Hedley Verity dismissed Don Bradman 8 times in 16 Tests © Getty Images
Hedley Verity dismissed Don Bradman 8 times in 16 Tests © Getty Images

Hedley Verity, born May 18, 1905, was one of the greatest left-arm spinners ever. Even Don Bradman fell to his guile. Arunabha Sengupta recounts the career of the Yorkshire bowler who was tragically killed in the Second World War.

“I think I knew all about Clarrie (Grimmett), but with Hedley I was never sure. You see, there was no breaking point with him. His whole career exemplified all that was best about cricket.” This is how Don Bradman remembered Hedley Verity. And with good reason. The left-arm spin of the Yorkshire bowler, uncannily accurate at all time and unplayable on wet or turning wickets, accounted for the greatest batsman of the world as many as 8 occasions in 16 Tests.

Perhaps the epic duel between the two would have resumed when Test cricket began again after the Second World War. Perhaps there could have been many more added to the tally of 144 shows under the wickets column of his career superb figures.

However, he was called into the Greater Game, turning out for England as a Green Howards officer, in India, Persia and Egypt. And he was killed  in gunfire during a terrifying night in the Sicilian plain in 1943.

Fourteen in a day

Two of those eight Bradman dismissals came in that famed Lord’s Test of 1934 — the crowning glory of a glittering career.

Centuries by Maurice Leyland and Les Ames had rescued England from 182 for 5, hauling the total to 440. By the end of the second day Australia had posted 192 for the loss of Bill Woodfull and Bradman. Yes, it was Verity who had snared The Don after a blistering 36 that evoked some characteristic eulogies from Neville Cardus.

While Wisden did not share any of the Cardusian flights of fancy, remarking ‘He never looked like staying long, making many of his strokes without restraint,’ Bradman himself later provided a curious explanation for his demise. The Don wrote to Verity’s biographer Alan Hill, “I just happened to be in very good form. I had made 36, including seven fours and three in succession off Verity…My captain begged me to be less aggressive because, apparently, he feared I was going to give my wicket away…I did restrain myself and in so doing ‘held’ a shot against my better judgment and was out caught-and-bowled by Hedley. Had I been allowed to continue batting on the Saturday in my own way I am in no doubt we would have easily saved the follow-on…England would have had to bat on that sticky on the Monday…and Hedley would never have got the chance to…put up such a wonderful performance.”

As it happened, rain over the weekend converted the wicket into a sticky dog — and Australia failed to save the follow-on by 6 runs.  Verity ran through the side twice, capturing 7 for 61 in the first innings, and 8 for 43 in the second.  Of the 15 wickets, 14 were taken on Monday, including Bradman again, an ugly slog ending up in the gloves of Ames. The 15 for 104 bettered the match figures of 15 for 124 set in Melbourne 1903-04 by the other great Yorkshire left-armer, Wilfred Rhodes. By happy chance, the older man was sitting in the stands, delighted to watch his spiritual descendent skittle out the Australians. According to Wisden, “This amazing achievement would probably have been only possible to a man possessed of such length and finger-spin as Verity … Verity’s length was impeccable and he made the ball come back and lift so abruptly that most of the Australians were helpless.”

Only Johnny Briggs, with 15 wickets at Cape Town against a weak South African line-up of 1888-89, stands ahead of Verity’s 14 scalps in a day of Test cricket. Even Hercule Poirot, the supposedly cricket-agnostic Belgian detective, was led to analyse this feat in “Four and Twenty Blackbirds.”

Late entry

Verity bowled at near medium-pace. According to RC Robertson-Glasgow’s appraisal during his playing days, “He is a scholarly bowler … He is tall, and much stronger than his pace needs. His run up, longer than most of his kind, has a measured delicacy that you would expect from this fastidious and nearly prim craftsman. Only his delivery has a grace which mathematics can’t explain.”

His great ability was to bowl straight and on a perfect length, pitching with unwavering accuracy all through the day. Occasionally a delivery would jump disconcertingly. The most dangerous balls would curve through the air into the batsman, hit the turf and turn away from him. And once in a while, he was not beyond sending an in-swinging yorker.

