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Obituaries

John Edrich

Edrich was impassive and unflinching in the face of the world's most hostile bowlers

04-Oct-2021
John Edrich (right) walks off next to Ken Barrington during his innings of 310 not out  •  Huw John/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

John Edrich (right) walks off next to Ken Barrington during his innings of 310 not out  •  Huw John/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

EDRICH, JOHN HUGH, MBE, who died on December 23, aged 83, was impassive and unflinching in the face of the world's most hostile bowlers. In his first full season for Surrey, he had fingers broken by Fred Trueman and Frank Tyson; on his Test debut, he took on Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith; later, he was hit on the head by Peter Pollock, and batted with broken ribs against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. His Test career ended in 1976 when, aged 39, he was caught in West Indies' crosshairs at Old Trafford.
Fearless, tough and brave - three words that cropped up frequently. But Edrich collected more than bruises. In over 20 summers with Surrey, and on six England tours, he emerged with a magnificent record - 39,790 first-class runs at 45, and 103 hundreds, 12 for England, seven in the Ashes. His unbeaten 310 against New Zealand in 1965 is England's fifth-highest score. "He was one of the greatest run-scorers of my lifetime," said his former county and Test opening partner Micky Stewart. "He scored runs when they were needed."
Edrich was no crowd pleaser and, unlike many left-handers, earned few marks for artistic merit. Early on, he worked out which shots carried little risk, and did not expand his repertoire. When he reached 30,000 first-class runs, Surrey team-mate Robin Jackman - who died two days after Edrich - joked that 28,000 had come through third man. "He had the ideal temperament," said his former England captain Ray Illingworth. "If he played and missed a few times, it did not bother him. He could miss three in a row, then hit the next three for four. He always played the next ball."
Edrich was 5ft 8in, but physically strong, having worked on the family sugar-beet farm in Norfolk. His beefy forearms helped him drive powerfully through the off side, and loft straight sixes; he used the pace of the ball to score behind square. "He had a method," said Keith Fletcher. "Being left-handed helped, but it was a successful method." Fred Titmus rated him the best punisher of the slightly bad ball: "I got fed up conceding eight runs an over after beating him four times in it."
Edrich's maxim was simple: "You can do absolutely nothing about what has gone before - either the previous day, or the ball you have just missed." He came from blue-blooded cricket stock. Cousins Bill, Brian, Eric and Geoff were all first-class players, with Bill a superstar for Middlesex and England. Yet John was determined to go his own way. He knew the family name would be a burden at Middlesex, turning down Bill's offer of an introduction. When he arrived at The Oval in April 1955, he had never seen a first-class game. At Second XI nets, his method was the subject of derision. "Come and look at this bloke," said one first-teamer. "I can't decide whether he's supposed to be a bowler or a wicketkeeper. He's certainly not a batsman." They spent 15 minutes sniggering, until batsman Bernie Constable cut in. "I don't know what you're laughing at: he hasn't missed a ball yet."
Surrey coach Andrew Sandham saw the same qualities. They worked together for hours, disagreeing only when Edrich refused to try a higher backlift. In general, though, the approach was uncomplicated: "Andrew told me it didn't matter how I got my runs, just to get them." And Sandham rammed home one crucial message: "Once I got to 40, I had to go on to get a hundred."
After a summer in the Second XI, he began his national service, and made his first-class debut for Combined Services in 1956. His Championship debut came against Worcestershire in September 1958, when he made an unbeaten 24 in a second-innings total of just 57. Over eight months later, in his second Championship match, Edrich was promoted to open at Trent Bridge: he hit 112 and 124. He soon made it four hundreds in seven innings, and by early July had added three more, before Trueman hit him on the hand with successive deliveries at Bradford, breaking a knuckle. He returned three weeks later, only for Tyson to inflict a similar injury when Northamptonshire visited The Oval in September.
Despite the setbacks, an aggregate of 1,799 first-class runs at 52 marked a first full season Wisden described as "astonishing". He spent part of the winter in plaster, after having a small piece of leg bone grafted on to his knuckle. Yet the selectors proved hard to impress. In 1962, he was the leading run-scorer in the country with 2,482 at 51, but still didn't make the Ashes touring party.
Eventually, he got the call for the First Test of the 1963 series against West Indies, opening with Stewart. On the first morning, they had a visit from selector Walter Robins: "I couldn't sleep for thinking about you poor buggers facing that pace attack." Edrich made just 66 in four innings and was dropped, faring little better when he was recalled for the Fifth Test.
After a tour of India on which he struggled with illness, he achieved his ambition of playing against Australia, in the Second Test at Lord's in 1964. The match was ruined by rain, but Edrich hit 120 in England's only innings. He relished a partnership of 41 with former Norfolk Colts team-mate Peter Parfitt, but didn't excite all the critics. In The Guardian, Denys Rowbotham described his innings as "an assertion of stern character rather than an exercise of effortless resource".
Edrich missed out in the run-gluts of the next two Tests, and was dropped again; nor was he chosen for the tour of South Africa. But he began the 1965 season with a remarkable burst of scoring and, with Geoffrey Boycott and Ted Dexter injured, was recalled for the Third Test against New Zealand at Headingley.
