Bill Johnston 1922-2007 May 26, 2007

Gentrifying the game

Gideon Haigh pays tribute to Bill Johnston

Bill Johnston bowling in the nets at Lord's © PA Photos
Bill Johnston played cricket with a smile on his face, like someone who couldn't quite get over his unlikeliness as a Test player. He even let go his bouncer with an air of amiability, as if simply to amuse the crowd. 'The most popular man in cricket,' declared his contemporary Keith Miller, who himself had claims to the garland: 'Bill is one of the very few sports stars I know about whom nothing but good is spoken and written. He is a great bloke in every way.'

The looks were as deceptive as Johnston's left-arm bowling, which varied from waspish pace to teasing spin. Not that the personality was not as sunny as it seemed. But Johnston was as crafty and competitive as his 554 first-class wickets at 23.3 suggest. His 160 Test wickets at 24, and 2.07 runs per over that he gave up, are every bit as impressive as they seem on paper.

Johnston not only came off the land but looked like it: tall, rangy, with big ears, and hands strengthened by milking the herd on the family farm at Ondit, near Beeac in country Victoria. He and his older brother Allan, an all-rounder, did not converge on Melbourne until just before the war, which promptly spirited them both away as members of the Royal Australian Air Force. Allan, trained in the Empire Air Scheme in Rhodesia, was killed when his bomber crashed in Ireland; Bill became a radar technician, lucky enough to serve most of his time in the Australian north, and to be demobbed quickly on the cessation of hostilities.

Johnston's metier then were left-arm slows with the occasional surprise fast ball. His Richmond skipper Jack Ledward wanted him to stay that way; state and national selector Jack Ryder saw more promise in his quicker deliveries. Johnston always recalled sitting in the empty members' stand at Adelaide Oval after a Sheffield Shield match in October 1946, when Donald Bradman confided Ryder was onto something: fast bowlers were in short supply, and were likelier to advance more quickly.

Johnston evolved a hybrid method, wheeling in from eleven yards, pumping his elbows through a seven-pace run, and whistling his arm over. Ray Robinson described him as dipping his head and hitching his shoulders 'like a swagman humping his blue on the track to Croajingalong'. His front foot would land parallel to the crease and his back foot perpendicular, so he had little follow through, always had to strap his ankles, and suffered from the first with shin soreness. But he was also wickedly difficult to read. His bouncer seemed to follow and corner the batsman; his cutters jagged; his slower ball hung teasingly. When he reverted to spin as a variation, it was always with accuracy. 'Johnston was faster than he looked,' Bradman recalled. 'When bowling spinners he was quicker than the normal type and had a difficult curving flight.'

Johnston was picked to tour England in 1948 with his Richmond teammate and lifelong pal Doug Ring. They roomed together, and debated who might make the final cut. When Johnston did not play in the tour's opening match at Worcester, where Australia usually played its Test XI, he gave himself no chance. But there was rain in the air on the first morning at Trent Bridge, and Bradman told him that Ring had been made twelfth man: 'Bill, you're in the side. We think the conditions are in your favour.' Johnston proved them right by taking 5/36 from twenty-five overs, and 102 wickets at 16.8 on the trip including 10 for 40 against Yorkshire in a game the Australians always regarded as their 'sixth Test'. He also radiated bonhomie, as Andy Flanagan commented in his travelogue On Tour with Bradman: 'Had a vote been taken as to the most popular man in the Australian side on the 1948 tour of England, I believe Bill Johnston would have won. He exudes friendliness and good fellowship, and worked like a horse, uncomplainingly.'

Johnston and Ring combined most famously in Melbourne in January 1952, when left 38 to win as the last-wicket pair in a Test against the West Indies. Cheered on by Richmond fans ('C'mon Tigers!'), they bridged the gap with judicious slogs and some nerveless defence. Johnston was not an agile figure: in fact, when they ran a helter-skelter three, he managed to run one short. 'Don't worry Ringy!' he called to his partner. 'I think it was me!' But he took his batting seriously: Bradman had insisted on it. He worked the ball through square leg to win the game, running straight into history. Murray Shea, mayor of Richmond, granted the pair freedom of the city. Their names are permanently entwined in the Ring-Johnston Scoreboard that today overlooks Melbourne's scenic Punt Road Oval.

At his peak, Johnston would have been among the best three bowlers in the world, more consistent than the more celebrated Lindwall and Miller, as penetrative as the Englishman Alec Bedser and deceptive as Sonny Ramadhin. His first hundred Test wickets cost fewer than 19 runs each

More famous still as a batting accomplishment was Johnston's averaging 102 on the 1953 Ashes tour: 102 runs for once out, caught and bowled at Southampton by Victor Cannings on June 6. It was the Herald's vigilant Percy Millard who alerted Johnston's captain Lindsay Hassett to the possibility of such a freak statistic when Johnston had accumulated about 70 runs. Hassett would send his bowler to the wicket with an explanatory note asking that the opposing captain try to refrain from dismissing him. Among others who urged Johnston on was Cannings himself, who wrote to him: 'Resist all offers of promotion. I want to be the only man who got you out.'

At his peak, Johnston would have been among the best three bowlers in the world, more consistent than the more celebrated Lindwall and Miller, as penetrative as the Englishman Alec Bedser and deceptive as Sonny Ramadhin. His first hundred Test wickets cost fewer than 19 runs each. The blow from which his bowling never quite recovered was a knee injury sustained in the opening match of the 1953 Ashes tour, at East Moseley, when overlong spikes stuck in the turf too long. He redesigned his action so that his front foot pointed down the wicket, which eased the pressure on his tortured cartilages, but cost him some of his disguise and late movement. When the knee went from under him at Bourda in April 1955, there was no more cricket for Bill Johnston.

Ray Robinson thought Johnston had 'the sunniest nature of any cricketer I ever met' - and he kept it. I remember walking into his bowls club on the Gold Coast to meet him, and everyone in the bar beaming at the mere mention of his name. He had a vivid memory for his cricket, but an infectious lack of seriousness about it. You would ask him, for example. about running out South Africa's Jack Nel at Johannesburg in February 1950. 'Yeah, I was fielding at short leg,' he'd nod. 'I chased it and threw the stumps down at the bowlers' end.' Pause. Gusty laugh. 'How unlucky was he!'

Johnston was a treasure house of recollections of his time as well. He married Judith, an air hostess, at Melbourne's St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, remembering how the Catholics, including Hassett, had to stand outside. And he cherished a January 1956 letter from his cricket-fancying prime minister Robert Menzies: 'My dear Bill, I am sorry to hear of your retirement. All those who recognise skill, courage and gaiety as the ingredients of good cricket will mourn your decision.' That kind of lover of the game will also mourn his passing.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer