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Geoff Griffin – Guilty or Not Guilty?

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A decade after Cuan McCarthy another ill-starred blond Natalian fast bowler was born. Geoff Griffin maintained to the end of his days that he was the victim of a thoroughly distasteful chucking conspiracy. Like that of McCarthy Griffin’s cricket career did not last very long, and again in common with his predecessor he was undoubtedly treated badly. There was however one big difference between the two, in that unlike McCarthy Griffin almost certainly did throw.

Why should there have been a conspiracy is the first question that needs to be looked at. The flippant response to that is to point to conspiracy theories emerging in most situations of great controversy, but to be fair to Griffin when the ground opened up before him the game, in England at least, needed a scapegoat.

A 19 year old Griffin had made his First Class debut in the 1957/58 season without tearing up any trees. His second campaign was much better and, at the same time, Peter May’s England were touring Australia. Having started the season as favourites to retain The Ashes England had been soundly beaten, and blamed the defeat on the quartet who inspired Jack Fingleton to title his book on the series Four Chukkas to Australia. The alleged offenders were Ian Meckiff, Gordon Rorke, Keith Slater and Jim Burke.

The next Ashes series was due to be played in England in 1961, and the authorities did not want Australia bringing with them a group of illegal bowlers thus, so Griffin’s argument would go, they resolved to adopt a zero tolerance attitude against South Africa in 1960. The reasoning was that by making it clear to Australia that, unlike on their own soil, offenders would be ruthlessly exposed, the selectors would be dissuaded from picking those with suspect actions. At this time the four mentioned in the preceding paragraph were by no means the only offenders in the Australian game.

Returning to the 1958/59 South African domestic season it should not be forgotten that during that season Griffin was called for throwing twice by his own umpires. Des Fell called him in the match between Natal and Transvaal, and a couple of weeks later in an end of season trial Arthur Kidson called him as well.

Another Kidson, Hayward, as far as I can see unrelated to Arthur, was a South African umpire who went on to be one of that nation’s very best and who later wrote an autobiography. Prior to the selection of the 1960 touring party Hayward Kidson had never stood in a game in which Griffin played. But in making that point he did add a telling observation; Bearing in mind the lack of a suitable definition, I would most likely have gone along with the majority of umpires in this country and done nothing anyway. Men more senior than I had passed him, but there were warnings which the South African Board should perhaps not have ignored.

The side to tour England was to be selected at the end of the 1959/60 domestic season and if the Board were in any way reluctant to select him Griffin spent the summer piling on the pressure. He ended the campaign with the remarkable tally of 35 wickets at 12.22, including 7-11 in the second innings of a bizarre match in which Border were dismissed for 16 and 18. The Board could not ignore form like that, so Griffin was picked. It should also be borne in mind that throughout that momentous season no umpire called him. He didn’t encounter Arthur Kidson, but Fell was not troubled by Griffin’s action in the 41 overs he bowled in a match against Rhodesia.

Like a number of bowlers, Muttiah Muralitharan the foremost of them, Griffin did start out with a “problem”, in that as a result of a bad break to his right arm in a childhood accident he could not straighten his elbow fully. Thus any square leg umpire would see a bent arm throughout his delivery. There was another factor with Griffin that exacerbated his difficulties. He had the classic open chested action of the thrower, with a front foot splayed outwards at the point of delivery.

Griffin was left out of the side for the tour’s opening First Class fixture against Worcestershire. There was some speculation that the identity of the umpires dictated that decision. One was a known hardliner, Syd Buller, and the other, Jack Crapp, had recently called Worcestershire’s John Aldridge. To add fuel to that particular theory Aldridge was rested by the home side.

The South Africans next outing was against Derbyshire. Paul Gibb was not afraid to call a throw a throw but Griffin couldn’t be hidden forever so he played. There were six calls from Gibb at square leg, but none of them directed at Griffin who seemed to satisfy most of the travelling press pack that his action was fair. The man called on this occasion, wholly unjustly in this writer’s opinion, was Derbyshire’s Harold Rhodes.

The next appearance against a county for Griffin was the game against Essex. This time the press did get on his case although the umpires did not. One newspaper, The People, was particularly trenchant in its criticism of Griffin’s “jerk”. The only problem with that argument however was that on an experimental basis the word jerk had been removed from what was then Law 26 for the 1960 season.

Nearly all cricketers reminisce fondly about their first appearance at Lord’s, although it was not to prove a happy hunting ground for Geoff Griffin after he was selected to play against the MCC in late May. The day was cold and damp and the start of play, before a disappointing crowd, was considerably delayed. Skipper Jackie McGlew won the toss and invited the home side to bat. There were four uneventful overs from Griffin. His fifth began with a call from John Langridge for dragging, and then half way through the over Frank Lee crossed to point. He immediately called Griffin. It was the first time a visiting cricketer had ever been called for throwing in England. McGlew immediately took his man out of the attack.