Edrich regarded it as his last chance, and was contemplating retirement. "I knew that to secure a decent standard of living I had to be playing Test cricket and going on tours," he said. He took 25 minutes to get off the mark, but by the close was unbeaten on 194, with Ken Barrington on 152. "Never in my life had I been timing the ball so well," said Edrich. "I never thought I'd get out." Next day, he had moved to 310 off 450 balls with 52 fours and five sixes - "a ruthlessly methodical piece of batting," wrote John Woodcock - when England declared. It was his ninth consecutive 50-plus score, an aggregate of 1,311 at 218. Many thought captain Mike Smith should have allowed him to break Garry Sobers's Test-record 365: "Edrich was robbed", screamed the Daily Mirror.
He was hit on the head by Pollock in the First Test against South Africa at Lord's, but he finished the summer with 2,319 at 62 (including 49 sixes), and was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. Edrich also secured a place in the 1965-66 Ashes squad. He batted at No. 3 to avoid disturbing Boycott's opening partnership with Bob Barber, and enjoyed the bounce of Australian wickets, scoring centuries in the Second and Third Tests, though Wisden was grudging: "Seldom can a batsman have played and missed so often, have so often threatened to get out and yet scored so well in Australia." The selectors seemed to agree. He made just three Test appearances in the next two summers, before being chosen for the 1967-68 tour of the Caribbean, where he scored a century off 340 balls at Bridgetown.
Back in England, against Australia, he enjoyed his best Test summer yet: 554 runs in nine innings, including 164 in the Fifth Test victory at The Oval. He was named Man of the Series. It turned out to be a good tune-up for the 1970-71 series in Australia. Again, he dropped to No. 3, this time to allow Brian Luckhurst to open with Boycott, before scoring centuries at Perth and Adelaide en route to 648 runs at 72. Only Walter Hammond, Alastair Cook, Herbert Sutcliffe, Jack Hobbs and Boycott (on the same tour) have scored more for England in an away Ashes series.
It was a peak he could not scale again. He was 34 that June and, while still prolific at county level, the Test returns dwindled. He took on the Surrey captaincy in 1973, and wrestled with the demands of one-day cricket - though he had been Man of the Match in the historic first ODI at Melbourne in January 1971, after becoming the first to hit a half-century in the format. But he was appointed Mike Denness's vice-captain for the Ashes defence in 1974-75. Lillee broke his hand in the First Test and, by the Fourth, at Sydney, England were in full retreat. Denness stood down, handing the reins to Edrich, who responded with a typically defiant 50 off 177 balls in the first innings. With the urn slipping away, he had to retire in the second after being hit in the ribs by Lillee; despite breathing difficulties, he returned to defy Australia, making 33 not out, and taking England to within 43 balls of a heroic draw. "My ribs hurt when I talk. They hurt when I laugh, and they hurt when I move," he said. "But what really hurts is that we've lost."
Back in England the following summer, he had a measure of revenge with 175 at Lord's. "It was great to see Lillee on his knees after the hammering we'd taken from him a few months earlier," he told the writer Pat Murphy. In his final Test, in 1976, he opened with the 45-year-old Brian Close at Old Trafford, and the pair were subjected to a withering 80-minute assault by Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Wayne Daniel on the Saturday evening. Somehow, they reached stumps at 21 without loss - Edrich even managed two fours while ducking and diving. "Courageous beyond the call of duty," wrote Robin Marlar in The Sunday Times. "Some like steak tartare, but this cricket was too raw for my stomach."
Edrich was disillusioned: "I couldn't see the point in standing out there for hours, waiting to get my head knocked off, and wondering if I'd get a chance to score." In his first season as Surrey captain, he had guided them to second in the Championship. The Benson and Hedges Cup was won in 1974 - with Edrich taking the match award - but the team gradually slipped down the table. "He rarely showed any empathy, and we became accustomed to the sight of him, hands on hips, kicking the turf in disgust when a youngster bowled a half-volley," recalled Alan Butcher. "Playing cricket became a joyless exercise, to the point where the team looked forward to John joining England."
There was a rebellion, but Edrich gatecrashed the conspirators' meeting. Jackman stood his ground, and demanded he resign. Roger Knight returned to take over the captaincy in 1978. The rancorous atmosphere overshadowed the milestone of his 100th century, in July 1977. In sharp contrast to the ballyhoo when Boycott reached the landmark a month later in an Ashes Test at Headingley, Edrich got there at the fag-end of a draw with Derbyshire at The Oval, becoming the 17th batsman - and the third left-hander, after Philip Mead and Frank Woolley - to achieve the feat. He had been stuck on 99 since September 1976, and only made it because the visiting captain, Eddie Barlow, agreed to an extra half-hour. "Eddie said he liked a glass of champers now and again, and he didn't mind staying on the field," Edrich said. His response to the low-key moment was typical. "It's not the 100th hundred that counts, it's the previous 99."
He retired in 1978 with a formidable record; only Hobbs, Tom Hayward and Sandham scored more than his 29,305 runs for Surrey. He became the marketing manager for a bank in Jersey, and later lived in Cape Town. After the death of his son in a car crash, he moved to Aberdeenshire. In 1999, he was diagnosed with a supposedly incurable form of leukaemia, but recovered, he believed, thanks to injections of mistletoe extract.
Edrich's involvement in cricket became sporadic. He played a second season of Minor Counties cricket for Norfolk in 1979, 25 years after his first; he had one summer as a Test selector in 1981, and was briefly England batting coach in the mid-1990s. He was Surrey president in 2006-07, and opened the Edrich Gates at The Oval in 2015. In a poll to mark the club's 175th anniversary in 2020, he was chosen to open the batting in an all-time XI with Hobbs. As Illingworth put it: "I wished I'd had 11 like him in the team."