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Johnny Won’t Hit Today

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Johnny Douglas played First Class cricket over a period of almost thirty years. He was always an amateur, and led England in 18 of his 23 Tests. An all-rounder good enough to do the double of scoring 1,000 runs and taking 100 wickets in an English summer four times Douglas began his career whilst the ‘Golden Age’ was in full swing, but his name is not and never was uttered with the reverence that attaches to many of the stylish and exciting players of the period. Nonetheless he was a fascinating character, and deserves to be remembered much more than he is.

Born in 1882 Douglas had the good fortune to be born into a wealthy family, his father running a highly successful timber importation business. Douglas senior was also a fine boxer, an Amateur Boxing Association middleweight champion, and a decent cricketer. He never aspired to First Class level, but played a good standard of club cricket for Wanstead. The father took great interest in the son’s sporting endeavours and was rewarded by his becoming a triple international, representing his country in the boxing ring and on the soccer pitch, as well as the cricket field.

As an aspiring boxer there was no better school for Douglas than Felsted. Like his father he was a middleweight and for a few years in the first decade of the twentieth century was one of the best in the world. In 1905 he won the British title and went out on a high three years later when, at the London Olympics, he beat another multi-skilled sportsman, the Australian ‘Snowy’ Baker, to take a gold medal. Douglas the boxer was noted for his aggression, the power of his punching and his nimble footwork.

Of his three main sporting pursuits Douglas’ soccer career was his least distinguished, but that was no fault of his. He played at different times for both the Casuals and the Corinthians, the two great amateur clubs who merged in 1939 and whose successor club follow their proud tradition to this day. When Douglas was playing soccer regularly the amateur game was divided, an organisation called the Amateur Football Alliance effectively running a rival organisation to the Football Association, so there was a schism. In early 1913 Douglas went on a tour of Eastern Europe with the AFA and played in a 4-0 victory over Bohemia in Prague. The only description of him as a footballer that I am aware of is that he was a resolute utility player with a healthy shoulder charge and a heavy if inaccurate shot, a summary which certainly seems to be in character.

As a cricketer Douglas was already a recognised all-rounder as a schoolboy, although even then his batting attracted the description; a steady and reliable bat, but rather lacking in forcing powers. It is perhaps not surprising that the powerful arms and upper body strength that boxing gave him restricted his ability to play some of the wristier shots in the game, but the fact that his footwork in the boxing ring was so good does not sit easily with the fact that he was certainly one of the more leaden footed batsmen on the county circuit.

A right arm pace bowler Douglas did not possess express speed, but was certainly fast medium and in favourable conditions he was able to make the ball swing either way and do so late. Most remarked on however is the Douglas durability and stamina. He could and did bowl long spells even in the heat of Australia and South Africa, and seemed never to drop his pace however many overs he had bowled. He had a habit, before every delivery, of rubbing the ball across his forearm. His batting too was characterised by such quirks. He often patted the wicket, wandered round and regularly renewed his guard.

Whether he was ready for it or not the Douglas First Class debut, at 19 in 1901, would have scarred a lesser man for life. Essex were dismissed for 30 and 41, and the young man, entrusted with the number five slot was bowled by George Hirst for nought in both innings. It would be four years before Douglas would make a big impact on a county match, and when he did the opponents were Yorkshire again. Douglas took the first ever hat trick by an Essex bowler in the course of taking five wickets in eight deliveries. He was no overnight sensation, but as the years passed his performances with both bat and ball steadily improved.

The major breakthrough came in 1911. There was no Test cricket played in England that summer and the highlight of the domestic season was the annual meeting between the Gentlemen and the Players at Lord’s. Douglas’ first appearance in this showcase fixture had been in 1907, but he had never achieved anything of note nor been on the winning side. It seemed to be business as usual as the mercurial Sydney Barnes took a couple of quick wickets after the Gentlemen won the toss and chose to bat. At that point however ‘Plum’ Warner and CB Fry steadied the ship and after they were parted Douglas anchored the rest of the innings and his 72 was the top score in a total of 352. On a difficult wicket against a strong attack the innings attracted much praise, albeit there were some who expressed the view that Douglas had been overly cautious.

On the second day it was the Gentlemen’s turn to bowl on what remained a less than perfect wicket, and 5-53 from Douglas helped dismiss the Players for 201. He added an unbeaten 22 in his side’s second innings and, despite Jack Hobbs playing one of his greatest innings in carrying his bat for 154, the Gentlemen ran out the winners by 130 runs. Douglas chipped in with the last two wickets and troubled Hobbs throughout. It was perfect timing for Douglas as the MCC side for the 1911/12 tour was being selected and the performance earned Douglas an invitation which he was delighted to accept.

Another honour that had come Douglas’ way in 1911 was the captaincy of Essex, a post he was to hold for almost 20 years, and into which he threw all his considerable energy and enthusiasm. Prior to Douglas’ appointment Essex were skippered by Percy Perrin, a fine batsman and a good leader who was to be an England selector for many years. His replacement by Douglas caused some ill-feeling, particularly because it was perceived as a case of bullying by Douglas Senior, a man who helped the club out of a financial hole by taking over the mortgage on the county ground and at whose ‘suggestion’ the appointment was made.

In 1939 Sir Home Gordon, a well known cricket writer at the time but not one whose reputation has stood the test of time, wrote of Douglas; As skipper ….. he was not only bad but brutal, almost incredible in his ruthlessness …….. he showed shocking bad judgment. Gordon was a great friend of Perrin, and crossed swords with Douglas Senior at the time Perrin lost the captaincy, but those are still strong words. In fact in some ways Douglas was a very good captain. He was a strict disciplinarian, but also extremely supportive of those who were loyal to him. What he certainly lacked however was imagination, and his captaincy could be tactically naïve and was generally predictable.

The intention had been that Fry would lead the 1911/12 side, but in the event he couldn’t make the trip, so Warner was in charge. There was no vice captain announced and, in the days before a professional captaining MCC could even be contemplated, the only other amateurs in the party were Douglas and Frank Foster, neither of whom had even a single Test appearance to their credit. Had a motorcycle accident in 1915 not ended Foster’s career he might well have gone on to set records for Ian Botham to break. He had also just been appointed captain of his county, Warwickshire, although in his case his leadership had had a remarkable start, leading a side that had been fourteenth the year before to the County Championship title. It was the first time a county from outside the so called ‘Big Six’ had won it the title and it would be a quarter of a century before, when Derbyshire won, that that happened again.

After the team arrived in Australia Warner was able to play just once before the recurrence of a problem with a stomach ulcer, by then doing much more than grumbling, laid him low for the entire tour. He nominated Douglas to take over the reins, purely on the basis he was the ‘senior man’. Australia won the first Test, very possibly because Douglas started his Test captaincy by making the mistake of opening the bowling with himself rather than Sydney Barnes. Fortunately for England and Douglas wise counsel from Warner prevailed and in the following four Tests Douglas opened up each time with Barnes and Foster. All four were won. Douglas did not make any major contributions with the bat, his highest score being only 35, but with the ball 15 wickets at 23.66 fully justified his place in the team.

It was during this tour, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground against Victoria early on, that the famous soubriquet was born. Douglas won the toss and chose to bat. His side had an indifferent start and he found himself coming to the wicket at 139-5. He stayed with Foster whilst 107 were added and, after Foster’s dismissal for 101, remained with the tail whilst another 72 were scored. When fast bowler Bill Hitch was last man out Douglas was, after more than three hours at the crease, unbeaten on 33. During his innings a wag in the crowd, playing with his initials, christened him Johnny Won’t Hit Today. The nickname stuck with Douglas for the rest of his career and, given that he very rarely attempted to depart from his defensive style, it seems very likely he was rather proud of it.

With Warner fit again and Fry and Spooner once more available Douglas was not called upon in the 1912 Triangular Tournament until the final match, and he achieved little in that. He was not forgotten however and was asked to lead the England side to South Africa for the series in 1913/14 that proved to be the last international cricket played before the Great War. Again he was not the MCC’s first choice, but both his county colleague Frederick Fane and Gilbert Jessop could not be persuaded. There was no Foster this time, but with Barnes taking 49 wickets at 10.93, despite missing the fifth Test, there was no need for inspirational captaincy in order to achieve a 4-0 win. As a player Douglas did well, recording what was to prove his only Test century in the first match, and playing an important role with the ball in the match Barnes missed.

On the outbreak of war Douglas promptly enlisted as a Second Lieutenant in the Second Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment and, by the armistice, had risen to the rank of Major. The Bedfordshires were present at most of the major battles of the conflict and Douglas was with his men at the front line.

By the time county cricket began again in 1919 the world was a different place, and the game had changed too, a wholly unsuccessful attempt at two day county cricket being trialled. The resources at Douglas’ disposal were not strong and he reacted in the only way he knew, by taking on a prodigious amount of work himself. He did the double for the second time and bowled close to 1,000 overs. The following summer, three day cricket having returned, he repeated the feat, and scored more runs and took more wickets.

Once MCC were persuaded, against their better judgment, to send a side to Australia in 1920/21 Douglas’ post war form meant he was always going to be in the side, although as in 1911/12 he was not the selectors’ first choice as captain. The man at the top of the wanted list was Lancashire’s Reggie Spooner who, for once, was not prevented by business commitments from accepting the invitation. In the event however injury intervened, and once more Douglas, as second choice, got the nod.

Spooner dodged a bullet. Douglas led England to a humiliating 5-0 defeat. As always his captaincy was criticised, but he certainly tried as hard as ever. Not alone amongst England’s batsmen he found the new Australian leg spinner, Arthur Mailey, impossible to pick. Douglas spent hours watching Mailey through field glasses in order to try and unravel his secrets. He never really succeeded, and Mailey claimed his wicket six times in the series, but to his credit Douglas stuck to his task and in the end he got past fifty four times, and Hobbs apart he was England’s best batsman. 

