John Snow: Rib-tickling tales from leader of Awkward Squad

Forty years ago England went to Australia to take advantage of a weak home side. Sounds familiar? How about intimidation, walk-offs, crowd trouble... Stephen Brenkley meets John Snow
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John Snow was a great fast bowler. He fitted the mould almost perfectly, except for the small matters of being the son of a country parson, writing poetry and owning donkeys.

But in other ways Snow did what speed merchants are meant to do. He bowled fast, he hated batsmen and he did not much care for authority (or authoritarian) figures either. He knew precisely what he had to do to bowl fast, and to achieve it he became a fully paid-up member of the Awkward Squad.

Forty years ago, assisted by a magnificent captain in Raymond Illingworth, who might have been the AS's lifetime president, he went to Australia and won the Ashes. England had been without them for 12 years, and had last beaten the Australians in 1956.

It was an authentic, hard-nosed victory, achieved with a team specifically designed for the purpose, forged ultimately in Illingworth's image. The series was charged with controversy and debate.

There was a terminal split in the England camp. There was a general distrust of the umpires, which was fuelled partly by their refusal to grant England a single lbw verdict in the entire series of six Test matches, and partly by an autocratic approach to short-pitched bowling.

There was unruly crowd behaviour as the series reached its climax, and Snow was assaulted by a spectator. There was a team walk-off, there were recriminations.

There was the birth of one-day internationals caused by the abandonment of a Test match at Melbourne after four days were washed out, and there was the contentious addition of a Test match.

There were the debuts of Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rodney Marsh and, before the end, Australia sacked their captain.

What should never be forgotten is that, above all, there was some outstanding cricket played between two teams who, metaphorically, were prepared to punch each other's lights out.

England eventually prevailed 2-0, winning two Test matches in Sydney. Snow took 31 wickets at 22.83 runs each. He can be bracketed with Maurice Tate and Harold Larwood, other fast bowlers who prospered in, and antagonised, Australia.

"We went out in much the same situation as the guys are going out this year," said Snow. "Australia were in a bit of a trough player-wise, the others hadn't quite come through and there was a feeling that there was a good opportunity, even though it was on Australian soil, to win it and get the Ashes back."

England had set out in a state of mild confusion. Although Illingworth had led England in the previous two summers, there was a feeling that Colin Cowdrey, who had suffered a long-term injury, could and should be recalled as captain. The selectors deemed otherwise, and Cowdrey was made vice-captain.

The manager of the tour was David Clark, an MCC hotshot and member of the Kent committee. It was felt that his appointment had been made when it looked like Cowdrey would be chosen as captain. It all went wrong. Cowdrey had a terrible tour, Clark was all but cut off.

"I was more concerned to do what I wanted to do, which was go out and play against Australia," said Snow, speaking fondly of his greatest series in the garden of his rural West Sussex home. "It was my cricketing ambition. I had missed out on the 1966tour and I went away and had to reconsider what I wanted to do.

"I was happy with 'Illy' as captain but I had had a good tour in the West Indies with 'Kipper' Cowdrey. I got on with most captains. I got a reputation for being difficult. But if somebody gave me a logical argument for something I would take it on board, if it was illogical I would say bollocks. I understood Raymond, I think, and he understood me and everybody worked pretty well."

The schism occurred with Clark, who most of the team felt did not offer the appropriate support. Illingworth virtually ran the whole show and it worked. "By the end of it, we had virtually given the manager away, he used to go to his functions and everything else, but our loyalty was to Ray."

There was much attritional cricket and England identified early on that if they could get out of Brisbane and Perth with draws, they could win the scheduled Fourth Test (the third actually played) in Sydney.

It worked a treat, but not before Snow had been warned by his bête noire, the umpire Lou Rowan, for intimidatory bowling in Perth. By this time, Snow was at the height of his physical and mental fitness and had spent long hours running on the roads of Sussex and altering his action. He had perfected the back-of-a-length ball which went unerringly, frighteningly, into the batsman's ribcage.

He resented Rowan seeing this as short-pitched bowling and, having been warned, sent a fast ball flying over the batsman Doug Walters's head, turned to Rowan and said: "Now, that's a fucking bouncer."

