Brian Statham – The GreyhoundMartin Chandler |
It is easy to assume that great cricketers all show their ability at an early age, and that a succession of interested bystanders, not necessarily all coaches in the strict sense, then nurture that talent from the moment it becomes apparent. Having read plenty of cricketing biographies and autobiographies I can confirm that it is a reasonable premise from which to begin, but as with many things there is the occasional exception that proves the rule, and Brian Statham is one of them.
As a schoolboy Statham’s game was tennis, and it was only as a result of his subsequently, during his mid-teens, taking up football in the winter that he ever played cricket. His manager at the local soccer club was also on the committee of the neighbouring cricket club, and it was only following his general encouragement to his charges to take up the summer game that Statham ever did. His rise was then a rapid one, from seconds to firsts, followed by 18 months National Service during which he was given plenty of opportunities to play cricket. He was 19 in the summer of 1949 when he turned up at Old Trafford for a trial – he had never visited the ground in his life before that.
The following summer Statham was taken on to the Lancashire playing staff. Cricket’s gain was accountancy’s loss as Statham chose professional sport rather than an office job. He played five times for the Second Eleven in the Minor Counties Championship in May and early June. He took 26 wickets at 14.30 in those games and was called into the first team for a Championship match against Kent. In the best part of twenty years with the county he never played for the seconds again.
A month after his debut Statham single-handedly reduced Somerset to 11-5 at Bath, and by August it was time for his first appearance before a packed house, at Old Trafford for the traditional late summer Roses battle with Yorkshire. White Rose skipper Norman Yardley won the toss and chose to bat. Statham opened the bowling. The turf was slippery and it must have been hugely embarrassing for the youngster as he lost his footing running in for his first delivery, and ended up prostrate on the ground. When he did the same on his third delivery the Yorkshire batsmen might well have struggled to contain their mirth. They wouldn’t have been smiling a couple of overs later though, when the scoreboard read 13-3, Statham having removed Frank Lowson, Ted Lester and Willie Watson in short order. The non-striker, Len Hutton, took note.
In fourteen Championship matches in 1950 Statham was nursed along and only bowled around 20 overs per match. His 36 wickets cost just 15.80 runs each, an impressive start, but perhaps he should have been given just a few more overs. Lancashire shared the Championship title with Surrey that year – it would be 2011, eleven years after Statham’s death, before they finally topped the table on their own again.
That winter England went to Australia, and mystery spinner Jack Iverson made sure that the Ashes remained with Australia. England had a few problems, not least of them injuries to key bowlers, and with Trevor Bailey and Doug Wright out of action reinforcements were called for. Hutton remembered that Saturday of the Roses match, and despite having played just 15 First Class matches Statham, along with county colleague Roy Tattersall, an off spinner, were flown out. In New Zealand Statham made his Test debut, at just twenty years of age in only his twentieth First Class match.
In Australia Statham played two First Class matches, with only three wickets coming his way, but he went for less than three runs per eight ball over, so the accuracy that was to become his trademark was certainly there. Unsurprisingly he found conditions in New Zealand rather more to his liking, and although he secured only the wicket of centurion Bert Sutcliffe in his one Test, he was much more successful in his other two appearances against Auckland and Otago.
At this stage Statham was not genuinely fast, although he was certainly fast medium, and he was a seam bowler rather than one who moved the ball in the air. His action might, for the purists, have been a little too open in the delivery stride, and most of the time he moved the ball in to the right-handed batsman, although as he got older and wiser he could, if conditions were right, produce a delivery that held its own or, occasionally, moved away from the right-hander. His most famous weapon was what he called his “nip-backer”, a classic breakback, which would often snap back six inches at the batsman, and secured him many wickets. Extensively double jointed, so much so that he would surprise those who had not previously seen him by removing his sweater by placing one hand behind his back and then pulling it over his head, Statham’s rangy 17 yard run to the wicket was both rhythmical and highly individual.
Statham’s bowling was famously accurate and straight, rarely deviating in line or length. Just occasionally, if conditions encouraged extensive movement in the air, he would struggle to control the ball, but no balls or wides were very much the exception. In fact in Test cricket a close examination of the scorebooks for all but a handful of his Tests has been undertaken, and it seems probable that he only ever bowled one Test match wide, in 1957 against West Indies.
There was a fine yorker in the Statham armoury, but a bouncer from him was very rare, and never used against tailenders, however stubbornly they might be defying him. He did however possess a superb “throat-ball”, which all of his captains would have liked him to bowl rather more often than he did, which was sparingly to say the least. But occasionally it was unleashed, an example being one delivered to his sometime Lancashire colleague Bob Barber. By the time Barber got to Warwickshire he was the Chris Gayle of his day, a left-handed opening batsman who put bat to ball from the off. In one game at Coventry he crashed Statham through the covers early on, having moved a yard out of his crease to try and disturb the bowler’s rhythm. That was a bit too much for Statham, and Barber was pleased to get the handle of his bat between the next delivery and his Adam’s apple – his old teammate smiled down the wicket at him and cautioned; Don’t do that to me Bob.
A look at the most successful speed merchants in the game’s history shows that most have had a ruthless streak, and pure unadulterated aggression is not infrequently a part of their make up as well. Statham was just about unique in how good natured he was, both on and off the field. He had his frustrations, and was certainly known to look to the heavens and roll his eyes on some of the many occasions when the ball missed the wicket by the width of a coat of varnish. But he rarely showed anything else, a catch going down from his bowling generally being greeted by a sympathetic smile at the offending fielder, and a comment such as never mind old son – you’ll catch the next one. He also had a very dry sense of humour well illustrated by a story told by one of his England captains, Peter May. In a county match in the mid 1950s a Statham delivery struck May on his unprotected thigh. He hobbled around for a moment trying desperately hard not to show he had been rattled. When he made eye contact with Statham, by then at the end of his follow through, he was met with a grin, a wink, and the comment Go on skipper rub it, I know it hurts.
Returning to his cricket Statham was in many ways two different bowlers. There was the man who played for Lancashire, and the one who played for England. The former was in a class of his own as a strike bowler, the latter better known as a foil to Frank Tyson or Fred Trueman. Only once, in 1962 when his summer was beset by personal issues which might have crushed a lesser man, did Staham’s average for his county slip above 20, and then only as far as 22.43. In nine of his nineteen seasons he ended up with an average under 15, 106 wickets at a Lohmannesque 10.66 in 1960 being his most spectacular summer’s work for Lancashire. Not surprisingly he topped the First Class averages that year, as indeed he had the year before. He was usually there or thereabouts, only in four of those nineteen summers falling out of the top ten, and the 25th place in that annus horribilis of 1962, was his worst performance.
Lancashire struggled to find support for their man. Until the late 1950s and the emergence of Ken Higgs Statham lacked a top quality opening partner. There were a succession of men tried, but often he would share the new ball with opening batsman Alan Wharton, who bowled medium pace. Higgs was not a great deal quicker than Wharton, but the difference was that as a bowler he was a class act, so from 1958 the load was shared. Later on Ken Shuttleworth and Peter Lever came into the side, but it was the mid 60s before they were established. In the 50s Lancashire relied heavily on slow left armer Malcom Hilton and the off spin of Tattersall, so the home wickets were prepared as much to suit them as the pace of Staham.
The 1951 summer saw a visit from South Africa and, replacing Trevor Bailey, Statham opened the England bowling at Lord’s in the second Test with Alec Bedser. The home side ran out easy winners, Tattersall, assisted by Johnny Wardle, spinning England to victory, but Statham did his bit, bowling 24 overs in the match for just 40 runs and taking a couple of wickets in the second innings. He kept his place for the Old Trafford Test that followed. Again he bowled tidily, conceding well under two runs per over, and again taking a couple of useful wickets, but he couldn’t compete with Bedser’s match haul of twelve in another comfortable England win, and it was back to waiting in the wings as Bailey returned for the fourth Test.
Over the winter of 1951/52 Statham played all five Tests in India in what was very much an England second string. He was economical enough, but only took eight wickets in the five games at the relatively high cost of 36.62. It was to be a decade before England next sent a team to play Tests on the sub-continent, and a couple of years after that they went again. The teams sent were stronger than that which Statham was a part of, but still some way short of full strength, and as Statham was by then England’s first choice he had earned those winters off. In fact he was only ever to play once more in India, when he took part in a charity match in April 1968, just before he began his final season.
The Indians followed the tourists back for 1952, and were traumatised by the pace of Fred Trueman, so Statham spent the summer with Lancashire, taking his hundred wickets for the first time. There was a run of 65 wickets in mid season all but a dozen of which were bowled or lbw, a vivid testament to Statham’s consistency of line and his “if they miss I’ll hit” philosophy. The following season was an Ashes summer, and Statham played at Lord’s. He let no one down, but then picked up an injury and was not seen in England colours again until that winter when, finally, he made his breakthrough.
