It was in 1967 that a raw but enthusiastic youngster, fired with the ambition to make cricket his career, sent down his opening delivery in first-class cricket. Now, some 18,000 overs later, John Lever is recognised as a left-arm paceman to be feared. Born at Ilford on February 24, 1949, Lever made his début for Essex against Worcestershire there in 1967, and among his first victims were Don Kenyon and Tom Graveney, two batsmen who had already achieved Test status.
In the season, Lever's appearances at Championship level were confined to thirteen games out of twenty-eight. But for the past eleven summers he has been a valuable and regular member of the side; last season he was the key figure in Essex finishing runners-up to Kent. He ended with 106 wickets, his most rewarding summer to date, and although desperately unlucky not to play in either of the series against Pakistan and New Zealand, he received compensation by winning a place in the England party that toured Australia during the winter.
Entering the Essex side at time when they were not exactly the force they are today has made Lever's fight to reach the top of his profession a tough - and at times painful - one. I well remember him, a few years ago, grimacing with pain as he soldiered on with a pinched muscle in his side - between the hip and bottom rib. Players with less determination would have put their feet up and taken it easy. Not JK, as he's known around the circuit. His answer was to have made a specially designed support to enable him to carry on. He still suffered pain, but he considered that a small price to pay for remaining out there in the middle. Fortunately, that is the only occasion he has fallen victim of serious injury. Whereas other fast bowlers have often broken down, Lever has earned a reputation as one of the fittest players in the game. "I've been lucky," he will claim, but that is not entirely true.
Dedication, rather than luck, has been the major factor that has lifted Lever from the ranks of the ordinary player to the top. If the Essex stroke-players are enjoying a good day in the sun, or play has been help up by the weather, you will not always find him hanging about in the dressing-room. Instead, he will be off in his track suit on another training jog. No cricketer places more emphasis on physical fitness - and it has paid off. No doubt it was his immense stamina and fitness that influenced the selectors to give him his first major tour - that of India, Sri Lanka, and Australia in 1976-77.
Presumably, they saw him as a workhorse, to allow more established bowlers to rest between the Tests. But Lever responded with incredible success, forcing himself into the side for the opening Test in Delhi and sensationally finishing with a match haul of ten for 70 on his début. Not surprisingly, he kept his place for the rest of the series against India, topping the Test averages with 26 wickets as well as emerging as the chief wicket-taker on tour with 53 victims.
It was to prove a trip on which Lever learned that success is not always greeted with praise from the opposition. So demoralised were the Indians by Lever's ability to swing the ball late that, later in the tour, they sought to question his methods, alleging that he used Vaseline to help keep the shine on the ball; accusations which were to be proved totally unfounded. Not that that surprised anyone. Those who know Lever will testify to him being a fierce but honest opponent who could never stoop to such devious means.
Lever first discovered his love for cricket as a youngster attending Highlands Junior School, Ilford, and his appetite was further whetted when he forced his way into the District eleven. Later, at Dane County Secondary, his progress continued to blossom and he earned selection for the South of England side. His promise was such that, at the age of fourteen, he could be found bowling against Essex players at the famous Ilford Indoor Cricket School.
It was there that he came under the watchful, critical eye of senior county coach Bill Morris, for whom he has much respect and admiration. It is typical of Lever to attribute his success to others rather than to his own hard work. People like his father who, he says, spent countless hours nearby parks with him and "always managed to keep me supplied with cricket gear though he could ill-afford it;" people like Morris and Alf Gover, another coach who had such a big influence on his career. "Any success I have had is due to their encouragement and patience," Lever reflects modestly.
At sixteen, Lever was playing for the county's second eleven, and he made his first-class début at eighteen. For several seasons he lived in the shadow of West Indian quickie, Keith Boyce, eagerly seeking and absorbing advice that was to earn him recognition at the highest level. Boyce's retirement through injury the summer before last placed additional responsibility on Lever's shoulders and, as he proved last year, he responded in magnificent style. Nine times he captured five or more wickets in an innings, twice in the match against Northamptonshire at Ilford, where he returned match figures of thirteen for 145, and against Kent, Hampshire, Sussex, Somerset, Lancashire, Surrey, and Derbyshire.
Lever's number of first-class wickets in 1978 far exceeded the number of runs he scored, a statistic that tends to belie his capabilities with the bat. He is far from being a rabbit. An innings of 53 against India on his memorable Test début, one of gutsy resolution, was testimony to that, as was his 91 against Glamorgan in 1970. In terms of runs, other efforts have been less rewarding, but his ability to defend, and defend with assurance, has provided valuable support for others in times of crisis.