Cricket interview

John Lever, former England and Essex swing bowler

Having been outshone by a number of left arm bowlers in recent series, we thought this month we’d speak to one of the finest left arm seamers to have pulled on the Three Lions. A bowler who took over 1,700 first class wickets in a career that brought 21 Test appearances, 22 one-day internationals, 4 county championships, 3 Sunday League titles, a NatWest Trophy and a B&H Cup. Welcome John Lever.

We caught up with John, just a few weeks after the latest Ashes series finished in a comprehensive win for the home side and with people questioning the depth of our fast bowling it seemed an appropriate place to start. Are our bowling stocks really so low? “Let’s be honest we got blown away by three of the quickest bowlers around at the moment. I watched it and just thought we had no answer to that. To be successful you need to have that fast pace, especially on flat pitches, but you also need your ‘technical’ bowlers. We have the bowlers in England. We just have to encourage our quick bowlers with the pitches we prepare. Mark Wood has that x-factor and I honestly believe Steven Finn can come good again. But we have to encourage them. They need to be playing on pitches which encourages the ball to really hit the gloves of the wicket-keeper.” Wise words.

John was the one of the finest swing bowlers to play for England. Sadly, for various reasons (form, nerves, poor selection decisions, and of course a rebel tour to South Africa) he only played in 21 Tests – it should have been so many more.

But, let’s start at the beginning. John Lever the schoolkid.

“When I look back, I was very lucky to have a headmaster at my junior school, who was very keen on cricket. Every lunchtime in the summer I was bowling at stumps in the playground and it totally fired my interest in cricket. It was great bowling in front a crowd of kids!”

John’s love, passion and talent saw him develop quickly and by his early teens he was invited to the Ilford Indoor cricket school. A cricket school that has been a breeding ground over the years for many Essex cricketers.

“A gentleman called Bill Morris took me under his wing and thought I could bowl. He really pushed me forward. I was invited to bowl at Essex pro’s on a Tuesday evening which really helped my development to be able to bowl at second eleven players at such a young age. It was special.”

With no contract on the table from Essex, Middlesex were keen to offer John a professional contract, but in those days a county had to gain permission from the county the youngster was born in before they could sign him. Middlesex’s approach pushed Essex into offering the young seam bowler a contract. He never looked back.

“There wasn’t any money at Essex at the time. As a result, they used to use a few good local club cricketers in their squad to make up the numbers. In those days we were playing 24 or 25 games of cricket, so a big squad was important. I was also fortunate that in my first year, I knew it was going to be Trevor Bailey’s last year and Barry Knight had decided to move to Leicestershire so there was space on the staff at Essex for a seamer. K.D. Boyce also joined at the same time, as an overseas quick bowler from Barbados, and it was the start of a new young side at Essex.”

While it took a number of years before the first trophy was secured, the foundations were being laid for a period of sustained success. “We were a young side that were always happy to learn. We were the best fielding side in the country and we were a team that really embraced the one day game. Off the field we were also very disciplined. We stayed on the rails and it allowed Brian Taylor and Keith Fletcher to grow and flourish as captains. They turned us into a winning outfit.”

To say that the Essex side of the late 70s and early 80s were like the Manchester United of the 1990s and 2000s was not far off the mark. The Benson & Hedges was won in 1979 – Essex’s first silverware in over a hundred years, and this was quickly followed by County Championship wins in 1979, 1983, 1984 and 1986, the Sunday League in 1981, 1984 and 1985 and the NatWest Trophy in 1985 – 9 trophies in 7 years. A phenomenal achievement.

“To be honest we were knocking on the door from 1975 onwards. We were getting to semi-finals and quarter-finals and we were creeping up the county championship every season, but everything snowballed after we beat Surrey in the final of the Benson & Hedges Cup at Lords. We hadn’t won anything for so long, but we got over the line in that final and then the floodgates opened. We suddenly had a self-belief that we knew would win when we took to the field. Later that year we won the championship with a month to go, we were that far in front. It was a nice feeling. We all knew each other’s games. Whoever ran up to bowl we had belief they would take a wicket. None of us wanted to play anywhere else. Essex was such a friendly club, the players, committee and supporters all played their part in that successful period.”

John success at Essex brought its reward, internationally, in 1976, when he was selected for England’s winter tour of India.

“It was fantastic to get a call up. Its everyone’s dream to play for their country. I was fortunate on that first tour that I knew most of the squad. I was very close to Geoff Miler and having Fletch on the trip really helped. I also think it’s easier to make your debut away from home; away from the scrutiny that you can get at home with the media. To be honest the realisation that I was playing for England didn’t really sink in until after we had won that first Test match and I received the press cuttings from back home saying how well I had done.”

