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John Snow: The cricket rebel and fast bowling poet

John Snow The cricket rebel and fast bowling poet

John Snow in action against India during the first-ever World Cup match at Lord s on June 7, 1975. On the left is Sunil Gavaskar who scored that infamous 36 not out in 60 overs! © Getty Images

Few batsmen ever managed to play him comfortably, but John Snow had plenty of trouble dealing with his own captains and management. However, despite his rebellious nature and the menace he carried, he also wrote poetry and could be philosophical. Arunabha Sengupta pays homage to the unusual fast bowler on his 71st birthday.

“Snow’s loping, almost lazy run, of course, is sinisterly deceptive. It is in that last stride, or last two strides, when that long, straight powerful arm gathers its impetus and either whips or coasts through, that the potential is born.” – wrote Richard Whittington.

Everything about this maverick cricketer was similarly unpredictable.

He could look lackadaisical on the field and even in his run up, and then suddenly he would let fly balls rearing up at the throat of unsuspecting batsmen.

He was moody and temperamental enough to rub several captains the wrong, often in self-destructive, way. His attitude was sometimes alluded to as that of a prima donna and on other occasions dismissed as plain arrogant. None of this was expected from the son of a vicar, a traditional country boy who had been brought up on a healthy diet of village cricket.

He was omitted often on disciplinary grounds than seldom because of form.

Yet, rarely has anyone penned his reactions to being dropped as:

“Standing

on a still summer’s day,

eye watching swallows

earth-hugging

insect-chasing away,

wondering what to do,

knowing that it always happens

and now it’s happened to you.”

John Snow was the cricketing equivalent of those samurai swordsmen who easily exchanged weapons for the calligraphic brush. He was a fast bowling poet, with two collections of poetry – Contrasts published in 1971 and Moments and Thoughts in 1973.

And after several brushes with authorities of Sussex and England, and altercations with on field umpires in Australia, known to be menacing on the field and unapproachable off it, he surprised many by overcoming his problems of interpersonal communication and setting up a thriving travel agency after retirement.

From medium to genuine pace

Snow started out for Sussex as a medium-paced seamer, and continued in the same vein to earn his first Test cap against New Zealand.

Even before his Test debut, he gave a sneak preview of his lifelong problems with his captains – the first episode being a minor tiff with the legendary Ted Dexter. Bowling against Colin Milburn of Northamptonshire, Snow pitched short and was severely hooked, forcing Dexter, standing close at leg-slip, to duck for cover. The skipper snapped, “Why don’t you pitch it up, you silly little b***er?”

In response Snow dropped another short, which climbed further than expected and the attempted hook was pouched by Dexter.

As Milburn walked back, Snow shouted to his captain, “Pitch it up like that you mean?”

Dexter was not amused, but supported him to the hilt on his Test debut at Lord’s in 1965 – which turned out to be the last Test of the great Fred Trueman. It was a decent enough outing, but Snow strained his side before the next Test.

When he returned against South Africa at Trent Bridge, Snow ran up against a rampaging Graeme Pollock. The left-hander got stuck into his bowling, racing to 125 in two hours and a bit. The resulting figures ensured that Snow was dropped for the remaining Tests and the subsequent Ashes tour.

The tall gangly bowler used the winter break to go down to South Africa and work on his technique in club cricket. He returned with a remodelled action that had changed him from a medium pacer into a genuinely quick bowler.

The following summer, he ran into trouble with his Sussex skipper yet again. This time it was the Tiger Pataudi, who had to deal with his obstinacy.

Sussex did not have any spinners to use as stock-bowlers, and hence Pataudi asked Snow to bowl long spells. The bowler refused point-blank. Pataudi had to report him to the club officials.

Test regular

Amidst all this, Snow managed to storm back into the English side, taking 11 wickets for Sussex against the visiting West Indians.

It was in the fifth Test at The Oval that he produced the performance that would cement his place in the team. He picked up two wickets in the first innings and followed it up with an unbeaten 59 coming in at No 11, as Ken Higgs and he stretched the English lead to 259 with a 128-run last wicket partnership.
In the second innings he routed the batting with three major wickets, including Garry Sobers first ball. The West Indian great fell to a well-planned bouncer bowled in consultation with captain Brian Close. “I can follow instructions,” Snow quipped later.

After Higgs and he had scripted the last wicket record, they were sitting on the balcony outside the dressing room, sipping beer. The pressmen thronged to take pictures of the duo, and hurriedly the officials replaced the bottles with cups of tea, saying, “We mustn’t give the public the wrong image, old boy.”

This performance made Snow a national hero and he was not dropped because of form again till 1973. However, there were plenty of omissions which allowed him only three overseas tours and limited his Test appearances to 49.

Success, injuries and controversies

First there was a sacroiliac joint abnormality which kept him out of action for a long frustrating period.

