Ken Higgs © Getty Images
Ken Higgs © Getty Images

Ken Higgs’ name is never taken in the same breath as that of Fred Trueman and Brian Statham. In fact, Higgs played a mere 15 Tests, finishing with better figures than both men (71 wickets at a ridiculous 20.74). Let alone Trueman and Statham, of post-War fast bowlers with over 50 Test wickets, only Frank Tyson and Alan Davidson had better averages. At First-Class level Higgs had 1,536 wickets at 23.61 with 50 five-fors and 2 ten-fors — impressive, to say the least. As if that was not enough, a whopping 56 of his 71 Test wickets were of batsmen who batted at Nos. 1 to 4.

And yet, despite one fantastic performance after another, Higgs was perpetually overshadowed by Trueman and Statham. Even during his Lancashire days he always had Statham getting priority. This, despite the fact that Higgs has the best economy rate among post-War English seamers, conceding a mere 2.14 an over compared to the famously parsimonious Statham’s 2.33. It was only for Leicestershire that he found the stature he so richly deserved.

Higgs had a curious, almost funny bowling action. He ran in diagonally (think from a backward mid-off of sorts) till he came in line with the batsmen; then the run-up straightened (but remained side-on); and just before release he had yet another movement towards the left. While his line and length were generally impeccable, his odd action gave him an advantage over batsmen who often did not know what to expect.

The Kid from Kidsgrove

Born in Kidsgrove, Higgs played both cricket and football in his early days. Gifted with a very strong physique, Higgs played football for Port Vale. He was selected for an FA Youth Team that toured Germany in 1953-54.

His signing-up for Lancashire was no less than grand. He was recommended by Jack Ikin and Staffordshire captain Dennis Haynes. When he first saw Higgs bowl, Lancashire coach Stan Worthington thought that Higgs “might develop into another Alec Bedser”.

He started his Championship stint with a bang. In his first match he and Statham both bowled unchanged to rout Hampshire for 50. Higgs took 7 for 36. When Statham was absent against Glamorgan later that season, Higgs took 7 for 74.

If Higgs had been erratic towards the beginning of his career, it was sorted out after the long hours he spent with Worthington and Statham. His impeccable line and length meant the batsmen had little breathing space, especially with Statham at the other end.

In 1959 his 113 wickets came at 27.11, which earned him a Lancashire cap. He improved the haul in 1960 (132 wickets at 19.42). Unfortunately, Trueman and Statham already had Barry Knight and, if required, Ted Dexter, to back them up, which meant there was no Test spot for the grabs.

But Higgs refused to give up. In 1965 his 122 wickets came at 20.58. Once again his performance of the year came in Statham’s absence. Higgs bowled unchanged, taking 7 for 19 from 16.4 overs and routing Leicestershire for 59 (after they were 39 for 2); he eventually finished the match with 10 for 115.

The cap fit, and how!

Higgs’ Test debut came later that year, against South Africa at The Oval, where he took 4 for 47 and 4 for 96. He played one Test in the 1965-66 Ashes, but tormented New Zealand in the second leg of the tour with absurd figures of 17 wickets at 9.23.

When West Indies came in 1966 he took a 5-for against them for MCC. He played all 5 Tests (he was the only Englishman to do so in the series). Nobody took more wickets than his tally of 24 (at 25.45). Higgs even scored 49 at Headingley and 63 at The Oval. During the second of the two innings he added 128 for the last wicket with John Snow in 140 minutes. It was the first time that Nos. 10 and 11 had added a hundred runs in a Test innings.

While fighting the West Indians, Higgs had an excellent season for Lancashire as well, taking 96 wickets at 20.77. In 1966 he captured the most Test wickets in the world (41), well ahead of Lance Gibbs and Garry Sobers (both 32).

And yet, Higgs played only 5 more Tests, 4 of them in 1967. While his solitary appearance against India did not come off, he scythed through Pakistan with 17 wickets at 14.64. Once again he had most wickets from either side.

It was also his Lancashire testimonial year (he earned £8,390). He celebrated it with 95 wickets at 16.92. Deservingly, he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

Then, surprisingly, he faded out after playing just one Test in 1968. It was astonishing, for his season tally read 108 wickets at 15.15 (including 11 for 56 against Derbyshire). He was only 31. If one goes by the retrospective ICC ranking, he was world No. 2 at this stage.

And yet, Higgs did not play another Test. Worse, Lancashire kept dropping him for no obvious reason. Despite that he finished the following season with 66 wickets at 22.65, but he refused to play for Lancashire if he was treated as a reserve bowler. His tally of 1,033 wickets for the Red Roses has been bettered by only eight men.

Call of the Foxes

Ray Illingworth had severed ties with Yorkshire some time back and had taken charge of Leicestershire. When Graham McKenzie, Leicestershire spearhead and Australian professional, opted out of the 1972 season, Illingworth reached out for Higgs, then ruling Lancashire League for Rishton.

Higgs responded with 50 wickets in 26.56 in the first season. In 1974 he played a stellar role in the Benson & Hedges Cup win (he was retained despite McKenzie’s return). Even in the final he had 7-2-10-4, bowling out Surrey for 170. Unfortunately, Leicestershire lost the final.

That season Higgs scored a career-best of 98 against Northamptonshire, adding 228 with Illingworth. It remains a Leicestershire record for the last wicket.

Five years later, at 42, Higgs was named Leicestershire captain. His marched on, taking 47 wickets from 19 matches at 18.55 even at that age. His Leicestershire benefit (jointly with Chris Balderstone) was in 1982. The pair earned £64,470 between them.

Then, in his 50th year, he was summoned by Leicestershire yet again. It was almost surreal, for a man who had bowled with Statham was now bowling with Phil DeFreitas, spanning almost three generations of English cricket.

The 49-year old Higgs took 5 for 22; after being 96 without loss Yorkshire slumped to 216, and Higgs quietly slipped into retirement yet again (though he played another match, against Somerset).

Coach and mentor

Higgs coached both Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, mentoring many an aspiring cricketer.

In his tweet David Lloyd called Ken Higgs a mentor. He would not have been the only one, for the quiet, unassuming Higgs touched many a life well after his days for Lancashire and Leicestershire.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)