He Wore The Wyvern: John Harris

John Henry Harris was born in Taunton on 13th February, 1936 and wore the Wyvern between 1952 and 1959. A left-hand bat and right-arm fast medium bowler he may have only played 15 first class matches for Somerset spanning eight seasons but he played alongside some of the county’s true greats and shared changing rooms with Harold Gimblett, Maurice Tremlett, Bertie Buse, Brian Langford and Bill Alley among many others. He also got to play at some of the most famous grounds in the country including Lords in the County Championship (twice) and Trent Bridge.

He then carved out a career as a highly respected first-class umpire from 1981 to 2000 in a Cricket career that spanned 27 years.

Although born and bred in the county the young Harris developed a reputation playing club cricket away from Taunton and he caught the attention of Somerset at a tender age and was asked to make his debut aged just sixteen.

“Actually I had moved up to London at the age of 12 and lived there for 3 years. I played for Blackheath Wanderers and Crofton Park whilst at school – both big, well-known clubs. But my sports master was a chap called Garth Pope – cousin of the Pope who played for Derbyshire and England – and he was Cricket mad. We played every night after school finished.  Same at lunchtime. He was such a big influence on us. I went on to play for England schoolboys as did Alan Spence who played for Worcester later.

“I had a trial at Kent who told me to come back in 3 years. I thought ‘what a waste of time’ so turned them down. My grandfather had just retired from being Head Groundsman at Somerset after 25 years. My grandparents had brought me up so I was always at the ground when I was young. In fact in 1946 he took me to the ground and I met Arthur Wellard and Harold Gimblett which was an eye-opener.

“So I wrote to him and asked if I could get a trial at Taunton. He spoke to Stuart Rogers, who we called ‘the good ship’ (his initials were SS Rogers) who offered me a two-week trial. After two days I was told they were going to take me on when I finished school. Harry Parks was the coach then and he was a real gentleman.

John (bottom left) aged 15 in 1951. Harold Gimblett is sat two seats away.

“So I finished school and on my last day my head teacher, Miss Miller – who we called Miller the Killer – told me ‘Harris – cricket won’t get you through life!’ I wish she was still around so I could remind her of that!”

John caught the train through the night and next day started life as a professional cricketer at just 15 years old in 1951. His first coach was the aforementioned Wellard who John rated highly as he did his new team-mate Gimblett:

“I found Arthur a lovely man. It was Arthur who converted me into a fast bowler as I was a spinner originally. He saw something in me in the nets one day and asked me to try bowling a bit faster so I did and didn’t look back.

“And Gimmo was such a nice guy too. He had problems but what a good cricketer he was. He got picked a couple of times for England but he should have played more. He turned them down once and they never looked at him again!

“Harold was quiet and kept himself to himself. He was fine in the dressing room and every now and then he could be funny and say something funny.”

John batting for Somerset

John’s first-class debut came in 1952 against Glamorgan at Swansea aged just 16. There was little time for the youngster to get nervous ahead of this land mark in his life as SS Rogers only told him half-an-hour before play was due to start that he was in the side and Jim Redman would sit it out.

“It was a Saturday and it was a packed house. We were walking down all those steps at Swansea and Jonny Lawrence was talking to me all the way, as did Roy Smith. So I didn’t have any time to get nervous!”

And he was soon in the thick of the action. John opened the bowling and, although wicket less, he enjoyed a tidy spell with his 17 overs costing just 42 runs. But it was with the bat that he made his mark enjoying a stand of 46 with Buse, scoring 18 after his side were 1 for 3 then 13 for 4.

“I remember my first ball from Jim McConnon which was a straight full toss so I got off the mark straight away. But next day I thought that if I had missed it it would have taken all three stumps out!”

Somerset finished on 199 after Glamorgan had scored 361, and they followed this with 235-6 declared leaving Somerset needing 398 to win. John wasn’t needed in the second innings which ended on 260-4, leaving the visitors 137 adrift.

Batting with Bertie Buse was an obvious highlight for John. In many ways he epitomised the good spirit in the camp.