When he returned in 1969 to tour West Indies, he picked up a record 27 wickets in a closely- contested series.

In between there were occasions when he refused to bowl flat out in unhelpful conditions of county cricket, leading to the increasing criticism that he was not putting in his best for Sussex.  He was also dropped on one occasion for not trying.

His brushes with authority continued. He bowled hostilely on a dicey strip used for nets at Lahore, and vice-captain Tom Graveney was less than amused at the bouncers he had to fend. However, when captain Cowdrey asked him to bowl at full pace during practice on the eve of a Test mach, Snow refused, preferring to preserve his energies for the morrow. This resulted in his being dropped for a Test because of attitude problems.

In the home series that followed against West Indies, Snow picked up 15 wickets, but ran into further problems with stand-in skipper Ray Illingworth. At Headingley, with three wickets needed for victory, and in the face of stubborn West Indian resistance, Illingworth asked Snow to give everything for five or six overs. Snow was not convinced that pace would get wickets given the conditions, and concentrated on slowing down and seaming the ball. Although England won, Illingworth was far from happy and Snow was again dropped for a Test against New Zealand.

Ashes triumph and collision courses

Thankfully for England, the bowler and captain resolved their differences, and Snow had his crowning glory on the next tour to Australia. He blasted out 31 wickets, including a star turn of seven for 40 in the Ashes deciding Test at Sydney. Ian Chappell, Ian Redpath, Doug Walters and others had no answer to his short of good length bowling which rose disconcertingly to the rib cage. However, when tailenders, Garth McKenzie and, famously, Terry Jenner, were hit on the head, immense controversy and crowd trouble ensued.

A drunk spectator grabbed his shirt while Snow fielded at long leg– supposedly giving vent to the ire caused by Jenner’s injury.

However, it was umpire Lou Rowan who assumed the role of the main adversary. He warned Snow repeatedly, throughout the series and had angry words with the bowler and captain Illingworth. The fast man and his captain maintained that most of the balls were not bouncers at all. Snow graphically dismisses Rowan in his autobiography, stating his reservations about umpires who “could not distinguish between bouncers bowled with a cricket ball and those in a dance hall.”

At Perth, after Rowan had officially warned him for bowling bouncers – which Snow maintained went through at chest level – the bowler let one fly high over the head of Walters and turned to the umpire saying, “Now that’s a bouncer for you.”

Not one Australian was given out leg before in six full Test matches. Snow wrote,
“I have never come across another umpire so full of his own importance, so stubborn, lacking in humour, unreasonable and utterly unable to distinguish between a delivery short of a length which rises around the height of the rib cage and a genuine bouncer which goes through head high, as Lou Rowan.”

Back home against India, Snow scored 73 at Lord’s – his highest Test score – but got into trouble for the infamous collision with the diminutive Sunil Gavaskar.

Snow went across the pitch for the ball as Farokh Engineer pushed for a quick single and knocked Gavaskar over. “The moment Gavaskar started to fall, I could imagine the horror on the faces of everybody watching the game from the committee room at Lord’s,” he wrote later. When he was back in the dressing room, an enraged Mike Griffith, the captain of Sussex, charged in shouting, “That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen on the field”.

Snow was dropped for the second Test. He returned at The Oval and tore off Gavaskar’s chain and medallion with a bouncer that zipped under his chin and made the opener fall over. He bowled the Indian master for six in the first innings and had him lbw for a duck in the second, but India won the Test and series.

The contribution of Snow can be gauged when one reflects that it was only the second Test defeat he had been part of since becoming an England regular in 1966.

End with head held high

Snow had another superb Ashes series at home, but soon realised that he was hunted – both by age and the eagerly awaiting authorities. As long as he was picking up wickets, he was safe, but the moment he did not perform, his heels would be snapped at by men to whom he had not really managed to please all these years.

He never quite lost his wicket taking ability, performing well enough in subsequent series against New Zealand, Australia and West Indies that followed. He enjoyed some success in the inaugural World Cup as well with six wickets at 10.83.

But, his autobiography, with its stinging criticism of MCC and Sussex officials, was published in 1976, and did not really make things easy for him. Snow gravitated towards the World Series Championships under Kerry Packer, playing in the One-Day games. The following season, he played a few matches for Warwickshire in the Sunday league before hanging up his boots for good.

His fiery intimidatory bowling earned him a total of 202 Test wickets at 26.66. He is sometimes compared to Glenn McGrath for his accuracy, venom and vicious bouncer.

Yet, for all the menace that he displayed as he ran up to unleash his scorching deliveries, for all the stories of aloof and rebellious nature, he never once abused or sledged a batsman. That perhaps remains his greatest achievement as one of the game’s famed fast bowlers.

(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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