Reading with Rahul

Reading with Rahul: Mystery Spinner: The Story of Jack Iverson

I know what you’re thinking: who on earth is Jack Iverson? I too asked myself this very question as to when I saw the title”Mystery Spinner”, I assumed it would be a biography of a more renowned bowler of the fine art of mystery spin such as Muttiah Muralitharan or Saqlain Mushtaq.

Instead, on the front cover, I saw a man holding the cricket ball in the most peculiar fashion: his middle finger was bent behind the ball like one would if you were flicking something while his thumb rested at the side facilitating the middle finger to do its job. The remaining fingers were stiff as they were hence rendered redundant due to their upright nature.

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The front cover of “Mystery Spinner”

I was fascinated by the fact that a man could even land the ball onto the cut strip with that funny grip let alone bowl well enough to have Gideon Haigh, a man who many consider as Australia’s greatest ever writer, pen a biography about him.

However, what I found most captivating about Jack Iverson is that I had absolutely no idea of who he is. For most players, I at least know some very basic general knowledge about their achievements in the game but I had never ventured upon Jack Iverson. This may have put off other people from reading this book but for me, it only further enhanced the mystery.

I was captivated by the unknown nature of this book despite the fact I had not even started reading yet so without further ado, I delved into the life of the Mystery Spinner…

The book begins by briefly explaining the miraculous talent of Jack Iverson while emphasising that his style of bowling was never seen before and that this man is probably the first-ever “Mystery Spinner” of all time and some would argue, the best.

“Iverson bowled top spinners and wrong ‘uns that looked like leg breaks, leg breaks that resembled off breaks.”

As Haigh puts it in the book.

However, within a few years, as the book states, Jack Iverson was seemingly forgotten in cricketing circles with only a few photographs to spare of his phenomenal grip of the cricket ball.

It was these photographs that sparked a life long intrigue cum obsession with the “Freak” (the nickname given to Iverson due to his freakish ability) for Gideon Haigh which culminated in him writing a biography about Iverson.

Haigh documents the painstaking effort he took to investigating information about him which emphasises the fact that Iverson has barely left any footprints after his demise. Haigh only had memories and statistics to aid him on his quest but despite this setback, this book prevails in unravelling the enigma that is Jack Iverson.

When Jack was young, he did not possess extraordinary talent at anything he did as he was, with all due respect, an ordinary child. Despite his commonplace ability, Jack had an early age obsession with the spinning sphere as he reportedly always seemed to have a spare table tennis ball handy to play with.

This infatuation with spin would prove to serve him well in his later life cricketing adventures.

As the book states, mostly everything about Jack’s life so far was reasonably rosy as nothing out of the ordinary and he was set to learn the trade of real estate agency and eventually take over the real estate empire from his father but that was before the war, the war that would turn his life upside down…

I will not go into much detail about the war itself however, as Gideon Haigh unveils, this is when Jack Iverson discovered his groundbreaking talent that would put a dent in the universe.

For a pass time, Iverson and his wartime colleagues used to play a game with a table tennis ball which demanded an ability to spin the ball with unerring accuracy, something that would be synonymous with Iverson in his playing career.

While experimenting with various techniques, Jack Iverson devised the grip that would soon terrorise batsman in his later years but in the present moment, it provided him with a way to spin the table tennis ball to unfathomable amounts.

This grip proved to be highly successful while playing his little game in the tent but Jack decided to take his new invention to the next level: the cricket field.

Perhaps as a result of his lack of cricketing experience in his childhood, Jack’s “special” fluctuated in wicket-taking ability as most of the time the batsmen slogged him out of the park.

However, as the book highlights, this did not derail Jack Iverson as he understood right from the outset that what he could do with a cricket ball should not go wasted. The war ended and this provided an opportunity to showcase his ability to the rest of the country and later the world.

So, on that fateful day, Jack Iverson rocked up to his local club Brighton for his first-ever 3rd XI training session and the rest, as they say, is history…

Iverson, a man who only started playing cricket at the uncommonly old age of 31, sped through the various tiers of Australian cricket at a breathtakingly rapid pace. Every time he stepped up a level in standard, he seemed to enhance his bowling capabilities in relation to the ability of the batsman he bowled at. Batsman all around the country simply had no answer to his natural brilliance as the media hyped him up as the next flag bearer of Australian slow bowling.

