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John Lever: A tale of toil, in-swing and Vaseline

John Lever © Getty Images
John Lever © Getty Images

The controversial yet unassuming John Lever was born on February 24, 1949. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a tale of toil, in-swing and Vaseline.

John Kenneth Lever could well have been one of those fast-medium bowlers who thrived on swing in the English conditions and became less and less effective in late summer when the Sun made more frequent appearances and the sky smiled down on the British grounds. Instead, he chose to persevere — and persevere he did.

In If The Cap Fits, Colin Bateman had written of Lever: “For 23 years he [Lever] plied his trade with Essex, becoming the finest left-arm pace bowler in the country. Tough, astute, and entertaining in the dressing room, Lever was, as the title of his autobiography suggests, A Cricketer’s Cricketer.”

Accuracy and rigour were Lever’s forte: the ubiquitous workhorse for Essex, Lever had the ability to bring the ball into the right-handed batsman, often at an awkward angle, making him stand out among contemporaries. The long unkempt mop was often all over his face as he ran in to bowl: The Time wrote that Lever looked like “should be in a pop group or a football side.”

The other aspect of Lever that stopped Lever from being another commonplace left-arm British seamer was the fact that he was a left-hander: in number of wickets among English left-arm seamers he ranks only third, after Bill Voce (98 wickets at 27.88) and Ryan Sidebottom (79 wickets at 28.24). Lever’s average and strike-rate are better than both.

Lever’s numbers — 73 Test wickets from 21 Tests at 26.72 and a strike rate of 60.7 with three five-fors and a ten-for — are as impressive as any other Englishman of the era. During the period in which Lever was active (1976 to 1986) Lever had the fourth-best average among English bowlers with a 50-wicket cut-off after Bob Willis (23.99), Chris Old (25.78), and Mike Hendrick (25.87), and ahead of Ian Botham (27.04).

The other remarkable aspect of Lever’s performance was his numbers against India, against who he had managed all his five-fors and his only ten-for.

Against M W Bowl Ave Strike Rate 5WIs 10WMs
India 10 45 22.11 47 3 1
Others 11 28 34.14 82.8
Total 21 73 26.73 60.7 3 1

A domestic giant, Lever’s numbers read 1,722 wickets from 529 matches with 85 five-wicket hauls and 12 ten-wicket hauls. Of these 1,473 had come for Essex — which made him the fourth-highest wicket-taker for Essex after Peter Smith (1,610), Stan Nichols (1,608), and Trevor Bailey (1,593).

Early days

Born in Stepney, London, Lever first realised his potential as a student in Highlands Junior School, Ilford, and quickly made it to the District team. Later, when he moved to Dane County Secondary School, he also earned selection for South of England, and by the time he was 14 he was chosen to bowl against the Essex men at Ilford Indoor Cricket School.

Lever was fortunate to find a supporting father: the Levers were not a very affluent family, but Lever Senior went out of his way to support his son’s career. Lever later admitted that his father “always managed to keep me supplied with cricket gear though he could ill-afford it.” He also came under the tutelage of Bill Morris and Alf Gover, and by 16, he was selected to play for the Essex Second XI.

Lever made his First-Class debut in 1967 against Cambridge University at Fenner’s Ground. Opening the bowling with Keith Boyce, Lever finished with figures of 6-5-4-1 and followed with eight wicket-less overs in the second innings. The next match saw him make his County Championship debut: bowling in the august company of Boyce and Bailey, Lever bowled beautifully with the news ball at Ilford, finishing with figures of two for 25 and three for 19 against Worcestershire.

Boyce, Lever, and Bailey soon formed a much-feared troika with the new ball: against Gloucestershire at Romford later that season Lever picked up two for 33 and five for 90 — his first five-for. Lever finished the season with 27 wickets at 30.44.

Boyce’s presence meant that Lever could at most be the man bowling into the wind for Essex. His nagging accuracy, relentless stamina, and seemingly endless perseverance, however, ensured that he proved worthy of the task. Following an excellent 1969 (62 wickets at 22.59), Lever was given his Essex cap the following season.

