John Wright: An Appreciation

Wednesday 8th April 2020
& News

Following the announcement that John Wright has been named the new Club President, Heritage Officer David Griffin looks back at the career of one of Derbyshire’s finest cricketers.

When John Geoffrey Wright arrived from New Zealand to be one of Derbyshire’s overseas players in 1977, he was just 22 years old and had played a mere 12 first class matches. He had appeared in the Derbyshire Second XI in 1976 scoring a magnificent 159 not out against Nottinghamshire Second XI at Heanor, and 73 against Northamptonshire Second XI on the same ground and impressed sufficiently for Derbyshire captain, Eddie Barlow, to secure his services as the second overseas player in 1977.

A tall left-handed opening batsman, Wright scored 1,080 first-class runs in 1977 at an average of 32.72 with just one hundred; a season, which on reflection, offered only occasional glimpses of the player he was to become.

In 1978 he only appeared in four first class games before joining the touring New Zealanders. However, before he left, he made a superb 164 against Pakistan – who were sharing touring duties – at Chesterfield. Together with Peter Kirsten (58) he added 112 for the second wicket, their first century partnership for Derbyshire, and an early indication of what was to come from this outstanding duo.

He returned for a full season in 1979, again passing a thousand runs in first class matches and adding a further 513 runs in one-day games, whilst also demonstrating an appetite for scoring hundreds.

His scored his maiden List A century against Glamorgan at Cardiff and made five in the County Championship with a best of 142 not out against Somerset at Taunton. With Kirsten also developing at number three in the order, Derbyshire supporters were about to witness some of the greatest batting feats in the county’s history over the next three summers.

In 1980, 1981 and 1982 Wright scored – across both formats of the game – 2,148, 2,195 and 2,557 runs, respectively. That 1982 tally has only been bettered four times, and one of those instances was by Peter Kirsten who scored 2,751 runs in the same season.

One of his finest innings – many who saw it, including this writer, consider it to be at or near the pinnacle of Derbyshire batting – was his 96 at Queen’s Park, Chesterfield in May 1980 when the mighty West Indians were the opponents. The West Indians attack included those outstanding fast bowlers Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner.

The pitch had not been prepared to Derbyshire’s satisfaction – they wanted flat and dry, it was green and watered – and no other Derbyshire player scored more than 31. Wood was struck on the helmet, drawing blood from his inner ear, Steele was hit on the body twice, and then again on the shoulder and in the box, while Wright took blows to the arm, head and shoulder. Captain Geoff Miller considered the physical danger was so great to his players from the fearsome West Indian quick bowlers that he seriously considered declaring at lunch. Wright stood firm, however, hitting 13 fours and batting with a fierce determination.

When he was out for 96, he trudged from the field to a standing ovation from the crowd and the opposition. All present knew they had witnessed a great innings.

On the final day of the game, Wright took a wicket with the first ball he ever bowled for Derbyshire – dismissing Faoud Bacchus – becoming the first Derbyshire bowler to achieve the feat for 22 years. He remains just the fifth bowler to take a wicket with his first ball in first-class cricket.

His most famous day in Derbyshire colours was undoubtedly the Nat West Trophy Final win at Lord’s in September 1981, when his century partnership with Kirsten helped Derbyshire to a memorable victory. It was a memorable day, coming 45 years after the county’s only previous trophy, and Wright’s 76 was Derbyshire’s top-score.

In all, Wright was involved in 63 century partnerships, 51 in first-class matches and 12 in List A matches. Only Kim Barnett, Peter Bowler, Wayne Madsen and Denis Smith have contributed to more.

In 1982, Wright scored seven first class centuries, a record only bettered by Kirsten (8) in the same season. Indeed, there was a time when it seemed as if the only players batting for Derbyshire were this pair of contrasting players. Their effectiveness can be measured by the fact that over four seasons (1979-1982) the pair scored 42 of the 60 centuries recorded by Derbyshire batsmen.

Michael Holding replaced Kirsten in 1983, and until Wright ended his career at Derbyshire in 1988, they were forced to share overseas duties. Nonetheless, Wright continued to deliver – when selected – and was awarded a Benefit Year in 1987, ten years after receiving his county cap, and remains the longest-serving overseas player in Derbyshire’s history.

He often described himself as a moderate player, but he had genuine class and 82 Test Matches for New Zealand with 5,334 runs at an average of 37.82 with 12 hundreds and 23 fifties are testament to his ability and durability at the top of the order.

His record for Derbyshire is outstanding – he left the county 32 years ago and yet is still the tenth-highest run-scorer in all forms of the game with 14,969, and his 27 first class hundreds have only been bettered by four players.

His 27 first class hundreds – and another four in one-day cricket – were always good to watch, with highlights including a fine 144 against the Australians at Derby in 1981, a career-best 190 against Yorkshire at Derby in 1982 and a quite magnificent 185 not out against Northamptonshire at Derby in the same year, when Derbyshire chased 350 to win on the final day for the loss of just three wickets. Northants had declined to ask Derbyshire to follow on after the hosts were dismissed 167 runs behind on first innings, but Wright’s knock, which included 33 fours, was truly majestic.

Had he not been forced to share overseas duties with Holding, there’s little doubt that he would have scored many, many more runs and centuries.

Watching Wright at his best was a pleasure; as he eased into form, his straight driving would increase in power, and when bowlers dropped short to counter, he was equally strong on either side of the wicket.

He was one of the nicest men ever to play for Derbyshire and his returns over the years have always been welcomed by the many people who remember his magnificent batting.

He was awarded an OBE in the 1988 Queen’s Birthday honours for services to cricket and re-joined Derbyshire in a coaching capacity in 2017 to oversee the T20 competition.

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