Obituary, 2010

George Tribe

TRIBE, GEORGE EDWARD, who died on April 5, 2009, aged 88, played three Tests for Australia in the first post-war Ashes series. He took just two wickets for 330, and that was the start and finish of his Test career. Instead he turned into a county cricket legend, becoming a major factor - arguably the major factor - in making the once-laughable Northamptonshire team one of the most formidable sides in England throughout the 1950s.

In his eight full seasons at Northampton, he did the 1,000 runs-100 wickets double seven times, and in 1955 took 176 wickets. That year, he was named one of Wisden's Five. The Almanack's correspondent, Eb Eden, called him a "noteworthy personality" who had enjoyed "high success". His team-mates put it more strongly than that. Wicketkeeper Keith Andrew called him "probably the best cricketer I ever played with"; Frank Tyson described Australia's neglect of him as "criminal".

As a teenager, Tribe had been a traditional leftarm finger-spinner but took a conscious decision to change his style to take advantage of the 1937 change in the lbw law, which abolished the requirement that the ball had to pitch straight. He switched to left-arm wrist-spin, his stock ball being the chinaman, coming in to the right-hander - if one can use a phrase as mundane as "stock ball". Some reckoned he had six or seven different deliveries, including an off-cutter. There was also a sort of top-spinner he called a "squibber", whose trajectory depended on how it hit the seam.

Tribe grew up in Melbourne, and played Australian Rules for Footscray; he was briefly called up during the war and then discharged, because he had qualified as an engineer, a reserved occupation. He was the top wicket-taker in 1945-46, and the top Australian the following season: 13 of his 48 wickets came for 153 in one match for Victoria against South Australia, which secured his Test place.

After his disappointing series, he accepted an offer to play for Milnrow in the Central Lancashire League, a contract that could then be worth more to an Australian than an Ashes tour. It was assumed Tribe would return to Test cricket: Don Bradman had hinted as much. But family circumstances - his wife gave birth to twins after they arrived in Lancashire - led him to stay, and Australian selectors tended to ignore the growing band of exiles playing in England. There was also a theory that the Australian keeper Don Tallon was among those unable to read Tribe's bowling.

Still, Tribe was hugely successful over five years with Milnrow and Rawtenstall. This qualified him for county cricket, and Lancashire were interested. But his friend Jock Livingston was already connected with Northamptonshire, and recommended him; the local engineering firm of British Timken, then controlled by the cricket-loving John Pascoe, happily subsidised Tribe's salary by offering him winter work.

He started his Championship career with 40 wickets in the first four matches, and his form hardly wavered from that moment. The best batsmen in England consistently struggled against him (Tom Graveney was among the rare exceptions). The Northamptonshire opener Peter Arnold remembers a match at Tunbridge Wells in 1955 when Colin Cowdrey, in prime form, played and missed six times in an over.

Tribe's skill was matched by low cunning -players like Graveney would be given a single to get them down the other end, so he could bowl at the innocents. His batting was effective, if unorthodox: his team-mates called him "Tripod" because he could drag the ball with perfect control to the cow-corner boundary,ending up with bat splayed on the ground like a third leg. There was a hint of cunning in his fielding too: "He would run under a bus to take a catch," said Richie Benaud, pausing theatrically, "…off his own bowling."

He was also a charming, almost courtly man, and a great enthusiast: he would stop his car to coach kids playing by the roadside. But he never lost his competitive streak: when he returned to Australia after the 1959 season (working for the Australian branch of Timken), he captained Yarraville, the club where he had started as a 15-year-old. Playing for a knockabout team called The Owls in his fifties, he took five for eight against a media team and was taken off. "I was in danger of making you blokes look farcical," he said. And, as he lay dying - so a carer reported - he was asked what he would like to do. He replied: "I want to play cricket with the boys on the hill."

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack