Players/Officials: Reg Simpson
SIMPSON, REGINALD THOMAS, died on November 24, aged 93. In the years between the end of the war and the dawn of the 1960s there were few more eye-catching sights in English cricket than Reg Simpson taking on opposing fast bowlers with a thrilling, nerveless bravado. Tall, tanned and capless, with waves of tight-curled hair, he cut a striking figure, and loved the physical and technical challenges presented by outright pace.
England's oldest Test cricketer died just as his modern-day counterparts were in Brisbane, facing the sort of fast-bowling barrage he would have relished. It was frequently said that Simpson's talent was unfulfilled at Test level, and that he seldom reproduced the uninhibited strokeplay he paraded for his beloved Nottinghamshire.
That, though, ignored the fact that - thanks to Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook - he was never given a chance to establish himself in his preferred role as an opener. At Melbourne, in the last Test of the 1950-51 Ashes, he played an innings of seminal importance to English post-war cricket. Facing an attack led by Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, and including the new spin sensation Jack Iverson, England were 4-0 down, and facing a whitewash. Simpson made a magnificent 156 not out - drawing superlatives from Jack Fingleton among others - and reached his hundred on his 31st birthday. He was on 92 and becalmed when joined by last man Roy Tattersall, before making all but ten of a last-wicket stand of 74 in 55 minutes. "The situation really suited me," said Simpson. "I could take some calculated risks and play my shots." It was the foundation for England's first win in an Ashes Test since 1938 and, said Godfrey Evans, "the turning point" at the start of a golden era of success.
Simpson played in all five Tests of the 1950-51 series and, when he made 137 against South Africa in the first match next summer - the first Test century by a Nottinghamshire player at Trent Bridge - he was entitled to feel established in the side. There was, though, a portentous moment, when he advanced to loft Athol Rowan for four. At the end of the over, his partner Hutton warned gravely: "This is a Test match, you know."
Sure enough he did not complete Hutton's first series as captain, against India in 1952, and his second Ashes tour, under Hutton in 1954-55, was an unhappy experience. Dropped along with Alec Bedser after the First Test defeat at Brisbane, he did not feature again in the series. "Hutton didn't want to know me," he said later. Fellow tourist Bob Appleyard said: "He was probably a bit too keen on sunbathing and the beach for Len."
Simpson was more outspoken in an interview with journalist Huw Turbervill two years before his death: "Hutton did me on that tour. I got a hundred in the game before the Test, and he had to pick me, although he didn't want to. In the first innings I got two and then, in the second, he ran me out clean as a whistle. Did he say sorry? Did he bloody hell! He buggered up my career, but there you go. These things happen."
He was born in Sherwood Rise, four miles from Trent Bridge, and attended Nottingham High School, where he made the First XI at 13, and was an outstanding rugby player and one of the leading sprinters in the city. At 15 he was playing for Nottinghamshire Club and Ground, and he joined the special branch of the local police on leaving school. The outbreak of war delayed his entry into first-class cricket, though he provided a reminder of his potential with 134 not out for the county against the RAF in 1940.
Simpson enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserve, and flew more than 1,000 hours for Transport Command in India towards the end of the war. His posting to the subcontinent led to a first-class debut, for Sind in the Ranji Trophy, in 1944. He was 26 by the time he first appeared in the Championship for Nottinghamshire, but made up for lost time with a double-hundred against Warwickshire in one of his early matches, and 1,674 runs at 38 in 1947, his first full season.
He had a largely unsuccessful first England tour, to South Africa in 1948-49, but in the next two summers amassed over 5,000 runs and began to open the innings regularly for his county. Against New Zealand at Old Trafford in 1949, his home debut, there was a first Test hundred, his last 53 runs coming in 28 exhilarating minutes. He was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1950.
Despite the speed of his scoring, Simpson was no big hitter, and he deserved his reputation as one of the game's most elegant strokemakers. He developed his technique against fast bowling after a wartime match for Nottinghamshire Police, when he was all at sea against Bill Voce. Simpson noted that his partner Frank Shipston was nullifying Voce's threat by going on to the back foot. Thereafter "back and across" became his mantra - one he repeated down the decades whenever his opinion was sought by England teams struggling against pace. It was advice he passed on to Dennis Amiss in 1976, when Amiss was trying to reconfigure his game. On his Test return, he made a double-century against a rampant Michael Holding.
Nottinghamshire team-mate Peter Forman said: "Reg took a leg-stump guard, stood very upright and moved his right leg into middle stump." When bowlers pitched short, Simpson preferred to sway rather than duck, but he was a fine hooker. "He was an amazing player of fast bowling. I watched Frank Tyson against South Africa at Trent Bridge, and he bowled as fast as anyone I have ever seen. I mentioned this to Reg years later, and he raised an eyebrow and said, 'Really? I never had any trouble against Frank.'" One of his most extraordinary innings came against Tyson at Northampton in 1956, when he made 150 before tea on a green wicket, while his team-mates mustered only 128 between them.
Simpson's stop-start international career finally ended after the New Zealand leg of the 1954-55 tour. He played in 27 Tests, making 1,401 runs at 33 with four hundreds. "All the time I had the feeling I was fighting for my place, and it does make you overcautious," he said. Some felt he was susceptible to high-quality spin. He captained Nottinghamshire between 1951 and 1960, lean years for the county, but always tried to play positively. He could be feisty: when Glamorgan were proceeding at a snail's pace in perfect batting conditions one afternoon, he bowled an over of underarm to an enraged Wilf Wooller. Simpson worked for the Nottingham bat-maker Gunn & Moore, which allowed him to play as an amateur, but it was no sinecure; he rose to become managing director, and an admired businessman.
Simpson scaled back his appearances after giving up the captaincy, and retired in 1963 with over 30,000 runs at 38 in 495 matches, including 64 centuries, ten of them doubles. He bowled occasional off-breaks and was a superb fleet-footed fielder in the covers. He was chairman of the cricket committee at Trent Bridge from 1978 to 1990, weeping openly when Nottinghamshire were crowned champions in 1981. He spent his final years in Felixstowe, but travelled to Nottingham to watch a day of the Ashes Test in 2013, and gave what turned out to be his final interview, to Brian Scovell for the magazine of the XL Club, six weeks before he died. Sharp as ever, he spent much of it giving a detailed critique of the shortcomings of the present England team against fast bowling. He was not to know how prescient his comments would be.