This month we have the pleasure of speaking to one of the leading off spin bowlers of the 1980s. A bowler who took just shy of 150 Test wickets, including 6 five-wicket hauls – former England and Middlesex spinner John Emburey.
As a Middlesex supporter I’ve heard many ‘Emburey and Edmonds’ stories and one of the surprising things that came up during our conversation was that they only actually played together for England on a dozen or so occasions in Test match cricket. I genuinely thought it was a lot more, just shows how much I really know! More of that later.
It’s fair to say John’s career was an interesting one. The 81 Ashes, two Rebel tours, the England captaincy, those Test match winning bowling spells, and county championships with Middlesex. There’s a lot to cover. And we do!
So, where did this journey start? “Well, I was born and grew up in Peckham,” remarked John. “I played cricket in the street like many children did in those days. There was very little traffic on the roads and we were able to play from one side of the street to the other with a wicket drawn on the wall or we’d put a crate down in the middle of the road and we’d play down the centre of it. If cars came along, they would just drive either side of the crate and you’d move out the way. It’s how it was.”
Can you genuinely imagine that on the streets today?! It’s a pity how the world has changed.
“I used to bowl little medium pacers when I was a kid but what I did do, when we played across the road and you were aiming at the wicket on the wall, was to aim at the curb and try and get the ball to come back to me so the batsman would attempt to play a shot but the ball wouldn’t get there because it hit the curb! In a roundabout way I was sort of coaching myself to bowl consistent lengths from a very early age and I always had this ability to bowl straight.”
John’s street cricket soon evolved into representative cricket, when as a 9 year-old he was selected for South London School’s under 11’s. “I played for them for two years and I still have the cuttings. I took 18 wickets in one season for 30 runs, averaging 1.88. The figures didn’t mean anything to me then but years on when you look back, you think, sh*t, that wasn’t too bad. And all I did was bowl straight.”
It was while was John was schooling at Peckham Manor that his journey into spin bowling began. I was interested to know why he made the switch from bowling medium pace. “I always had very good control when I bowled little seamers and I could bowl very, very straight. We had a school match and I was bowling on a damp wicket, with a bit of moisture in it, and I just cut my fingers across the ball and this ball turned and bounced in and hit the batsman on the gloves. I was fortunate that the teacher that was umpiring at the end I was bowling from was our school master and he said, “Do that again.” The next ball I did it again and exactly the same result. This ball leapt off a length, bounced, turned, hit the guy on the glove again. And he said, “Well if you can do that, I think you should bowl spin because everyone bowls seamers.” That’s how it started.”
How lucky were we that his school master was umpiring!
John’s performances as a spinner saw him gain selection for London Schools and the South of England Schools, where he played alongside the great West Indian Gordon Greenidge. Greenidge was a Reading lad – another thing I learnt, England’s loss there was very much the West Indies’ gain, don’t you think?
Now came the third early learning from our conversation… Everyone knows about John’s career at Middlesex, but did you know he was a Surrey young cricketer?
“Yes, I was a Surrey Young Cricketer while still at school. I remember playing in a Surrey club and ground match against Kingswood. I ended up getting 5 for 17 and winning the game for them. Micky Stewart was there watching and congratulated me on my performance. He said, “Look, if you continue bowling like that we’d consider you coming onto the staff with us.” The following year, 1970, I played for the young cricketers again and went on a Surrey Young Cricketer’s tour to Canada, performing well. Sadly the contract I was hoping to get didn’t come along. Arthur McIntyre was coach of Surrey at the time and suggested that I write to Don Bennett the coach of Middlesex for a trial. He thought there would be more opportunities for me there as Fred Titmus was getting on a bit and there was no other off-spinner coming through. I was Surrey through and through at that time and didn’t write that letter. A month or so later a letter arrived at home. My father opened it as his name was also John. It was from Middlesex County Cricket Club inviting me for a trial. The trial must have gone reasonably well as I was invited to play in some 2nd XI matches. I bowled well against Kent and Hampshire and was offered a contract for the remainder of the season.”
The rest as they say is history.
