Sunday, 2 March 2014

The A-Z of Derbyshire Cricket - W is for Wright: John Wright

W is for 'Wow'.

Quite likely the source of my biggest dilemmas, this one, containing, as it does, some of my favourite cricketers and more than a few players who have enriched my enjoyment of Derbyshire cricket over the past forty-five summers.

It is a nice way to end. Rather than a mediocre assortment of players who did their best but were not perhaps in the first tier of county players, the W category contains some vibrant and honest batsmen, some bowling workhorses and a selection of players who most would say best exemplified the term 'first-class cricketer'.

Because they were. All of them.

Of course, there are big names - in the context of Derbyshire cricket giant names - who pre-date my watching of the club. There was Levi Wright, probably the preeminent batsman in the club's early history, whose career average of 26 per innings owes more to the variable wickets of the time than any lack of talent. Wright played for the county from 1883 to 1909 and amassed twenty centuries. He was also as good a cover point as the game had known at that time and saved numerous runs, as well as taking some remarkable catches. Over and above all that, his cricket memoirs remain one of my favourite books, florid in style but anecdotal nirvana.

Then there was Arnold Warren, the first in the lineage of outstanding Derbyshire seam bowlers. A number of contemporaries deemed him the fastest bowler in the country at the time, when he was fully fit and bounding in from a run that was deemed overly long. Becoming established in the side in 1902, Warren played up to the Great War and ended up with 939 first-class wickets at under 25. Like Bill Bestwick, he probably suffered from being asked to bowl as both shock and stock bowler and went for runs as he tired, but he was a fine bowler. In his only Test appearance, he took five wickets in the first innings against Australia but was never picked again. That he dismissed the great Victor Trumper in each innings must have been some consolation in his dotage, but Warren was not the last Derbyshire player to be poorly treated by national selectors.

Moving on a few years, Stan Worthington (left) was a fine cricketer in the side of the 1920s and 1930s, probably the best batsman of several who were magnificent in full flight but not consistent enough to rival the very best. Worthington averaged just under 30 from twenty thousand runs; the same from almost seven hunded wickets with bustling medium pace. In his prime he lost little in comparison to the great Wally Hammond, with who he added 266 at The Oval for England against India, yet Worthington, like the rest of the side, batted selflessly in scoring runs quickly to allow a strong bowling side to force results. He was later a well-regarded coach at Lancashire and was a fine servant to Derbyshire cricket.

In the last fifty years there have been a number of candidates. As regular readers will know, few players gave me greater enjoyment than our first overseas batsman, Chris Wilkins. A free-flowing, front of the wicket player, the advent of the burly South African, usually at number four, saw the beer tents empty, people sit up in their seats and newspapers being largely ignored. You never knew what to expect and on the bad days an impetuous early shot may see the ball held by a circling mid-off or an alert slip cordon. On the good ones - and there were plenty - the ball came off his bat with a crack and fairly fizzed to the boundary. He wasn't a player to play for your life, but if I had to compile an eleven of entertainers, Chris Wilkins would be one of my first picks.

Nor can I ignore the claims of Alan Ward (left), who looked at times scarily quick to my young eyes from the boundary edge. While acknowledging the naivety of youth, nor can I forget a few players backing away as another fast rising ball ripped down at them. Not having seen Harold Rhodes in his prime, nor Bill Copson at all, I cannot pass judgement on relative speed, but when he was fully fit (alas, too infrequently) Ward was an impressive, awesome sight and a contender for the quickest home-reared bowler in club colours. That a bowler as good as he was didn't reach five hundred wickets over ten summers speaks volumes and the feeling remains that he was a largely unfulfilled talent. But what a sight at his best...

Barry Wood will always have a place in Derbyshire history, as skipper of the 1981 Nat West Trophy winning side. His best days came at Lancashire, but he was a feisty character who played fast bowlers with considerable courage (and more than a few broken fingers) and bowled innocuous-looking medium pace in one-day cricket that was remarkably successful. A good player, Barry Wood, but a Derbyshire player for too short a time for greater consideration here.

So too for such players as Wayne White, Colin Wells, Rob and Phil Weston, together with Ross Whiteley. All had their days in club colours, but their greatest were (or are more likely to be) elsewhere. Good players all and worthy of note, but not greater consideration here.

More recently there have been hugely popular all-rounders in Graeme Wagg and Graham Welch. Wagg was and remains an enigmatic cricketer, capable of genuine brilliance and relative mediocrity in quick succession. He could hit a ball long and hard, but perhaps not quite often enough to rank as a true all-rounder. He could bowl left-arm swing that would trouble the best and bowl out any player, but mixed that up with days when the radar had gone and the ball went everywhere. Perhaps that unpredictability accounted for his popularity among supporters. If it was his day, you knew we could challenge the best, but Wagg is another who remains a largely unfulfilled talent, though possessing remarkable natural gifts.