To say John had done ‘well’ was a bit of an understatement. His debut Test saw him make, what was at the time, the best debut figures (10-70, including a 7-46) by any bowler to play for England, not to mention a first innings half century with the bat!

“It was fantastic to win in India, because winning out there is hard, and it was obviously nice to take all of those wickets. What made it special for me was that four of the wickets were LBW’s, which with local umpires at the time was unheard of.”

It was a proud record that stood for nearly twenty years until Dominic Cork bettered it against the West Indies.

“It was funny because we always used Duke balls in India. But in the warm up games, the Indian board were trying these new cricket balls, which were swinging around corners, so our team manager Kenny Barrington approached the Indian board and said how we’d be happy to use the Indian balls in the Test series and that we were impressed with the quality and it was important to give them a chance. This made the Indian board happy, not realising that we were only happy because of the amount of swing they generated!”

England won the series convincingly, and it had been a dream debut series for John. But controversy followed. John and the team were accused of doctoring the ball with Vaseline. “I was gutted. I worked so hard on that tour and for people to say I cheated to take those wickets really hurt.”

With the heat in Madras at ridiculous temperatures, a number of England’s players applied Vaseline above their eyes to stop sweat going into them. “It was an old trick which footballers used to do but we never rubbed Vaseline into ball.”

Once the allegations came to light the authorities took the match balls away for independent testing. The results proved nothing was untoward. There was the usual sweat, saliva and sunscreen but no traces of Vaseline whatsoever.

“I felt vindicated, but some people still said I cheated, which was the downside of that tour for me.”

Following that tour, England headed to Australia for the centenary Test match at the MCG. “I thought I was going to get a lot of stick from the Australian crowd while I was fielding on the boundary, but I didn’t receive any at all.”

John took four wickets in that centenary Test match, a one-off Test that the Aussies won by 45 runs. “I was never one for sitting in the opposition dressing room, but that Test match gave me the opportunity to meet Dennis Lillee. I was determined to go and meet one of my heroes after the game. He was such a great competitor and had the best bowling action of any bowler that I have seen. He just had such a superb attitude.”

John went on to play 20 Test matches for his country before taking the difficult decision to go on a rebel tour to South Africa.

“I wish I had played more Test matches for England but there were a lot of quality seamers around at that time. There was Bob Willis and not long after my debut Ian Botham hit the scene. Then there was Chris Old, Mike Hendrick and me fighting for one place. I kind of missed out playing Test matches at home but would get selected for the overseas trips. I think it was because I was consistent on overseas pitches. I was happy to bowl the long spells and didn’t really ever break down. I could be relied upon. I was desperate to play more Test matches at home, it just wasn’t to be. I’m not sure why, however I’ll admit I did get nervous at home and felt the pressure a lot more than when I played away.”

So, with a passion for Test match cricket, why did he take the decision to go to South Africa? “I had just come back from the worst series I’d played in, in India. They went 1-0 up in that series and from then on, the pitches were the flattest pitches I’d ever seen. Add to that they were bowling their spinners at 12 overs an hour, and we matched that. It was boring. Absolutely boring cricket. I came to the end of that series and I felt blunted as a bowler. Nothing carried through to the keeper it was just awful cricket and I wasn’t enjoying it. The main reason I played cricket until I was nearly 40 was because I enjoyed it. But this period was horrible. Keith Fletcher was removed as captain and I wasn’t sure it was an environment that I wanted to be involved in. Then somebody said that there was a trip happening to South Africa with a few pound in it and if I fancied going. I said yes straight away. I thought there might be a bit of come-back, but no way did I think I would be banned for 3 years. I thought that was way over the top, but anything around apartheid at that time brought a knee jerk reaction from the administrators. When we arrived in South Africa there were no cricket writers, it was all the news teams of the mainstream media. We voted Graham Gooch in as our captain. The interesting thing for me was there were two big advertising boards in the ground, one was a well-known UK bank and the other a well-known UK petroleum company. So, it seemed a bit wrong that this team of cricketers were being punished when it was ok for big UK companies to carry on doing their business out there with no issues.”

While John admits money was a factor in the tour, there was also a sense among the players that South Africa needed these tours to help with the development of cricket and to overcome apartheid. “They were trying very hard in the cricket to be multi-racial. Bacher was desperate to get South Africa back competing internationally and saw these games as part of their way back. The rest of the world I’m sure didn’t see it that way. But after we got back a West Indian side went out, followed by a Sri Lankan side and an Australian side.”

