Wisden Obituary

John Mortimore

MORTIMORE, JOHN BRIAN, died on February 13, aged 80. There was a pleasing symmetry to John Mortimore's Gloucestershire career which may have appealed to a man who became an accountant. In August 1950, aged 17, he was thrust into a debut against the West Indians at Cheltenham and responded with three wickets, including Clyde Walcott. It ended a quarter of a century later when - again answering an emergency summons - he returned to the College Ground for two last appearances. In his penultimate match, Warwickshire's Phil Oliver became his 1,696th and final victim for Gloucestershire, bringing the curtain down on a career of remarkable longevity, and quiet, undemonstrative achievement.

Mortimore was one of the most consistent off-spinners in England. Tall, angular and with a classical action, he deceived batsmen with flight and artful changes of pace. He did not get extravagant turn - that was left to his fellow Bristolian, David Allen (see above), often operating at the other end - but his armoury included some canny weapons, not least a late outswinger. "He was a sequence bowler," said David Green, a regular opponent for Lancashire who later became a team-mate. "He would bowl three or four overs all designed to make a batsman finally play an unsuitable shot. He could be quite Machiavellian." Mortimore also had the ideal spinner's attitude. "I never saw him lose his temper," said Gloucestershire all-rounder Tony Brown.

Mortimore's statistics confirm his place in the club's history: his wickets tally puts him fifth on their all-time list, and his 594 first-class appearances are bettered only by Charlie Parker; he took 1,696 wickets and scored 14,918 runs. He was captain for three years in the mid-1960s, but his habitual reserve was not ideal for the role. Even so, there was discipline: any miscreant invited for a morning stroll round the boundary knew he was in for a stern rebuke. In November 1958 Mortimore was summoned to join England's ageing Ashes squad in Australia. His call-up led to a much-repeated joke about a deaf old buffer on hearing the news: "Forty more? Is it as bad as that?" He made an unexpected debut in the Fifth Test at the MCG, and played in the two Tests in New Zealand that followed. But he took just three wickets - a template for an unsuccessful international career. Some said his lack of turn on good wickets was held against him; just as pertinently, he was competing against Allen, Ray Illingworth and Fred Titmus.

In his early days Mortimore had the advantage of watching Tom Goddard, then nearing the end of a career that had begun in the early 1920s, but after national service he became Gloucestershire's main spinner. For a time he was accompanied by Bomber Wells and, when Allen emerged later in the decade, the club had three top-class off-spinners, as well as the left-arm wiles of Sam Cook.

When Wells joined Nottinghamshire in 1960, Mortimore and Allen became unchallenged as Gloucestershire's spin twins. It was a partnership that worked because of their contrasting styles, firm friendship and equal absence of ego. Inevitably there were comparisons, and many county batsmen preferred to take their chances against Allen. "Tom Graveney, for one, certainly thought Morty was the better bowler," said Green.

A lack of batting depth and weakness in pace bowling meant these were mixed times for Gloucestershire. There was a smattering of top-six finishes, and second places in 1959 and 1969, but also three wooden spoons - the second in 1967, Mortimore's final year as captain. He did the double of 100 wickets and 1,000 runs three times, and took his batting seriously. "He was very good at hitting back over the bowler's head," said Brown, "but if the game needed to be saved he could do that as well."

Under M. J. K. Smith's captaincy, Mortimore was selected for the 1963-64 tour of India, and in the Fifth Test at Kanpur delivered a masterclass in frugality, sending down 48 overs for 39 runs in the first innings. In the 1964 Ashes, he was called up for the Fourth Test at Old Trafford, but his England career ended after 49 wicketless overs, as Australia - led by Bobby Simpson's 311 - ground out 656 for eight. In nine Tests, Mortimore took 13 wickets at 56, small reward for his talent. The arrival of Mike Procter in 1968 meant Gloucestershire were not to be taken lightly in one-day cricket. In 1971 they reached the Gillette Cup semi-final, but were beaten at a near-hysterical Old Trafford, where David Hughes pierced the gloaming to hit Mortimore for 24 in the 56th over. This was harsh on Mortimore, who had put Gloucestershire in a winning position with the wickets of Clive Lloyd, Farokh Engineer and Jack Simmons.

Redemption came two years later in the same competition, when Gloucestershire defeated Sussex at Lord's, with Mortimore bowling his 12 overs in one spell for 32. He was already taking his accountancy exams by now, and retired at the end of an unsuccessful 1974 season, only to be lured back for those Cheltenham curtain calls. The knowledge acquired over 26 summers was not completely lost to cricket. "When I was secretary he would always come back and look at any young spinners in the nets and offer good advice," said Brown. "He was very good at talking about spin bowling."

© John Wisden & Co.