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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Martin on September 3, 2009, 15:39 GMT

    Yes, Lock was a brilliant fielder, particularly at leg slip. Wardle was regarded as a 'bad boy' in an age of conformity. But Wardle played in more Tests than Lock up to 1957, when Wardle was 35 - Lock was 6 years younger. Laker was clearly England's premier spinner at that time, and perhaps the selectors preferred their second spinner to turn his stock ball t'other way.

  • Andrew on September 3, 2009, 10:43 GMT

    Excellent article, I too was surpised by Wardle's omission. When Yorkshire kicked him out, Rishton in the Lancashire League gleefullly provided refuge by making him their Pro. For home matches, they turned the wicket off-white with marl, and I duly saw him weave his magic on bamboozled amateurs, and professionals.

  • David on September 3, 2009, 10:01 GMT

    NeilCameron is right. throughout the 1960s and 1970s England could have dominated over Australia but for the one-eyed amateur/gentleman preferences of the MCC. Johnny Wardle was the Shane Warne of his time and he and Bob Appleyard should have been the core of those England spinning line-ups. And Colin Cowdrey a better captain than Brian Close? Don't make me laugh!

  • Bennett on September 2, 2009, 22:05 GMT

    If Sutcliffe, whose avg never dipped below 60 can be excluded, why not Ponting ? Ponting was incredibly lucky to never have faced top notch bowling. He feasted on the lesser ones. Border bring's in left-hand variety and toughness. G.Chappell brings in elegance and exceptional performance against the WIndies pacers. Ponting was handed a winning team from his predecessors. I would rate Ponting the luckiest batsman who ever drew breath..... As for Wardle, he would have to stand in line behind Verity for a spot. In fact, Verity who beat the great Don no less than 8 times should have been inked in ahead of Underwood. Getting the Don out would have to be England's highest priority....If legendary players like Sutcliffe, Jardine, Grace, Verity, Thommo can be omitted, so too can Wardle and Ponting. Nice article, though

  • Bruce on September 2, 2009, 18:58 GMT

    Thanks for a lovely piece. I've asked elsewhere: why only one spinner? This assumes that the match is going to be played in 2010 on a 21st century pitch, Lord help us. But where? Laker couldn't bowl abroad.So he has to go.

    And how do you compare the greats of pre 1914, Colin Blythe, to name but one, with those of post 1945? So much has changed in that time, including field settings.

    Funny Peter May should have objected to the chinaman - there were several (mainly Australian) purveyors of this art in the 40's & 50's!

  • buz on September 2, 2009, 13:25 GMT

    Wardle was a great bowler who ran foul of the establishment. The first test I went to was the one mentioned above in Durban. Roy McLean had made a dazzling century in the first innings. South Africa were chasing a gettable target when McLean came in the second time. He immediately crunched a boundary and then was bowled by Wardle. You could have heard a pin drop and South Africa gave up the run chase. Excellent article

  • Tom on September 2, 2009, 12:23 GMT

    Err in reply to magic_torch_jamie who says "Things might be a fraction different if he'd put up truly amazing first-class stats".

    I just checked Wardle's Cricinfo profile. First Class stats read 412 matches, 1846 wickets at 18.97 and an economy rate of 2.04 with 134 5-wicket hauls and 29 ten-wicket hauls. Those are pretty outstanding stats.

    I might be wrong but I seem to remember reading somewhere that Wardle was bowling to the then England skipper in the nets (Washbrook?). He bowled his chinaman to prove how good they were and he couldn't lay a bat on them. Wardle was still ordered not to bowl them in matches. Utterly ridiculous.

  • shafeen on September 2, 2009, 11:19 GMT

    I don't know too much about Wardle. figures testify to his accuracy, and he was penetrating, too. Certainly a contender for a place in an all time english 11. i know that he could produce the chinaman without any preparation, which most left handers find well beyond them. a factor in Lock's preference over Wardle though, was Lock's short leg fielding - which from most accounts was a factor in England's triumphs. Agree that Ponting's omission from the aussie 11 is unpardonable.

    One more guy I'd like to mention is Sidney Barnes, the Aussie opener. He was considered the second best bat in the country after Bradman after the war, and has the second highest average of any player with over a 1000 runs. He was, by all acounts, a very difficult man - and was put on the back-burner for "reasons other than cricket" - but he deserved his just due.

  • Brian on September 2, 2009, 11:16 GMT

    Thank you for reviving memories of Johnny Wardle. As a youngster, I was as mesmorised by his achievements as opposing batsmen were by his deliveries. He did indeed live at the wrong time, when the England attack was at its very best - Trueman,Statham, Tyson and Bedser, with Laker and Lock to wreak havoc on wet, uncovered pitches - meant no room for an unorthodox wrist spinner. Had he lived in modern times, when spinning variations are encouraged rather than condemned, he would most likely rank right up with Murali and Warne. His remarkable average and economy rate, both home and abroad, say it all really.

  • Neil on September 2, 2009, 10:37 GMT

    This article confirms yet again what we all know - that how a player performs on the field is less important than whether he "fits in". A player can bag hundreds of wickets and score thousands of runs and be ignored by selectors because of some perceived slight or weakness or an inability to be a "team player" (as though NOT scoring runs and NOT taking wickets is somehow acceptable in "team players"). This sort of thinking rewards mediocrity and punishes skill. It's what kept "Tich" Freeman from bowling to Don Bradman during the1930s when Freeman was taking bucketloads of wickets for Kent; it's what caused Geoff Boycott to be dropped from the Test side for "batting too slow" (he made 246*) and for dropping Brian Close from the captaincy and the xi for one bad piece of captaincy for Yorkshire. Yet the same sort of thing happens today. There should be only one rule for selectors - pick the best players available. All the rest is conjecture.

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