Cricket interview

John Morris, Former England, Derbyshire, Durham Batsman

With the current England team struggling to nail down a consistent number three batsman; this month we speak to a former player who was one of county cricket’s finest number 3’s for nearly 15 years. Sadly, this former Derbyshire and Durham player was only to play three Test matches for his country. At a time when our national team was struggling, for many it was a loss to English cricket. The player in question is John Morris.

We’ll come on to the reasons behind John’s non-selection later, but given John amassed over 21,000 first class runs it’d be wrong to focus this piece on a single prank which was hardly a crime of the century.

A late developer, John began his career playing in the North Staffordshire/South Cheshire league for Crewe Cricket Club. Despite being a football mad youngster, he didn’t start playing cricket properly until he was 11 years old. By the time he was 12 he was playing second XI cricket; by 14 he was in the first Xl at Crewe; at 15 he was opening the batting and at 16 he was playing for the league representative side. It was a rapid rise for the youngster who by the age of 17 had been signed by Derbyshire.

“I’d been spotted playing for the North Staffordshire/South Cheshire league side by people from Derbyshire and consequently was asked to go on trial and they signed me for the following year,” said John.

It was wise decision, especially given the transitional period that the county was going through at time. “One of the appeals of Derbyshire was that it was an aging side and I knew there would be an opportunity sooner rather than later. John Wright and Peter Kirsten were the overseas players at the time, but they weren’t going to stay. Mike Hendrick had left straight after their NatWest Trophy final; Bob Taylor, Geoff Miller and David Steele were close to retirement so Derbyshire fitted nicely as I knew there could be an opportunity to break into the 1st Xl.”

He wasn’t wrong. John made his county debut in 1982 against a touring Pakistan side. “The debut didn’t go too well, I scored just 6 before being caught off the bowling of Mudassar Nazar in the first innings and out for 12 in the second innings. I was definitely nervous!”

Not a surprise given the youngster was just 18 years of age. But, despite two low scores it was a terrific learning experience. After all how one not learn when taking the field against the likes of Javed Miandad, Abdul Qadir et al.

What followed was arguably one of the most successful periods of Derbyshire’s history. A new young team developed under the captaincy of Kim Barnett; Lords finals were reache and the Sunday League was won - it was a memorable time.

“From 1988 to 1993 we had an excellent time. We had a team that grew up together and it just felt the right place to play cricket.”

As well as John, they had a formidable new ball bowling attack of Michael Holding and a young Devon Malcolm. “Can you imagine at the time what was going through the opposition’s heads turning up to play us and having to face Michael Holding and Devon - it was fearful.”

The side reached the Benson & Hedges Cup final in 1988, but lost to a strong Hampshire side. “They beat us quite comfortably. Stephen Jeffries an ex South African all-rounder bowled us out cheaply and the game was a non-event after that. But, it was a special occasion for us. At the time, the Benson & Hedges Cup was regarded as the FA Cup of cricket. It was special to us that we got so close to winning it. Two years later we won the Sunday League and that was huge.”

But 1990 was not just a huge year for Derbyshire, it was arguably one of the best year’s of John’s career. His runs at Derbyshire had finally caught the attention of the national selectors and he was called into the England squad for the summer’s internationals against India. A series that was to break many records and be the introduction to international cricket of one of the all-time greats of the game.

“I played really well in 1990, obviously you have to, to get in the team. But, I just came off the back off three successive hundreds in one weekend down at Taunton – a hundred in each innings of the championship game and a hundred in the Sunday League which was sandwiched in the middle. I got back home after the game and received a call from Graham Gooch, inviting me to join the squad at Trent Bridge for the one day internationals against India. I didn’t play in any of the ODI’s but it was brilliant to be involved. During that ODI series Graham Gooch pulled me to one side and told me that I’d be playing in the three Test matches – it was brilliant news to hear.”

John made his debut in the famous Test match at Lords where Graham Gooch scored his incredible 333. “I batted at six and was sat on the balcony for a day and three quarters before I went out to bat! I always thought I was the right man for a crisis as I walked out at 648 for 4! I’m not sure my 4 not out changed the game!”

I asked John what the atmosphere was like in the dressing room as Gooch piled on the runs. “It’s funny in cricket. Superstitions can be quite bizarre. Fortunately for me I didn’t really have any so I was able to enjoy the innings. Personally though, I was nervous at the start of the game, but getting there on that first morning and not having to bat was a big bonus as I could get used to the atmosphere. For the first hour I just looked at the Lords crowd. The Test match was going on but I was absorbed by the crowd and the atmosphere. Thankfully that became less and less the longer we batted. I was also lucky that Devon was in the same team. We were good friends and it definitely helped having a friendly face around in a new dressing room.”

