Phil Edmonds, the Middlesex and England left-arm spinner, was born March 8, 1951 — in Zambia. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a competent bowler and a quirky character.
Phil Edmonds was born in Zambia, had a Belgian mother, was a close friend of Geoff Boycott, has a hyphenated first name (Philippe-Henri), wore a Swatch while fielding at forward short-leg, and drives a Rolls-Royce. Any one of the six attributes would have made a Test cricketer unique, but Edmonds has managed to check six boxes out of six. And there is even more.
He was a better bowler than his figures (125 wickets from 51 Test at 34.18) suggest. He could spin the ball, but not as prodigiously as some of the legends of the sport; instead, he relied on his height and immensely strong shoulders, wrists, and fingers, and bowled with a nagging accuracy, often for hours at a stretch. He often obtained serious bounce even when he flighted the ball well up in the air, occasionally surprising the batsmen with a bouncer or two. With a fiery temperament like a fast bowler and the classical copybook action of a spinner, he was the perpetual stock bowler on the non-conducive English pitches, and finished his career with an economy rate of 2.13.
Despite his containing attitude, Edmonds often resorted to bowling aggressively, often when his captain wanted him to bowl otherwise. As Bob Willis once mentioned: “I would want Edmonds to bowl a string of maidens to give the seamers a rest — but that’s not what happened. I would put Edmonds on and he would try to bowl three different kinds of deliveries in an over.” He was too moody to be controlled or dominated. Willis’s attitude, on the other hand, represents the disdain with which spinners of the era were often treated — something which spinners like Edmonds had to endure throughout their careers.
He was also a handy batsman, but never took his batting seriously. Nevertheless, he scored 3 First-Class hundreds. Simon Hughes, Edmonds’ Middlesex teammate, wrote that on his dismissal, he often returned ‘chuckling with a mixture of mild disbelief and perverse pleasure’. He was also an excellent close-in catcher, often fielding at short-leg.
In Lusaka, Zambia, Edmonds’ father had been a colonial property developer. However, he was shunned by the colonials as he supported the cause of Rhodesian (erstwhile Zambian) independence; he even fought for the locals in the Independence War, and after being singled out from the Caucasian society in the country, the Edmonds had to come back to England. He ended up leading his school in cricket.
Edmonds was unfortunate in the sense that a part of his career coincided with Derek Underwood’s, which, along with Edmonds’ candid nature, meant that he was often left out of the side. In fact, he missed 75 Tests during his 51-Test career.
After decent careers with Cambridge University and Middlesex, Edmonds made his Test debut in the infamous Ashes Test at Headingley in 1975. After England had piled up 288, Edmonds was introduced as the sixth bowler. He bowled in unison with Underwood, and the two left-arm spinners put a remarkable stranglehold on the Australians. Edmonds took 5 for 17 in his first 12 overs, finished with figures of 20-7-28-5, and from 53 for 2 Australia collapsed to 135. He picked up Greg Chappell again in the second innings, but the Test had to be abandoned after the vandals dug up the ground.
Just one wicketless Test later on a shirtfront track at The Oval (Australia scored 532 for 9), Edmonds was shelved for two-and-a-half years — and was brought back after Kerry Packer had hit England hard.
The first comeback
On his return, Edmonds picked up 3 for 75 at the Hyderabad (Pakistan) Test, the second of the series. In the next Test at Karachi, after England were bowled out for 266, Edmonds carried the English attack on his shoulders, taking 7 for 66 to restrict Pakistan to 281. This remained Edmonds’ career-best, and more importantly, it remained his second and last five-for. As a minor side event, Edmonds’ Middlesex mate Mike Gatting made his debut at Karachi, and was given leg-before by Shakoor Rana in the second innings — thus paving the way for a rather rosy relationship that lasted over a decade.
He was an obvious choice for the New Zealand series, where he thrived in unfavourable conditions, doing his containing job and still managing to pick up 9 wickets from 2 Tests. When Pakistan visited England later that year, Edmonds returned figures of 8-6-6-4 at Lord’s (following his 26-10-44-4 at Edgbaston), but Ian Botham stole the limelight with his ballistic 108 and 8 for 34. Edmonds finished the series with 8 wickets from 3 Tests at 11.87 and an economy rate of 1.55.
And then, he had figures of 34.1-23-20-4 at The Oval, and 15.4-5-21-2 and 33.1-15-44-4 at Trent Bridge against New Zealand. Finishing the series with 10 wickets from 3 Tests at 14.50 and an economy of 14.50, Edmonds finally established himself in the England side as a containing bowler who persisted with a nagging line till he broke through. At this stage career records read 43 wickets from 13 Tests at 20.95 and an economy of 1.79.
