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The Mysterious Mr Iverson

Jack Iverson took up cricket in 1946, at 31, walking into a cricket club just to have a go. Four years later he was the best spin bowler in the world.

When he started writing about Jack Iverson, Gideon Haigh knew it would a challenge. He ‘left little behind; no published works, no journals, no diaries, no boxes of correspondence, only some photos, statistics, reportage of his feats and a scattering of others’ recollections.’

What remains of Iverson’s quiet yet enigmatic life is fascinating. 

Read an excerpt from the latest book in the Text Classics series, Mystery Spinnerwith an introduction by Russell Jackson, the biography of perhaps the most original and the most elusive character in Australian sporting history, by renowned cricket writer Gideon Haigh.


ONE

It is commonly said that nothing in cricket occurs for the first time. Players reset statistical benchmarks, of course, and attain new standards of excellence. But styles and theories of batting, bowling, fielding and captaincy allegedly exist in a cycle of creative reinvention, endlessly echoing those gone before. The former Australian captain Victor Richardson used to tell his grandsons, the brothers Chappell: ‘Don’t believe that anything is new in cricket. It’s all been tried before...If you hang onto a suit long enough it will come back into favour.’

Fifty years ago, however, there appeared a tall, shy, shambling Australian called Jack Iverson to challenge this verity. He bowled like no man before and a mere handful since, clasping the ball snugly between the thumb and a folded middle finger as though giving it a secret handshake. And extending that middle finger while maintaining the fulcrum of the opposable thumb turned cricket physics on its head; from the same grip, with slight alterations of the arm’s angle at release, Iverson bowled top spinners and wrong ‘uns that looked like leg breaks, leg breaks that resembled off breaks. If slow bowling is the art of deceit, Iverson ranks with the perpetrators of the Zinoviev letter and the Cottingley Fairies.

They called him, allusively, a ‘mystery spinner’, nicknamed him ‘The Freak’. And when he routed England in a Test at Sydney in January 1951, Jack Iverson and his spin-bowling sub-genre of one became the sensations of their time. ‘He has skill extraordinary and the demeanour of a thoughtful player,’ wrote English journalist John Kay. ‘His like come seldom. When they arrive, every effort should be made to keep them on the scene!’ But stay, he did not. Within a few years, virtually all that remained of Jack Iverson in cricket’s annals were memories, statistics and a few fading photographs of that impossible grip.

It was with those photographs that my own fascination with Jack Iverson began about twenty years ago. Insatiably curious about cricket, I took a photocopied page from Jack Fingleton’s Brown Company into my family’s backyard and began experimenting on a tennis ball with my own version of the Iverson grip. Even with the softer sphere, it was confounding. The ball would disappear either side of the driveway, spinning like a malfunctioning satellite. Yet I read that Iverson, with a cricket ball, kept line and length as an atomic clock keeps time. What manner of talent must this man have been?

Fanning my curiosity, too, was that I had just enrolled at what I knew to be Iverson’s old school: Geelong College, alma mater also to Lindsay Hassett, Ian Redpath and Paul Sheahan, and an institution unstintingly proud of its sporting sons. Yet Iverson featured nowhere on its honour rolls. It was a paradox I could unravel only by further reading, for there was more to Iverson’s singularity than technique.

For most who ascend cricket’s heights, recognition is the result of years of toil and aspiration. Not for Jack Iverson. That crowded hour when he was Australia’s cynosure of spin was essentially the sum of his cricket life: he was thirty-one when he took the game up in 1946, thirty-five when he played Test cricket, thirty-five when he withdrew from it, thirty-eight when he played his final first-class match.

Comet-like careers themselves are not unusual in Australian cricket: about four in ten of the players in its record books have played no more than five Tests. Usually it is because Test cricket’s unique demands stretch them beyond their talent and temperament, or because form deserts them at inopportune moments, or because rivals of similar ability are in abundance. But again, none of these applied to Iverson. For the seven years from his unannounced appearance in sub-district ranks to the end of his first-class career, he was perhaps the world’s most destructive bowler, harvesting in all classes of cricket more than 500 wickets at a cost of just over 12 runs each. He headed the bowling averages in Brighton’s premiership season of 1947-48, then in Melbourne’s of 1948-49. The following season he headed the Sheffield Shield averages and the first-class averages on an undefeated Australian tour of New Zealand. Finally he led the Test averages in a 4-1 Ashes victory in 1950-51.