Lever toured South Africa with DH Robins’ XI in 1972-73 and 1973-74, and kept on delivering goods for Essex season after season, though he continued to remain overshadowed by Boyce’s towering presence. He did a good job against the West Indians on their ‘Grovel’ tour, finishing with two for 46 and two for 52 at Chelmsford. In the next match, against Gloucestershire at Cheltenham, Lever bowled a marathon spell and finished with figures of eight for 137 as Essex crashed to an innings defeat.

Lever had 85 wickets in 1975 at 21.25; he followed the tally with 70 more at 27.27 in 1976. That winter he made it to the Indian tour with Tony Greig’s side.

John Lever was accused of tampering © Getty Images
John Lever (above) was accused by Bishan Bedi of using Vaseline to tamper the ball in his debut series in India in 1976-77  © Getty Images

A controversial Test debut

After a couple of quiet matches, Lever burst into prominence against North Zone at Jalandhar. A very strong batting line-up, including the likes of Chetan Chauhan, the Amarnaths, Venkat Sunderam, and Madan Lal suddenly found Lever rather difficult to handle: he was found swinging the ball prodigiously.

Lever finished with four for 51, and when he was given the ball in the second innings, he picked up three for eight from five overs, before Greig took him away. It seemed to be an innocuous move to provide the other bowlers with practice, but it turned out to be a move whose implications ran deeper.

Ken Barrington, the England manager, called Lever aside and asked him with a wink: “If you play in the Test match, would you like to use them?” Lever nodded. Barrington then proceeded to compliment the officials: “We think you’ve made great strides in your cricket-ball making, we’d like to use them in Test matches.” The overwhelmed officials thanked him, and when England took field at Kotla, sure enough, Lever was handed out a Test cap.

It could well have been just another Test: Greig won the toss and elected to bat; the Indian spinners reduced the tourists to 65 for four, before Dennis Amiss intervened with an epic 179; Alan Knott also contributed with 75, and the 28-year old Essex man came to the forefront. Lever scored a 194-ball 53 — his only Test fifty — and helped Amiss add 94 for the eighth wicket. England managed to score 381.

India began their reply well; without any movement in the air Old and Willis seemed ineffective, and Greig brought on Lever. By the 11th over the ball had to be changed. Lever recalled: “The first ball didn’t swing an awful lot. The problem with these balls, though, was that they went out of shape — and that one had certainly done so. Greig got it changed and the next ball swung quite a bit. We were very pleased!”

Dicky Rutnagur later wrote in his Test Commentary: “He [Lever] was trudging away to his mark for the fourth delivery of his fourth over when [Tony] Greig stopped him and asked to see the ball. He then presented it for the umpires’ scrutiny. They ruled it out of shape and selected a replacement, which turned out to be a “rogue”.”

The Indians looked in disarray: Anshuman Gaekwad was trapped leg-before, and Mohinder Amarnath followed suit the next ball (and did not look happy with the decision at all), as did Gundappa Viswanath (who had, in all probability, inside-edged the ball onto his pad); Bishan Bedi sent in Srinivas Venkataraghavan as night-watchman, who was bowled through the gate off the second ball he faced: in the space of nine minutes and 12 balls Lever had reduced India to 49 for four from 43 without loss.

The Indians were at a shock when they returned to the dressing-room that evening. Brijesh Patel tried to get India out of the situation with some aggressive stroke-play on Day Two, but Lever was moving the ball too venomously for comfort. Rutnagur wrote: “With the ball swinging incessantly, [John] Lever was kept in harness almost till lunch, when he had delivered 13 consecutive overs.”

Three runs later, Sunil Gavaskar’s perseverance gave in: his 140-ball vigil came to an end as he perished to (guess who?) Lever for 38; Rutnagur later wrote: “[Sunil] Gavaskar hooked [John] Lever high to long-leg where [Bob] Willis, after sprinting to his right as if he were running for his very life, flung himself sideways and completed a miraculous catch.”

There were speculations whether Lever could get all ten, but Derek Underwood played spoilsport with the wicket of Parthasarathy Sharma; Lever clean bowled Syed Kirmani as well before Old snapped up the tail: Lever finished with seven for 46 off 23 overs — then the best innings bowling figures by an Englishman on debut (the feat has been bettered only by Dominic Cork’s seven for 43). India were shot out for 122.