And when the wicket was dry and dusty or wet and sticky or crumbling, he bowled slower through the air, tossing it up and turning it a long way. 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.” When his career had been ended by the tragic death, Robertson Glasgow summed up: “He was a born schemer; tireless, but never wild, in experiment; as sensitive in observation as a good host, or as an instrumentalist who spots a rival on the beat; the scholar who does not only dream, the inventor who can make it work.”

While the very best fell to his guiles and mastery of the art and craft of spin bowling, Verity’s another great asset was to make short work of the tail. The rabbits were dispatched soon enough to the hutch where they rightfully belonged.

Verity was born within a stone’s throw of Headingley, but could not get on to the hallowed turf till he was over twenty-five. The slot for the left-arm spinner in that great Yorkshire team was reserved for the legendary Rhodes. Hence, Verity spent his first few years as an amateur for Rawdon in the Yorkshire Council, for Accrington in the Lancashire League, and for Middleton in the Central League.

It was when Rhodes announced his intention to retire at the end of the 1930 season that Verity turned out for the county for the first time. After taking nine wickets in his fourth First-Class game, against Glamorgan on a rain affected pitch, he became a regular in the side, bowling alongside Rhodes till the end of the season.
The following year, Verity made his Test debut against New Zealand at The Oval, with impressive control but limited success.

The next season, Verity captured 162 wickets at 13.88 in the county championships. This included incredible figures of 10 for 10 in the second innings against Nottinghamshire, which beat George Geary’s 10 for 18 as the best ever bowling analysis in First-class cricket. The record stands to this day.

Hedley Verity’s 10 for 10 are the best figures in First-Class cricket © Getty Images
Hedley Verity’s 10 for 10 are the best figures in First-Class cricket © Getty Images

Top Flight

Incredibly, Verity’s first major success in Test cricket came in the final Test of the infamous Bodyline series in Australia, a tour otherwise remembered for the fast bowling exploits of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce and questionable tactics of Douglas Jardine. In that encounter at Sydney, Woodfull and Bradman had added 115 in the second innings, wiping out the small 19 run deficit, and were cruising towards a match winning total. With Larwood injured, the hosts looked the favourites till Verity deceived Bradman in flight, bowling him for 71. He went on to take five for 33 in 19 overs and the last nine wickets fell for 57. England won by eight wickets.

The following summer, he did even better in the county championships, and his 190 wickets included 17 in one day against Essex. Only Colin Blythe and Tom Goddard have managed an equivalent haul for a single day’s work.

In late 1933, Verity travelled to India — the only man from the Bodyline series to go on the tour apart from captain Jardine. He had good all-round success, scoring his first Test half-century and taking eight wickets in the second Test at Calcutta, following it up with a 42 and a match-winning 11 wicket haul in the final match at Madras. Yes, as a batsman he had style, if not grace, and looked much like an out of form Herbert Sutcliffe — which is to say he was quite good.

After his triumphant Ashes series at home in 1934, the remaining career for Verity was not always a saga of success.

He captured 211 wickets in 1935, bowling Yorkshire to championship triumph. However, when the South Africans arrived to play a five-Test series, he gave the impression of struggling to break-through. Though he picked up 12 wickets at 21 apiece, each scalp consumed around 85 deliveries and his reputation took a beating.

During South Africa’s tour match against Yorkshire, Jock Cameron took 30 off him in one over, prompting captain Arthur Wood to remark, “Go on, Hedley, you have him in two minds. He doesn’t know whether to hit you for four or six!” Verity was dropped from the final Test and The Times observed: “Verity has not been impressive on firm wickets: he seems to have checked suddenly in a career which promised so well three seasons ago, and it is not surprising that he has been left out of this side.”

Early in 1936, the Yorkshire team played three matches in Jamaica. The visitors won the first match, Jamaica’s first defeat at home in 10 years. Verity took 10 for 106 in 57 overs. In the drawn final game, Verity hit 101, the only first-class century of his career.

When Vizzy brought the Indians over in 1936, Verity enjoyed all-round success yet again. He was among wickets and in the second Test he struck 66, his highest Test score.

