Mystery Aussie spinner John Gleeson dies at 78

John Gleeson

John Gleeson was one of the early unorthodox spinners.

John Gleeson, the former Australia spinner, has died at the age of 78 in Tamworth, New South Wales.

Gleeson was Australia’s 242nd Test cricketer and played 29 matches between 1967 and 1972. He took 93 wickets at an average of 36 with three five-wicket hauls. Gleeson also claimed 430 first-class wickets in a 116-match career between 1966 and 1975, predominantly for New South Wales.

“He’s sadly passed away in the Tamworth hospital, aged 78,” the former Australia captain Ian Chappell relayed to viewers during Channel Nine’s coverage of a Matador Cup game.

Gleeson was one of the early unorthodox spinners, delivering with an unusual action like Australia’s Jack Iverson before him and Sri Lanka’s Ajantha Mendis decades later. “The folded finger-spinner they called him,” Chappell said. “He came from Tamworth, started out his cricket life as a wicketkeeper and he fiddled around flicking these balls … I think he started with a table tennis ball, and developed into a very fine finger spinner.

“I spoke to him the other day, he’d come to grips with his situation and his last words were to me, ‘Don’t fret, mate, I’m in good shape’.”

A late starter to first-class cricket at 27, Gleeson had honed his method for years prior, experimenting with various grips in backyard cricket ater being partly inspired by fellow “mystery” spinner Iverson. “The first time I saw it was a photograph in a 1951 Sporting Life magazine,” he said of Iverson’s grip in a 2008 interview. “I would bowl with the same grip with a tennis ball in backyard cricket, with a jacaranda tree as the wicket. It was quite natural for me to bowl a legspinner even if it looked like an offspinner – it was basically a reverse wrong’un: looks like an offspinner but is a legspinner.”

Gleeson worked his way into the New South Wales state side and ultimately the Australian Test team after impressing Richie Benaud in a net session in the summer of 1966-67. He always remained somewhat miffed by the hype that surrounded his bowling style, which was a forerunner to other more lateral methods of spinning the ball that would follow in later years around the cricket world. His path to the Test side was to be smoothed by another net session, in Adelaide where he bowled to the then selection chairman Sir Donald Bradman.

“He stood there, in his suit, at the batting crease, without a bat. I ran up and bowled. To get the ball to turn a fair bit I had to bowl a lot slower than I normally did,” Gleeson said. “I bowled him that ball [an off break] and he tried to let it hit the net, but it went the other way, flew up, and hit him on the hip. His eyes lit up and he just picked the ball up and threw it back to me. Next ball, I bowled him the wrong’un and then he wasn’t quite sure which way to go as he wasn’t reading from the hand.”

James Sutherland, the Cricket Australia chief executive, said: “John captured the imagination of cricket fans everywhere as he bamboozled batsmen with his odd bowling grip, borrowed from another mystery Australian spinner, Jack Iverson.”

“We were deeply saddened to hear of John’s passing and are truly appreciative of his contribution to the game, which, beyond his distinguished playing career, included time as an administrator with World Series Cricket. As a cricketer, he will be remembered as someone who played for his country at the highest level and, with his unique skills, had the ability to regularly dumbfound the best batsmen in any team.”

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