One other interesting story to note from John’s youth cricket was his first tour overseas representing London Schools on a tour to East Africa in 1969 – a tour that saw the start of his close friendship (they are best friends) with Graham Gooch. “That was an unbelievable tour. We went to Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, just before all the problems started. It was my first time away from home and I must say I was a bit homesick. It was a once in a life-time experience and one that I had never experienced anything like before. It was on this tour where Graham and I cemented our long-term friendship.”
A friendship that is now 50 years strong.
John went on to make his first-class debut for Middlesex in 1973 against Derbyshire. “In the first innings I bowled 29 overs for 59 without taking a wicket. In the second innings I took 3 wickets for 50 runs. Fred Titmus gave a masterclass and took 6 for 40. One of the Sunday papers referred to me as the ‘Embryonic Titmus.” I went on to play two or three more games that year, but It wasn’t until Fred Titmus retired at the end of the 1976 season that I became a regular in the 1st team.”
John’s early years at Middlesex saw the county achieve incredible success. I was keen to know what he thought that success was down to.
“In my opinion there were two key factors that contributed to Middlesex’s success. Firstly Don Bennett. Don had an eye for talent and brought several players to the club in the early seventies that became influential in winning matches. Edmonds, Selvey and myself joined the club in 1971. Butcher and Gomes the next year, followed by Gatting, Ross, Gould and Daniel. Sam Black, Featherstone, Selwood and Graham Barlow were already there. It was the introduction of the Warwick Pool U25 competition in 1972 that set the ball rolling in terms of the club’s future success. It was a 50-over competition which Middlesex went on to win three years in succession. It was a very strong squad complemented by several of the MCC’s Young Cricketer’s. We lost the final in 1975, I’ll not say much because I captained that team, but we did go on to win the 2nd XI Championship. Middlesex also reached two domestic finals in 1975 with a mixture of experienced senior players and the now developing younger players. Sadly, the matches were lost, but it was a start the club were not to look back on. It must be said that Allan Jones (fast bowler) joined us in 1976 which at the time was inspirational. The second was the captaincy and leadership of Mike Brearley. He was comfortably the best tactical captain I played under. This, allied with his excellent man management skills, set him apart from other captains. He encouraged the young players to voice their opinions in meetings, something that would not have happened in earlier years. Young players were previously to be seen, but not heard”.
To put that success into context Middlesex won the Championship in 1976, shared it with Kent in 1977 and in the same year won the Gillette Cup. In 1980 the double of the Championship and Gillette Cup was achieved again. In Mike Brearley’s final year of 1982 another Championship was achieved. There followed 3 more Championships, 2 NatWest Trophies, 2 Benson & Hedges Cups, the Refuge Cup and a Sunday League. All under Mike Gatting’s leadership.
“In 1980 our bowling attack of Wayne Daniel, Mike Selvey, Vintcent van der Bijl, Phillipe Edmonds and myself was the best in the championship. In the wings were Norman Cowans and Simon Hughes who both made significant contributions. We backed ourselves to bowl the opposition out for fewer runs than we scored ourselves. Mike Brearley’s positivity in always going for the win drip fed into the team, at the same time giving us belief in ourselves. He was very influential in the way that he got young players to think about the game. He instilled into players that you don’t win championships, or win matches by sitting in the dressing room wanting it to rain. You have to get out there and play, and the more time you spent in the field, the more time you spent actually bossing the game.”
I asked John if his partnership with Phil Edmonds helped his bowling develop quicker.
“Without doubt. We competed for an England place. Nothing is more competitive than that. We both wanted to take wickets, score runs and take catches, so each of us strived to do better than the other. This competition helped us, but also benefited the team in terms of our contribution. We were competitive, but not in a nasty way. Middlesex more often than not played two spinners on all pitch surfaces. It wasn’t until the early ‘80s that we started to become more particular on certain pitches about playing two spinners. This manifested itself in early season matches at Lord’s when pitches were a bit green. Invariably Phillipe would be the one to be left out. I was in awe of him as a bowler. He had a bowling action to die for. It was a strong action, generating good pace, flight, dip and at times wicked spin which I was always jealous of. I felt embarrassed that I played ahead of him. Perhaps it was for other reasons that I played in the side and not him. I don’t know why, but in some ways it affected his relationship with Mike Brearley which at the best of times was turbulent. There is no doubt that Phillippe should have played in more Tests than he did when Mike Brearley was captain of England. Though we both played for Middlesex and had success, Brears favoured Geoff Miller.”
