IN A month when England are having to face, with some trepidation, Australia's second-ranked leg-spinner, Stuart McGill, the name of Doug Wright recalls an era when there were a dozen or more such bowlers playing regularly in county cricket. Wright, of Kent, was immeasurably the best. On his day, when God smiled and it all came together, he was irresistible. He took seven hat-tricks in first- class cricket, a record.
Bowling leg-spin and googlies at Test match level is a fiendishly difficult art, requiring application, control, accuracy, patience, stamina, long strong fingers, supple wrists, hard skin, loose shoulders, balance, favourable conditions (a pitch rough to take turn but hard enough to give bounce), a gambling instinct, a shrewd insight into the opposing batsmen, a supportive captain, good catchers, close and in the deep, and luck.
Crucial, at this highest level, are three basic deliveries, the leg-break, the googly and the top-spinner, with any nunber of variations - Abdul Qadir, of Pakistan (1975-85), had eight different deliveries. The ball can also be bowled at differing speeds, differing lengths and from wide of the crease to close to the stumps, over or round the wicket. Watching Shane Warne is to see as much of a virtuoso performance as to follow Darcey Bussell or to hear Luciano Pavarotti or Frank Sinatra.
Wright is best remembered for bowling more unplayable balls - fast leg-breaks and googlies that would fizz off a hard surface - than anyone in history. Don Bradman rated him the most dangerous he ever faced but Wright will always rank below Warne, and others, because of his inconsistency.
In between some of the most memorably devastating spells, Wright would have days when he struggled to contain his long hops and full tosses. His method was such that he would probably be condemned by modern coaches before he left school.
He took 10 strides over a 15-yard run, five short, five long, then leapt for the bowling crease, ending by spreading his arms wide then lifting both overhead before a full-circle delivery. "His approach looked like a cross between a barn dance and a delivery stride," wrote the caustic Australian Ray Robinson.
Another Australian, his fellow leg-spinner Arthur Mailey wrote: "There was a touch of the south wind hostility about him. The more he was attacked, the harder he blew, the longer and faster he ran." His faster ball was quick enough to cause Godfrey Evans, keeping for either Kent or England, to wave back the slips with his gloves.
He had a memorable leg-spinner to follow in the Kent side, "Tich" Freeman, whose figures suggest he occupied one end for the county each and every day. A greater stroke of luck for Wright was to attend an indoor school in Hammersmith run by the great South African Aubrey Faulkner who first taught him to bowl leg-spin and googlies: "I owe Aubrey Faulkner everything," Wright said in later life.
Wright was 17 when he first played for Kent in 1932 but did not win a regular place until Freeman retired four years later. By 1938 he had been selected to play against Australia after giving the England captain Wally Hammond a difficult time. Wright took 5-238 in a high-scoring (1,496 runs) first Test at Trent Bridge, bowling 76 overs and 2-124, off 24 overs, at Lord's.
Hammond's uncertainty over Wright crystallised at Leeds where Australia, needing 105 to win, were 50-2 before Wright was called; in five overs he took three wickets, including those of Bradman and Stan McCabe, the England captain later being caned by Wisden for his late decision. Wright was thus 30 when his career resumed in 1945, taking 10 wickets for England against the Dominions at Lord's.
He was an automatic choice for Hammond's touring team to Australia in 1946-47 and was expected to do well on Antipodean pitches. He took the most wickets, 54, and 23 in Tests, and no Australian batsman, reported E.W. Swanton, was his master. This was no mean compliment, for Australia fielded Bradman, Morris, Barnes, Hassett and Miller. Swanton also commented that "in 1929 and 1933 England had won two rubbers, missing only one catch in all. This time they certainly missed 10 chances of one kind or another off Wright alone."
Wright had unending misfortune when bowling to Bradman. In the second Test he beat Bradman three times in two overs, just missing the off stump; in the third his top-spinner, with Bradman bang in front, was adjudged, to some astonishment, to be going over the stumps and in the fifth he dismissed Bradman for 12 and had him dropped, at slip, for two, in the second innings.
Although, on his return, he took 177 wickets for Kent at an average of 21 in the summer of 1947 he could never be sure of selection despite taking five wickets in each innings against South Africa at Lord's that year. He had 52 wickets for Freddie Brown's team to Australia in 1950-51, but his bag of 11 in Tests was seen as disappointing.
Kent's attack was at its weakest in the post-war seasons and Wright, captain in 1954-56, was summer after summer the mainstay; 10 times he took 100 wickets in a season. He was also a useful tail-end batsman and a good field and when he retired in 1957 he became a successful and popular coach at Charterhouse for 13 years.
Doug Wright, in his time, like all spinners, was expected to bowl very long spells. Today he would have been used as a shock bowler and might, with sympathetic fields and an understanding captain, have been as potent as Warne. Swanton wrote of him (in August 1950):
Under a great tactician, and if there had been no break for war, Doug Wright would probably have become one of the greatest of English spin bowlers . . . so long as his contemporaries live to tell the tale, his stature will not be measured only by the record books. They will cherish, too, the picture of a cricketer of great moral courage and of a manner reserved but generous and charming.
Colin Cowdrey once said Doug Wright's epitaph should read: "He never wanted to bowl a dot ball", that is, one that brought neither wicket nor run. If he was expensive in Tests he also had one of the highest strike rates. Wright took 108 wickets in 34 Tests at an average of 39 and his first-class record was 2,056 wickets at 23.
Douglas Vivian Parson Wright, cricketer: born Sidcup, Kent 28 August 1914; married (one son, one daughter); died Canterbury 16 November 1998.
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