It was an incredible series for John to be involved in. People always recall Gooch’s innings, but as John recalled there were a number of magical moments. “Mohammad Azhaurddin scored some incredible hundreds in that series, which get forgotten. Kapil Dev hit four successive sixes off of Eddie Hemmings at 9 wickets down, to save the follow on at Lords and the series saw Sachin Tendulkar’s first Test century. It was an unbelievable series.”

For John personally, there was perhaps frustration that he wasn’t able to go out and deliver a big score to firmly cement his place. “I had to retire hurt in the second Test match. I remember it went quite dark and we were looking to declare so Robin Smith and I stayed out to try and set up a declaration. Kapil Dev was bowling and Robin Smith whacked one down the ground and it hit me full on the elbow. I never saw it. My arm stiffened up over night and the following morning I just couldn’t hold a bat. Jack Russell came in and scored a 50 – he definitely scored my runs there! In the final Test at the Ova I was moved up the order to number 4, but then Neil Williams came in for his Test debut and he came in to bat as a nightwatchman and scored 50, so again I was left to wait and wait in the dressing room. When I did get out to the middle I nicked one for 7, so I knew I was then under pressure in the second innings. The Oval was always seen as the match where you would secure a winter tour spot. I managed to put on a partnership with David Gower, who scored 170, I got to 32 and I felt I was batting well. I remember getting bounced and hooked the ball for 4 and thought I was in the zone, but then next ball I got caught behind down the leg side. A horrible death!”

John returned to county cricket with Derbyshire and knew he would have to endure a nervous wait to see if his 32 was enough to secure an Ashes tour spot that winter. Thankfully the call did come and he was on the plane down under for his first taste of Ashes cricket.

“The Ashes tour is always the one you want to go on. I was desperately disappointed four years earlier that I didn’t get selected because I played really well in 1986. They took James Whitaker instead. In 1989 I felt I could have gone to the West Indies but they took Rob Bailey and Nasser Hussain. I guess those disappointments made me more determined in 1990. To finally get the call was great.”

Sadly, the tour was a frustrating affair for John and ultimately brought an abrupt end to his international career.

“It was hugely disappointing. We were beaten in the first Test at Brisbane. I didn’t get any significant scores in the warm up games and they brought Alec Stewart in to replace me from the team that finished the summer Tests. Wayne Larkins opened the batting, replacing Goochy who had split his hand open in a warm up game. But I did get selected for the one day side. There was an ODI World Series competition featuring us, Australia and New Zealand with the games scattered throughout the Ashes. I scored 67 not out in the first game which gave me confidence. We should have won that game but we got beat needing 18 off the last over. I was out there with big Dev, so that was never going to be realistic! I was then asked to open after that and I got 30 against New Zealand at the WACA. I remember when we then played Australia next up and Wayne Larkins and I put on 50 for the first wicket – he got 40 of them, hitting Terry Alderman all over the park, leaving me to get bombarded by Carl Rackemann at the other end! I was getting hit everywhere! Goochie returned after that and I was moved back down to number 6 but I didn’t get the consistency back.”

John’s tour and international career then took a huge turn following a first class game prior to the 4th Test of the series.

“I was asked to bat at number 3, my preferred position and scored 132. Then came the Tiger Moth incident.”

For those of you not aware of this event. After John and David Gower were out, they both left the ground and flew a Tiger Moth plane over the ground, with the sole intention of creating bit of laughter amongst team mates and to raise morale for a group of team-mates who had been struggling on tour. It was a decision that effectively ended John’s international career.

“Everyone has had their say on it but I’ve never really been asked. I got out just before lunch for 132 in what was a rain affected match. Robin Smith was 90 not out and David Gower had got out not long after me for not that many. Later on, I was walking down the steps back to the dressing room, when I heard David Gower and Allan Lamb having a conversation in reference to the plane. I asked what he was planning and he said that these planes had been buzzing about, let’s give the lads a bit of fun and a lift. So, I said I’d come and join him. We knew we were batting until tea and that would be it. We flew over the ground and once we landed, we returned to the ground. Graham Morris, a photographer asked us if we would go back in the evening to the airfield to get some photos. I think that was what really annoyed Graham Gooch as David had said he was going for a run. The following day the photos were all over the papers. It wasn’t pleasant from that moment on. I was fined £1,000. Did the crime fit the punishment? No, it was only meant to be a bit of fun but they wanted to make a bigger issue out of it than was necessary. There was friction between Graham and David Gower although David was playing out of his skin; he got one of the best hundreds you’ll ever see at Sydney and another one at Melbourne. He was playing fantastically well. Robin Smith had been struggling and I thought I might get in team after that knock so I was buzzing. I honestly thought it was a fun way to lift morale in a side that had been struggling and not winning games. I honestly believe it was taken out of context by the management. There had been other crimes that had been far worse in that period, with people kicking over stumps in games. It just didn’t feel right. I didn’t get back in the team after that. My series and Test career was over from that moment onwards. I hoped it wasn’t and I was positive enough to think that if I could get back into the runs with my County I could get back into contention, but I never got a mention after that tour.”

