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Doug Wright: One of England’s finest leg-spinners who has most number of hat-tricks in the history of cricket

Doug Wright

Doug Wright © Getty Images

The prodigious Doug Wright was born on August 21, 1914. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a Kent giant who did not quite make it big at the next level.

Don Bradman had called him the greatest leg-spinner to tour Australia since Sydney Barnes.

Keith Miller thought he was the greatest leg-spinner since Bill O’Reilly.

EW Swanton called him “the unluckiest bowler in the world.”

And yet, Douglas Vivian Parson Wright picked up 108 wickets from 34 Tests at a way below-par average of 39.11 with six five-fors and a ten-for. It was not that he was an all-rounder — he never even scored a First-Class fifty. And yet, despite his ordinary show he was retained for a career that extended to either side of World War II.

Ray Robinson said that Wright’s run-up “looked like a cross between a barn dance and a delivery stride.” With an unusual run-up that involved five small and five long steps; then, to quote Derek Hodgson in The Independent, Wright “leapt for the bowling crease, ending by spreading his arms wide then lifting both overhead before a full-circle delivery.”

Wright used to bowl a lot faster towards the beginning of his career, alternating between medium-pace and leg-breaks. He concentrated more on leg-breaks as he matured, finding supreme control over turn. Accuracy was never his forte, which probably explained the poor average.

David Frith explained why: “With his [Wright's] technique running in from over 15 yards, hopping and skipping as he went, and whipping over a wristy and finger-spun ball that would dip, bounce and deviate crazily off the pitch, to expect long-term accuracy was to display a dismal ignorance of physics.”

His shock ball was a brute of a delivery that sped through, often taking Godfrey Evans — his Kent and England teammate — by surprise: Evans often had to gesture to the slips to go backwards. In between these came the additional full-toss and long-hop that would undo all the good work; there was also the persistent no-ball problem.

Johnny Moyes wrote: “Why a bowler of his [Wright’s] skill failed to get more test-match wickets always mystified me; there was of course the marked tendency to bowl no-balls, but he sent down so many good ones, and worried and beat the batsmen so often, that he should have had better results. He seemed always likely to get wickets. It is one of the toughest problems of captaincy to know when to remove a man like that from the firing-line.”

Wisden wrote: “Everyone agreed — and [Don] Bradman and [Wally] Hammond were among his chief admirers — that on his day [Doug] Wright was unplayable. But he gave the batsmen a chance to score too.”

Hodgson, however, wrote: “[Doug] Wright is best remembered for bowling more unplayable balls – fast leg-breaks and googlies that would fizz off a hard surface — than anyone in history.” Every now and then he produced an unplayable delivery, only to ruin it by his inconsistency.

He made up for his lack of accuracy with his aggression, and thrived under the most hostile of conditions. Wrote Arthur Mailey: “There was a touch of the south wind hostility about him [Wright]. The more he was attacked, the harder he blew, the longer and faster he ran.” Colin Cowdrey added: “He [Wright] never ever bowled a ball defensively. Every ball was bowled to take a wicket,” and also mentioned that his epitaph should read: “he [Wright] never wanted to bowl a dot ball”

From 497 First-Class matches Wright had picked up 2,056 wickets at 23.98 with 150 five-fors and 42 ten-fors. The wicket count would have been more had the early days of his career not coincided with ‘Tich’ Freeman, the Kent legend. Still, he did a commendable job over a career that spanned from 1932 to 1957; he picked up over a hundred wickets in a season ten times; and he remains the only bowler to take seven First-Class hat-tricks.

Early days

A student of St Nicholas Parish School, Wright was a quiet student who participated in all kinds of sporting activities. On leaving school he was employed as a clerk at a legal firm in Temple (London), where he played for the Chislehurst Club in summer. Here he drew the attention of Gerald Simpson, the captain of Kent County Second XI.

Wright was originally a medium-pacer who attended the Walham Green School of Cricket run by Aubrey Faulkner on Simpson’s recommendation. It was Faulkner who taught him the nuances of the leg-break and the googly. Wright was never hesitant to confess: “I owe Aubrey Faulkner everything.”

Wright eventually made his First-Class debut against Warwickshire at Birmingham, finishing without a run or a wicket. The match against Gloucestershire at Bristol next season earned him his first wicket. Bowling in tandem with Freeman at Taunton he picked up four for 26 to guide Kent to a 52-run victory over Somerset.

He eventually earned his Kent cap in 1936 — a season where he eventually started to emerge out of Freeman’s shadow. He destroyed Glamorgan with five for 41 at Cardiff, Derbyshire with five for 31 at Gravesend, and Nottinghamshire with four for 88 and six for 72 at Trent Bridge. He finished that season with 59 wickets at 23.49.

Freeman retired at the end of that season, leaving Wright as the leader of Kent’s spin attack. It would be the first time that Wright would play a full season for Kent. Wright thrived under the new responsibilities: he kept on taking five-fors on a regular basis, and won the match against Leicestershire at Aylestone Road single-handedly with figures of five for 90 and five for 93.

Then, against Worcestershire at New Road, Wright removed the alliteratively named Harold Harry Haywood Gibbons, Joseph Horton, and Bernard Quaife in successive deliveries to register his first First-Class hat-trick. He picked up seven for 27 in that innings.

He was at it again later that month against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge: this time it was Joseph Knowles, Joe Hardstaff, and George Gunn to register two First-Class hat-tricks in the space of 25 days. This time he picked up six for 47. He finished the season with 111 wickets, but his erratic bowling meant that he went for 27.19.

He began 1938 with an encore — this time against Gloucestershire at Gillingham: the wickets in his third hat-trick were Reg Sinfield, Bill Haynes, and Monty Cranfield. Despite his figures of seven for 77 and four for 97 Kent lost the match, but Wright had done enough to earn a Test call-up.

Test debut

Wright made his debut at Trent Bridge in 1938 and impressed everyone on first appearance. The marathon spell resulted in four for 153: he was not hesitant in bowling aggressively — but Stan McCabe’s 232 in the Test achieved such cult status that nobody noticed Wright’s performance.

With the series levelled 0-0 going into the fourth Test Wright came into his elements at Headingley, picking up two for 38 to restrict Australia to a 19-run lead. Then, as Australia chased 105, Hammond gave Wright a bowl as late as on 50 for two. Wright almost won the Test by dismissing Bradman, McCabe, and Lindsay Hassett in five overs. He finished with three for 26 as Australia won by five wickets.

Back to domestic cricket he carried on with his fine form, finishing the season with 110 wickets at 23.44 with nine five-fors and a ten-for.

He had little success in the South Africa tour (though he picked up two for 142 and three for 146 in the ten-day yawnathon at Kingsmead). His best performance of the tour came against Natal at Pietermaritzburg where he picked up six for 55. Against Border at East London, however, he picked up his fourth hat-trick when he dismissed Stanley White, Harold Whitfield, and Dereck Dowling.

1939 was by far Wright’s best Pre-World War II season: he picked up 141 wickets at a more-than-impressive 16.81 with 11 five-fors and three ten-fors. After a flurry of wickets towards the beginning of the season he reached his peak against Somerset at Bath, picking up eight for 35 and eight for 45. Earlier in the season he had also picked up eight for 84 against Sussex at Tonbridge.

Then came his career-best haul — against Gloucestershire at Bristol — where he picked up nine for 47. It also contained his customary hat-trick — his fifth — that involved Jack Crapp, George Emmett, and Bill Neale. Despite that Kent lost by an innings. In the return match against Gloucestershire at Maitland Kent had their revenge: Wright led the way with six for 20.

For once Pelham Warner was impressed: “I have not, admittedly from the ring, seen more difficult bowling than his [Wright’s] against Gloucestershire at Maidstone since the days of SF Barnes.”

The Wright juggernaut carried on: he picked up six for 69 and four for 125 against Sussex at Hastings and in the next match he followed it with seven for 46 and six for 77 against Worcestershire at New Road.

In between all this he picked up five for 132 (albeit from 30 overs) at Lord’s to help England beat West Indies by eight wickets, but picked up only a solitary wicket from his next two outings at Old Trafford and The Oval. His amazing Championship record, however, was good enough for him to become a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

The War commenced after that and Wright served in the Fifth Anti-Aircraft Battery of the Royal Artillery. He was eventually promoted to Second Lieutenant. He played cricket whenever he could in between. In between all this Wright found time to get married to Daphne Dolson in June 1941.

Post-war

World War II took away a crucial six years Wright’s career — and he could play again only when he was close to his 31st birthday. Playing against Australian Services he impressed on his comeback with three wickets and then picked up five for 90 and five for 105 against a strong Dominions outfit at Lord’s as England went down by 45 runs.