India followed-on, and this time it was Willis who struck: Gavaskar and Sharma added 90 for the second wicket, but once Gavaskar fell for a 215-ball 71, India caved in against Underwood: Karsan Ghavri and Venkataraghavan added 36 for the eighth wicket when Lever intervened again; Venkataraghavan edged a lifter to Knott while Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar were clean bowled. From 226 for seven, India crashed to 234 in 17 minutes.

Lever finished with three for 24 and match figures of 36.4-12-70-10. It remains the best overseas match performance by an Englishman on debut. Lever also remains the only cricketer to have scored a fifty and have taken ten wickets on Test debut. Surprisingly, it was Lever’s maiden ten-for.

Things seemed to be normal: the second Test at Eden Gardens saw Greig scored an outstanding 103 (scored with 103°F body temperature, as the popular notion is), and Willis spearheading an attack that would give England a ten-wicket victory; despite the wickets of Gaekwad and Sharma, Lever got to bowl only 25 overs in the Test.

Then came the third Test at Cheapak: England were reduced to 162 for five (six, if one keeps in mind the fact that Roger Tolchard had to retire with a hand injury); Mike Brearley and Greig batted solidly and England reached a respectable 262. The England bowlers found it excruciatingly difficult to bowl in a hot and humid Madras. Mike Selvey, a part of the squad, later recalled in The Guardian: “Cheapauk in mid-January is a Turkish bath.” Then it happened.

Selvey wrote: “John Lever and Bob Willis flopped down on the bench in the changing room, either side of me, liquid pooling on the floor. Our physiotherapist, Bernard Thomas, a former international gymnast whose party piece was to perform heart-stopping handstands on the balcony rails of tower block hotels, had an idea. Boxers, he said, would channel sweat from their eyes by smearing grease above their brows. It might work for them. He had just the thing, a square tin of Vaseline-impregnated rough-woven gauze contained in a box of supplies donated to him a week or so back by the industrialists Smith and Nephew.”

Exactly why they did not use sweat-band is baffling, but they decided to go on with it. Willis soon realised the futility of the strip as it started to slide down, covering his eyes; he took it off after a while; Lever, however, persevered: meanwhile, wickets had been tumbling, and despite another marathon Gavaskar effort (39 from 135 balls) India sunk quickly; India were eight down with Bedi at the crease.

Lever decided to discard his gauze strip as well and carelessly dropped it close to the stumps. What followed is history. Rutnagur wrote: “Shortly afterwards, umpire [Judah] Reuben, holding an object too small to be identified from a distance, went and spoke to his colleauge, [MS] Sivasankariah and then to [Tony] Greig while [Bishan] Bedi, newly arrived at the wicket, was observed to be gesticulating vigorously. The various consultations and dialogues ended with umpire Reuben folding the object mentioned before in a napkin, which he tucked away into its usual place, the breast-pocked of his coat, and play went on, with John Lever bowling to Kirmani.”

Play resumed normally, and India were bowled out for 164 soon afterwards with Lever returning figures of five for 59. Hell had broken loose elsewhere: Reuben had accused Lever of ball-tampering. The umpires had submitted a letter about the matter to Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) along with piece of gauze. “There was every possibility of this greasy substance being used along with the sweat on the ball to retain the shine,” said the letter.

“The ball was sent for analysis and, not surprisingly, traces of Vaseline were found,” reminisced Selvey later. The Indian newspapers carried reports of the Vaseline incident, and vehement protests against the English — so popular till then — erupted. A banner on the ground carried the message: “CHEATER LEVER GO HOME. TONY GREIG DOWN DOWN.”

Opinions are still divided regarding the incident. As per David Tossell’s biograph of Greig, even some Indian players had apparently told Greig not to be too worried: according to them it was a clever ploy used by Bedi to win popularity in South India; he was, after all, the only one of the quartet who did not hail from the South; not only that, he had dropped the local boy Venkataraghavan from the Test.

Bedi added that he had noticed that Lever had done “unusual” things with the ball at Kotla; he told Reuters that he found it “disgusting that England should stoop so low.” He even sent out a message to the umpires to check for greasy coatings on the ball in subsequent Tests.

In an interview with Daily Mirror Greig said: “I’m staggered by what Bedi said. I can only conclude that his disappointments in this series have clouded his judgement.” “Ask yourself, if a bowler was going to cheat by adding wax, oil or resin to the ball, would he wear it above his eyebrows?” asked Pat Gibson in Daily Express.

Meanwhile, despite Chandra and Erapalli Prasanna’s valiant efforts Greig declared at 185 for nine, setting India a target of 284. The hosts managed to reach 40 without loss before running into Underwood and were routed for 83, losing the Test by 200 runs on the fifth morning.

Bedi never forgot the incident. Three decades later, he said in an interview to Wisden Cricketer: “If there had been an [International Cricket Council] ICC in those days a lot of people in the England camp might have lost their jobs.” Reuben, also a former fingerprint expert for the Bombay Police, told Gulu Ezekiel in an interview for BBC: “I was told the whole thing was hushed up by the Board in order not to damage relations with England.”

Bedi did not accuse Lever directly: “My board did not back me up. [John] Lever was being made a scapegoat and it was done at the behest of somebody higher up.” Lever, however, was not in a mood to settle things: “It was a hard time for my parents. They had press camped outside their house. My dad had a heart attack… I’m sure it was linked. I felt [Bedi] really stuck the knife in on that trip.”

India turned things around in the fourth Test at Chinnaswamy, winning by 140 runs with Chandra picking up six for 76 in the first innings and Bedi six for 71 in the second. The fifth Test at Wankhede turned out to be a tense draw with England finishing on 152 for seven chasing 214. Lever finished the Test with three for 42 and two for 46.

Despite the controversy, Lever emerged from the series a hero: with 26 wickets at 14.61 and a strike rate of 34.5 he led on both counts from either side (though Underwood led the wickets tally with 29). His performance made him an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year.

In and out

Lever became a part of history when he played the Centenary Test at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). Given the new ball ahead of Willis and Old, Lever finished with two for 36 and two for 95. In the Ashes at home, however, he did not impress as much, barring the three for 60 in the first innings at Old Trafford. He played only three Tests in the series.

Given his success in India, Lever was retained for the tour of Pakistan the following winter. Once again he bowled below par on a series where all three Tests were drawn on flat tracks. Missing out at Basin Reserve and Lancaster Park on the way back, he was picked at Eden Park, where he impressed with figures of three for 96 and two for 59.

The 1978 domestic season, however, belonged to Lever. He had bowled brilliantly throughout May without much luck, and eventually came good with when he routed Kent for 120 and 176 to guide Essex to an innings victory at Ilford: Lever finished with five for 38 and two for 42.

The next match against Northamptonshire at the same venue turned out to be even more impressive: once again Essex won by an innings, and this time around Lever, by now the Essex spearhead, finished with seven for 56 and six for 89. He kept on delivering, and was largely responsible for Essex coming second in the Championship.

Lever finished the season with 106 wickets at 15.18. In the Championship itself he claimed 97 at 15.64 and finished only next to Underwood’s tally of 110. His performances made him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. He was also named a Professional Cricketers’ Association Player of the Year — an honour that was bestowed upon him for consecutive years.

Lever was selected for the Ashes tour of 1978-79 but got to play a single Test — at Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA) ground. After Australia were set a target of 328 by Brearley, Lever routed them in two short bursts, finishing with figures of four for 28. He did not play another Test on the tour. Recalled for the Lord’s Test against India in 1979, Lever did not impress, picking up two wickets as Dilip Vengsarkar and Viswanath saved the Test.

Despite his sporadic appearance, Lever toured Australia the following winter. He toiled hard in the first innings of the MCG Test to return figures of four for 111 from 53 overs, but did not play another Test. On this tour, however, he managed to get on the wrong side of the Manager Alec Bedser for a rather unusual reason.

John Emburey, Lever’s roommate, later recalled in an interview with Wisden Cricket Monthly: “John Lever had got back late and was starving. The breakfast list looked attractive. He ticked the lot and ordered two of everything. I can’t remember how many trays were brought in, but there was enough for about a dozen people. At the next meeting Alec Bedser the manager, held up a bill and said: Look, lads, I said order what you want within reason, but $87 for a breakfast is taking liberties.”

Lever’s strange run of playing a single Test per series continued. He played in the Jubilee Test at Wankhede and picked up three for 65 in the second innings. When the West Indies came over in 1980, Lever was picked only for the first Test at Trent Bridge. He finished with a single wicket and was not recalled for the rest of the series. The season was also his benefit season — one that made him richer by £66,110.

Back to India

The man who had conquered India five years earlier was picked for the long, dreary tour of India in 1981-82. The entire series turned out to be one of the most boring in history. After India managed to go 1-0 up in the series, Gavaskar went on the defensive for the rest of the six-Test series and finished with the 1-0 lead.

Lever had missed out at Bombay, but came back to his elements in the second Test at Chinnaswamy: with Willis ruled out after chest and stomach pain on Day One of the match and Gavaskar at his meditative best (he batted 708 minutes and faced 472 balls for his 172) Lever pulled off a single-handed show.

England had scored 400. India were trudging along at 195 for one, but Lever wreaked havoc with the second new ball. “Rediscovering his [Lever’s] in-swinger with the second new ball, took four wickets in eight overs,” were Wisden’s words: India were suddenly reeling at 242 for six with Lever having removed Vengsarkar, Viswanath, Ravi Shastri, and Sandeep Patil.

However, Gavaskar’s unfaltering concentration and a breezy 58-ball 59 by Kapil Dev saw India go past England’s total and the match meandered to a draw. Lever, however, finished with five for 100 — his third and final five-wicket haul in Tests. He picked up two more wickets in the next Test at Kotla, but was subsequently dropped for good.

Emburey relates another incident from the tour about his roommate: “The first thing JK [Lever] did when we got to our room was order a curry. So I did the same. I should have known better. I had the curry, lay on my bed in my jock-strap, coughed and just about pebble-dashed the room. He stopped laughing when I ran over his bed to get to the toilet.”

Rebel tours and more

Later that season Lever became the part of a rebel tour to South Africa, receiving a three-year ban from international cricket. He continued to play for Essex in the British summer, while turning up for Natal in the South African summers of 1982-83 and 1984-85. At Bristol in 1984 Lever ended up with a career-best haul of eight for 37, as he routed Gloucestershire for 90.

By now he was in his late 30s, but Lever continued to deliver for Essex. He finished 1983 with 106 wickets at 16.28 (Essex won the championship; Lever’s 98 wickets were next to only Underwood’s 105 and Norman Gifford’s 99) and 1984 with 116 wickets at 21.98 (Essex won the Championship again; Lever’s Championship 106 wickets were next to only Richard Hadlee’s 117).

He had a good 1985 as well and began 1986 on a high note with absurd figures of 9-9-0-2 and 12-6-12-4 at Fenner’s Ground against Cambridge University. Once again Lever was instrumental in Essex winning the Championship (for the third time in four years) but something better was in store for him.

The surprise recall

With England having lost poorly to India at Lord’s Lever was recalled out of the blue for the second Test at Headingley (Madan Lal, too, was summoned from club cricket for the same Test). Lever picked up Kapil and the prized scalp of Vengsarkar in the first innings but some excellent bowling from Madan Lal and Roger Binny saw England concede a 170-run lead.

Entrusted with the new ball in the second innings Lever was back to his best: the 37-year old saw sent Gavaskar, Shastri, and Mohammad Azharuddin back to leave India reeling at 35 for four. He also picked up Kapil later, but could not prevent Vengsarkar from playing a classic and taking India to 237; chasing 408, England were bowled out by Maninder Singh for 128. This time Lever’s Test career was really over.

Final days

As age crept in, Lever’s appearances for Essex became more and more sporadic. Essex gave him a Testimonial Season in 1989 — which was also his last season in First-Class cricket. His last match against Surrey at Chelmsford turned out to be a humdinger: Lever picked up two for 64 as Alec Stewart’s 120 took the visitors to 250. In response, Essex folded for 207 against Martin Bicknell.

What Lever dished out paled Neil Foster, the new spearhead, in comparison: he put Surrey on a stranglehold and picked out the batsmen one by one, finishing with seven for 48 in the final innings he bowled in. Surrey were bowled out for 183, and a splendid 70 from young Nasser Hussain saw Essex home.

Post-retirement

Lever was awarded MBE in 1990 Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to cricket. He later moved on to training physical education at Bancroft’s School in Woodford Green, London. He also became the bowling coach for Middlesex. His son James Kenneth has played Second Eleven Championship matches.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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