Home > Features > Moments in history >

Johnny Wardle — A left-arm spinner from England of rare class

Johnny Wardle - a left-arm spinner of rare class

Johnny Wardle dared to bowl Chinamen when left-arm spinners were supposed to tweak them with their fingers © Getty Images

Johnny Wardle (born January 8, 1923) took 102 wickets in 28 Tests at an average and economy rate that rank among the best of all time. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the man whose circumstances and attitude prevented him from achieving much more in his career.

When Ray Lindwall’s express delivery thudded into the thigh of the English tail-ender, a simultaneous gasp was heard around the stadium. The thousands gathered at Lord’s feared for the gutsy man at the wicket, who had boldly flailed the Australian pace – mostly off the edge of his willow. However, soon the collective concern was converted into peals of laughter as the man in question, hit resoundingly on the thigh, immediately began to rub his elbow. And when a flourishing cover drive soared over the slips for four, the same man grabbed an imaginary piece of chalk and rubbed his bat with a curious sense of purpose.

Indeed, without this ability to laugh at whatever fortune flung his way, often the chuckles of mirth aimed at himself, Johnny Wardle would have had a difficult time withstanding the cruel lashes of fate.

He was a canny left-arm spinner, perhaps the most innovative to bowl for England. He could propel them out from the back of his hand, with a Chinaman good enough to flummox the best, but most often stuck to the orthodox slow left arm stuff preferred by Yorkshire and England. Either way, he did a fabulous job.

Yet, his unfortunate career coincided with that of the more aggressive, and the more frequently favoured, left-arm spinner Tony Lock. It did not suit him well that England’s No 1 spinner of that era, Jim Laker, accepted Lock as his spin-twin, and bowled in tandem with him for Surrey.

Spinner, rebel and prankster

There were other reasons why Johnny Wardle did not play too many Tests in spite of boasting a record better than Laker, Lock and most other spinners across eras. During a post-War era that stuck to convention and frowned upon the radical, Wardle was a confirmed maverick. Fred Trueman was another Yorkshireman who did not exactly toe the orthodox lines, and before the swinging sixties started to accept him as an icon, he too lost out on about fifty or so Test matches. Wardle paid a heavier price.

He dared to bowl Chinamen when left-arm spinners were supposed to tweak them with their fingers. At Durban in 1957, when England needed a victory to clinch the series in the third Test match, captain Peter May asked him to bowl orthodox left-arm spin. Wardle rebelled and bowled the dangerous Roy Mclean with a deceptive googly that came out from the back of his hand. When he informed May how he had got his man, the captain sternly repeated his instruction.

Wardle was also a joker, who needled the high and mighty. Once, on taking a blinder from the bat of Cyril Washbrook, he did not celebrate, and the batsman kept shuttling between the wickets, unaware that he was dismissed. “He hit the ball like a shell. It went straight to me, one hand, and I caught it. Washie was running for two, possibly three. He was proper upset and disgusted was Washie, because I’d make him look so silly,” Wardle recalled later. Washbrook served as a selector during the mid-1950s, and Wardle did not really gain too much by making him look silly.

According to his biographer Alan Hill, his penchant for clowning “masked his distress at the lack of appreciation of his talents… he was devalued as a bowler and as the heir to Hedley Verity and Wilfred Rhodes”.

And finally, when Ronnie Burnett was made the captain of Yorkshire ahead of him, Wardle wrote a series of articles for the Daily Mail criticising the county and its new skipper. Wardle had just come back from South Africa with 26 wickets at 13.81. But he played just one more Test. Following his newspaper articles, his invitation to tour Australia was withdrawn.

Hence, Wardle ended up playing only 28 Tests for England over nine years.

Even in these Tests, he was often restrained from achieving what he could. On his debut, in 1948, Gubby Allen allowed him only three overs as West Indies piled up 497. His response was to keep taking wickets, 148 in the English summer of 1948, more than 100 in each of the next nine seasons. With Trueman and Bob Appleyard, Wardle formed a bowling combination for Yorkshire seldom encountered in First-Class cricket.

