Edrich played without a helmet and said he only got seriously hit twice (once against Pollock, once against Lillee), yet batsmen today get hit much more often. © Getty Images

Edrich played without a helmet and said he only got seriously hit twice (once against Pollock, once against Lillee), yet batsmen today get hit much more often. © Getty Images

Over my dead body.

For some, it’s a melodramatic turn of phrase. For John Edrich, it was the only way he knew to play cricket.

It was what he told himself before he would walk on to the cricket field. It was meant to be a joke. His body, tattooed with scars, might beg to differ.

He didn’t yield to Whispering Death (and friends) that evening at Old Trafford in 1976; he didn’t yield to death, too, when it whispered he had only seven years to live after being diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia in 1999.

Not that he finds any of that remarkable. What he does find remarkable is how anyone else could possibly find it so. That was his justification, anyway, for not doing interviews.

And then, last December evening, he did something he had never done against Lillee, Thomson or the great West Indian fast bowlers.

He relented.

***

Trueman sent Edrich to the Bradford Infirmary with a broken finger when they first met on his native heath. © John Edrich

Trueman sent Edrich to the Bradford Infirmary with a broken finger when they first met on his native heath. © John Edrich

Edrich, now 80, before he went on to score 39,790 runs in first-class cricket – 5138 of those for England – intended to become a farmer. He grew up on a farm in Blofield, Norfolk and thought he should carry on in the tradition of his father, and his father before him.

My mother thought it’d be a good idea if I tried to play first-class cricket because I had four cousins who played the game. The famous Bill Edrich was my cousin and then there’s Brian, Geoffrey and Eric.

We had the Edrich XI. We played against Norfolk on three or four occasions and some charity games against the Lord’s Taverners. We had 11 Edriches, the umpires were Edriches, the scorers were Edriches. So we didn’t lose a match!

I didn’t want people to say I made it because of the Edrich name so I approached Surrey and not Middlesex. For that reason, I’ve also never spoken to Bill about any of my cricket problems.

Fred Trueman – “one of the world’s great fast bowlers, but also one of the world’s great characters” – gave him his first lesson in facing fast bowling: Learn how to tolerate pain or learn how to bat better.

The first time I played against Fred Trueman was the first time I had really seen anyone as quick as that. I was the new boy so he paid close attention to me.

We met again when Surrey were playing Yorkshire at Bradford. It was a big game, and it was my first game in Yorkshire. I batted three or four overs against him and he broke my finger. I was then sent to the Bradford Infirmary to get it attended to. So that wasn’t a very good meeting.

We had quite a lot of tussles. We used to play on the Sheffield football ground. It was a slow pitch. I said, “They should have a much quicker wicket for you to bowl fast on, Fred. You would be better off bowling legspinners.” And the next over, he came up and he did! He bowled legspinners! I survived that over, which was a good thing because if I had got out I would have never heard the last of it.

When Edrich was called up for England against West Indies in 1963, he didn’t need to worry about Trueman anymore as they were on the same side. However, the West Indians more than proved a handful. Charlie Griffith hit him on the elbow at The Oval, and sent him to St Thomas’s Hospital in London. His scores in the three games he played were none too impressive, but the selectors included him in the squad for the 1963-64 tour of India.

It was my first tour and with all these great England players. We had been up there in Nagpur for one of the games we had played before the Test match. It was very hot and dusty and I got a throat infection on the way back. Four of us were ill. We were in Bombay. It’s Mumbai now, isn’t it? We were at the Breach Candy Hospital – Mickey Stewart, John Mortimore and Phil Sharpe and myself. The doctors initially thought I had a stomach bug. It took me a couple of weeks to get well.

“Chandrasekhar was a wonderful bowler, no doubt about it. Knocked me out middle stump, he must have been good! No, but that was his secret. He could bowl it very quickly. You didn’t have much of a chance. When he got it right, it was very difficult to play him.”

My first Test was in New Delhi. Before the game, we warmed up and we asked where the showers were. We were told there was no water. Apparently the Indian cricket board hadn’t sent the water board any match tickets so the water supply was cut off!

We didn’t have the modern hotels that you do now. We stayed in a lot of government rest houses as they called them. We brought some of our own food just in case. Some thought it was an insult to our host, but it wasn’t meant to be. Our stomachs simply didn’t adjust well to the change in diet.

