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'Part of swing is finding the right pace and the right grip'

Former England fast bowler John Lever recalls the Vaseline incident, playing in Pakistan, and rooming with Derek Randall

Interview by Scott Oliver |

"Once you've bowled an over, you should know what length to bowl on that pitch" © PA Photos

I shared a room with Derek Randall in Pakistan. Not an easy guy to room with. TV on, TV off. Air conditioning on, air conditioning off. Lights on, lights off. "I can't sleep, I can't sleep. I'm going to order a hot chocolate. Do you want some?" "No, I'm all right, thanks, Rags". Of course, by the time the bloke came with the hot chocolate, he was fast asleep and I had to get up and get the door.

I thought eight-ball overs could have worked in England, but not in the hotter countries.

They were looking for someone to go to India and not break down. I don't think I was first man on the team sheet when I got out there. We used Indian balls, and they did swing around more than the balls we used at home. As the MCC, we always brought along a batch of balls, but dear old Kenny Barrington said, "Look, if you'd rather use the Indian balls I'll go to them and say, 'We think you've made great improvements on your cricket ball. We'd like to use them in Test matches.'" I thought if he's asking me that, I've got a chance of playing in the first Test. They graciously accepted and it swung round in circles.

We used to play West Ham on a Sunday, mid-season, just before they reported back for training. They had some good players: Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters. I played Under-15 cricket with Frank Lampard senior. He was a very good cricketer.

[Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto was in jail [in 1977-78]. They were going to hang him. Benazir Bhutto turned up at the ground. Her supporters set about four buses on fire outside, and a few of them came over the fencing inside. The police beat a couple with bamboo sticks. When the rest saw that, they came over the top. The army moved forward and shot tear gas into the crowd. We all ran off the field. It was quite a scary time.

Lever bowls in the 1989 Benson & Hedges final

Lever bowls in the 1989 Benson & Hedges final © PA Photos

Part of the art of swing bowling is finding the right pace and the right grip to make it go. Sometimes you had to drop your pace. Sometimes you had to angle the seam toward leg slip, sometimes down the pitch. Okay, at times it might have looked like it was banana-ing from the hand, but you had to make it swing: that was the be-all and end-all.

I think Bishan Bedi stirred things up in Chennai. Little lines like, "I've never seen him swing it this much in England." When we headed south, where it was a lot hotter, I'd asked our physio for some Vaseline to stop the sweat going in my eyes. Dear old Bernard Thomas didn't have any. The stuff that he gave us - these strips for our foreheads - he'd bought in India two days before that match. The Indians said: "We caught him cheating here, but he probably used it in Delhi." None of that was true, but we were greeted the next morning with these big banners: "Cheater Lever go home." It looked quite orchestrated.

As a youngster growing up I spent all my time at Ilford Cricket Club. That was Goochy's club. And Nasser's.

I knew my place as a tailender. If there was a batsman up the other end, I was just going to block. I wasn't going to play any flamboyant shots and run the risk of having to walk in past Fletch [England captain Keith Fletcher], sitting there saying, "What the f*** was that?"

Lever with his MBE medal, 1990

Lever with his MBE medal, 1990 © PA Photos

I'm a big believer that you've got to sort things out quicker than the batter. Once you've bowled an over, you should know what length to bowl for that pitch. This might sound like an old fart talking, but you shouldn't need to go off and look at the pitch map at lunch. The first session is all-important. That's where you win and lose Test matches.

It [10 for 70] was a bit of a storming start to Test cricket, and it does leave that thought in the back of your mind: how do I keep reproducing these sorts of performances?

I felt pretty proud to have been a county cricketer. I know it doesn't come up too high on some people's lists, but to me it meant a great deal. I wouldn't have swapped it for all the tea in China.

Fletch was the best captain I played under, and Brears very close behind him.

My parents were doorstepped by reporters [regarding the Vaseline affair]. It was fairly big headlines over here. I don't think that helped my dad at all. It may well have added to the pressure he felt himself under and contributed to his heart attack. It made it even harder for me to forget what Bish did, really. Having played against me in county cricket, he should have known that my integrity was such that I wasn't going to do anything like that to try and win a game of cricket. I couldn't clear the air with him through my career. I felt quite strongly about it: if anything was going to happen, he needed to apologise. Then I played a charity game against him and shook hands. I thought: life's too short.

