Reg Simpson - the fearless opener

Reg Simpson, who passed away at the age of 93 on November 22, was a fearless player of fast bowling and an excellent stroke-maker. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who produced his best performances against the frightening bowling of Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.

On November 22, 2013, Reggie Simpson passed away at the age of 93, passing the mantle of England’s oldest living Test cricketer to left-handed Sussex all-rounder Don Smith. Thus ended a long and noble journey that had once started out as one of the youngest talents of the land.

It was more than 80 years ago that Simpson first caught the eye of the cricket connoisseur, adding 467 for the first wicket with Henry Betts in a house game at Nottinghamshire High School. This effort got him into the High School XI at that tender age of 13.

The talent was almost precocious, palpable. And it spilled out of the cricket ground and splashed across the fields of rugby, golf and athletics. Indeed Simpson also played rugby for Nottinghamshire and won the junior AA sprint title in the county.

He was just 15 when he started playing for Nottinghamshire Club and Ground and also made waves with his bat in the Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire Border League. By 1938, he was playing for the Nottinghamshire Second XI.

The Indian connection

It should have been a steady progress as one of the promising opening batsmen of the country. But, the next time Simpson made heads turn was in the summer of 1940, when he scored a brilliant unbeaten 134 for the Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club against the RAF XI at Trent Bridge. Yes, the Second World War had already commenced and several best years were about to be scooped out of the career of the gifted young batsman. By this time, young Simpson had also joined a special branch of Nottinghamshire Police. He would have to wait for the mayhem to end before he could continue his cricketing ambitions in England.

However, it did not mean that he would be starved of cricket during the War years. Simpson served as a pilot in the RAFVR and played alongside Wally Hammond and Bill Edrich in the service games. Having obtained his flying instructions in Arizona, he was later posted in India in 1944 in the Far East Transport Command. Cricket continued in that distant outpost of the Empire as well.

In the summer of 1944, Simpson flew back to England on leave from services and scored heavily in the matches he could manage to play in. A century for Nottinghamshire against Leicestershire in an exhibition match was followed by a polished 79 for England XI against the Dominions in a one day game at Lord’s. The latter match involved players of the calibre of Wally Hammond, Bill Edrich, Trevor Bailey, Walter Robbins and Keith Miller.

Back in India, Simpson made his First-Class debut in the Ranji Trophy, playing for Sind against Bombay. He got 88 in the first innings before being bowled by, of all people, Vijay Merchant. In the second innings he scored 63. He also played in the Bombay Pentangular for the Europeans, alongside Denis Compton and Joe Hardstaff Jr.

For Nottinghamshire and England

After being demobilised in July 1946, Simpson played his first game in the County Championship against Somerset. And after a month of low scores, he hit purple patch with 201 against Warwickshire.

By this time he had taken up employment as a director at Gunn and Moore, the Nottinghamshire bat makers. This enabled him to play as an amateur — and indeed he did so for his entire career for Nottinghamshire.

Simpson’s returns in his first two full English seasons in 1947 and 1948 were decent rather than spectacular. However, during the second year, Don Bradman’s Invincibles marched through the land, flattening county after county with relentless regularity. And Simpson stood bravely against Ray Lindwall and Miller to score 74 and 70, and Nottinghamshire managed to draw their game with two wickets to spare. Bradman remarked that he was one of the future stars of England. Those two knocks ensured selection for the winter’s tour of South Africa in 1948-49.

Simpson warmed up for the Tests with an unbeaten 130 against North-Eastern Transvaal. His innings was hardly noticed as Denis Compton raced to 300 in 181 minutes with 42 fours and five sixes. The two put on 399 for the third wicket.

However, on his Test debut at Durban, Simpson could manage only five and nought, and could not hold on to his place in the side.

The peak period

The following two summers saw Simpson hitting peak form of his career. The season of 1949 brought forth 2525 runs at 63.12 and the following year 2576 at 62.82. He also assumed the role of the opener for his county and it was to be his identity for the rest of his career.

Unfortunately, those were the days when England, with plenty of chinks and gaps in their post-War team, remained rock solid at the top of the batting order. Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook offered few opportunities for other men to get a look in as opener.

Simpson managed to play as a No 5 batsman against New Zealand at Old Trafford in 1949 and hit a spectacular 103 with 11 fours and three sixes. The second 50 was brought up in just 27 minutes. He was promoted to open the innings at The Oval alongside Hutton, and scored 68, putting on 147 with the Yorkshire great. He was named one of the Wisden Cricketers of 1950.

Retained as an opener in the ill-fated series against West Indies in 1950, his form underwent a minor dip. However, he did score 94 in the Trent Bridge Test, looking set for a well-deserved hundred on his home ground before being run out rather unnecessarily.

Travelling to Australia for the 1950-51 Ashes, Simpson started with a hundred against South Australia before running out of form. It once again took the lethal combination of Lindwall and Miller to bring out the best in him. Against New South Wales, Simpson stood defiant against the two fire-breathing fast bowlers, scoring 259, his highest First-Class score.

