Seventy three years ago, Hedley Verity played his last First-Class match, taking seven wickets for nine runs. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the exploits of the great left-arm spinner whose life was tragically cut short by the Second World War.
Even Bradman fell to the guile of Hedley Verity. Later, The Don recalled, “I think I knew all about Clarrie (Grimmett), but with Hedley I was never sure. You see, there was no breaking point with him.” He added, “His whole career exemplified all that was best about cricket.”
No mean praise this, coming from the greatest batsman of all time. And Verity thoroughly deserved it. After all, he got the prized Bradman wicket on eight occasions in 16 Tests.
On September 1, 1939, 73 years ago, England was enjoying the last few days of summer – days that they would never see again for the next few years. Verity, with uncanny accuracy and length as always, ran in to bowl for Yorkshire against Sussex.
The ball left his hand straight as an arrow. His principle was scientific and simple. The best length is the shortest you can bowl and still get them playing forward. With slow bowling particularly, you set your field and try to get them driving at you. Then you try to deceive them with flight or a change of pace or spin.
It took just six overs at Hove for the Yorkshire spinner to vanquish Sussex. The home team was all out for 33 in 11 overs and three balls. Verity, hardly showing any emotion – he seldom did – ended with the figures 6-1-9-7.
It was not his best effort though, so used was he to such fantastic feats. He once took a world-record 17 wickets in a day against Essex at Leyton, and twice all 10 in an innings, including his best figures - 10 for 10 against Nottinghamshire at Headingley.
And this September day, while people shook him warmly by the hand and patted the worthy back, the greatest left-arm spinner of his day observed: “I wonder if I'll ever bowl here again.”
The premonition of doom echoed the guns that were already roaring in Poland. George Cox, a century maker in that game recalls, “The tension was awful, there was a feeling that we shouldn't be playing cricket. Yet there was also a festive air. We knew that this was our last time of freedom for many years and so we enjoyed ourselves while we could.”
That was the last time Verity played First-class cricket, ending with 1956 wickets at 14.90, easily the best bowler of his generation. In Test cricket, he took 144 wickets in 40 matches at 24 apiece. His ‘perching’ ball, the one that lifted from wet wickets, got him many a precious scalp in a decade ruled by batsmen.
The next time he turned out for England was as a Green Howards officer, and served in India, Persia and Egypt.
Sadly, even in the Greater Game he carried on the tradition of the great English slow left-arm bowlers. Colin Blythe had been killed in France during the First World War. Verity himself was fatally wounded in gunfire during a terrifying night in the Sicilian plain in 1943. Like Blythe, he too was aged 38. It is said that his last words to his men were: “Keep going.”
On hearing of his death, old Yorkshire professional George Hirst observed: "Anyone who came into contact with Hedley had but one thought: he may be a fine bowler, but he is certainly a fine man. I am so glad I knew him so well. I will cherish his memory as long as I live."
(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)