Stuart Turner, John Lever and Keith Fletcher walk back after a county match in Chelmsford, 1983

Stuart Turner, John Lever and Keith Fletcher walk back after a county match in Chelmsford, 1983 © PA Photos

[Javed] Miandad was making hundred after hundred. We played at Karachi [in 1977-78], and as the ball went across the outfield, you got a spray of sand coming up. The new ball lasted about four overs. We went four sessions without taking a wicket! The ball wasn't carrying, so Bob Taylor came up to the wicket for me. He took this ball down the leg side off me and was so quick getting the bails off that the umpire didn't see it and said not out. Bob, who's very mild-mannered, kept looking down at Miandad's feet and said, "He's still out!"

I once ticked everything on the breakfast menu in Hobart. I don't know why. There might have been some beer involved. Normally they'd have spotted the mistake and just brought up a standard breakfast. But they brought up literally everything on the menu. I got in a bit of shit for that.

Essex were bankrupt at one stage. There was a committee member who paid the wages one month because we didn't have any money.

When we played Northants, Goochie and myself would go to Peter Willey's house for an evening meal. Pete being Pete, around half-past nine he'd say, "Right, I'm off to bed. You can sort yourselves out." And that was that.

"I once ticked everything on the breakfast menu in Hobart. I don't know why. There might have been some beer involved" © Getty Images

We'd been away for four months. We wanted to go home, but there was this centenary game tacked on to the end of it, which was pretty hard to get up for. Seeing all those players from times gone by, all getting pissed as farts, enjoying every dinner going, didn't make it easy for us who were trying to get away from the dinners.

Beating Surrey in the B&H final [in 1979] was a turning point. Essex had never won a trophy until then - we'd won a lot of games, but never a trophy - but we proved to ourselves that we knew how to win. The Championship that followed was a runaway victory. We'd won it halfway through August. From that year on, we just expected to win. We'd had two top overseas players, Kenny McEwan and Keith Boyce. The sad thing was that Boycey went in the knee in 1978, and he was desperate to win something with Essex. He was the biggest wholehearted trier, a magnificent fielder.

I think T20 is fantastic. It's bringing money into the game and allows teams to keep players on the staff. I'd have absolutely loved to have played it.

I remember when West Indies were in their pomp that there were all sorts of ideas mooted to help us play these quick bowlers. There was talk that you couldn't be caught off your gloves, so they'd have to attack the stumps a bit more instead of bowling at your head. There was another idea that the pitches should be a couple of yards longer. I suppose if we'd had those bowlers there'd have been less desire to tinker with the rules!

I was PCA Player of the Year in 1978 and 1979, which is something I'm very proud of. I think everybody agrees that a pace bowler is at his strongest around 28, 29.

Mike Brearley, second-best captain in Lever's book

Mike Brearley, second-best captain in Lever's book © Getty Images

The hardest Lord's defeat was to Notts in 1989. I'd announced my retirement that year, so you can't put it right the following season. Being the guy who bowled the final ball, with four required… If I'd just run up and bowled, I'd have been fine. But we stopped and spent five minutes changing fields around. Third man came up, then back. Fine leg came up, then back. I knew where Eddie [Hemmings] was going to go: outside leg stump. My job was to follow him. Standing around, it was a long five minutes. I followed him, but I didn't quite follow him enough.

We got in a bit of a row about Pakistan's Packer players coming back to play. We said we didn't want them there. They'd made their choice and that was it. We felt very strongly about it indeed. At one stage we were talking about not playing a Test match. Striking, effectively. The telephone lines to Lord's were red hot. Doug Insole said to me on one of these crackly lines, "We know how you feel but if you don't take the field that won't do cricket any good at all."

As soon as helmets came in, the "Fast Bowler's Union" went out the window.

I regret not getting to 50 Test matches. There's this talk of playing for England versus being an England player. If you get to 50 Tests then you are an England player.

My career best, 91, was at the beginning of my career, when I fancied myself as someone who could bat a bit. As time went on, I found the workload of bowling became more and more, and I had less chance to push the batting side of things.

Geoff Miller, John Lever, Bob Willis, Graham Roope and Derek Randall rock the balcony

Geoff Miller, John Lever, Bob Willis, Graham Roope and Derek Randall rock the balcony © Getty Images

When we played at out-grounds, you'd have these sponsors' marquees. Cricketers were paid very poorly in those days, so the offer of a couple of free drinks went down very well. Teams used to love coming to play us. I remember [David] Gower coming down and he thoroughly enjoyed himself in the Access marquee. They had some very attractive girls in there as well. When we played at Leicester, later in the season, there was nobody there, as usual: two men and a dog. At close of play, I noticed there was a tiny little tent pitched on the outfield. As we walked off, Gower poked his head out of this one-man tent and said, "Lads, are you coming in for a drink? Thought I'd better do my bit."

I didn't get a chance with England until fairly late and was getting on a bit by the time the offer of South Africa came up. I got a three-year ban and took a hundred first-class wickets two years running. But I don't think I'd have gone to South Africa if I'd been Goochie, and I did have that chat with him.

