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Brian Luckhurst – the gutsiest of batsmen

Brian Luckhurst (batting) © Getty Images
Brian Luckhurst plays a sweep shot © Getty Images

Brian Luckhurst, born February 5, 1939, was one of the gutsiest batsmen to have played the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the England opener who was endorsed by Derek Underwood as the best batsman in the country between 1969 and 1971.

Brian Luckhurst walked back at tea, his face contorted in pain.

The plucky Kent batsman had once again demonstrated his immense worth in the side, combining with Basil D’Oliveira to rescue England from a slightly tricky situation at Melbourne. Steadying the England innings which had seemed to totter at 88 for three, he had combined with the South Africa-born batsman to guide the side to safety.

Throughout the tour, Luckhurst had made runs like a man possessed. Called up to play for England at the advanced age of 31, he had travelled to Australia eager to make up for lost time. He had hit form early, scoring 135 against New South Wales. With England adopting a three opener policy, he had been an automatic choice. John Edrich was slotted at No 3, and Luckhurst had commenced the innings with Geoff Boycott in the first Test at Brisbane.

On debut, he had seemed to be well set for his hundred when a misunderstanding with Alan Knott had led to his run out for 74. He had made amends in the very next Test, the first ever played at Perth. Luckhurst had become the first man to score a hundred at the Western Australia Cricket Association (WACA) ground.

And now, in the fifth Test at Melbourne, he had once again batted with grit and determination, defying the Australian attack with singular purpose. However, the expression on his face as he entered the pavilion told of severe agony. Physio Bernard Thomas immediately wanted to take off his glove and take a look at the little finger. Luckhurst stopped him. “You’ll never get it back on again,” he said.

The finger was broken, swollen and excruciatingly painful. But, Luckhurst went back to bat after tea. He scored 109 that day, a heroic effort that outlined all his valiant characteristics. His 455 runs in the series, at 56.87, were exceeded only by Boycott’s 657 and Edrich’s 648.The strategy of three openers bore fruit, going a long way to ensure the return of the Ashes. Luckhurst’s contribution was as vital as that of anyone in the team.

It had been a late start to his Test career, but a superb one.

 © Getty Images
Brian Luckhurst was injured during the Melbourne Test in 1970-71, but continued batting © Getty Images

From bowler to batsman in the Army

Luckhurst had been drawn to cricket at an early age. As a 14-year-old, he had accompanied a friend from his native Sittingbourne, riding together on the last bus to London. The youngsters had slept outside The Oval, ensuring that they would be able to watch the final Test of the historic series between Len Hutton’s Englishmen and Lindsay Hassett’s Australians.

It was not just the glamour and glory of international cricket that fascinated him. His home in the borough of Medway was within cycling distance to Canterbury. He pedalled there often enough to watch Kent in action. Arthur Fagg and Leslie Todd opened the innings for the county, and the young lad watched them intently.

At 12, when a student at Murston County Primary School, Luckhurst scored 90 out of 97 against Holy Trinity and followed it up with 15 wickets with brisk left-arm medium pace. The effort won him a prize bat from a London evening newspaper.

When he joined the Westland Secondary School, Dennis Jarrett, his form master and a club player of some repute, took keen interest in his development. A missive had gone around the schools of the county from Kent County Cricket Club, a plea to identify budding talent. Jarrett did not need to think twice about recommending Luckhurst. The young lad made his way to the county ground and walked under the wings of Claude Lewis, former left-arm spinner and Kent’s scorer.

Under the guidance of Lewis, Luckhurst developed his left-arm slow bowling. The pupil and master had their sessions every Thursday, at the end of classes, in the club’s Indoor School at Eltham. This went on for two years, and in April, 1954, Luckhurst was enrolled as a professional — still considered a left-arm slow bowler. He batted at No 10.

As the years went by, he worked his way up the batting order. In 1958, when he made the championship side, Luckhurst was still a bowling all-rounder. He batted low down the order, after the batsmen had done their bit, and managed moderate returns.

Soon, it was time for his National Service. As a Gunner in the Royal Artillery, he spent his time playing for the Army and Combined Services. For some inexplicable reason, he returned with his ability to take wickets eroded to near oblivion. He also made very few runs with the bat when he played for Kent in 1961. But, the management was wise enough to know that sometimes Army-men required time to settle down.

The tale of the concealed ducks

The following year, Luckhurst was busy playing for Kent’s Second XI when he suddenly got his big break. There was a spate of injuries on the eve of a match against Somerset at Gravesand. Legendary wicket-keeper Les Ames, secretary manager of Kent, found himself two players short. A desperate message was sent across to Colin Page, the manager of the Second XI. The reserve team had just finished their match at Northampton and Luckhurst had bagged a pair. But, Page recommended him and kept the news of the ducks from the ears of Ames.

The move paid off. Bowling late in the first innings, Luckhurst picked up four quick wickets. And with Kent on the brink of defeat in the second innings, he batted at No 7 and added 116 with veteran Test opener Peter Richardson. The match was saved. Luckhurst scored an unbeaten 71 and was lauded by Wisden. He went on to score 1080 runs that season, finishing fourth in the county averages.

From then on, he topped 1,000 runs every summer  till 1975. His bowling played lesser and lesser of a role, but as a batsman he was soon established as one of the bulwarks of the Kent side.

In 1963, Richardson bid adieu to his county career to start a business, and Luckhurst was chosen to open the innings with Mike Denness. Once again, Page played a part behind the scenes, convincing the management that Luckhurst’s tenacious technique was what Kent needed at the top of the order. In his early days he was also nurtured with care by the Kent skipper Colin Cowdrey.

