Despite his batting style being labelled dour, Johnny Douglas scored 26 First-Class tons and led England to an Ashes win before WWI © Getty Images
Johnny Douglas, born September 3, 1882, was an England captain on either side of the First World War and Olympic gold medal winning boxer. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this versatile sportsman who also won a cap for England in Amateur Football.
Boxer, Cricketer, Footballer, Stonewaller
He could swing harder than most. Restricted to men of his own weight category, he was acknowledged as the very best on the most universally accepted platform.
Yet, spectators groaning from the agony of watching his glacial progress at the wicket dubbed him ‘Johnny Won’t Hit Today’. The initials actually stood for John William Henry Tyler, and JWHT Douglas was one of the fittest of cricketers and among the most pugnacious all-rounders of his day, However, not many would have paid to watch him bat.
His hits were furious and fast, but were mainly restricted to the boxing ring where he dominated. His batting gloves exchanged for the pugilistic ones, his fists flew with force, flourish and finesse. He regaled the blood thirsty audience at the National Sporting Club, won the Amateur Boxing Association Middleweight title in 1905 and then famously triumphed in the 1908 London Olympics. Those fists, once wrapped around a ball, could make them move either way at a lively medium pace. Those very fists could close around the travelling balls and gave him over 350 catches at top-grade.
But when sheathed in batting gloves, they seemed to lose their penchant for power and glory. Douglas batted as if, to quote David Foot, losing a competitive stroll with a tortoise. His stonewalling drove the strong, silent men to depths of despair and away from grounds. But his limited ability did not stop him from scoring 26 hundreds, including one in a Test match. He was obdurate, a perfected template from which the barnacle like form of future England all-rounder Trevor Bailey seemed to emerge. However, no one could doubt his utility.
For good measure he led England, to one victorious series in Australia before the First World War. His captaincy record later suffered when the mad conflicts took toll of the Englishmen and they were trounced by Warwick Armstrong’s Australians when cricket resumed after the War.
And if cricket and boxing were not quite enough, Douglas turned out for the Corinthians, and also the Casuals, and gained an Amateur Football Alliance cap for England.
A prolific boxer, Johnny Douglas won three bouts in a day to clinch the Olympic gold in 1908 © Getty Images
The Olympic Gold
Douglas was born in Clapton, Middlesex, on September 3, 1882 – four days after the legend of Ashes had come into existence. He learnt his early cricket at Moulton Grammar School, Lincolnshire, before moving to the Felstead School. At this latter institution, both his cricket and boxing became the toast of his mates. Curiously, for someone who became a strokeless yawn of a batsman, Douglas was coached at Felstead by T. N. Perkins, who had been a famed hitter in his Cambridge days. The young man went on to captain his school team.
After school Douglas joined his father’s timber merchants firm John H Douglas and Co. This allowed him to remain an amateur in boxing, cricket and football. It was as an amateur he entered the world of First-Class cricket, playing for Essex in 1901. He made a horrendous start, as George Hirst bowled him with his swerve in either innings. Douglas did not get a run. He did not play too many games for the next two years.
He did manage to get back in 1903 as a useful, but dour all-rounder. It was slow progress, but by 1908 he had established himself in the Essex side and had toured New Zealand and United States with MCC.
But, by then his boxing career had soared to spectacular heights. In 1905, he won the middleweight title in the English amateur championships. In 1908, he won three bouts in a day to win the Olympic gold. “It was one of the most brilliant exhibitions of skilful boxing allied to tremendous hitting ever seen,” reported some of the best judges of the day However, the euporia was clouded by allegations of Douglas senior playing the role of a referee and helping him win a close point decision over his opponent, the Australian Snowy Baker. Baker himself did not quite contest the verdict, but years later, in 1952, claimed that Douglas’s father had indeed refereed the fight. The truth is that John Douglas senior was at the ringside to present the medals as the president of the Amateur Boxing Association. The referee had been Eugene Corri.
The cricketing highs
1908 also saw Douglas mature into a fine all-rounder for Essex. That was the year he topped 1000 runs for the first time in the season. This included his first century, scored against Sussex, followed four days later by another against Kent. He was also picking up wickets regularly, and by 1911 had been made the captain of Essex.
The additional responsibility saw him score 1279 runs and pick up 82 wickets for the season. Douglas was included in the side for the Ashes tour of 1911-12. And it proved to be more eventful than he had expected.
Pelham Warner, the man who had led England to Ashes triumph in 1903-04, was the captain. Things started promisingly with Warner scoring 151 against South Australia. And then, on the train trip to Melbourne, he suddenly suffered a ruptured duodenal ulcer. From his sickbed he thrust the captaincy for the first Test and the series to the debutant Douglas. He was after all the captain of Essex and an amateur cricketer.
Douglas, perhaps overawed by the situation, made a blunder at Sydney. He took the new ball himself along with Frank Foster, relegating the great Sydney Barnes to first change. “What does he think I am, a bloody change bowler?” Barnes is supposed to have asked.
With their greatest weapon irritated and wayward, England found Victor Trumper too hot to handle. When they batted, a swarthy leg-spinner named HV Hordern took 12 wickets. England lost by 146 runs.