When I took the pitch in South Africa, with BP and Barclay's Bank all around the boundary, I thought everyone had done a good job in attacking the poor little sportsman instead of big business. I expected some sort of repercussion, but I didn't expect a three-year ban.

I played one more Test after the ban, against India, at Headingley. I didn't bowl particularly well - in actual fact, I was more nervous bowling in that game than any other Test match I played in - but I took six wickets in the game. Gatt was skipper. He said, "I'll see you at the next Test". I'm still waiting for the phone call.

Scott Oliver tweets here

 

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  • POSTED BY Indian on | September 12, 2015, 15:44 GMT

    No doubt the massive swing of Indian balls was a clever plan foisted by the BCCI on the visitors. To this day, the entire cricketing world searches for those balls that swing as much as has been portrayed, in vain!

  • POSTED BY Satish on | September 12, 2015, 13:31 GMT

    Still in denial after so many years! Indian balls and Indian conditions do not permit much swing, other than the reverse kind after ball gets old. I wonder, can anyone believe these incredulous statements?! Any kid who plays knows that. There should be no place for cheats in any kind of sports, certainly not in cricket. I find it hard to believe ESPNCricInfo published such an interview with some many glaring logical gaffes.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | September 11, 2015, 18:06 GMT

    Hmm - John Lever was not a "fast bowler" as the sub headline might suggest ... a very fine swing bowler though.

    The sub ed is probably thinking of Peter Lever - who was quick!

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | September 11, 2015, 9:42 GMT

    I watched 3 of those matches live especially the one in Delhi on all days where Lever was swinging it around like a banana Anybody who plays cricket in India knows how much an Indian ball swings Give us a break ol man Nobody's getting fooled by that statement that you can swing an Indian ball If you really can do that you can be the bowling coach of India for keeps Its you who should have apologized to the Indian cricket public and the English fans for your actions Not Bishan Bedi The Indian Board were mighty kind not to indict you but to write to the English Board of your "ingenuity"

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | September 11, 2015, 4:59 GMT

    Re: Sweat getting into the eyes:

    Hairbands / headbands were in use by sportsmen from all disciplines, long before John Lever toured India. Later it was also called sweatbands. Some field sportsmen and a few Tennis players even made it an iconic symbol, adding to their persona.

    Stopping sweats dripping into the eyes was so simple as wearing one such band. Vaseline doesn't help. In fact it helps sweat drips into the eyes faster. Of course, you can wipe it of periodically with the ball. And all of us saw that too.

    Epilogue on Hairbands: Phantom.

    Of course, NZ's 'Phantom' played cricket much after Lever. He used a headband without a blade of grass (I mean a strand of hair) on his head. When Cricinfo put up a contest on the "Best Headband Look" many months ago, one reader even wondered why Phantom was wearing one without any hair. I did reply saying that it is to help prevent sweat getting into his eyes.

    That much on the physio's help through the vaseline route.

    Jose Pilampatta

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | September 11, 2015, 3:07 GMT

    "We used Indian balls, and they did swing around more than the balls we used at home. .."

    That's a good one!

    I am 76 and had been watching /following cricket for 60 odd years. have never seen it. Has anybody else? Hmm... Make your conclusions. Especially those who are aware of some controversy, when he bowled in India.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | September 11, 2015, 2:13 GMT

    I often felt, there is something common about two kinds of professionals: retired fishermen, and retired cricketers. That feeling is stronger now.

  • POSTED BY Ray on | September 10, 2015, 22:07 GMT

    It never ceases to amaze me that most of the players who took part in the rebel tours still see themselves as victims because they received 3 year Test bans. Unbelievable!

  • POSTED BY Edwin on | September 10, 2015, 22:01 GMT

    I don't think Lever's record of 10+ wickets on Test debut PLUS a fifty will ever be broken....

  • POSTED BY Michael on | September 10, 2015, 21:11 GMT

    That is one seriously sticky wicket in the first pic! Was that during the ill-fated Essex Winter League? Very interesting read though, Lever was marginally before my time so I'd not heard about Vaselinegate. Good stuff, Cricinfo.

  • POSTED BY Clifford on | September 10, 2015, 20:26 GMT

    Bob Willis looking super-manly in that pic...

  • POSTED BY Stephen on | September 10, 2015, 19:54 GMT

    Seriously some of the comments on here. Not every pace bowler who takes 10 wkts in a match can repeat it in the following games especially in India. Loads of various factors come into play, pitch, weather, some days everything you try works and some days it doesn't, someday's you can bowl rubbish and you'll take a hat full of wickets other days you can bowl beautifully and will have nothing to show for it, thats the beauty of the game. Strangely it doesn't mean he cheated.

