The best opening batsman never to play Test cricket? (1979)

John Langridge - golden jubilee

By JACK ARLIDGE

If John Langridge had played in any era other than his own, from 1928 to 1955, then surely he must have become a stalwart in Test cricket for England as well as an outstanding record-breaking batsman for Sussex. He scored the massive total of 34,280 runs, more runs than any other player who failed to win a Test cap.

There were 76 centuries along his prolific run-getting trail, again a total higher than any other player outside the Test sphere, and no fewer than 787 catches, most of them taken at first slip, where he became a masterly exponent of the art of concentration, anticipation, and safe handling.

Why then was this popular and talented Sussex player ignored by the Test selectors? And is he bitter about missing Test honours? These questions I put to John, tall and upright as a Guardsman with the healthy, ruddy complexion of a countryman, as we talked cricket in his pleasant Brighton home over coffee thoughtfully supplied by his wife Nina, whose work for the Sussex CCC Welfare Association keeps her closely connected with Sussex cricket; so much a part of her life as well.

"There were four or five better openers around," he said. "Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Andy Sandham, Percy Holmes... there's opposition for you. No, I'm certainly not bitter about it. I was selected for a tour of India which the last war put paid to, and I suppose I might have got a game or two there, but no complaints. I've had a wonderful time in cricket, a long career, and would not have missed a minute of it. I did play in a Players and Gentlemen match, remember!"

That sort of recognition for one of county cricket's most consistent batsmen seems harsh to the rest of us, but 69-year-old John is sincere when he pays tribute to the opening batsmen who did catch the eye of the selectors. He spoke enthusiastically of great games and players he has known over his 50 years in the game, the last 23 as a first-class umpire, and of the way his love for the game was fostered in the little village of Newick in mid-Sussex, where he was born. It was there that he and his brother Jim received eager encouragement from their father James, who played for the village team. There was a paddock adjoining their cottage home, and the Langridge brothers quickly picked up tips and experience that proved priceless later on.

Their cricketing exploits were soon the talk of this rural area, and Thomas Baden-Powell, a cousin of the former Chief Scout, who lived at High Hurst where there was a delightful cricket ground, was quick to note their outstanding promise. He saw to it that the boys played in matches there against strong representative sides - splendid practice for what was to come - and in a match against Sussex Police, John recalls making a few runs. In fact he scored 90; at the age of 15! His non-stop flow of runs had started.

However, Jim was not a strong youngster and suffered from tuberculosis. After he had collapsed during a game at nearby Ringmer, Mr Baden-Powell immediately arranged for him to travel to New Zealand with the Sussex opening batsman, Ted Bowley, who was coaching there. This recuperative holiday, which also provided more cricket experience, was a typical act of kindness by a sporting Good Samaritan, who also provided eggs, butter, and cream to speed young Jim's recovery.

The Langridge brothers started their careers with Sussex, John in 1928. He remembers well those early days, when county elevens were captained by amateurs and when, each August, other amateurs, mainly young men from Oxford or Cambridge Universities, would be drafted in to push out professionals.

"We didn't take umbrage if they were worth their place, for as professionals we knew that the strongest team must always be fielded, but it didn't seem fair if a good professional was dropped for somebody nothing like as good a player. But this happened."

Yet John is convinced that Something good went out of the county game when the true amateurs left cricket. The old friendly spirit had gone. "Amateurs and professionals were closing the gulf gradually, and I remember when Alan Melville, then our skipper, caused quite a stir at Lord's by insisting that he would lead us out. He was the only amateur in our side in that game and showed what he thought of the old business of amateurs out of one gate and the professionals from another. The game is harder today, the money in it adding pressures, and I don't think players are getting the enjoyment out of it that we used to," John emphasised.

Another vivid memory is of brother Jim becoming the Sussex captain in 1950 at a time of crisis for the club. The president, the Duke of Norfolk, had walked out of a meeting in the Royal Pavilion in Brighton after a vote of no confidence in the committee had been passed.

"James was our first professional captain, and a jolly good'un. A few eyebrows were raised, but the players were right behind him, respecting his fairness and experience. We always had respect for the captain, and right to the end of his life I called A. E. R. Gilligan, my first captain, 'Skipper'".

...c Langridge Jn. b Langridge Jas... That became a famous entry in score-books and in newspapers, and it happened 133 times, with the brothers saying quietly, "Well caught, Langey" and "Well bowled, Langey" to each other.