However, with a perturbed Warner lying in his sick bed, beseeching him not to repeat the mistake, Douglas happily handed the new ball to Barnes at Melbourne. The legendary bowler was ill, but furious enough to get out of bed and run in. With the first ball he bowled Warren Bardsley and in his next four overs had removed Charles Kelleway, Warwick Armstrong and Clem Hill. Even as critics found flaws in the way Douglas carried out his role, England won the next four Tests riding the bowling of Barnes and Foster, and the batting of Jack Hobbs. Douglas did not do too badly either, with 15 wickets at 23 apiece. The Ashes was won, and by being forced into the job, Douglas enjoyed a fascinating baptism in Test cricket.
CB Fry was lavish in his praise. “Everybody found fault with his captaincy. The result of which was a triumph for England over Australia by four to one.”
However, in archetypal English style, Lord’s soon dumped Douglas as captain for the triangular Test tournament that followed – replacing him with none other than Fry himself. Douglas was selected for only the final Test of a long drawn out season.
But, ultimately, he was rewarded by being put in charge of the touring England side to South Africa in 1913-14. Douglas struck his first and only hundred in Test cricket in the first Test at Durban and England won again. He could not continue the run of success with his bat, but the series was won 4-0 with one draw. In the final Test at Port Elizabeth, the captain captured four first innings wickets for just 14 runs. Hence, when War interrupted, Douglas had played 11 Tests, 10 as captain and finished on the winning side of eight of the Tests he led.
The equation was to change drastically after the conclusion of the atrocities.
Back home, before gunfire took over, Douglas achieved his first season double in 1914. In 1915 he was named one of the Wisden Cricketers of the Year.
During the War, Douglas got a commission in the Bedfordshire Regiment and reached the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He also got married to a widowed sister of two of his friends in the army.
And after the War was over, he was asked to lead MCC to Australia for their 1920-21 series in Australia.Things started to go wrong.
The cricketing lows
It was a thorough mismatch. War ravaged England did not have the resources to stand up to the extremely strong Australian unit under Armstrong. Douglas himself scored four half-centuries in the five Tests, but England lost all of them. On his return, he played all the five Tests at home in 1921 against one of the best touring Australian sides ever. He led in the first two and then stepped down for Lord Tennyson to take over. England lost the series 3-0 and Douglas managed just one half-century and a few wickets. His performance in the domestic season had remained as commendable as ever. In 1919, 1920 and 1921 he had managed personal doubles, and did so again for the final time in 1923. However, his international days had taken a nosedive.
Douglas played just two more Tests. There was a rain washed match against South Africa in Manchester and finally a solitary Test at Melbourne with Arthur Gilligan’s side in 1924-25, a tour in which he did not really play much cricket.
The final days
He continued to make runs for Essex, leading them till 1928, though with time he bowled less and less. Douglas also spent his time in the ring as one of the leading boxing referees of the day. He was not beyond warning some of the most notorious of fighters during the bouts.
The final days in county cricket were punctuated by an anecdote that provides remarkable insight into Douglas the man.
Essex were playing Gloucestershire, and young Wally Hammond drove a ball from Joe Hipkin to the covers where he was caught by Laurie Eastman. The batsman refused to walk claiming a bump ball. A furious Douglas turned to the umpire who was clearly not certain and ruled in favour of the batsman. At the end of the day’s play, Douglas went fuming to the Gloucestershire dressing room, blasting Hammond’s gamesmanship, demanding to know where the batsman was. Reggie Sinfield later recalled that Hammond remained hidden behind the door.
The next morning, as Essex batted, Hammond demanded the ball from skipper Bev Lyon when Douglas came to the crease. He bowled faster than he had ever done in his long career, and old Douglas was hit on the body on numerous occasions. He was soon covered with angry welts, but did not flinch even once.
Douglas played hard, but he also expected cricketers to be honest.
In a career spanning 27 years, Douglas scored 24531 runs at 27.90 with 26 hundreds and picked up 1893 wickets at 23.32. In the Tests, he had markedly less success with the ball, but 962 runs at 29.15 and 45 wickets at 33.02 in 23 Tests indicate a useful cricketer.
Supremely fit because of his boxing regimen, Douglas was a versatile cricketer. Extremely cautious while batting, with unlimited reservoirs of patience, he could be as infuriating for opponents as for the spectators. Once he batted for more than an hour and a half in Canterbury to make eight, but saved the match for his team. His number of strokes were limited, and style was cramped, but once in a while came forcing strokes on both sides of the wicket.
With the ball, he was indefatigable, and could maintain his speed and length through long spells even on the hottest of days. He could move it off a lively pace, and possessed the ability to swing the new ball late and in to the batsman.On the field he worked hard, but was not really as light-footed as one would have expected of a world class boxer.
As a captain, he had his flaws, especially in taking abrupt decisions which often resulted in huge bloomers. However, he had the ability to enjoy a joke at his expense and was often prone to recount his own mistakes with considerable mirth. The seasoned professionals who played under him enjoyed their experience.
The death of this stalwart sportsman carries tragedy and heroism in equal proportions. In December 1930, Douglas was travelling on The Oberon, returning to England with his father after purchasing timber in Finland. In the foggy and turbulent seas also sailed the Arcturus. The vessels collided seven miles south of LaesoTrindel Lightship, Denmark. It took all of three minutes for The Oberon to sink and only four passengers survived. One of those who did recounted how Douglas had gone down, trying desperately to save his father with his final effort.
(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)