I missed quite a lot of the games, which wasn’t great, but I did enjoy what I did see of India. They really enjoy their cricket in India. There were big, noisy crowds. They cheered both sides. If you played well you got a lot of support.

The stars briefly aligned on June 21, 1964 – his 27th birthday. He hit 120, his maiden century, against Australia at Lord’s, and at the tea interval he was congratulated by the Queen and Prince Phillip. But when he fell out of favour again, it took a special knock – 310 not out at Headingley – to cement his place. To this day, no one else has scored more fours (52, in addition to five sixes) in a Test innings.

Not a bad 27th birthday: Edrich scored his first century against Australia at Lord's and later met the Queen, who told him he had made several people very happy. © John Edrich

Not a bad 27th birthday: Edrich scored his first century against Australia at Lord’s and later met the Queen, who told him he had made several people very happy. © John Edrich

I had been dropped a few times and I hadn’t had a regular place in the side. When I first got into the England side, we were playing against some very good teams. The West Indies team in 1963 is probably one of the best sides I’ve ever played against. Frank Worrell was captain and you had [Garry] Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Lance Gibbs, Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. They were the kings of cricket at that time. It was hard work playing against teams like that. Then, you had the Australians. And in England, there were good players and there was a lot of competition.

I only got selected at Headingley because Geoffrey Boycott had a bad back and couldn’t play against New Zealand. I felt it was probably my last chance. For a day and a half, everything went well and I scored 300.

I had a great mentor: Ken Barrington. He was my great friend. When I was batting with Kenny, he’d say, “Now, come on, don’t play any silly shots, and make a big score because it’s much better batting than fielding”. Things like that motivated you.

I thought I was going to do that (go past Sobers’s then world-record 365). Mike (Smith, the captain) said, “You can carry on, you’ve got a chance of breaking the record”. Then four overs later, he declared! He had second thoughts. We won the match in the last couple of overs in the day before the rain came down. Fred Titmus took four wickets in an over. So it all worked out well. I didn’t get the record, but I’ll settle for 300!

Peter Pollock hit me in the head at Lord’s when South Africa came over next. It was my fault. I took my eye off the ball, then I got hit. Before I was stretchered to the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, I remember Geoff, who was at the other end, telling me my temple was swelling and that I looked like I had half the ball in it!

The headaches lasted quite a while after that, but what lessened the pain was learning that he had made the cut for the 1965-66 tour of Australia, the first of three tours Down Under he would embark upon. The second was the 1970-71 tour, which remains the only full Ashes series in Australia where the home team didn’t win a single Test. Edrich contributed to that stat, amassing 648 runs at 72. The trip also featured the first-ever One-Day International, in which Edrich was awarded Man of the Match.

Landing on the ground from Sydney after the 1970-71 tour of Australia was probably the great highlight of our careers, said Edrich. © Getty Images

Landing on the ground from Sydney after the 1970-71 tour of Australia was probably the great highlight of our careers, said Edrich. © Getty Images

Going to Australia was always wonderful because you played a lot of county games. Broken Hill and Wagga Wagga and all these beautiful places. You were there for a couple of days, maybe three days, and you got to meet the local people. They invited you back to their homes. It’s more relaxed than it is today. Now there doesn’t seem to be room to take matches to these smaller places.

“The first One-Day International came about because it rained three days straight in Melbourne and the Test match was cancelled. Sir Donald Bradman, who was then chairman of selectors, and our manager decided we would have a One-Day International. If it hadn’t rained, there wouldn’t have been a one-day game at that time.”

It helped you get used to the conditions. [Edrich played 12 of the 15 warm-up fixtures on the 1970-71 tour.] If you’re having a bad time and you’re not scoring runs or getting wickets then you play these county games, and it gave you a chance of getting back into form.

Certainly in Australia, and certainly in the Caribbean, it was a done thing for the batting side to go to the fielding side’s dressing room at the end of the day’s play. You talked to your opponents. I thought it was a great thing because I learned a lot about playing in their country from the players I talked to. It’s totally different batting in Australia compared to batting in England because the ball bounces much higher. I learned a lot talking to guys like Ian Redpath and Bobby Simpson, how they played against the short-pitched ball. It’s the same in the Caribbean, talking to people like Rohan Kanhai and Garry Sobers. We were very competitive, you didn’t give anything on the field, but off the field you learnt a lot from them.