However, what made Iverson’s bowling so hard to face?

As the biography describes,he was a man of 6 foot 2, unusually tall for a spinner, which, aided by his uniquely quick pace of delivery for a spin bowler, gave him steep bounce which is invaluable for any type of bowler.

He was also incredibly unforgiving in his line and length as he appeared to land the ball on the same spot time and time again. Batsmen across the country could not cope with this relentlessness as wickets tumbled in Iverson’s favour.

This unparalleled accuracy ,coupled with an arsenal of variations and tricks that were never seen before by mankind, could not be stopped as eventually Jack Iverson found himself on the Ashes tour of 1950, only 4 years after the day he had decided to pick up a cricket ball.

The english media had sceptisms due to his lack of playing experience but soon they were proven completely wrong as Iverson ripped through the english batting line up at an more than impressive average of 15.73. The English, no matter how hard they tried, could not decipher his bowling and only a slight ankle niggle could deter Iverson on his ruthless wicket taking streak.

Jack Iverson had finally proved any remaining doubters wrong as he was the undisputed best spin bowler in the world and he was on the top of the world.

But whatever goes up, must go down.

Batsmen had devised an efficient way of handling Iverson as they realised that his metronomic accuracy, which was so vital for his success, was also his achilles heel. They realised that when you used your feet to run down the wicket, Iverson did not have the tactical nous, due to his lack of experience, to alter his line and length so batsmen could get to the other end with comparative ease.

This newfound confidence from the batsmen befuddled him because he had never experienced this before. It may seem like an easy fix from the outside but Iverson could not handle it when he did not get 5 wickets in a match and, again, this is due to his lack of experience in the game that provides ups and downs like no other.

He reportedly threatened to retire multiple times throughout his career when he did not live up to his unsurmountable standards, and that, with a combination of fitness issues and business commitments, was the cause of his decline.

Many believed that Iverson was never the same since that Ashes series as he never was able to assert that total dominance ever again post Ashes and hence resulted in his inevitable retirement…

As the biography narrates with the benefit of hindsight, Iverson moved on from cricket just before the Australians toured England and many swore that if Iverson played he may have obliterated England due to the crumbly soft pitches we have here. This fantasy prediction leads me to wonder of what might have been for the legacy of Jack Iverson…

The rest of the book briefly documents the rest of his life post his playing career and the book concludes with a summary of Iverson’s legacy.

The main takeaway of this book, is that it highlights that Jack Iverson is the biggest phenomenon in the history of cricket. Before you ridicule me for my stupidity, let me explain:

By reading this book, I realised that being a phenomenon is nowhere near the same as being a great as the essence of a phenomenon is being an anomaly to the norm and Jack Iverson embodies that fully.

Jack is revealed in this book to be the first ever mystery spinner, he started the game at the ancient age of 31 and he even invented his own bowling technique.

However, the most extraordinary thing about him is that he was ordinary.

Jack Iverson was the son of a self made immigrant and was destined to take over the reigns, like every other Australian, he worked as a jackaroo to gain experience ,like every other Australian, he fought in the war, like, you guessed it, every other Australian.

He was the typical Australian and that is what made his legacy so much more greater.

In addition, he had zero cricketing pedigree in his family but despite his lack of cricketing genes, his entire body was refined to bowling mystery spin: his build, his abnormally large fingers and his supple wrists to mention a few.

If there was anything he did not have, it was the tactical nous that is demanded of you to be among the greatest and if he had that, the history books would have to be rewritten.

However, if he had that ever so elusive experience, it would have detracted from the phenomenal factor of Iverson as the most special thing about him is that he came from absolutely nowhere.

In summary, this book is practically Jack Iverson’s entire life written on paper as Haigh does not miss even the most marginal of details of his incredible life. I recommend this book to those who want to immerse themselves in the life of one of the greats biggest phenomenons in the history of sport.

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