Quiet man of cricket: a tribute to Johnny Gleeson

 

By Bernard Whimpress

 

 

Another good man leaves us.

 

Remember the days when Australian Test cricketers carried an air of mystique. When they weren’t thrust upon us. When they went about their business with quiet dignity. When bowlers obviously had plans to dismiss top-line batsmen on the other side and didn’t blather on about ‘targeting’ them. When there was a little more grace in the game.

 

Around a dozen years ago when working as South Australian Cricket Association historian I proposed Johnny Gleeson as one of a number of guests for our annual Test match dinner, a black tie affair which regularly attracted 1000 diners. Often it was the quiet men – another was Ian Redpath – who’d been out of the public eye for a long time who made the most impact. On this occasion it was Gleeson’s laconic outback humour which was most memorable. Asked by MC Mike Coward about Warney’s range of a dozen deliveries (and working on new ones) he chuckled and replied, ‘That’s bullshit. A spinner has three deliveries: one breaks from the leg, one breaks from the off, one goes straight on.’

 

Simple.

 

Gleeson made a late start in first-class cricket at the age of 28 as a mystery spinner after having been a batsman/wicket-keeper in country cricket until his mid-twenties. Fascinated by a photograph of Jack Iverson’s grip he perfected a technique of bowling leg-breaks with what appeared to be an off-break action. The leg-break remained Gleeson’s stock delivery whereas for Iverson it had been the off-break. Gleeson’s nine seasons in first-class career yielded 430 wickets at 24.95 from 116 matches. In 29 Test matches between 1967 and 1972 his strike rate wasn’t quite so good but was still eminently respectable with 93 wickets at 36.20.

 

It has to be admitted that he ran into some good batsmen at the top level. In England in 1968 Boycott, Edrich, Cowdrey, Graveney, Dexter, Barrington, Milburn and D’Oliviera all played at some time in the series; in Australia against the West Indies in 1968-69 he met Fredericks, Sobers, Kanhai, Nurse, Butcher and Lloyd; in South Africa in 1969-70 he was confronted by Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards. Gleeson took 26 wickets against the West Indies but I was at Adelaide Oval in 1969 when he was savaged in the second innings when they made 616 and he finished with 1 for 176. At Durban the following year when Pollock made 274, Richards 140 and South Africa 9-622 declared Gleeson suffered to the tune of 3 wickets for 160. A couple of beltings like that muck up anyone’s averages.

 

I had a special affection for Johnny Gleeson because he inspired me to have another crack at cricket. I had put the game aside to concentrate on golf at the age of twenty but seven years later after experimenting with Gleeson-Iverson’s flick-finger spin I thought I’d give it a trial. Presenting myself at the Adelaide District Cricket Club I turned out at the Adelaide Oval No.2 nets under the watchful eye of club coach Rex Sellers.

 

At one point I tossed up a flighted leg-break which landed on leg stump, lured the batsman forward,  and he got a faint edge which would have been swallowed by first slip. ‘Beautiful ball, Bernard’, said Rex. How good is that? A Test cricketer saying, ‘Beautiful ball, Bernard.’ Of course, the next six balls came out as hopeless half-trackers, no flight, little spin, which the batsman mongrelled to the mid-wicket boundary and that was about the end for me.

 

Not quite.

 

Occasionally Gleeson’s memory and method would cause me to dust off the creams. A half-season for Old Scotch in my mid-thirties and a game for Old Iggies (St Ignatius) in my forties – no, I didn’t attend either school – brought the odd analysis of 3/0/25/1 but nothing significant enough to tempt me away from the golf course or lawn tennis court.

 

My last game of cricket was played in twilight on a delightful college ground in Blackheath, London the night before the Lord’s Test of 2009. Again I folded the fingers and flicked the ball. Two overs 0 for 14 is a pretty good average in my one and only game of T20 but would’ve been far better if a butter-fingered wicket-keeper had not mucked up a simple stumping chance, and a stiff-jointed mid-on not dropped a sitter. 2 for 14 would’ve been eminently respectable.

 

There is also a post script.

 

My one brilliant delivery at the Adelaide Oval nets partly inspired a poem which I entered in a national sports poetry competition in 2012.