Graeme Welch was a fine county all-rounder. We liked him because he battled, he turned around lost causes and he made the very best of the talents he had. He wasn't the best batsman in the side, but he scored runs when others failed. He wasn't the quickest or most dangerous looking seamer, but he was respected by opponents as someone who could bowl a quicker ball, mix it up, move it around and make life difficult for them. Perhaps his greatest deeds are yet to come in his new coaching role, a field in which he has made an impressive early reputation. Welch is another who would get into any eleven of mine from an entertainment perspective, because he never gave up. There was no such thing as a lost cause and if this attitude can be passed over to his new charges he will take us far.

Which leaves one man and, after careful consideration, I am confident in having made the 'Wright' choice.

 If I were to choose one player who, irrespective of the state of the wicket and who was bowling, would get his head down and graft, I can't think of many that I would place ahead of John Wright. For all that he had a fine array of shots and, like all good left-handers, was immensely strong off his legs and especially through mid-on, the thing that I most remember John Wright for was his 'leave'. He was the best judge that I have seen in the county colours of the ball to let go and had an unerring ability on a humid morning when the ball was swinging around to play only what he had to. The 'oohs' and 'aahs' of a myriad county seamers must have been music to his ears and if it bothered him at all he never showed it. Instead, he just leaned on his bat, chewed his gum and smiled.

That was another thing about John Wright. He smiled a lot and seemed to appreciate that being paid for playing cricket, while undoubtedly not easy, was something that a lot of us cherished. He was one of the more genial players on the circuit and was well-liked by cricket fans around the country.

He might have ended up at Kent, where he turned up for trials, but their surfeit of overseas stars saw him try his chances at Derbyshire, where 150 in a second team game convinced the county that they had found a good 'un.

He was that all right. From 1977 to 1988, Wright was a model of consistency, his second-wicket partnership for much of that time with Peter Kirsten giving the county perhaps the greatest solidity they have ever had in batting. To a Derbyshire fan of my vintage, thinking back to the two of them batting at Lords in 1981 will bring a wistful smile to the face. When they were in full swing, which was often, there appeared little that the opposition could do to stop them. Indeed, a sign of their ability was how the opposition last-day targets got higher and higher. For supporters who recalled all to easily Derbyshire's inability to score 200 in the last innings, seeing us chase down 250-300 was a joy, such a target usually reached through a century from one of them.

1982 was the peak. In that golden summer, Wright scored 1830 championship runs at 56, with seven centuries and five fifties. Kirsten scored 1941 runs at just under 65, eight centuries and six fifties. That summer I would listen for the cricket scores on the radio and Derbyshire always seemed to be something like 230-1, with both going like trains. They didn't let me down in person either and for two Derbyshire players to be within touching distance of 4,000 runs between them, even now, seems extraordinary.

They were good friends and shared a flat together for some time. I remember a former girlfriend of mine telling me around that time that she'd been out for a drink with some friends and chatted up by a "New Zealander who played cricket for Derbyshire". I was jealous, but more of the fact that she'd been chatting to him, rather than probably shows I wasn't all that serious about her, I suppose...

In 1984 Wright averaged over 60 and scored 1200 runs in just 21 innings, but by that stage he was job-sharing the overseas role with Michael Holding. Wright, in a delightfully self-deprecating way, told of how the opposition were always pleased to see his name on the team sheet in that period, as it meant that they wouldn't face trial by Holding. One got the impression that a lot of the enjoyment went for him at this time, something confirmed in his excellent autobiography, but he continued to give value for money and bad trots were few and far between.

He was a thinker about his game and team mates recall his gluing his top batting glove to the bat handle so it was in the right position all the time. They also attest to the origin of his nickname 'Shake', due to his messy kit bag, which he used to shake onto the dressing room floor in an attempt to find the cleanest gear. He was immensely popular in the dressing room and in 1976, when Eddie Barlow arranged a team bus for away games, Wright kept the players entertained with his singing and guitar skills. He was also willing to help with advice for younger players and few were surprised when he became a respected coach.

His dry wit continued in his successful tenure as coach of the Indian national team in the era of Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar. "The most important job is to make sure you get all the practice balls back"  he said, accepting that players of such talent needed little coaching.

Yes, he was a fine player and I will always remember his innings against the West Indies at Chesterfield in 1980 as perhaps the bravest I have seen by a Derbyshire batsman. It was a typical green-top and Messrs Roberts, Garner and Marshall were fast and nasty, most of the batsmen taking blows to the hands and body.

Wright took more than most, but made an extraordinary 96 from a total of 229. I am sure that the visitors wouldn't have grudged him that extra four runs in an innings of remarkable skill and courage. Wright went on to become the first New Zealander to pass 4,000 Test runs and remained a player that the opposition knew that they would need to dig out.

It was a privilege to have seen him and he is the perfect player to end this series.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your excellent A-Z series on Derbyshire cricketers.
Worth mentioning that Arnold Warren holds the world record for the 9th wicket partnership, established in 1910 with John Chapman.

Old Cricketer

Peakfan said...

You're absolutely right, Old Cricketer! It assured him of lasting fame and I should have referred to it. Usually a hearty tail end clumper, it was his day in the sun, just as Ted Alletson of Notts did against Sussex in the same period.
Thanks for noting it and for your kind words!