Published: 25th December, 2020
In a stellar career which saw him become one of Surrey and England’s most prolific batsmen, John Edrich was a rock-like figure for Surrey and England over two decades. He died aged 83 on December 23 at his home in northern Scotland.
Richard Spiller pays tribute.
Never one of cricket’s glamour boys, John Edrich instead earned the far greater achievement of being the man his fellow professionals wanted in their team at the top of the order.
Not for him the flashy 20s and 30s, he was a flinty left-hander who relished a scrap in the toughest conditions to gain his side a hard-won advantage.
Edrich’s 39,790 first-class runs make him 19th in the all-time list – three fellow Surrey players, Jack Hobbs, Tom Hayward and Andy Sandham are ahead – and such are the changes in the game that it is impossible to see anyone coming close challenging that. He was one of just 25 players to pass a century of centuries.
Aesthetics were for others. When Edrich first appeared at Surrey’s nets, his methods attracted little favour from Surrey’s established players until one of them, Bernard Constable, pointed out that he had middled every delivery. How many, rather than how, was his way and a limited array of shots – tucks on the legside plus punches and cuts on the offside – did not prevent the scoreboard was ticking along.
“John always played his own way and it was mightily effective,” said his long-time colleague Micky Stewart, the pair opening for both county and country together. “He had a magnificent career.”
As Surrey’s all-conquering 1950s team waned, Edrich was one of those on whom the rebuilding leaned on, having emerged from a cricketing family in Norfolk which could boast four cousins of first-class level, the best being Bill, Denis Compton’s chief ally for Middlesex and England. They could also put out an Edrich XI.
Notice of the 21-year-old’s intentions was given emphatically in only his second County Championship appearance, hitting centuries in each innings against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge in 1959. He went on to score 1,432 runs in a season when Surrey went remarkably close to making it eight titles in a row before Yorkshire finally prevailed.
Within four years Edrich had earned a Test call and although he struggled initially against the West Indian pacemen in 1963, a year later he made 120 against Australia at Lord’s.
Becoming an automatic choice did not come easily, missing out on selection for the following winter’s tour of South Africa, the selectors also having the likes of Geoffrey Boycott, Bob Barber and Colin Milburn at their disposal.
Although Edrich returned to hit a remarkable unbeaten 310 against New Zealand at Headingley in 1965, smashing 52 fours and five sixes but also playing and missing regularly, a nasty blow to the face from South African speedster Peter Pollock later that summer caused another interruption to his international career.
A successful tour of the West Indies in 1967-68 and 554 in five Ashes Tests the following summer gave the selectors no choice but to pick him, the latter capped by a century at The Oval. Typically, it was to be overshadowed by another from Basil d’Oliveira which had far greater implications.
Ray Illingworth thoroughly appreciated having his nuggety colleague at the top of the order when England regained the Ashes in Australia in 1970-71 – he was also man-of-the-match in the inaugural one-day international at Melbourne – and he returned to help Surrey finally return to the summit of the County Championship the next summer.
A modest contribution in the 1972 Ashes and unavailability for the following winter’s tour of India and Pakistan saw Edrich out of international cricket for 18 months, leading Surrey to runners-up spot in the Championship in his first summer after succeeding Stewart as Club captain.
It was not a happy reign – despite winning the Benson & Hedges Cup in 1974, taking the gold award in a low scoring final against Leicestershire – but England recalled him that summer and he was at his stubborn best when they faced the pace whirlwind of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in that winter’s Ashes. It said much about Edrich’s sardonic humour when, between overs, he sidled down to batting partner Keith Fletcher and commented “one tour too many” before heading back.
Edrich had been made vice-captain for that trip and when Mike Denness dropped himself for the crucial Sydney Test because of his chronic form, the Surrey left-hander found himself in charge. It was no easy task, battling away for more than three hours in the first innings and then returning in the second after having his ribs broken by a Lillee delivery. He finished unbeaten on 33 but was unable to save England from conceding the urn.
It was Lillee who reckoned Edrich was the hardest man to remove in world cricket, refusing to worry if he was beaten, his attitude summed up by commenting to a colleague: “They can only bowl one ball at a time and until that changes I’m not going to worry.”
He enjoyed revenge in the following English summer, cracking 175 at Lord’s against the same opposition, and against the West Indian pace barrage of 1976 it was Edrich – now 39 – and 45-year-old Brian Close who were sent in to face a ferocious assault at Old Trafford.
Eventually even Edrich’s equanimity grew tired of seeing the ball going past his unhelmeted head and he stepped down quietly, his 5,138 runs in 77 matches at 43 emblematic of a fine but often undervalued player. In 1977 came his 100th first-class century, against Derbyshire at The Oval – he was appointed MBE for his services to cricket later that year – and with the captaincy having been handed on to Roger Knight he retired at the end of the 1978 season.
That was by no means the end of Edrich’s involvement in cricket. There were spells as an England selector and international batting coach while he quietly appreciated being made Surrey’s Club President in 2006 and was a regular and much valued guest in the Club’s Committee Room at Test Matches.
It was wholly symbolic of John Edrich’s guts and resilience that, after being diagnosed with leukaemia in 2000, he should battle it so ferociously, a homeopathic treatment of miseltoe infusions prolonging his life substantially. His wife Judith died earlier this year, their son having been killed in a car accident several years ago. He also leaves a daughter.