It was dubbed the Great Escape, Warwickshire dodging relegation from Division One of the County Championship by a whisker on the final day of the season through Liam Norwell’s jaw-dropping nine-wicket blitz against Hampshire at Edgbaston.
Norwell – nicknamed “Pasty” due to his Cornish roots – and club stalwart Oliver Hannon-Dalby sent down all but seven of the 43.5 overs in a herculean display of seam bowling. The former attacked, the latter shut down the other end and a meagre target of 139 runs was somehow defended.
Over a round of coffees in leafy south Birmingham, and with a scorecard to hand, the pair sat down with the Observer to relive the tense nature of a heist that instead saw Yorkshire fall through the trap door with Gloucestershire.
Ali Martin: It’s the start of the day, you’re 62 for two, just 23 runs ahead, and there are three sessions left. What was the chat?
Oliver Hannon-Dalby: Weirdly, there was very little tension because our situation was so stark. The runs almost became secondary to needing two sessions to bowl them out. Whatever target we set Hampshire – 120, 180, 200 – it simply had to be enough.
Liam Norwell: There was total clarity and we were determined not to be relegated champions. We’d stopped talking about last year’s title win earlier in the season … but there was definitely an element of that in there, too.
OHD: We’d also been chatting about the Strauss report during rain breaks on the first two days, and the fact that, if it passed, relegation would mean two years down minimum. And with talk of promotion via a one-off playoff, it struck us all if we go down it could take four or five years. A nightmare.
OHD: Dom Sibley’s 77 was a brilliant innings with wickets falling around him and Sam Hain, our top-scorer all season, hobbling around after a horrible hamstring tear. It was very cool he did that in his last knock as a Bear. I got left stranded, again. If I’d been able to start hooning it like we know I can [batting average 7.8, no half-centuries to date] we might have set them 200.
LN: Hmm. The fact we left them 72 overs to chase it meant the draw was off the table – if it was 200, they might have taken the draw that would have guaranteed them second place and £145,000 more prize money. The stakes felt so high out there in the morning, though. I got a first-baller at the back end, trudged off, sat down in the dressing room, texted my wife and told her: ‘We’re done. We’re down.’
OH: What? Blimey, that was a quick turnaround then – I swear you came up to me and said: ‘Don’t worry, they got bowled for 90 last week [57, in fact], we can do this.’ You were the one who had me believing!
LN: Ha! After I’d watched my dismissal back and figured I’d got a good one, I perked up a bit.
AM: All out for 177, a target of 139 in 72 overs set, what was the sense as Hampshire’s fourth innings chase got under way?
OHD: Both of us had bowled 20-odd overs the day before and I remember the great Shane Warne once saying you need two sleeps to recover after a big bowl – and he was spot on. I was still very sore. Our head coach, Mark Robinson, was brilliant before we went on. He came over and said: ‘Get your arousal levels right.’
OHD: As in, don’t push too hard to get a wicket first over. It was spot on. I got a solid maiden in, which calmed my nerves and maybe calmed the team. Leak a couple of boundaries early in a low chase and shoulders drop. And then yeah, my second over, nice ball, Felix Organ nicks it and then this guy stops me taking all 10.
LN: Ha! We’d have already been relegated if it wasn’t for Olly, simple as that. Fifty-three poles at 23, fit for every match. No seamer bowled more overs in Division One. He was the difference.
AM: Still, taking nine-fer didn’t hurt, starting with Ian Holland, bowled shouldering arms to make it 14 for two…
LN: Taken in isolation, it’s not good leave – it hit the stumps pretty hard. But to be fair to him, the previous ball jagged away. That wicket was a product of signing for Warwickshire back in 2018 and working with bowling coach Graeme Welch. He simplified my game, stripped it back to two grips – an outswinger and a wobble seam – with my angle, it creates doubt for the batter.
OHD: That’s the thing with Pasty, you just can’t leave him.
LN: Alex Davies was constantly reminding their players of that from behind the stumps. He deserves a fair bit of credit for the final day, his language around our boys was unbelievably positive – that shouldn’t be underestimated.
AM: It didn’t take long for it to become 49 for four, Joe Weatherley lbw and then James Vince, their premier player, holing out to OHD at fine leg.
LN: The Vince wicket was the first time I thought: ‘We’re properly in this’. He’s an incredible player. But the new ball nibbled all summer and we knew if we could get into the middle order with it, they would panic. That shot maybe showed that a little.
OHD: It was one of those tricky catches – 20 yards to cover the ball swirling – but it went in nicely. Having seen the replay since, I’m not too happy with Pasty there … in the split second it goes up you can see him thinking: ‘Oh no, it’s Olly under it’.
AM: It felt like every time a little partnership formed, you managed to break it.
OHD: We have a very good stats man, George McNeil, and he showed us Hampshire don’t score many runs down the ground at the Ageas, it’s more square of the wicket – ie, excellent cutters and pullers. So it was just get it full, get the stumps in play. The Vince wicket was a case of the hard ball skidding on, maybe.
LN: I used to have a token look at the analysis. But in the last two years I’ve really started to look closely at it and it has made a massive difference. A player like Ben Brown, I’d never played against him before but I knew he would look to move outside the line. His lbw was an awful piece of cricket.
OHD: Steady on! But to be fair, Pasty really did toy with him.
