Culture-shocks come in all shapes and sizes but they don’t come much bigger than that which hit Gladstone Small on arrival in England from Barbados late in 1975.
The shy 14-year-old, born and bred in the Caribbean sunshine, landed in England on one of those freezing winter days which never gets warm and never even gets properly light.
That, for Gladstone Small, was ‘Welcome to England’.
Understandably, he had a few qualms about starting his new life…
"This tall, blond lad told me to bowl a bit faster. He was Robin Dyer and it turned out I was faster than the fastest bowler they had."
“My old man had come over in the sixties looking for work,” recalls Small. “He was a motor mechanic so came to Birmingham, and in the mid-70s it was time for me to come over and join him.
“I didn’t think it was the best news. There was I, 14 years old, playing my cricket at school and enjoying the sunshine in Barbados. The day I landed in England it was the coldest, darkest day I had ever experienced – and it stayed that way for months.”
Welcome to England, indeed. But the adventure didn’t turn out too badly for the boy who swapped the sugar cane valleys of St George for the rainswept sprawl of the Second City. For Gladstone Cleophas Small arrived with a talent which would make him a Warwickshire cricketing legend. Soon enough it would be ‘Welcome to the England team’.
His achievements are a tribute to his ability as a seam-bowler and his hard work, of course, but also to all the help he received along the way – including some sage advice to ditch the off-spin.
“I attended Moseley School, which was then a comprehensive,” said Small, who is currently working in Sri Lanka hosting England fans who have travelled to watch the Test series. “It was mainly a rugby-playing school but we played a few games of cricket and one of them was against Camp Hill. The sports master of Camp Hill said: ‘You’ve got some ability, where do you play?’ and I said: ‘Nowhere.’
“So I went to play for Camp Hill Old Edwardians. Back then they had a rule saying you had to be a former pupil to play for them but they changed the constitution for me!
“I played in the old Alpine League which was 15 eight-ball overs and was a batsman who bowled off-spin. One day we had no fast bowlers so I had a go and it came out okay. When I had a trial for Young Warwickshire Amateurs at Edgbaston, rain forced us into the indoor school and the ball was skidding through so I bowled quick. This tall, blond lad told me to bowl a bit faster. He was Robin Dyer and it turned out I was faster than the fastest bowler they had.
“When I bowled at the Oxbridge Festival in 1977, Derief Taylor, one of Warwickshire’s coaches, was umpiring and he invited me to winter nets that year.”
Small was on his way to a career which would bring 1,314 wickets in first-class and senior one-day cricket, including 113 in 17 Tests and 53 ODIs for England. He quickly became a bedrock of Warwickshire’s bowling – rarely can a such a young man have led a county attack.
On May 8, 1980, the rattling of Vic Marks’s stumps signified Small’s first first-class wicket. That year, aged 18, he played 13 championship matches. The following season he played 18, the year after that 22. Aged 20, Small already had more than 50 championship games under his belt.
He went on to power a pretty thin Bears attack through the 1980s before becoming a big component of the phenomenal success of the mid-’90s.
“Derief became my first real mentor,” said Small. “I was also lucky because David Brown was cricket manager and he was a wonderful mentor. He taught me so much, not so much about technique but about the mentality of bowling. He would set up contests in the nets with Dennis Amiss or Alvin Kallicharran batting and I would watch for hours and learn so much.
“It was a great lesson for me, not just on the field but being around the group, watching and listening to these great players. We won the John Player League in my first season and it was a very enjoyable time. It was just a privilege to be at Warwickshire.”
"There are other former players groups around the country but WOCCA is unparalleled. Maybe it’s something to do with the way playing for Warwickshire gets in your blood."
Small went on to play 17 Tests between 1986 and 1991 and, though hampered by injuries as years passed, was still a highly influential force in 1994. He took a five-for in Brian Lara’s debut to close out victory against Glamorgan at Edgbaston on his way to 36 championship wickets at 26.27 apiece. In the Benson & Hedges Cup final his opening spell of 11-4-26-1, bowled straight through, put Worcestershire in a stranglehold from which they never escaped.
“That was a very special time,” said Small. “I’d been at the club for quite a long time by then, ’94 was my 15th season, so I was a mature player and just loved being part a Warwickshire team that won the championship for the first time in 22 years.
“Bob Woolmer was the best coach I played under, though Bob Cottam and Andy Lloyd also take a huge amount of credit for the success of the 1990s. They instilled a work ethic and really sowed the seeds of the success. We had been bumbling along, content to maybe win the odd one-day trophy but Bob and Andy changed our mindset. They toughened us up.
“Then Bob Woolmer and Dermot Reeve brought their own positivity and took the team to new heights. They created a unique atmosphere. We were a bit cocky and probably not the most popular team but we just knew that, when we went on the field, if we played well, the other team would have to play a hell of a game to beat us. For me, as one of the older guard it was just fantastic.
“We had some fine players who should have played international cricket. Andy Moles must be one of the best opening batsman never to play for England and I think Dominic Ostler would have played Test cricket if he’d had a bit more ambition. Keith Piper was a brilliant keeper and Tim Munton was tirelessly excellent. Then throw Lara into the mix – and it all clicked!”
Small’s pride in that achievement still radiates. So, almost 25 years on, and nearly 20 years after his retirement as a player, is part of him still a Bear?
The answer is emphatic.
“Part of me?” he says. “All of me! I am a Daddy Bear and always will be. I don’t live in the Midlands now but follow the Bears’ fortunes avidly. I’m still in touch with a lot of old friends and am a very proud member of Warwickshire Old County Cricketers Association (WOCCA) which is a fantastic organisation.
“There are other former players groups around the country but WOCCA is unparalleled. Maybe it’s something to do with the way playing for Warwickshire gets in your blood. And we are very lucky to have great guys like Jason Ratcliffe and Keith Cook running it. I travelled up for the golf day a few weeks ago and it was a brilliant tribute day to John Jameson and the event also raised money for youth cricket. One thing about WOCCA members is we always want to help the next generation of Bears coming through. Once a Bear, always a Bear.”
Next week: In Part Two, Small reflects upon his England career, his role in the 1986/87 Ashes win down under and why Warwickshire fans should cut Bob Willis some slack.