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over 5 years ago | Interviews

Phil Edmonds and John Emburey: Fight and flight

Phil Edmonds is sitting on the edge of a large desk in his Mayfair office. Maps of the Sudan adorn the walls. He is wearing a Middlesex tie: a sartorial toss-up, he explains, between that and a John Emburey benefit tie. Edmonds is an elusive character – it was ever thus – spending much of his time in various parts of Africa attending to his business interests. But over the course of an evening he speaks – though preferring not to be interviewed on the record – with great affection, if at times hazy recollection, of a county career that was outstanding by any measure, even if it is tinged with a sense of frustration because of the obvious extent of his talent.

He speaks affectionately of team-mates, none more so than his spin twin Emburey, with whom he developed a magical, masterly and complementary double-act for a decade from the mid-1970s. Edmonds reckons Embers has been seriously under-rated and would have harvested plenty more than his 147 Test wickets had DRS been around to assist.

“We became mates, purely because of the relationship we had on the field,” says Emburey, dapper in blazer and tie, perched on a bar stool in the Lord’s Tavern. “We developed a partnership and Philippe was my best man in 1980. But Frances [Edmonds] got up and gave most of the speech. That’s how she was. I think he fumbled around a bit so she said, ‘Oh Philippe sit down’ and gave the speech herself.”

Of the two, Edmonds, a left-armer with the high classical action, emerged first, coming down from Cambridge University bubbling with “colonial arrogance”, as he puts it, a legacy of his Zambian origins. Cricket was a pursuit, rather than a job, and his interest in playing county cricket was really a point-proving exercise, a means of fulfilling potential. That he played so long (16 years) was down to the “staccato” nature of his career. “When I considered who to sign for,” Edmonds said in A Singular Man, his biography by Simon Barnes, “I had in my mind’s eye the big press box above the Warner Stand. It would be far easier to play for England by doing well at Lord’s than it would be doing well miles away in Glamorgan.” Glamorgan, Warwickshire and Leicestershire had all wanted him.

Emburey, the Peckham-born off-spinner, was with Surrey and hoped for a contract in 1971 but their spin stocks were full. He was advised by the coach Arthur McIntyre to contact Don Bennett at Middlesex. “I didn’t bother because I was Surrey through and through,” says Emburey. But a letter came from Bennett anyway inviting him for a trial and a three-month contract soon followed.

Because Fred Titmus was still part of the Middlesex furniture it was a long apprenticeship for Emburey and it wasn’t until 1976 that Titmus was dropped for Emburey. Mike Brearley, the captain, remembers it as a “painful and difficult” moment. It was painful for all concerned because Middlesex contrived to lose the game at Dartford despite making Kent follow on. “It probably put pressure on me to perform – and I didn’t!” says Emburey. Titmus returned for the next match.

This was a momentous Championship-winning season for Middlesex but Emburey was at a crossroads. “I was coming up 24 and at the end of ’76 I was thinking of giving up cricket because there didn’t seem to be an opportunity for me. Then Fred retired at end of the year and I signed a contract.”

Edmonds, who was one of four Middlesex bowlers to take more than 70 wickets in 1976, had already played for England at this point. But his international career would be sporadic, a fate that was intertwined with his turbulent relationship with Brearley, who captained England in the late 1970s and again in 1981.

Emburey believes that Edmonds, a talented batsman himself, began to resent the pace of Brearley’s batting “which was very slow at times”. In the days when the first innings of County Championship matches were restricted to 100 overs per side, Edmonds would often be required for some pre-declaration, lower-order bashing.

But Edmonds was also bright, a contrarian and an individualist. “If you said it was white he would say it was black,” says Mike Gatting, who took over the Middlesex captaincy in 1983 after Brearley’s retirement. “He’d always been a member of the awkward squad, albeit in a very endearing way,” says Tim Lamb, former seam bowler and Edmonds’s room-mate on away trips. Lamb recalls being woken up at 6am by the Today programme on the radio. Edmonds’s own recollection is actually that he used to prefer to sleep with the radio on all night because he didn’t like silence.

On the flip side, Vince van der Bijl recalls a different side of Edmonds in the 1980 Gillette Cup final against Surrey when he was 12th man. “We were 121 for 3, chasing 202, and a bit nervous. Here was Phil, a Test player in his own right, going round telling everyone that it would be fine and to stay relaxed. I thought that was fabulous and showed an interesting aspect of his character.”

Edmonds had been vice-captain and hoped for the ultimate honour but, says Gatting, “people weren’t sure Philippe was the right man, especially Brears”. Emburey became vice-captain after the 1981 season but then was replaced later that winter by Gatting because of his participation in the rebel tour to South Africa.

