John Gleeson July 23, 2008

Practical magic

Forty-some years before Mendis made heads turn, an Australian country boy was being hailed as Jack Iverson's successor in the ranks of the freak spinners

"To stay ahead of the batsman you have to make him think, convince him you're doing something" © Hulton Archive

It was John Gleeson's first net for the New South Wales state side. He had been added to the 1966-67 training squad after some good performances in grade cricket. NSW had special nets for its old cricketers, and Richie Benaud happened to be present. He asked Gleeson to bowl to him.

The very first ball was the back-to-front orthodox offspinner. "As luck happened, it turned a little bit," Gleeson remembered. "He was actually watching my hand rather than the ball, and it knocked out his off stump." Benaud's eyes lit up, his bottom lip came out a bit, and as he picked the ball up and threw it back to Gleeson, he said: "I was still at Gunnedah."

Gleeson's eyes were alive behind his thick-framed glasses when we met behind the Clarrie Grimmett Stand at the Adelaide Oval, where Australia and India were involved in another intense clash in this summer's Test series. He had run into two of his former Test captains, Benaud and Ian Chappell, the previous afternoon. It was lunchtime, and despite the din in the marquee tent where we sat, Gleeson spoke animatedly.

Eighteen months before Gleeson flummoxed Benaud in the NSW nets, Jack Chegwyn, a former cricketer, and a selector at the time, had taken an NSW team to play in Gunnedah, a town in the north-west of the state. The Gunnedah association had picked two locals from Tamworth, including Gleeson, to play against Chegwyn's XI, which was just about the Australian side, featuring as it did nine internationals.

"In the lead-up all I was thinking was, 'How am I going to impress Benaud with my bowling?'" Gleeson said. "My plan was to bowl two orthodox offspinners and then the one that looks like an offspinner but is a leggie, and frighten the daylights out of him." Benaud had heard about Gleeson's unusual bowling style and was gearing up for the battle, but after having watched Gleeson for a few overs - with a pair of binoculars - he felt anything but threatened. "The ball had been turning quite a bit, but that didn't matter too much because I had deduced that he was simply a legbreak bowler who looked like an offspinner," Benaud was quoted as saying by Gideon Haigh in Mystery Spinner.

Gleeson had Ray Flockton caught and bowled on the seventh ball of an over, which shot his plan to bits. So he decided to bowl his trick ball first up. It pitched on off and Benaud tried to turn it down leg, but it spun the other way. "That was the only ball I bowled to him but I deceived him, put the seed of doubt in his mind," Gleeson said. It was the first turning point in his career - no pun intended.

Immediately afterwards, Benaud asked Gleeson if he had ever thought of playing in Sydney. Gleeson was 27 at the time. "I would love to play first-class cricket if I was younger," he said. Benaud was insistent and told Gleeson he didn't want him wondering in ten years' time what would have happened had he played in Sydney. The next day he rang Gleeson at work. "You're playing for Balmain against North Sydney on Saturday at the Drummoyne Oval."

It signalled a change of direction for Gleeson. "I ended up with nearly 50 wickets in the grade competition. The following year I got picked in the state squad, played five games, took enough wickets to get picked for the Australian second XI that was going to New Zealand." The following summer he made his Test debut.

The flick trick
It was Benaud's NSW team-mate Barry Rothwell, who himself groped and fumbled against Gleeson, who told Benaud: "This bloke's bowling Iversons." Indeed, Gleeson's grip was similar to that of the legendary Jack Iverson, who too flicked the ball with a bent middle finger. The difference between the two was that Iverson bowled over-the-wrist spin while Gleeson's was from back of the wrist.

Gleeson himself saw the Iverson grip only once as a kid, however. "The first time I saw it was a photograph in a 1951 Sporting Life magazine. I would bowl with the same grip with a tennis ball in backyard cricket, with a jacaranda tree as the wicket. It was quite natural for me to bowl a legspinner even if it looked like an offspinner - it was basically a reverse wrong'un: looks like an offspinner but is a legspinner," Gleeson said. He always bowled legspin to right-handers and offspin to left-handers "because the best way to get someone out is to take the ball away from the bat". The only clue for the batsmen was the seam; Gleeson's wrist position would remain the same either way.

What was astonishing about Iverson, Gleeson, and now about Ajantha Mendis, is how they propel the ball across the pitch with just the middle finger acting as the lever. Ask Gleeson about it and he says it was never an issue. "I could always project the ball the distance of a cricket wicket," he said, while going on to acknowledge that it was an uncommon ability. "There's a few people who can do that. Peter Philpott [the Australian legspinner of the 1960s] could only project it 15 yards."

The papers started the mystery business. I was told I had six different balls. That was bullshit. You've only got three as far as I'm concerned

Haigh in his book has described the efforts Iverson expended on pitching one delivery. "The physical strain of flicking a 5.25 ounce sphere of leather, cork and twine down a twenty-two-yard pitch, both fast enough to obtain traction and precisely enough to regularly hit a perfect length, is almost unimaginable." Describing it as a miracle, Haigh noted that where conventional spinners imparted the force with a mixture of shoulder, arm, wrist, fingers, and elbow, Iverson relied predominantly on his middle finger.

Unlike Iverson, who was a tall, upright, powerful man, Gleeson was short and his force came from his eight-pace run-up. If he had an advantage, it was that his fingers were slightly longer and stronger. Also, Gleeson possibly understood the mechanics of his bowling more than Iverson.

Gleeson's mystery ball was perfected on the 1967 tour of New Zealand with the Australian second XI. On that tour he came up against slow wickets that threatened to neutralise him. "I tried to devise something to get the ball off the wicket quicker. So I held the ball with the wrist straight on, seam upright, thumb underneath the ball and the finger across the top, and I delivered straight and it came out as a topspinner. If I wanted to bowl an offspinner, I still held the thumb and the middle finger in the same position, but I changed the seam of the ball to second slip and mid-on. For a legspinner the seam pointed towards fine leg and mid-off," Gleeson described, demonstrating with a ball.

