Cricketer of the Year, 1987

James Whitaker

The fact that John Whitaker, who owns a flourishing chocolate manufacturing business in Yorkshire, is in a position to add & Son to the company name, but not & Sons, is something for which Leicestershire are deeply grateful; and in the years ahead, England may well come to share that sentiment. John's elder son, William, did indeed join the family firm, but young James decided on a career in cricket. As the former is now the company's chief executive, and the latter also moved off the shop floor, so to speak, by way of selection for England's tour to Australia last winter, both have proved impeccable judges of a career.

When Brian Davison left Leicestershire at the end of the 1983 season, withdrawal symptoms were acute in the Grace Road members' enclosure. With the exception of David Gower, Davison was the one batsman who prompted spectators to raise the deckchairs an extra couple of notches as he emerged from the pavilion. Davison did not so much punish a cricket ball as inflict grievous bodily harm upon it. But already in that 1983 season there had been signs that an embryonic Davison was ready to emerge from the Second XI, a precocious, aggressive, 21-year-old with precisely the same uncomplicated approach. A bad ball was a bad ball whether delivered by Malcolm Marshall or Arthur Marshall.

John James Whitaker was born in Skipton, on May 5, 1962, yet cannot be said to have slipped through Yorkshire's net. He learned his cricket at Uppingham School in Leicestershire under the guidance of their coach, Maurice Hallam, the former county opener, who quickly alerted the Grace Road management of the boy's talent. It always seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to go on and play for Leicestershire, said Whitaker. The fact that I was born in Yorkshire did not really come into it. Whitaker, as can be seen, does not get bogged down in theory, and his approach to batting after leaving Uppingham was further conditioned by watching, and batting with, Davison.

There are a number of similarities between the two. Whitaker, like Davison, does not consider a coaching manual to be required bedside reading: to him, marks for content are more valuable in this game than for artistic impression. He may lack a classical style, but his technique is sound and his eye razor sharp. Even the best county bowlers quickly discovered that there was little margin of error against Whitaker's facility to produce punishing strokes of both front and back foot. Again like Davison, he has immensely strong forearms, and one of his most distinctive strokes is a kind of speared drive; with minimal backlift and follow-through, more of a speared forearm jab, really, which brings him 6s anywhere in the arc between cow corner and extra cover.

His maiden century, against Somerset in 1984, was an innings that will linger long in the memory of those who witnessed it. He came in, with Leicestershire 30 for four, to face Ian Botham's hat-trick delivery, drove it through the covers for 4, and less than two hours later was in three figures. Whitaker, unlike Davison this time, is not one who goes in for conversation in the middle, and Botham's verbal joust with him was rather one-sided. As ball after ball came bouncing back from the boundary fence, Whitaker recalled, He said one or two things, like 'hang about, it's Saturday not Sunday you know'; and when I was out, 'I knew the lucky so and so would nick one eventually'. As the eventually consisted of 160 runs, he did consider a parting comment but settled for a wry smile instead.

Whitaker appears to enjoy going in on a hat-trick. The next time it happened, at Old Trafford early last season, he scored another hundred. This time the bowler was Lancashire's Steve O'Shaughnessy, which provided a touch of irony as Whitaker had hitherto been best remembered at Old Trafford for his bowling (8-1-87-0), a motley assortment of right-arm rubbish which, in the last match of 1983, helped O'Shaughnessy to equal P. G. H. Fender's record for the fastest first-class century. Soon after his Old Trafford hundred, Whitaker was awarded his county cap, which was the major goal he had set himself for 1986; a place on the England tour was never in his mind until August, when he found himself being widely tipped in the press. I'd decided, obviously, that I wanted to play for England, but didn't consider myself ready, he said. However, as tour selection drew closer, it became something he set his heart on and was ultimately thoroughly deserved.

Despite giving the impression that his approach to batting is instinctive, rather than meticulous, Whitaker is none the less a planner, and his approach to the 1986 season began as early as the previous October. I decided to take the winter off instead of going abroad, trained more or less every day, and thought about what I wanted to do in the summer. I set myself a target of at least 1,500 runs, and wanted to be fresh and eager come April. The plan worked so well that he won the first two Leicestershire Player of the Month awards, and a magnificent 200 not out, his highest first-class score, against Nottinghamshire at Grace Road at the end of June put him well on course to becoming the first of the season to 1,000 runs. His third 6 took him to 200, and his respective fifties came off 98, 53, 89 and 38 deliveries. You sometimes get a feeling when it's going to be your day, and I had it that lunchtime when I was 30 odd not out.

He did not, one assumes, have that feeling for the next game, against Hampshire. Late on the first day he was struck on the right index finger by Marshall, and an almost identical blow followed next morning. Then Marshall hit him on the other hand, forcing him to retire. X-rays revealed two fractures, and he was grounded for almost five weeks on 911 runs while Worcestershire's Graeme Hick went on to be the first to four figures. However, Whitaker's comeback game, against his native Yorkshire, could scarcely have been more emphatic. In the first innings, after understandably struggling in the early stages, he scored an unbeaten century, emphasising in doing so that he is not one to play for intervals. He hit the last ball of the morning session for 6 and dealt similarly with the third ball after lunch. Then, in the second innings, he led a successful run-chase with an unbeaten 88. His overall performance prompted the comment from the beaten captain, David Baristow, The boy is a 'must' for Australia.

Whitaker did indeed go, albeit by a narrow vote over Northamptonshire's Robert Bailey, and despite his absence he also achieved his target of 1,500 runs. His selection provided much satisfaction for the Leicestershire vice-captain, Peter Willey, who had earlier made himself unavailable for Australia because of long-standing knee trouble. The big thing about James, said Willey, is that he is a batsman who can win you matches because of the rate at which he scores. Leicestershire might be well advised to bear that in mind when planning their future strategy for one-day matches: invariably Whitaker has batted too low down the order. His two John Player League centuries came first when he was promoted to open and then, batting at number three, when Ian Butcher was out to the first ball of the game. He is too good a player to have at number five, where so often there is no time to build an innings.-- M.J.

© John Wisden & Co