Allan Watkins: Glamorgan and England all-rounder hailed by John Arlott as 'the best close-to-the-wicket fielder in the world'
Saturday 06 August 2011
When the great Australian batsman Donald Bradman walked to the middle for his final Test innings, at The Oval in 1948, he needed four runs to complete his career with a batting average of 100, almost 40 more than any other cricketer has ever achieved.
He was applauded all the way, by the England team as well as the crowd, and he played his first ball, a leg-break from Warwickshire's Eric Hollies, safely to the fielder crouched in front of him on the leg side. The next ball was a googly and, to the great shock of the packed ground, Bradman failed to read it and was bowled.
At short leg, and thus the last man to field a ball from Bradman in Test cricket, was Allan Watkins, whowas making his England debut,the first Glamorgan cricketer to play in an Ashes Test. His captain Norman Yardley had told him to go in close – "See the whites of his eyes" – sohe was better placed than anybodyto answer the age-old question.Had the ice-cool Bradman been affected by the warmth of his reception? "I can't say that," he said shortly before he died, "but I can tell you he was dry-eyed."
Watkins had a bad game. An all-rounder, he made 0 and 2 and was hit so badly on the shoulder by a Lindwall bouncer that he bowled only four overs. After the match he stayed in London for treatment, missing his county's vital game at Bournemouth where victory would take the championship title to Wales for the first time. He spent an anxious Tuesday afternoon at Hither Green railway station, buying every edition of the evening paper to keep up with the score in the Stop Press till the good news arrived.
Glamorgan, under the combative Wilf Wooller, were not a side blessed with star players, but they tookfielding, particularly close to thewicket, to a standard not previously known in the game. Watkins wasat the heart of this, his 40 victimsin the leg trap making him the leading catcher, other than wicketkeepers,in the country. John Arlott wrote that he was "without doubt the best close-to-the-wicket fielder in the world. He has caught the uncatchable so often as to have made the impossible his normal standard."
That winter Watkins toured South Africa, playing all five Tests. He took one of Test cricket's greatest catches at Durban, hit a maiden century at Johannesburg and secured England victory in the final Test at Port Elizabeth when he and Jack Crapp scored 19 frantic runs in the final 10 minutes. Yet he lost his place in the side the following summer, not regaining it till a tour of India in 1951-52 when the senior players were all rested. There, he headed the Test averages, saving the first match at New Delhi when in intense heat he scored an unbeaten, nine-hour 137. By the end his legs had gone. "I played one down leg side, I went to run, and I couldn't."
A labourer's son from Usk in Monmouthshire, he attended the local grammar school, but his interests were all sporting. He made his Glamorgan debut in 1939 and during the War, serving in the Royal Navy, he found time to play rugby union for Pontypool and football for Plymouth Argyle. Then in 1946, seven years on from his early county games, he returned to Glamorgan, becoming a vital part of their side for 15 summers. He admitted in later life that he had suffered from anxiety all through his career, smoking heavily and taking "a lot of pills" to calm his nerves: "I walked bloody miles waiting to bat; I couldn't sit down."
But he showed few signs of it at the crease, his adventurous left-handed stroke play in the middle order bringing him 32 centuries. Thirteen times he scored 1,000 runs in a season, twice he took 100 wickets with his left-arm medium pace, and he held 464 catches, second only to Peter Walker among Glamorgan cricketers. In those days of relentless six-day-a-week county cricket, not many reached such a standard in all the three disciplines of the game.
Struggling with asthma, he retired at the age of 39 during the summer of 1961. After a spell working in a borstal, he moved to the east of England, where he became a hugely popular cricket professional, first at Framlingham School in Suffolk, then at Oundle.
He was "old school", upholding the traditional values of the game in the nicest possible way, glad that he had played in the years he did when it was, in his words, "a wonderful game of friendship". He had a long and very close marriage, and almost to the end he stayed in Oundle in a house he called "Ellis Park", after the Johannesburg ground where he hit his first Test century. "It was a strenuous life," he said, "but I wouldn't change a minute of it."
Albert John Watkins, cricketer: born Usk, Monmouthshire 21 April 1922; played for Glamorgan 1939-61, and 15 Tests for England 1948-52; married 1942 Molly Shankland (died 2003; two sons, two daughters); died Kidderminster 3 August 2011.
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