In his first year with the NSW second team, playing in Victoria, Gleeson had taken five wickets in a game when a team-mate told him Iverson was at the ground and wanted to meet him. "Oh, yeah, I would love to," Gleeson said. Unfortunately, nothing much came of the meeting.

"The first thing he said to me when I came in was, 'How do you bowl your leggie?' I explained it to him, but he couldn't comprehend it because he was an over-the-wrist spinner," Gleeson said. The reason Iverson asked was because he very rarely bowled the leggie himself, unless it was a real turning wicket. For his part Gleeson tried to pick Iverson's brains on the "basic fundamentals of bowling - what he did, what he thought he was doing". But nothing came flying out and hit him in the forehead. "It was a bit disappointing because I had looked forward to having a yarn with him."

From the outback to the big time... and back
Not being able to get a lot out of Iverson wasn't much of a disappointment for Gleeson. Like many players from the bush, he was his own man, with a callow attitude towards life and cricket. As his first meeting with Benaud showed, he didn't really harbour dreams of playing at a higher level.

Gleeson started his cricket career with the Western Suburbs 3rd XI in Sydney as a wicketkeeper-batsman while he was studying at an engineering college. He was then picked as part of the Emus team, a bunch of cricket-loving players from all over the state, sponsored by a JS White, who used to organise an annual competition. Gleeson travelled with the Emus on a world tour in 1961 - as the second keeper. That was soon to change.

"In a match in Vancouver, Canada, I bowled to the captain in the nets. He was impressed and threw the ball to me an over before lunch. I picked up a wicket and came back after lunch and finished with 4 for 26 and never put on the pads again in my life."

Then came the grade-cricket days, during which Gleeson had to travel about 1000km to and from Sydney to play for Balmain, but he did so without complaint. Except, he would leave the moment the practice or game got over to catch his return flight, which earned him the nickname "CHO" (Cricket Hours Only).

Having impressed for the NSW second team, his first opportunity to play for the state side arrived on the southern tour, a three-leg trip spanning Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. Gleeson's moment of reckoning came in Adelaide. Don Bradman came to him and asked, "Would you like to bowl to me?" Gleeson, obviously, was more than delighted to. "He stood there, in his suit, at the batting crease, without a bat. I ran up and bowled. To get the ball to turn a fair bit I had to bowl a lot slower than I normally did," Gleeson said. He decided to play the same card that had tricked Benaud. "I bowled him that ball and he tried to let it hit the net, but it went the other way, flew up, and hit him on the hip. His eyes lit up and he just picked the ball up and threw it back to me. Next ball, I bowled him the wrong'un and then he wasn't quite sure which way to go as he wasn't reading from the hand."

Bradman was the chairman of selectors, and Gleeson had created a strong and favourable impression. Bradman later asked Brian Booth, the NSW captain, "Who's the 12th man?" Booth replied, "Gleeson." Bradman said, "That's the first mistake you've made."

Gleeson's influential role in the next five games earned him a ticket for the New Zealand trip. "But I really thought I got picked in the practice nets in Adelaide." he said. A year later Gleeson celebrated Christmas by wearing the baggy green for the first time, in the Adelaide Test against India.

He took a modest four wickets for 74 in that game. "He was an unusual type of legbreak bowler, the sort we had not seen in the past," Chandu Borde, who was Gleeson's second wicket in Tests, said. The Indians didn't have too much trouble with him. "After some time our batsmen picked him easily because we are used to watching hands, unlike those who pick it off the pitch," Borde said. Sure enough, Gleeson went wicketless in the next Test, in Melbourne, and took just five in the next two matches.

He did better on the 1968 trip to England, where he made use of the quick pitches to take 58 wickets on the tour at 20.65 apiece. On the 1970 tour of South Africa, he took 19 wickets in the four Tests. It could have been more: he reckoned 12 catches were dropped off his bowling.

Indeed, a weak Australian fielding unit - especially close to the bat - cost Gleeson dear. The other detriment was having to bowl after the pitches had gotten slow. "I liked to bowl the first morning. The newer the ball, the greener the wicket, the better, because I could really get the ball off the track quicker," Gleeson said.

Soon the shroud over his mystery started to wear thin. As batsmen started to read him better, Gleeson began to rely more on bounce by "bowling at the wicket all the time". But he didn't have Iverson's strength. Taller and stronger, Iverson bowled at near medium pace and could get vast amounts of purchase and bounce from the pitch.

After the third Test of the 1972 Ashes, at Trent Bridge, the selectors dropped Gleeson. He played his last first-class game as 12th man for NSW in 1973. By then he had lost interest anyway. No regrets, he said.

These days Gleeson lives with his wife in Tamworth, midway between Brisbane and Sydney. He used to coach but not anymore. When asked why, he said: "I live in the wrong place - I live in the bush." When asked what it takes to be a good spinner, he lit a cigarette before saying: "To stay ahead of the batsman you have to make him think, convince him that you are doing something."

Like Iverson, and Gleeson after him, Mendis is being tagged a "mystery spinner" for his unorthodox methods. Gleeson said he had heard about the Sri Lankan but hadn't watched him bowl.

What was Gleeson's take on the "mystery" tag? "I was not a mystery spinner. I did things a bit different to someone else," he said. And he had maintained as much even back when the media was hyping him. "The papers started the mystery business. I was told I had six different balls. That was bullshit," Gleeson said. "You've only got three as far as I'm concerned: one goes straight, one spins from the leg and the other one spins from the off. You can't do anything else."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo