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Ken Higgs — England’s fast bowler who deserved to play more Test cricket

Ken Higgs © Getty Images
Ken Higgs © Getty Images

The Lancashire and Leicestershire champion Ken Higgs was born on January 14, 1937. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a relentless workhorse who played an inexplicably low number of Tests.

The only explicable reason for Kenneth Higgs’s career being restricted to only 15 Tests is the fact that he was not as glamorous or mercurial as the likes of Fred Trueman or John Snow. He was more of a workhorse, bowling to a steady line and length, gifted with the uncanny ability to make the ball take off from a length and hit the gloves or the handle of the bat.

Higgs also bowled with an unusual action: he ran in from a 45-degree angle, and once he came in line with the batsman, he ran in straight with a side-arm action; on approaching close to the wicket, he moved away again, darting the ball to just ahead of good length; his wristwork made the ball bounce more than usual and made up for what would seem like a half-volley.

Higgs’ career at Lancashire was generally overshadowed by the colossal presence of Brian Statham, an improved version of Higgs. Despite Statham’s legendary stature, however, Higgs was the more parsimonious of the two, conceding 2.14 runs an over in Tests to Statham’s 2.33. In fact, if we put a 50-wicket cut-off, Higgs has the seventh best economy rate among post-war seamers and the best for England under the same criterion.

From 15 Tests, Higgs had picked up 71 wickets at 20.74 with two five-fors. If we put a 50-wicket cut-off among post-war seamers, Higgs ranks only after Vernon Philander, Frank Tyson, and Alan Davidson in terms of bowling average. In First-Class cricket (mostly for Lancashire and Leicestershire), Higgs finished with 1,536 wickets at 23.61 with 50 five-fors and two ten-fors. He had also scored 5,424 runs and had taken 230 catches.

A striking feature of Higgs’ career was the high proportion of top-order batsmen he had dismissed. 56 of his 71 Test wickets were of batsmen batting at seventh place or less. The first spell from Higgs almost always turned out to be a lethal one for the batsman: batsmen at positions one to four, whom Higgs dismissed, averaged a mere 22.61.

The limited duration of Higgs’s career remains one of the mysteries of English cricket. As Colin Bateman wrote in If The Cap Fits, “[Ken] Higgs was a fine medium-fast bowler with an impressive pedigree, who suddenly went out of fashion with the selectors after one Test of the 1968 Ashes series.”

Early days

Born at Kidsgrove near Stoke-on-Trent, Higgs was one of those tough, hardy lads with strong shoulders. He played both cricket and football at High Street Secondary Modern School at Tunstall (near Stoke). To quote Higgs himself, he was “no better and no worse than the other boys”.

He never received any formal training, but his strong physique helped him to become proficient in both cricket and football for Staffordshire. He played football for Port Vale and was even selected for an FA Youth Team to tour Germany in 1953-54, but his progress was hampered due to military service.

Higgs was posted near Aldershot as a member of the RAMC. He was a natural choice for both the football and cricket teams, preferring the former. However, having watched his brother Ray play for the Staffordshire League side Meakins (now Sandyford Cricket Club) he changed his mind, thankfully for the sport.

He joined Lancashire, “on a special registration” thanks to the convincing of Jack Ikin and the recommendation of Staffordshire captain Dennis Haynes, in 1958. On watching him bowl in the nets the Lancashire coach Stan Worthington thought that Higgs “might develop into another Alec Bedser”: there have been few compliments as big.

Higgs was given two University matches against Cambridge at Fenner’s Ground and against Oxford at the University Parks. He did well, picking up five wickets from the two matches, and made his Championship debut against Hampshire at Old Trafford later that month.

Opening the bowling with Statham, Higgs picked up two wickets for 65 to help bowl out the tourists for 252. After Lancashire was restricted to a 77-run margin, Higgs proved his worth: he bowled unchanged with Statham, picked up seven wickets for 36, and helped rout Hampshire for 50 in less than 18 overs. Lancashire won the match comfortably.

His other five-for that season was also a seven-wicket haul — against Glamorgan at home. In the absence of Statham, Higgs opened the bowling with Colin Hilton, taking seven for 74 to bowl out the tourists for 286. He had an excellent first season with 67 wickets from 22 matches at 22.58 with two five-fors.

During this phase, Higgs had the perfect length, but had the tendency of straying down the leg-side. However, as he spent time with Worthington and Statham the tendency was quickly got rid of, and Higgs rose at an amazing pace through the Lancashire ranks.

He finished with 113 wickets at 27.11 with four five-wicket hauls in 1959 (the season when he won his Lancashire cap) and went another step further in 1960 when he returned a haul of 132 wickets at 19.42. He also took a hat-trick in the second season when he removed Michael Bear, Roy Ralph, and Bertie Clarke in consecutive deliveries against Essex at Liverpool.

He gained stature as a bowler, but with Trueman and Statham at the helm, men like Barry Knight to support him, and Ted Dexter doing a fine job as a reserve seamer, Higgs did not have a chance to break through to the national side.

