Hedley Verity – A Study in GreatnessMartin Chandler |
The great players normally make an early impact on the First Class game. On the sub-continent debutants are frequently in their mid teens and always have been. In England young players tend to be blooded later, although two summers ago a new record was set when 15 year old Barney Gibson, ironically enough in the context of this feature a Yorkshireman, made his debut for the county.
In years gone by Yorkshire were amongst the most protective counties, and when Len Hutton, a few weeks short of his 18th birthday, made his bow in 1934 it was the best part of fifty years since a younger man had played for the county. Four years previously Hedley Verity, undoubtedly a leading candidate for the title of the greatest orthodox left arm spinner the game has seen, had turned 25 when he made his first appearance for the county in a First Class match.
The reason for the late start certainly wasn’t that Verity came to the game late. As a child he loved cricket and played at every opportunity, and he also came into the sights of the County as early as 1922, when he was “spotted” by George Hirst and the great 19th century slow left armer Bobby Peel. It is true that in those days Verity bowled medium pace, and there were some who thought he would make a better batsman than bowler, but he was still noted as a young man for the future.
In 1927, by which time he was approaching 22, arrangements were made for Verity, still a medium pacer, to become the professional for Accrington in the Lancashire League. His performances were not commanding, but still good enough to get an offer of a further contract for 1928. He didn’t take up the offer however, his time at the club not being entirely happy, some of the members not respecting a pro so young, and by all accounts on occasion simply refusing to take up places in the field where the young Verity wanted them to go.
Verity ended up moving to the Central Lancashire League in 1928, where he signed to play for Middleton for three years, on the understanding that the club would not stand in his way if a First Class county came calling. In his first summer at the club he had an unsuccessful trial with Warwickshire, who many years earlier had also rejected Verity’s hero Wilfred Rhodes. It was as well for Yorkshire that the trial took place in the middle of summer, on a dry, hard and flat wicket that played to none of Verity’s strengths. Add in a classy batsman who was keen to impress, and after a cursory look the Midland county sent a no doubt chastened Verity back to Middleton.
By now the career of the great Rhodes was coming to an end and with that in mind Verity switched to the slow medium style of bowling with which he was to make his name. He was also promised by Middleton that there would be an emphasis on youth in their side, and they were as good as their word and, unlike at Accrington, Verity had the support of a keen and athletic young side who were not afraid to field in the close catching positions that were such a necessary part of his armoury.
The long-awaited call to the colours of the White Rose finally came in 1930, and three days after his 25th birthday Verity played against Sussex at Huddersfield in a First Class friendly. It was not a brilliant start, his bowling bringing him match figures of 3-96, and he scored 11 and 13 with the bat, but it did not take long for Verity to get used to the higher level and, come the end of the season, he sat proudly on top of the First Class averages, having taken 64 wickets at just 12.42 runs apiece.
At the end of the 1930 season Rhodes, then aged 52, called it a day safe in the knowledge that his successor had been found. Of all the ringing endorsements that he received throughout his career Verity would doubtless have been most pleased with the understated approval that was Rhodes’ verdict come the close of that season; Ay, he’ll do.
Wisden described Verity’s emergence as A notable event in Yorkshire’s season – possibly one fraught with great importance to the future of the county – was the appearance of Verity. A slow left-handed bowler, with command of both spin and length, Verity also sends down a fastish ball that runs on with his arm and, if he develops the powers which he displayed last summer, would appear to be the natural successor to Rhodes. but did sound a word of warning amongst its high expectations; Fairly tall, strongly built, and possessed of a happy temperament, he may, if he avoids the swerving heresy and devotes his energies to spin and accuracy and to those subtle variations of spin and flight which the great bowlers learn by continuous practice, attain the highest honours of the cricket field.
The verdict of The Cricketer was Yorkshire has possessed an amazing faculty for finding fresh bowlers to replace elder ones. How Rhodes followed Peel , who in turn succeeded Peate, has become legendary, and today Verity replaces Rhodes. But a few cautionary words were added; How far the newcomer will get with the ball remains to be seen, followed by the somewhat cryptic comment, A spectator will find him more impressive if he stands behind than if he watches him sideways, before an upbeat conclusion; But at this stage he has more potential than any other English bowler.
There was one decision left for Verity after his initial forays into the First Class game, and that was a straightforward one. Did he take a risk, and look to make his dreams come true, or settle for financial security? He had the offer of a three year contract from East Lancashire, based in Blackburn and the Manchester United of the Lancashire League, which would pay at least three times what he had earned at Middleton. And then there was Yorkshire; no contract, no security, less money and a harder life. As a married man with responsibilities Verity did give the situation some thought, but the decision was not a difficult one for him to make.
