September 2, 2009

Johnny Wardle and the importance of being memorable

He's in the top seven in the all-time bowling averages, top four by economy-rate. Turns out that's not enough to fetch him a place on the shortlist for an England all-time XI

Being passionate about something means being a passionate nitpicker. Hence the spirited, sometimes bare-knuckled response to the Australian and English "all-time" XIs published on this site. Hence this less than dispassionate observer's shameless inability to resist a rant about the omissions of Ricky Ponting and Johnny Wardle. In the first instance this is one voice amid a chorus of disapproval; in the second - judging by his absence from both the selectors' ruminations and the readers' comments - I may well be a soloist.

The argument, at bottom, is the ongoing, unceasing, never-to-be-satisfactorily-resolved debate about how we define greatness. The only area of agreement is that greatness, in the qualitative sense, is elusive, strictly relative and highly subjective. What complicates such evaluations, though, is the unthinking and wanton way we throw the word "great" about. When you can use it to describe a party, a dress and a night's sleep as well as a movie, a song and a bowl of tomato soup, accuracy and perspective have a tendency to fly out of the nearest window.

In sport, we are especially prone to bandy the g-word about, not least because we believe, sometimes justifiably, that statistics prove our point. Mike Atherton recently contended that the prerequisites for sporting greatness are attainment (aka statistics) and longevity. No disagreement here, other than to offer an alternative to longevity: memorableness.

Memorableness is about impact and resonance: contemporary memory and the ripples that pass that memory on, extending a newspaper story into a reference-book entry. When I was eight, I repeatedly devoured a series of short, two-in-one biographies of sporting heroes borrowed from the school library, from jockey Sir Gordon Richards and boxer Gene Tunney to a couple of knights, miler Sir Roger Bannister and Sir Donald Bradman. They were my first clues to sporting greatness. All had achieved glory a decade or more earlier, some simply for being the first to crack a barrier, and yet still there were people who wanted to celebrate their derring-doings as the zenith of sporting endeavour. More than 40 years later Bradman's name is alone in being dropped on a regular basis when greatness is discussed. Whereas Lester Piggott, Muhammad Ali and Carl Lewis/Usain Bolt might be far likelier subjects for a 2009 reprint, nothing in the interim has come remotely close to displacing the sheer incredibleness of Bradman's stats.

But there are two sides to this coin. This may not be entirely fair on the likes of Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson and Billie-Jean King, all of whose influence reached far beyond the sporting arena, but sporting greatness tends to be classified as either "Bradmanesque" or "Beamonesque", each a form of heroism, however narrowly defined. Year-in, year-out dazzler or inspirational one-off? Either way, to fully justify such an epithet, both depend on impact and resonance. Which is why it is hard not to believe that Andrew Flintoff, thanks in the main to his contribution to England's 2005 Ashes victory and the number of cricket atheists he converted, will still be hailed as a giant 40 years hence, his greatness challenged far less than it is now.

So back to those juicily contentious all-time XIs. Will Ponting's career be recalled with awe in 2049? I suspect it will be. Let's deal in hard currency. While becoming only the second batsman after Bradman to average 60 over as many as 60 Tests may be beyond him, he could well retire atop the all-time run-makers' list, and remain there for decades. Nor has his method been unpleasing to the eye. Regardless of average-inflation, to omit him from an all-time world XI is tricky; to exclude him from an Australian one is some feat of denial.

No less shockingly, Wardle, a canny purveyor of chinamen and left-arm orthodox spin who bagged 102 Test wickets while having the decided misfortune of having to vie with Tony Lock for the spot of Jim Laker's national partner, has been airbrushed from this debate. This is at least partly because he was capped 28 times over 10 years during the last era when English spinners were not an endangered species, and hence lost big-time in the longevity department. To overlook him is still wrong-headed, however understandable.

When you can use the word "great" to describe a party, a dress and a night's sleep as well as a movie, a song and a bowl of tomato soup, accuracy and perspective have a tendency to fly out of the nearest window

Take consistency, as expressed by cricket's traditional tie-break-in-chief, averages. Unlike Lock (19.51 home and 34.58 away), Laker (18.08 and 28.60), Hedley Verity (22.26 and 27.01), or even Derek Underwood (24.24 and 27.36), Wardle was equally effective at home (20.70 in 15 games) and overseas (20.00 in 13) - and actually improved abroad. Among the 149 bowlers with 100-plus Test wickets, only six have boasted a better career average than his 20.39 (SF Barnes, Colin Blythe, Johnny Briggs, George Lohmann, Bobby Peel and Charlie Turner), and none at all since the sport's highest means of expression stopped being an exclusively white club. Among those 149, moreover, only three have a more parsimonious economy-rate than Wardle's 1.89 runs per over - Trevor Goddard (1.64), Lohmann and Verity (both 1.88). Since World War 1, Wardle is alone in commanding a top-three place in both categories. Not a shabby double.