The watershed season was 1965: in a wet summer Higgs finished with 122 wickets at 20.58, reaching his epoch at home against Leicestershire: with no Statham around, Higgs opened bowling with Peter Lever and bowled unchanged, picking up a career-best seven for 19 in 16.4 overs: the tourists were routed for 59 after being 39 for two. In the second innings, too, Higgs picked up three for 94, thereby registering his maiden First-Class ten-for. He made his Test debut later that season against South Africa at The Oval.

Test debut

England needed to win the final Test at The Oval to square the series against a very strong South African outfit: Higgs came on first-change after Statham and David Brown, finishing with figures of four for 47 (including wickets of Denis Lindsay, Ali Bacher, and Peter van der Merwe).

After Peter Pollock restricted England to a nominal first-innings deficit, Colin Bland scored a hundred to help the tourists set a target of 399; once again Higgs persisted, this time finishing with four for 96 — dismissing Bland, van der Merwe, and ‘Tiger’ Lance. England, however, fell short of the target and finished on 308 for four.

Higgs made it to the Ashes tour but did not do anything of note. In the first Test at the Gabba, Higgs removed Bill Lawry and Doug Walters, but finished with figures of two for 102 as England saved the Test after following-on. Injury and illness stopped him from playing another Test on the tour.

Higgs’s finest year

It was on the second leg of the tour — in New Zealand — that Higgs made an impact: the finest performance came in the first Test at Lancaster Park, where, after having three for 51 in the first innings, he returned figures of 9-7-5-4. New Zealand were reduced to 22 for seven and 32 for eight, but Vic Pollard and Bob Cunis saw the hosts to a draw.

The series was drawn 0-0, and Higgs finished with figures of 17 wickets at an absurd 9.23. With five more wickets for MCC against Garry Sobers’ West Indians at Lord’s he was an automatic choice for the first Test of the Wisden Trophy at Old Trafford. He removed the top three batsmen (Easton McMorris, Rohan Kanhai, and Conrad Hunte) and finished with three for 94 before England romped to an innings victory in three days.

Higgs retaliated with a career-best six for 91 (including Joey Carew, Kanhai, and Hunte) at Lord’s and picked up Carew and Basil Butcher in the second innings as well. However, short bursts from Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith resulted in four quick wickets and England decided to settle for a draw.

Higgs returned a seven-wicket haul at Trent Bridge as well (including Hunte and Kanhai in the first innings and Kanhai, Seymour Nurse, and Sobers in the second). However, a double-hundred from Butcher and some lethal stuff from the fast bowlers England lost again.

The teams moved on to Headingley — and once again West Indies put the Englishmen to the sword: Nurse and Sobers scored hundreds before Sobers himself and Gibbs spun out the hosts to an innings win. Higgs’ consistency, however, was relentless: he sent down 43 overs and picked up four for 94 (though West Indies scored at over three runs an over). Batting at nine, Higgs, a rank tail-ender, also scored 49 with five fours and two sixes. It was a trailer of what was to follow.

The England team after winning the fifth and final Test against the West Indies by an innings and 54 runs at The Oval, London, in August 1966. (Standing, left to right): Geoff Boycott, John Edrich, Basil D'Oliveira, Dennis Amiss and Bob Barber. (Sitting, left to right): Ray Illingworth, Tom Graveney, Brian Close (captain), John Murray and Ken Higgs © Getty Images
The England team after winning the fifth and final Test against the West Indies at The Oval, London, in August 1966. (Standing from left): Geoff Boycott, John Edrich, Basil D’Oliveira, Dennis Amiss and Bob Barber. (Sitting, from left): Ray Illingworth, Tom Graveney, Brian Close (captain), John Murray and Ken Higgs © Getty Images

England finally pulled one back in the final Test at The Oval under their new captain Brian Close. Higgs contributed — but in a rather unusual fashion. England had a déjà vu of sorts when they were 166 for seven after the tourists had scored 268; Tom Graveney and John Murray then both scored hundreds, and when Snow joined Higgs at 399 for nine, it seemed that England’s lead would amount to something around 150.

Neither batsman had scored a First-Class fifty before, but here both Snow and Higgs decided to spoil the party for the West Indians. While Snow was more ‘authentic’, Higgs employed a two-way technique that oscillated between forward-defences and wild slogs. Sobers, armed with Hall, Griffith, Gibbs, David Holford, and himself, had no answer.

Before Higgs eventually hit one back to Holford, the pair had become the first numbers ten and eleven to put up a hundred-partnership in Test cricket. The 361 runs put up for the last three wickets by England in this innings also remains a world record.

Higgs’s 63 remained his only Test fifty; Snow remained unbeaten on 59, and the pair added a whirlwind 128 in 140 minutes. A demoralised West Indies crashed to an innings defeat (Higgs picked up two wickets as well).