LN: Pause the replay on my release you can see leg stump – he’s so worried about the ball coming back into him. And he’s got Al Davies in his ear too.
AM: That Brown wicket made it 78 for five at tea … both teams halfway to what they needed, essentially. But you two are both racking up the overs by now, Liam with 11 overs, Olly with 12. What did you do at the break?
OHD: I was really struggling physically, cramping up, the body was saying no, no, no … I don’t like this. The horrific thing with cramp is that it needs food but it’s the last thing you want. I always tell people, try sweating your tits off on a treadmill for 20 minutes and then eating a piping hot lasagne.
LN: I had to fuel up but also stay in the moment, as if I was still out there. If I’d slumped in a chair I wouldn’t have got going again.
AM: Not long after Liam has taken two more, Nye Donald caught cover and Keith Barker bowled to make it 91 for seven…
OHD: Donald was a seriously good field placement from Will Rhodes. In fact he had an incredible match as skipper, with the first-innings declaration and then the nature of needing wickets with so few runs to play with. The Barker one is just a beauty and a great clip: you have Rob Yates taking an amazing catch at slip off the stumps and Pasty crashing a flying elbow into Dan Mousley’s schnoz attempting a high five.
LN: I gave him a kiss on the head to say sorry.
AM: After that wicket, Liam, you asked Rhodes to take you off…
LN: Next over I flagged a bit, James Fuller hit a boundary or two and I said something like: ‘I’m done, it’s soft bowling, I’ll lose this game if I keep going. Take me off.’ The reply came: ‘Don’t be fucking stupid’ and Sibley added: ‘You’re bowling until you break.’ Next ball I beat the bat, they said: ‘See, that’s not soft – now crack on.’
AM: A partnership does form though, Nick Gubbins and Fuller taking Hampshire to within 15 runs of the target.
LN: By this stage I was nearly in tears at fine leg, thinking we’d lost it. I was cramping up and mid-over Rhodes suggested a ball change, literally just to give me an extra 30 seconds rest. But suddenly it didn’t go through the gauge. I asked umpire Richard Kettleborough for a brand new one – he told me to F-off – but I could feel the replacement was hard. I felt fresh again. The ball came back a little bit, hit Gubbins in front … and it might have been a fortunate lbw decision.
OHD: The umpires had a very good game – exceptional – but at best that one was borderline on impact, even if it would have hit the stumps.
LN: We believed again. After that, I said to Fuller: ‘You don’t know how to play this, do you?’ – I could sense he was panicking. And another one jagged back a long way to bowl him. Mohammad Abbas comes in, we see some great fielding to stop a single and then I hit him bang in front. I was just pleading. Kettlebrough normally gives them quickly but he made it so dramatic. Then everything is a blur. And if it wasn’t given, it would have been four leg byes and probably defeat.
OHD: There were just so many sliding doors moments like that all match, singles stopped, Danny Briggs hitting his first ball for six etc. Five runs is nothing. The tension was incredible. Towards the end, I remember 12th man, Jake Lintott, bringing me a banana for the cramp and saying I looked close to tears. I told him: ‘It’s breaking my heart, mate.’ To find out afterwards Liam was feeling the same, 150m away, was kind of cool in a way.
LN: It shows how much it means to us. We’re both guys who have joined the club from other counties but this is home. To be in a relegation battle was horrible. I arrived with two goals: win the title and one I haven’t quite ticked off yet, which is to be awarded the white bear [county cap].
OHD: Nine wickets to keep us up? I think it might be coming, mate.
AM: Dare I say it, you wouldn’t get that sense of loyalty or desperation playing for a franchise team?
LN: The history and the heritage of the club is definitely a huge factor in all this. I remember when I signed, Olly said to me early on: ‘There’s been more people on the moon than have played for Warwickshire.’
OHD: Er, I think I said it’s more people who have been in space, mate.
AM: And what about your England ambitions, Liam? Lions tour last winter, reserve for the Caribbean Test series in March…
LN: I came here to challenge myself on a Test ground but I’m 31 soon and there’s lots of others around. I’m not sure. My focus is solely on not being in this position next year. I played four matches out of the 14 and felt I let the guys down big time.
OHD: Firstly, he didn’t let anyone down. And I think he could play Test cricket. Batters here just don’t want to face him in the nets – he’s so awkward with that angle and nip. Hang on, aren’t you going to ask me about England?
AM: Errr. Anyway, Liam, your absences were in part down to a quite significant reason, your second child contracting meningitis just days after being born.
LN: I say meningitis because people understand that but it was even more serious. As well as meningitis, he also had thrombocytopenia, which meant his blood wouldn’t clot. It took five blood transfusions and he was in intensive care for two and half weeks and hospital for three and a half. Thankfully everything was fine but after all that time sleeping in a chair on the ward, my back went and a stop-start season followed. He was there on the final day, with his older brother and my wife, Lauren – that made it even more special.
AM: Just finally, what about that Strauss report and the idea of a six-team top flight?
OHD: You want symmetry in fixtures, I think. We played Surrey and Hampshire twice and our relegation rivals once. But I’m not sure about a cut to 10 matches.
LN: I think in a six-team league and one relegation spot, a side will drop off early. Essentially, you’re not going to have a final day like that one.
OHD: Yep. County cricket gets a kicking sometimes but days like that, thousands watching online, guys like Ben Stokes tweeting about it, the drama, the tension … it says it all really.