For a man with such a formidable record, and a reputation to match, it is a sobering thought that there were only ever ten English seasons for Verity. Altogether over that decade there were as many as 1,956 wickets at the remarkable average of 14.90. His 1,304 County Championship wickets cost Verity just 13.20 runs each. No cricketer who plied his trade in the 20th century has such a remarkable average, even the mighty Sydney Barnes’ career figure is more than 17.
In the county game Yorkshire were always a power in the land, but had not won the Championship during the five years that culminated in Verity’s emergence – to make it worse in four of those summers arch-rivals Lancashire had taken the title. In the nine seasons that followed the White Rose were Champions seven times. Verity was consistency itself. He topped the First Class averages again in 1933, 1935, 1937 and again in his final season in 1939. In 1931, 1932 and 1936 he was second only to the Notts Express, Harold Larwood, and in 1938 his Yorkshire teammate Bill Bowes got his nose in front of Verity. In fact only in 1934 was he outside the top two – his worst season saw his lowest haul of wickets, a mere 150, at his highest ever cost, a pricy 17.63 – he could probably live with Larwood relegating him to third in the averages, but it must have been a little galling to see his rival, Worcestershire’s slow left armer George Paine, take top spot for the only time in his career.
In his ten seasons in the First Class game there were as many as 164 five-fers, and 54 ten wicket match hauls – in just 377 matches. There were some spectacular achievements along the way. In only his second season Verity took all ten wickets in an innings against Warwickshire at Headingley for just 36. It was on his 26th birthday, so less than a year after his debut and in just his 17th First Class match. By the end of July he was making his Test debut against New Zealand.
There had only ever been seven single innings bowling performances better than Verity’s 10-36, but he only waited just over a season to improve on it, and did so by a distance. His remarkable 10-10 against Nottinghamshire at Headingley remains, unsurprisingly, a world record – three years previously Notts had been County Champions. If it were ever in doubt, and he had been omitted from the side that contested India’s inaugural Test match in that summer of 1932, Verity’s place in Douglas Jardine’s side for Australia that winter was confirmed soon after the Notts match.
As his average indicates Verity’s county career was all but a long unbroken run of success. In 1933 there were 17 wickets in a day against Essex at Leyton, and in 1936 against Kent at Hull he had match figures of 15-38, including 9-12 in the second innings. Had Verity not held the catch that removed opening batsman Arthur Fagg from the bowling of Frank Smailes he might well have taken all ten for a third time, and his record is littered with other memorable analyses, 5-8, 6-11, 6-12, 6-10, 7-18, and 7-20 to choose just the more striking. And if ever there was a suggestion that, had it not been for war, Verity might not have continued on as before, a look at his last day on a cricket field will put that one to bed. On 3rd September 1939 Neville Chamberlain was to declare that Britain was at war with Germany. By then that final peacetime cricket season was rapidly winding down. The West Indian tourists had hurried home after the final Test without completing their programme, and all play scheduled in the Championship had been cancelled by 1 September, save at Hove, where Brian Sellers agreed that Yorkshire would finish the match that had begun on 30 August given that the game was for Jim Parks’ benefit. In an eerie atmosphere Verity signed off with the remarkable figures of 7-9 as the home side were bowled out for 33.
Despite the consistency he showed throughout his career Verity did improve as a bowler over the years. Initially he was dependent largely on varying his length and spin, but after he was tasked with a largely defensive role in Australia in 1932/33 Wisden noted the following year that He was able to flight it (the ball) to better purpose than formerly. Verity’s records are the more striking when it is taken into account that the era he played in saw the setting of many batting records which will stand in perpetuity. But even when conditions were against him he was always nagging away at batsmen, and was rarely easy to score from. If conditions turned in his favour, which in those days of uncovered wickets was by no means unusual, then he was every batsman’s worst nightmare. As Wisden said in 1936 When the turf was false, his wonderful command of length, spin and flight enabled him to create havoc amongst batsmen.
The fact that they were so rare made the occasional moments when Verity was bested by a batsman all the more memorable. In 1931 at Bradford the legendary Frank Woolley made him look human, but the best known example was in 1935 when, in the course of a spell of 0-87 from 14 overs the big-hitting South African wicketkeeper Jock Cameron hit him for 30 in an over. At the end of the over wicketkeeper Arthur Wood is said to have opined to the bowler “you’ve got him two minds now Hedley, he doesn’t know whether to hit you for four or six!” At least Cameron was a decent batsman – Verity would have been rather more concerned at an assault on his bowling at Bath in 1936 when the home side’s last two batsmen, Horace Hazell (career batting average 8.17) and Bert Hunt (7.69) struck him for 48 in two overs. To make matters worse Verity didn’t even get to break the partnership, Smailes having to return to complete innings figures of 7-4-3-2, a stark contrast to Verity’s 9-0-89-2.
The disrespectful treatment meted out by Hazell and Hunt would also have taken the gloss of Verity’s achievement, in the only Yorkshire innings in the match, of recording his highest Championship score, 89. Verity had begun 1936 with, on a pre-season tour of Jamaica, his only First Class century and in the course of the 1936 home season he scored 855 runs, the only time he ever got close to doing the double. As a batsman he was described as “a poor man’s Herbert Sutcliffe” and it was not unknown for him to open the batting. He first did so for Yorkshire as early in his career as 1932 and, with Gubby Allen rapidly running out of options, he was asked to do so in the fourth Test of the 1936/37 Ashes series. He only scored 19 and 17, but partnerships with Charlie Barnett of 53 and 45 were England’s best two starts of the series.
Those who are slaves to statistics sometimes point to the disparity between Verity’s First Class and Test records as somehow being indicative of his not being quite as good as his record with Yorkshire suggests. It is true that in 40 Tests he took “only” 144 wickets, and that they cost him 24.37 runs apiece, but in reality there is nothing in the suggestion. This was the era of timeless Tests (at least in Australia) with wickets prepared to suit. It was also the time of the greatest batsman of them all, Donald Bradman, who was surrounded by a coterie of other fine players such as Stan McCabe, Bill Woodfull, Bill Ponsford and Jack Fingleton. In addition at Test level Verity’s role was often a defensive one. In the Bodyline series his job was to keep the batsmen quiet while Larwood, Bill Voce and Allen took a breather. He did the job very well, conceding just two runs per eight ball over, and then when Larwood was injured early in the piece in Australia’s second innings of the final Test, he reverted to his attacking role and took five wickets, including Bradman for the second time in the series.
And Bradman is of course the key. Only Clarrie Grimmett took his wicket as often as Verity, eight of those ten dismissals coming in Tests. The best known observation of Bradman on his great rival was I could never claim to have completely fathomed Hedley’s strategy, for it was never static or mechanical. In 1944 “Crusoe” Robertson-Glasgow wrote in his obituary for Wisden that It was Verity who kept Bradman’s average under 150, which might, given the circumstances, be considered to be hyperbole, but the fact remains that in the only full pre-war series in which Bradman did not face Verity, 1930, he averaged almost 140.
When he was in india with Jardine’s side in 1933/34 Verity got to know Lieutenant Colonel Shaw of the Green Howards, in the 21st century part of The Yorkshire Regiment. By 1937 Verity had come to the conclusion that a European War was inevitable, and when he met Shaw again the following year he sought his advice. Shaw provided Verity with some military texts and pamphlets which he read assiduously – Hutton recalled in later life that as a member of the touring party to South Africa in 1938/39 Verity had spent much of his time studying this material.
A few weeks after his memorable finale at Hove Hedley Verity, professional cricketer, became Captain H Verity of the Green Howards. Initially he was sent to Northern Ireland, well away from any theatre of the war, and then he went on to India and further postings to Iran, Egypt and Syria before, in July 1943, the Green Howards took part in the invasion of Sicily. Verity had had a bad case of dysentry in India, although his own determination to remain with his men meant that he was declared fit to lead them. His superior officers were still concerned however, and had he survived the Sicilian Campaign the plan was, whether he liked it or not, to post him back to HQ.
Once the invasion began the Green Howards made good progress as they moved across the Catania Plain, but Verity’s company were held up by some crack German troops who were holed up in a farmhouse. As he led his men into the fray Verity was hit in the chest. Seriously wounded he was taken prisoner and taken to military hospital in Caserta on the Italian mainland. He was given what was, in those difficult circumstances, the best treatment possible but he died eleven days after he fell, on 31 July 1943. He was, aged 38, buried with full military honours.
History has tended to portray Hedley Verity as a somewhat colourless and serious man. Given the nature of his trade, and the single-mindedness with which he pursued his goals, whether that be guiding Yorkshire County Cricket Club to victory or playing his part in driving Hitler out of his children’s future that is perhaps understandable. In addition in the manner of the times Verity was rarely captured smiling in photographs, and the fact that his hair started to turn grey in his early 20s was another factor that tended to further that impression. It was true to that in the 1930s no one succeeded in professional sport without an iron determination to get to the top, but there was a lot more to Hedley Verity than meets the eye, as a splendid essay of Stephen Chalke’s in his book The Way It Was makes clear.