“I called him the Butler – he always reminded me of being the Butler with that small tache! There was always something happening with Bertie about. He did like a drop of drink!

“Somerset was a very happy side in those days. They weren’t very good but happy. They were much older – today they would have been retired off much earlier.  I think one or two of them played just for something to do in the day time, until the bar opened.”

Somerset were indeed a side in decline. 1952 would be the first of four consecutive bottom-placed finishes in the Championship. In his book “From Sammy To Jimmy”, Peter Roebuck stated that it was hard for young players like John to make their mark with such high expectations when their side was so poor. Did John feel this was right?

“Possibly so. When you’re in a side of old men you feel you’re in the side to do all the running around. I remember those years. There was one game at Trent Bridge where the loser would finish bottom and we lost!”

That game at Notts was the second of two further matches in 1953 that John featured in; against Gloucestershire at Taunton, where John took his first wicket in a heavy defeat, then that game in Nottingham where John lined up alongside Gimblett for the last time.

Next up for John was National Service in 1954, which removed two years from his pro career. Was this a hindrance to his progression?

“Not really. The only hindrance was I wasn’t at Somerset and someone new comes in and takes your place. But I was shipped off to Yorkshire and played for York for two seasons and that taught me a hell of a lot more than Somerset did really. They were a good side captained by John Temple who was chairman of Yorkshire CCC’s selectors. Somerset taught me the basics but it was different in Yorkshire, almost win at all costs.”

John made his Somerset return at Lords in May 1957 bowling tidily in both innings for scant return. In the home changing room for this game was Bill Edrich and Denis Compton.

“I can vaguely remember it. I was in the team because I had done something for the seconds – five wickets against Essex or something? – but I got in that side. We travelled down from Leicester and Brian Langford was left out at the last minute. I recall bowling a fair amount of overs. Maurice Tremlett was captain and he told Bill Alley that he (Alley) would bowl one end and that I would bowl all day at the other.

“And it was special to be at Lords. I always say that everyone should go to Lords at some stage, whether to watch, to play or to officiate a game and I have been lucky to have done all three. I have been very lucky really!”

John did not feature in 1958 at all when Somerset enjoyed a 3rd place finish but returned in June 1959 in a huge win against Kent at Taunton where he took 3 for 53 to bundle the visitors out for 192 after Peter Wight scored his highest score of 222. John had high regard for Wight who sadly died over Christmas:

“Flippin’ heck was one of his sayings. I think it was most of his sayings actually. But he was a nice chap and he bought me a few drinks.

“But what a good player. Wasn’t a lover of playing against Trueman, but then no-one really loved playing against him. He was fast and he could be nasty!

“There was one game against Yorkshire at Taunton. Peter had hurt his hand so declared himself unfit for the game, but before it started Trueman had been ruled out and was sent home. Peter obviously heard on the radio that Fred wasn’t playing so rushed down to the ground and declared himself fit. There was no disgrace – Fred could be a very aggressive man, vicious at times.

“But we had one guy play for us called Evans – an amateur from Weston-super-Mare and he looked like an amateur too. He walked out to bat and Trueman looked him up-and-down and told him he looked like a comical beep! So Evans told him to get on with the game and Fred demanded the ball from his skipper and told all around him he was going to plant Evans on the sight screen. But Evans stood up to him and didn’t back away and stuck around. He didn’t score many runs – he got a few – but he wasn’t afraid to square up to Trueman.

“I went to Peter’s funeral. In fact six of us from the old Somerset went. A lovely man”

A game against Worcestershire was John’s best to date with highest score of 41 and he took 2 for 59 in their first innings.

“That was at Taunton and it was one of my favourite games. It was an interesting game. I was batting with Harold Stephenson, another good player and what a good keeper as

John umpires while Wagar bowls a delivery that injures Mark Nicholas!

well. He was always coughing because he smoked like a trooper but I remember hitting a few through the covers and Roly Jenkins, their captain, was panicking because we were scoring a few. I could have done with a fifty really!

“I recall coming off the field and one of the members said ‘your grandad was out there with you’, because his ashes were on the next strip, so that was a nice thought that grandad was watching.”

