Mystery Spinner

Published: 1999
Pages: 376
Author: Haigh, Gideon
Publisher: Text Publishing
Rating: 4 stars

Mystery Spinner

This is the story of Jack Iverson, the ‘mystery spinner’ of the title, whose Test career consisted of five matches played against Freddie Brown’s England side in 1950-51, a series that Australia won 4-1. Iverson played a big part in Australia continuing their post-war dominance of the Ashes. Yet he never represented his country again, and even as he prepared for the fifth Test believed he was playing in his final first-class match. Like a cricketing comet he appeared from nowhere and disappeared back into obscurity just as quickly.

The telling of Iverson’s strange and ultimately tragic story was obviously a labour of love for Haigh. He couldn’t do it alone – at the end of the book there are five pages of acknowledgements of help given with his research – because almost all that was known of this man outside his cricket was that he was an estate agent in Brighton, Victoria, a business that he took over from his father. Early on Haigh meets Iverson’s daughter, Mrs Beverley McNamara, but even she is seemingly unwilling to help. But gradually he pieces the story together.

Iverson’s early life was unremarkable enough; he played a little cricket at school without showing any particular ability for it, and if anything as a young man excelled more at golf, winning one or two trophies in local tournaments. He enlisted at the outbreak of war and served in north Africa and New Guinea, playing a few games of cricket when he could find the time. And it seems to be around this time, late in the war, that he started using his unique method of bowling. As a youngster he enjoyed spinning a ball across a table, making it go both ways, and his large hands enabled him to do the same with a cricket ball. His height, well over six feet, gave him the added advantage of bounce.

In the post war seasons, already into his 30s, Iverson worked his way up through the levels of district and grade cricket, enjoying almost uninterrupted success. He was a one-dimensional cricketer of a sort that would hardly be tolerated today, a poor batsman and fielder, but for three seasons his figures in minor cricket made it impossible for the Victorian selectors to ignore him, and he duly made his debut in 1949-50. Picked for the short trip to New Zealand in early 1950 he was the top wicket taker on the tour, making him seemingly an obvious selection for the Ashes series the following season.

By this time, however, there is a cloud on the horizon. His father Harry is a self-made businessman, and Jack as his only son is expected to follow him into the business. You can almost imagine the impatience of the old man, waiting for Jack to finish with this cricket nonsense, and Jack, very much in awe of his father, trying to squeeze as much out of his cricket career in the time available. So he plays almost no serious cricket after the end of the series – indeed, in one of the few interviews, he reveals that he felt very fortunate to have got as far as he did.

Iverson was prone to depression in later years, problems with family members and business disputes taking their toll on an already fragile personality. He took his own life in 1973. His story is sympathetically told, and it’s certainly a page-turner, but I would dock it half a star for the absence of statistics, and also because I don’t think Haigh fully gets to grips, as it were, with what exactly Iverson did when he released the ball. Perhaps you have to be a spin bowler of some aptitude to understand the technical side. Iverson himself said he didn’t know which ball he was going to bowl until he was into his delivery stride. These are minor quibbles, however, and I would certainly recommend this book.

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