Obituary, 2008

Les Jackson

ESPNcricinfo staff

Jackson, Herbet Leslie, died on April 25, 2007, aged 86. Fred Trueman described Les Jackson as the "best six-days-a-week bowler in county cricket", and few batsmen looked forward to their examination by Jackson and Cliff Gladwin when they visited Derby in the 1950s. Jackson was fiercely accurate, and had a waspish nip-backer which often found its mark: "Even when I was scoring runs I used to finish up with bruises," recalled Tom Graveney ruefully, adding that when he saw Jackson in later years he would instinctively start rubbing his thighs. But despite his reputation, Jackson won only two Test caps, 12 years apart.

Jackson came from the mining village of Whitwell - he was to return to the pits most winters, first as a collier then as a driver - and played his early cricket as a pro for Worksop. He had one match for Derbyshire in 1947: the captain Eddie Gothard didn't rate his bowling, at least until the coach shrewdly arranged for him to face it in the nets. Then, aged 27, Jackson broke through, taking 65 wickets in 1948, and 120 in 1949. That year he was called up by England to face New Zealand at Old Trafford in Alec Bedser's absence. He bowled tightly and took three wickets, but it was not a huge surprise when he was left out of the next Test at The Oval - Bedser was back, and England also wanted another spinner.

However, few imagined it would be a dozen years before Jackson would be picked again: when Brian Statham was unfit for the Headingley Ashes Test of 1961. Again he let no one down: by then 40, he took four wickets as Australia were beaten, producing a big off-cutter to dismiss the stubborn opener Colin McDonald. But that was it, even though he had been a formidable and consistent force in county cricket in the meantime. In the wet summer of 1958, hampered by a groin strain, he cut down his pace a little and turned out to be almost unplayable, collecting 143 wickets at just 10.99. He had an even more productive season in 1960: 160 at 13.61.

Why was Jackson ignored for the entire 1950s? He had a slingy, round-arm delivery which looked ungainly, and Freddie Brown, an influential selector in the early 1950s, apparently thought Jackson couldn't come back for a second or third spell. Fred Trueman was convinced that the even more powerful Gubby Allen disliked Jackson's action and thought he wasn't fast enough. Trueman championed his cause until he died and would get apoplectic when reminded of the selection of the Middlesex amateur John Warr ahead of Jackson for Australia in 1950-51.

It might have been legitimate to look twice at wickets taken in Derbyshire, where conditions were often very Jackson-friendly. But of his 1,670 wickets for the county, a Derbyshire record, 860 came at home and 810 away, so the difference was hardly significant. It may well be true, as was widely believed, that unfashionable bowlers from unfashionable counties were at a disadvantage in that era. And no one was more unfashionable than a Derbyshire pitman.

Of those 1,670 wickets (and 63 for other teams), 254 - including a hat-trick of caught-behinds against Worcestershire in 1958 - were co-productions with wicketkeeper George Dawkes, who looked not unlike him (see Wisden 2007, page 1548). An elderly lady in Southampton once tried to bash Dawkes with her brolly after Jackson hit Vic Cannings of Hampshire. Before Jackson retired, though, Dawkes had been replaced by Bob Taylor. "Les was a terrific bowler - quite sharp, nippy off the wicket," Taylor recalled. "He had a slingy action, not unlike Jeff Thomson's, and his arm was a bit low, but he was so accurate, and got a lot of movement off the pitch rather than through the air. He was great to keep wicket to, as the ball would always come through with the seam upright - with most bowlers the seam bobbles about a bit and the ball can dip or swerve on you, but with Les it just came straight through all the time, even if the batsman nicked it." Among post-war bowlers, only Statham has taken more wickets at a lower average than Jackson (17.36), and even he was less miserly. Almost a third of Jackson's career overs were maidens.

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack