Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2008

Bill Johnston


Bill Johnston unwinds in the nets at Lord's in April 1953 © PA Photos
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Johnston, William Arras, died on May 24, 2007, aged 85. In the early 1950s Bill Johnston was capable of bowling as vicious a bumper as just about any bowler in the world. The problem was it would usually be followed by a chuckle, not the traditional fast bowler's wicked laugh but a guffaw that told the batsman there was no malice intended. It was the kind of response which once caused Bill O'Reilly to lament: "As a bowler he has one failing - he hasn't a temper." Indeed, his friend and team-mate Neil Harvey recalled: "His happiness spread itself through the team." With a secure understanding of his bowling talent, he didn't need a temper. Former Test opener Jack Moroney once declared: "Bill Johnston could do things with a cricket ball that were beyond normal human beings." And Harvey called him "one of the best all-round bowlers in the history of cricket".

Born at Beeac, in the Victorian dairy country, Johnston was originally a slow left-armer but, when he emerged from the RAAF, former Australian captain Jack Ryder advised him to bowl quicker, advice soon reiterated by Don Bradman, who wanted more pace on the 1948 Ashes tour. So Johnston used his height and strength, together with his looseness of limb, to turn himself into a left-arm bowler of immense variety, able to swing the ball at a brisk fast-medium pace, occasionally explode into short episodes of real speed and, when the conditions were right, reach back to the spin of his youth, each variety delivered with probing accuracy. After taking three wickets for Victoria in his first 12 balls against the 1947-48 Indians, he took 14 more in the first three Tests and was then rested, an indicator that he would be on the boat to England. Once there, he was at the forefront of Australia's success. He and Lindwall both took 27 wickets in the Tests, and Johnston finished with 102 on tour, his capacity for long spells leading to a place in Wisden's (all- Australian) Five in 1949. The First Test at Trent Bridge was typical; having broken the spine of the England batting with 5 for 36 from 25 overs in the first innings, he covered the absence of the injured Lindwall with 4 for 147 from 59 overs in the second. Johnston had only narrowly been chosen for that match ahead of the wrist-spinner Doug Ring. "What a fortunate decision it was!" wrote Bradman in Farewell to Cricket.

Early in the tour of South Africa in 1949-50, Johnston was injured in a car accident which left him with what he described as "a nine-iron divot in the top of my skull". Despite missing two months of cricket and with only one warm-up match, he took 6 for 44 in South Africa's second innings of the First Test to seal an innings victory. The succeeding three Australian home series saw Johnston top the aggregates against England, West Indies and South Africa, reaching his 100th Test wicket in only his 22nd match. But against the East Molesey club in a prelude to the 1953 Ashes tour, Johnston twisted his knee so badly that he was forced to change the position of his right foot at the point of delivery. This increased the physical strain of bowling and muffled his effectiveness to the point where he was dropped during the series against West Indies in 1955. Then he retired.

As an old-school No. 11, he had his moments of achievement. At Melbourne in 1951-52, he and Ring stole the Test from under the noses of the West Indians with a stand of 38 which was a mixture of scampered singles and the occasional bludgeoning. Three years later, against England at Sydney, he gave canny support to Neil Harvey as they added 39 of the 78 that would have brought victory against a rampant Frank Tyson, even swinging the disbelieving bowler one-handed off his hip to the boundary. And there was the artfully contrived mockery of statistics which saw him head the batting averages on the 1953 tour of England (I 17, NO 16, R 102, HS 28*, Avge 102.00). This was made possible by Lindsay Hassett, towards the end of the tour, giving his batting partners protective instructions and sending notes to opposing county captains requesting complicity. Ray Robinson said that, as a fielder, he was "galumphing", and that when he chased the ball he looked like "Pluto in pursuit of Donald Duck". But Johnston redeemed that with a powerful arm, and the faults merely added to the good humour he brought to the cricket field.

Johnston had a varied working life during which he was a salesman for Dunlop, before becoming the marketing manager for a shoe firm, and running a pub, an apartment complex and a post office. His son, David, played ten matches for South Australia and is now chief executive of the Tasmanian Cricket Association.

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack