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Harold Rhodes – Guilty or Not Guilty?


Just once, almost eighty years ago in 1936, have Derbyshire won the County Championship. A shortage of top class batsmen has always been their problem, and spin bowlers. The, in relative terms, cold and damp conditions, that lead to soft and green wickets, is no doubt the reason for that. Derbyshire’s strength has always been their seamers, and they have had a succession of top class fast medium bowlers. Line and length men like Bill Copson, Les Jackson and Mike Hendrick who can exploit favourable conditions perfectly, and fully test batsmen’s techniques.

But beside bowlers like that, and I could add the names of Cliff Gladwin, Brian Jackson and George Pope to the list, Derbyshire have produced produced a few real speed merchants, four of whom have played for England, albeit only one of whom was ever anything approaching a Test regular. The first was Arnold Warren, who played in one Test against Australia in 1905. He took six wickets too, including Victor Trumper twice. Alan Ward did a little better, managing four Tests as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s and another in 1976. Two decades later Devon Malcolm played forty times for England but could still never be certain of his place.

Warren’s problem was his propensity to imbibe after close of play. It is said that he celebrated so hard after his first innings five-fer on debut that his captain, Stanley Jackson, marked his card for him. As for Ward he was fragile of body and in addition was not robust of temperament. Malcolm had one great day, his 9-57 against South Africa in 1994, and enough good ones to demonstrate that he was beyond question a very fine bowler indeed, but consistency was not his strong suit.

The man I have so far omitted to mention, the subject of this feature, is Harold Rhodes. There were just two Tests for Rhodes, against India in 1959. He was six days past his 23rd birthday when his Test career ended. He had taken nine wickets at 27.11 with a strike rate of less than fifty. The Indians were one of the weakest sides to ever tour England, and lost each of the five Tests by a substantial margin, but Rhodes’ efforts augured well for the future. He finished his career early, just a decade later, but his haul of 1,073 wickets at 19.70 amply demonstrates that he was a top quality performer. He missed out, in reality, as a result of the transgressions of others, and spent his entire career, quite unjustly, with the spectre of having been branded a “chucker” constantly pursuing him.

There must have been many occasions when Rhodes wondered whether he would have been better sticking to the spin bowling that brought him to the game, or perhaps have made the choice, when it was offered to him, of signing for Middlesex rather than the perenially unfashionable county of his birth. It must be open to question, had his career unfolded under the watchful eye of the custodians of the game at Lord’s, whether they would have chosen one of their own as the sacrificial lamb upon whom to visit their desire to be seen to be willing to drive illegal bowling out of the English game.

Rhodes’ father, the wonderfully named Albert Ennion Groucott (Dusty) Rhodes was a leg spinning all-rounder for Derbyshire for many years before, in due course, becoming a First Class umpire who stood in eight Tests in the 1960s and early 70s. In fact he shouldn’t have been able to. Like Old Joe Hardstaff before him the presence of his son in the England side should have ruled that one out, and doubtless he would have been happy enough to forfeit those opportunities had Harold’s career blossomed as it should have.

In fact the end of Dusty’s career did overlap briefly with the beginning of his son’s, although they never appeared in a First Class match together. As already mentioned Rhodes began as a slow bowler, as a real youngster of the finger spinning variety. A problem with his spinning finger then saw him switch to leg breaks and googlies in the manner of his father, and using that style the 16 year old Rhodes made his First Class debut later that summer in The Parks against Oxford University. At the time he was the youngest Derbyshire debutant ever. He went wicketless, and that was his only first team opportunity that summer. The following year there was one more appearance, against Scotland. This time Rhodes, who batted at six and scored 13 and 4, did not get to turn his arm over let alone take a wicket.

No one masters leg spin in a couple of years and Rhodes saw the difficulties he faced in trying to emulate his father and by the time that National Service arrived in 1955 he had decided that seam bowling was where his future lay. Between his Army committments he was able to play occasionally for Derbyshire in 1955 and 1956 and took his first five-fer to give the county a narrow victory over Yorkshire in the latter summer. His availability for the whole of 1957 was eagerly awaited, but a shoulder injury necessitated an operation in the early part of the campaign, and again he managed only a handful of appearances.

So it was 1958 before Rhodes could play a full season, and in another good summer for the East Midland county he took 71 wickets at 18.52. These were fine figures but, to put them in context Les Jackson and Gladwin both went past 100 wickets, at a cost of 10 and 15 respectively and another seamer, all-rounder Derek Morgan, just shaded Rhodes as well, so he was only fourth in the Derbyshire averages.

There was one performance in particular that caught the eye of the cricket world beyond the Peak District, and that was the game against Hampshire at Burton. There was time for just 20 minutes play on the first day, during which Derbyshire limped to 8-1. The next day a hot sun produced a classic ‘sticky’ and Derbyshire managed to reach 89 before Rhodes and Jackson dismissed the visitors for 23. The game finished the same day as Hampshire were hustled out second time round for 55 to lose by 103 runs.

The most significant event in the career of Harold Rhodes took place that winter and was England’s tour of Australia. Rhodes wasn’t there, and was never in contention for a place yet what happened in Australia still shaped his future. England had set out under Peter May with a side that, not without good reason, some believed was the strongest that had ever left these shores. In the event the aging superstars were no match for Richie Benaud’s keen young Australians and the series was lost 4-0. England might well have lost anyway, but the series was hugely controversial with Australia’s leading bowler, Ian Meckiff, being condemned by the English (and indeed most Australians) as a thrower. To make matters worse another of Australia’s strike bowlers, Gordon Rorke, was tarred with the same brush, as were Keith Slater and Jim Burke who also appeared in the Tests.

Returning to England the 1959 summer was very different from that of 1958. The success of bowlers the previous season had led to a change in playing conditions to allow more covering of wickets, and in contrast to the previous year the country was bathed in sunshine. The starkness of the difference this made is evidenced by bowling averages generally. In 1958 Rhodes was 33rd in the country. The same average would have seen him 10th in 1959. In fact he paid more than 27 runs each for his wickets in 1959, and there were more than 60 men in front of him. One of them was Les Jackson, whose 140 wickets cost him 17.57 each and left him fifth in the national averages. Yet it was Rhodes who got the chance at Test level, and Jackson still had just one cap, from ten years previously. Two years later he did finally get another one, but he must have wondered where the justice was for all the hard work and effort he had put in – excellent as his average for 1959 was, to put it in context his overall career average was lower still.

Although the issue exploded in Australia in 1958/59 there had been concerns expressed within the English game throughout the 1950s and umpires had had the problem brought to their attention in 1958, although no one had been called. In 1959 the message was rammed home to them, and they were promised full support if they felt it necessary to no ball any bowler. A list of suspects was drawn up. The knives were out, and someone had to be brought to account in order in show that England were serious about ridding the game of the menace that they had so bitterly complained about the previous winter.

In the course of the 1959 summer three men were called. Two of them were from Worcestershire, quick men Derek Pearson and John Aldridge, and the third was Surrey and England slow left armer Tony Lock. Pearson and Lock had been called in the past. As for Rhodes he had never been called, nor was there any real disquiet about his action on the circuit. He wasn’t, presumably, on “the list” otherwise it is difficult to imagine why he would have been picked for England that year. With weak opposition, and with new faces being sought after thedefeat in Australia it was hardly surprising that, on casting their collective eyes around the counties, the selectors chose to have a longer look at Rhodes, who had the priceless advantage of a yard or two of extra pace.

In his first Test, the third of the series, Rhodes was first change behind Fred Trueman and Alan Moss. Such was the stranglehold that the pair put on the Indians that by the time Rhodes came on after ten overs the tourists had managed just 10-0. There was a wonderful start for Rhodes as he claimed a wicket in his first over, and another in his second. Things could only go downhill from there, but after he had finished the fourth Test Rhodes was happy enough with his nine wickets and harboured strong hopes of making the party to tour the Caribbean the following winter. A good performance in the fifth Test might have sealed his place, but he missed that with injury. The selectors then decided that the party needed just three pace bowlers and, with Trueman and Bran Statham being certainties, Moss got the nod for the last place.

The authorities in the rest of the cricketing world were addressing the issue as well. In the Caribbean Charlie Stayers was called in early 1959, and I have read that doubts about his action were the reason that Chester Watson and not Stayers faced England in the Test series a year later. Looking at their bowling records more than 50 years on that judgment looks a little harsh on Watson, but the West Indians did carry a long tail in that series and Stayers, distinctly sharp with the ball, can legitimately be described as an all-rounder. More significantly in the weeks following the call against Stayers Geoff Griffin was called twice in South Africa. The following season, whilst England were in the Caribbean, he took 35 wickets at 12.22 and, undertsandably, was included in the touring party that came to England in 1960.

There was a common thread running through the bowling styles of Stayers, Meckiff, Griffin and, a further man to shortly become embroiled in this controversy, Charlie Griffith. All had an open-chested action and a delivery stride in which their feet were splayed apart. In each case the complaint about their action was generated by those deliveries that required more effort, the bouncer, the yorker and the really quick delivery. Harold Rhodes was completely different – he had a classical side on action.

Before moving on to what happened when the South Africans rocked up at Derby for their second (and Griffin’s first) match of their tour it is necessary to consider briefly the relevant law, which had changed a few months before. Prior to the 1960 season the law was that the ball should not be thrown or jerked and if the umpire was not entirely satisfied the delivery was fair he should call it. That is an important qualification, as it meant that mere suspicion was enough. For 1960 the word jerk disappeared, and the standard of proof seemed to change. Now there needed to be a sudden straightening of the bowling arm and, significantly, that was now expressed to be in the opinion of either umpire. Mere suspicion had surely given way to at least the balance of probabilities, and a law framed in Australia seemed to have made the illegal bowler’s position a little easier.

Back at Derby on 7 May 1960 Donald Carr won the toss and decided to bat. It was a mistake and with a bit of help from medium pacer Jim Pothecary the South African quick men, Griffin and Neil Adcock, rolled them over for 108. In the South African response of 343-8 declared Rhodes was called six times by square leg umpire Paul Gibb. South Africa bowled the home side out for 211 to win by an innings. Adcock had to do it by himself this time as Griffin went wicketless but, more significantly, the youngster had bowled the best part of thirty overs in the match without the legality of his action being questioned, although he was called twice for dragging.

Gibb’s justification was that because there was something unusual about Rhodes’ action he was entitled to call him, even though he was at pains to point out that he was not thereby expressing the view that Rhodes threw, and that he was happy with 90-95% of his deliveries. What palpable nonsense. He might have been able to do that in 1959, but unless a suspicion is equivalent to an opinion, which surely cannot be the case, he couldn’t in 1960. And even if he could how could such a career-threatening action ever be justified on such a flimsy basis? As a specialist from Derby Royal Infirmary attempted to explain to anyone who would listen Rhodes had, as is perfectly illustrated in the accompanying image, hyper-extension in his elbow, completely involuntary, inevitable and the same with every single delivery he bowled.

Film was taken of Rhodes and he was summoned to Lord’s to see it. The cameraman was at mid on. Rhodes made the point to those charged with the task of sitting in judgment over him that any bowler would look bad from that angle. He suggested that Trueman was filmed in similar conditions. Fiery Fred was, and Rhodes was vindicated, although history doesn’t record whether anyone one told Trueman he looked like a chucker. So Rhodes was filmed in the nets with splints on his arms to keep them straight. Despite the fact that the specialist had told the powers that be exactly what the answer was they still sat on their hands.

Returning to the South Africans Griffin didn’t get away with things for very long. Two weeks later he was called at different times by both umpires in the game against MCC, and again in the next match against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. He then spent some time at Alf Gover’s Cricket School and secured a brief “amnesty” that included the first Test. Gover’s remedial work seemed to lead to a loss of pace and striving for the lost yard against Hampshire Griffin was called again at Southampton and then in the second Test at Lord’s. Syd Buller, a man who figures shortly in Rhodes’ story and an umpire as uncompromising as they came continued to call poor Griffin in the exhibition match that followed the Test, so much so that he had to finish an over bowling underarm. Griffin played his last First Class match, aged 23, less than two years later.

Despite the hyper-extension Rhodes did do work on his action after the close of the 1960 season and remodelled it. All seemed well until the August Bank Holiday fixture against Northamptonshire. Gibb, who had stood in matches involving Rhodes five times since the South African match unexpectedly called him again. He was, as he told skipper Carr, “not satisfied” with Rhodes’ action. Later in the innings Rhodes was put on to bowl from the other end. The former Nottinghamshire paceman Arthur Jepson kept his arms to his sides and must therefore have been “satisfied”.

That setback notwithstanding Rhodes took 100 wickets for the first time in 1961 and, although the prospect of a Test recall now looked increasingly remote, he bowled exceptionally well again in 1962. The next two summers saw his effectiveness reduce and in 1964 he paid more than 31 runs each for just 46 wickets from 20 matches. He was only 28, but seemed to be on the way down. That said he had not been free from injury, and was by no means the only pace bowler to have had problems adapting to the Laws’ cure for dragging, a change from a back foot no ball rule to a front foot one.

Something happened over the winter of 1964/65 to change Harold Rhodes and he began the new season at the top of his game and stayed there all summer, finishing clear at the top of the national averages with 119 wickets at 11.04. He was 1.48 runs ahead of the man in second place, his opening partner Brian Jackson. If only the Derbyshire batsmen had provided some support then maybe a second Championship would have come the county’s way. As it was they couldn’t get above halfway. They only had one batsman in the top 100, Ian Hall, and he was a lowly 67th, averaging just over 26.

There were problems between Derbyshire and Middlesex over the summer. They began in a Gillette Cup match at Lord’s in May. The home side were dismissed for 161 leaving Derbyshire a full 60 overs to reach their target. To those who are used to seeing a target of 162 in a T20 match being a modest one it will amaze them to know that Derbyshire took up the whole of their 60 overs. They slipped to 77-8 from where Rhodes and future England ‘keeper Bob Taylor gradually built the recovery that took them to within 11 runs of the target by the end of the innings. At that time the rules of the Cup did not prevent Middlesex bowling wide down the leg side in order to prevent the pair scoring, and that is what skipper Fred Titmus and Ted Clark did for several overs. If the letter of the law was not transgressed the spirit of the game was, and Derbyshire were extremely unhappy.

A couple of weeks later Middlesex came to Chesterfield. Before the game started some of the Middlesex side were overheard discussing the possibilities of refusing to bat against Rhodes, or asking Derbyshire not to include him in the side. In the event they did neither, and Rhodes took 6-24 and 2-57 to help dismiss them cheaply twice and even Derbyshire’s batsmen managed the 34 they needed to win, albeit managing to lose five wickets in doing so. The game over Titmus took the hugely unpopular step of himself reporting Rhodes’ action to Lord’s

The obvious comment came from Derbyshire skipper Morgan; It is coming to something when a bowler’s action satisfies the umpires, but he gets reported by a fellow player. Support also came from a less predictable source, Middlesex and England batsman Peter Parfitt, who expressed himself happy with the Rhodes action, before making the point that the newspapers were full of; He is the fastest bowler in England by yards and I can’t see why he is not in the Test team.

The report from Titmus and the attendant publicity brought forth more filming, some open and some covert but Rhodes, understandably, was not unduly concerned. He had not been called for years and his action had not changed so his thoughts as his county took on the touring South Africans in late June were directed at winning a Test place for the forthcoming series. The first day went well for the county as the tourists were dismissed for 149 to which they responded with 75-0. Rhodes took 4-35. Despite that good start on the second day the hosts ended up with just 143. Rhodes then opened the bowling as usual and Buller observed his first delivery from square leg. He moved straight to point, from where he watched the next two before calling the fourth and making it clear to Morgan that he considered Rhodes was throwing every delivery. Two leg breaks later and that was the end of Rhodes’ bowling in the match.

There was real anger amongst the Derbyshire supporters, so much so that at the tea interval two police officers felt it necessary to come onto the field to escort Buller to the pavilion. Rhodes believes to this day that Buller was asked by those who ran the game to call him so that they did not have to pick him for the Tests. Buller had umpired Rhodes on a number of previous occasions, most notably whilst he bowled 46 overs in the second of his two Tests. He had not expressed concern before, nor had any other umpire except Gibbs, and even he had officiated in matches in which Rhodes had played on six subsequent occasions. And of course five years previously Dr Cochrane had explained everything anyway. To describe Rhodes’ treatment as shabby would be a massive understatement.

Rhodes never completely gave up hope of resuming his Test career although, looked at objectively, it was clear by now that he would never play for England again. But he understandably wanted to clear his name so he submitted to more tests and co-operated with more examinations. There was more film taken, more splints and also a test where he had the inner half of his arm painted black and the outer white. Eventually, in 1968, he received final confirmation that his action was fair. The reason? Strangely enough it was decided that that was hyper-extension. A note was even added to the laws dealing with the point.

The four seasons between 1966 and 1969 brought Rhodes plenty more cheap wickets. He got his hundred in 1967, and was just one short in 1968. He never paid more than 18.47 for them. He had a decent benefit in 1968 that brought him GBP8,495, the equivalent of GBP134,000 today. Perhaps surprisingly someone on his benefit committee asked Syd Buller to contribute a few words to the benefit brochure. Even more surprisingly Buller did so, and they were included at the front of the booklet, immediately after Rhodes’ introduction. No one would have guessed from the content, which was as bland as bland can be, the sort of history there was between the two men.

By the end of the 1969 season Rhodes had fallen out of love with the First Class game. He was offered a job with a travel agency and combined that with being Burnley’s professional in the Lancashire League. That left his Sundays free, and he offered to continue to play for Derbyshire in the John Player League. The county weren’t interested so he played a few times for Notts between 1970 and 1973 before, in 1975, those who then ran Derbyshire changed their mind and Rhodes had a last season with the county on Sundays. He was economical rather than penetrative by then, but that was fine for the job he was employed to do.

As time passed Rhodes changed job more than once and in the mid 1980s found himself made redundant from a job as cricket pro at Denstone College after a fall in pupil numbers. He contacted the TCCB at that point to see if he could get a position on the First Class umpires list. There were three vacancies, but all they offered him was a place on the reserve list, and an opportunity to go just a small way towards correcting past injustices was lost.

In 2015 Harold Rhodes is still alive and well and living in Derbyshire. He will be 79 this year and lives in contented retirement. The impression gained from a long interview that he gave in 2013 is that there is no bitterness in relation to the treatment that he received during his career. If that is the case then he is a much better man than any of those who ended his Test career so early. Cricket history would probably be different too had Rhodes, as he undoubtedly should have, gone to Australia in 1965/66 then it would have been Mike Smith and not Ray Illingworth who succeeded in taking back the Ashes that had been so rudely snatched from Peter May in 1959.


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