In Appreciation of Johnny Gleeson, Quiet Man of CricketOctober 23, 2016
Bernard Whimpress, courtesy of The Footy Almanac, 14 October 2016, where the title is “Quiet man of cricket: a tribute to Johnny Gleeson”
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.’
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.
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.
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
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.