Cho's mystery

Former Australian spinner John Gleeson was unreadable on and off the field. A team-mate remembers

Ashley Mallett
Ashley Mallett
Gleeson bowls in the nets during the 1968 Ashes tour  •  PA Photos

Gleeson bowls in the nets during the 1968 Ashes tour  •  PA Photos

The year is 1950 and 12-year-old Johnny Gleeson has picked up an illustrated article about the finger-flicking Australian Test bowler Jack Iverson, dubbed the "mystery spinner" because England's Ashes squad of that summer were bemused and puzzled by his bizarre spinning craft. To the Englishmen, Iverson was a veritable "Mr Magic" - a seeming offbreak turned from leg and what appeared to be a legbreak came back into the right-hander. Iverson took 21 wickets at 15.23 in that series before treading on a ball in the Adelaide Test. He hobbled through the fifth match and never played big cricket again.
But his finger-flicking mystery bowling style immediately held great fascination for young Gleeson, whose slender long fingers were ideal for spinning a ball and especially well-suited to the folded-finger grip used by Iverson.
Gleeson began his cricketing life as a wicketkeeper, and when he moved from Tamworth to Sydney in 1956, he kept in the lower grades for Western Suburbs. In secret, he trained alone, trying to master the finger flick.
In 1958, at the age of 20, Gleeson returned to Tamworth and won selection for an overseas tour of Canada with the Emu Club. Frustrated that his bowlers couldn't make inroads in the opposition batting, he shed the pads and began to bowl his "Iverson style".
He first bowled in a serious match in Melbourne in 1964, turning out for the Australian Postal Institute. Gleeson's deliveries mystified all and sundry that day, many beating the bat and the keeper.
By the summer of 1965-66, Gleeson was the first-choice spinner for Gunnedah. Jack Chegwin, a great promoter of country cricket in New South Wales, took sides with current and ex-Test cricketers in them to the outlying areas, ever on the lookout for raw talent. Gleeson took wickets in one such match and delighted in getting the chance to bowl to Richie Benaud, one of his boyhood heroes.
Half a dozen balls from Gleeson were enough for Bradman to say, "Thanks John. By the end of the season I think you'll be playing for Australia"
Benaud knew exciting talent when he saw it and he took a big interest in Gleeson, advising him to the Balmain Club, of which the secretary was Fred Bennett, who was destined to one day become chairman of the Australian Cricket Board.
Gleeson got bags of wickets for Balmain, and in 1966-67 he made his debut for NSW, in Perth. He bowled 23 overs into the wind but found operating on the hard, true surface at the WACA less than great. Her took one wicket and was made to carry the drinks in the next match, in Adelaide.
Sir Donald Bradman, then chairman of the Test selectors, met NSW captain Brian Booth on the eve of the match and asked him who was going to be 12th man.
"Johnny Gleeson," Booth said confidently.
"Well, that's the first mistake you've made this game."
When NSW batted, Bradman asked Gleeson if he would like to accompany him to the nets and bowl to him. Bradman was 58 then. He wore neither pads nor gloves. Half a dozen balls from Gleeson were enough for him to say, "Thanks John. By the end of the season I think you'll be playing for Australia."
Gleeson toured New Zealand with an Australian 2nd Xl in 1967, and by December that year he made his Test debut against India. He played in all four Tests, taking the last three wickets in Brisbane to help Australia win by 39 runs, and was a certain pick for the tour to England in 1968.
He was dubbed Cho (Cricket Hours Only), because, apart from the nets or at the ground, he was never around. Maybe he wanted to maintain the mystery.
Once, upon our arrival at the Waldorf Hotel, our London home away from home, there was captain Bill Lawry talking about playing bright cricket ("so long as we win") and Cho fast asleep in the background, his head resting on Garth McKenzie's broad right shoulder.
I roomed with Cho on that 1968 tour, and one day asked how the publicity affected him. "Doesn't worry me in the slightest," he said. "Never read the newspapers." Next, I found him trying to close the lid on a suitcase overflowing with newspaper cuttings about one mystery finger-flick bowler John Gleeson.