It’s a different world now. They finish the day’s play and it’s back to the hotels and the gymnasiums. There’s more of a fitness thing, as I understand it. We spent more time with the opposition off the field than they do today, which I think is a real shame.

We didn’t get into bar-room brawls. If you did something like that back then, your senior players would really have a go at you because you’re letting the team down and the team came first. On tour, we used to have a team room and every night when we came back after a match, we’d go into the team room and have a drink and talk about the day’s play. If you went out, it was accepted you would behave yourself.

We had one or two reporters when I was playing who were looking for a scandal. One or two stories came out, which they always do when you’re on a tour. Today there’s so much media coverage and a lot of the media love bad news and stirring up trouble. When you read about the two lads in Australia, it sounded like nothing too serious but I wasn’t there so I’m not sure. But things like that, you shouldn’t be doing in public.

When you win in Australia, it’s the biggest high of your career. That’s the same way Australia would feel if they beat England. We had a wonderful tour in 1970-71. We had a great captain in Ray Illingworth. John Snow bowled magnificently on that tour. We managed to make enough runs. Everything went well. Landing on the ground from Sydney was probably the great highlight of our careers.

“We didn’t get into bar-room brawls. If you did something like that back then, your senior players would really have a go at you because you’re letting the team down and the team came first. On tour, we used to have a team room and every night when we came back after a match, we’d go into the team room and have a drink and talk about the day’s play. If you went out, it was accepted you would behave yourself.”

At times, Geoffrey and I weren’t the quickest of run-scorers. We tried to stand as long as we could and we knew if we could build a big score, we’d have a great chance of winning.

An Australian crowd, especially on a Saturday, can be a bit volatile. When we played in Sydney, all the beer cans came on the field. Raymond took us off the field. It was a brave thing to do in a full house in Sydney. Not many people would do that. We sat in the dressing room and Raymond said we’re not going out there again until all the cans are taken off the field. He was a very, very brave captain.

The first One-Day International came about because it rained three days straight in Melbourne and the Test match was cancelled. Sir Donald Bradman, who was then chairman of selectors, and our manager decided we would have a One-Day International. If it hadn’t rained, there wouldn’t have been a one-day game at that time.

We were playing it at the county level in England. The attendance of county cricket was going down and down. When I first started playing county cricket for Surrey, the big matches – Surrey v Middlesex, Surrey v Yorkshire – you’d get over 20,000 people going in to watch. Over the years, that slowly decreased and the powers that be said we had to do something to make the game more attractive and bring the crowds in. The Gillette Cup came in the mid-60s, the Sunday League came next, and they were the forerunners of what we have today.

England’s record run of 26 official Tests without a loss came to an end later that year when India won their first Test, and series, on English soil in 1971. Edrich, like many of his teammates, was outsmarted by BS Chandrasekhar, and he soon lost his place in the team. But life came a full circle when India were back in 1974. The visitors were humbled, and Edrich reclaimed his spot with 100 not out in his comeback game at Old Trafford.

India always had great spin bowlers. You had spin bowlers in England but mostly offspinners and slow left-arm bowlers. Each county had an offspinner and a left-armer, but you didn’t see many legspinners. It was totally different bowling than what we were used to.

Chandrasekhar was a wonderful bowler, no doubt about it. Knocked me out middle stump, he must have been good! No, but that was his secret. He could bowl it very quickly. You didn’t have much of a chance. When he got it right, it was very difficult to play him.

England, though, had little clue what was waiting for them in Australia in 1974-75. Edrich had his bones broken on two separate occasions, forcing him to miss two Tests, and yet topped the England batting averages with 43.33 against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Wisden later noted: There was no braver innings that his 33 not out in two and a half hours at Sydney.

Lillee broke Edrich's hand in Brisbane and then two of his ribs in Sydney, but he returned from the hospital and very nearly saved the match for England. © Getty Images

Lillee broke Edrich’s hand in Brisbane and then two of his ribs in Sydney, but he returned from the hospital and very nearly saved the match for England. © Getty Images

Jeff Thomson was an interesting bowler. He had a very ungainly action. We used to say he didn’t know where the ball was going. We certainly didn’t know where the ball was going! But why Jeff was such a successful bowler during his time was he could get the ball up high, get a big bounce off good-length balls, which made it very difficult to play.

