Career in focus: John Lever MBE


A model professional and a Captain’s dream as a bowler. A 100% performer and never afraid of hard work as his 75,184 deliveries in first-class matches and more than 3,400 overs in List A cricket for Essex illustrates.

He may have retired some 33 years ago now but John (JK) Lever is still one of the most highly regarded and respected cricketers ever to have pulled on an Essex sweater. The Chelmsford crowds loved him and he is still warmly remembered by those fortunate and privileged enough to have seen him play.

With a smooth run-up, he was able to bowl long spells with sharp pace, controlled line and length and with unparalleled success. Stepney-born John was rightly judged to be the finest left-arm pace bowler in the country. His tally of 1,473 first-class wickets for Essex puts him in fourth place in the all-time list of the Club’s wicket-takers, whilst his skill also gained him 21 Test appearances for England.

He also took 616 List A wickets for the County, 150 more than Stuart Turner who is second in the list of wicket-takers in that form of the game.

John celebrates his 73rd birthday on 24th February, an opportune moment for the Club to share some memories with the player whose talent proved integral in the side winning a string of trophies, starting with the Benson & Hedges Cup and County Championship title in 1979. It was the first meaningful silverware the County had captured in their history but the die had been caste and a string of titles were to follow.

John said: “I have a host of wonderful memories over my playing career, not only matches but people and players I’ve met and I count myself very fortunate to have made so many friends that I still keep in touch with now.

“I suppose the first outstanding memory is making my Championship debut against Worcestershire at Ilford in 1967. I’d just got onto the staff then and I was just 18 and desperate to play First Team cricket.

“I’m sure the County won’t mind me saying this but at that time, we were in a poor state financially and we relied on people coming through the gate for our income. Essex had lots of different venues and every venue had their own local hero who played Club Cricket on the local scene. So, the Club had the idea that if they chose a local player to play in the cricket week, that would enhance the gate. As a young professional as I was, it was hard to take because you were trying to make your way in the game but whilst these players were good Club cricketers, very few had any intention of playing cricket professionally. But as it happened, I got my chance to play at Ilford for that very reason, I was a local boy and Ilford was my Club.”

So did the new kid on the block find added pressure, not only of making his Championship debut but in front of so many familiar faces who had watched his rise through the ranks?

“Yes, I suppose so,” John responded. “However, the team were brilliant with me, they were very encouraging and supportive.”

He readily fondly recalls the colleagues he shared the cramped dressing room with at Valentines Park on that landmark occasion. “There was Gordon Barker, Mickey Bear, Brian Edmeades, Keith Fletcher, Trevor Bailey, our Captain Brian Taylor, Keith Boyce, Rodney Cass, Robin Hobbs and Ray East plus myself, quite an eclectic mix of characters.

“There were a few old ’uns, people like Tonker, Gordon and Trevor plus a few youngsters like Easty, Hobbsy and myself. Ray had come straight from village cricket and used to say, ‘I’m very much a Suffolk swede,’ but he had a great cricket brain and went on to take over 1,000 first-class career wickets.

“Boycey was a brilliant all-rounder and he set the fielding standards when the John Player League took off and Fletch was very keen to ensure we carried that on when he took over as skipper.”

International all-rounder Bailey had been capped 61 times for England and was in his last year before retiring. “He was a shy man but everybody knew him as ‘Chief,’ but he was always very kind and generous in his praise and encouragement,” JK enthuses.

“I took two wickets in the first innings of the Worcestershire match but in the second innings, I got three including the great Tom Graveney and that was really special. I think it was Mickey Bear who came up to me when I got him and said, ‘You’ll remember that for the rest of your life’ and he was absolutely right.

“Obviously the ‘79 double-winning year is an exceptional memory and one of the factors that makes it so special was the fact that there was such a strong bond between all the members of the team. A lot of us had come through together, we’d done our apprenticeship if you like but the one thing that had been missing was the knowledge of how to get across the winning line. And you do have to learn how to be a winner.

“We learned the hard bit of how to be losers, but we needed to find out what was required to take one more stride to get past the post. In 1979, we were ready to do that. Once we had won our first trophy, we convinced ourselves that we could do it again and of course, it opened the floodgates for so many more successes. We went out onto the field with a confidence bordering on arrogance, but it wasn’t that, we were just supremely confident. I think it’s fair to say that Fletch instilled the positive attitude and that’s what pushed us on.

“I still think about that day at Lord’s when we won the Benson & Hedges Cup, it’s still very vivid in my mind. We’d never won anything before and we had such great support from the crowd. It was a wonderful atmosphere and a fantastic day for us. Winning the B&H Cup helped us to go on and lift the County Championship for the first time because we now had belief and proof that we were winners.

“I also take a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from the couple of Championship titles that we won after Goochie and I were banned by England for three years after going to South Africa in the 80s. We came back and got stuck into playing for Essex without any Test calls and it suited me and I was able to help us win more honours.”

“So, it’s generally being part of a successful team rather than individual performances that stay in the memory.”

The decision to draw the line under a stellar career came towards the close of the 1989 season. “Time was catching up with the body and the fielding side of the game had got increasingly hard and I struggled with that,” he acknowledged.

“I didn’t want to be a burden on the side or stop a younger player getting his chance. I’d been very fortunate because it was a joy turning up to play every day and going into the changing room was always so much fun.

“It was a helluva wrench to retire but the decision was the right one.”

The legacy of so many stirring achievements and fond memories involving John Lever remain fresh in the mind of Essex followers and some will recall the occasion of his final Championship appearance when Surrey were the visitors to Chelmsford.

He had taken 7/48 to set Essex on the way towards a 2-wicket victory and was then promoted in the batting order to apply the coup de grace. The Surrey team and umpires provided a guard of honour and the stage was set for JK to have the final word and hit the winning run. But he was dropped off the first ball he faced and then got out to the second ball with the scores level.

Pure theatre from a player who was a star act throughout a wonderful career.

Thanks John for all the memories and Happy Birthday.