Lawry managed his fast and medium-paced attack brilliantly, but when it came to spin, though he could play it well, he didn't understand spinners. However, Lawry did like the way Gleeson bowled. Cho operated with a flat trajectory and was more at home on a green top than a slow, dusty turner, thus complementing the likes of the fast men McKenzie, Alan Connolly and Neil Hawke.
Gleeson struggled to make an impact in India in 1969-70, apart from the Bombay Test, where the wicket had bounce and pace. He made an impact of a different sort on the last day of our match against South Zone in Bangalore a month later.
I can see Cho now. He moves in with a funny gait, a bit like a comical mix of Groucho Marx and Ronnie Corbett. He's not a short man, but stays low
Set 200 runs to get in two hours, we collapsed to the masterly spin of Erapalli Prasanna, who, by the fall of our sixth wicket, had the incredible figures of 6 for 9 off nine overs. Barnacle Bill Lawry was battling for a draw at the other end when Cho strolled to the wicket and spoke quietly to square-leg umpire BR Nagaraja Rao before heading to chat to the official at Prasanna's end, NS Rishi.
That done, Cho leaned over his bat, rejecting the umpire's request to take guard, quipping, "Not required, Mr Umpire. I took guard in Bombay weeks ago."
While Lawry defended stoically, Gleeson either padded away or hit out.
Stumps were drawn five minutes before the scheduled close because a section of the crowd began throwing stones.
Lawry had batted for an unconquered 10, Cho was not out 18, and Australia at stumps were 90 for 8. There were back slaps all round for the two players, but Ian Chappell, Doug Walters and others were far more interested in what Cho had said to the umpires.
"Well, I said to the ump at square leg: 'Mr Umpire, if you give me out lbw, I will wrap this bat about your head. And I said the same thing to the other umpire."
In my mind's eye I can see Cho now. He moves in with a funny gait, a bit like a comical mix of Groucho Marx and Ronnie Corbett. He's not a short man, but stays low. The delivery doesn't make a fizzing sound like Prasanna's or Shane Warne's. It glides out of that folded-finger grip, always on target but devoid of what we call "loop" or "shape".
Unknowing batsmen were easily snared by Cho, who really was a master of deceit. Even if the ball went as straight as a gun barrel, his body language was a distraction for the unwary.
His crowning glory was probably his bowling against the powerful South African batting line-up, headed by Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards, Eddie Barlow and Mike Procter, in 1969-70. Only Richards could play Gleeson effectively. When asked by others, including his team-mates, Richards would say: "If you go after it and hit the ball just as it lands, it matters not which way the ball turns."
Barlow tried that against Cho in the third Test, in Johannesburg, but didn't quite get to the pitch of the ball, and keeper Brian Taber stumped him yards short of his ground.
In the four Tests, Gleeson bowled 255 overs and took 19 wickets at 38.94. He bowled a good deal better than his figures reflect.
His bowling mystified many a good batsman, and Ray Illingworth's 1970-71 Ashes squad was no exception. In Sydney, John Edrich waltzed up the pitch for a mid-wicket chat with his opening partner, Geoff Boycott.
"Hey Boycs," Edrich said joyfully, "I've just worked out Gleeson. I know for sure where each one's going."
"Oh, is that all, Ede?" Boycott laughed, "I worked Cho out two Tests ago, but don't tell those boogers in the dressing room."
Gleeson was a great character. He had the dry, quirky sense of humour of the bush-based folk of the outback Australia of long ago. He spoke with passion about bowling, especially spin bowling, and the mystery of the finger-flicking style. Just as he loved the Iverson way, Cho delighted in Ajantha Mendis' similar finger-flicking style
Now, sadly, Cho has gone. He proved to us all that some wicketkeepers can turn their hand successfully to spin bowling.
So long, Cho. Fond memories of you and your cricket will stay in our hearts forever.

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor