Record breaker retires, 1976

John Murray, M B E — champion keeper

J M Brearley

After twenty-five years at Lord's. John Murray, Middlesex and England wicket-keeper has retired. During last summer he surpassed Herbert Strudwick's world record of 1,493 dismissals behind the stumps. Murray's victims number 1,527, including 1,270 catches, also a record.

Retiring gracefully, in any walk of life, requires strength. One regrets past shortcomings, one knows now but cannot do, bitterness, often as a defence against recognition of loss, may poison the withdrawal. For a cricketer, retiring can have additional worries, for unlike the footballer he is often considered too old for a new career, but unlike the bank manager too young for paddling with trousers rolled.

John Murray retired, as he played, with grace, warmth, and a great sense of timing. There could hardly have been a nicer crowning of a splendid career than for his last match to be the Gillette Cup Final at Lord's, followed a few months later by recognition in the New Year's Honours List as an M. B. E. He is not at all bitter about retiring; he is, rather, proud to have achieved so much, and touched by the response of friends and supporters.

He has worked hard over the last few years towards a second career. He joined D. H. Robins' company, and continues to work for the same concern. The connection with Derrick Robins led also to a wider range of cricket activity and interest. John has managed and captained his sides in England, and has been an important figure on the overseas tours. These occasions brought out some of the best in him -- his ability to organize and handle people, his charm and good company, not to mention many masterful performances on the field. He was also influential in decisions as to which of our younger players deserved opportunities to prove themselves in a wider sphere.

John has always been an entertainer, a man for the occasion. He has often saved his best county performances for Surrey and Yorkshire (three of his nine championship centuries were against Yorkshire). He was less likely to sparkle on a damp Thursday at Ashby-de-la-Zouch. His whole game, especially his 'keeping, gave an impression of assurance such that when I first really noticed him, probably in 1961 when I had my county début as his substitute during a Test match, I felt he was virtually inimitable. I could derive none of the reassurance that seeing, say, Ken Barrington bat gave me during that same season, the sense of a shared frailty. Barrington seemed always to have to try and often to struggle; Murray seemed not to need to.

The impression was, of course, immature and partial. J. T. like everyone else, had to try. He says himself that he quite often had to turn on a performance when the body was unwilling and the mind bored; that his style was something he could put to use as a professional when initially his heart was not in it. I do not mean that he merely went through the motions. We whistle to raise our spirits. There is a respectable, anti-Stanislavski, theory of acting which says that the actor should let feeling follow bodily movement and gesture, rather than the other way round.

J. T.'s heart was often not fully in his batting. He agrees that he never worked at it as he would have done if it had not been his second string. And it is unlikely that anyone could be both a front-line batsman and a wicket-keeper over a long period in county cricket without losing something of his zest for and concentration in the latter job. At his best he was a wonderful batsman, especially against very fast bowling (he was a fine hooker), and against spin (he used his feet and hit beautifully over the top). For a man with such talent he was too often bowled, both through the gate and by just missing a straight ball. He was less likely to succeed against bowlers he regarded as blatantly second-rate.

He was exceptionally elegant both as 'keeper and batsman, his movements relaxed and flowing. He stresses the importance of rhythm and balance; of his contemporaries as 'keepers he most admires Wally Grout, who was never on the ground except when actually taking a catch. John's own mannerisms, the tips of the gloves touched together, the peak of the cap touched, helped to give him the feeling of relaxed rhythm that came across so characteristically.

He was not completely confident of his own ability until 1961 and his first series for England. He had had, after all, very little wicket-keeping experience by the time he became a regular county player in 1956. He never worried about standing back; he never needed to, he was superlatively agile and reliable. He regards the real test to be one's ability standing up. Here we must mention Fred Titmus. Fred is not easy to keep wicket to. For one thing, he bowls very straight; for another he only really spins some deliveries. And Lord's is, in my limited experience of keeping there, a harder pitch to stand up on than most because the bounce is so unreliable. They helped each other enormously, but I should say that the debt Fred owes J. T. is the greater, since he so often could feel what sort of pace Fred should bowl at, or what line, and so on.

During his later years (I cannot speak of the earlier part of his career) his 'keeping could, I think, be criticised in two ways. I felt that he sometimes stood a little deep, though on pitches with variable bounce the right place is hard to gauge. Secondly, when standing up, he tended to take the ball on the leg side with his feet a long way from the stumps, so that the batsman had more time to get back. However, it may well be that overall his results were better his way, in that although a few near-chances did not become chances, less was on the whole missed.

My clearest image of John's'keeping is of the way he catches the ball. There could be no better model--fingers down, hands relaxed, and a long easy give to one side or other of his body.

His achievements, as the statistics show, were very great. His world-record can probably be bettered only by Alan Knott, if at all. He had a remarkable career spanning nearly the third quarter of this century, since 1950 when, at the age of 15, John came on the M.C.C. staff. He had learned the game, before that, at the Rugby Boys' Club, in Kensington. There were virtually no facilities at school, but the Boys' Club, for whom his father had also played, had a good ground and gave him the opportunity for competitive cricket, football, and boxing. J. T. was also, in those days, a footballer -- he was offered terms by Brentford in 1952 -- and a boxer -- the boys' champion of Kensington.

He decided early to concentrate on cricket. He also started to keep wicket. As often happens, the beginning was fortuitous; the regular' keeper broke a finger during the game, and John stepped in. From 1953 to 1955 he played for a strong RAF team. He took over from Leslie Compton at the end of 1955, won his cap the next year, and has been for 20 years an automatic choice for Middlesex.

The rest of his career is well-known. He went on all the major tours, except to West Indies, and to Australia twice. He played 21 times for England; I was surprised it was not more. In my memory, he was as much the England wicket-keeper of the 60's as Knott is of the 70's.

I asked John about his disappointments in cricket. Our conversation took place last May; the one thing he mentioned was that Middlesex had never won anything during his career. Since then, we did at least appear in the two finals in 1975, which gave John exceptional satisfaction, and towards which he contributed greatly, both by his own performance and by his help and advice to me and others.

The best Middlesex sides he played for were, he thinks, those of the late 50's, and early 60's, though he admits that one tends to bring together in memory people who did not in fact overlap. We have always, however, lacked one or two top-class bowlers to support Titmus and, at different times, Warr, Moss, and Price.

I imagine, too, though I have never heard him talk about the subject, that he must have been disappointed not to have been appointed captain of Middlesex. He was vice-captain for five years, under both Titmus and Parfitt, so that he did, of course, captain the side when they were away. He always did the job with flair and character. He liked to attack; I remember once that we had eight people round the bat on a placid pitch when M. J. K. Smith came in to bat; and the ruse worked; Smith padded up to Price and was lbw for 0. He was also fairly conventional in his ideas about tactics and field-settings. He had very strong views about the right way to play the game, which included looking to get on top whether batting or fielding, total honesty, and unquestioning acceptance of a decision. It is a tantalizing question whether J. T. might not have been an outstanding county captain as well as everything else. I believe he ought to have had the chance to do so.

He believes that standards of cricket have declined overall, and connects this with the lessening of discipline in cricket and outside. I think that by discipline he sometimes means hardship and knowing one's place. When he first came to Lord's, his place was clear, and very low in the hierarchy. He never resented the fact that he had to sweep the stands, that he had only one session a week reserved for net practice, or that he was not allowed in the pavilion unless he was playing in the game. But the ambition was clearer and stronger; he could see exactly what he wanted to achieve and what he wanted to get away from. Today, he thinks, it is perhaps too easy for young cricketers, and too many of them think they know too much.

At the same time, J. T. was always aware of the limited rights a cricketer had in the face of arbitrary or whimsical decisions by administrators, and of his limited say in the running of the game. He was one of those responsible for the launching of the Cricketers' Association, and was for many years its Treasurer.

John Murray has always thoroughly enjoyed being alive and playing cricket. At a lunch early last season, he said to the younger Middlesex players "Play properly and enjoy yourselves." He did both for 25 years. He will be very much missed.

J. T. Murray

Compiled by Stanley Conder


SeasonMatchesInns.Not OutsRunsHighest Inns.100'sAv.CatchesStumps.
In England
In Australia
In South Africa
1972-73 (D. H. Robins' XI)58124564035.00140
1973-74 (D. H. Robins' XI)45014659029.2090

© John Wisden & Co