He picked up five for 89 in his Championship comeback against Yorkshire at Canterbury, and once again had an excellent season. He seemed to have taken off from where he had left bowling leg-breaks before The War. He finished the season with 125 wickets at 18.08 with 12 five-fors and four ten-fors. These included two innocuous Tests against India where he managed to pick up four wickets.

His first Australia tour

Wright was considered one of the trump-cards of Hammond’s team when they left the English shores to play the antipodeans. His unusual action took the Australian crowd by surprise. O’Reilly wrote: “He [Wright] waves his arms widely, and rocks on his legs like a small ship pitching and tossing in a fairly heavy sea. Whenever he bowls in Australia there are people who whistle and cat-call as he goes through his strange approach to the stumps.”

Wright ended up having a mixed bag that series. He picked up five for 167 from 43.6 eight-ball overs (58.2 six-ball overs) at The Gabba; and in the last Test at SCG he returned career-best figures of seven for 105. However, Australia won both Tests and claimed the series 3-0.

With 23 wickets Wright easily topped the bowling chart from either side — finishing five wickets clear of both Ray Lindwall and Colin McCool’s 18. However, these wickets came at an appalling 43.04. He was also over-bowled: he bowled 1,922 balls that Ashes — a whopping 28.82% bowled by the side, while Alec Bedser bowled 1,971 (29.56%). As a result Bedser fared even worse, with 16 wickets at 54.75.

However, the figures do not reflect how well Wright bowled on that tour: the no-ball problem followed him more than before. Jack Fingleton called no-balls “Wright’s curse” and added that “He’s [Wright has] probably bowled more of these [no-balls] than any other spinner in history.”

Fingleton added: “On at least four occasions he [Wright] was convinced he had [Don] Bradman in his bag but it was not to be. Wright, I believe was very keen to secure such a verdict over Bradman, who only once has been dismissed LBW during his Anglo-Australian Test career.”

Even if one undermines Fingleton’s quote based on the fact that the cricketer-turned-journalist had a slightly anti-Bradman outlook one can refer to Cary’s Cricket Controversy: Test Matches in Australia 1946-47: “He [Wright] continually rapped the pads with his straight one, and when the decision went against him, his face clouded with puzzled dismay.”

Cary added: “On four occasions [Wally] Hammond, usually most undemonstrative, threw his hands in the air as the ball beat [Don] Bradman and shaved the stumps, and in between these near dismissals there was a confident appeal for leg before wicket.”

In the MCG Test Bradman tried to play across the line and was trapped plumb in front of the wicket, but was ruled not out despite a ferocious appeal. Cary, however, mentions that “the camera appears to give a different verdict.” It should be noted that though Cary was generally a critic of The Don as a person he was an ardent fan of the legend’s batting.

Swanton added that on that tour “no Australian batsman was his [Wright’s] master.” He added: “In [1928-] 1929 and [1932-] 1933 England had won two rubbers, missing only one catch in all. This time they certainly missed ten chances of one kind or another off [Doug] Wright alone.”

To crown everything Bradman himself complimented him with the words: “There was one [bowler] who caused me more problems than anyone else – Douglas Wright of Kent.” No, it was not Harold Larwood.

Back home

He found the conditions to his liking in the dry summer of 1947 and picked up 177 wickets at 21.12 with 18 five-fors and eight ten-fors. This included a career-best Test haul against South Africa at Lord’s where he demolished the tourists with five for 95 and five for 80. This would remain his only ten-wicket haul.

He also claimed his sixth hat-trick this season — against Sussex at Hastings; he removed George Cox, John Nye, and James Cornford in successive deliveries. He single-handedly demolished Sussex with figures of seven for 59 and eight for 119 in the match.

He got selected for a single Test at Lord’s against the Invincibles in 1948. He picked up only two wickets, but by his own admission, bowled the best over of his life in that Test — to Bradman: “Every ball came out of my hand the way I wanted and pitched where I wanted. I beat him [Bradman] twice. It went for 16.”

After retirement Bradman wrote: “I scored a lot of runs against him [Wright], yet I could never settle down comfortably. However well set I was and on the best batting wickets, I knew he was capable of producing the unplayable ball — and no other bowler had quite the same power.”

Later years

As his age went past the other side of 35 Wright was picked only sporadically for the Tests. He still remained a giant at First-Class level, though, as he picked up 129 wickets at 21.93 with 12 five-fors and five ten-fors in 1949 and 151 more at 20.79 with 15 five-fors and three ten-fors in 1950.