 

dream ball

a flick of the wrist
a snap of the fingers
the ball described a perfect arc
well directed too
pitching on leg stump
luring the batsman forward
spinning hard
catching the edge
carrying to first slip’s pouch
pocketed with ease

no need for appeal
the batsman nods          awe-struck
‘too good son’              takes his leave
‘great ball lad’ says the old ump
white-washing hat tugged hard
over his ears
lizard skin blistered
from so many years
baking under a brutal sun
firm jaw creasing now
into a weary grin

‘you’ve made my day, tiger’
‘you’ve made my day’

 

It didn’t win but I’d like to think Johnny Gleeson would’ve given a nod of approval.

Bernard Whimpress

© October 2016

 

 

 

About Bernard Whimpress

Freelance historian (mainly sport) currently writing his 20th book. For the previous 15 years was Curator of the Adelaide Oval Museum and Historian for the South Australian Cricket Association. Will accept writing commissions with reasonable pay. Most recent books - The MCC Official Ashes Treasures and The Greatest Ashes Battles.

Comments

  1. David Jenkins says:

    I remember a story from the 1969/70 tour of India and South Africa. At Delhi, India won the Test comfortably by seven wickets by achieving a score (181) they had failed to reach several times in this series. Towards the end, Johnny Gleeson tossed a couple of deliveries well up in the hope the batsman might make a mistake. Instead the result was a couple more boundaries and a result slightly hastened. Skipper Bill Lawry failed to see the humour or to understand Gleeson’s thinking. He chastised Gleeson after the match for ‘giving up’ and Gleeson was left out of the final two Tests in India. By the time the team arrived in South Africa Gleeson was back in favour and played in all four Tests against the ‘Boks.

  2. bernard whimpress says:

    Thanks Dave
    He was a hard man, Bill. Remember. he didn’t rate off-spinners and thus Ashley Mallett who took 28 wickets in 5 Tests in India, and 6 in the first Test in South Africa, played no more against the Springboks.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Well done,Bernard a good combination about a cricketer who there was a mystique about at the time and your own personal career.Ian Chappell rated,Gleeson highly as a team man I seem to remember him contributing in a lower order partnership with 30 odd which helped win a test on the 72 tour of England ?
    Did he have S unusual cricket bag as well ? I reckon he did ok getting Boycott out as well,must admit I am stretching the memory as I was 9 in 72 thank you

  4. David, you are correct re Gleeson being dropped after the third test in the 1969-70 series. In the fifth test Ashley Mallet, the sole spinner picked up 10 wickets as we sealed the series.

    We then toured to South Africa. In the opening test loss Mallet picked up 6 wickets in the match including a five for. He was dropped for the rest of the series. Lawry was not considered a good handler of spin bowlers.

    I notice Gleeson reappeared in the early days of WSC, albeit in a back room role.

    Glen!

  5. bernard whimpress says:

    Thanks Malcolm, Glen
    Gleeson had only moderate success against England. His selection on the 1972 English tour was curious. In the previous summer’s ‘Tests’ against the Rest of the World Kerry O’Keefe played in all 5 matches and Terry Jenner 4 bowling against a line-up which included Gavaskar, Kanhai, Zaheer, Sobers, Graeme Pollock, Greig and Engineer. Mallett played only the last of those matches and and Gleeson none. These two bowlers took loads of wickets in the Sheffield Shield and thus it might be thought had the easier pickings. Both were chosen with Inverarity as a sort of third spinner in addition to his batting whereas O’Keefe and Jenner were omitted.

  6. Nice account Bernard. Johnny was before my time but having read Gideon’s brilliant book on Iverson and living the Warne & Murali era, most pieces on spin bowlers interest me. For Gleeson to have transformed his cricket career at such a late age is incredible. It reminds me of the Robert Redford baseball film The Natural.

  7. bernard whimpress says:

    Thanks Jeff
    I caught up with a coffee group this morning and took a cricket ball along and showed the Iverson-Gleeson grip. That was near enough to a toast. I used to see a lot of Redford films but missed The Natural. I’d better look out for it.

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Good wrap there Bernard. He was a mystery in more ways than one.

    Rowdy has given his account here:

    http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/1060945.html

  9. The Tamworth Twister!

    Back in the day when blokes from the bush could get a game for NSW from their hometown.

    Geoff Davies from Wagga and Gus Gilmour from Newcastle were others.

    It was the same in rugby league and rugby union.

  10. Dutchy Holland too Dr Rocket

  11. bernard whimpress says:

    Thanks Swish, Dr Rocket, Gerry

    I was going to add Holland as well.

  12. Dr Rocket says:

    Yes Gerry!

    That’s right, Dutchy Holland came down from Newcastle to play for NSW.

