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Ken Higgs, a heart-of-oak bowler, and one of Lancashire's finest

With remorseless accuracy and an ability to find swing and cut, Ken Higgs might have won more than 15 Test caps for England

David Hopps
David Hopps
Ken Higgs delivers the ball during his final season as a player, aged 49  •  Getty Images

Ken Higgs delivers the ball during his final season as a player, aged 49  •  Getty Images

Ken Higgs, observed an admirer, was a wonderful fast-medium bowler with great stamina, an instantly recognisable curved run and an arse that crossed two postcodes. He played in 15 Tests for England, and, especially in Lancashire, many will profess he should have played more. With his passing, at 79, one of the Red Rose county's cricketing legends has been lost.
Higgs was a heart-of-oak bowler, who took pride in his remorseless accuracy and his ability to find swing and cut when conditions offered the slightest encouragement. Few bowlers of his pace - early 80s perhaps - have jarred the bat with such regularity.
His England record was a fine one: 71 wickets in 15 Tests at 20.74 each and with an economy rate of only 2.14 runs an over. Better economy for England than Brian Statham, Lancashire's prince of parsimony, and at Old Trafford there was no higher accolade than that.
Born in Kidsgrove, in Staffordshire, on January 14, 1937, he lived there throughout his Lancashire career. He did not drive and would commute daily to Old Trafford by bus and train. This was an era in which all but a few high-profile batsmen habitually walked for a dismissal if they had edged the ball. Higgs was incensed one day at Old Trafford when David Steele stood his ground after the bowler believed he had found the edge. They were due to return to Staffordshire on the same train from Manchester Piccadilly after the match, but Higgs was resentful enough to catch the next one.
He had suggested no particular aptitude for cricket as a schoolboy. He was more taken by football and as a centre half attracted the attention of Port Vale junior sides and was selected for an FA youth tour of Germany in the winter of 1953-54. But military service intervened and gradually his interests shifted to cricket, encouraged in part by watching his brother, Roy, play in the Staffordshire League. When his military service was over, it was not long before he broke into Staffordshire's Minor Counties side. The Lancashire coach, Stan Worthington, a former Derbyshire and England allrounder, recommended him to the county, suggesting that he "might develop into another Alec Bedser".
Higgs quickly proved himself to be Statham's most faithful new-ball partner at Lancashire after making his debut against Hampshire in 1958, taking seven wickets in the second innings. He took 67 wickets that year and 113 in his second, the first of five years in which he was to take more than 100 first-class wickets in a summer. He was not averse to a scathing quip or two if he felt that luck was against him.
These were difficult times for Lancashire. They were runners-up to Yorkshire in 1960 but finished no higher than 11th for the next seven seasons. Job insecurity did not help Higgs' cricket and there was some talk of his release, until a dramatic recovery of form that led to an England Test debut alongside Statham against South Africa in 1965. It was to be Statham's last Test, but Lancashire's pace attack now briefly served country as well as county.
Higgs was summoned for the 1965-66 Ashes tour but illness and injury prevented him following up a useful first outing in Brisbane. A subsequent tour to New Zealand brought more fortune, with 17 wickets in three Tests.
His best series came against a powerful West Indies in 1966, when his 24 wickets were not only the most by an England bowler but were heavy with top-order wickets: Conrad Hunte, Rohan Kanhai and Basil Butcher to the fore. His 6 for 91 in a drawn Test at Lord's remained his best Test figures. "A grand effort," Wisden recorded. As many as 23 players represented England as the selectors rang the changes to no avail in a losing series, but Higgs was the only ever-present.
But it was an unexpected batting feat that gained most attention that summer as England won the fourth Test, at The Oval - Brian Close's first as captain - by an innings. Higgs shared a last-wicket stand of 128 with John Snow to take England to 527. When Higgs gave a return catch to the spinner, David Holford, the pair were only two runs short of the record last-wicket stand in Tests at the time, one that had stood since 1903. They were entirely oblivious of the fact. Afterwards the newspapers showed them celebrating their feat on the balcony, sipping tea. As Snow was to record in Cricket Rebel, they had intended to pose for the photo with a pint of beer - their chosen reward for thirsty work - only to be informed that it did not set the right tone.
Higgs retired after the 1969 season, at 32, with 1033 first-class wickets at 22.90, his departure influenced to some degree by the belief that Lancashire were not paying him his due compared to Farokh Engineer and Clive Lloyd, two of the overseas players who brought a much needed shot in the arm to the county game in the late 1960s. Suitably, for family fallouts, the Old Trafford flags flew at half mast on news of his death, nearly half a century later.
He played two seasons for Rishton in the Lancashire League, but county cricket retained a pull for him and he was persuaded to make a return by Leicestershire's chief executive, Mike Turner, and made such a success of it that he took his first-class tally past 1500. He took 4 for 10, including a hat-trick, in the 1974 Benson & Hedges Cup final, and a few years later scored 98 batting a No. 11, during what remains a club record partnership of 228 with Ray Illingworth. As ever, Higgs' sweep shot, which he doted upon for his entire career, was to the fore.
Illingworth, whose captaincy was to transform Leicestershire after he cut his ties with Yorkshire, wrote later: "He was just the type we needed - as strong as a bull, and he never turned it in. He was a bit temperamental at times, because he needed to blow up about twice a season, and then you had to handle him a bit diplomatically, but he has a big heart, and was always willing to put everything into the game with you."
After his retirement Higgs became Leicestershire's bowling coach, but after four years in retirement, a spate of injuries pressed him into an emergency return against Yorkshire in 1986. Conditions were perfect for swing and seam, and possessed of a statelier heft than ever, he came on second change and returned 5 for 22 in 11 overs at the age of 49, passing the outside edge at will. He was proud of the coaching clinic he had just enacted. "I knew he'd do that to us," bemoaned Yorkshire's wicketkeeper, David Bairstow.
Higgs' partner for much of that spell was a player at the extreme opposite end of his career. Phil DeFreitas, then aged 20 and in the second season of his first-class career, took four of the remaining five Yorkshire wickets to enhance a reputation that would later that year earn him his first England call-up for Mike Gatting's tour of Australia. DeFreitas was one of many who praised Higgs' mentoring abilities upon hearing of his death. "He taught me so much about the game," he said.
Higgs could be a gruff soul, not much given to small talk, and he was no fan of authority, especially when it came with limited knowledge. But former team-mates often spoke warmly of his willingness to offer advice and guidance, and of his strong, uncomplicated team ethic. He just got on with his job, operating around 80mph, but getting enough life from the pitch to jar a batsman's hands and make batting a demanding task. After his retirement he ran a guest house in Blackpool, where further wisdom was offered over the fried breakfasts.

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps