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Bill Johnston: Australia’s indefatigable medium-pacer twinned with bowling spin

Bill Johnston; Image Source: Wikipedia
Bill Johnston snared 160 wickets in 40 Tests at an average of 23.91. Image Source: Wikipedia

Bill Johnston, born February 26, 1922, was one of the greatest left arm medium-pacers produced by Australia who could also revert to spin on a sticky wicket. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the bowler who often upstaged celebrated teammates Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall.

Lethal without the temper

He possessed markedly less pace than the debonair duo of Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall, and distinctly less glamour. However, Bill Johnston often ended up wrecking the opposition even more than the devastating pair.

Vacillating between the twirly way of finger spin and the fast track of speed, seam and swing, Johnston ended up as a fascinatingly versatile bowler. His pace was usually faster than medium. Yet, he often mixed it up with a bouncer — called ‘bumper’ in those days when it was rare enough to be underscored with an onomatopoeic term.

This bouncer could be as lethal as any bowled by the two faster men of his team, or other bowlers around in the world. However, the act following the lethal delivery was strikingly different from any other fast bowler. He generally chuckled, with the glow of good cheer rather than the expected aggressive sneer. It spread a balm of bonhomie over the shocked spirits of the batsman. And it made Bill O’Reilly sadly remark, “As a bowler he has one failing — he hasn’t a temper.”

It did not really prove much of a hindrance. Johnston had plenty of tricks in his bag to flummox the best of them without resorting to the fast bowler’s glare and verbal volleys. He was indefatigable, could bowl fast with the new ball and switch to spin as the ball got increasingly worn. Within four years of his debut, he went on to become the fastest bowler to reach 100 Test wickets. By the end of 1951-52, he had 111 wickets from 24 Tests, at an average of 19.22. Australia had won 19 of those Tests, losing just two. As Australian Test opening batsman Jack Moroney said, “Bill Johnston could do things with a cricket ball that were beyond normal human beings.” Teammate and great friend Neil Harvey called him “one of the best all-round bowlers in the history of cricket.”

His form tapered off towards the end, not really helped by a major knee injury. Yet, his final Test haul of 160 wickets in 40 Tests at 23.91 apiece stands out as excellent. Even Don Bradman regarded him as Australia’s greatest-ever left-arm bowler. In fact, during the famous 1948 England tour of Bradman’s Invincibles, Johnston headed the wicket tallies in both the Tests and the tour matches. When he was named one of the Wisden cricketers of the year in 1949, the publication noted, “No Australian made a greater personal contribution to the playing success of the 1948 side.”

Pre-War Days

Born at Beeac, in the Victorian dairy country, Johnston claimed that his hands were strengthened by milking cows in his childhood. He played cricket with elder brother Allan throughout the year on a backyard pitch on the family’s dairy farm. As enthusiastic youngsters, the brothers rooted for Beeac’s local team that competed in the Colac District Association League. As in the case of so many cricketers of note, Johnston, aged 12, was drafted into the side along with his brother when the local team failed to assemble the full eleven. With the match petering to a draw, he was allowed to bowl the final over. It was a wicket maiden.

The next season, the two brothers spearheaded the attack for the Beeac team. They continued to play for the local side even after moving to Colac High. At school, Johnston became captain of the cricket and football teams.

He left school at the age of 16 and started working in Colac. The following year, he followed brother Allan to Melbourne. There Johnston joined the Richmond Cricket Club, playing for them in the Third XI and taking six for 16 on debut with his slow medium bowling. After five games he was promoted to the Second XI, and made his first grade debut in the last game of the 1939–40 season.

During this time Johnston’s bowling style remained slow medium, punctuated by slow spin. However, during a training session, he surprised former Australian captain Jack Ryder with a quick delivery. Ryder, a Victorian and national selector, coaxed him to bowl fast. However, Richmond captain Jack Ledward wanted him to stick to spin. Johnston remained undecided.

Apart from cricket, he was also a useful baseball player. He won the world’s junior championship for throwing a distance of 125 yards, and broke the national baseball long distance record with a 132-yard throw in September 1945.

In 1940-41, at the age of 19, he was selected to play for Victoria against Queensland. However, that match did not take place and neither did any other during that and several subsequent seasons. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour and the action shifted to a greater field of confrontation. Johnston joined the Royal Australian Air Force along with his brother, serving for four years as a radar technician in Northern Australia. There, in a training camp, he came across a dashing fighter pilot named Keith Miller.

Allan Johnston was posted overseas, and died in a plane crash in Ireland. Bill, however, remained in Australia all through the war.

Post War

Johnson emerged from the Second World War still vacillating about his style of bowling. However, when he ultimately made his First-Class debut in 1945-46, he was given the new ball. He had a forgettable outing, capturing just one wicket for 84 runs, but the scalp was of the leading Australian opening batsman Bill Brown.

That season, Johnston bowled fast with the new ball, and turned to spin as the innings wore on. The performances were not really striking and he was not picked for the tour of New Zealand.

When Wally Hammond’s Englishmen came over for the 1946-47 tour, Johnston bowled against them for Victoria and dismissed Cyril Washbrook in the very first over. Yet, he was not really comfortable with his pace bowling.  After the game against England he remained wicket-less for two months. There was a while during which he even contemplated early retirement from the game because of lack of opportunities for the spin bowlers.

It was The Don who spurred him to make his mark in big cricket. When Victoria played South Australia during that season, the Australian legend told him that his medium pace would be an asset to Australia. He explained how the selectors were looking at complementing the short furious bursts of Miller and Lindwall with a medium pacer. Bradman specifically asked him to concentrate on pace bowling. Australia did not really have a back-up pace bowler to support the two supreme bowlers, but there were plenty of spinners. That very season, Colin McCool, Ian Johnson, Bruce Dooland and George Tribe had been tried out in the Tests.

The encouragement from the great man led Johnston to work on his pace. In 1947-48, he started with an opening burst of three wickets without conceding a run against the touring Indians. His scalps included the prize ones of Vinoo Mankad and Vijay Hazare. He went on to take six for 141 against the visitors for an Australian XI. Finally, an excellent game against New South Wales propelled him into the Test world.

He played four of the five Tests against India, taking five for 48 in the second game and four for 44 in the third. He finished his first series with 16 wickets at 11.37. The performance ensured a ticket to England with the Invincibles on Bradman’s farewell tour.

The greatest tour

It was not clear whether Johnston fitted into Bradman’s plans. In the tour opener against Worcestershire, Australia traditionally fielded the expected Test eleven. Johnston was omitted from the line up in favour of leg-spinning all-rounder, Doug Ring.

Perhaps Ring would have played in the first Test at Trent Bridge as well, but at the last moment Bradman opted for Johnston. Rain was forecast, and it was expected that the left-armer would exploit the wet wicket.. “What a fortunate decision it was!” Bradman wrote later in his Farewell to Cricket.

Johnston broke the spine of the England batting with 5 for 36 from 25 overs in the first innings. With Lindwall absent with injury in the second innings, he sent down a mammoth 59 overs to capture four for 147.

He ended the Test series with 27 wickets, the same as Lindwall. His best performances in the tour games included 10 for 40 against Yorkshire at Bradford, a match in which he bowled finger spin on a wet pitch. He also took 11 for 117 against Hampshire. When he ended the tour with 102 wickets, Jack Fingleton wrote that Australia had never sent a greater left-handed bowler to England.

The accident

Early in the following tour of South Africa in 1949-50, Johnston was nearly killed in a car accident.

Johnston was just hoping for a good time. He had met a pretty young lady at the local Netball association. The day before the tour match against Natal, he had set out for Pinewood, eager to meet her on their first date. He never got there.

On a poorly lit stretch of road near Rossburgh, Johnston missed a turn, skidded on gravel and concertinaed his car near a railway underpass. According to his statement later, “The steering wheel was the shape of my chest, I seemed to have a nine-iron divot out of my skull from the rear-view mirror, and I realised that I must have been injured internally, because I was spitting out blood.”

Johnston’s mother was a widow living in Sydney and had already lost elder son Allan during the War. She heard about his accident in a news bulletin and fainted. In those days of the late 1940s, Australia was really an island far away from the rest of the world. From a Durban nursing home, Johnston spent three days trying to telephone home. However the cable that ran through London to Sydney remained constantly busy. It was Thursday on which Johnston met with the accident. It took him six days before he could contact his mother on the following Wednesday — to inform her that she had not been left alone in the world.

Miller — infamously omitted from the original side — was flown in as reinforcement. Johnston could play his next game of the tour only after a long break, against a South African XI at Durban. But, by then he was fit enough to bowl over 30 overs in the innings. And in the second innings of the First Test, he captured six for 44 to seal an innings victory.

The injury and decline

The succeeding three Australian home series saw Johnston top the wicket tallies against England, West Indies and South Africa, reaching his 100th Test wicket in only his 22nd match.

He bagged 22 wickets against England, 23 against the West Indies at the same excellent rate at which he had started his Test career. As a batsman he was an archetypal No 11, but managed his moment in the sun. Along with Richmond teammate Doug Ring, Johnston defied the West Indian bowling at Melbourne to get the required 38 runs for the last wicket with a mix of big hits and scampered singles. As a result, the mayor of Richmond granted the pair the freedom of the city. The scoreboard at Punt Road Oval, Richmond’s home ground, was christened the Ring-Johnston scoreboard.

However, when Jack Cheetham’s South Africans arrived in 1952-53, the going was not that easy. He did pick up 21 wickets in the Tests, but they came at an expensive 35 apiece.

And then tragedy struck.

Against the East Molesey club in a prelude to the 1953 Ashes tour, Johnston twisted his knee. The injury was grave enough to force him to change the position of his right foot at the point of delivery. It was difficult for him to adjusted it decreased his effectiveness drastically. The hero of the 1948 Ashes tour managed just seven wickets in the three Tests he played during the 1953 summer. They came at 49 runs apiece.

There was a brief return to the best days during the subsequent Ashes series. When Frank Tyson put the fear of God in Australian batsmen in 1954-55, Johnston used his controlled movement and a rewarding spell of spin to capture 19 more wickets at 22.26 apiece. He also showed admirable pluck in negotiating the furious pace of Tyson. With the fearsome pace bowler coming in with a strong tailwind and a slips cordon standing around 40 yards behind the bat, Harvey and Johnston put together a stubborn 39 run tenth-wicket partnership in 40 minutes. They could not win as Johnston, when on 11, fended a ball directed into the rib cage to the wicketkeeper, Godfrey Evans. But, even Tyson saluted his indomitable spirit.  His In the Eye of the Typhoon contains the following passage about Johnston’s batsmanship: “Bill Johnston did his bit for his team with true Aussie grit. His speciality stroke was a right-handed, one-handed, back-handed, glancing scoop off the line of his bum — cricket’s equivalent of tennis’ back-handed retrieve. It bought him a dozen runs — plus a considerable amount of pain when he failed to make contact and the ball clipped his maximus gluteus!” Indeed Johnston swung one of the searing deliveries one handed to the leg boundary.

Johnston’s best bowling effort in the series was five for 85 in the second innings at Melbourne, when he resorted to finger spin on a dry surface.

His final series was the first Australian tour to West Indies in 1954-55 and it was a sorry affair for our man. At the nets Johnston did not like it when captain Ian Johnson came up to him and said, “Just ’cos you’re one of the old blokes in the side doesn’t mean you don’t have to bloody well put in, you know.” A visibly hurt Johnston responded, “I know I’m one of the old blokes. There’s no need to rub it in.”

He claimed just two wickets in four Tests and had to be dropped from the side. He retired on his return. However, he continued playing grade cricket for Richmond till 1958-59.

The style

Johnston ran to the wicket with a ten-step approach, smooth and economical, and preceded his delivery with an odd dip of the head. His delivery stride was marked by his elbow movement and flailing arms and made one commentator say, “One of these days an umpire will get a poke in the eye.” His front-foot curiously ended parallel to the crease and his back foot perpendicular, in absolute contradiction to the conventional posture. This produced a jerky end to his delivery and put a lot of stress on his ankles and shins. His right ankle had to be bound tightly to prevent jarring. Following O’Reilly’s advice, he also tied a towel around his shins to cut off the circulation and dull the pain.

After the knee injury of 1953, he changed to a more conventional action and his front-foot finally pointed towards the batsman. But this reduced his effectiveness.

Bill Brown was one of the many who noted Johnston’s work ethic in bowling for long periods after Lindwall and Miller were given the best opportunities with the new ball. He was at his best on moist pitches, with his slanting deliveries from over the wicket inducing edges, or the stock delivery swinging in and trapping batsmen in front. He also had an away-swinger which he let go once in a while, adding to the mix. The balls swung late and kept the batsmen guessing about the eventual direction till the end. He was also known for his painstaking accuracy and sometimes bowled the mean bouncer with the cordial chuckle to follow it up. On some occasions, he did bowl at disconcerting pace. And when bowling on sticky wickets, he also had the ability to revert to spin.

Never much of a batsman, there was another peculiar highlight of his batting career quite different from that famous partnership with Ring. On the 1953 tour of England, he played 17 innings, remained not out 16 times and scored 102 runs with a highest of 28 not out. This gave him a tour average of 102.00. There were many machinations which made this possible. Towards the end of the tour, captain Lindsay Hassett instructed his batting partners to protect him and sent out notes to opposing county captains requesting complicity.

His fielding was not really much to write about other than while indulging in good natured fun poking. As Ray Robinson put it — as a fielder he was “galumphing, and when he chased the ball he looked like “Pluto in pursuit of Donald Duck”. But Johnston had a powerful arm. The faults were endearing and merely added to the good humour he brought to the cricket field.

Johnston was a keen student of the game, and an avid reader of cricket books from very early days. However, the keen cricketing mind was concealed under an air of joviality that followed him in the field. He could be seen grinning widely after every ball, regardless of the result. He sometimes amused others with his double jointedness, wrapping his feet around the back of his neck. Once he almost drowned after attempting this act in the bath at Lord’s.

Ian Johnson described him as the finest team man and tourist in cricket, while Miller described him as “the most popular man in cricket”. Friend Harvey recalled: “His happiness spread itself through the team.”

After retirement Johnston had a varied working life during which he was a salesman for Dunlop, the marketing manager for a shoe firm, and later took to running a pub, an apartment complex and a post office. His son, David, played ten matches for South Australia and later became the chief executive of the Tasmanian Cricket Association (TCA).

Johnston passed away in a Sydney nursing home in 2007 at the age of 85.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix

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