Shortly before tea Griffin was reintroduced to the attack from the other end. He then guaranteed his place at the forefront of the next day’s Sunday Newspapers by being called by both umpires for the same delivery, by Lee for dragging and John Langridge for throwing. Langridge must have seen something different, because he had allowed Griffin to bowl unhindered in the game against Essex. Langridge called him again later in the game. One of the complaints that Griffin had, supported by many irrespective of their views on his basic action, was that all his deliveries were identical. Thus it should have been a case of all or nothing. Either everything he bowled was a no ball, or all were legal deliveries.

There was a meeting after the MCC match attended by South African manager Dudley Nourse, the umpires and MCC representatives. Nourse made a statement afterwards to the effect that he was entirely happy with the outcome of the meeting and that he believed that from then on English umpires would not have any further difficulty with Griffin. The press were critical and accused the MCC of condoning throwing. It may be that adverse reaction influenced what happened next, but Nourse’s view proved to be well wide of the mark. Griffin was left out of the next game at Northampton, but was selected to play against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. He was called five times for throwing in the first innings, and three times in the second innings.

It was clear that by the end of the game Griffin, still not yet 21 and the baby of the South African team had, unsurprisingly, lost his direction and much of his pace. One thing he had however done, on McGlew’s instructions, was bowled his fastest delivery immediately after being called. For many with dubious actions it is their quicker ball that offends. As all of Griffin’s fastest got past the umpires that is something else that distinguishes his case from those of others who, at first glance, might appear similar.

Very sensibly in the circumstances Griffin was packed off to Alf Gover’s indoor school for help in sorting out his action. Gover thought the basic action was fine, and sought to modify it in such a way that at the point of delivery Griffin was in a position where he couldn’t throw. He was back to join his teammates for the game against Glamorgan in which he bowled 18 overs without falling foul of the umpires. South African journalist Charles Fortune described his action as distinctly smoother.

The first Test followed the Glamorgan encounter and, in a 100 run defeat, Griffin took four wickets altogether and once more avoided censure. Langridge was one of the umpires on duty so, presumably, he too saw a difference. The second Test was, as usual, to be played at Lord’s. In the meantime there were two more county games, against Somerset at Taunton and Hampshire at Southampton.

There was no Griffin at Taunton, but he did play at Southampton and, if he thought his troubles were over he was to be sorely disappointed. He was called once each by Jim Parks Snr and Harry Elliott in the first innings, and three times by Parks in the second innings as well as once more by Elliott. He had now been called by six different umpires and the South Africans had a difficult decision to make about whether he should be selected for the Lord’s Test. The battle of wills was primarily between Nourse and Gubby Allen, the man who wanted to use Griffin as a stick with which to beat the Australian selectors.

The simple truth was that without Griffin there was no adequate foil for the South African spearhead Neil Adcock. So Griffin played at Lord’s and South Africa bowled first. Griffin’s first over was uneventful, and in the second he claimed the prized scalp of Colin Cowdrey. Just as he must have started to feel better about himself he then heard Lee call him twice from square leg in his third over. Never before had a bowler been called for throwing in a Test in England. At the close of a truncated day’s play England were 114-2, and Griffin had been called five times altogether.

Play began on time next morning and England moved serenely on to 210-3 by lunch, losing only Kenny Barrington to Trevor Goddard’s miserly left arm medium pace. Griffin did his share of bowling, and was not called at all, umpire Lee seeming to take less and less interest in him as the session wore on. His interest did however rise considerably after lunch when the new ball was taken and there were two more calls in Griffin’s very first over with it.

This is another basis for the conspiracy theory. As ever there was nothing different about the way that Griffin bowled after lunch, other than having a new cherry in his hand, but there was a very substantial change in the way that Lee went about his duties. It is difficult to dismiss the idea that Allen had had words with him during the interval. There was a rain break during the afternoon session, and after it Lee called Griffin twice more. By 6.15 pm in the final session Griffin had been called six times in all by Lee for throwing and once by Buller for dragging. He had not taken a wicket all day and when, with England cruising as 347-5, Mike Smith on 99 edged the last ball of an over into the gloves of ‘keeper John Waite most of the crowd did not know whether to feel sympathy for Smith or delight that the young bowler had finally got something to take from the game.