    Gleeson, Gilmour and Holland all also played for Australia.

  13. Missed this sad news about CHO (last week in job etc). could never really understand how he was in and out with Jenner and Skull. eg the 72 tour. And how we could take 6 wrist spinners to the Windies in 72-3 and he wasn’t one of them.

    Always sad to lose someone of his record. Makes me feel old. Luckily Thommo will live forever.

  14. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Can add McCosker to the Newcastle list?

  15. bernard whimpress says:

    Peter
    Six wrist-spinners in 1972-73 in the West Indies is something I’ve not thought about – Jenner, O’Keefe, Watkins, Ian Chappell, Stackpole and are you counting Greg Chappell? Greg started out as a leg-spinner in first-class cricket but pretty much switched to mediums after playing for Somerset. Or are you thinking of John Benaud? I thought he bowled mediums as well. This is all from memory so you might enlighten me.

  16. Dr Rocket says:

    Rick McCosker was a country boy, from Inverell in northern NSW.

    Pretty sure he was a bank johnny so he moved around a bit, but pretty sure he played for the then Sydney club in the Sydney grade cricket comp. after moving down from the country.

  17. Yes, GS Chappell is the 6th. he still thought of himself as a leggie, bowling them at India in 80-1 as we chased victory, with Jim Higgs and Roo in the team. Very Simmo.

    (we had 6 in the same test team when Kenny Eastwood took a wicket with his Chinamen in Sydney.)

    Yes I think Rick the Snick played for Sydney.

  18. Ashley Hornsey says:

    Another good piece by Bernard. He is correct in saying Gleeson came from an era when Australian Test cricketers carried an air of mystique. Gleeson arrived late on the first class scene but was a character who allowed us ordinary cricketers to live the dream and perhaps think we were still a chance for a late call up.

  19. bernard whimpress says:

    Thanks Ashley
    There’s certainly a lot to be said for living the dream.

  20. After reading this excellent piece, Bernard, you have me thinking about putting the whites back on!

  21. bernard whimpress says:

    Thanks Smokie, perhaps there’s time. I remember when I was in England once reading of an 88-year-old left-arm orthodox spinner delivering figures of 8 overs 2 for 18. The article mentioned that the player had played one county match for Derbyshire 65 years before.

    And Ashley, I reckon the best Gleeson stuff I ever sent down was to you in a net session in a primary school just off Cross Road.

  22. Dr Rocket, Geoff Davies carried the drinks for Australia once; opening test v Windies @ the Gabba 1968-69. John inverarity played, but did very little with bat and ball. Doug Walters returned to the final four tests scoring around 699/700 runs in his six innings, including being the first test cricketer to score a century and a double century in the same match. 242 and 103 @ the SCG in the final test.

    Glen!

  23. bernard whimpress says:

    Hate to be a annoying Glen after your good historical memory but the West Indies toured in 1968-69. 1969-70 was the last purely domestic season in Australia as the Test side played away 5 Tests in India followed by 4 in South Africa. (edit now completed BW and Glen)

  24. Thanks Glen!
    Good research.

    Does this mean that Geoff Davies is officially a Test player?

    Dougie Walters, of course, came down from Dungog.
    Think he may have got a game for NSW from Dungog before coming down to play for Cumberland in Sydney grade cricket.

  25. Not sure Dr Rocket. Geoff Davies is one of a group of chap who have carried the drinks for Australia but not appeared in test XI.

    Shaun Graf, Jack Potter ,& Dan Christian are amongst players who have performed this role. There are others, but none come to mind at this time.

    Glen!

  26. bernard whimpress says:

    On the 12th men who never played a Test, Ian McLachlan certainly filled the role against England in 1963, possibly Sam Trimble in the West Indies in 1965, Leslie Poidevin around 1901-02 – he later played Davis Cup for Australia, Leslie Hill – one of Clem’s brothers around 1907-08, and Syd Hird and Bert Tobin in the Bodyline series of 1932-33. I’m pretty sure there were a couple of others in the 19th century.

  27. Luke Reynolds says:

    Fantastic tribute Bernard. The flick finger spinners have always fascinated me. I have a memory of reading an article where Peter Philpott tried the technique and damaged tendons in his fingers?? Do you know of others to have tried?

  28. bernard whimpress says:

    Thanks Luke

    Surely there must’ve been others first inspired by Iverson and then (like me briefly and unsuccessfully) by Gleeson. It would be interesting to know whether any of them got as far as first grade.

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