You are having a chat about the old days and the name of Harry Pilling crops up. And what happens? Everyone smiles. We all loved Harry, the little 'un with a cheeky grin and a big heart.
Women wanted to mother him, fearing for his well-being as he faced up to some big horrid fast bowler, at least a foot taller. Men, including Neville Cardus, viewed him as a proper Lancashire lad. He dressed smartly, was convivial company in the bar, and rather enjoyed being ‘mothered’.
Harry Pilling, 4 feet 7 inches when he joined Lancashire’s groundstaff at the age of 16, grew to almost 5 feet 3 inches, but remained one of the smallest players ever to appear in first-class cricket. That alone made him popular, a titch successfully making his way in a hard game. He also had a playful, sometimes disarming, sense of humour.
Lancashire’s coach when Pilling launched his Old Trafford career was the redoubtable Stan Worthington, who didn’t take to any larking about. ‘Like being back in the Army,’ complained one player. A few weeks after signing, Pilling found himself on the carpet - because of the way he spoke.
“Stan called me into the office and told me I was saying ‘aye’ and ‘eee’ too much," remembered Pilling. "I’d never given it much thought - it was just the way I’d always talked, but he wanted me to have some elocution lessons. Thought that as a representative of Lancashire I should talk properly. He went on at me for half an hour and then asked me: ‘Has all that sunk in?’ I said: ‘Aye, coach.’”
But Pilling was a class act where it counted - out in the middle. He played from 1962 to 1980 in 323 first-class games for the county, scoring almost 15,000 runs, and surprised many people by adapting successfully to the one-day game, where he built a prolific partnership with Clive Lloyd and featured prominently in the Gillette Cup and John Player League triumphs from 1969 onwards.
Like another charismatic Lancashire figure, Jack Simmons, Pilling never made it to Test level, but he was a clever, efficient player this diminutive batsman, and earned his accolades the hard way, not through some sympathy vote. Sheer determination made Pilling the good little ’un that he was. There was no cricketing pedigree in the family. He just knew he had what it took, was taken on at the Staley club where a mate of his dad played, and spent his spare time practising by himself with a MCC coaching manual at his side. And he used the jibes that he heard in club cricket like - ‘Is this your mascot coming out to bat?’ - to push himself further.
“Harry Pilling believed in Harry Pilling - that’s all there is to my story, certainly in the early years,” he once said. In 1965 he came of age as a county batsman, passing 1,000 runs for the first time and winning his cap. In 1966 he had a shocker, but he battled his way through that crisis to score over 1,600 in 1967 and he rarely looked back after that. He could play shots, Harry, but he admitted: “By nature I was a nicker and a nudger. I think I hit eight sixes in the whole of my time with Lancashire.” Maybe, but he savagely cut anything short, and his whipped on drive was a classic.
Fast bowlers held no fear for him. Bouncers usually sailed high over his head. Kent’s Alan Brown was outraged once when umpire Charlie Elliott turned down a loud lbw appeal against Pilling. “Too high,” said Elliott, after Brown had rapped him on the pad. “Too high?” exploded Brown. “It would be going for the stumps if it hit him on the head!”
Pilling could also hold his own in the sharp riposte stakes. During a difficult innings at Hove once, someone muttered mischievously: “The ball keeps hitting the edge, doesn’t it Harry?”
“So what?” he said. “You pay for all t’ bat, don’t you?”
But he had to laugh, when, after getting entrenched on a tricky Old Trafford pitch, a fan held up a copy of the Manchester Evening News and shouted: “Pilling, you were eight not out in the first edition and you’re still eight not out.”
Denied by the England selectors after his best ever season in 1976 - some critics thought his size counted against him - Pilling gave Lancashire loyal service. He loved the life, and although his benefit yielded only £12,000, he never complained. “Nobody should criticise county cricket in my presence,” he said.