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George Duckworth, born May 9, 1901, was an exceptional wicketkeeper who played 24 Tests for England between the Wars and was a member of five championship winning Lancashire teams. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who had one of the loudest appeals in the history of the game.
When he shouted “Owzat”, it rang through the ground and pierced the air. It was reputed to be the loudest appeal ever witnessed in cricket. If the question had been asked for a caught behind decision and the response was positive, he used to throw the ball in the air in a characteristic manner and often engage in a little leap of celebration.
It was said that even if he ended up doing little else on the cricket field, his appeal itself would have made him immortal as one of the characters of the game. But, of course, there were many more reasons to etch the image of George Duckworth prominently in the coveted canvas of cricket history. Small in stature, lithe and lissom in his movements, Duckworth was one of the best wicketkeepers ever produced by England. And if looking at him one wondered where the tremendous appeal erupted from, many vouched that in the slight frame there beat one of the largest hearts in the game.
Duckworth played between the Wars, and was a regular feature for Lancashire and England behind the wicket. He would have played more than just 24 Tests had it not been for Les Ames of Kent, his great contemporary, who was perhaps not as good behind the stumps but way, way better in front.
The ’keeper of the champion team
Duckworth was born in Warrington, Lancashire in 1901, and was educated in the Warrington Grammar School. After the Great War, he went to Birmingham on trial for Warwickshire in 1922. However, in the following season, his home county showed a lot of interest in him.
In 1923, he was established at Old Trafford and by June he was playing Gloucestershire in Gloucester. Duckworth impressed one and all. Lancashire had been boosted by the recruitment of the Australian fast bowler Ted McDonald. Then there was the spin of Cecil Parkin and Dick Tyldesley. He kept to all of them with finesse.
The very next year, in 1924, he walked out on his home ground at Old Trafford to keep for England for the first time. It was the fourth Test against South Africa, and an eminently forgettable one. Only two hours and three quarters of play was possible, and Duckworth conceded eight byes during that brief period. But, his keeping to Maurice Tate was flawless.
It was off Tate that he caught his first Test victim, the West Indian Sammy Scott at The Oval in his second Test, played four years later in 1928. By then, Duckworth was being hailed as a legitimate successor to the great Herbert Strudwick. Having a similar short, stocky build, there was much common in the actions of the two men.
By 1928, Duckworth had been an integral part of the champion Lancashire team that finished at the top of the table three years in a row. In 1928, he took 77 catches and made 30 stumpings and was named one of the Wisden cricketers of the year.
That winter he went to Australia as the first choice wicketkeeper of England. And he kept to Tate and Harold Larwood on the lightning wickets Down Under with plenty of aplomb.
On his return to England, he continued to do a magnificent job for his county. Lancashire won the championship in 1930 and again in 1934, thus enabling Duckworth to be a part of five winning sides.
Tussle for the one spot
On the England front however, Ames had emerged with smart glovework and exceptional ability with the willow. He had claims to being a genuine middle-order batsman. From 1929, the wicketkeeping slot in the England side was shared between these two men. Duckworth stood in three Tests against South Africa in 1929, Ames made his debut in the final match of the series. It was Ames who was preferred for the tour of West Indies in 1929-30, while Duckworth’s superior ability behind the stumps was used when the Australians came over in 1930.
Duckworth went to South Africa in 1930-31, with his Lancashire understudy William Farrimond sharing the wicketkeeping duties with him. When New Zealand toured in 1931 and India in 1932, it was back to Ames.
Both the keepers went down to Australia for the infamous Bodyline series of 1932-33, but Ames was preferred in the Tests. During the New Zealand leg of the tour Ames scored 103 in the Christchurch Test. In the following Test at Auckland, he played as a specialist batsman. This allowed Duckworth to don the big gloves for the only time in a Test during that southern voyage.
Gradually England opted for the considerable extra edge provided by the superior batting skills of Ames. Duckworth, at best a gutsy performer with the bat, could just about hold his end up and boasted a Test highest of just 39. As the decade rolled on, he found himself out of favour for England. He played just four more Tests, one against South Africa at Old Trafford in 1935 and the three-match series when the Indians visited in 1936. He went to Australia once again, for his third tour, in 1936-37. Once again it was Ames who played in the Tests.
In 1934, Lancashire won the county championship for the final time before repeating the feat 77 years later in 2011 – they shared the trophy in 1950. That year Duckworth was awarded a benefit and it raised an impressive £1,257.
Last days and post Test career
But, by 1938 he was no longer in contention for an England spot. When Ames was injured during the Ashes series that year, Paul Gibb was chosen as his replacement in the Test scheduled to be played in Duckworth’s home ground at Old Trafford. The match was abandoned without a ball being bowled. When Gibb himself got injured before the following Test it was Fred Price deputised for him. At the end of the season, Duckworth hung up his gloves and boots.
In his 24 Tests, Duckworth held 45 catches and made 15 stumpings. As a batsman he managed just 234 runs at an average of 14.62, but on occasions he could be a difficult man to dislodge. In 504 First-Class matches, Duckworth caught 753 and stumped 343. His 925 dismissals for Lancashire remains a record. In the First-Class games he scored six half-centuries with a highest of 75, but his average was almost the same as the one he boasted in Tests.
Duckworth’s keeping was agile and smooth, with the ability to hold on to chances both standing back to fast bowlers and up to the medium pacers and spinners. He was known for his leg side catches, with his excellent anticipation making the most difficult ones look easy. Duckworth had superb hands and always allowed himself the give while taking the ball, and thus prevented injuries from hampering his career.
Apart from his keeping skills, Duckworth was an excellent team man with irrepressible good humour which made him an indispensable member of the side for most captains. According to Leonard Green, skipper of the champion Lancashire side of the 1920s, Duckworth was “one of the smallest, but noisiest of all cricketing artists — a man born to squat behind the wicket and provide good humour and unbounded thrills day by day in many a glorious summer”.
The great Herbert Sutcliffe endorsed: “He was a delightful colleague, a great man on tours particularly. He had a vast knowledge of the game and he was always ready and willing to help any young player. As a wicketkeeper he was brilliant.” Lancashire’s Cyril Washbrook agreed, “He was a magnificent wicketkeeper and a fighting little batsman. In his later years he became one of the shrewdest observers of the game and his advice was always available and eagerly sought by cricketers of every class and creed.”
Duckworth’s astute views and analysis of players and the game made him a valued member of the Lancashire committee after his retirement.
Initially seeking to establish himself as a journalist after his cricket career, the Second World War put a spoke in his wheel of progress. Duckworth tried his hand at hotel management and farming before turning to journalism and broadcasting – often cutting a forthright laced generously with humour. His excellent administrative skills also helped him in taking up role as the organiser of tours for Commonwealth sides to India, Ceylon and Pakistan in the early 1950s. He later became a baggage master and scorer for MCC teams on overseas tours.
George Duckworth passed away in January 1966 in his hometown of Warrington. A dog-bone roundabout in the town was named after him – Duckworth’s Roundabout can be found at Birchwood Way (A574) and Oakwood Gate.
(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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