There was however much more for Griffin. With the first delivery of his next over he got through Peter Walker’s defences and just clipped the bails. The new batsman was Fred Trueman and his reaction to the hat trick delivery was to take a mighty swing at it and lose his leg stump. It was the first ever Test hat trick at Lord’s and the first by a South African anywhere. The crowd rose to applaud a young man they were growing to like. England reached the close at 362-8 and at that point Cowdrey declared. There was little play on the Saturday, which saw South Africa move to 34-1 in reply, but they then collapsed twice on the fourth day to lose by an innings before mid-afternoon. This committed the two sides to playing an exhibition match as a royal visit was due later so there had to be some cricket in play. The game involved no more than 20 overs per side and two overs per bowler, so it was a game that’s only purpose was to entertain the crowd.

England batted first and Griffin took the second over. For the first time on the tour Buller was at square leg for Griffin. The youngster ran in off five yards to deliver the first of his dozen deliveries. For the second Buller crossed to point and then back again to square leg for the third. He called that as well as the next two despite Griffin having cut his “run up” down to a couple of paces and the delivery itself to a gentle loosener. There was a discussion between McGlew and Buller as a result of which McGlew instructed Griffin, following an indication from Buller that it would be the only way he could complete the over, to bowl underarm. Even then Lee chose to no ball the first such delivery on the basis that Griffin, unsurprisingly, had forgotten to inform the batsman he would be changing his mode of delivery. With commendable restraint McGlew wrote later; My own feeling at that moment was that cricket, its laws and their application, had been reduced to complete and utter farce. Former England and Middlesex leg spinner turned writer Ian Peebles, who published an interesting book on the throwing controversy a few years later, said of the episode, this was the saddest moment I have ever experienced in cricket.

Following that particular debacle there was to be no more bowling for Griffin on the tour. He played occasionally as a batsman, and indeed in his first game in that role he scored an unbeaten 65 against Lancashire, but that effort apart there were not too many more runs for him.

The tour was just about the end of Griffin’s career, but not quite. An International Cavaliers XI arrived in South Africa for a month long tour a few days after the tourists got back. Griffin played twice against them, first for Natal and then for an invitation eleven. After the controversy in England Griffin was a big draw and the umpires, who included Fell, were firmly requested not call him. Howard Kidson stood in the second match and was content to follow orders. What would he have done if there were no such instructions? The answer to that one is as clear as mud. He first wrote I still had no clear definition of a throw although I knew a throw when I saw it, before adding cryptically, with Griffin I was left with a lingering impression that I had been observing something that certainly looked* like a throw.

One of the Cavaliers on that trip was Trueman who, interestingly, commented; On a dead wicket which wasn’t helping anyone Griffin let one go faster than anything I’ve ever bowled – it ripped the thumb clean off Norm O’Neill’s brand new batting glove. After the Cavaliers games Griffin moved to Rhodesia were he played a few matches over the next couple of seasons, but he stepped off a First Class cricket ground for the last time at the age of just 23 after being no balled seven times. He only bowled nine overs in what was a sad end to an unfulfilled career.

So did Griffin throw? In 1960 Richie Benaud wrote; He has a very strong wrist flick in the last moment of delivery but this is quite permissible under the new interpretation of law 26, Benaud was in a tricky position as a man who might have found himself skippering Meckiff, Rorke and Slater the following summer, and he made similar comments about Charlie Griffith before later doing a volte face with him.

Denis Compton wrote; I am sure the umpires have been too severe on this boy. Certainly he has a bent elbow, but he cannot straighten it because of physical disability. I have seen bowlers with far more suspect actions get away with it. And I will say definitely that Griffin does not throw. On the other hand Fortune believed that Griffin threw as, more tellingly, did Adcock and Waite. But for all that no one ever suggested that there was any malice in Griffin. For a fast bowler he was certainly a man with an equable temperament. His reaction to his hat trick was not significantly different to the outwardly phlegmatic response to being called. Trueman summed him up by saying; I would like to say what a really good sport Griffin has been about the whole throwing business. Geoff is a very nice lad, I think we were all sorry for him on that tour.

Further evidence to support Griffin’s theory came the following year when none of the controversial Australian bowlers were chosen, despite all of them putting forward a decent case for selection in the previous domestic season. It may well be that Geoff Griffin’s action did infringe the laws of the game, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the treatment that he received at the hands of English umpires was truly appalling. His ordeal should never have been played out in the public eye in the manner that it was and the whole episode is one from which only Griffin himself emerges with any credit.

By the mid 1960s, when he might have been leading South Africa’s attack with Peter Pollock and Mike Procter, Geoff Griffin was building an alternative career for himself as a hotelier in Rhodesia and was lost to the game of cricket. In due course he moved back to Natal where, at the age of 67, he died from a heart attack in 2006.

*the emphasis is Kidson’s, not that of the writer.

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