Johnny Wardle Biography
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.
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.
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. Even the wicket did not please May.
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 had been dismissed. It made the batsman look silly, and it did not help Wardle’s cause when Washbrook served as a selector during the mid-1950s.
Finally, when Ronnie Burnett was made the captain of Yorkshire ahead of him, Wardle wrote a series of articles for 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 Following his newspaper articles, his invitation to tour Australia was withdrawn.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 have. On his debut, 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.
At the international level, in spite of the few opportunities, he demonstrated what he could achieve given a long run. In 1953, he took 4 for 7 against Australia at Old Trafford, and the next year captured 7 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.
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 an average better than Wardle’s. All those six played before the First World War, when wickets were unpredictable and batting much more of a game of chance.