One interesting note here about John and Phil was that despite playing a lot together for Middlesex, they didn’t actually play that often together for England. “The perception is we did. At most a dozen times and those were generally against Australia.”
So on to England… John’s early success at Middlesex saw him selected for his international debut against New Zealand in 1978. “Mike Brearley took over as England captain in 1977. That season I took 85 wickets at 18 or 19 runs per wicket including 5 wickets in an innings 9 times. Mike had said mid-season that if I continued to put in the performances there was a possibility of going away that winter with England. I did continue to perform but was not selected. The selectors opted for Geoff Cope whose bowling action was contentious. That gave me a lot of encouragement regarding international cricket. Kerry Packer (World Series Cricket) signed Derek Underwood and Tony Greig to join his series, which left the likes of Pat Pocock, Phil Edmonds, Geoff Miller and myself competing for a place. My opportunity came in 1978.”
John took 2/39 from 26 overs in the first innings of that debut and only needed to bowl 3 overs in the second innings as England wrapped up a comfortable 7 wicket victory. “It certainly helped that my debut was at Lords. I got a couple of wickets in the 1st innings of the match. Phillippe taking a catch at backward short leg to dismiss Bruce Edgar off the 4th ball I bowled. I took 2 for 40 in total. I was happy with that as there was little bowling to do in the second innings. Ian Botham made sure of that. It was the last match of the series and it was enough to get me selected for the Tour of Australia in 1978.”
I asked John what it was like during that period as a spinner, in terms of having to bowl on uncovered pitches?
“I definitely benefited from learning how to bowl due to uncovered pitches. The pitches varied immensely. Every surface was different, whether green, hard and bouncy, soft, wet, drying or just flat. Batsman had to make sure they cashed in on the pitches that were flat. You had to have good control. What you learnt most was what pace to bowl. Mostly it taught you how to bowl maidens. That doesn’t mean bowling flat. When the pitches became covered they became more docile and the batsmen took advantage. All the skills learnt bowling on uncovered pitches prepared us for that. There is no doubt that bowling spin is becoming more difficult due to the different formats of the game and to the aggressive nature of batsmen. This no doubt due to strength and conditioning coaches, bigger and better bats and smaller boundaries. Having said that, there is a great opportunity for any budding spin bowlers.”
Following that New Zealand Test, John got his first taste of Ashes cricket in 1977/78 when he played in four of the six Tests, taking 16 wickets as England beat a depleted Australian side 5-1. “It was an unbelievable experience. As a child you dreamt of playing Australia in Australia. To achieve that and being in a winning team was absolutely brilliant. They were weakened because they lost 95% of their players to Kerry Packer, whereas we had lost only a small percentage of ours (Knott, Underwood, Greig, Amiss and Snow), but it gave players like me an opportunity to play and come through. Without Packer I would have been competing against Derek Underwood and that was always going to be difficult. But without him you felt you had a chance.”
John joined the tour of Australia in 1979/80 when England and Australia competed in a three-match series without the Ashes at stake. “I didn’t get selected for the tour as I had a miserable 1979 season, but was on standby. I made arrangements to go out to Australia anyway to play club cricket. Geoff Miller due to an ongoing back problem had to go home early. I got a call on Boxing Day to join up with the team in Brisbane to play against Queensland in preparation for the Sydney Test Match, how the England management got my number I don’t know. I was in a little village called Metung, 200 miles east of Melbourne.” Australia meanwhile had all of their players back who they’d lost to Kerry Packer.
