Rock of Yorkshire
Seventy years have passed since Hedley Verity played in his last first-class match, against Sussex. The vital fire of a great Yorkshire and England cricketer who warmed others in his flame remains unquenched in the memory. The distinctive calm he displayed in triumph or defeat was once again proudly recalled in commemorative events at Hove in September.
The autumn leaves were beginning to fall, as they are now, when Verity wheeled in to bowl, and with his left-arm wizardry took seven wickets for nine runs, the second best analysis of his career in six overs. Amid the congratulations on his performance, Verity observed: "I wonder if I'll ever bowl here again." The tentatively expressed premonition that he would never again play first-class cricket reflected the sadness of a generation of sportsmen whose world was to be consumed in the horrors of war.
"War was upon us and the guns had started in Poland," remembered the late George Cox, one of three century-makers in Jim Parks' benefit game at Hove. "The tension was awful, there was a feeling that we shouldn't be playing cricket. Yet there was also a festive air. We knew that this was our last time of freedom for many years and so we enjoyed ourselves while we could."
The valour of Verity's cricket was matched by his heroism as a Green Howards officer. His batman said he was as good a soldier as he was a cricketer. The last words he spoke to his men, as he lay in front of the burning corn of Catania, were: "Keep going." Like another great slow left-arm bowler, Colin Blythe, who was killed in France during the First World War, Verity was fatally wounded on a night of murderous gunfire on the Sicilian plain in 1943. Both were aged 38. The news of his death in an Italian hospital shocked all who knew him, players and supporters alike. One of his Yorkshire mentors, George Hirst, said: "Anyone who came into contact with Hedley had but one thought: he may be a fine bowler but he is certainly a fine man. I am so glad I knew him so well. I will cherish his memory as long as I live."
The principal guest at the Hove ceremonies was Verity's youngest son, Douglas. His reminiscences of his father rekindled the reverence for a master. "My dad said: 'The best length is the shortest you can bowl and still get them playing forward'. With slow bowling particularly, you set your field and try to get them driving at you. Then you try to deceive them with flight or a change of pace or spin."
The essence of Verity's art was a "marvellous control of length" and a direction as "straight as an arrow", to quote the words of Bill Bowes, a close friend and superb bowling ally in Yorkshire's championship years in 1930s. As Verity's England captain, Bob Wyatt witnessed the Yorkshireman's astonishing triumph and 15 Australian wickets on a memorable June day in 1934. He provided another telling note of appreciation. "One of Hedley's chief assets," said Wyatt, "was his ability to make the ball lift on a wet wicket and bounce on a dry one. Batsmen frequently found themselves playing the ball in the air when they thought they had got well over the top of it."
Verity's "perching ball", as another contemporary neatly described it, did lead to the downfall of many of his victims. But in a decade dominated by batsmen, with Bradman and Hammond as the gods, it was the ever-present guile and one of the most acute brains in the history of the game that accounted for his tally of 1956 wickets, costing fewer than 15 runs each, and including 144 for England in less than 10 years. His achievements defy superlatives. He took a world-record 17 wickets in a day against Essex at Leyton, and twice took all 10 in an innings, including his best figures - 10 for 10 against Nottinghamshire at Headingley - ever returned in a first-class match.
Few could challenge Verity's record on a bowler's wicket, but his value was the highest on a batsman's wicket, where he would bear the heat and burden of the day in a manner that could not be conveyed by figures. His name as a potential menace was linked, in the opinion of many astute judges, to one other only - that of Harold Larwood.
The competitive stimulus of bowling against Don Bradman was to become the high point of Verity's career. He was one of the few not to be overawed by a cricketing genius. He dismissed Bradman 10 times, eight times in 16 Test meetings. Norman Yardley, the former Yorkshire and England captain, commented: "I think the greatest pleasure Hedley got in his whole life was bowling to Bradman. No one who did not watch him closely can realise the time and thought he gave to working out a method of attack that would find a chink in the Australian's armour." Bradman's own memories of the shy, spinning perfectionist glowed as brightly as the steel of Verity's character. "His whole career exemplified all that was best about cricket," observed Bradman. "I deem it an honour and a privilege to have been on the same stage as him in those golden days of the 1930s."
Bradman compared his English rival favourably with the great Australian spinner Clarrie Grimmett, who also took his wicket 10 times. "I think I knew all about Clarrie, but with Hedley I was never sure. You see, there was no breaking point with him."
It was on the tour of India in 1933-34 that Verity formed a close friendship with the Gloucestershire batsman Charles Barnett. "I well remember the day we sailed from Tilbury to India," said Barnett. "It was my first trip from home and I had just parted from my mother. I felt a bit under the weather. Hedley was so understanding. He turned to me and said, "I think a walk along the deck is indicated.'"
Barnett never forgot this gesture of solidarity. In 1984, on the 40th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy, he wrote: "During the last few days our thoughts have been concentrated on those who lost their lives in the Hitler War. Naturally mine centred on Hedley and I have realised that he really was a 'rock'. Nothing seemed to make him flap. He was absolutely reliable. I know of no other on whom could rely whatever the state of the match when the chips were down."