I FIRST met Cecil Pepper when he visited the Daily Express glass palace in Manchester - he spent most of his time demonstrating, with the long fingers of a strong hand and powerful forearm, how to bowl his famous 'flipper'. Impressed, I tried to bowl it in my next match but, after four near beamers, outraged glares from the batsman and a volley of oaths from the wicketkeeper, I had to revert to my painfully slow and glaringly obvious googly.
When told, 'Cec' Pepper laughed delightedly. He loved to explain his bewildering variety of spinners, aware that knowledge of the technique had to be reinforced by physical prowess, physique, an intuitive awareness of a batsman's weaknesses and an overpowering confidence. Even when a batsman, and there were no more than a handful in the world, got the better of him on the field, they would have been worsted by his tongue, for no cricketer, ever, has had a sharper sense of humour.
A thousand stories revolve around 'Pep', his deeds with bat and ball, his catches, his tactical ploys, his umpiring. Tall, immensely strong, he would have to be among the world's best half-dozen all-rounders yet because he played almost no first-class cricket in Britain, nor in an official Test match, his career and his stature have been greatly undervalued. He emerged in that pre-war flowering of Australian cricket when, in the years 1938 to 1950, Australia could have fielded two or three teams to beat a Rest of the World XI. As a boy, he once told me, he had to travel 40 miles and cross three rivers to get a game of cricket.
His name first entered the English consciousness when, playing for the Australian Imperial Forces, he hit 100 in 47 minutes against Buckinghamshire in May 1945. In September that year, after the 'Victory Tests', England drawing the series against a team of virtually unknown Australian servicemen, Pepper won six leg-before decisions against Nottinghamshire.
Pepper seemed certain to succeed Bill O'Reilly as Australia's first- choice leg-spinner (and after Keith Miller, first choice all-rounder) but, as he told Noel Wilde in the Lancashire League history The Greatest Show on Turf, 'I always got on well with Bradman. Still do. But I got the little sod out twice in one innings and the umpire wouldn't give him out. When I told the umpire what I thought of his decisions I was expected to apologise. I wouldn't. So I came to England.' Bradman rated 'Tiger' O'Reilly as the greatest leg- spinner, putting Pepper second, but that prowess was lost to Australia as Pepper was welcomed joyfully into league cricket in northern England where his phenomenal rate of scoring runs and taking wickets, his tactical acumen and his ability to inspire his amateur colleagues made him a legendary performer. Even today, 29 years after he ceased playing, stories about Pepper can still convulse cricket dinners.
He became a first-class umpire in 1964 and remained on the list until 1979, characteristically making his opinions known on the selection of Test umpires. His views remained pungent: 'Botham? The world's best all-rounder? Hell, he wouldn't have got into the New South Wales dressing-room in my day. I could have bowled him out with a cabbage, with the outside leaves on. And as a bowler, well, he wouldn't have been good enough for Bradman.'
As he usually backed his words with deeds, it was foolish to bet against him, as many of the crowd who once ringed the field at Burnley or Rochdale or Oldham would testify. Like many Australians of his day, especially those born in the outback, he was a perpetual challenger but he could always make a funny joke of the friction in his life. 'Pep' could make an Englishman proud of Australia.