CRICKETER OF THE YEAR 1969

Oswald Wheatley

For Oswald Stephen Wheatley, born at Durham, May 28, 1935, cricket has been a life constant change. He began with a move to Birmingham before he was old enough even to think about the game. At King Edward's School and at Cambridge University he was known as Steve, but in the county game this quickly became Ossie.

At school he had been cast in the role of opening batsman, whatever subsequent statistics may suggest to the contrary. He was a bowler as well, of course, a natural away-swinger with a fine body action. There was no Blue in his first year at Cambridge, but he was in the side in 1957 and 1958 and in the second of those seasons he created a new Cambridge record with a bag of eighty wickets.

By this time he was playing for Warwickshire as well, a very welcome reinforcement with Pritchard and Grove only nostalgic memories. The next major change was the move to Glamorgan, where he took over the captaincy with outstanding success until 1966.

Business calls foreshadowed limited availability in the following year and, in the event, Achilles tendon trouble (caused largely through coming back to bowl on hard grounds while short of practice) reduced his appearances to three games.

It was other bowler's injuries which brought the biggest change of all. 1968 had also been planned as a year with the odd game here and there. Instead it ended with the old adage about "They never come back" utterly refuted. Wheatley could, and did, with a vengeance, playing a leading role in revitalising Glamorgan cricket and, in the process, finishing at the head of the national bowling averages, with eighty-two wickets at 12.95 runs apiece.

As an achievement it was an interesting pointer to changes in the structure of the game which now appear imminent. It showed that a player could turn out regularly at week-ends and still maintain and indeed develop his business interests. Wheatley limited himself to a minimum of mid-week matches, which, of course, helped him to husband stamina.

He is frankness itself on help in other directions, for example, the changed character of many Glamorgan pitches. "This time I even got wickets at Swansea. I never used to bother hardly at all about bowling there before, I could not get the spinners on quickly enough."

That is the skeleton of the Wheatley story, but one must fill in the gaps. Hardest of all to portray is that mystic quality called personality. Certainly those who thought a seemingly casual approach to the game was that of the dilettante made a grave mistake. As a bowler, Wheatley was always in deadly earnest, annoyed with himself to the point of inner personal fury on days of wayward direction.

He went to Birmingham from Durham much too young to have any real North Country recollections. At King Edward's I have the first hand evidence of a contemporary to vouch for the fact that he did often open the batting. More of his prowess in that quarter anon.

Wheatley played for Warwickshire after the end of the University term in 1957 and 1958 and then became a regular member of the side in 1959 and 1960. Over that period he took 237 wickets, 110 of them in 1960, which meant that Warwickshire were sorry indeed to see him go. He was most missed, of course, as an opening bowler, but there were moments when the schoolboy opening batsman stepped back into the picture. Wheatley was rightly proud of his cover drive. It always had elegance. Occasionally it was played just a shade too late.

Nevertheless at Edgbaston they still talk of one memorable August Bank Holiday Monday. Imagine the scene. Sunshine all day, a 20,000 crown to watch the local Derby against Northamptonshire. Wisden, factual as ever, declared: "M.J.K. Smith was the only Warwickshire batsman who who dealt competently with a Northamptonshire attack in which Tyson bowled well."

That was a perfectly accurate statement as far as the specialist batsmen were concerned, but it did less than justice to Wheatley as a number eleven. He helped Mike Smith to stay for 142 not out in a last-wicket stand of 78, of which his share just crept to double figures. That was against Tyson at his fastest with the new ball and all the wiles of Tribe. His own self-deprecating version was, "Mike took Tyson, I took the medium-pacers." And so he did, only falling to Tyson at last when Northamptonshire decided that the farming must stop.

He was less successful with the bat on another occasion at Bradford, a Warwickshire match against Yorkshire which began with Trueman needing seven second-innings wickets to become the first in the country to the 100 mark. He made a great effort, but was palpably flagging, stuck on 99, when Wheatley arrived at the crease.

This time there was no opportunity to exploit that classic cover drive. The outcome of a supreme effort by Trueman was a crash so catastrophic that it needed an official check to ascertain whether the verdict was lbw, bowled, or hit wicket. Indeed, one wit declared, "It looked like all three." For the record, hit wicket it was.

The move to Glamorgan was the biggest change of all, from the vast Edgbaston arena to the less sophisticated backgrounds of Neath, Ebbw Vale, and Llanelli, not to mention Cardiff and Swansea and all the other grounds where Welsh cricket takes the stage.

Wheatley took over the leadership in succession to Wilf Wooller at a time when Glamorgan were far from being on the crest of the wave. Even the bravest of optimists would never have dared to forecast that as soon as 1963 they would finish second in the Championship, being in third place two years later. In the interim, at St. Helen's on August 4, 1964, he led Glamorgan to their first win against an Australian touring side.

In his emergency return last season as replacement for the injured Jeff Jones, Wheatley came back in mid-June and promptly passed a personal milestone -- his 1,000th wicket in first-class cricket. That came against Sussex at Hove, but even then he did not bargain for an extended call on his services. He finished by turning a deaf ear to business calls and played in the last half-dozen games after a series of successful week-end sorties, taking Glamorgan once again to an honourable third place.

His record of 697 wickets at 18.46 runs apiece for Glamorgan emerges all the more creditably since in past years their pitches have seldom been tailor-made for seamers. From the days of Clay, on to McConnon and Shepherd, there was usually some help for the off-spinners, but pacemen toiled in vain.

But whatever the wicket, Wheatley's nine for 60 against Sussex in their second-innings at Ebbw Vale last season was a worthy highlight of his career and, not surprisingly, the best bowling feat in county cricket in 1968.

Wheatley is looking forward to Sunday cricket this season in the new Players' League. He will not lack expertise as a TV performer, having done a stint on the advertising staff of the Old TWW company and, indeed, his charming wife was a TV announcer. Wheatley firmly believes that he has found a happy compromise between career and cricket. That is good news for Glamorgan.

© John Wisden & Co