'Hard fighter, charming loser': Johnny Douglas, England's dogged polymath

Simon Burnton
·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

A century ago England were in Australia, approaching the end of the third Test and on their way to the first 5-0 series whitewashing of their history. It was a grim time for the team, weakened as they inevitably had been by the ravages of the first world war, and they would not win a Test between their last pre-war visit to South Africa in 1914 and their first post-war trip there in 1923.

“It is obvious that cricket, like other games, has gone back a little as a result of the long period during which the war demanded the attention of so many men,” said their captain, Johnny Douglas, before they set off in 1920, though he still thought “that our prospects all around are very good indeed”.

But Douglas was not a man willing to entertain the thought of failure. This was a player who on his debut for Essex was twice bowled for a duck by George Hirst and came back to score 23,830 runs, every one of them eked out at a famously pedestrian pace, and take 1,851 wickets for the county, doing the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in a season five times, to become, in the words of Neville Cardus, “at his best the finest swerve bowler the game has ever known”, to captain his county for the best part of two decades and his country for a dozen years, to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel during the first world war, and in his spare time, as you do, to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing.

Douglas was a second-generation sporting polymath, also a fine golfer and footballer, who followed his father into the ring as both a fighter and eventually a referee. He was renowned for possessing a will of iron and a physique hewn from something similar, and had already been playing for Essex for four years when he turned up at the 1905 British Amateur Boxing Championships and the Guardian enthused that “undoubtedly the best boxer who competed was Douglas. He met Mann in the final, and there was never much doubt as to the result. In all his bouts he showed great skill, and thoroughly deserved his success.”

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Just a few months later he produced his breakthrough cricket performance, which like his ignominious debut came against Yorkshire at Leyton. Essex scored 521 in their first innings before Douglas ripped through their opponents, taking five wickets in eight balls either side of lunch without conceding a run. “He not only made the ball whizz off the ground like a shot from a gun, but made it swing back on the batsmen in bewildering fashion,” reported The Sportsman. Among his victims was Hirst, his tormentor in 1901, bowled for a duck.

He focused on cricket, but never stopped fighting. He sparred with the 14-time British heavyweight champion Bombardier Billy Wells, and “fairly astonished” the Canadian world heavyweight champion Tommy Burns in a similar session, in which “he gave as good as he got”. At the London Olympics of 1908 he made it to the middleweight final, where he came up against Snowy Baker, an Australian whose all-round sporting excellence must have made even Douglas envious – he remains the only Australian to compete in the Olympics in three disciplines, and he did it all at the same Games. The Sportsman wrote that Baker “had proved himself a model of style, a splendid judge of distance, a master of ringcraft”, but it was Douglas who prevailed on points. “Many in the hall thought the verdict should have gone the other way, but in our opinion Douglas quite deserved the decision,” it concluded. Some upset was perhaps inevitable given that the president of the Amateur Boxing Association at the time, and thus overseeing the competition, was none other than JH Douglas, the victor’s dad. “It was a close go, but hardly so close as some people wanted to make out, and I for one am convinced he fully deserved the decision,” Baker said upon returning to Australia in December. “It was the hardest contest of my life.”

Douglas was a man for the hard contest. “There is no doubt that he was second to none as a fighter,” said Herbert Sutcliffe. “When I went to Australia for the first time and was going out to bat in the first innings of one of the Tests, Douglas said: ‘Just set your teeth and fight like hell.’ That was typical of the man.” He was, in the words of Wilfred Rhodes, “a man who always said just what he thought and just what he wanted to say and got it over”. “Johnny literally never knew when he was beaten,” said his England teammate, Lionel Tennyson. “He was a great Englishman, loyal in every inch of his tough frame, and unquenchable in spirit.”

In 1911 Douglas was named the captain of Essex, and in Australia that winter assumed the England captaincy when Pelham Warner fell ill, leading the team to four wins in five Tests. But the match that was to define him came against Victoria in Melbourne before the Test series even began, when he scored a three-hour 33. “His stonewalling produced a running fire of caustic comment from the crowd,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald. “Such tardiness was painful to watch. His initials, be it noted, are JWHTD, and a wit in the members’ stand interpreted the initials thus: ‘Johnny won’t hit today.’” He had become known in England as “Alphabet” Douglas, and by the end of the tour some were suggesting that Johnny Went Home Triumphant would be a better fit, but the first version stuck and became his signature, a running joke about a man not running and one that he happily played along with. “He has often caused much amusement to players and spectators,” a county teammate said, “by hitting a ball two or three yards and then shouting to his teammate at the other end, ‘Stay where you are!’”

Douglas rode a wave of sporting success that finally faded in 1928, when in boxing he made a series of refereeing decisions so controversial that venues had to put up signs asking patrons not to abuse him, and at the end of the year the Essex captaincy was controversially transferred to HM Morris. Douglas was invited to play on and become a selector, but sniffed that this “would be a rather difficult thing to do after being kicked out as I have been. The action of the committee shows that they do not want me.” An unnamed teammate told a local paper that “Douglas has carried Essex on his back for years”, recalling a wonderful appreciation of the player written by Cardus in 1923 [subscribers to the Spin email can read an excerpt from this article below] which noted that he was “a great cricketer calmly passing out his declining years at the game in the ranks of a side untroubled by ambition”. Suddenly, unexpectedly, his cricket career was over.

He followed his father once again, this time into the timber business. At the end of 1930 the pair went on a business trip to Finland, heading home that December on board to Oberon as she sailed from Helsinki to Hull. The ship’s normal captain was on Christmas leave, and in his place was Erik Hjelt, another man who had gone into the family business: his brother, Osse Hjelt, was the captain of the Oberon’s sister ship, the Arcturus. The two brothers had arranged to exchange festive greetings when they passed each other near the Danish island of Laeso on the evening of 19 December. When the two boats neared the first-class passengers had just finished dinner, and repaired to the smoking room. “They were a happy crowd in the smoking room,” said Ernest Martin of Beckenham, “the Douglases being the life and soul of the party.” A thick blanket of fog sat across the Sound that night, and by the time the crews of the two boats saw each other it was too late: the Arcturus tore a hole in the Oberon so large that she took barely three minutes to sink. JH Douglas felt that first contact and immediately disappeared to retrieve something from his cabin. Johnny went after him. Neither was seen again.

“He was a hard fighter on the field, and a most charming loser off it,” Cardus wrote after his death. “He had a pawky humour and the loveliest twinkle in his eye. Everybody loved him – even the umpires. For who could withhold affection from the man who defined optimism as ‘backing up for a run when Johnny Douglas is batting’?”