By general consent Les Jackson is enshrined as the greatest of all in Derbyshire’s long line of home-produced fast bowlers. During his career, 1947-63, he took 1,733 wickets in first-class matches at a cost of 17.36 each. His 1,670 (860 at home, 810 away) for Derbyshire at 17.11 (1,578 in the Championship) are county records which given the reduced amount of cricket played today are likely to endure.
But why, with such a record, did he only play in two Test matches and those 12 years apart? The answers can be placed in two phases.
Tall and wiry at 6ft, Jackson was of lively right-arm fast-medium pace, bordering on fast, and his bowling could be decidedly hostile. He was able to move the ball either way, often late, and make it lift awkwardly off a good length. His run-up was comparatively short, 13 paces, and his action was not of the text book for the arm tended be a little low. Yet on most pitches and certainly any with ‘green’ in them he was a deadly proposition. Hereabouts it should be made clear that there was nothing illegal about Jackson’s slingy action and he was never at risk of being no-balled for throwing. It was reminiscent of the Australian Jeff Thomson and Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga – both successful international bowlers – although not as pronounced as Malinga’s low-slung, explosive round-arm deliveries.
He was a reliable outfielder with a good arm but no batsman, with a highest score of 39 and an average of 6.19.
Herbert Leslie Jackson was born in the mining village of Whitwell on April 5 1921. At 16, he followed his father into the pit and a desire to join the Royal Navy on the outbreak of the 1939-45 war could not be fulfilled because mining was an essential part of the war effort. Modest, quietly spoken and the least flamboyant of men, Les married Norma in 1942 and ceased working underground when Derbyshire offered him a contract in 1948, although the winters found him employed as a driver with the National Coal Board. Les and Norma, who died in 1991, had a daughter Ann and a grand-daughter Helen. Les died at the age of 86 on April 25 2007.
Work at the coalface gave him the strong shoulders and upper body strength important to his bowling. He graduated through Worksop in the Bassetlaw League to Derbyshire’s Second X1 and Club & Ground teams in 1946-47 and after a solitary first team appearance in 1947 he was taken on the staff.
Derbyshire were well served for pace – Bill Copson, George Pope and Cliff Gladwin -and it was never going to be easy for Jackson to get in but he seized his opportunity when Copson was injured. In July 1948 he shared the new ball with Gladwin for the first time and over the next decade the pair became one of the most potent attacks in the Championship. In 16 matches that year Jackson took 65 wickets at 25 apiece, including four for 103 against the visiting Australians.
The Australian captain, Don Bradman wrote “a new fast-medium lad, Jackson” bowled very well. “He was spoken of as a good England prospect, so I watched him closely. Though he bowled well, I would like to see him cultivate a much more upright delivery (or, if you like, less round-arm).” Another Australian, Colin McCool, noting the scarcity of fast bowling in English cricket, said that Jackson was “by far the fastest English bowler” and should have partnered Alec Bedser in the Tests. Jack Fingleton, the journalist and former Australian opener, was also impressed: “I liked the look of Jackson, a medium-pacer who spends his time between the cricket field and a colliery.”
In 1948-49 MCC toured South Africa with Bedser and Gladwin spearheading the attack and hindsight suggests that it might have been worth taking a punt on Jackson. No time was lost in 1949 when he was in the North side which met South in a Test Trial at Edgbaston, with Gladwin as his new-ball partner. South were dismissed for 85, Jackson six for 37 in 24 overs, Gladwin two for 11 in 16. Jackson, whose victims included Middlesex’s Jack Robertson, South’s captain George Mann and Godfrey Evans, “took full advantage of slight help from a green pitch,” said Wisden. “He moved the ball either way off the turf and troubled all the batsmen.” Batting was easier in South’s second innings and Jackson failed to take a wicket. But when the England team was chosen for the first Test against New Zealand, he was not selected.
This can be seen as the first cloud on the horizon. Captaining the North was Freddie Brown, later to skipper England against the Kiwis and in 1950-51, lead the party to Australia. Brown was not overly impressed with Jackson: “When there is anything in the wicket Jackson can usually be relied on to use it well. His pace is quicker than most people may imagine, but his arm is definitely on the low side, and I am afraid he is somewhat liable to break down.” Brown was also said to have an opinion that Jackson couldn’t “come back” for second or third spells when situations demanded but there are countless examples to prove that this was nonsense.
Brown’s views notwithstanding, the selectors felt Les was worth another look. All four matches against New Zealand ended in stalemate, marking the death knell of three-day Tests and with common practice in those days to select only two pace bowlers England began with the allrounder Trevor Bailey and Bedser and then Bailey and Gladwin. Jackson bowled well for Derbyshire against the New Zealanders and for the Players against the Gentlemen at Lord’s and was then called up for the third Test under Brown’s captaincy at Old Trafford in July.
New Zealand were all out for 293, Jackson proving an admirable foil for Bailey with two for 47 in 27 overs. On the final day, England, leading by 147, pressed hard for victory and Jackson stuck an early blow when he bowled the obdurate Verdun Scott but the Kiwis had no trouble saving the game, Jackson returning one for 25 in 12 overs. It was unspectacular but the tourists were impressed, feeling that he was always “doing something” with the ball and would be worth watching. And Wisden remarked that Jackson “did not look out of class as a medium-fast bowler.”