At this stage critics had predicted that he would go past Underwood, and would finish with 300 Test wickets.
The second comeback
Despite the excellent form, one poor series later, he was out. The Indian batsmen, as expected, did not succumb to him as easily as some others, and he gave way to Underwood yet again. He was lost in the wilderness, playing for Middlesex as Underwood held his spot firmly for three more years. He came back in 1982, once again against the Indians. He did not do well against either India or New Zealand, and was shunned for another year-and-a-half.
The third comeback
Once again he came back, and once again it was against India; this time it was at their den. England won the series (for the last time till Alastair Cook’s team emulated them in 2012-13); Edmonds played all 5 Tests but had little impact other than his usual stranglehold. When he lost his rhythm on one occasion, he bowled with a one-step run-up, but did not lose his accuracy.
Neither did he fare any better in the home Ashes in 1985. He was simply torn to pieces by the mighty West Indians next season, and was fortunate enough to be picked on the twin home series against India and New Zealand.
After an indifferent Test at Lord’s, Edmonds was dropped for the second Test on the seamer-friendly pitch of Headingley. He came back at Edgbaston, and for the first time in the series, India were in trouble of sorts; Edmonds had a spell of 28-11-31-4, including the wicket of the in-form Dilip Vengsarkar for a duck, and had he had a competent partner at the other end, England would probably have been able to run through India.
That spell led to a minor turnaround in Edmonds’ career. He picked up 8 wickets at 26.50 from 3 Tests, which earned him a place on the subsequent Ashes tour.
England won the Ashes — for the last time in 19 years. Edmonds played in all five Tests, and though he was fourth on the wickets list with 15 wickets at 35.86 on either side, he topped the economy rate list with 2.05. Often bowling in tandem with his Middlesex mate John Emburey, Edmonds put a stranglehold on the Australian batsmen to assist their fast bowlers and batsmen to a historic series victory.
For a moment it seemed that Edmonds had managed to salvage his career. But then, after a disastrous home series against Pakistan (though at an economy rate of 2.36), Edmonds was dropped, and he bowed out of international cricket. After just one more first-class match (against Northamptonshire, where he returned figures of 29-15-23-3), he retired from First-Class cricket as well on a high — mostly to devote more time to his business.
The final and strangest comeback
There was surprise in the waiting, though. However, when left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell had to be hospitalised in 1992 — five years after Edmonds’ retirement — he was asked to turn up for Middlesex yet again. A successful businessman by now, our hero landed up at Trent Bridge in — his Rolls Royce.
Middlesex declared at 401 for 2. And then, to astound everyone, Edmonds bowled with the same relentless accuracy from ball one. Bowling alongside his old partner-in-crime John Emburey, Edmonds returned figures of 28-10-48-4, and Nottinghamshire were made to follow-on. According to Peter Roebuck, “he still broke bounds by fielding aggravatingly close, he still ostentatiously wore a watch, probably still pretended he was paid a fortune to do so, still disdained calisthenics, still clapped his hands, still rubbed them in the dust as he prepared to bowl”. In the end, he took several pain-killers, and hobbled around for several days at a stretch in pain.
Yes, that was the Edmonds of old: too lazy to exercise, too excitable with the ball, indulging in grandiose of all sorts, and full of verbals for the batsman.
Despite their differences, Mike Brearley, Edmonds’ predecessor at Middlesex, often rated Edmonds as a good reader of the sport, and nominated him the vice-captain for Middlesex. Edmonds was under the perpetual impression that he would have become a better captain than Brearley. Edmonds often led Middlesex when Brearley was on international duty, and though Middlesex did quite well under him, he was more renowned for his eccentricities.
Edmonds did not think highly of Mike Selvey, the Middlesex and England medium-fast bowler. What was worse, he made his feelings public. When Selvey was bowling, he asked Simon Hughes to move. In Hughes’ own words: “… constantly yelled at me on the boundary to move two inches this way or that. He even threw the ball at me once when he thought I wasn’t listening. It ended up in the crowd, ten deep round the boundary.”
Hughes adds: “He was often fractious, set strange fields and omitted players he disliked, e.g. Selvey, a skilled seamer, even on a pitch the colour of a billiard table. If his spinning partner [usually Emburey] suddenly found some turn on a particular wicket he would bring himself on from that end, relegating his colleague to the opposite one.”
