Cardigan Connor: Marshall’s Perfect Foil

Having taken more than 1,000 wickets in a career spanning 14 years, one-club man Cardigan Connor is a cult hero down at Hampshire. Now coaching back in his native Anguilla, he talks Tom Huelin through his remarkable journey from the Caribbean to England’s south coast, the experience of living with his great friend Malcolm Marshall and the invention of ‘Cardy pace’. 

It’s a subtle tribute. ‘Marshall Drive’, the road linking the Ageas Bowl to West End high street, named “In memory of two great Hampshire and West Indies cricketers, Malcolm and Roy Marshall”. Those words on the road sign immediately give you a sense of the rich history that emanates from this club.

As you then climb the gentle slope towards the main gates, in front of you appears a stand named after another of Hampshire’s overseas legends, leg-spinner Shane Warne. ‘Maco’ and Warne are examples of the world-class talent that has graced Hampshire over the years, both at the Ageas Bowl – which opened in 2001 – and at their previous home, Northlands, across town.

The superstars grab the headlines of course, but the skill and guile provided by the supporting cast has been just as important to the club’s success. Anguilla-born right-arm seamer Cardigan Connor falls neatly into that category.

As a bowler Connor knew his limitations, but he worked tirelessly on his fitness and bowled accurately on a good line and length. He was medium-fast, not express; in fact his pace was so distinctive that it was used a benchmark for other bowlers at the club. The phrase ‘Cardy pace’ was born, so current director of cricket – and former teammate of Connor – Giles White has said since.

Connor describes his 15-year career at Hampshire as “a gift from God”. He is still held in high regard at the club, with his pictures adorning the walls of the Robin Smith suite in the main pavilion to this day.

Connor’s story is a fascinating one. He grew up on the tiny Caribbean island of Anguilla, which was home to just 8,000 people in the 1970s. The island wasn’t even part of the local Leeward Islands first-class cricket league back then, meaning young cricketers like Connor looked to the English County Championship for their fix of first-class cricket.

Connor went on to become a regular in the Hampshire side between 1984-1998, forging a career that spanned over 500 games, and included three victorious Lord’s finals. He also shared a house with the legendary Malcolm Marshall in Chandler’s Ford, Eastleigh, for 13 years.

“I played cricket more or less every day growing up,” Connor tells AOC from a cricket field in Anguilla. “As kids, we would follow Andy Roberts at Hampshire and Viv Richards down at Somerset. That was our interest in the County Championship.”

He moved to the UK as a 15-year-old in 1976 with his mother, settling in Buckinghamshire. “I spent time playing club cricket with Farnham Royal,” Connor continues. “Then I went to Slough and played some minor counties cricket.”

But it was a chance meeting with Richard Hayward that would change his life forever. “I played with Richard at Ickenham and he suggested I should have a trial down at Hampshire.” Hayward made 13 appearances for Hampshire between 1981-82 and knew the chairman of Hampshire’s Cricket Committee, Charlie Knott, well enough to recommend Connor to him.

After a brief spell in Australia over the 1983/84 winter playing for Merewether District CC in New South Wales, Connor returned to the UK, and was soon trialling for Hampshire. Almost immediately he was thrust into a 2nd XI fixture against Somerset in Bournemouth. “It was a decent looking pitch to bowl on, with some grass on it,” Connor recalls. He lined up with established Hampshire names Steve Malone and Kevin Emery, but it was the young seamer that impressed most. “I picked up five wickets in the first innings, and got 46 with the bat. I suppose I bowled pretty well, and I think Peter Sainsbury [Hampshire coach between 1977-91] was impressed with my line and length. I didn’t try to be too fancy.”

Knott had seen enough. “He came around the boundary and was talking to me. He said, ‘We want to register you’ and I was thinking, ‘Is he being serious?’ because I thought it was a joke. He was either desperate or I impressed him. I like to think it was a combination of both!”

Connor found wickets harder to come by in his next 2nd XI match before a chance meeting with a member of the first-team squad gave him the shock of his life. “I was in the nets with Chris and Robin Smith, and Chris said to me, ‘Good luck tomorrow’. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He replied, ‘You’re going to play [in the first team]’.”

Connor made his first-class debut against Somerset on May 30, 1984, less than a month after his first trial. “I didn’t know any of the players,” he says. “I hadn’t met the captain or trained with the first team. On the morning of my first game, I went into the dressing room and sat in what turned out to be Malcolm’s seat, as he was away with the West Indies. The truth is I can’t even remember if I felt any nerves. I just thought, ‘Thank God to be in this position’. It took me back to my days in the Caribbean when I dreamt of playing cricket at that level. In terms of having the ball in my hand, I was just happy to run in and let it go.”

And run in he did, as Connor took eight wickets in his first match, helping Hampshire to a comfortable 10-wicket victory. The boy from Anguilla was on his way and the Hampshire fans had found a new hero. “I loved the supporters at Hampshire. They made me feel so welcome from day one. They probably didn’t even know who I was when I bowled my first delivery, but by the end of the first day I think everyone had warmed to me. I owe so much to them.”

So what did Cardigan make of his new skipper? “Mark Nicholas took me out for dinner after my first day. He played the part of captain very well. He found a way to intimidate or get under the skin of the opposition. He also had a lot of support from key members in the team, especially Malcolm Marshall. Malcolm believed in Mark, and vice versa. Mark went back to the days of Jardine. He had that flamboyance that those guys exude. I think the Hampshire supporters gravitated towards that, and he got the results.”

Connor’s first season at Hampshire yielded an impressive 62 first-class wickets at 31, while he was already proving to be a dab-hand at one-day cricket, taking 21 wickets at a miserly 24. And as Connor settled into life in Southampton, he moved in with a rather well-known teammate. “I shared a house with Malcolm for 13 years, so off the field Malcolm was like a brother to me,” he says.

