Monday, 10 October 2016

A Lovely Old Bloke Called John

When we played backyard cricket for about six or seven years from the late 1960's, all of us wanted to be batsmen. My mate Big John and I would play out many an Ashes battle in my backyard, batting and bowling for both sides in turn. When the first seven batsmen in the order were out, we'd bat cacky handed for the last three wickets. Big John was a lefty and he always was better at batting right handed than I was, batting left.

Nice bit of personal history, but so what?

Well the point is, we had our favourites. For instance, when Australia batted, I always, always, always was Doug Walters and Ian Chappell. As Walters, I would slap the ball to point and crack the ball to mid wicket standing on my tip toes and as Chappelli, I walked t the wicket with collars high, looking at the sun and doing the Michael Jackson thing with my crotch. 

I didn't care who I was for England, although I always avoided being Boycott.

When it came to bowlers, I could never wrest DK Lillee of Big John. He was, after all, the better bowler. I only had one preference ... I always wanted to be Johnny Gleeson.

With Gleeson, it may have been that word mystery which attracted me, although as a much persecuted big-eared kid, once I'd seen a picture of him, I felt a kinship and a renewed hope that there was a pathway to the Baggy Green. Mystery spinner. As at 14 year old, I didn't even know what it meant but Uncle Brian said it took a bloody lot of control and Uncle Alan, who had played with distinction as an opening bat with St George in the 1940's, said Gleeson was a freak.

Freak sounded good to me.

Of course, grainy black and white TV enhanced those credentials. When Australia went to England in 1972 and we stayed up late to watch the first ABC satellite images of sport, they arrived all mustachioed and brimming with confidence but I watched Gleeson turn no lesser batsmen in terms of skill and arrogance as Geoff Boycott, inside out in both innings at Manchester. Under bowled by Chappelli in the match and trailing by more than a hundred after two innings, Gleeson bowled one of the great overs of Test cricket at the England opener with deliveries which went both ways from the same action and jumped past his bat to a groaning RW Marsh. Boycott, by then set and quickly - yes quickly - moving to his half century after caning Lillee, Colley and Greg Chappell, suddenly looked like a schoolboy in short pants at recess and yet when he was lbw, the country lad Gleeson, just slapped his thigh and grinned.

Boycott played only one further Test in the series that would change the culture of Australian cricket. Gleeson played two, which would be his last as the taller, more conventional Mallett won favour with a skipper who was also his state captain. Tellingly, he was omitted for Inverarity and Australia lost on the fusiarium deck at Headingley when Deadly Derek Underpants took 10 for the match.

This mystery man was never seen as a weapon by his Australian captains but rather a fill in who could dry up an end. Lawry didn't understand him and Chappell, a man whose forte was setting seven slips and letting loose the dogs of war, had no understanding of seeding doubt through stealth. Secret Gleeson into a Tardis and drop him into Mark Taylor's magic bag of aggressive field placings and that puff of confidence blown in a spinner's ear and perhaps Murali might have had a rival in the art of bafflement.

Back in the backyard, it was all still a mystery. My mate Big John still says it was a mystery if I spun the ball at all ... but, whenever he opened for England as Boycott, I started the bowling as Gleeson. After all, in real life, despite the highly creditable record of the Englishman, he was Cho's bunny.

Gleeson's gone now. Just in the last week, with 78 as his final score. He passed away in Tamworth, which for most of his life was home. He was a bushy who had come there via a stint for Western Suburbs in Sydney and moved for his work as a telephone technician. His first cricket prominence came as a member of touring teams for the Emu Cricket Club, based loosely in Tamworth but drawing it's playing members from the Hunter Valley, North Coast, New England and North West cricket regions. Youngsters would play in an annual U/21 carnival in each early New Year in Tamworth. Doug Walters was another who rose through these ranks.

In those days - the first few years of the 1960's - Gleeson caught what bowlers offered as a wicket keeper and he could be a very effective batsman. In fact, it was batting and wicket keeping which took him on two world tours with the Emus, but somewhere, a copy of This Sporting Life slipped open on his lap, describing how Jack Iverson had bamboozled England in the only series he played, as the 1950's started, with the ball held in front of his middle finger and flicked either way. Some say it was a tennis ball which was used to perfect the Gleeson version but in a conversation thecricketragic had with him, it was a pingpong ball.

From then, it was a bowl against Ritche Benaud in a game in Gunnedah a few years later which got him an invite to play grade cricket in Sydney and a famous net session, bowling at a batless Bradman that lifted him to the Baggy Green.

Like a lot who live in Tamworth, especially those who love their cricket, I've had the privileged to have a few conversations with John Gleeson. He was a quiet bloke. Neither carouser nor wowser, he preferred to finish the game and go home rather than sit about and brag abut what did, or worse, might have happened. Years down the track from when he played the game, he still liked to talk about the game, still had opinions but, well, there were lots of other things he liked to talk about but most of the time, no one asked.

A few years back, my wife reluctantly attended a cricket presentation evening for a club I had already left. I didn't want to be there and you could double that for her. John Gleeson was the guest of honour and for reasons unknown to us, we were placed beside him. Now, thecricketragic can and will talk about the game underwater with a mouth full of marbles but my wife is diametrically opposite. She really doesn't get cricket. Never has and never will. I know, because she has promised me that is the case and any previous inclination to the otherwise has been a well rehearsed act. So being placed next to an old Test cricketer was not her idea of a good time.

For the next three hours, they talked non stop and not a word of it was about cricket. Mostly it was of travel and people and places and family and life. He remains one of the most interesting, sweet and polite men she has ever spent time with. Gentleman, without doubt. Polite, no question. When I told her today of his passing, her comment was, "he was a lovely old bloke" and she shared again his anecdotes of London and other far flung places.

So while others quote statistics or claim him as their own; while descriptions unravel his unusual bowling grip; whilst I might like to reveal how his comments about his former skipper are out of sync with the post death glory Chappelli has heaped on him; I'll refrain. Instead, I'll just reflect on days playing cricket in my backyard when my Gleeson always fooled my Big John's Boycott and how a wonderful old man engaged my wife in the most entertaining conversation for three hours, without ever reliving one moment of a rich and interesting cricket experience.

He wasn't our greatest but he was among our most genuine.