At the international level, in spite of the few opportunities, he demonstrated what he could achieve given a long run. In 1953, he took four for 7 against Australia at Old Trafford, and the next year captured seven for 56 against Pakistan at The Oval. It was a pity that he did not go to Australia in 1958-59. Four years earlier, when he had made the trip, he had practiced his back of the hand deliveries on the deck of Orsova and had managed quite a bit of success on a pace dominated tour.

Johnny Wardle - a left-arm spinner of rare class

The England cricket team aboard the liner Orsova on September 16, 1954 (Back row, from left): George Duckworth, Tom Graveney, Peter May, Len Hutton, WJ Edrich, Lord Cobham, Bob Appleyard, HS Altham, RT Simpson, JV Wilson, Alec Bedser, CG Howard, Trevor Bailey, Godfrey Evans. Front row (from left): J McConnon, JB Statham, Johnny Wardle, Keith Andrew and Colin Cowdrey © Getty Images

In the end, his career haul of 102 wickets in 28 Tests at 20.39 stands out as both extraordinary and incredulous. More than underlining his claims as one of the greats of slow bowling, it emphasises the curious selection policies of England in the 1950s.

Among all the bowlers to have captured 100 or more wickets in Tests, only six have a lower average than Wardle. All those six played before the First World War, when wickets were unpredictable and batting much more of a game of chance.

And when it comes to consistent showing at home and abroad, Wardle stands quite some distance above the other great spinners of his land, including Laker, Tony Lock, Hedley Verity, Derek Underwood and Graeme Swann.

Only three bowlers with over hundred wickets ended with a better economy rate. Wardle was often a joker on the field, but he played hard and did not give an inch.

Four months after Laker picked up his famous haul of 19 for 90 at Manchester, Wardle bowled alongside him at Cape Town. Laker finished with three for 72 in 42.1 eight ball overs. Wardle bowled five more balls, and took twelve wickets for 89.

A look at the tables that follow will perhaps underline how cruelly Wardle’s career was cut short and what he might have achieved given a longer run.

Bowlers with best averages (qualification 100 wickets)

Bowler Period T Wkts Ave 5WI 10WM
GA Lohmann (Eng) 1886-1896 18 112 10.75 9 5
SF Barnes (Eng) 1901-1914 27 189 16.43 24 7
CTB Turner (Aus) 1887-1895 17 101 16.53 11 2
R Peel (Eng) 1884-1896 20 101 16.98 5 1
J Briggs (Eng) 1884-1899 33 118 17.75 9 4
C Blythe (Eng) 1901-1910 19 100 18.63 9 4
JH Wardle (Eng) 1948-1957 28 102 20.39 5 1
AK Davidson (Aus) 1953-1963 44 186 20.53 14 2
MD Marshall (WI) 1978-1991 81 376 20.94 22 4
J Garner (WI) 1977-1987 58 259 20.97 7 0

Bowlers with best economy rate (qualification 100 wickets)

Bowler T Wkts Ave ER
TL Goddard (SA) 41 123 26.22 1.64
H Verity (Eng) 40 144 24.37 1.88
GA Lohmann (Eng) 18 112 10.75 1.88
JH Wardle (Eng) 28 102 20.39 1.89
R Illingworth (Eng) 61 122 31.2 1.91
CTB Turner (Aus) 17 101 16.53 1.93
MW Tate (Eng) 39 155 26.16 1.94
WJ O’Reilly (Aus) 27 144 22.59 1.94
HJ Tayfield (SA) 37 170 25.91 1.94
AL Valentine (WI) 36 139 30.32 1.95

