Willie Watson-628
Willie Watson was a wing-half and played for Sunderland and Huddersfield Town before concentrating on cricket © Getty Images

Willie Watson, born March 17, 1920, was perhaps the greatest footballer among Test cricketers. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who played 23 Tests for England while being in the squad of the World Cup football team.

His fame reached its pinnacle when he batted 346 minutes at Lord’s, scoring 109 against Australia in 1953 as England fought with their backs to the wall. Trevor Bailey joined him at 73 for 4 and they remained together for 4 hours 17 minutes, adding 163. England saved the Test and went on to win the Ashes for the first time since 1932-33.

A few months later Willie Watson batted four hours and 23 minutes to score 116 against West Indies at Kingston, adding 130 with captain Len Hutton for the first wicket. However, this time he could not save the day for England as West Indies won the Test by 130 runs.

By then Watson’s deeds with the willow and his electric movements in the field had somewhat overshadowed his forays as a formidable wing-half. Yet, this supremely talented all-round athlete first ventured into popular imagination as a footballer of considerable skill. His 23 Tests for England and the two centuries remained valuable contributions, but his greatest claim to fame is perhaps as the best footballer to have played cricket for his country.

Originally an inside-forward, Watson became a wing-half after the War when he signed for Sunderland in 1946. Before The War, he had played 11 times for Huddersfield Town in 1938-39. In the summer of 1939 he had also made his debut for Yorkshire.

By the time the Second World War came to an end, Watson showed signs of blossoming into a dependable and attractive left-handed middle-order batsman in the summer and a cultured wing-half in the winter. For Sunderland he played for eight years, and represented them 211 times. He scored 16 field goals and one more off a penalty kick.

In November 1949, Watson made his debut for the England football team as Northern Ireland were defeated by a huge 9-2 margin. The following year, he made it to Brazil as a part of the England World Cup squad. He was not fielded as a player, with the English think tank opting for a defensive rather than an attacking wing-half. Watson sat on the bench, fascinated by the artistry and footwork displayed by the Latin American footballers in every position.

It was in November 1950 that Watson appeared for the England for the fourth and final time, playing in a friendly against Yugoslavia. It was only after his last appearance for the English football team that he made his Test debut against Dudley Nourse’s South Africans at Nottingham, scoring 57 in his first innings.

In the mid-1950s, Watson became the player-manager of Halifax, turning out for them 11 times in his familiar position of wing-half. And after his cricket career was over, he served two years as a Test selector. After that, he returned to football in 1964 as manager of Halifax. From 1966 to 1968 he played the role of the manager of Bradford City, guiding the club through a promotion.

In 1968, Watson gravitated towards cricket yet again, migrating to Johannesburg, where he took a job as the coach and administrator at the Wanderers. It was in Johannesburg that he passed away in 2004.

(Arunabha Senguptais 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)