“Yorkshire’s Gentleman Cricketer,” proclaims the front cover of “Norman Yardley”, a biography of the former Yorkshire and England captain by Martin Howe.
It describes the personal qualities of a man who was admired as much for his kindly nature as his cricketing acumen.
So nice, in fact, was Norman Walter Dransfield Yardley, a Sunday name that assuredly betokened great things, that he was said to have been “too nice” to have captained Yorkshire.
A gentleman at heart, Yardley was considered by some to have been ill-equipped to handle players inclined to rock the boat, and Yorkshire certainly had plenty of those in the immediate post-war period, with their side featuring such unshrinking violets as Bob Appleyard and Johnny Wardle.
Fred Trueman, who broke into the Yorkshire XI in 1949, and who was hardly a wallflower himself, wrote that Yardley “seemed to lack the authority to control and influence the senior men, and youngsters like me suffered as a result”.
The dressing room was certainly no happy ship – possibly shortening Yardley’s career, and also that of Len Hutton.
Despite having a glittering array of talented cricketers, Yorkshire played second fiddle to Surrey during the 1950s, a period of under-achievement that positively leaps from the county’s history.
Depending on your point of view, Yorkshire were either the County Championship’s perennial bridesmaids during that period because Surrey were too good (they won seven titles on the spin from 1952), or because they failed to maximise their skills due to a divided dressing room.
JM Kilburn wrote that Yorkshire’s failure to win the Championship in the early 1950s under Yardley was “essentially an inability to take the last step, to crystallise individual talent, to create harmony from the varied instruments at their disposal”, the implication being that they possessed some great players, but they were not a great team.
As captain, Yardley must shoulder a deal of the responsibility if that is so. However, the charge that he was “too nice” to lead Yorkshire is one to which Howe pays particular attention in his excellent book – the latest in the Association of Cricket Statisticians and Historians’ Lives In Cricket series.
Opinions on Yardley’s leadership, indeed, were almost as divided as the Yorkshire dressing room.
Len Hutton said that “a kinder and more considerate captain never walked on to a field”, while Bill Edrich called him “a brilliant captain, cool, steady in difficulties, encouraging”.
Trevor Bailey felt Yardley was “an outstanding tactician and expert on wicket behaviour” and “unquestionably one of the best captains I ever played with or against”.
Godfrey Evans, on the other hand, opined that Yardley was “too charming and too tactful ever to make a really good captain of a Test side”, with Yardley also leading England on 14 occasions, while Brian Close said he found it “difficult to discipline the senior players” in the Yorkshire team and that too many “got their own way”.
After weighing up the evidence, Howe concludes: “The final verdict on Yardley as captain is that he could have been firmer in his handling of some of the big egos in his teams and he might have been more successful in motivating his teams.
“But Yardley’s knowledge of the game and tactical astuteness is not in dispute and it is worth referring to words of AA Thomson: ‘The cause of defeat in war, politics or the lesser fields of sport is usually the same: the overwhelming strength at the given time of the opposition.’
“Yardley had the bad luck to have Bradman’s Australians and Surridge’s Surrey among his opponents.”
The overriding impression of Yardley, indeed, is that he was, as TV character ‘Tim Nice But Dim’ might have put it, “a bloody nice bloke”.
Wisden described Yardley as “the kindliest of men” and “gentle of demeanour”, adding that he was “one of the sadder casualties” of Yorkshire’s second ‘Boycott revolt’ in the mid-1980s, when he resigned as president in the wake of the no-confidence vote in the committee.
So hurt was Yardley by that period that his family said he vowed never to visit Headingley again. Happily, he relaxed that stance and did return before his death in 1989, aged 74, following a heart attack.
Yardley, it seems, was a splendid tactician who related well to men such as Hutton and Bailey, who were on the same intellectual wavelength, but who detested any form of confrontation and was, therefore, perhaps not a leader of men in the broadest sense.
He would have been an outstanding captain of a happy ship but struggled to mould conflicting personalities.
As a cricketer, he was a genuine all-rounder who scored more than 18,000 first-class runs at 31 as a solid middle-order batsman, and who took nearly 300 wickets at 30 as a workmanlike medium-pacer.
Yardley was not a great player, but he was good enough to play 20 Tests and to make a highest score of 99 against South Africa at Trent Bridge in 1947.
Wisden wrote: “He was on the tall side and strongly built, able to get out to the pitch of the ball and drive handsomely on both sides of the wicket.
“He was especially skilful at forcing the ball away off his legs in the arc wide of mid-on with shots demanding strength and flexibility of wrist.”
Yardley, who led Yorkshire to the Championship in 1949 (shared with Middlesex), and to four runners-up finishes, played the game as it should be played.
He hated boorish behaviour and anything that amounted to cheating, and he always walked if he edged the ball and expected his players to do the same.
Nor were his talents confined to cricket. At Cambridge, Yardley won Blues at squash, rugby fives and hockey (in addition to cricket) and was North of England squash champion six times. But cricket was his passion, and by the outbreak of World War Two he was one of the leading amateurs.
Yardley joined the Green Howards – along with Yorkshire team-mates such as Hedley Verity – and took part in the Sicily Landings. Yardley was wounded – he suffered shell splinters in his leg and a badly damaged ankle – and was posted to instructional duties until demobilisation.
After returning to first-class cricket, he played on until he was 40 before becoming a journalist/broadcaster.
In the press box as out on the pitch, it was said that his characteristic kindness was always evident.
‘Norman Yardley: Yorkshire’s Gentleman Cricketer’ by Martin Howe (published by ACS Publications, priced £14).