“I got some runs and took wickets in that warm-up game against Queensland and would have expected to play in the Sydney Test. Unfortunately, that opportunity was out of my hands. Two days prior to the game the groundsman left the covers off the pitch. There was an overnight storm and the pitch was saturated. It was still very wet on the morning of the game so I ended up getting left out.” England ended up losing that series 3-0.
“After those Tests we went on to India for the Jubilee Test match. I played in that one and remember Ian (Botham) getting himself absolutely paralytic every night, didn’t get to bed until 3 o’clock, whereas I was going to bed at 9:30pm/10pm every night. Ian ended up with something like 13 wickets in the match and scored a hundred! I didn’t even get to bowl and scored 7 runs!!! He was just phenomenal.”
John may not have had any impact during that winter, but he certainly did in the summer of 1981, in the Ashes series that everyone remembers.
“I was 12th man at Trent Bridge, and played in the 2nd Test at Lord’s.”
The first question had to be what was Headingley like in the dressing room as the drama unfolded?
“Headingley was the 3rd Test and once again I was 12th man. I was only there for the first two days as I was released back to Middlesex. Australia batted first, I remember Peter Willey bowling an over just before lunch and he got a couple to spin quite sharply. When the boys came off at lunch Mike Brearley came up to me and said, “Did you see the ball spin?” I said “Yes.” I think that he felt that he might have made a mistake, saying perhaps we should have played me as the ball was spinning, but I think the person that would have been left out if I did play would have been Bob Willis, and well, we know what Bob did in that Test! I don’t think I would have done that, so I think selection was pretty much right! I left and didn’t see the last three days of that game. I just watched it on TV and saw some highlights. It was incredible and I would have loved to have been there at the finish. I played in the following Test at Edgbaston and thought I played a major role in that game. It was a low scoring affair and again was going to be very tense. I took four wickets in the first innings and two in the second. Along the way I scored an important 39 not out in our second innings to set the Australians 149 to win. The Australians got off to a poor start, but Yallop and Border steadied the ship and put Australia on course for a win. Mike Brearley juggled his bowlers trying to find the right combination to make the breakthrough. He asked Ian to bowl who replied that he felt Chris Old should. That soon changed though. I bowled a ball that turned and bounced from nowhere, it took Border’s glove and Mike Gatting at short leg took the catch. In my following over I had Graham Yallop caught at silly mid-off by Ian Botham. Ian suggested to Brearley that it might be the right time for him to bowl. How right he was. He ran in bowling the ball hard into the pitch. He managed to get a little bit of reverse swing but it was the low bounce that did for the remaining batsmen. That mini spell brought him a haul of 5 wickets for 1 run. Incredible. And I thought I had a chance of man of the match which didn’t happen too often. Ian was certainly on a run.”
I asked John what the euphoria was like around the country during that series? “It was crazy. At the grounds it was fantastic and particularly at Edgbaston. You always get more support at Edgbaston than anywhere else. On the Sunday of the Test in ’81 the ground was absolutely rammed, and they were really up for it when the Aussie wickets were going down. It was just a fantastic atmosphere to play in and be part of. And then Old Trafford was very similar. I don’t think I played in match situations as great as they were in ’81.”
Following that Ashes series, England headed to India for a three-match tour and a one-off Test in Sri Lanka. It was to become a winter that led to John having to make a very difficult decision, whether to go on the rebel tour to South Africa.
I asked John if at the time of making that decision he and the other players were aware what they would be sacrificing in terms of a ban – players were banned for 3 years from international cricket; he and the team didn’t.
Following that ban, John was re-selected straight back into the side for the 1985 Ashes series in England. “I didn’t play in the one-day side, Phil Edmonds did, which was surprising as I was probably regarded as a better one-day bowler than Phillippe and Phillippe probably a better longer-form bowler than I was.”
But despite Phil Edmonds performing strongly in the winter series in India, it was John that was recalled for the 1st Test at Headingley and was immediately in the wickets. “I took 5 wickets in the first innings which was great as it was unusual to do that at Headingley. But that took a lot of pressure off in terms of justifying my re-selection.”
And justify it he did, taking a total of 19 wickets during the series as England once again lifted the Ashes.