The 1953/54 England tour of the Caribbean is noted for some immature behaviour from Trueman (although nothing like as much as he was accused of), a riot, some negative bowling by Trevor Bailey, and a superb captain’s innings from Hutton in the final Test that took England to victory and a share of the series. Statham played in the first four Tests before missing the final victory with an injury picked up in the fourth Test which, realistically, came too soon in that match for him to make any meaningful contribution to it. So his 16 wickets all came in the first three matches, at a cost of 28.75 each. He had played in the First Test alongside Trueman, but their destiny to become one of the great pairs of fast bowlers was a few years away from fulfillment yet. What had happened however was that a 23 year old Statham had now fully developed as a bowler, and was by now genuinely quick.
Pakistan’s first series in England in 1954 did nothing to harm Statham’s growing reputation and by the time he and the rest of Hutton’s men arrived in Australia that winter he was England’s first choice fast bowler. In a series that England came back to win 3-1 after losing the first Test, it was to the Typhoon called Tyson, that much of the glory went, and his bowling in the second and third Tests was devastating, but he was fully aware of Statham’s contribution. Tyson’s finest hour was at Sydney in when he took 6-85. Statham took 3-45. Tyson wrote later I owed much to the desperation injected into the batsmens’ methods by Statham’s relentless pursuit. To me it felt like having Menuhin playing second fiddle to my lead. His captain said simply; He was the most accurate fast bowler I ever saw. No bowler shaved the stumps more often. It is worth noting too that England won that match by 38 runs. Statham’s left-handed batting rarely troubled the scorers too much, but just occasionally there were vital contributions, none more so than the 25 he contributed to a last wicket stand of 46 with Bob Appleyard that laid the foundations for Tyson’s matchwinning performance.
The Typhoon never blew consistently again after 1954/55, and by the end of the decade England’s opponents were dreading “Statham and Trueman” rather than “Statham and Tyson”, and the Yorkshireman was just as appreciative of the support he received from Statham as the Typhoon had been; In fifteen years at the other end his accuracy ensured countless wickets for me being just one of the appreciative comments that he made over the years.
Four years later England went back to Australia with what appeared on paper to be the finest bowling attack ever assembled. Statham, Trueman and Tyson were all present, as was Surrey’s Peter Loader, a bowler good enough to have kept Statham out of the England side in the first three Tests of the 1958 season. The spin attack was Jim Laker and Tony Lock and confidence was high, wrongly so as events turned out.
England lost the series 4-0 amidst much controversy caused by the illegal actions of a number of Australian bowlers, most notably Ian Meckiff. Despite that England were outplayed, and the only Test that Tyson, Trueman and Statham ever played together was a disappointment. Of the pace bowlers only Statham enhanced his reputation, and had it not been for one of the great Ashes centuries by Neil Harvey in the second Test, his 7-57 from 28 eight ball overs in that game might just have changed the course of one of England’s most disappointing ever Ashes campaigns.
That Ashes trip might, had he not been as fortunate as he was, have spelled the end of Statham’s career and possibly even his life. Travelling by road between a couple of one day games after the fourth Test the car in which he and Loader were travelling overturned on a bend. The limit of Statham’s injuries was a badly bruised shoulder, which cost him just the fifth Test and the New Zealand leg of the tour, but it could have been much worse, as he crawled from the wreckage, soaked in petrol.
A doubtless much relieved Statham was at his best in 1959, his first at the head of the First Class averages. Injury cost him two Tests against the Indian tourists, which would have been a matter of some disappointment to him as he headed the England averages with 17 wickets at 13.11 in the three matches he played in. Unusually he also had the distinction of heading the England batting averages, a couple of not outs leaving his aggregate of 70 in three innings as his average.
By 1960 the partnership with Trueman was at its peak. South Africa were beaten 3-0 and Statham had his most prolific series (27 wickets at 18.18 – Trueman’s haul was 25 at 20.32) and, in the second Test at Lord’s, he recorded his best ever match figures of 11-97 in the innings victory that took England into a 2-0 lead. His effectiveness inevitably faded a little over the next two summers but Statham did enough to persuade the selectors to stick with him and take him to Australia again in 1962/63. He played in all five Tests of the drawn series though he lacked the penetration of old, his 13 wickets costing more than 44 runs each. He did however have the pleasure during the fourth Test of taking his 237th Test wicket to overhaul Bedser’s record. The catch that gave him the wicket was held by Fiery Fred who, 48 days later in New Zealand, after Statham had gone home, in turn surpassed his great friend’s mark.
The first Test against Frank Worrell’s West Indians in 1963 saw Statham’s return, but no wicket for plenty meant that he was dropped for the first time in years. He plugged away for Lancashire though, and in successive matches before the final Test he took fourteen wickets and he was back for the Oval. He took three wickets this time, but could not prevent another defeat, and when in 1964 he was not selected at all in that summer’s Ashes contest, and he slipped out of the top 20 in the First Class averages, it seemed his Test career was over.
