John Murray, the wicketkeeper’s wicketkeeper

John Murray’s most amazing characteristic is that he could look both tall and small simultaneously. As a wicketkeeper, he needed to be squat and compact, but such was his emphasis on style and stance that he managed this despite being 5ft 10ins, rather tall for one of his craft.

I was attracted to him because my Playfair annual told me that he was born in Kensington, where I lived, and I also had aspirations to be a wicketkeeper. There could not have been a better model. Style was JT’s watchword. I first watched Middlesex in the early 1960s and he was already there, ensconced as that underperforming side’s wicket keeper, a position he first gained in 1956 and would retain for two decades. I used to cycle to Lord’s from South Kensington after school and the kindly gatekeepers would usually let me in for free, as well as keeping an eye on my bicycle for me.

I liked particular catching up on the post-tea proceedings on the first day when I would normally get the fag end of the innings of the side batting first who would, in those days, traditionally declare at around 300, and then watch the Middlesex quicks, Moss and Warr, steaming in for half an hour hoping to capture a couple of cheap later wickets. Murray would stand far back to them, going through his little routine before every ball, lifting his hands, touching the cap he always wore and crouching down ready to snaffle an edge. He would move effortlessly rarely tumbling to take the ball but occasionally he would dive full length making extraordinary catches look simple. While he was naturally stylish, one suspects that quite some deliberate effort went into staying so controlled and so neat as even the way he passed the ball through to the slips after he had taken it was done with panache.

His batting was the same. His drives, in particular, were perfection, straight out of the textbook and Tony Lewis once wrote that he was the only batsman who could make hooking the West Indies fast bowlers, something which took courage in those pre-helmet days, look elegant, ‘with the balance of a skater’.

His batting average of around 20 could, indeed should, have been so much higher. His most famous innings, after all, was a century scored against the West Indies in their pomp with Hall and Griffiths spearheading the attack and Sobers and Gibbs as the other two main bowlers. I was at the Oval for that match in 1966 when England had nothing to play for except pride as they were three – nil down in the series. Murray came in at number 9 when England were still 100 behind the West Indies first innings total of 268. Another defeat seemed on the cards but there was still Tom Graveney, who matched Murray in elegance. They put on 217, with both scoring centuries, and the combined perfection of their batting must have so inspired the tail that both Snow and Higgs, at No 10 and No 11, went onto score 50s, an unprecedented feat in test cricket. England went on to win by an innings, some consolation for a painful summer.

I remember, too, the other side of Murray’s batting, coming in late down the order for a county game when Middlesex had needed just over 100 to beat Glamorgan and had unaccountably collapsed on an easy pitch. A couple of boundaries would have done it and that was too tempting. He was out for one or two, lbw, aiming to drive when perhaps he should have just tried to grub out a few singles, and Middlesex lost by a couple of runs.

At the time, Middlesex’s trademark dismal was c Murray b Titmus, though there was quite of smattering of st Murray b Titmus too. It was the ball that drifted away from the batsman which so often ended up in Murray’s gloves off an edge and the stumpings were invariably brilliant leg side efforts to balls fired in deliberately – presumably on a prearranged signal – outside the batsman’s legs at yorker length..

Murray professed little interest in statistics but those of his career are truly remarkable. He was one of just six wicketkeepers to achieve 100 dismissals in a season and, even more amazing, in 1957 when he scored 1,025 runs and obtained 104 dismissals, he became only the second player to achieve the wicketkeepers’ double. His career total of 1,527 was beaten only, later, by Bob Taylor.

He was, though, a nearly man. The fashion for choosing wicketkeepers who could bat rather than the best stumper had already been established and Murray lost out to Jim Parks who had got into the test side on his batting alone before taking up the gloves, just like Alec Stewart. In his long career, he only played 21 tests, despite that brilliant century against the West Indies.

Murray, though, deserved better. His batting could undoubtedly have improved sufficiently to make a useful contribution at number 7 in test matches but in those days selectors tended to look at already developed skills rather than potential. He was the better wicketkeeper than Parks, although there was Keith Andrew of Northamptonshire to be considered, but he was a genuine tail ender with very little batting ability. Murray though never complained. It would have been inelegant to do so.

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