It was a period of dominance for England over the Aussies. In 1986 the side headed down under and came home triumphant after that famous 2-1 series win.
“Gatt was captain for that series and I was vice-captain. The tour got off to a bad start and we struggled in the warm-up games. The journalist Martin Johnson famously wrote an article in the Independent where he said the team couldn’t bat, couldn’t bowl and couldn’t field. We then went to Brisbane for the first Test match and ended up winning our first game of the tour.”
I asked John what he thought made the difference in that Test to turn things around so spectacularly?
“Due to the criticism of our performances the team developed a siege mentality, mostly orchestrated by senior players of which I was one, but I didn’t take part in those antics. In my opinion it was very juvenile. Having said that it was pleasing to win and get the detractors off our backs. Perhaps we were a little bit blasé and lackadaisical in our approach to those warm-up games. But they were just that, warm up matches. Games to try and get some form ahead of the Test matches. Once we got into the Test match everything changed. Players were more intense and up for the challenge. This culminated in important contributions from several players throughout the game. It was now Australia under pressure. We headed to Perth for the 2nd Test buoyant. Broad, Gower and Jack Richards scored 100’s on a good hard bouncy wicket, but it was the wicket in the end that won. We headed to Adelaide still 1 up in the series. Unfortunately, rain interfered in what could have been a very interesting last day’s cricket. Towards the end of the 4th day Australia declared leaving us to score 245. I remember we lost 2 wickets for 35 that evening. Then it rained all day on the final day. Everyone looked forward to Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test; families had joined us and the mood was lightened. On match day I remember the weather was hot and everyone was in good spirits. It was a tough game with England edging ahead each day. Australia’s last wicket fell mid-afternoon on the 5th day when Merv Hughes hit Edmonds to deep square leg. Gladstone Small comfortably taking the catch. The series was won and the partying began, it must be said not for the first time on tour. We fielded and caught brilliantly throughout the tour and that was one of the key elements to our success. Elton John joined the dressing room celebrations and later joined us in a big party at the hotel. He didn’t like our music and sent his driver back to his hotel to fetch his. He then obliged us as DJ. A great man. We lost the 5th Test in Sydney, but the celebrations continued. In between all of that, we won the Perth Challenge in celebration of the America’s Cup which was taking place in Freemantle. Australia, England, Pakistan and the West Indies participated. A fiercely contested tournament which we came through to win. The World Series matches between Australia, us and the West Indies followed the Test series. Again, we won. What started out as a calamitous start to the tour finished with us making a clean sweep of all the competitions.”
So did Martin Johnson apologise?! “No, he continued to take the piss as he always did!”
Despite regular success over the Australians, the West Indians were a harder nut to crack in the 80s. Just how good a side were they? “Throughout the 80s their bowling didn’t really change too much. You had Holding, Roberts, Garner, Croft and Marshall and I haven’t mentioned Daniel, Clarke and Moseley, followed by Patterson, Walsh, Benjamin and Ambrose – they were fantastic. The batting line up was pretty awesome too. Greenidge, Haynes, Richardson, Richards, Gomes, Lloyd, King, Dujon. It has to be said that they were playing at a different level than us.”
Talking of captaincy, John got his taste in that famous summer of 1988 when England named four different captains in their defeat against the West Indies.
“I was 36 then. The captaincy in ’88 came at a time when my ambition to lead had waned, but you don’t say no when given the opportunity and responsibility of leading your country. The difficulty for me was it came at a time when my bowling was at a low ebb and my position in the side was under threat. Though I was appointed captain I always thought it would be short term, and so it was as I was jettisoned after 2 Tests. As you mentioned earlier the West Indies were a tough nut to crack. Ask Cowdrey and Gooch who followed as captain.”