When we first saw him in Melbourne in a state game, we didn’t think we had anything to worry about because he didn’t bowl it very straight. But as soon as the Test matches came along, he bowled it straight. And with Dennis Lillee at the other end, you had a force to reckon with.

In Australia, you had your eight-ball overs. Which meant you had Lillee and Thomson bowling at you and bowling a lot of short-pitched balls. Sometimes, it would seem a long time if you had to face eight balls from Lillee.

I didn’t fear for my life because you have to back yourself. The way I was brought up, when people were bowling bouncers, you just tried to move your head out of the way.

Dennis always used to bowl you a bouncer first ball and Sydney was one of those wickets where it was two-paced. I thought “I better got out of the way and duck it”, and it didn’t bounce so it hit me in the ribs.

I went to the hospital in Sydney and they said the ribs were just bruised. I came back and we had to bat the rest of the afternoon to try and save the match. I think they had five overs left. Lillee took the second new ball. There was no let-up. We nearly saved the game but lost with five [5.3] overs to spare.

Have you ever broken your ribs? [No.] Well, you don’t want them either! After the Sydney Test, we played a warm-up match against Tasmania and I couldn’t bend down very well in that match. It wasn’t until I got to Adelaide in the next match that I got x-rays and they told me I had two cracked ribs. It was very, very painful.

If Edrich wasn’t battle-scarred from the Australia series, New Zealand’s Ewen Chatfield nearly dying on the cricket field left him pretty shaken. West Indies followed that up with Michael Holding, Andy Roberts and Wayne Daniel unleashing a short-ball barrage against him and Brian Close on a wretched Old Trafford wicket in 1976. Frank Keating, a writer not known to use words carelessly, described it as “sadistically terrifying head-hunting”.

"It was probably the nastiest 75 minutes there's ever been for batsmen in cricket." - Edrich on facing Holding, Daniel and Roberts that evening in Old Trafford. © Getty Images

“It was probably the nastiest 75 minutes there’s ever been for batsmen in cricket.” – Edrich on facing Holding, Daniel and Roberts that evening in Old Trafford. © Getty Images

The incident involving Ewen Chatfield was probably one of the worst moments I have experienced on a cricket field. We only had to get one wicket the next morning to win the match. We had a physio named Bernard Thomas, he was a great friend of Alan Knott. Bernard had said in the morning, “I don’t think I’ll come to the ground today because you’re all not going to be there long”. And Knotty said, “Come along, just come along, I’ll have a massage later”. And so he came. In the match, Chatfield came in and started blocking. Peter Lever bowled a short-pitched ball, Chatfield ducked into it and it hit him in the head. He fell down and swallowed his tongue. If it hadn’t been for Bernie rushing out there to retrieve his tongue from the back of his throat he would have died. I had never seen so many upset players in our dressing room when we got in. It was just horrendous.

How Closey and I came to open the innings was funny. Tony (Greig) was playing for Sussex and Sussex were playing Surrey in Guildford (May 1976) at the start of the season. Tony said, “Oh, I’d like you to open for England against West Indies this season”, because he was captain then. I said, “What do you mean? I’m 40 years old [38] now! And who is going to open with me?” He said, “Brian Close”. I said, “Closey is 45! Why do you want us two old chaps to play?” He said, “I want to protect my young players from those fast bowlers and I don’t want them to die.”

“Peter Pollock hit me in the head at Lord’s when South Africa came over next. It was my fault. I took my eye off the ball, then I got hit. Before I was stretchered to the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, I remember Geoff, who was at the other end, telling me my temple was swelling and that I looked like I had half the ball in it!”

It was probably the nastiest 75 minutes there’s ever been for batsmen in cricket. It wasn’t a very good wicket, lots of uneven bounce. You expect one or two bouncers but it just got out of hand. It was something I had never experienced before. You try and face each ball on its merit and try and keep out of the way. Three bowlers bowling at 95-98 mph with quite a lot of deliveries that were short-pitched, it wasn’t a very good time to be playing as a batsman.

Brian was a very, very strong chap. [Edrich had previously witnessed his human shield tactics against the same opposition in 1963. He thought him a hero then as well as now.] He just let all the balls hit him, which might have infuriated the West Indians even more.

Wayne Daniel was bowling near my head and the umpire would call it a no-ball and then I’d have to face him again. One over lasted eight (nine) balls. You don’t have much time to think. You just hope you can survive the session and don’t get hit. You think, “Well, if we can hang around, maybe the ball gets a bit soft, we have a chance”. We didn’t want to get out, which we didn’t. We got out the next day.

That moment was when I decided I would retire from Test cricket and that was my last Test match. [Of those who played two or more Tests in the series, Edrich topped the England averages.] The selectors wanted me to continue playing, but I said it was time to go. I thought this is pointless now, I’ve achieved what I’ve wanted to achieve. I played county cricket for a couple of years and that was it. Like everything in life, you can go on too long.

The game became very physical and it wasn’t a pleasant game to play at that time. Having gone through that Australian tour, there was a lot of that type of bowling going on. There were no limitations of how many bouncers could be bowled in an over. In an eight-ball over in Australia, you could have three or four bouncers in an over. I didn’t enjoy it, nobody enjoyed playing that. There was no limitation on how many overs they bowled in a day so you could have a slow over-rate. After I retired, they brought in the new rules about bouncers and overs. That was a move in the right direction.

I think helmets have bred complacency among batsmen today. More batsmen get hit now than when we played. I never wore a helmet [the first helmets appeared in cricket in 1977], but you were taught when you were a young player to move your head a couple of inches, maybe three inches. You had to watch the ball from the bowler’s arm and get out of the way. Now you have the helmets, and we know that poor lad, Phillip Hughes, in Australia got killed after getting hit on the back of the helmet. It could give you a false sense of security.

“In the match, Ewen Chatfield came in and started blocking. Peter Lever bowled a short-pitched ball, Chatfield ducked into it and it hit him in the head. He fell down and swallowed his tongue. If it hadn’t been for Bernie rushing out there to retrieve his tongue from the back of his throat he would have died. I had never seen so many upset players in our dressing room when we got in. It was just horrendous.”

What I used to do was watch the bowler at the start of his run, especially the faster bowlers, and I used to watch them all the way till they came to the delivery stride. I found I could pick up ball quite quickly by doing that, by watching them from the word go, just concentrating on their arm and their hand. Then you made the decision whether to play it or get out of the way.

Some of the modern batsmen, like the current English side in Australia, when the ball is bouncing around their ears, the fielding side puts two fielders back at fine leg and just behind square and they’re waiting for the catch, the batsmen go for that shot and invariably they get caught. It’s a shot for nothing. I can’t see the point of doing that because if you let that ball go, the bowler is going to get fed up bowling that short if you’re not going to play a shot.

Without a helmet, you wouldn’t take that risk. The only time I was trying to hook was when it was going down the leg-side. Or when it was wide, you’d try to cut it. Not when it was middle, middle-leg stump, which they seem to play today. As soon as the two fielders go out there, you have to tell yourself, “Well, I’m not going to play that shot and give my wicket away”.

It didn’t take much to motivate me when I was playing against Australia. If you got a big score against Australia then you must have really earned it. I was fortunate when I first played against them I got runs and I had a lot of successful Test matches against them. That’s what you think about when you go out there to bat: “If I can score well here against some of the best cricketers in the world, then I must be reasonably good myself.”

You have to tell yourself you’re a very good player, no one else can tell you that once you walk on the field. You can have all the coaching off the field, but a lot of people don’t make the grade in Test cricket because they don’t have the temperament.

Looking back, the toughest I faced was probably Thomson. Lillee was tough, there haven’t been many better bowlers than him, but I think I finished fairly well against him. Then you had Chandrasekhar and the Indian spin bowlers. I used to admire the way they could spin the ball so much. Andy Roberts was difficult to play against, but then again all the West Indian fast bowlers didn’t give you a lot of time. I found it was easier to pick up the line and length of bowlers with the best actions.

You might not enjoy batting against good bowlers, but you enjoy what you’ve achieved when you come off the field with a big score. I thrived on the competition.