Bob Appleyard took county cricket by storm in the summer of 1951, and was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year the following spring.
In a younger man, the magnificent performance of Robert Appleyard of taking 200 wickets in his first full season of county cricket would have provided the perfect fairy story. Nevertheless, it was amazing that a 27-year-old bowler, comparatively unknown, should begin a first-class cricket career with such unprecedented success.
Appleyard bowled Yorkshire to second position in the Championship table. With his last ball of the season he took his 200th wicket at an average cost of only 14.14 runs each and, if a solitary bowling performance of Sonny Ramadhin in an end of the season Festival game is discounted, was easily top of the England bowling averages. Appleyard confounded the critics.
When the 1951 season began and it was known that Yorkshire would be without opening bowler Coxon, who had moved to League cricket, and off-spin bowler Close, still in the Army, forecasts were made that Yorkshire would have a very ordinary season. Little thought was then given to Appleyard, born at Wibsey, Bradford, June 27, 1924.
He had given notice of his approach the previous season when, playing for the Yorkshire Second XI against Staffordshire, he returned a match analysis of 41.2 overs, 13 maidens, 63 runs, 15 wickets and topped the second-team averages with 29 wickets at 7.89 apiece. Who was to know his successes would continue with the first XI?
Appleyard was selected to play in the second match of the season against Oxford University – after the other Yorkshire bowlers had received a trouncing from MCC – and his four wickets for 26 runs started a season without parallel in Yorkshire records.
With a smooth, high action, using all his 6ft 1½in, Appleyard opened the bowling with fast-medium in-swingers. As the ball lost its shine and newness he intermingled slower off-spinners. His accuracy, change of pace and mixing of spin and swing put even the best batsmen in difficulties. In one man Yorkshire had found a substitute for both Coxon and Close. Appleyard took 99 wickets by the end of June and, had it not been for an attack of pleurisy which kept him out of two matches, he almost certainly would have been the first bowler to take 100 wickets last summer. As it was, another Yorkshireman, Laker of Surrey, beat him.
Called upon to use all his energy for bowling, to become a match-winning bowler on both hard and soft pitches, Appleyard was understandably nursed in other branches of the game. In the field he proved a good catcher and stopper and, though not professing to be a batsman, he showed promise of developing into a useful tailender.
In his early days Bob Appleyard was a batsman. He played with St Matthew’s School, Bankfoot, until his father refused to let him take part in a school play. The sports master, who was also in charge of the Dramatic Society, retaliated by not selecting him for the cricket team. However, at 11, Appleyard went to Wibsey Modern School and, unusual in that he was competing with boys of 14, was chosen as No.7 batsman for Bradford Boys.
At 12 he moved to Priestman Central School, Bradford, where, encouraged by two masters, Mr Cedall and Mr G.L. Cottam – the former a Bradford League cricketer – he began to take bowling seriously. He became captain of the Bradford Boys and in the final of the Yorkshire Elementary Schools competition against Sheffield Boys took five wickets for five runs in a total of 22. Occasionally, while still at school, he played for Bradford Park Avenue 3rd XI and was shown how to bowl the off-spinner by Stanley Douglas, a Bradford and former Yorkshire cricketer.
Appleyard left school at 15, in the year war was declared, and was apprenticed to engineering. He is now representative for a firm of lift makers. His cricket continued with Manningham Mills in the Bradford Central League and in turn with Bowling Old Lane with whom, apart from one season at Undercliffe, he played until his selection for Yorkshire. Mr Ernest Holdsworth, president of Bowling Old Lane and Yorkshire chairman, introduced him to the county winter nets for coaching by Arthur Mitchell and Bill Bowes.
With his ideal physique, smooth action and quiet thoughtful manner, Appleyard immediately impressed. He mastered control of spin and swing bowled at different paces, and next season, 1950, was chosen for the Yorkshire second XI. He also played two matches for the XI against Scotland and Surrey. In The Oval game he bowled Fletcher for eight, P.B.H. May for a duck and finished with four wickets for 47 runs.
In 1951 Appleyard was the most successful bowler of the year and his own application to bowling was shown by the fact that he changed to bowling the off-spinner from the second finger of his right hand instead of from the first. After only half a dozen matches Appleyard noticed that Len Hutton, fielding at slip, always went deeper when he ran up to bowl his faster ball. “How do you know when to go deeper?” he asked. Said Len: “I can tell from the way you hold the ball.” Appleyard immediately set about developing a grip suitable for both the spinner and the swinger, and Hutton now says: “He is a very difficult man to detect.”
With such a fine utility bowler in the side, Yorkshire need to be careful they do not give him too much work to do. At times last season he was overbowled. Some Yorkshire officials say: “We hope he never takes 200 wickets again.” By that they mean that with adequate bowling support such a feat will not be necessary but, when a man can be so valuable as to be opening bowler, spin bowler and stock bowler combined, the temptation to use him to the full is hard to resist.
It turned out that this was just the start of the Appleyard story. For a full account of a remarkable life, see his Wisden obituary