In a county match against Surrey, Edmonds became irritated as his spearhead Wayne Daniel was off for an extensive period, nursing an ankle injury. When Daniel came back, the umpires informed Edmonds that since Daniel was off the field, he would not be able to bowl for the same time-span. Edmonds burst out “Oh, just f**k off then, Diamond”, and sent the fast bowler to the dressing-room. They had a heated argument once Edmonds was back in the dressing-room. It is another story that Edmonds and Daniel were very close friends.
On another occasion, Simon Hughes, the only fit fast bowler for Middlesex was bowling to Imran Khan of Sussex. When Edmonds took Hughes off, Imran asked Hughes whether he could take his helmet off; Hughes nodded, and Imran obliged. Immediately, Edmonds brought Hughes back, Hughes bowled a bouncer, and a bemused Imran was caught at gully. Furious, Imran took 6 for 52 and skittled Middlesex, defeating them by a huge margin.
However, the final word should be Hughes’: “Edmonds’ personality was addictive. He was articulate, sharp, and brilliant in the role of the devil’s advocate. His outright audacity was enviable, and he had supreme confidence in his ability and judgments, epitomised by his arrogant stroll on to the field and affected upturned sunhat.”
Even Brearley, who, according to Rodney Hogg, had ‘a degree in people’, found that Edmonds was an enigma he couldn’t really decipher. In Brearley’s words, “Edmonds rarely felt that I helped him or that my thinking enlarged his sense of his own ability,” something he had probably never said about another player. In fact, their arguments over decisions on the field often reached such heights that on one occasion Edmonds turned so livid that he pinned Brearley against the wall, shouting at him, asking him to ‘lay off’.
Brearley called him ‘abrasive’, and added: “Possibly Geoff Boycott got more out of him than I could. I noticed that Edmonds reacted well to Boycott’s jibes in the nets.”
Edmonds and Boycott formed the oddest pair of friends imaginable on a cricket ground. Both were intelligent, outspoken, talented, and arrogant, and were hard to befriend. Known for his haughty, eccentric behaviour, Edmonds surprised everyone when he was the only one who went up to Boycott in the dressing room and put an arm around him. Boycott coined the term ‘Fitzwilliam Twins’ to describe themselves (Boycott came from Fitzwilliam, and Edmonds had studied at the same city).
On another occasion, in the Calcutta Test of 1984-85, when Sunil Gavaskar killed the Test by carrying the first innings of the Test into the fourth day, Edmonds emulated Warwick Armstrong by reading a newspaper at square-leg. Gavaskar eventually had to declare when the police told him that there the restless crowd might end up having a riot if he did not declare immediately.
Partnership with Emburey
Despite their stark differences, Edmonds formed a formidable pair with Emburey, especially for Middlesex, bowling in tandem, and running through oppositions. While Edmonds spun the ball from leg to off, Emburey turned it the other way. Unlike Edmonds, Emburey was born in London. Edmonds was scholarly, Emburey an extrovert. Edmonds got a kick out of bowling to the best batsmen of the opposition and losing interest when the tail arrived, while Emburey was more nagging, often picking up the last wickets to add to his tally. And yet, despite their differences, they were feared by all and sundry, especially in the county circuit.
Edmonds married Frances, and broke the convention by getting her to accompany him on the West Indies tour of 1986. In return, she broke the tradition by writing a controversial yet bestselling account of the tour (Another Bloody Tour). Frances soon grew in stature as a writer and a broadcaster, which resulted in Tim Zoehrer’s infamous sledge: “At least I have an identity. You’re only Frances Edmonds’ husband.”
Despite the distasteful comments, Edmonds held his wife in very high esteem, and was very proud of her skills and popularity. However, with time, distances began to creep in, and once deemed as the ‘golden couple of English cricket’, the couple divorced in 2007.
After he quit cricket, Edmonds made a name for him as a successful businessman. He served as a chairman in Middlesex Holdings, White Nile Petroleum Company, Central African Mining and Exploration (which he sold in 2009), and Middlesex County Cricket Club (he quit in 2007), and his properties are currently estimated at over 50 million pounds. In 2005 he made it to the headlines by striking a controversial deal in Southern Sudan.
Even as a businessman Edmonds maintained his nature. On a venture in Namibia, he had to approach a tribe. According to Edmonds, “we went along to the local tribe, met the king, had a few beers, and did the deal.”
Neal Radford and Henry Olonga are the only other Test cricketers born in Zambia. Jean-Paul Duminy is the only other one with a hyphenated first name. None of them were friends of Boycott. So there you go.