At one point in the series Douglas challenged Mailey to show him his right hand. Mailey, perhaps surprisingly, did not object and showed him his hand. Douglas’ reaction was immediate and consisted of words to the effect of; That’s it Arthur you’ve got resin on your hands I’m going to have to tell the umpires. The trick was that Bert Oldfield smeared bird lime on his gloves and shook hands with Mailey at the beginning of every over. Mailey’s reaction was to point out to Douglas that fairness demanded he show Mailey his right hand as well, which Douglas did, revealing that the nail on his forefinger was worn away, leading to a Mailey rejoinder along the lines of; You’ve been picking the seam so hard Mr Douglas you’ve damaged your nail.

With the ball in 1920/21 Douglas took just eight wickets, and paid more than fifty runs each for them. One of his mistakes was over bowling himself. There is a story that at one point during the series, when Douglas was plugging away without looking like breaking through the cry went up that if he wasn’t going to take himself off he should at least change ends so that he could see his figures on the scoreboard. The identity of the wag is not clear. On one account it is simply an Australian barracker, on another teammate Ciss Parkin.

There was a return series to be played in 1921, and indeed the two sides sailed back to England together. Douglas doubtless feared the worst, but he did retain his place and the captaincy and on the eve of the first Test enjoyed a remarkable personal triumph. It is worth highlighting that by this time Douglas was in his 39th year, so no youngster. He begun by taking career best figures of 9-47 as Derbyshire were bowled out for 114 at Leyton. After losing their first four wickets for 19, and losing seven in the process of matching their opponents Douglas then went on to the highest score of his career, an unbeaten 210. To play as many as 651 First class matches and record his best figures with bat and ball in the same match is certainly an achievement that will never be matched.

It seems a little odd in light of that 5-0 hammering that in 1921 Douglas was, unlike in his three previous series, first choice as captain. A couple of good early season performances against the tourists and that remarkable performance against Derbyshire even caused a degree of optimism. The realists however looked at the absence of Hobbs through injury and feared the worst. They were proved right as even some typically brave performances from Douglas could not prevent heavy defeats in the first two Tests. As a result Douglas was replaced as skipper for the rest of the series by Lionel Tennyson, who at least helped England salvage some self-respect from draws in the fourth and fifth Test. Douglas’ loyalty could not be faulted as he willingly played under Tennyson for the remaining Tests.

Douglas turned 40 at the end of 1922 and although he must have thought his Test career over he did play once more against South Africa in 1924 and, picked for a third trip to Australia the following winter, he was selected for the second Test. In neither match did he make an impression and his contributions to the Essex cause, in terms of runs and wickets if not effort, started to decline. Part of the problem was appendicitis, and surgery for that brought about an improvement in batting returns but the old stamina was gone. Nonetheless in a weak Essex side Douglas still justified his place as a player, but there was trouble brewing. Having sold the old ground at Leyton the Douglas fortune was no longer needed as a safety net and at the end of the 1928 season Douglas was, for want of a better word, sacked. The hurt, although borne with dignity, ran deep and was not healed by an offer of an honorary life membership. Douglas never played for Essex again.

Just two years after severing his connections with Essex Johnny Douglas died off the coast of Denmark in tragic circumstances. On 19 December 1930, at the age of 48 he had, in the company of his father, been to Finland to buy hardwood. The pair had sailed from Hull to Helsinki on a ship called the Oberon. The Oberon had a sister ship, the Arcturus, and the captains of the two ships were brothers. It was agreed on the Oberon’s return journey that, the two ships being due to cross each other’s paths, the vessels would pass close enough to each other to allow the brothers, using megaphones, to exchange Christmas greetings. It was a foggy night but the extraordinarily foolhardy plan was not abandoned and the two ships struck each other, the Oberon sinking. The subsequent enquiry was wholly unsatisfactory in that it failed to explain how it was the case that only four of the passengers from the Oberon survived, yet 36 members of the crew did. Given his stamina and the fact that he was still only 48 it is perhaps surprising that Johnny was not one of the four but the evidence, such as it was, suggested that he perished in a vain attempt to save his father. Such a selfless action would have been entirely in keeping with Douglas’ character.

There was a significant family fortune. Douglas senior’s Estate had a probate value of what would now amount to around £4.4 million and Johnny’s about a third of that. Douglas senior had lost his wife a couple of months before his own demise, so presumably his estate was divided between his four surviving children. Johnny had no children of his own although he had married, relatively late in 1916. His wife, already widowed once when he met her, was a lady of means in her own right prior to Johnny’s death. She had two sons from her first marriage the elder of whom, Gerald Case, was groomed by Douglas for some time to take over the reins of the family business. Gerald stuck at it for a few years before, much to his stepfather’s irritation, deciding to pursue an acting career instead. In the long run it was probably a blessing in disguise as otherwise, as a veteran of the Finland run, Gerald might well have been on the Oberon as well on that fateful night.

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