Post World War I English spinners at home and away

Bowler Wkts Ave Home Wkts Ave Away
wkts
Ave
JH Wardle 102 20.39 57 20.70 45 20.00
JC Laker 193 21.24 135 18.08 58 28.60
H Verity 144 24.37 80 22.26 64 27.01
GAR Lock 174 25.58 104 19.51 70 34.58
DL Underwood 297 25.83 145 24.24 152 27.36
GP Swann 212 29.13 84 30.55 128 28.20

(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)

India tour of England 2014

Aug 30, 2014 (15:00 IST)   at Nottingham

Zimbabwe Triangular Series, 2014

Aug 31, 2014 (13:00 IST)   at Harare

India tour of England 2014

Sep 2, 2014 (15:00 IST)   at Birmingham

Zimbabwe Triangular Series, 2014

Sep 2, 2014 (13:00 IST)   at Harare

Zimbabwe Triangular Series, 2014

Sep 4, 2014 (13:00 IST)   at Harare

More

Pakistan tour of Sri Lanka, 2014

Aug 30, 2014  at Dambulla

SL won by 7 wkts (D/L method)

Zimbabwe Triangular Series, 2014

Aug 29, 2014  at Harare

South Africa won by 61 runs

Zimbabwe Triangular Series, 2014

Aug 27, 2014  at Harare

South Africa won by 7 wkts

Bangladesh Tour of West Indies, 2014

Aug 27, 2014  at Basseterre, St Kitts

No result

India tour of England 2014

Aug 27, 2014  at Cardiff

India won by 133 runs

Photos

Aaron Finch's record 156 vs England in T20I

Videos

Alastair Cook looks ahead to 3rd ODI at Nottingham

MS Dhoni records most stumpings in international cricket during India-England 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge

India vs England Live Cricket Score 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge: Ajinkya Rahane guides India

Give Virat Kohli a break, India

India vs England 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge: Why India will miss Rohit Sharma

MS Dhoni’s statistics at No 5 and 6 in ODIs are phenomenal

Australia England England vs India England vs India 2014 India India tour of England 2014 India vs England India vs England 2014 Pakistan Pakistan tour of Sri Lanka 2014 Pakistan vs Sri Lanka Pakistan vs Sri Lanka 2014 South Africa Sri Lanka Sri Lanka vs Pakistan Sri Lanka vs Pakistan 2014 Zimbabwe Triangular Series 2014

India vs England, 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge: India looking good after early wicket

India vs England 2014, 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge: Shikhar Dhawan dismissed by Chris Woakes

Hyderabad post 403/6 against TNCA President’s XI in Buchi Babu

James Anderson booed by Indian fans at Trent Bridge in 3rd ODI between India and England

Doug Bollinger might be recalled for Pakistan Test series in UAE

Sri Lanka vs Pakistan 2014 3rd ODI at Dambulla: Highlights

MS Dhoni records most stumpings in international cricket during India-England 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge

Give Virat Kohli a break, India

India vs England 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge: Why India will miss Rohit Sharma

India vs England 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge: India’s likely XI

Fan of the Day

Niharika Shah

Niharika Shah

667 Posts | 6 Fans

10 Most Unbeatable Records in Cricket

Ebola infected monkeys said to be recovering with ZMapp

Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa 7 eliminated contestant Kritika Kamra’s online accounts get hacked!

This is the only Apple iPhone 6 leak video you should watch ahead of September 9 launch

International programme in Animal Husbandry

Hyderabad post 403/6 against TNCA President’s XI in Buchi Babu

India vs England 2014, 3rd ODI at Trent Bridge: Shikhar Dhawan dismissed by Chris Woakes

India vs England 3rd ODI: India off to steady start; Score 24/0 in 5 overs at Nottingham

HTC to finally unveil two wearables, Desire 820 with 64-bit processor at IFA on September 4

Norms to blacklist weapon manufacturing firms eased partially

Priyanka Chopra: I can’t go bald for a film just for one or two scenes

Also on cricketcountry.com

Play Fantasy Cricket & Win

Cash Daily! Click here