So, what was the experience like? “Selection was interesting. I joined Mickey Stewart at Lord’s for a get together before joining Peter May who was Chairman of selectors, Fred Titmus and Phil Sharpe. We discussed the team that we wanted. There were 10 names that we wanted and we would be flexible on the last place. I was amazed when I saw open on the table a newspaper showing the county averages. The selectors were going through the names one by one. What could have been a 15-minute meeting took an hour and a half. Before every home Test there is a pre-match dinner which the selectors attend and the Chairman of selectors speaks. Peter addressed us and repeated word for word the same speech that we had at Trent Bridge, effectively that we had the best 12 players in the country etc, etc. 3 changes were made from the previous game! By the end of the series 32 players were used. Our best 12 players from day 1 should have been supported by the selectors and given the opportunity to play at least 3 games. I didn’t get all the selections I wanted at selection meetings. In my opinion, playing cricket for England in the 80’s was the unhealthiest in our history. There was no security as a player as you were continually looking over your shoulder. Stability was needed. It was tough enough playing, without the pressure of the axe over your head. There was no stability.”
These words rung true for me when I reflect back to that 1989 Ashes defeat when again we used over 30 players during the series.
And it was during that 1989 Ashes that John signed up for a second rebel tour to South Africa.
“The England set-up was in chaos with all of the chopping and changing. I had had a 17-year Test career yet played in only 64 Test matches, admittedly 6 years were self-inflicted for playing in South Africa, but there was still another 11 years that I played Test match cricket. I again participated in an unofficial tour of South Africa in the knowledge that I would be banned. I took into account my age, recent performances with England, future opportunities and the chaos caused by the selection policy. There was also the cancelled tour to India the previous winter (1988/89). This was initiated by an Indian politician objecting to selected players having previous connections of having played in South Africa: Graham Gooch captain and myself as vice-captain. That in itself rankled. Perhaps I was being too sensitive. The combination of all those things was the catalyst for going.”
And what were both tours like? “They were different in the sense that the first was very secretive and therefore everything ran smoothly in sense of playing. Any opposition to the tour took a while to get organised. By the time it did, the tour was over. Any difficulty that we had, came from the home front and the media. During the ban, I went back to South Africa to play cricket for Western Province, which apart from the cricket gave me an opportunity to see more of the country and form my own opinions of what the country was like. I found myself doing a fair amount of coaching in the township of Langa through the guidance of the Western Province Cricket Union. I enjoyed the experience, but there was a lot to take in. Cricket was doing more in the townships than any other sport. The South African cricket union at the time were doing a lot of work in the townships to help develop cricket and were one of the few sports that were actually doing something positive. But, it was difficult getting your head round the segregation of black, coloured and whites at the cricket grounds and for that matter elsewhere. The tour in 1990 was totally different. Opposition groups were well prepared and large demonstrations took place at all the grounds that we played at and were noisy affairs. The release of Nelson Mandela while we were there was a momentous affair, though not all whites agreed to the release. We thought there would an easing of the demonstrations, but they just intensified with a bomb detonated at the Western Province Cricket Ground. Thankfully, we were not there at the time.”
What made it doubly difficult for John was that he got injured and so received a ban despite playing little cricket on the tour.
Following the second tour, John received a five-year ban from cricket, which got reduced to two and a half years following the open elections and South Africa’s readmittance into Test match cricket.
“The ban getting lifted meant banned players were available for selection again. Having 2 seasons playing regular cricket for Middlesex meant I was bowling well and taking wickets. This got me selected for the Indian Tour of 1992/3. My county colleague Phil Tufnell was also selected, but things didn’t go well for us. Ian Salisbury who came out as a net bowler impressed Keith Fletcher who was the coach and joined the tour party. Both Tuffers and myself were left out of the 1st Test and Salisbury was in. As far as I was concerned it was a kick in the teeth, which didn’t say too much about Tuffers and myself. Or perhaps said a lot. To be fair I didn’t think I was bowling well enough and said that to Graham Gooch, the captain. Having said that, I was still expecting to get selected. Things didn’t get any better for the remainder of the tour and it was the last time I toured with England.”
