The Wisden Cricketer

John Murray

Model keeper

The long and short of Middlesex's John Murray was elegance in all he did with gloves or bat - and he could have done more for England

Christian Wolmar

June 17, 2008

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Control meets panache: John Murray was one of only six wicketkeepers to achieve 100 dismissals in a season © Getty Images

John Murray's most amazing characteristic is that he could look both tall and small simultaneously. As a wicketkeeper he needed to be squat and compact but such was his emphasis on style and stance that he managed this despite being 5ft l0in - rather tall for one of his craft.

I was attracted to him because my Playfair annual told me that he was born in Kensington, where I lived, and I also had aspirations to be a wicketkeeper. There could not have been a better model.

Style was JT's watchword. I first watched Middlesex in the early 1960s and he was already there, ensconced as that underperforming side's wicketkeeper, a position he first gained in 1956 and would retain for two decades. I used to cycle to Lord's from South Kensington after school and the kindly gatekeepers would usually let me in for free, as well as keeping an eye on my bicycle for me.

I particularly liked catching up on the post-tea proceedings on the first day, when I would normally get the fag end of the innings of the side batting first, who would, in those days, traditionally declare at around 300, and then watch the Middlesex quicks, Alan Moss and JJ Warr, steaming in for half an hour hoping to capture a couple of cheap early wickets. Murray would stand far back to them, going through his little routine before every ball, lifting his hands, touching the cap he always wore and crouching down, ready to snaffle an edge. He would move effortlessly, rarely tumbling to take the ball, but occasionally he would dive full length, making extraordinary catches look simple. While he was naturally stylish, one suspects that some deliberate effort went into staying so controlled and so neat as even the way he passed the ball through to the slips after he had taken it was done with panache.

His batting was the same. His drives, in particular, were perfection, straight out of the textbook, and Tony Lewis once wrote that he was the only batsman who could make hooking the West Indies fast bowlers, something that took courage in those pre-helmet days, look elegant, "with the balance of a skater".

His Test batting average of around 20 could, indeed should, have been much higher. His most famous innings, after all, was a century scored against West Indies in their pomp with Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith spearheading the attack and Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs as the other two main bowlers. I was at The Oval for that match in 1966, when England had nothing to play for except pride as they were 0-3 down in the series. Murray came in at No. 9, when England were still 102 behind West Indies' first-innings total of 268. Another defeat seemed on the cards but there was still Tom Graveney, who matched Murray in elegance. They put on 217, with both scoring centuries, and the combined perfection of their batting must have so inspired the tail that both Ken Higgs and John Snow, at Nos. 10 and 11, went on to score fifties, an unprecedented feat in Test cricket. England won by an innings, some consolation for a painful summer.

While he was naturally stylish, one suspects that some deliberate effort went into staying so controlled and so neat as even the way he passed the ball through to the slips after he had taken it was done with panache.

I remember, too, the other side of Murray's batting, coming in late down the order for a county game when Middlesex had needed just over 100 to beat Glamorgan and had unaccountably collapsed on an easy pitch. A couple of boundaries would have done it and that was too tempting. He was out for one or two, lbw, aiming to drive when perhaps he should have just tried to grub out a few singles, and Middlesex lost by a couple of runs.

At the time Middlesex's trademark dismissal was c Murray b Titmus, though there was quite a smattering of st Murray b Titmus too. It was the ball that drifted away from the batsman which so often ended up in Murray's gloves off an edge, and the stumpings were invariably brilliant leg-side efforts to balls fired in deliberately - presumably on a prearranged signal - outside the batsman's legs at yorker length.

Murray professed little interest in statistics, but those of his career are truly remarkable. He was one of only six wicketkeepers to achieve 100 dismissals in a season, and even more amazing, in 1957 when he scored 1025 runs and obtained 104 dismissals he became only the second player to achieve the wicketkeepers' double. His career total of 1527 has been beaten only, later, by Bob Taylor's 1649 from four more matches.

Murray was, though, a nearly man. The fashion for choosing keepers who could bat rather than the best stumper had already been established and he lost out to Jim Parks, who like Alec Stewart had got into the Test side on his batting alone before taking up the gloves. Despite that brilliant century against West Indies, Murray in his long career played only 21 Tests.

He deserved better. His batting could undoubtedly have improved sufficiently to make a useful contribution at No. 7 in Tests but in those days selectors tended to look at already developed skills rather than potential. He was a better wicketkeeper than Parks, and though there was Keith Andrew to consider, the Northamptonshire man was a genuine tailender with very little batting ability. Murray never complained, though. It would have been inelegant to do so.

Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster, specialising in transport. His history of the railways in Britain, Fire & Steam, has just been published in paperback by Atlantic Books, £8 99. This article was first published in the June issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here

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