Returning to Australia later that year under Gubby Allen, he struggled to pick up wickets on those true pitches. Yet, he did send down some memorable spells of bowling. In Sydney he sparkled briefly, picking up three wickets in the second innings in a crushing win. This included the scalp of Bradman yet again, and once again clean bowled. His effort in the third Test at Melbourne received rich praise from both Wisden and Cardus. In the first innings he got Bradman cheaply, but in the second, Australia plundered 564. Verity’s 3 for 79 from 38 eight-ball overs led Cardus to write: “Verity was magnificent … In his absence Bradman might have scored another 100 runs. Nothing but consummate length and flight could have checked Bradman, in circumstances made for Bradman…Every run from Verity had to be earned. It was beautiful bowling, delightful to the eye and intellect.”

During that series England struggled to find a reliable opening pair. In the fourth Test, Allen sent Verity in to commence with Charlie Barnett. Perhaps the faint resemblance with Sutcliffe influenced him. They put on 53, England’s best opening partnership of the series. In the second innings the opening stand was worth 45.

Verity was perhaps back at his very best in the Ashes series of 1938. Bowling on placid batting tracks that saw huge scores, and poorly used by captain Wally Hammond, he nevertheless remained accurate and enjoyed reasonable success. He was also instrumental in helping his young Yorkshire mate Len Hutton score that epic 364 at The Oval. He stayed with the opening batsman through every long interval during the innings, helping him concentrate. And on Sunday, he arranged a break for Hutton by the sea, with no cricket to bother him. Later Hutton acknowledged, “I owe the kind of debt that one can never fully repay…His quiet, natural dignity was an immense source of strength to me throughout those long hours.”

Last season

That winter, the timeless Test at Durban ended in a draw as England could not afford to play another day and miss the mail-ship bound for Southampton. Verity sent down 766 deliveries in all — a record for First-class cricket. His figures read 55.6-14-97-2 and 40-9-87-2. One has to take into account that these were eight-ball overs.

In his final season, Verity captured 191 wickets at 13.13 even as the championship was held under the looming threat of War. He played one solitary Test against West Indies that summer, finishing with two for 20 in the last innings of his international career as England cruised to an eight wicket win. New faces were allowed to turn out in the remaining Tests, and Verity returned to Headingley to turn his arm over for Yorkshire.

On September 1, 1939, Verity bowled at Hove, running through the Sussex innings. The length remained impeccable, the balls as unplayable as ever. It took him just six overs to vanquish the home team. Sussex were 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.

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 recalled later, “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. He ended with 1956 wickets at 14.90, easily the best bowler of his generation. In Tests, he took 144 wickets in 40 matches at 24 apiece.  This was especially remarkable because it was a decade ruled by batsmen on shirtfront wickets tailormade for run making.

The Greater Game

Bowling along the footsteps of great left-arm spinners of England — Bobby Peel and Wilfred Rhodes, he followed the example of another supreme slow left-armer in the world wide skirmish. Colin Blythe had taken exactly 100 wickets for England between 1901 and 1910, and was killed in France during the First World War in 1917. He had perished at the age of 38.

Now, Verity went into war as mankind engaged in the second planetwide mayhem.

He had considered joining earlier, in the autumn of 1938, during the Munich Crisis. Colonel Arnold Shaw of the Green Howards, an acquaintance from the Indian tour of 1933-34, had suggested he read some military textbooks. Verity devoured a number of books about military tactics during the South African tour of 1938-39. He was a voracious reader. Cardus told the story of Verity and Kim Barnett, sharing a cabin on the ship to Australia, reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom to each other.

When the war commenced, Verity contacted Colonel Shaw again. By 1941, he had become a captain and a company commander of the 1st Battalion of the Green Howards. He was posted in Ranchi and then in Persia and Syria, before finally arriving in Egypt in March 1943. He played his last cricket match in Egypt, before leaving for Italy.

It was during the night of July 19, while involved in the Eighth Army’s first attack on the German positions at Catania in Sicily, that Verity was hit in the chest. “Keep going,” was his last command.

Lying wounded on the ground and writhing in agony, he was captured by the enemy. The Germans filled a mortar carrier with hay to take him to their nearest field hospital. He was operated on and a rib was removed, and continued to fight for his life while being transferred across Italy to Naples — a long and arduous journey from hell. In the end it proved too much.

The great left-arm spinner of his era passed away on July 31, 1943 in Caserta, Italy. Like Blythe, he was just 38.

(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)