John did though manage to have one final crack at the Aussies when he was called up for the Edgbaston Test of 1993. Graham Gooch had resigned as captain with Mike Atherton taking over the reins. “Prior to the match It was rumoured in the press that the pitch was dry and that it would take spin. Though not selected originally, I was called into the squad. Naturally I didn’t get the choice of ends, that went to Peter Such. I bowled okay and got some runs with the bat – 59 in one innings and 32 in the second, but I was there as a bowler, not a batsman. The match was lost and once again I was on the back burner. I didn’t play again until 1995. I was called up for the Old Trafford Test against the West Indies. It was not an auspicious occasion for me in terms of runs and wickets. The highlight being that I was on the winning side for the first time versus the West Indies.”
I asked John if he saw that Test coming. “No. Not at all. I had had a good season in 1995 with Middlesex. Peter Such had been left out and I played as second fiddle to Mike Watkinson, which I found totally strange, but Old Trafford was his home ground. I didn’t get any wickets, but I didn’t bowl badly, and I remember I should have had Brian Lara LBW, but Dickie Bird didn’t give it. Oh for DRS!”
It was to be John’s final Test and he finished with a record of 147 wickets from his 64 Tests at an economy rate of 2.20. Not bad at all.
But England’s loss was most definitely Middlesex’s gain. “We won the championship in ’93 and came second in my final season with them in 1995. It was an amazing season, we won 12 championship games out of 16. Normally you would win the Championship with that number of wins. Incredibly, Warwickshire won 13. That was an amazing final season.”
At the end of that 1995 season John took on the head coach role at Northamptonshire. Having spent his entire career at Middlesex was adjusting to a different environment difficult?
“It was different and straight away I had a difficult decision to make. I had been invited by England to become assistant coach to David Lloyd on the upcoming tour of Zimbabwe and New Zealand. Northamptonshire said they did not object to me going and that it was an honour for them as much as it was for me. It meant I was not going to be around in the January, February window, a time I would be getting to know the players, study and work with them and above all, develop a working relationship. In hindsight I should have stayed at Northamptonshire and consolidate my position with them. Northamptonshire also wanted me to play, as well as coach. I was happy to do so, but soon realised that I was not devoting enough time to my game and more importantly, the players.”
John remained at Northants for three years and despite getting to a Lords final in his first year, a change of captain at the end of 1997 was challenging. “The relationship a captain and coach should have was not there. I thought that the captain wanted the responsibility but not the accountability that went with it. Things went from bad to worse throughout the year and at the end of that season, I was released.”
John left Northants in 1998 and following a spell working for Sky and being player/coach of Berkshire in 2000, he took over as head coach of Middlesex in 2001, where he remained for seven seasons. 2 spells in the Indian Cricket League as coach of Ahmedabad Rockets in 2008 followed – a tournament that preceded the IPL.
Upon his return from India, coaching opportunities became more difficult to find. “Trying to get back involved in county cricket at 56 wasn’t so easy. For the last 12 years a lot of my work has been freelance coaching and performing ambassadorial roles.”
Reflecting back on his playing career, I was keen to know from John who he thought were the toughest batsmen he bowled to? “I always found guys that played me off the back foot difficult to bowl against. Funnily enough, someone like Paul Smith of Warwickshire. He never played Test cricket, but I found his upright stance and batting on off stump, awkward. Another was Paul Johnson from Notts. He was short and liked to cut the ball backward of square on the off-side. He picked up my length very quickly. Goochie and Wayne Larkins always played me well. Of the overseas players, I’d have to say Barry and Viv Richards, along with Javed Miandad.”
And what if DRS was operational in the ‘80s? “I think 33% of Graeme Swann’s Test wickets were LBW. I had 11%. We were two different spinners in that he spun the ball a lot more than me and he was more of an attacking bowler. But I bowled a much straighter line, so I only had to turn the ball a little bit. I would have cleaned up with DRS – well put it this way, batsmen would have had to play the ball, not kick it away, which would have brought the short leg and backward short leg into play a bit more as well as silly mid-off. So, yes, I think I would have got a lot more wickets, for sure.”
Listening to John you just feel young spinners around the country could still learn so much from him. After all, how could they not from someone who across all formats took just shy of 2,500 wickets – a very, very impressive haul.
John – thank you.