John's secret for his uncanny catching ability? "I first got my chance at first slip when Duleep, whose health was causing concern, felt he was missing chances. 'If I miss another, you go there, John', he said. Well, another went to ground and I was brought in from the outfield. Jim Parks and I stood up quite two yards closer than they do today. I'm certain fewer chances would be missed today if the slippers moved up. If that was a secret weapon, then that was it. I recall an innings when Jim and I caught seven batsmen between us, only for a reporter next day to write that we'd missed some chances! We'd finger-tipped a ball or two, but they were chances to him."

There was also the case of a Sussex follower's comment after Ted Bowely and John had put on that magnificent first-wicket stand of 490 against Middlesex at Hove in 1933. He spoke of a fine stand, but added: "I thought you were a bit slow, John!"

John is always quick to play down his own achievements and prefers instead to talk of such old team-mates as the great Maurice Tate and wicket-keeper Tich Cornford. "A marvellous pair. Take 'Chubby' Tate - well, there was no one to touch him, was there? He could take five or more wickets before lunch, especially if there was sea fret around. He was consistently quick and hostile, and I used to marvel at his smooth action and delivery and that devastating swing. I got a few catches off him as well. Tich was not only 'Chubby's' best pal but a stumper who stood up to him to take some great catches, and make many lightning stumpings as well."

"It needed nerve to stand up to 'Chubby' at his best, with the ball coming off the wicket so fast and moving either way. Occasionally Tich would say, 'He's really whacking 'em down today, I'm going back a bit'. Back he'd go, but after about two more balls 'Chubby' would yell 'Hey Tich, you come back. I can't bowl with you right back there!' Up Tich would go. A wonderful pair."

Fast bowlers never worried John, even Harold Larwood in his bodyline days. In a match against Nottinghamshire at Horsham, where the wicket is always sporting, he and Jim Parks opened for Sussex and were still there at lunch, with Larwood and Bill Voce bowling bodyline.

"Jim was black and blue with bruises," John recalled. "I was taller and able to cope when the ball was rearing up, but Jim was hit more often. Sussex scored a lot of runs that day, but next day, when Larwood was bowling orthodox stuff, he took about five wickets."

There followed reminiscences about the way spinners - Tich Freeman, Walter Robins, Hedley Verity, and Eric Hollies especially - could diddle him out. As Warwickshire was the only county he failed to score a century against, John reckons Hollies was particularly difficult to master.

The greatest batsman he ever saw or played against was Jack Hobbs (Masterly on any kind of wicket), and a picture of a slip catch dismissing the great batsman is among his most prized souvenirs.

John nearly always made runs against Derbyshire. He scored 1,022 in nine consecutive innings between 1949 and 1951, with a breathtaking average of 204.4. "Things seemed to go my way against them," he smiled, being quick to remind me that there were lean spells as well. Even if he never bagged a pair in all those years, there were a couple of ducks in two of the four innings during a Worthing Week, and only a handful of runs.

The remarkable Sussex veteran says he found the switching from playing to umpiring fairly easy, once he had resisted the temptation to make catches or back up. He thoroughly enjoys the job. The eagle eye of the television camera does not worry him, but he feels there is far too much appealing for almost anything, and puts this down to the financial rewards for success, especially in limited-overs matches.

"We hear a lot about their 'professionalism' these days, but it's not very professional to bowl no-balls, and we get far too many of them. No, I'm glad I played when I did. We enjoyed our cricket, and I was jolly lucky to have had such a long career as a player and to be still part of the game."

And Sussex were very lucky to have had such a loyal servant and dependable batsman. Those many thousands of runs may not have been made in stylish fashion during innings of glorious stroke-play, but John Langridge possessed something many players in that brilliant mould may have lacked - wonderful consistency and extraordinary powers of patience and concentration. The words in the Sussex by the Sea march seem to apply to the talented players who came from small villages to play for the county side - the Tates, Parks, Coxes, Oakes, and Langridges:

For we're the men from Sussex, Sussex by the Sea,

We plough and sow, and reap and mow

And useful men are we.

None more useful, surely, than John Langridge.

When John Langridge stood as umpire last season in the John Player League match at Hastings between Sussex and Glamorgan on July 23, he received official recognition for his 50 years in first-class cricket. He was presented by Doug Insole, chairman of the Test and County Cricket Board, with a cheque and silver coffee pot.

© John Wisden & Co