John Emburey learnt at the feet of a master off-spinner in Fred Titmus when he first joined the Middlesex staff. But by 1983, he was his own man, and was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1984.
A bowler’s first experience of taking 100 wickets in a season would normally be cause for unqualified delight. But great as was John Ernest Emburey’s satisfaction in fulfilling that ambition, he would happily have traded it for the 17 extra points that would have enabled Middlesex to retain the County Championship. And with the possible exception of John Lever, whose wickets for Essex were taken at the breakneck speed of one every five and a half overs, no player in either of the top two teams contributed more than Middlesex’s 6ft 2in off-spinning all-rounder.
One of their four ever-presents by dint of his England suspension, he not only took 96 wickets in the Championship and scored 772 runs, but as acting-captain in eight games, while Mike Gatting was away, he led the side to five of their eleven victories, four of them successively during the World Cup. Though he had a number of outstanding games, notably against Leicestershire at Lord’s (match-figures of eight for 22 in 21.2 overs and scores of 47 and 73 not out), the keynote of his season was consistency.
Only once did he take more than five wickets in an innings – six for 13 against Kent at Dartford. But on 18 other occasions he took three or more, and but for a combination of wet weather and unhelpful pitches in the last four matches, when in common with his fellow-spinner, Phil Edmonds, he had to be content with seven costly wickets, he could be counted on for an analysis that would have won Middlesex an extra vital victory.
Though he relies less on variations of flight than most great off-spinners, Emburey’s high arm, poise in the delivery stride, and extreme closeness to the stumps when he lets the ball go, make him in other respects a classic bowler of his type. A big spinner when conditions call for it, his wicket-to-wicket line of flight, allied to steady length and drift from leg to off, earn him many successes, either bowled off-stump or caught at slip or at the wicket, against batsmen playing for the ball to turn.
His habit of hugging the stumps is a valuable asset. But from time to time he plants his front foot so far across – outside off-stump at the non-striker’s end – that it lets him down by obscuring the umpire’s view for an lbw decision. Let batsmen be warned, however: he was working on the fault for Western Province in South Africa last winter.
Mike Gunton, Emburey’s cricket master at Peckham Manor School in South London, was the first influence on his bowling, when at the age of 11 he changed him from a medium-pacer (he once took eight for 8) into an off-spinner. But as a youngster on Middlesex’s staff, his main influence was Fred Titmus. “To start with, I just learned from watching him: it wasn’t his way to press opinions on young players,” remembers Emburey. “But he wasn’t backward when I did approach him – he hardly drew breath!
“The best advice he gave me was: ‘Just keep it tight – eventually they’ll get themselves out.’ Fred used the air a lot himself – I was amazed how slowly he bowled when we played together in a benefit game a year or two ago – but it’s because of that advice that I tend to bowl flatter than most off-spinners.”
It was to Emburey’s own distant medium-pacer days, however, that he traces his command of the off-spinner’s out-swinging arm-ball. “Nowadays, I grip the ball the same way as for an off-break,” he said, then added regretfully, “but there are still a good many batsmen who know when it’s coming!”
His own batting has improved so much in the past two English seasons that from being looked on as little more than an obdurate tailender, he has ambitions to complete the double of 100 wickets and 1,000 runs (until 1982, his aggregate topped 300 only once). “I got fed up being regarded as someone who could just stay there and decided to be more aggressive. Having such a short backlift, I had to come to the ball, and from going down the pitch found the bowlers’ length was suffering: a fair number of my sixteen sixes last year were with the pull when they dropped short. If things go as I hope, though, and I get back into the England side when my suspension ends, my best chance of the double may be in 1984.”
Emburey has mixed feelings about the venture to South Africa in 1982. “The obvious attraction was a lump sum in the bank; but I’d have thought twice about going if I’d known the ban would last three years – that stunned all of us. Assuming I would have been chosen for England’s tours, and played my share of Tests at home, I have lost financially. I missed playing very much in 1982, but last year I was resigned to it. The only times I missed it then were when England were struggling and I thought I might have helped.”
He was born in Peckham on August 20, 1952 and the discovery that his mother’s brother had had Surrey trials stirred Emburey’s interest, so that at 13, under the tutelage of Mr Gunton, he first thought of making cricket his career. But setbacks lay ahead that twice made him temporarily abandon the idea. The first came in 1971, when after three years with Surrey Young Amateurs and Young Cricketers, including a tour of Canada on which Bob Willis and Geoff Howarth were among his team-mates, he learned that for financial reasons the club could not take him on their staff.
Disappointed enough not to act their advice to write to Middlesex, he owed it to Arthur McIntyre, then Surrey’s coach, that Don Bennett, McIntyre’s counterpart at Lord’s, took the initiative and got in touch with him. After taking 22 wickets for their Second XI, he signed a three-month contract for Middlesex in July 1971 and in 1973 made his Championship debut for them against Derbyshire at Burton upon Trent, taking three for 50 in the second innings.
But though Mike Brearley, among others, quickly recognised his promise, Titmus’s undiminished skill so limited his chances that, when at the end of 1976 he had made no more than 17 appearances, he decided for the second time to seek a livelihood outside the game. Luckily for Emburey, however, Titmus left Middlesex that autumn to succeed McIntyre as Surrey’s coach, and the frustrated, not to say impatient, youngster returned joyfully to Lord’s.
First-choice off-spinner at last, he won his county cap at once, taking 81 wickets in his first full season, and by 1978 was in the England team at Lord’s, dismissing Bruce Edgar of New Zealand with his fourth ball in a Test. Had it not been for the lure of financial security offered by the South African venture, prompted too, by concern about the durability of an often painful back, he would almost certainly by now have added many to his 22 Test caps. As it is, for John Emburey 1985 can’t come too soon.
John Emburey did get back into the England team in 1985, and played a full part in England’s Ashes win that summer. In 64 Tests, he took 147 wickets at 38.40. In all first-class matches, he took 1,608 wickets at 26.09.