When Somerset played Kent John played but was not asked to bowl as a new generation was making their mark, such as Palmer, Alley, Lobb and McMahon with new boy Brian Langford the spin option;

“I remember Langy coming because I hadn’t been here long. And we always got into trouble Langy and I. We were good mates – a bit like twins really. He made his debut in Bertie Buse’s Benefit game at Bath, which was over in one day. But he was some player.”

In the next game John picked up his best bowling return of 3 for 29 against Worcester. He made his last appearance for Somerset in first-class cricket at Buxton in July 1959. In all he played 7 Championship games in 1959 but quit with one year left on his contract:

“I had played at Lords that year and Alan Moss hit me on my bowling arm with a short one and split my joint. But we didn’t know that at the time as I didn’t get an x-ray until much later. So I was having trouble bowling.

“I was playing for Somerset 2nds at Exeter when a colourful chap called Norman Borratt approached me about a coaching role after the end of the second day. He was All England Squash champion, was skipper of the Hockey Olympic team and played Cricket for Essex before the war and had batted at number four for Devon, despite hardly being able to walk! He asked me how things were going at Somerset but I was struggling. So he suggested I take a coaching role at his school and, after thinking about it, I accepted. He wrote to me several times and I didn’t write back until eventually I did.

“So I went up and had a look around and felt I should go for it. I didn’t want to leave Somerset but was married with two young kids and this offered stability. Notts were keen to sign me and were going to take the risk on my elbow. But I didn’t go.

“I had five years at Framingham College in Suffolk and it was definitely the right thing to do. And I played for Suffolk for four years.”

John makes the national papers

Next up for John was a job in Canterbury and when he moved back to the west country he played for Devon.

John still names Gimblett as the best player he played with despite playing alongside Gary Sobers in the services. Inevitably he moved back to the South West and was resident here when he heard Gimblett had taken his own life in 1978. How did he react to this sad news?

“I never saw it coming. I was Club Captain and Head Groundsman at Sidmouth by then and Harold would come down once or twice a season and come looking for me. But I didn’t really understand what was going on in his mind. It was so sad. ”

John started his umpiring career soon after, officiating in 288 first-class and 308 List A games, until he retired at the end of the 2000 season. He acted as reserve umpire in one Test match in his final season as an umpire. And he was the official for some big names.

“Richard Hadlee was a big man and a big name. He had you standing exactly where he wanted you and, if you moved one inch, he would refuse to bowl. But he was a nice guy. As was Clive Rice. Notts was my first game after joining the umpire’s panel and I was at Trent Bridge when Ricey asked me what I had planned for the night and he invited me for a drink, so I accepted and went out with Hadlee and Rice.

“It could be a lonely life being an umpire. But there was good fun between players and umpire’s in those days. ”

John is felled while umpiring after being hit by a throw from Glamorgan’s Matt Maynard

John recollects the Taunton crowd being very gentle in his days as a professional unlike today, especially the t20 crowds,

“The bloody noise! I remember umpiring a game at Old Trafford just after they brought in the Sunday league and there was a band playing and suddenly fireworks went off and I jumped out of my skin.  At tea I went to see the band and asked them to shut up!”

These days John keeps himself very busy running his business at Drum Kennels, located in a beautiful spot between Honiton and Sidmouth.

“It keeps me young, and my wife keeps me young. I love doing what I do!”

A sprightly 80 year old he still follows the game and is seen at local games regularly, popping over to clubs like Seaton, Budleigh Salterton, Honiton and Sidmouth.

He was the Chairman of Somerset’s former players for 10 years, which is now run by former fast bowler David Gurr, and he keeps in touch with a few old Somerset playing mates, particularly Peter Hill, Mervyn Kitchen and Alan Whitehead. He gets across to Taunton when time allows.

And he has all those golden memories.

“I can still remember running in to bowl my first ball in first-class Cricket to Emrys Davies, a man who was three times my age. I have had great times and am so lucky! I’m so glad I never listened to Miller the Killer!”

John is third from the left in this snap that also features Wight, Alley, Tremlett and Langford.