Tony Lock © Getty Images
Tony Lock © Getty Images

Tony Lock, born July 5, 1929, was one of the greatest left-arm spinners of his era whose career might have stretched far beyond 49 Tests had his action not raised eyebrows. However, he remodelled his bowling methods again and again to prove to be one of the most enduring and entertaining of cricketers. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the colourful life of this inimitable character.

Spin twins at The Oval

Summer of 1953. The Australians had held the Ashes for 19 long years. Was it a numerological quirk that led Len Hutton, a captain who would become famous for championing the formula of pace, to bring on his spinners at the very moment when the openers of the visiting team had stroked their way to 19 without loss?

It is more likely that crafty cricketing cunning motivated the move that brought home the Ashes. The series was tied 0-0 after four Tests. England led on first innings by a paltry 31. The 3 overs from Alec Bedser and 2 from Fred Trueman had been ample proof of the ease with which the Australians would play the quicks on the dry fourth day wicket. No one knew the strip at The Oval better than the spin twins of Surrey. And on came Jim Laker, flighting his off-breaks, bowling round the wicket from the Vauxhall End. From the Pavilion End ran in Tony Lock, with pin-pointed accuracy at incredible pace, pitching the ball unerringly as he willed, zipping, turning and making it rise disconcertingly.

Laker struck soon, getting Lindsay Hassett leg before. After one-and-a-half hours, in a brief passage of play, the two spun a noose around the Australian necks and expertly tightened it. Laker got Graeme Hole, after another shrewd move from Hutton had blocked the batsman’s favourite scoring areas. This was followed by a Lock special, knocking back Neil Harvey’s off-stump even as the great left-hander was getting in position to play the drive. Keith Miller was snared in Laker’s leg-trap, and then Lock forced Arthur Morris on the back-foot and hit his pad right in front.

Ron Archer and Alan Davidson counterattacked for a while, but Lock, bowling to a ring of off-side fieldsmen, got both of them within the space of 5 runs. He soon had Gil Langley caught close in. Australia finished at 162 and Lock was applauded back with 5 for 45 against his name. The next morning England completed the chase and the urn was back after nearly two decades.

The first remodelling

It was just the fourth Test for Lock, and his cricket had already been forged through fire. His spinning finger had been rendered raw by the amount of rip imparted in the county matches, and it had made him miss the first three Tests of the Ashes series.

Additionally he had already remodelled his action once. And within a few years, would have to go through another major modification which would have ended the careers of most men but the most resilient. And Tony Lock was as durable as they come. His intensity, passion and wild theatrics made many brand him as the first modern showman of the game.

But he was much more than that. Every palpating act on the field rose from solid foundations of skill and brilliance, mixed with heavy dollops of zeal and determination. It made him put his body and mind through many agonies during his long career. Fiery and indomitable, he took all the setbacks in his sterling stride.

He had been in the county circuit ever since the game had limped back into normalcy after the Second World War. With excellent recommendations from HDG Leveson Gower, he had made his championship debut for Surrey in 1946 at the tender age of 17.

He had left for his national service in 1948, and had taken 6 for 43 at Pontypridd as Combined Services had defeated the County Champions of that year, Glamorgan. Coming back to The Oval, he had earned his county cap for Surrey in 1950 with 72 wickets at 22.38. In the following year, he had taken 100 wickets for the first time. Already with Laker and Bedser bowling alongside him for Surrey, Lock had become part of one of the best ever attacks boasted by a county side.

Yet, experts had reckoned that his style would not be good enough for Test cricket. Wisden had been guarded in praise and had voiced reservation about the limited spin he imparted on the ball turning from leg to off.

A determined Lock had gone to work, toiling it out in the indoor school at Croydon. The roof was low and the beams that loomed over the Croydon nets discouraged loop and flight. His bowling arm had become lower, trajectory flatter and pace had increased to almost medium-fast. The action had become as different from the classical left-arm spinner as possible. But, he had discovered that if the ball hit the deck at high speed, it could fizz from the leg stump and hit off, and sometimes take off from the wicket and jump shoulder high.

The style had suited him perfectly. As David Frith wrote in The Slow Men, “There never has been a more aggressive spin bowler.” All through the fifties, he bowled faster and faster when irritated by lack of success, often putting the wicketkeepers at physical peril. And his full throated appeal was legendary. There was an old joke which circulated in the cricketing circles of 1950s and 1960s. “When Lock appeals at The Oval, someone’s out at Lord’s.”

The remodelled action went on to reap rich rewards and managed to convince the doubters. But along with it there was a downside.
Induction to Tests

In 1952, he was included in the third Test against India at Manchester. A fire spitting Fred Trueman with 8 for 31 did ensure that Lock was not required to bowl in the first innings. But the left-armer did pick up 4 wickets in the second, Vijay Hazare being an illustrious first Test scalp.