In fact Cowdrey did much more. He suggested a winter coaching job in South Africa as an option. Luckhurst spent the winter of 1965-66 in Johannesburg, playing for the Old Edwardian Cricket Society, enjoying the act of rolling his arm over. In 1967-68, he broadened his horizons even further, touring Pakistan with Richie Benaud’s Commonwealth cricket side. He did not really manage too much success, but an innings of 67 on a difficult Rawalpindi wicket stood out as exceptional.

From 1969, Luckhurst hit a purple patch. The summer saw him scoring 1914 runs with four hundreds, and for the first time his average for the season ended up in the 40s. In fact, the average penetrated deep into the 40s — finishing at 47.85. That winter he toured Jamaica with the International Cavaliers and hit three centuries in four matches.

Running into Sobers

The sustained performances notwithstanding, it seemed Luckhurst was set to play out his career as a commendable county cricketer. And he seemed perfectly content doing that. However, at this stage, he received a call from England.

It was not for actual Test matches, but the contests were tougher. England were taking on the Rest of the World, during the hastily arranged series to substitute for the cancelled South African tour. Luckhurst walked in to open the innings with another newcomer, Alan Jones of Glamorgan. And he also walked headlong into the genius of Garry Sobers. On a seaming Lord’s wicket, Sobers captured six for 21, including Luckhurst caught in the slips for one. England managed just 127 and then Sobers hammered the home team for a spectacular 183. Luckhurst scored a gutsy 67 in the second, and impressed with his footwork against Intikhab Alam and Lance Gibbs.

In the following match at Trent Bridge, he scored 113 not out in the final innings, batting over seven hours and guiding England to an eight-wicket victory — their only win in the series.  It was a fighting innings and he played his role of the sheet anchor to perfection.

Useful scores followed at Edgbaston and Headingley. Even though he fell for a pair of ducks to Mike Procter in the final game at The Oval, Luckhurst had done enough to stake his claim in the regular England side.

He had another encounter with Garry Sobers in that season. When Kent met Nottinghamshire at Folkestone, Sobers scored a quickfire hundred and set his bowlers on the home batsmen. A flurry of wickets soon reduced them to 27 for five. And Luckhurst produced the best cricket of his life, scoring 156 not out. Kent eventually won the game by virtue of a sporting Sobers declaration followed by another fine knock by Luckhurst. By the end of the summer, he had made his place in the touring side to Australia almost certain.

The last days of summer

He returned from Australia in a blaze of glory. And in the summer of 1971, he scored two more hundreds, one apiece against Pakistan and India. It led his Kent teammate Derek Underwood to remark that between 1969 and 1971, Luckhurst was the best batsman in the country.

But the good times did not last. Luckhurst was inexplicably omitted when England toured the sub-continent in 1971-72.

He continued to flourish in the county circuit. Yet, when the Australians came over in 1972, he failed to produce his best form. Other than a fighting 96 at Nottingham, the series saw him struggling against the pace of Dennis Lillee. And after a couple of mediocre outings against West Indies the following summer, he was dropped from the side.

He did not play any more international cricket until Boycott departed on his self-imposed exile in 1974. At the age of 36, Luckhurst was sent to Australia once again, to face the menace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. He played just two Tests, managing a highest of 27 in four miserable outings. Never possessing the ideal technique, Luckhurst had always relied on his pluck and guts to carry him through. But, at the autumn of his career, against bowling of that speed and quality, it was not enough. The pace and bounce of the Australians left the English batsmen battered and bruised, and Luckhurst’s career never healed from the sustained blow.

There was even more misfortune when the Englishmen crossed the Tasman Sea. Barry Wood had been flown in as a late replacement opening batsman. When easy runs were available against the New Zealanders, it was Wood who was preferred to Luckhurst. The Kent batsman wanted to go home, but his request was turned down by manager Alec Bedser.

Luckhurst kept playing for Kent till 1976. His ultimate First-Class collection of 22,303 runs were scored at an average of 38.12 and contained 48 hundreds. An excellent close to the wicket fielder, he snapped 391 catches in his 389 games.

At the Test level, his 21 matches got him 1298 runs at 36.05, with four hundreds.

After forging a successful opening partnership with Mike Denness for Kent, he never really continued his left-arm spin seriously. It was a wise move, with Kent already blessed with the services of Derek Underwood in that department. Luckhurst’s haul of First-Class wickets was restricted to 64, at 42.87 apiece.

The style and the man

Luckhurst was always immaculate in his attire, and exemplary in his behaviour on and off the field. As a batsman he was a fighter, concentrating hard, aware of his limitations and playing well within them to the best possible effect. Underwood, who maintained that he was the best batsman in England between 1969 and 1971, also observed that he was the gutsiest player in his experience. According to the Kent and England spinner, Luckhurst started with only two strokes, the square cut and the turn to fine leg. However, he developed his game and never looked out of place while opening for England. His defence was once termed ‘unbreachable’ by Wisden.

After retirement, Luckhurst served as the cricket manager of Kent from 1981 to 1986. He never became a coach, thanks in part to his limited ability to communicate. However, there was another sterling twist in the tale of this man. With several men injured for Kent’s game against Allan Border’s Australians in 1985, the 46-year-old Luckhurst made a surprise comeback.  Having played most of his cricket for Kent under the leadership of Colin Cowdrey, he now turned out for a county side led by Chris, the son of his former captain. He batted at No 10, and even now proved a difficult man to dislodge. He scored just a single in the first innings, but stayed a while at the wicket. In the second innings, he walked back undefeated for nine, having held Craig McDermott and the rest of them at bay for over an hour.

In 2004, Luckhurst was delighted at being appointed president of Kent. His autobiography was thus titled From Boot Boy to President.

Just a few weeks after this joyous occasion, he was diagnosed with cancer. As his Wisden obituary says, “he died before he could have the honour of planting the new lime tree inside the Canterbury boundary.”

(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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