A feat you will never see again

Forty years ago today – September 15 1975 – a sporting feat occurred that hadn’t been done before – and won’t be done again. On that day Chris Balderstone played cricket for Leicestershire against Derbyshire in the County Championship at Chesterfield and ended the day on 51 not out.

So far so normal. It is what happened next that makes Balderstone’s day unique. At the close of play he was met by the manager of Doncaster Rovers Football Club Stan Anderson who drove him up the M1 to play in a Fourth Division (now League Two) football match against Brentford – and he played the full 90 minutes. The next day he went back to Chesterfield to continue his innings – and complete a century (116). He became the first – and only – man to play professional cricket and football on the same day. And because the seasons overlap so much his achievement will never be repeated.

But Balderstone’s story is even more remarkable than that day. To appreciate Balderstone’s career you first have to go back a year – to August 24th 1974. Now 1974 – the year of two General Elections – was also a silly year in football too. Not only were Scotland the only unbeaten team in the 1974 World Cup – but Manchester United were relegated to the Second Division (now the Championship) and replaced by Carlisle United who were promoted to the First Division (now the Premier League). Like Bournemouth today they were given no chance of staying up. But they won their first three games – including victories over Chelsea and Tottenham – to go top of the table. And the goal that took them there was a penalty by midfielder Chris Balderstone. The same guy who played cricket and football 40 years ago today. (By the way reality returned in April 1975. Carlisle finished bottom and were relegated while Manchester United won the Second Division and where promoted – never to be relegated again).

Now we go forward a year to July 22nd 1976. The England cricket team for the fourth Test against West Indies included two new caps. One of them was Chris Balderstone – the same man who was playing for Carlisle in the top division of English football less than two years earlier. He was a not a success – his Test scores were 35, 4, 0 and 0 as he was overwhelmed by the rampant West Indian fast bowlers – but it was an amazing achievement to play top division football and Test cricket within two years. Because of the increased professionalism and overlap of the seasons the idea of someone playing Premier League football and Test cricket in less than two years would be seen as absurd today.

And yet at the time while Balderstone’s feat of playing professional football and cricket on the same day was unique men having parallel careers in cricket and football was not. Twelve men have played cricket and football for England – the last one being Arthur Milton who played one football match (1951) and six cricket Tests (1958-59) for England. And plenty of English cricketers played professional football – including Brian Close who died yesterday – but the last Test cricketer who played professional football was Arnie Sidebottom (1985).

But now increased professionalism and the overlap between seasons makes it impossible. Jeff Wilson of New Zealand played one day cricket and rugby union for New Zealand in 1993 but had to choose between the two sports and as most people in New Zealand would he chose to play for the rugby team the All Blacks.

This of course also applies to US sport. Bo Jackson for four years (1987-90) played in the National Football League (NFL) for the Los Angeles (now Oakland Raiders) and in Major League Baseball (MLB) for the Kansas City Royals. Like Balderstone’s feats the idea of someone having parallel careers in baseball and grid iron football is absurd.

Women’s sport – as it has until recently been amateur – still allows people to have parallel careers in two sports. The first England team to play in a Women’s Football World Cup – in 1995 – included Claire Taylor who was also part of the England women’s cricket team who won the 1993 World Cup. And Australian Ellyse Perry an all rounder (in both senses of the word) played in the 2011 Women’s Football World Cup and also in the Australian team that won the 2013 Women’s cricket World Cup.

But Perry’s career shows the problems of parallel sports careers. The football World Cup and the cricket Ashes for women were both held this year (the football in June/July the cricket in July/August). There was no way Perry could play in both and – unfortunately for England – she chose to play in the Ashes and was a key contributor to Australia regaining the Ashes. This just proves that as women’s elite sport becomes professionalised the chances of women having parallel careers in different sport will go the same way as men’s sport has and Perry will be the last of a dying breed.

That doesn’t mean people can’t play two sports professionally. But the only way it will be done in future is for people to start in one sport reach elite level and then switch sports. For example Rebecca Romero of Britain won a silver medal in rowing at the 2004 Athens Olympics switched sports to cycling in 2006 and at the Beijing Olympics won a gold medal at her new sport – thus becoming the first British woman to compete in two different sports at the Olympics. Her fellow cyclist Victoria Pendleton retied from that sport after the 2012 Olympics and is now starting a second career as a jockey in horse racing. While across the Atlantic Lolo Jones competed in both the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In London she competed in the 100m hurdles and in Sochi she competed in the bobsleigh as a break woman.

Michael Jordan’s brief (1994) career in Minor League baseball – he played for the Birmingham Barons the AA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox  – was only possible because he (temporarily as it turned out) quit the National Basketball Association (NBA). He could not have had parallel careers in the NBA and Minor League (never mind Major League) baseball because the seasons overlap too much.

So any child who is talented at say football and cricket – or in the US – baseball and grid iron football – now has to make a choice which sport to pursue as a career. He/she has no chance of emulating Balderstone, Jackson or Perry and have parallel careers in two sports. That is a result of sport for men (and more recently women) becoming professionalised thus making parallel sporting careers impossible. No one said progress is fair..

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