And even as a rookie Test player, he blended into the atmosphere with remarkable ease, lending his own brand of acerbic wit into the fray. One of the best close-in fielders ever, Lock took a magnificent catch to dismiss Vinoo Mankad off Trueman. He was at backward short-leg when Polly Umrigar faced the Yorkshire fast bowler and started backing away towards square-leg. And Lock chirped, “I say, Polly, do you mind going back. I can’t see the bowler when you stand there.”

The new action did bring huge success. From 1951 to 1962, he captured more than 100 wickets each summer, crossing 200 in 1955 and 1957. He was part of the successive triumphs of Surrey as they won the county championships seven times in a row from 1952 to 1958. He was also an important member of the England team during their reign in the 1950s as the top cricket team in the world. However, the action would also become one of the major burdens of his career that would restrict his exploits to just 49 Tests.
The problems with the action

In his very first Test match, he was called for throwing three times by square-leg umpire. And that season in 1952, when on one dark afternoon he bowled Essex captain Doug Insole with his faster ball, the disgruntled batsman first looked at the shattered stumps and then at the square leg umpire before demanding, “How was I out then — run out?”

He worked on his action after raising the beams of the indoor pitches at Croydon but was called again in West Indies. It disturbed him enough to make him cut the faster ball out of his artillery. Partly because of this restriction, Lock picked up his wickets at 51.28 apiece on the Caribbean tour.

It was back to success when Australia visited in 1956. Laker and Lock routed Ian Johnson’s men in the most emphatic fashion. The series is remembered for Laker’s 19 wickets at Old Trafford, and his previous 10-wicket haul against the visitors for Surrey. And equally famed is Lock’s anguish at taking 1 for 106 as Laker spun his way through to 19 for 90 at Old Trafford. According to biographer Alan Hill, Lock did not speak to Laker for days after the Test, and it was a while before the two became firm friends.

What is sometimes overlooked is that Lock had a fantastic series in his own rights, picking up 15 wickets at 22.46. He also enjoyed his own haul of 10 wickets in an innings that season just three weeks before Laker’s Old Trafford feat. At Blackheath he took 6 Kent wickets for 29 in the first innings before ending the second with figures of 29.1-18-54-10.

Tony Lock in action © Getty Images
Tony Lock in action © Getty Images

When West Indies visited England in 1957 with the twin threat of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, it was the Lock-Laker spin duo who emerged on top. Laker took 18 in 4 Tests and Lock, who turned out in just 3, picked up 15 at just 10.86 apiece. This included 5 for 28 and 6 for 20 at The Oval on a reddish brown strip tailor-made for the Surrey pair. There were 4 wickets in 7 balls in the first innings.

It was a phenomenal performance, but one has to look askance at the pitch which painted a curious picture of stark contrast with the lush outfield. Surrey, the Oval and Lock were perhaps the greatest reasons which led Tim Quelch’s book on England’s reign in the 1950s to be titled “Bent Arms and Dodgy Wickets.”

Lock continued to take wickets in heaps at home. The hapless Kiwi batsmen of 1958 were no match for his guile and occasional speed as he devastated them to capture 34 in the series at just 7.47 apiece, with 11 scalps at Leeds.

Yet, success abroad eluded him. In the Ashes series of 1958-59, England sent what was hyped as their strongest ever team. Peter May’s men were trounced 4-0 and Lock finished with just 5 wickets from 4 Tests. His bowling, suited to the helpful English wickets, was toothless on the hard tracks of Australia where finger spinners have traditionally struggled.

At the other side of the Tasman Sea, however, Lock found the soft surface of Christchurch very much to his liking: 5 for 31 and 6 for 53 ensured the third 11-wicket haul of his career, and scripted his first success story away from England. Yet, this was the very tour in which Lock was shocked when shown a film of his own bowling. The action was so obviously illegitimate that he exclaimed, “Had I known I was throwing I wouldn’t have bowled that way.”

The second remodelling

So, at the age of 30, Lock went back to the drawing board and began to sketch his future with a legitimate action. His bowling became almost orthodox, classical. The loop and returned, and guile was added from his treasure troves of experience.

More than 100 wickets kept coming every summer, but he was unimpressive against Australia in 1961. On the turning tracks of India and Pakistan he did emerge as a bowler of considerable merit. As many as 32 wickets came from the seven Tests in the subcontinent in 1961-62. But, the selectors looked at his past records in Australia and omitted him from the voyage Down Under in 1962-63.

By then Lock was no longer a menace in England. The great partnership had broken up as Laker had also passed away from the cricketing scene.