Feeling somewhat under-appreciated, Edmonds’s bowling declined to a point where his run-up comprised only a pace or two and he struggled to land the ball effectively. He recovered spectacularly to have a career-best season in 1984 when he took 77 wickets and made his highest score, 142 against Glamorgan at Swansea in an innings when no other player made 50.

He and Emburey extended their county partnership to the international stage and performed to great effect in the Ashes victories of 1985 and 1986-87. Was there ever competition between the two? “Probably there was,” says Emburey. “I’m sure that we both wanted to get more wickets than each other. And more often than not we were competing for a spot in the England side. But we were chalk and cheese in terms of the way we bowled. Look at our records and they’re very similar. It just goes to show that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

“He was a bit like Fred [Titmus] in some ways,” says Brearley of Emburey. “They both liked to have two fielders for the price of one. You’d want your man deep enough to stop the boundary but close enough to stop the single. John was an exceptionally canny and shrewd all-round cricketer.”

Gatting says: “Embers was always miserly, which was maybe a Titmus thing – or maybe just a Surrey thing. Philippe wanted to be more attacking, more flamboyant. He wanted to rip it, for it to pitch leg and hit off.”

On the accusation of Edmonds being too attacking, Simon Barnes wrote in A Singular Man: “For Edmonds, these duels are not grim, vicious, grinding struggles. They are flamboyant explosions of single combat: Captain Blood on the beach with whirling rapier and have-at-you-now. He bowls as a D’Artagnan of cricket. Mentally he is always ready to swing across the room on a chandelier.”

John Carr was one of Middlesex’s finest close fielders in the late ’80s and early ’90s: “It was amazing to see how they would pin batsmen to the crease. They were big men and strong men in their own ways. The pace and bounce they used to get meant batsmen were rabbits in the headlights. It was in a different way to, say, Wayne Daniel but almost equally as intimidating.”

Gatting adds: “You knew where you were with Philippe and I was always grateful for that. He was hard work at times but his desire on the pitch not to come second was amazing. You knew when he got the ball in his hand that unless he was trying to prove a point – which he generally was – he was a magnificent bowler.”

On the subject of proving points, Gatting recalls an exchange of views about field placings: “It was turning square and I suggested having a short leg rather than a midwicket. Philippe said: ‘No, no.’ So I went to backward short leg and the next two balls were full bungers that were smashed through midwicket. ‘There I told you so’. You always ended up swearing at him.

“He always wanted to be in the action. Normally you put a youngster in at short leg but Philippe wanted to go there. ‘I want to look in their [the batsmen’s] eyes,’ he’d say when Wayne Daniel was bowling. In the end he decided it wasn’t really the place to be and he went back to slip or gully.”

Edmonds’s career with Middlesex ended in 1987 but only after a typically unconventional request to his old mate Tim Lamb, who was now the secretary of the club, to continue playing for the county as an amateur. “One of his requests,” recalls John Carr, “was that he be able to take important phone calls at third man or fine leg to carry on his business interests while spinning teams out.”

Lamb remembers: “He wanted to loosen the shackles and be more his own man and pursue other income-generating opportunities. I told him I would have to consult with my committee colleagues but we all agreed it would be unworkable. Not paying him would make it harder to exercise any sort of control over his activities. So I arranged a meeting with Phil to discuss it. This wasn’t a meeting I was particularly looking forward to. I went through all the reasons of why his grand plan to roll back the years to the Gentlemen and Players era was unworkable. I expected him to round on me but he just said: ‘Oh well, worth a try’ and walked out.” And that, apart from a one-off comeback at Trent Bridge in 1992 when he answered an injury crisis SOS by arriving in a Rolls-Royce, was that.

Emburey, though, kept twirling along. The side-effect of a second rebel tour to South Africa was his greater availability for Middlesex. He formed a new partnership with another mercurial left-armer, Phil Tufnell, and continued to help deliver success to his adopted county with further Championship titles won in 1990 and 1993. In fact he seemed to get better with age. He took his career-best figures a month before his 41st birthday: 8 for 40 and 12 wickets in the match against Hampshire on the way to the 1993 pennant. He averaged 52 with the bat that year as well, the culmination of a career-long metamorphosis from shot-less tail-ender to highly effective, if idiosyncratic, No.7 batsman.

He finished aged 43 in 1995, having taken 74 Championship wickets and also played a Test against West Indies. He had been Middlesex’s leading wicket-taker in each of his last four seasons. “I could have carried on until I was 50 – comfortably,” he says. He wasn’t far off – his last first-class match was in June 1997 for Northamptonshire, whom he joined as player-coach. Two years ago he was still playing league cricket for Totteridge Millhillians and still moaning about the slope on their ground: “Massive, much bigger than Lord’s – it’s bloody difficult.” Meanwhile Philippe-Henri checks the share prices.

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