After a handful of further first-class matches, however, Iverson faded from view, like a line of handwriting where the ink has unexpectedly petered out. The bowler whom Keith Miller and Richie Benaud still believe would have dissolved batsmen on contact in English conditions never went there, preferring to become a suburban estate agent collecting rents and pacing out frontages. He died young, at fifty-eight, in apparently benighted circumstances, and considering himself a ‘broken-down old cricketer’ whom ‘no-one remembered’.

I never met Jack Iverson. I never saw him play. And the raw material from which sporting biography is extruded is quite different to that involved in other life stories. Writers leave behind books. Painters leave behind pictures. Musicians leave behind compositions and recordings. With athletes, the only permanent objectified record comes in the form of scores and statistics: poor clues to the inner life. One might as well judge a writer by tallying their words, a painter by counting their brushstrokes, a musician by aggregating their notes.

As athletes are usually people to whom deeds matter more than words, moreover, it is a rare sportsman who leaves any quantum of correspondence or personal journals. And even where they have, one can search in vain for a sense of the consciousness behind them. Few better examples exist than the diary kept by Victor Trumper on his 1902 tour of England. As an artefact of the journey on which this preternatural talent first became legend, it is incomparably precious. As an aperture to his thoughts, it is next to useless. Study 24 July, the day he scored Test cricket’s first century off scratch, before lunch on the first day, and Trumper seems further away than ever: ‘Wet wicket. Fourth Test. Won Toss. Made 299. Self 104. RAD [Reg Duff] 50. 1st wicket 135. England five for 70. Tate [Fred Tate] 1st Test.’

In more recent times, of course, there is the boon of testing one’s impressions of an athlete against footage. This can convey a powerful sense of the individual’s transcendence: one could scarcely write of Ray Lindwall, for instance, without having seen his delectably smooth approach and final bound. But watching sportsmen and women on film or peering at them in a photograph, while descriptively helpful, creates a deceptive intimacy. Watching footage of Graeme Pollock cover driving at the crease, or for that matter of Jackson Pollock painting in his studio, answers only part of the question how, and none of the question why.

Sporting biographers fill this abhorrent vacuum with two principal sources. The first is contemporaneous reportage of their subjects’ achievements. Usually abundant in its availability, this is limited in its usefulness. Writing about an innings from press reports is rather like trying to reconstruct a novel from its reviews. The other source is memory. The recollections, anecdotes and impressions of a subject’s friends and enemies are the very staff of life. These can come from an observation in the middle or, sometimes even better, away from it. When I think of Sir Donald Bradman, for instance, I think of vignettes like Jack Fingleton’s flavoursome description of him at lunch during a big innings: ‘He had, in Sydney, the inevitable light batting lunch in the dressing room of rice custard, stewed fruit and milk. Each slow mouthful was an essay in method, in digestion, in cold planning and contemplation of the feast to follow in the middle.’

But what if there had been a cricketer of fame great but fleeting, who throughout his abbreviated career at the top maintained a circumspect distance from his fellows, and whose life otherwise was as far from the limelight as one can retreat to? Researching the life of Jack Iverson, it soon emerged, would involve more than following the route of sporting biography enshrined by convention. It would be about recovering the vestigial traces of a man’s life a quarter of a century after his passing. On occasion in this book, in fact, I will explain the processes by which I sought to reconstruct his journey: sometimes with only limited success. For as I set off after this fugitive personality, armed with the handful of books that devoted him more than a few paragraphs, and a bundle of yellowing newspaper clippings, there would be some occasions when his trail seemed to dematerialise completely. At other times, however, he felt almost close enough to touch.

In his sublime memoir of literary biography, Footsteps, Richard Holmes described the feelings he experienced during his peregrinations round the various houses in which his subject Percy Shelley had dwelt in Italy: ‘I came to suspect that there is something frequently comic about the trailing figure of the biographer: a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he might be invited in for supper.’ In my own far less momentous way, I soon experienced similar sensations. There was so little on record about Jack Iverson, in fact, that I couldn’t even locate the right kitchen window. One of my early follies, for instance, thinking Iverson’s connection to Geelong far stronger than it proved, was to ring a dress shop there which I remembered being run by a woman called Iverson. Mrs Iverson’s bemused shop assistant politely offered a telephone number, and Mrs Iverson with equal politeness told me that she was no relation to someone of whom she’d never heard.

Holmes also wrote delightfully: ‘I mark my beginning as a professional biographer from the day when my bank bounced a cheque because it was inadvertently dated 1772.’ My own most ludicrous moment, perhaps, was visiting Sydney on the strength of advice that there was an ABC picture of Jack Iverson in the Australian Archives, only to discover that it was a man holding a trumpet, called Jack Iversen: a Queensland band leader from the 1960s.

While grappling for that first handhold, however, I made a small discovery. The property section of the Age newspaper of 8 August 1998 reported that Jack Iverson’s old Brighton home at 44 Black Street was to be sold, describing him as ‘the famous Test bowler with the unique leg-spin grip’. I imagined that the house had changed hands a few times since, was probably now occupied by someone with little idea of its provenance, and it seemed as good a place as any to begin.

Brighton itself is a comfortable and conservative beachside suburb with wide, shady streets commemorating the original generation of settlers in 1841: Dendy, Were, Cole, Blanch, Male, Munro, Carpenter, Boxshall. Local guidebooks glorify the suburb’s contributions to Australian culture. Composer Percy Grainger played his first piano at 299 New Street, a house called Binghal. Novelists Henry Handel Richardson, Marcus Clarke and Martin Boyd all dwelt in the area at various times. Poet Adam Lindsay Gordon shot himself on the foreshore at the end of Park Street in January 1870, the day before his Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes was published, and his grave in the local cemetery became the subject of an annual pilgrimage by admirers.

Cricket also goes a long way back. Brighton was barely a year old when it hosted its first cricket match, successfully challenging the much larger Melbourne in November 1842. For the next decade, it was among the most powerful clubs in Australia. Many of the great and the good in its first fifty years were involved in the game: merchant and parliamentarian Jonathan Were had a ground on his estate; ubiquitous local politician and future premier Tommy Bent was a ‘vigorous roundarm bowler’. A park in Burrows Street, meanwhile, bears the name of the Brighton Cricket Club’s most famous son. Captain Robert Grieve was awarded the Victoria Cross after the Battle of Messines in July 1917, when he immobilised a German pillbox by hurling grenades through its narrow firing slit. This image fusing war and sport seemed piquant, as legend had it that Jack Iverson first experimented with his unique style while on active service.

On a balmy afternoon in Brighton with few cars and fewer pedestrians, I still felt light years removed from Jack Iverson. In fact, I was dumbfoundingly close. The middle-aged woman who answered the door of 44 Black Street responded to my explanatory introduction by revealing herself as Jack Iverson’s daughter, Mrs Beverley McNamara. I’m not sure who was more surprised.

Mrs McNamara was polite, but manifestly uninterested inanswering any questions. ‘You can look it up in books,’ she said. ‘It’s all there if you really want to know.’ When I telephoned her a week later, I felt an even more importunate and unwelcome petitioner, and I wasn’t altogether surprised when she hung up on me.

I had located a ‘kitchen window’, but failed to gain admission. It was a salutary introduction to what Holmes called ‘the constant paradox of biography’ which is that ‘everyone would like to be fully understood but few people want their privacy invaded, even by an imagined posterity’. It was a reminder, too, that even as I investigated the dead, I also trespassed on the living. Placed in Mrs McNamara’s position, accosted by an intrusive stranger, a glorified tomb robber, I’d probably have responded similarly. Of her suggestion about ‘looking up’ Jack Iverson in books, I was rather less confident. But I had to start somewhere.


Mystery Spinner is available now in all good bookshops, from the Text website (free postage!) and in ebook.

Mystery Spinner

Mystery Spinner

Gideon Haigh
$12.95

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