  • POSTED BY ESPN on | September 10, 2015, 18:33 GMT

    Gooch was facing Lever in the warm-up nets on the outfield before play, possibly v WI in 76. Gooch pops the ball up and Lever yells "catch it". The ball came straight to my Dad about 10 yds away on the off and he took the catch cleanly. Proudest moment of his cricketing career.

  • POSTED BY Nigel on | September 10, 2015, 17:08 GMT

    J K Lever, top bowler and super bloke. Great to be part of the first Essex team to win a major trophy in 1979. Never to be forgotten!

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | September 10, 2015, 16:40 GMT

    After John Lever was prevented from using Vaseline on the ball, England lost the Bangalore Test and nearly lost the Bombay Test in the same series. Therefore, John Lever is not telling the truth, and Bishen Singh Bedi was quite correct in his assessment.

  • POSTED BY Mirza on | September 10, 2015, 16:14 GMT

    Lever had a lovely natural action for a left arm swing bowler, similar to Wasim Akram. Would have loved to see Lever play more Test then he played for England.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | September 10, 2015, 16:07 GMT

    Not for nothing does Sunil Gavaskar say what he says about the British. The Vaseline scam has been acknowledged by everyone except Lever, so for Cricinfo to publish this without even offering rebuttal space to Bishen Singh Bedi is, well.. most like MCC and like the British Judge in the Jalianwalah Massacre case. Today he might have said: "Whatevah be the evidence, gentletwerps of the Jury, remembah! that John Levah saved the British Empiah!" Lever and Tony Greig (R.I.P.) and one of Cricinfo's stars brought disgrace to the game that was not erased until Sarfraz Nawaz perfected Bottle-Cap-Induced Reverse Swing.

  • POSTED BY MP on | September 10, 2015, 16:00 GMT

    I was on the ground at Madras, at a mid wicket position. Lever was bowling from the pavillion end & was on his way to the top of his run up when Umpire Reuben, who worked in a police forensic laboratory, walked about 6-7 metres & picked something up from the ground. Lever then turned and walked towards the umpire and something transpired between them. Capt. Tony Greig, joined the duo and an animated discussion ensued, with the umpire putting something into his pocket and the game carrying on. The morning papers had the story of how the umpire spotted the plaster with vaseline on it which had got onto the ball. There were allegations of foul play. Posters on the ground called him a cheat & there was booing all round. But when he fielded the ball at third man & sent in a lovely return, what an applause he got ! If the vaseline had nothing to do with his performance, how come he took only 6 wickets in the remaining 2 tests, 1 lost & the other drawn by the skin of their teeth ?

  • POSTED BY SRIVATSAN on | September 10, 2015, 15:26 GMT

    The Vaseline series was the Sydneygate equivalent of the previous generation :-) It comes up for discussion every time there is a family gathering.

    Good to get the enemy's perspective.

  • POSTED BY David on | September 10, 2015, 12:43 GMT

    Lovely to read. Always liked JK when I was a boy because with his long hair he looked more more hip than lots of the other cricketers of his day. He took loads of wickets and rarely seemed to be injured. Essex had a good team in those days, with a lot of strong characters.

  • POSTED BY Dummy4 on | September 10, 2015, 12:39 GMT

    Bishen doesn't come over too well in this article, but he was a beautiful bowler, as figures of 59-22-92-4 show.

  • POSTED BY GM on | September 10, 2015, 12:32 GMT

    He liberally used vaseline on the ball. It swung. England won. Bedi complained. Northants sacked Bedi for chucking(!) in retaliation. End of story

  • POSTED BY Aubline on | September 10, 2015, 11:50 GMT

    @Subbs_97 - You don't recall correctly, as even a cursory reading of this article and indeed other coverage of the incident would reveal.

  • POSTED BY Roger on | September 10, 2015, 11:41 GMT

    In that vaseline series, look at Lever's figures before and after 3rd test when the vaseline discovery was made. If Indian cricket balls swing so much, why nobody else swung the ball so much in India in that series or later ones? Good try nevertheless, Mr. Lever.

  • POSTED BY Will on | September 10, 2015, 9:06 GMT

    My childhood hero. I regretted being right handed as I could not copy his bowling action. As a player I always remembered him saying that the difference between club cricket and first class cricket was bowling six accurate balls in an over instead of five.

  • POSTED BY Subbu on | September 10, 2015, 9:01 GMT

    "Right grip" is apt for this article, as Mr Lever was battling mysterious outbreaks of vaseline inside his trouser pockets..if I recall correctly. My sympathies.