Statham turned 35 in the 1965 season, the first of four in which he captained Lancashire. He turned out to be a decent skipper, seeing a slight improvement in the Club’s fortunes in each of his summers in charge. From the point of view of his own game he seemed to thrive on the responsibility, and he ended up with 137 wickets at a cost of just 12.52 runs each. His form was such that he was recalled to the England side after an absence of 24 Tests for the final match of a three match series against South Africa. He could not conjure up an England victory, but 5-40 in 24.2 overs as the South Africans were dismissed for 208 in their first innings was reminescent of his glory days, and two more in their second knock meant that he finished his international career on 252 wickets.
There is no sadder sight on a cricket field than a great fast bowler who is battling on past his best, and one only has to look back to Darren Gough’s final Tests against South Africa in 2003 to see a classic example. But that never happened to Statham. In 1966 his 102 wickets cost him only 14.50. The following year was not so good, but 92 at 16.63 was still the work of a quality bowler. He always intended to make the early August Roses encounter at Old Trafford in 1968 his swansong. A packed house saw the Red Rose bowled out shortly after tea on the opening day for 162. Any disappointment at that soon vanished in the face of a wonderful opening burst from the 38 year old Statham, ably assisted by Higgs, that saw Yorkshire reduced to 34-8 at the close. They were eventually all out for 61, Statham taking 6-34. He could not repeat his heroics in the second innings, as the visitors batted out time for a draw, but he bowled the final over which, fittingly enough, was a maiden, as indeed had been the previous four.
How good was Statham? It is never easy to make such assessments and it becomes harder with every passing year, and Test history now covers nearly 140 years. Statistically he is some way from the top. In terms of averages his 24.84 is 72nd. His strike rate of 63.71 finds him placed even lower, and even his economy rate of 2.33 is not amongst the leading fifty. But a different picture emerges from Statham’s overall First Class record. No pace bowler in history can match his average of 16.37, and only his old partner in crime Trueman can beat his haul of wickets, and then by just 44. For Lancashire alone his average is just 15.12.
It is worth bearing in mind that Statham suffered a good deal from aches and pains, and missed a number of Test and First Class matches. He played a part in as many as 22 Test series, but only ever played through five, and one of those was the two Test series in New Zealand in 1955. Trueman was at the other extreme, seldom missing a match through injury at any point in his career. This is significant because players were expected to be much more stoical in the 1950s and 1960s, and Statham undoubtedly bowled many times over his career when, were he playing today, he would have been rested.
Many of Statham’s injuries amounted to strained muscles, and doubtless some would have been avoided altogether had he had the benefit of the sort of coaching regimes that top players have access to today. I wonder also what a nutritionist might have made of his breakfast of choice, a fag, a cough and a cup o’ coffee, and indeed his desire for a few beers in the evening. Yet despite those lifestyle choices Statham managed to stay at the top of his game through nineteen summers. Even in that final season his 67 wickets cost only 17.40 runs each.
It could also be argued that during his career Statham missed some easy pickings. As noted in 1952 Trueman got in first against the Indians, and was rewarded with a series haul of 29 wickets at 13.31. Statham didn’t play then, nor in New Zealand in 1959 and 1963, and he gave way to Peter Loader in three of the five home Tests against the very weak 1958 New Zealanders. He also missed some easy pickings in those two Tests in 1959 against India. But the major reason for the difference in Statham’s Test and First Class records must be the simple one that relates to the differing roles that he had. For Lancashire he was a strike bowler and the spearhead of their attack. His job was to get the opposition out and the job of his fellow bowlers was to help him achieve that. For England it was generally uphill and into the breeze for Statham, and whilst no one doubted his class and his wicket taking ability he was also expected to take on the mantle of stock bowler as well. In a different era, and with lesser men around him, Statham would doubtless have been used very differently by his England captains.
After he left the game Statham worked in sales and promotion for brewers Guinness. It was a job he did for the best part of twenty years before declining health, particularly the debilitating bone disease osteoporosis, brought about an early retirement. Statham played in an era when significant wealth passed by our sporting superstars, so much so that in 1989 Trueman felt the need to organise a couple of testimonial events in order to ease his old opening partner’s financial concerns. Brian Statham was a week short of his 70th birthday when Leukaemia claimed him in 2000. Just over six months later his old teammate Colin Cowdrey departed this mortal coil as well. Many years previously Cowdrey had paid as fitting a tribute to Statham as I have heard; If my son became a professional cricketer, I hope he would be like Brian Statham.