Bedser, fit again, returned for the final Test and England packed their side with spin so it was understandable that Jackson should be omitted. In that hot summer he delivered 1,020 overs and took 120 wickets at 20.41, which placed him at the head of all the pace bowlers who played regularly. John Arlott, the writer and broadcaster, offered qualified approval: “The other fresh pace bowler tried out in the 1949 series was Leslie Jackson, who, despite a lower arm, is somewhat reminiscent of Maurice Tate and does sometimes come very quickly off the pitch. Jackson is useful and hard-working but he is clearly short of greatness, and it is greatness that England must have, of at least one bowler, if she is to produce a winning side now.”
Much talk, then, of that low arm, but Donald Carr, whose career ran parallel to Jackson’s and who was Derbyshire’s captain from 1955-62, would have none of it. “He was supposedly a bit of a round-arm slinger but he wasn’t. He had a wonderful body action and he was brilliantly accurate, with the ability to move the ball off the seam more than anyone I’ve ever seen. He used to get the plumbest of lbws with his wicked break back from outside the off stump. His great strength, coupled with a shortish run-up, enabled him to bowl for long periods without appearing to lose anything in control or hostility.”
Anxious to avoid tours in consecutive winters, MCC decided against sending a team to India in 1949-50. A pity, because it is hard to see how Jackson could have been left out. With an Ashes tour in the offing, his hopes were high in 1950 and he was in The Rest side which was dismissed for 27 when Jim Laker took eight for two in the Test Trial at Bradford. The pitch offered little help to seam and Jackson did not take a wicket when England batted. In June he took 20 wickets in consecutive matches at Neath and Bristol but, inexplicably, no call came from the selectors – former England cricketers Bob Wyatt, the chairman, and Les Ames and ex-county captains Tom Pearce and Brian Sellers – for any of the four Tests against West Indies.
Brown was appointed captain for the 1950-51 tour of Australia and co-opted to the selection committee and 13 names were announced, followed by three more, Jackson’s not amongst them. There remained one place for a seam bowler to support Bedser and Bailey, with Jackson, Alec Coxon, Derek Shackleton and Fred Ridgway in contention. Jackson had a lean August, struggling against injury and missing the final two games before the selectors picked John Warr, the 23-year-old Cambridge University and Middlesex amateur. Derbyshire were at Southend when the news was announced and Bailey, who was in the Essex team, later wrote: “The looks of disbelief on the faces of his Derbyshire colleagues when they heard the news were unforgettable.” Even Jim Swanton in the Daily Telegraph was mildly surprised, saying that Warr was “chosen in preference to “Coxon, Jackson, or several dark horses of recent gossip. Ideally, of course, he is not sufficiently fast, but that applied to all the candidates.”
Warr took 87 first-class wickets at 24.77 to Jackson’s 92 at 20.86 in 1950. He was younger than his rivals, tall, lean and with plenty of stamina but he was out of his depth in Australia, taking a a single wicket for 281 in his two Tests, admittedly on good pitches. Although he enjoyed a successful first-class career, he never played for England again. The belief that had Les played for a more fashionable county he might have received more recognition had its origins in this. There was consolation in Jackson’s selection, with Shackleton and Ridgway, for a Commonwealth team which visited India but he had to return home after two matches with an elbow injury which required an operation.
In the second phase of what we might call Les’s non-selection, the decisions are more easily explained. England enjoyed years of plenty as far as pace bowling was concerned, with the younger and faster Frank Tyson, Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Peter Loader and Alan Moss in competition, with Bailey in support. Nevertheless, Sir Colin Cowdrey felt there were occasions when Statham and Trueman, despite their superior pace, were not the best bowlers suitable for the conditions on days when Lord’s in particular was a seamers’ paradise and Jackson would have been more successful. Fred Trueman cited Gubby Allen, chairman of the selectors from 1955-61, as the man mainly responsible for Les’s non-selection and there is a lovely touch in Mike Carey’s biography, Les Jackson, A Derbyshire Legend, which lists, without the comment, the selectors during his career.
But at Headingley in 1961 Statham was injured and Jackson, now 40, was called up for the third Test against Australia. It was Trueman’s match on a dry pitch which crumbled but Jackson provided top class support, two for 57 in 31 overs and then two for 26 in 13. His selection was only a short-term measure and he was left out of the next Test, leaving him with seven Test wickets at 22.14 apiece in his two games.
There is no doubt he should have played more frequently. In those eight Tests in 1949 and 1950, the feeling persists that the answer should have been evident: two of Bailey, Bedser and Jackson, or if conditions suited, all three. There was a case for choosing him for all eight and certainly in several more in England during the 1950s.
Let’s leave the final analysis to John Arlott, who became a big advocate of Jackson after his initial misgivings. When Les was selected in 1961, he wrote (and this can be applied to any stage of Jackson’s career): “If the wicket at Headingley is at all green Jackson will exploit it unfailingly; if it breaks up, his ability constantly to hit a worn spot will make him dangerous; if it is simply good for batting, he will as steady as a rock.”