Faces of Tamworth: Mystery spinner John Gleeson

John Gleeson at the opening of the Tamworth Regional Sporting Hall of Fame. Photo: Geoff O'Neill.
John Gleeson at the opening of the Tamworth Regional Sporting Hall of Fame. Photo: Geoff O'Neill.

As Tamworth’s first test cricketer John Gleeson will forever hold a special place in our sporting folklore. The 42nd Australian to wear the baggy green, the “mystery spinner” made his test debut in the first test of the 1967-68 series against India and from 29 tests claimed 93 wickets. On his passing in October 2016, Gleeson was remembered as a loyal mate, fierce competitor and a great raconteur whose love for the game never wavered in his 78 years.

There wouldn’t be many who could say they bamboozled Don Bradman.

But John Gleeson is said to of.

During NSW’s Sheffield Shield clash against South Australia in 1966 Bradman invited Gleeson, who much to Bradman’s disappointment was 12th man for the game, to come down to the nets during the NSW innings.

The Chairman of Selectors at the time, Bradman had heard whispers about the boy from Tamworth and was keen to see what all the fuss was about.

After facing Gleeson, albeit in his suit and without a bat, and struggling to read the spin Bradman declared “by the end of the season I think you'll be playing for Australia."

Gleeson had only just arrived on the first-class scene having been plucked from local grade cricket by the late great Richie Benaud.

As Gleeson recalled in 2015 after Benaud’s passing, if it wasn’t for the former Australian captain’s persuasiveness, he might not have ever played test cricket. 

One of the most revered figures in the game, it was Benaud that in 1965 enticed a then 27-year-old Gleeson to have a crack in Sydney.

He’d just captained the Jack Chegwyn’s XI against a north western side containing Gleeson in Gunnedah. 

Chegwyn was a NSW selector at the time, and rumour is the reason he had taken the side to play in Gunnedah was to have a look at Gleeson. Word had been spreading about his unorthodox bowling style.

Gleeson isn’t certain of the truth of that, but he certainly piqued Chegwyn and Benaud’s interest.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, they were watching him bowl with a pair of binoculars.

When it was then Benaud’s turn to bat, he thought he had him worked out.

“He thought he knew what it was all about,” Gleeson recalled.

His plan of attack was to bowl two orthodox off-spinners and then his leggie disguised as an off-spinner.

“Then I got someone out and there was only one ball left,” he said.

“I thought, ‘Struth, I can’t do what I was planning to do.’”

John Gleeson during the 1970-71 Ashes series.

John Gleeson during the 1970-71 Ashes series.

He took a gamble and pitched it a bit outside-leg.

Benaud tried to turn it down-leg, but it spun the other way.

It was the only ball he bowled to Benaud that day but enough to, as he’d hoped, impress him.

“At the end of the game he said, ‘Have you ever thought of playing in Sydney?’” Gleeson said.

He answered that he wasn’t really interested. 

But Benaud pressed on, pointing out to Gleeson that he didn’t in 10 years time want to look back and wonder what if.

“He said, ‘How about if you come down?’” Gleeson said.

“That was on the Sunday. On the Monday morning he rang me about 11 o’clock and said, ‘You’re playing for Balmain on Saturday against North Sydney.’

“One thing led to another from there.”

Borrowing the bowling style of legendary Australian spinner Jack Iverson, by training himself to spin the ball both ways using a table tennis ball, Gleeson, who started out his cricketing life as a wicketkeeper, was the 42nd Australian to wear the baggy green and claimed 93 wickets from 29 tests between 1967 and 1972.

He spun his way through three Ashes series – two in England and one in Australia.

On the eve of the 2013 Ashes series he recounted some of his experiences playing the old enemy.

The Aussies held the famous urn only briefly in that time, with the draw in the 1968 series seeing them retain the trophy.

Gleeson played all five Tests that series and claimed 12 wickets at an average of 34.66.

The Poms then came out to Australia and triumphed 2-nil before drawing the next series to keep hold of the Ashes.

It was the series every cricketer wanted to play in and Gleeson ranks his first Test as his favourite Ashes memory.

“There were big followings. You’d get full houses in Sydney and Melbourne, 60 to 80,000,” he said.

Not just the first day but for all five days, and sometimes even six.

John Gleeson bowls during the 1971 one-dayer in Melbourne.

John Gleeson bowls during the 1971 one-dayer in Melbourne.

Back in the 1970-71 series, 40,000 people turned up in Melbourne to watch the Aussies win what was to be the game’s first international one dayer, after the first four days were washed out.

“We had some fun,” Gleeson recalled.

Tours back then were six month tours.

“We used to play all the counties back in those days,” he said.

He recalled the first three weeks were usually full of black tie dinners and lunches, which gave you the chance to meet everyone.

They also attended major events like the FA Cup and Wimbledon.

“We did all the things they don’t have time to do these days,” Gleeson said.

He and the 1968 party were the first to fly all the way.

“The tour before went by boat to India and played a game there. They flew on from India,” Gleeson said.

“We went via America and had Anzac Day in San Francisco.”

Gleeson enjoyed considerable success against dour English opener Geoff Boycott.

“I enjoyed bowling to Boycott. He was a good player,” he said.

“But every time I bowled to him he was 50 or 60.

“The quickies had had a go at him.”

He probably got him about six times, and mostly to plan.

“I got him out most of the times the way I wanted to,” he said.

Gleeson also counted Colin Cowdrey and Ted Dexter as victims, and can lay claim to providing Rod Marsh with his first Test catch.

“Rod Marsh’s first catch in a Test was Boycott of my bowling. His first stumping was Boycott off me,” he said. 

He joked that he also taught Marsh how to catch and stump and “Dougie (Walters) taught him everything else”. 

Upon his return to Tamworth, Gleeson captained West Leagues and as former team-mate and close friend Peter Virgen reflected on after Gleeson’s death in 2016 he “stood out”.

“He took his club cricket still very seriously,” he said.

“I was very, very nervous going in keeping for him. I didn’t want to be made a fool of, but it improved my keeping because I had to concentrate so hard.”

“I’d be so excited (when I took a catch) for him and John would just look at me as if to think, well, that’s your job.”

In his eulogy, Gleeson’s brother Roy spoke of his love for cricket “from the day we could hold a bat.”

“He loved the game, he loved everything about the game and he was a very fierce critic of the game,” he said.

“Cricket-hours only – that’s the name they gave him and to a degree that was one of the most accurate nicknames he could ever get.”

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