Playing against Hampshire at Canterbury Wright picked up the seventh and final hat-trick of his career when he dismissed Desmond Eager, Clifford Walker, and Derek Shackleton. He picked up five for 81 and six for 89 in the match and Kent won by an innings.

Wright eventually earned a Test selection against West Indies at The Oval. Unfortunately for Wright, Freddie Brown lost the toss, and Wright’s five wickets cost him 141 runs as the tourists amassed 503 and won the Test by an innings, thereby sealing the series by a 3-1 margin. Despite the defeat Wright became the first bowler in history to have dismissed the three Ws — Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott, and Frank Worrell — in the same Test innings (Trevor Bailey became the only other one, six years later).

He was selected for the subsequent Ashes tour but disappointed once again. He pulled a muscle at SCG and could not bowl in the entire Test. His only decent show came at Adelaide where he picked up four for 99 and was engaged in an epic contest against Arthur Morris, who scored 206.

He went on to play the subsequent tour of New Zealand, and shone for one last time at Wellington when he picked up five for 48 in the first innings to bowl out the hosts for 125. Though England won by six wickets it turned out to be Wright’s last Test.

Final years for Kent

In the next five seasons Wright’s wickets tally read 99, 119, 98, 109, and 127. Had he picked up those three wickets (one in 1951 and two in 1953) he would have gone past the 100-mark in seven consecutive seasons.

He was made the first professional captain of Kent in 1954 — a post he held till 1956. These were not very good years for Kent as they slid lower and lower down the Championship ladder. As age took toll of him a common sight was to find Wright at taking off his shoes and socks and uttering the words “Sorry, boys, but you’re going to be needed again tomorrow.” He was apologising to his feet.

He played less and less matches as his age went past forty. Even then, he had it in him to run through Middlesex at Maitland in 1956 as he returned figures of 17.4-9-30-8. Middlesex were bowled out for 64 in 44.4 overs and lost by nine wickets as Wright snared three more. Wisden wrote: “Most of his [Wright’s] eight victims had not been born when Wright entered First-Class cricket twenty-four years ago and they had no answer to his whipping leg-breaks and googlies.”

He did not prove to be the best of captains. Ian Phipps explained why: “As a quietly spoken man, Doug [Wright] was rarely able to deliver rousing dressing-room speeches that might have served to lift the spirit of his side and spur them to greater things. Similarly, being of a very sensitive and caring nature, he found it difficult to criticise any of his colleagues for a misdemeanour or to omit someone from the side if their form had escaped them for he shared their disappointment.”

He resigned in 1957 and was replaced by Cowdrey as Kent captain. He decided to hang up his boots the same year (which was also his benefit season) – almost at an age of 43: even in his last season Wright picked up 38 wickets at 22.92. His last match – against Gloucestershire at Maidstone – saw him pick up four for 39.

Below is a table containing a comprehensive list of Wright’s seven First-Class hat-tricks.

DOUG WRIGHT’S FIRST-CLASS HAT-TRICKS
Hat-trick For Against At Season Batsmen How out
1 Kent Worcestershire New Road 1937 Harold Gibbons caught Bill Ashdown
Joseph Horton caught Bill Ashdown
Bernard Quaife LBW
2 Kent Nottinghamshire Trent Bridge 1937 Joseph Knowles bowled
Joe Hardstaff caught Bill Ashdown
George Gunn caught Ronnie Bryan
3 Kent Gloucestershire Gillingham 1938 Reg Sinfield caught Tom Spencer
Bill Haynes caught Gerry Chalk
Monty Cranfield bowled
4 MCC Border East London 1938-39 Stanley White LBW
Harold Whitfield LBW
Dereck Dowling caught Bill Edrich
5 Kent Gloucestershire Bristol 1939 Jack Crapp caught Hopper Levett
George Emmett LBW
Bill Neale LBW
6 Kent Sussex Hastings 1947 George Cox caught Godfrey Evans
John Nye caught Arthur Fagg
James Cornford bowled
7 Kent Hampshire Canterbury 1949 Desmond Eager caught Eddie Crush
Clifford Walker LBW
Derek Shackleton bowled

Post-retirement

The unassuming Wright served as a coach at Charterhouse School till 1971 and led a quiet life afterwards. He suffered from a number of ailments in his final years and passed away at Canterbury on November 13, 1998.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42.)

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