Unlike Laker and Underwood, however, there are no magical match-winning performances that reverberate down the years; a 4 for 7 and a 7 for 36, sure, but no 19 for 90s or 7 for 50s against the Aussies. Inconsiderately for him, Wardle's bunnies were primarily South African, though it should be stressed that in his most productive period (June 1954 to February 1957, when 18 Tests brought him 77 wickets at 15.74, at 53.97 balls per strike), South Africa tested the brand leaders more than anyone, taking four Tests off England to two by Australia. He was doubly unlucky that his finest hour, in Cape Town at the turn of 1957, came less than six months after Laker's Manchester freakishness, and that his countrymen observed it almost exclusively in print. As a riposte to a fellow Yorkie, it lacked nothing. Laker managed 3 for 72 in 42.1 eight-ball overs; Wardle needed only five more deliveries to hoover up 12 for 89.

THERE IS, THOUGH, ANOTHER REASON why Wardle fails the memorableness test. He had the misfortune to be a maverick in less tolerant times, when conformity was all and daring to be different was not a marketable commodity. Not until the swinging and slightly more enlightened sixties did Fred Trueman become a cuddly TV star. He still lost out on 50 caps.

The mere act of bowling chinamen (how horribly unpatriotic!) was brazen enough. At Durban in 1957, with England needing victory to take the series, a ludicrously cautious Peter May ordered Wardle not to deploy his not-so-secret weapon. At length, inevitably, Wardle rebelled. When he informed his delighted but deluded captain that he had just bowled Roy McLean, the most dangerous home batsman, with an inch-perfect wrong 'un, May merely reiterated the instruction. Wardle's county was just as disapproving of his contempt for orthodoxy.

In addition to being unflinchingly competitive, Wardle was a conjuror, a show-off and a joker, a pricker of the proud and prejudiced. He once made a monkey out of Cyril Washbrook by not celebrating a catch: "He hit the ball like a shell. It went straight to me, one hand, and I caught it. Washie was running for two, possibly three. He was proper upset and disgusted was Washie, because I'd make him look so silly." Washbrook, naturally, served as a selector during the mid-1950s.

"Reconciling the contradictions of Wardle's personality has been a formidable task," admitted his biographer, Alan Hill. "For those people who did not gain his trust he appeared to have enough chips on his shoulders to build a bonfire." The clown persona, reckoned Hill, "masked his distress at the lack of appreciation of his talents… he was devalued as a bowler and as the heir to Hedley Verity and Wilfred Rhodes."

Wardle was not one to suffer fools, much less in silence. Indeed, his gravest error was to let his frankness and fearlessness get the better of him. In 1958, now a seasoned, peppery 35, a series of ghosted articles in the Daily Mail savaged the appointment as Yorkshire captain - in preference to JT Wardle - of Ronnie Burnet, a 40-year-old with not a moment's first-class experience. That Burnet led the county to the Championship the next year, ending Surrey's seven-season stranglehold, is neither here nor there.

Wardle's condemnation was far from isolated but it was conveyed in public, and thus the utmost in treachery: Yorkshiremen are supposed to do their backstabbing in private while presenting a united front to the uncomprehending world outside. Wardle immediately knew he'd effed up. As he addressed miners in his native Doncaster, a question went up: "Doesta think tha's been a fool, Johnny?" The reply was no less direct: "Aye, I have." Yorkshire promptly sacked him; not long after, the MCC withdrew his invitation to tour Australia that winter, a tour that could well have buried all comparisons with Lock, whose five scalps would cost over 75 apiece. Only once did he bowl in a first-class match again, in India 10 years later, taking four wickets for a Bombay Cricket Association President's XI against a star-studded Prime Minister's XI, including the future New Zealand captain, Mark Burgess. Not bad for a 45-year-old. Almost Barnes-esque.

Ultimately, Wardle's greatest misfortune lay not so much in the fact that Lock got away with chucking his "quicker one", but in his awful timing. Had he been born 15 years later, Underwood might never have been capped. Had he ended his career 50 years later, by when mavericks had become bankable commodities, all that would have mattered would have been his stats. Never mind the bollocks - here's the wickets.

He'd have been the Doncaster Don, the coolest cat in the kingdom, Warne squared. He'd have had ringing endorsements from Prime Ministers and highly profitable ones for deodorant and energy drinks, a column in the News of the World and a string of bestsellers ranging from T' Greatest Ruddy Bowler That Ever Drew Breath to Never Trust A Chinaman. A couple of decades in the Sky commentary box trading licks with Nasser, Athers and Sir Ian would have been his for the asking. He might have banged on a bit about his grandmother being able to read Ajantha Mendis' googly with her eyes shut, but he'd have been cherished. Not by all, but by more than enough. England still awaits his equal. The Wardle family still await justice.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton

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