The squad lost the series. “They were really hard games. Some of the hardest games that I played in. They had some fabulous players. Richards, Pollock, Rice, Kirsten, Jennings. It was hard fought stuff.”

Following that tour John and other members of the squad spent the winter months while banned from playing for England, playing again in South Africa. “I went to Natal with Les Taylor where we played with Richards, Proctor and Chris and Robin Smith. Robin and I got close after that. He was a top bloke and an extremely dedicated cricketer. Goochy went to Western Province and Wayne Larkins to Eastern Province.”

I asked John if looking back he regretted the decision to go?

“Honestly? No. I never sat down and thought I shouldn’t have gone. There were times as I was taking 100 wickets each year with Essex that I thought if I hadn’t been banned, perhaps I would have played more Test matches. But I wasn’t enjoying my cricket. I can’t tell you just how deflated I was after that India series and when I made that decision about South Africa. I think it also helped me during that period that Essex were winning. It filled the void. All of the games we played meant something and had to be won.”

A 21st Test cap did eventually follow though; in 1986 John was recalled for a Test match against India at Headingley. “I was very proud to win another cap, but I probably didn’t do myself justice. Headingley is a hard place to bowl. People talk about the overhead conditions but there is a horrible slope which means you are either bowling up or downhill.”

Conditions aside, John did perform well. He took wickets, including Kapil Dev for a golden duck, but it was to be the only appearance of a brief recall. “I think Goochy helped get me back when Gatt was looking for a swing bowler for that match. It was a horse’s for courses selection, really.”

That final appearance at Headingley meant John’s Test career finished with 73 wickets from his 21 Tests at an average of under 27. The impressive thing about John’s international career was his ability to bowl so well in all conditions as a seam bowler. I asked John how easy or difficult he found it, as a swing bowler, to bowl in such different conditions around the world. How much did he have to adapt his game?

“The hardest thing was adapting to the Kookaburra ball. Any bowler should be able to work out what length to bowl after an over or two, but it was never easy with a Kookaburra ball once it stopped swinging. That said I was always impressed with what Glenn McGrath achieved with that ball. It was a lesson to many. He had the ability to nip the ball back and bowled an unbelievable line. But I think if you’re a swing bowler you can perform on all surfaces, in all conditions. I remember not getting picked for the West Indies, because apparently it wouldn’t swing out there. Geoff Arnold went out there instead, swung the ball and got wickets. The only time it doesn’t swing is if you have a wet ball. Otherwise you should be able to swing or get reverse swing.”

John eventually retired from first class cricket in 1989 and he knew his time was up. “My arm had gone so I knew it was time. I made my mind up halfway through that last season. My final game was a one-day game, so I knew what would be my final ball. There was no fairy-tail – I was hit for four!!”

The following year, John was awarded an MBE for his services to cricket. “That was huge and a very proud moment. It came totally out of the blue. But I’d done my share of playing in charity games and it was given to me for my services to cricket. It was fantastic to go to the palace and receive an MBE from her majesty.”

With John’s cricket career over he moved into coaching at Bancroft School. A role he has remained in to this day. “I had a few opportunities once I finished playing. I was offered coaching roles at Northants and Hampshire, but I didn’t want to stay on the circuit. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and the role at the school gave me that opportunity. I also thought it was a cheap way to give my two youngsters a good education at a good school!”

Over the years John did keep some involvement in the county scene. He supported John Emburey at Middlesex and took several sessions with Essex, but the counties always wanted a full-time coach and John’s heart has always been with Bancroft School.

Reflecting on his career I asked John who were some of the most difficult batsmen he bowled to?

“The West Indies boys. Greenidge, Haynes, Richards. They could intimidate bowlers; Graham Gooch was our equivalent. The difficult thing with these batters was you couldn’t give them an inch, or they’d punish you.”

And what about some of the best bowlers he played with or against? “Beefy was up there with Willis. Beefy could bowl quite quickly. He swung the ball and had a great belief in his own ability. Bob was genuinely quick. There was no better sight though for me than seeing Michael Holding run in and bowl. He was in the Lillee mould. You’d pay money to go and watch him bowl.”

And finally, what about the best captain?

“Keith Fletcher. No question. I was always fascinated by his memory and how quickly he could sum up a new player. Within a couple of overs of seeing a new batsman, he had a plan and knew exactly how to get him out.”

John was a fantastic cricketer and it was such a shame he didn’t play more Tests for his country, however his 1,700 first class wickets brought special memories for supporters the world over and for that we say thank you.

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