“We had a great relationship, a great respect for each other. What I loved about Malcolm was that he was happy to help everybody. He felt that God had given him a great gift and I think he wanted to pass that on. As a man, he cared about people. Having lived with him for 13 years, he’ll always be one of my best friends. He was that special.”

Marshall was one of the finest bowlers the world has ever seen, let alone Hampshire. How much then did the club mean to Maco? “He loved Hampshire like no other,” says Connor. “He loved the West Indies of course, and Barbados his home team, but there was something special between Malcolm and Hampshire. He had a great relationship with Charlie Knott, and of course he supported whoever was captain. He was a superstar, but he was always keen to help out his teammates. He’d bowl a certain ball to different batsmen, not that he needed the practice, but because the batsman needed it. It always inspires others when you see your best players training as well, and not just going through the formalities.”

Away from the cricket pitch the pair would play golf together, but Connor also spent a lot of his time at the gym, believing that fitness was key to his personal success. “Not having the same natural talent as Malcolm, most of my time was spent doing physical training. Fitness was never going to be my downfall if I needed to bowl the extra overs.”

With players like David Gower, Gordon Greenidge and Marshall at the club, Hampshire were blessed with supreme talent. But it was England batsman Robin Smith that particularly impressed Connor. “Watching Robin bat against some of the best bowlers around… the quicker they came, the quicker they went. It was also inspiring to bowl to people like him in the nets because if you feel you can nick his edge, or go through the gate, then when you go up against other top batsmen, you think, ‘I’ve practiced how to get out the best’. Robin’s heart was as big as his body. He would give all of his heart away, he was that kind of person.”

With that calibre of player in the Hampshire ranks, it was no surprise in 1988 when Nicholas’ men won some silverware, beating Derbyshire in the Benson & Hedges Cup final at Lord’s. Connor took 2-27 on that day in early July. “Hampshire had had success before that in ’75, but we were looking for something to almost kick start a new era under Mark. In the final, Mark’s captaincy played a key role. Nerves at the start got to us, but pretty soon we settled down and won the game quite comfortably.”

Three years later, David Gower replaced an injured Nicholas as captain, leading Hampshire to victory over Surrey, this time in the NatWest Trophy final. “I had to bowl the last over, and Surrey needed seven runs to win with five wickets in hand,” says Connor. “They only got three runs, so from then on, the Hampshire guys saw me as the man to bowl the last over under pressure.”

Marshall missed both of those finals due to international commitments, but 10 months later he was with his Hampshire teammates at Lord’s in another final, helping his side to a third one-day trophy in four years. “Having got the last wicket to win the game for Hampshire, I was able to secure a stump for myself, and one for Malcolm.”

Connor continued playing for six more years after that Benson & Hedges Cup win in 1992 and played some of his best cricket during the latter stages of his career, according to his former teammate Giles White. “He had a wonder spell around ‘94, ‘95, ’96,” White recalls. “It wasn’t express, but he bowled very accurately and hit the seam, and nibbled it around. He went through phases when he tried to bowl like Maco, bowling quick. But in time he found his own way of bowling, and obviously towards the end of his career he got it just right.”

Connor played until the end of the 1998 season, by which time an old knee injury required surgery. But instead of trying to prolong his career for his own sake, Connor put the good of the club ahead of his own. “I asked Hampshire if I could come back a little later for the next season. When I came back, Hampshire were top in the Championship, so it was the best scenario for me in the sense that they didn’t really need me anymore. It was the perfect time for me to retire.“

From 1991, Connor had been training young Anguillan cricketers back home during the UK winters and when his time at Hampshire drew to a close he began to focus exclusively on coaching. He has worked with former West Indian allrounder Omari Banks and more recently with Derbyshire batsman Chesney Hughes, who he has coached from the age of eight. It’s a role that gives him great pleasure. “The greatest [pleasure] there is,” Connor enthuses. “A lot of what I do today is like giving back, because my career at Hampshire was like a gift from God.”

As well as coaching, Connor also works in PR for a hotel on the island. Later this year he will return to these shores, accompanying the Anguillan team to the Commonwealth Games in Scotland, and will next year be running for local office. “To play for Hampshire for 15 years and win a cup final at Lord’s, that feels like a dream. So to win office down here, I’m sure it might seem like a dream, but if you can achieve something like that in cricket, I look at that as something of a catalyst in how I can move forward in my next stage of life.”

Cardigan Connor is a class act. He made the absolute most of the talent at his disposal, enjoying a long, successful career with a county that he loved – an experience that he treasures to this day.

Connor took 614 first-class wickets for Hampshire at an impressive average of 31.7, while his 411 one-day wickets came at 25. More importantly, he lived and breathed the club, and his love for Hampshire, his colleagues and the fans is embedded in him. “The club meant so much to him, it still does,” says White. “The club had a big influence on him, but also it’s reciprocal and he’s had a big influence on the club. When I turned up fresh out of university, he took me under his wing and really helped me with my game. I was very fond of him and I think everyone at the club would say exactly the same.”

Ultimately, cricket, like all sports, is about the people involved. Without the characters, things would become rather dull and Connor’s stories about trialling for Hampshire, living with Malcolm Marshall and the success that followed are truly inspiring.

“Over the years, Hampshire has been very special to me,” Connor concludes. “If I had the ability to play all over again, it would still be for Hampshire. I think there’s something special about all the people involved, through the members, supporters, players and those who ran the office. I was fortunate to have chosen Hampshire, or rather, for Hampshire to have chosen me.”

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