Success for Western Australia and Leicestershire

In late 1962, as the selected English cricketers made their way to Australia, Lock himself landed in the country. He played for Western Australia and the 32 wickets in Sheffield Shield made him a permanent fixture in the side for the next few years. Five seasons down the line, he was appointed captain of the state team. While his Test returns dwindled and he found himself out of favour with the England selectors, he did become the first post-War bowler to take more than 50 wickets in a Sheffield Shield season.

Although Lock was not among the wickets in Tests after 1962, his ability with the bat suddenly seemed to flourish. He particularly relished the challenge of batting against the West Indies bowling, standing up to the hostilities of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. He scored his first Test half-century against them at Birmingham and followed it up with another in the very next Test at Leeds. However, this did not really help him prolong his stay in the England side.

In 1965, he was recruited by Leicestershire for the summers, and captained them in the next couple of seasons. The county had finished 14th on the table in 1965. In 1967, they climbed up to number two. Ageing and completely bald, Lock’s enthusiasm for the game was undiminished, and the sparkling spirit kindled passions in others as well.

The over-affectionate captain

Yet, there were some curious characteristics he had picked up from Australia that jarred with the grizzled and hardened English professionals. Lock returned with a penchant for hugging the bowlers and fieldsmen for on-field successes and sometimes extended his embraces to kisses on the cheek.

David Constant tells the story of Peter Marner, who made a catch at slip off Lock’s bowling and suddenly saw the skipper advancing down the wicket with lips pursed. An alarmed Marner dropped the ball and ran off towards the sightscreen. In the very next match, one of the fielders missed a catch that would have given Lock a hat-trick. When the incensed captain confronted this unfortunate fieldsman, Lock was told: “I didn’t catch it because I couldn’t face another of your kisses.” The veteran spinner supposedly got the point after that.

The farewell flourish

There was a final delightful twist to his career. While touring West Indies in 1967-68, vice-captain Fred Titmus met with a boating accident that would eventually see him lose four toes. Lock was rushed in as replacement and played the final 2 Tests of his career.

While his bowling was decent at best, he enjoyed himself against the West Indian attack yet again. In his final Test at Georgetown, he came in with the team at 257 for 7 in reply to 414, and struck a flamboyant 89 against Wes Hall, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs. It was his highest score in Tests and lifted England to 371. Trevor Bailey later wrote of Lock as “the ideal person to walk out to the crease when the match seemed lost.”

Lock ended his Test career with 174 wickets from 49 Tests at 25.58. He tarried for two more years in First-Class cricket before winding up with 2,844 scalps at 19.23 from 654 matches. Always a plucky lower-order batsman, Lock scored 10,342 First-Class runs, 742 of them in Tests, with 27 fifties. He continues to hold the record for the highest aggregate in First-Class without ever hitting a century.

A brilliant close in fielder of incredible natural ability and a life-long enthusiasm for fielding drills, he started his career for Surrey with a ‘hot catch’ off Alf Gover at backward short-leg.

Throughout his career he pocketed genuine strokes off the middle of the bat, travelling balls that would not go down as a chance for most fielders. Micky Stewart, who played with Lock at Surrey, remarked that the spectacular full-length dives were the easy ones. He went on to take 59 catches in his 49 Tests, and as many as 831 in First-Class cricket. Only WG Grace and Frank Woolley have caught more. He could also move quickly and throw brilliantly when placed in the outfield.

After his career, Lock continued to be associated with cricket as a coach in Perth. From 1987 to 1991 he was a cricket professional at Mill Hill School in London.

The final years of life of this enormously colourful character were made murky by two separate allegations of sexual abuse. In June 1994 a 29-year-old woman accused Lock of having indecently assaulted her in 1980 when she had come to him for coaching. He was later found to be innocent.

He was then arrested again and charged with offences involving a 10-year-old. It was claimed the alleged assault took place at a residence of the Locks. However, the date of the supposed incident was discovered to be before the Locks had moved in. An incensed Lock was determined to fight the false accusations, but that month he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. His wife died two months later and Lock remarked that that the stress had hastened her death.

In February 1995 the second charge were dropped, but Lock passed away the very next month. Lock’s son Richard later spoke out against the Western Australian police about how they had used Lock’s fame to launch a highly publicised campaign to highlight their tough stance against child abuse.

Although Lock was declared innocent by the court, he sadly had to sell some of his cricketing memorabilia to meet the legal costs. While leaving the court after the first case, he remarked with bitterness: “I suppose when I die it won’t be Tony Lock, the greatest left-arm bowler to play for England, but Tony Lock, the guy who was up on sex charges.” However, as Wisden noted after his death at Perth, “he will be proved wrong.”

Lock continues to be remembered as one of the greatest spinners of England, immortalised for his combination with Laker. He has also gone down as the most colourful cricketing character of his era.

(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://twiter.com/senantix)