John went on score a bucketful of runs in County Cricket. In 1993 he scored 6 hundreds and one double hundred against the likes of Courtney Walsh, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, as Derbyshire went on to win the Benson & Hedges Cup, but his name never got a mention.

“In the winter of 1993 there was a tour to the West Indies. I’d scored all those hundreds against some of the best quick bowlers around and I didn’t get a mention. I realised then that was it for me at international level.”

In need of a fresh challenge, with no carrot of international cricket, John made the move from Derbyshire to Durham.

“I had been at Derbyshire a long time, but things were changing. There had been friction in the dressing room and after the door had been shut for me on England I needed a new challenge.”

Durham, two years earlier had become the 18th first class county in England. Despite finishing bottom of the Championship in their first few seasons, they had lofty ambitions. A new stadium was under development and it was the perfect challenge for John at this stage of his career.

“There were other options open to me. Warwickshire tried hard to sign me, as did Somerset and Hampshire. But, Durham was the perfect fit. It was definitely a struggle in those first few years, especially with the pitches in the North East, but I loved it at Durham and made some great friends up there. When I first joined we were still touring around the County playing at Darlington, Chester Le Street Cricket Club and the University Ground. I loved those out grounds but the new stadium was on its way and that was a big attraction – I wanted to be part of that.”

John had the honour of becoming the first player to score a first class hundred at Chester Le Street and his presence at the club helped lay the foundations for a talented group of youngsters that were emerging in the North East, including the likes of Paul Collingwood and Steve Harmison.

“We had to set a standard that was needed around the club and although we struggled and weren’t a top, top team when I was playing we knew had to help put standards in place that would stick with young cricketers for years to come. David Boon came in as captain and brought some good stuff with him.”

John stayed with Durham for six seasons before moving on to Nottinghamshire in 2000, and retiring in 2001.

It had been a long and successful first class career; over 21,000 first class runs and 52 first class centuries. It’s just such a shame we, as England fans, never got to see the John Morris that members of Derbyshire and Durham saw week in, week out. At a time when England was struggling for a number 3 batsman it seems crazy looking back why John wasn’t given that opportunity and what can be described as a mistake, with the best intentions, had been held against him.

But John is proud of what he did achieve in the game. I asked him when he looks back at his career what his best innings was. “I genuinely can’t answer that! If pushed, I would probably have to say a hundred I got for Durham at Old Trafford. It was a quick, quick wicket and they had Wasim Akram roaring in so that is definitely right up there.”

And the best bowler faced? “Without any shadow of doubt, Malcolm Marshall. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He could bowl quick, he could swing it and he could seam it. His understanding of how to set up a batsman and then get them out was second to none. He was also a bloody good bloke. I always loved the challenge of playing against him as I knew it would be a challenge. I know a lot of players may have been like ‘oh I hope Marshall isn’t fit and not playing today, great’. But I was disappointed if that ever happened. I wanted the challenge of playing against the best players – it was part of the game.”

Graham Gooch is the batsman that John ranks at number one of all those he played with. “Graham Gooch just had this sheer ability for big scores and destructiveness. It’s why his record is up there with the best. I always looked at Gooch as the flagship batsman I played with – and I only played three Test matches with him! Aside from Gooch, I loved watching Viv Richards bat. He was my idol as a batsman. Playing against the likes of him, Joel Garner and Ian Botham was a big thing for me.”

To be honest, John could have a list of 20+ players given the all time greats that were around playing County cricket in that era. “We had a thing in the Derbyshire dressing room that if you weren’t switched on you’d get your head knocked off because wherever you went apart from Yorkshire (who didn’t have overseas players at that time- you had to be born in Yorkshire to play for them) every County had a top overseas batter and a top overseas bowler. It was great to play against Joel Garner, Patrick Patterson, Wasim Akram, Richard Hadlee etc but that list didn’t include the England players who were also playing. County cricket was so strong then. I’d never belittle County cricket now, but in today’s game England players rarely play and with all of the competitions around the world you don’t get the best overseas players playing County cricket.”

It’s a very valid point.

John is now enjoying life after cricket. He runs an events business with former England, Newcastle United, Charlton Athletic, Derby County and West Ham footballer Rob Lee. And as well as this business, he is a Business Development Director of Vin-x, a fine wine investment company.

As England look to fill the problem number 3 position, let’s hope somewhere there’s another John Morris waiting for a chance.

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