On August 20, 1952, John Emburey was born at Peckham, London. He was the only English player to have participated in two South African rebel tours, moves that cost him a significant chunk of his international career. Karthik Parimal looks back at the achievements of this off-break bowler.
Before Saqlain Mushtaq and Muttiah Muralitharan further pushed to fore the craft of off-spin, John Emburey was arguably one of the best in this genre of bowling. Hailing from Southeast London’s Peckham district, Emburey was intrigued by the sport at a young age, thanks to his uncle’s short stint at Surrey. He started out as a medium-pacer but switched to off-break following advice from Mike Gunton, his coach at Peckham Manor School. Thus began the story of one of England’s finest spinners who made 64 Test and 61 One-Day International (ODI) appearances for his country during a career that spanned 17 years.
Devoid of opportunities at Surrey, Emburey was approached by Middlesex, thanks to Arthur McIntyre — Surrey’s coach at the time. His performances for the county’s Second XI were noteworthy and soon earned him a contract. It was to be a partnership that would last for years to come. In 1973, he made his debut in the County Championship and in due course of time got noticed by the head honchos of English cricket. He played his first match in national flannels in the August of 1978, in the third Test against New Zealand at Lord’s, under the captaincy of Mike Brearley, who also happened to be his skipper, since the last five years, at Middlesex.
While Emburey was a right-arm offbreak bowler, with a suave run-up and an uncomplicated action, his partner for a considerable part of his playing career was a slow left-arm orthodox spinner in the form of Phil Edmonds (who also represented Middlesex). According to Brearley, Emburey was the more yielding of the two. As a captain, he always found Emburey’s ideas appealing, but if the results were unproductive, Emburey was happy to follow the course suggested by his skipper. On the other hand, Edmonds and Brearley rarely appreciated each other’s point of view.
However, Brearley was shrewd enough to extract the maximum from his two frontline spinners. As Emburey noted in an interview to The Guardian, ”We were different characters. Philippe [Edmonds] wanted to experiment a bit more, while I wanted to keep it tight, which gave the captain options. If he [Brearley] wanted wickets he might go for Phil, if he wanted economy he would go for me. Mind you, despite our very different approaches we ended up with very similar stats.”
Rise as a bowler
Emburey was usually used as either a first or second change bowler and, from this position he accounted for two four-wicket hauls, both against Australia at Sydney. His maiden five-wicket spell was against the indomitable West Indies at Port of Spain in the February of 1981. The West Indian batsmen were busy making hay as Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd, and Deryck Murray slaughtered the English bowling, but, in the searing heat, Emburey bowled 52 overs and returned figures of five for 124, without which West Indies’ total would have soared over 500. This work ethic of his contributed immensely to his swift growth.
Very few English pitches were known to offer significant assistance to the spinners at the time. The late 1970s and early 1980s boasted of green surfaces that bolstered the efficiency of seamers. Even on such tracks, Emburey nonchalantly stood out. Like Fred Titmus before him, Emburey was adept at swing and variation and these attributes often held him in good stead. Most of the times, batsmen played him for non-existent turn before making the long walk back to the hut. “Emburey enjoys bowling in such conditions, ‘fiddling’ the batsmen out. In 1982, he took four for 32 against Notts [Nottinghamshire] at Trent Bridge without making a single ball turn from the off,” recalls Brearley in his book The Art of Captaincy.
Emburey’s steady rise on the international stage came to an abrupt halt when, in the summer of 1982, he decided to board the flight to South Africa, a land beset with difficulties at the time owing to apartheid, to be a part of the rebel tour. A three-year ban was immediately handed to all players of the rebel unit. “The obvious attraction was a lump sum in the bank; but I’d have thought twice about going if I’d known the ban would last three years — that stunned all of us. Assuming I would have been chosen for England’s tours, and played my share of Tests at home, I have lost financially,” he told Wisden, after he was named the Cricketer of the Year in 1984, for taking 96 wickets in the County Championship and scoring 772 runs, and also for leading Middlesex to five victories as a stand-in captain in place of Mike Gatting.
After his return to the fold, he chipped in with four-wicket and five-wicket hauls on a regular basis. He soon surpassed his best of six for 33 against Sri Lanka (recorded in February 1982 at Colombo), by finishing with career-best figures of seven for 78 against Australia, yet again at Sydney, although England lost the Test (but retained the Ashes) in January 1987. He hit a purple streak that year, performing exceptionally well in the One-Day series that followed, even when fielding — he pulled off three one-handed blinders during that tournament. In fact, Emburey labels the tour as his “fondest memories of touring with England”.
An able batsman
Before his international career commenced, Emburey’s batting repertoire was limited. Nonetheless, he aimed to finish with the double of 100 wickets and 1,000 runs. Initially, his modus operandi walking in as a lower middle-order batsman was to hit out without any inhibitions. In the process of applying this strategy, at one juncture, in the summer of 1978, he kept falling to Australian leg-spinner Jim Higgs. At the time, he didn’t back his defensive technique enough to believe he could survive, but, with constant practice and several net sessions, he ironed out the weakness. In his next Test innings, he made his then career-best score of 41.
By the time Emburey called it quits, he had 1,713 Test runs under his belt, inclusive of 10 fifties and a highest of 75. It was by no means modest for a lower-order batsman.
In 61 ODIs he finished with 76 wickets at an average of 30.86 and scored 501 runs at an average of 14.31 with 34 being his highest score.
Brush with captaincy
Although Emburey led Middlesex to a few victories in the absence of Gatting, one wonders whether he could have been a successful captain at the international arena. During an Under-25 match against Surrey, his first ever game as a skipper, he buckled under pressure when suggestions flew thick and fast from as many as seven members of the side. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come, for when Emburey captained England for two Tests against the West Indies in 1988, the team lost and he was immediately sacked from the post unceremoniously. “I would have liked to have done more and probably would have done if I hadn’t gone to South Africa in ’82 as I would have been captain of Middlesex and not Gatting, and then who knows?” he says in a candid interview to The Guardian.
Soon after his playing career, Emburey coached Northants [Northamptonshire] and Middlesex. Albeit not producing favourable results on the domestic front, he was asked to coach the Indian national team after Greg Chappell bid adieu, an offer he duly declined. Nevertheless, he did coach Ahmedabad Rockets in the 2008 edition of the Indian Cricket League (ICL).
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)