Snow's finest hour was at Sydney. England led by more than 100 on first innings, Geoff Boycott made the first of his two hundreds in the series in the second innings and Snow then took 7 for 40. He protests now that he can barely recall it.

"Sydney was the one when our feeling of supremacy was converted into actuality. We bowled them out and shook them by the neck. I was pleased to have done it, you don't sort of say it's one of the best ever.

"There are times when you bowl well and don't get wickets. This is a counterpoint to the wicket-taking. If you have got somebody like Derek Underwood keeping it tight, not necessarily getting a lot of wickets but pegging away while you're trying to make a hole, then something gives.

"The whole thing was like that. Raymond's thing was don't give any-thing away, in that miserly Yorkshire attitude." But it was still one of the most significant and telling spells ever recorded by an English bowler abroad.

There were draws in Melbourne and Adelaide, hundreds for Brian Luckhurst, Basil d'Oliveira and John Edrich. Then all hell broke loose in the second Test match played in Sydney, officially the seventh of the series, added without consultation after the Melbourne washout.

Australia replaced Bill Lawry as captain with Ian Chappell. England hung on to win. Bowled out for 184, they restricted Australia's lead to 80. And when Snow bowled at the leg-spinner Terry Jenner (later to be reincarnated as Shane Warne's guru) he bowled fast and accurately. Jenner ducked into a short ball, the one aimed at the ribcage. Rowan, who umpired all but one match in the series, issued a warning. Snow, by now at the end of his tether, asked: "Whose bloody side are you on?" Illingworth stepped in and put up one finger to indicate that Snow had bowled only one short ball. The crowd assumed he was giving the finger.

Snow finished the over, walked to long leg, where the incensed crowd were hurling cans and bottles, and was suddenly grabbed by an Australian in the crowd, who was in turn hauled off by some English supporters. Illingworth took his players off and, despite Clark's intervention, refused to go back out until the ground had been cleared.

Snow, prosaically, was not on the field at the end. Having taken a wicket in the first over of Australia's second innings he broke a finger, smashing it on the sightscreen at long leg attempting to take a catch off the young Bob Willis. But he was released from hospital in time to watch the climax and to see Illingworth chaired from the field by his players.

"Everybody wanted to win and was into it, so even though Boycs got a load of runs and I got a load of wickets you must remember that people like Bob Willis and Peter Lever, who got us out of the mire at Adelaide, took key wickets; Ken Shuttleworth, I remember, took a couple of blinding catches; Alan Knott was a genius; Lucky's hundred at Melbourne in a very important game. Those things kept us going forward. It was the old army thing, you're looking after the guy next to you."

It was a momentous time, Snow attained his place in the pantheon and English cricket was so grateful that when he got home they deprived him of his tour bonus.

Life and times: The fast bowler who put England on top Down Under

Name John Augustine Snow.

Born 13 October 1941, Peopleton, Worcestershire.

Teams England, Sussex, Warwickshire.

Role Right-arm fast bowler.

International career 49 Tests, 772 runs, average 13.54; highest score 73; 202 wickets, avge 26.66, best bowling 7-40 v Australia, Sydney 1970-71. Nine One-Day Internationals, 14 wkts at 16.57.

Ashes record 15 Tests, 59 wkts at 26.63, BB 7-40.

1968 series 17 wickets at 29.88. Took 4-94 on Ashes debut at Old Trafford, despite England losing by 159 runs. England unbeaten in 27 Tests after that, Snow playing in 22.

1970-71 series 31 wickets, the highest by either side, at 22.83. Was repeatedly warned by umpires for his short bowling throughout the series. Hit Graham McKenzie in the face in Sydney, forcing him to retire hurt. England won by 299 runs, their biggest victory in Australia since 1936-37, to go 1-0 up.

1972 series 24 wickets at 23.21, easily England's leading bowler. Australia lost the First Test at Old Trafford by 89 runs as Snow took 4-41 and 4-87. His 5-57 at Lord's couldn't stop Australia's first win in the Ashes for 13 Tests. At Trent Bridge, he took 5-92 and 3-94.

1975 series Only 11 wickets at 32.27 as England lost the series 1-0. His best figures of 4-66 came at Lord's.

Alexander Penny