In the Tests of the tour, Simpson initially remained unimpressive before producing glimpses of his best at Adelaide.

And finally, after England had been humiliated four times in succession, Simpson enjoyed his finest hour in Test cricket at Melbourne. Australia had not lost a Test match in 12 years since the drubbing at The Oval in 1938. And now, then they ran into Reggie Simpson.

Batting at No 3, Simpson struck the ball beautifully during the first part of his innings, once again handling Lindwall and Miller with consummate ease. And on reaching 50 he went into a curiously passive shell. When the ninth wicket fell, he was still eight runs short of his century. And as Roy Tattershall came in to join him, his game metamorphosed to produce a scintillating phase of batting. Jack Iverson, the mystery spinner who had cast a spell on the Australians all through the series, was mercilessly slaughtered. It was one of the rare occasions when Simpson got on top of a spinner. The last wicket put on 74, Simpson’s share being 64. It stretched the English lead to 103. And Alec Bedser picked up five wickets to ensure that Australia’s long undefeated streak was finally broken.

Riding on the crest of his form, Simpson hammered 137 against South Africa at Trent Bridge in the first Test of the 1951 series. However, that marked the end of the wonderful days of promise during which it seemed that Simpson would make up for the time lost during the War. By the end of the series, fibrositis got better of him and he lost his place in the side.

The final days of Test cricket

After this, Simpson was an occasional member of the Test team. He continued to excel for Nottinghamshire, the bright light at the beginning of the innings during a distinctly gloomy decade for the county. On five occasions, he scored more than 2000 in a season. But, Test appearances remained limited.

There was a brief period when his international fortunes went on a brief upswing once more. In the absence of Hutton and Washbrook, Simpson opened the innings with David Sheppard at Nottingham against Pakistan in 1954. The Test match witnessed another memorable collaboration between Simpson and Compton, a throwback to that day in South Africa five and a half years ago. Simpson got 101, and Compton another massive 278. It earned the Nottinghamshire opener yet another trip to Australia.

However, the 1954-55 tour, a spectacular success for England, was a huge disappointment for Simpson. Scores of two and nine in Brisbane meant that in the remaining matches Hutton preferred the makeshift forms of Trevor Bailey and Bill Edrich as his opening partner.

On the New Zealand leg of the tour, Simpson scored 21 at Dunedin and 29 at Auckland. That was the end of his Test career.

Captain of Nottinghamshire

Yet, in a curious epilogue, Simpson came face to face with the hero of the 1954-55 Ashes in the summer of 1956. The 36-year-old Simpson faced the Typhoon-like pace of 

Frank Tyson at Northampton. The fast bowler knocked over the first three Nottinghamshire wickets, and finished with four for 59. Simpson, however, raced to 150 by the second session even as his side totalled 278. To the end of his career, he remained one of the best players of fast bowling, helped by his balanced stance and compulsive backfoot play.

Strangely, it was spin that bothered him all his career. While he was almost immune to the fastest bouncers, hooking them with nonchalance or evading them with ease, he never quite managed the inclination to work his way to counter quality spin. As Tyson put it, “Reg stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that spinners present any threat to the batsmen. As soon as a slow bowler appears he goes for them bald-headed and often virtually throws away his wicket.”

Jack Fingleton, who acknowledged Simpson as a wonderful stroke-player and a master of the on-drive, felt his lack of self-confidence kept him from achieving success in proportion to his abilities.

As captain of Nottinghamshire, Simpson was less than successful with his ordinary team. Yet, he always played to entertain.

In June 1951, Nottinghamshire played Glamorgan on a featherbed at Trent Bridge. In front of 10,000 spectators on a Saturday afternoon, Glamorgan skipper Wilf Wooller and left-handed all-rounder Willie Jones added 12 off 15 overs, nine of which were maidens.

It was Simpson’s first year as the captain of the county side. As the crowd protested through slow hand-clapping, Simpson took the ball himself and proceeded to bowl an over of underarm lobs. Wooller blocked all the deliveries, taking off his gloves and sarcastically mopping his brow after each delivery.

According to the Glamorgan captain, the incident was in bad taste. However, Simpson maintained that the Glamorgan batting had reduced the game to a farce. It was the start of a long-lasting feud between two of the last amateurs of English cricket — Simspon and Wooller.

Simpson ended his First-Class career with 30546 runs at 38.32 with 64 hundreds. His occasional off-breaks earned him 59 wickets at 37.74 apiece.

In the 27 Tests, his figures remained rather ordinary — 1401 runs at 33.35 with four hundreds.

After retiring from cricket, Simpson was the chairman of selectors for Nottinghamshire in the 1980s. It was during this time that Nottinghamshire won the county championship twice, powered by the all-round brilliance of Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee. Simpson was chairman of the county cricket club in 1991-92. He later became President of the club.

When Sir Alec Bedser passed away in April 4, 2010, Simpson became the oldest surviving Test cricketer of England — and he remained one for three and a half years.

Reg Simpson passed away on November 22.