Despite being on the losing side, Higgs finished the series with 24 wickets at 25.45, leading the charts from either side (Gibbs had 21 wickets, while Snow with 12 wickets was the best among Englishmen). The Test ended in August, but Higgs did not play another that year. Despite that, he finished 1966 with 41 wickets at 18.73 as the leading wicket-taker in the world nine wickets clear of Gibbs’s and Sobers’s tally. He did not neglect his Lancashire duties either and finished the season with 96 First-Class wickets at 20.77.

Fading out

Despite his phenomenal success, Higgs somehow lost his position in the side. He had one bad Test against India at Headingley, where he managed only the solitary wicket, but then lost his position — somewhat unfairly — to Brown. He came back strongly against Pakistan in the second half of the summer.

He had three wickets at Lord’s, and bettered it with four for 35 and two for eight at Trent Bridge. In the last Test at the Oval Higgs took three for 61 in the first innings and five for 58 in the second (his final five-for: all five batsmen were from the top six). He finished the series with 17 wickets at 14.64, easily topping the charts (Asif Iqbal came next with 11).

Barring all that, he had an amazing season, finishing with 95 wickets at 16.92 in what was his testimonial year (it raised £8,390). The most memorable of these performances came against Nottinghamshire at home where he picked up six for 63 and four for 24 to set up a victory single-handedly. He was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

At 31, Higgs was probably reaching the peak of his career when it came to an abrupt end. He played the first Test of the 1968 Ashes that England lost. Higgs picked up two wickets and mysteriously never played another Test. The Reliance ICC Ratings show today that he was the second-ranked bowler in the world at the point of time of his retirement.

The surprising bit was the fact that Higgs had an excellent season (108 wickets at 15.15). This included four for 28 and seven for 41 at Eastbourne, routing Sussex for 80 and 78. He was at it again at Southport when he bowled out Derbyshire for 111 and 100 with figures of six for 39 and five for 17.

If being dropped from the Test side was illogical, the treatment Lancashire dished out to Higgs was utterly baffling. He found himself in and out of the side (Lever and Ken Shuttleworth were preferred); he still finished with 66 wickets at 22.65, but he was not willing to play on as a reserve bowler.

He announced his retirement after the season and confined himself to playing for Rishton in the Lancashire League. Despite his truncated career, he finished with 1,033 wickets for Lancashire a feat that has been bettered by only eight Lancastrians.

 

Responding to Illy’s call

The unexpected break came when Graham McKenzie declared himself unavailable for the 1972 season. Higgs got a call from Ray Illingworth to play for Leicestershire — a call he readily accepted. A new chapter began in his illustrious career with the Leicestershire cap at an age of 35. He fitted seamlessly into Illingworth’s side, starting with 50 wickets in 26.56 in his debut season.

The greatest moment in Higgs’s Leicestershire stint came in the 1974 Benson & Hedges Cup. Higgs, who had bowled consistently well throughout the season, came to his elements in the final. With McKenzie back in the side the pair gave Surrey a torrid time at Lord’s, bowling them out for 170.

Higgs finished with 7-2-10-4, dismissing Alan Butcher, Pat Pocock, and Arnold Long in consecutive deliveries to take a hat-trick. Unfortunately a batting collapse (triggered by Geoff Arnold, Pocock, and Graham Roope) saw Leicestershire slump to a 27-run defeat.

Yet another memorable performance came against Northamptonshire at Grace Road. The hosts were reeling at 45 for nine after Higgs, with figures of five for 51, had bowled out the tourists at 172. Higgs joined Illingworth at this stage and the pair had a blast, adding 228 for the last wicket before Higgs was run out for a career-best 98, leaving Illingworth stranded on 119. It still remains a record last-wicket stand for Leicestershire.

In 1979, at an age of 42, Higgs was appointed captain of Leicestershire. Even at that age, Higgs played 19 matches from which he managed to pick up 47 wickets at 18.55 with four five-fors. He resigned after the season, though he played three matches in 1980 and one more in 1982. Leicestershire gave him a joint benefit season in 1984 with Chris Balderstone: the purse was worth £64,470.

The call-up

When he was well past 49, he was summoned by Leicestershire on an emergency basis. He came on second-change at Grace Road after Phil DeFreitas, George Ferris, and Les Taylor, but broke the opening stand and triggered a collapse from which Yorkshire never recovered: they were bowled out for 216 after being 96 without loss.

Higgs finished with figures of 11-4-22-5. He played one more match against Somerset at Grace Road where he went wicket-less and scored eight before falling to Ian Botham. This time he quit First-Class cricket for good.

Post-retirement

Higgs settled down in Kidsgrove (very close to Port Vale Football Ground) with his wife Mary and his sons Pat and Terry. The cricket-mad family have always been frequenters to Old Trafford. Higgs senior coached both Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire in his later days. He also umpired in Second XI matches.

Just like his father, Paul was also an opening bowler and went on to play for Leicestershire Under-25s and Leicestershire Second XI. He also played for Earl Shilton Town in the Leicestershire County Cup Final.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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