Bob Appleyard: One of Cricket's Almost Greats

As a former spin bowler myself the art of spin bowling has always fascinated me. Jim Laker to Yasir Shah via Sonny Ramadhin, Derek Underwood, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Muttiah Muralitharan, Graeme Swann, and many, many others have enthralled my cricket over several decades.
I have seen many of these great spinners operate, but I never saw Bob Appleyard, whose career was brief, ending when I was 8 years old. Reading an interview by Chris Waters with two Yorkshire players of the 1950s on the subject of Fred Trueman I was surprised by their answer when asked, ‘So was Fred the greatest bowler you played with or against?’. ‘Oh no’, they replied, ‘that would be Bob Appleyard’. I was not just surprised but intrigued. Most people who followed cricket in England in that era would have admired Jim Laker, Tony Lock, Ray Illingworth, Johnny Wardle … but only those in the know would mention Appleyard, who played for England only nine times. What was it about Appleyard that commanded such deep respect?
We now of course enter that controversial area of judging by statistics. But they are remarkable. Appleyard took 700 wickets at 15 apiece (an average beaten in England only by Hedley Verity in the post-World War One period – before that wickets were usually awful and bowlers made hay). In tests he took 31 wickets at 17 apiece. His main series was in Australia in 1954-5, so his efforts were not by any means all on damp turners or ‘sticky dogs’ caused by the uncovered English pitches of the 1950s. Laker had a much longer career and took nearly 2000 wickets but at a higher average than Appleyard both in first class (18) and in test (21) matches. But for Laker, there is no doubt Appleyard would have played far more times for England than he did.
In style, however, Appleyard was very different from his fellow off-spinner. Laker was genuinely slow, with a short run and a looping, drifting flight. Appleyard’s style was closer to Tony Lock’s, who fired in his left arm spin at medium pace. Appleyard ran in off 15 yards and was closer to medium pace. Both Laker and Appleyard had a high action, and both were able to make the ball dip in its flight. Appleyard with his extra height and greater pace made it rear off a good length.
In an interview with Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Appleyard in his declining years revealed not just a charm and modesty uncharacteristic of his fellow Yorkshiremen, but technical detail of great interest. Unlike Underwood, he explained, he spun the ball off the middle finger, with the index finger supporting the ball, and with the wrist over, not under, the ball. I am reminded here of Kumble, whose grip and action were described as those of an off-spinner bowling leg breaks, with his wrist also over the ball, and who bowled off a longish run at slow-medium pace. Footage of Appleyard bowling shows a similar high, bouncy action. Appleyard insisted that to make the ball dip in flight it must be delivered from behind, not in front of, the head, letting ball go early in its flight. In addition to off-breaks and leg-cutters he also bowled seam, mainly in-swing, and so could adapt his technique to any situation or set of conditions. He even regularly opened the bowling with Fred Trueman. His Yorkshire spin rival Johnny Wardle likened him to a combination of Alec Bedser and Jim Laker. Another great Yorkshire bowler, Bill Bowes, considered Appleyard in the same bracket as Syd Barnes and Bill O’Reilly, both of whom were noted, not just for being deadly, but for using the totality of the bowler’s technique (although Barnes insisted that unlike O’Reilly he had no need of a googly!). This adaptability proved especially important in Australia, where Appleyard recognised that conditions would be different from what he was used to, and adjusted his technique successfully.
On the tour of 1954-5 he played in four test matches, taking only 11 wickets, but at an average (20) better even than Tyson, Statham, Wardle and Bailey (who destroyed Australia several times over), often bowling in extreme heat as in the Adelaide test. For this tour he had been preferred to Laker, with Wardle the other main spinner.
Appleyard missed the first test – fortunately for him as Australia, inserted, scored 600 against an all-seam attack, and won by an innings. In the second test, a thriller won by England by 38 runs, Australia were demolished by Tyson, Statham, and Bailey. Appleyard took the crucial wicket of Benaud in the second innings, but his 19 not out in a last wicket stand of 46 with Statham in the second innings gave England an unexpected edge with a stand just 8 runs more than the margin of victory.
In the fourth test Appleyard’s contribution was major as he took 6 wickets for 71 in the match – 3 top order batsmen in each innings, ripping out first the top order then the middle order, including the priceless wicket of Neil Harvey, as England won with ease. His role was a supporting one to Wardle in the remainder of the series, but he went on to New Zealand, taking 4 for 7 in New Zealand’s humiliation being bowled out for the lowest ever test score of 26 at Christchurch.
Appleyard’s major test match feat statistically, however, was to take 5 for 51 at Nottingham in his first test, the second against Pakistan in 1954, where they were rolled over for 157 in the first innings. Appleyard’s victims included the great Hanif Mohamed. Oddly, he did not play again in that series, in which Wardle, Laker, Tattersall and McConnon also competed for spinners’ places. When you think that Illingworth and Lock remained in the wings throughout, it is clear the quality of the field was extremely high!
Appleyard came late to the game, following a spell in the leagues, but took 200 wickets in his first full season, 1951, the only bowler ever to achieve that feat. The following year he was laid low for a whole year in hospital with TB, having half of one lung removed. It was thought he would never play again. Indeed he had to learn to walk again as part of a two-year recovery process. Physical decline during 1956-8 meant that he barely played six full seasons of cricket at first class level, and his career finished rather earlier than it might have done but for his physical challenges.
More than this, Appleyard’s whole life was filled with tragedy. At 15 he discovered his father, step-mother and two younger sisters gassed in the bathroom. Later he lost both his son and his grandson to leukaemia. Nonetheless, he appears to have coped well enough to reach 90 before passing away in 2015, with a cheerful demeanour, an instinct for institution-building (Yorkshire owes its cricket academy to him), and few regrets over lack of selection, untimely illness, and both a late start and an early end to his career. He was unfortunate to have to compete with an England bowling squad ranked as its best in the entire 20th century.
The 1950s were, it is true, a good time for English spinners to take wickets and bowl a lot of maiden overs. It is difficult to classify as really great a bowler who played only nine tests, despite the high opinions expressed by his peers and the great qualities feared by batsmen in all conditions. Appleyard’s career is a reminder of the vicissitudes of life and how a sportsman can come so near to, yet so far from, greatness. It is also a reminder that adversity is a natural condition and that, like Appleyard, we should face it with appreciation of the good times and without blame or resentment. In the context of his life and times, Bob Appleyard enhanced the game he loved, was fortunate to enjoy a career that might never have happened, and to have at least touched, if not quite achieving, greatness.


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