.

“Shed was the right word for it,” laughs Middlebrook. “My God, it was cold.

“When Raymond Illingworth was the manager, he managed to get some central heating put in, but it still wasn’t warm. It was a bit of a tip, to be honest, and there was a general feeling that Yorkshire needed a better facility for the players.”

Although the Yorkshire players still use the indoor facility (now known as The Yorkshire Cricket Centre), more training these days takes place in the nets under the East Stand, which affords greater privacy.

But the indoor centre – which has undergone impressive redevelopment since the early days – remains a thriving operation and a focal point of the cricketing community.

Nor is it just Yorkshire players who have benefited from its presence down the years. When Micky Stewart was England coach, the Test side often trained there too.

“Micky used to bring the players up so they didn’t have to travel to Lord’s all the time,” says Middlebrook.

“They used to video the players in the nets, which I remember led to a very funny incident on one occasion.

“Geoffrey Boycott was helping England out as a batting mentor, and he used to go over the video footage with the players.

“One day, one of the players took his video home with him and then forgot to bring it back in.

“Micky sent him home to fetch it, and when he came back, the player sat down with Boycott to watch the video.

“Unfortunately, the player had accidentally taped Coronation Street over the footage of him batting.

“You can imagine the reaction.”

Middlebrook, 72, left the indoor school in 1999 and served Yorkshire with distinction for many years.

He remains friendly with those who passed under his wing, a testimony to the affection in which he is held, and his love of the game is such that he still turns out occasionally for Pudsey Congs.

In recent months, he has naturally taken great pride in son James’s part in helping Yorkshire retain their Championship.

“When we won the title at Lord’s, the Yorkshire coaches Jason Gillespie and Martyn Moxon invited me up on to the balcony,” he says.

“That was very kind of them and a happy memory.

“It was very emotional for us as a family to see James back playing for Yorkshire last year.

“He fitted in really well, and the lads all made him feel very welcome.”

Potential of old warehouse was ‘obvious’

THE Yorkshire indoor school was the brainchild of former club committeeman Tony Vann.

In April 1985, Vann noticed that the old warehouse opposite the Sutcliffe Gates at Headingley had a “To Let” sign displayed on the building.

Vann knew the senior partner of the letting agents and arranged for the Yorkshire committee to look around the warehouse.

“To say we were amazed at its size would be an understatement,” he recalls. “It was obvious to all that it had great potential.”

To realise that potential, Yorkshire needed to own the building as opposed to just rent it, and they had to find £465,000 once the various costings had been calculated.

They were indebted to prominent businessman Arnold Ziff, chairman of Town Centre Securities, which owned the building, who agreed to let them have it for a reduced price, and the club raised £265,000 in grants.

The other £200,000 was generated when Yorkshire awarded themselves a benefit year, with various matches, dinners and golf days helping towards the target.

Members also supported a Buy a Brick Appeal, while money was raised through sponsorship of the eight indoor lanes inside the school, which made it the largest indoor facility in the country at the time of opening – boasting one more lane than at Lord’s.