I have had Gideon Haigh’s Mystery Spinner on the shelves for a while now, and finally got round to reading it during the lockdown. It is one of cricket’s most remarkable stories. Jack Iverson was an unorthodox spinner who didn’t make his school’s first XI, debuted in first-class cricket at the age of 34, and for Australia a year later, in the 1950/51 Ashes series in which he became the leading wicket-taker for the winning team. Then he left as suddenly as he came.
Iverson was a mystery spinner in the technical sense. His grip is shown on the book’s cover, the middle finger tucked underneath the ball ready to propel it in a way that most batsmen could neither read or understand. But all we see of him is the hand, telling us that the mystery of Iverson is the man as much as the bowling.
That the book is a tremendous read goes without saying; it’s written by Gideon Haigh. It is also a triumph of research. There is no avenue of Iverson’s life that is unexplored, however apparently tangential to his cricket career. For example, Iverson spent a couple of years in his early twenties as a jackeroo (farmhand) 80 kilometres or so north of Melbourne. Haigh makes contact with the daughter of the owner, who remembers Iverson. The family still owns the property, so he visits. He also scours the archives. It provides Haigh with sufficient evidence to allow the reader to conclude that this was one of the happiest periods of Iverson’s life and that he was stifled by the duty of following his father into real estate.
Haigh also goes to great lengths to place Iverson in the context of the game’s history, with a chapter on the evolution of bowling from underarm days and another on the subsequent development of unorthodox spin, focusing on Iverson’s most well-known successor, Johnny Gleeson.
Mystery Spinner passes the test for the best cricket writing, that it could be enjoyed by readers with little or no interest in the game. It sent me back to the book that is a benchmark in this regard: David Foot’s Tormented Genius, his 1982 biography of the Somerset batsman Harold Gimblett.
The two books have much in common. Gimblett’s entry to first-class cricket was even more sudden and spectacular than that of Iverson. A 20-year-old called up from the farm in Bicknoller at the last moment—it was in May; in July one of Somerset’s many jazzhat amateurs would have done the job—he hitched his way to Frome where he went in at No 8 and took the Essex attack for 123 in 79 minutes. Now, that would be noted only by the county cricket websites; then it was the story of the day, and dressed Gimblett as a golden boy, an ill-fitting suit for the introverted lad from the farm, but one that some pictured him in for the rest of his career.
Not that his batting was shy; many was the county attack that he took apart. Gimblett made 23,00 runs including 50 centuries at 36, equivalent to the mid-40s today. But he played for England only three times. The Second World War took out what might have been his best years, but a reluctance to hide his contempt for sleights (mostly real, but some imagined) from authority figures and being classified as a dasher also contributed. The latter has been a constant in English selection, through the years. Look at all the batsmen who got a few tests while Ali Brown of Surrey went capless. Somerset has a tradition of undercapped batsman, one that James Hildreth is upholding to this day.
For several decades David Foot had one of journalism’s more enviable job descriptions. For the Guardian, he wrote about cricket, football and rugby, and was the paper’s theatre reviewer in the West, and he had a column in the Western Daily Press, all of which left him time to write some terrific books, including an outstanding biography of Wally Hammond.
Some cricket readers may not realise that Gideon Haigh also has a parallel career as a business journalist. Both Foot and Haigh are examples of the CLR James principle, their cricket writing enriched by that on unrelated subjects.
Whereas Haigh had to ferret for the bulk of his content, Foot had it ready-made. He had agreed to write a book with Gimblett, but the subject died before the work began. But he left Foot his memories, honest to the point of distress, on a collection of tapes.
Haigh didn’t see his man play, of course. He was well into the research when he came across some footage and could finally watch Iverson bowl. Foot watched Gimblett play often. A childhood hero is a hero for life, though Foot got to know Gimblett well enough to know the truth of his title: Tormented Genius of Cricket. He starts with a bold assertion:
Gimblett is the greatest batsman Somerset has ever produced.
It would be interesting to know if he would concede that Marcus Trescothick now has that place in the county’s pantheon.
There is a dark connection between the two books. Both subjects ended their own lives. They had been born within a few months of each other in the first year of World War One, so lived at a time short of understanding of mental health. Gimblett’s melancholy (to use Foot’s word) was always apparent in hypersensitivity to criticism and a grim mood when the blackness became too strong to fight off: “He moaned more than most; he berated and he patronized. And a great deal of the time he despaired.”
David Foot describes several incidents that reveal Gimblett’s inner turmoil. He was the adjudicator for the Gold Award (man of the match) at an early-season one-day game in Bristol. For most ex-players this was the easiest of days, with food, drink and a fee in return for only a couple of minutes’ thought about who to give the medal to at the close of play. But the black dog accompanied Gimblett to the County Ground that day. For some time, he sat in his car outside the ground, wanting to turn round and go home. Foot found him wandering around the boundary in lonely anguish, dreading the moment of decision and the public disapproval that he had convinced himself was inevitable.
Jack Iverson’s insecurity was always apparent. He was forever announcing to teammates that was going to give the game away. A poor performance (and he set the bar high) would push him into a sea of self-doubt. Unlike Gimblett, Iverson generally hid his insecurity behind an affable persona, but the last ten years of his life saw a gradual decline in his wellbeing. Haigh’s meticulous account of Iverson’s life allows us to understand the context of his illness, which appears to have had a significant connection with the decline of the real estate business, that he had entered from filial obligation. His death followed his getting a disappointing business discussion out of proportion.
Foot records Gimblett’s final despair with similar detail and compassion. Both authors know that the story of the cricketer cannot be told without an understanding of the man and the times in which he lived. Duncan Hamilton’s on Harold Larwood, which I wrote about some time ago, is of the same high standard. All of three are worth a read.
NB David Foot was the subject of a recent piece on Cricket Web.