The cricketer John Edrich, who has died aged 83 after suffering from leukaemia, was one of the best English top order batsmen of the 20th century. Short, stocky, bushy-eyebrowed and brave, he played 77 times for his country between 1963 and 1976, and had an especially good record against the two best sides of his era – Australia and West Indies. In 1970-71, his superb batting performances were one of the key reasons that England managed to win the Ashes in Australia for the first time since 1956, and with Geoffrey Boycott in the late 1960s and early 70s he created a formidable opening partnership that provided many good platforms in Test matches. His best score, 310 not out against New Zealand, is the fifth highest for England in Tests.
In county cricket, Edrich was a leading figure for Surrey, whom he captained in his later days and with whom, from 1958 to 1978, he accumulated most of his 39,790 career runs, one of the highest tallies in history and at an impressive average of 45.47. By the end of his career, he had also become one of the rare breed of cricketers to have scored 100 hundreds (103 in all), putting him in the company of greats such as WG Grace, Jack Hobbs and Wally Hammond.
Edrich’s greatest asset was his gritty concentration and discipline, allied to the unusual skill of being able to treat each ball as it came, no matter what had gone before. He was also tough, shrugging off countless nasty injuries inflicted by the world’s fastest bowlers, some of which might have permanently unnerved lesser characters. While he was pugnacious rather than stylish, he could exhibit an aggressive, almost carefree intent when the fancy took him, and was a ruthless dispatcher of bad deliveries, using his strong forearms to punch the ball to midwicket or through the covers. There was no better example of his capacity for extravagance than his 310 at Headingley in 1965, during which he scored more runs in boundaries – 52 fours and five sixes – than anyone has ever managed in a Test innings.
Above all, Edrich loved to make runs against Australia. Seven of his 12 Test hundreds came against them, and he scored 2,644 runs at 48.96 in 32 games, with an even better average (55.78) on Australian soil. When England regained the Ashes 2-0 in Australia under Ray Illingworth in 1970-71, Edrich was a linchpin, averaging 72 and, with Boycott, laying down a number of excellent foundations for the series victory. Boycott, right-handed, and Edrich, a left-hander, admired and respected each other, partly because they shared the same hatred of losing. “John had one of the greatest temperaments I’ve ever seen,” said Boycott. “I would rather open an innings with him than anyone.”
Edrich was born in Blofield, Norfolk, into a sugar beet farming family. Four of his older cousins on the Edrich side played county cricket – including Bill Edrich for Middlesex and England. John began at five, progressing to become captain of the Bracondale school side in Norwich and to play club cricket for South Walsham. In his late teens he appeared for Norfolk, and in 1955 he was offered a place on the Surrey staff. After a successful season in the second XI, in 1956 he was called up for national service, making his first-class debut that year for the Combined Services against Glamorgan.
When he arrived back at the Oval in 1958, he made his debut in the last game of the season, aged 21. His second match came at the beginning of the 1959 campaign, when he scored centuries in each innings against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge, and in quick order he notched up four centuries in his first seven innings. By the first week of July he had scored a further three hundreds and had been picked for the Players against the Gentlemen at Lord’s, often a precursor to England selection.
Shortly afterwards, however, he had a knuckle broken by Fred Trueman, and when he came back to fitness, Frank Tyson crashed a ball into the same joint, breaking it again and putting paid to any thoughts of an England call-up in his first proper season. Nonetheless, he had got off to a remarkable start. “It was as if I bashed the door down and marched in, still with Norfolk mud clinging to my boots,” he recalled.
Despite that breathless entry on to the county scene, Edrich had to wait another four years to play for England – partly, it seemed, because the selectors had unfounded reservations about his rather unorthodox batting technique. He made his Test debut aged 25 against the West Indies at Old Trafford in 1963, opening with his Surrey partner Micky Stewart against Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith at their hostile peak, and scoring 20 and 38. He was dropped after the next match, but made it back into the side for the last Test and was picked for the 1963-64 tour of India, where illness meant he could play in only two Tests. Out of the England side when Australia toured in 1964, he was brought in to open with Ted Dexter in the second Test at Lord’s, and hit 120 on his Ashes debut. After poor scores in later matches, however, he was back on the sidelines and missed the winter tour to South Africa.
It had been a faltering start to his Test career, coinciding with the break-up in 1964 of his short marriage to the American tennis player Pat Stewart. But the following year he met Judith Cowan, an Australian nurse, who agreed to become his second wife and convinced him that he had a future in the game. With renewed vigour, Edrich celebrated his selection for the third home Test against New Zealand in 1965 with his 310 not out – but in the following match against South Africa at Lord’s was knocked out and hospitalised by the opening bowler, Peter Pollock, keeping him away from the rest of the series. It was a typical stroke of bad luck for a man who was renowned for picking up injuries. Forever in the firing line, Edrich broke his fingers so often that he had to have a piece of leg bone grafted into his hand.
He made his comeback on England’s 1965-66 tour to Australia and New Zealand, scoring two successive Test centuries at No 3 in Australia before an appendix operation curtailed his participation in New Zealand. In 1966 he was named one of the Wisden cricketers of the year, and in 1968 he was voted best player in the drawn home Ashes series, in which he averaged 61.55 and scored 50s in five consecutive innings. He made two centuries against West Indies at home and a further pair against New Zealand in the summer of 1969, and during the 1970-71 tour of Australia played in the first ever one-day international, at Melbourne, taking the man of the match award with an 82.
Edrich remained a mainstay of the England side for the next five years, and skippered the team for one match on the 1974-75 tour of Australia. England lost that game, but he played a courageous knock in the second innings after two of his ribs were broken by the first ball he faced from Dennis Lillee. Ferried off to hospital, he eventually returned to score 33 not out. Similar bravery was required in his final Test, at the age of 39 in 1976, when he opened the innings with Brian Close against West Indies at Old Trafford – and the pair withstood a horribly intimidating barrage of fast bowling to put on 54 for the first wicket out of England’s second innings total of 152. He ended his Test career with 5,138 runs at an average of 43.54.
In county cricket Edrich had five seasons of captaincy with Surrey from 1973-77, which included a win in the 1974 Benson & Hedges Cup final. But he was too self-contained and undemonstrative to be a leader, and his years at the helm were unsettled and generally undistinguished.
In 1977, the year he was appointed MBE, Edrich scored his 100th hundred, at the Oval, and after one more season he left the game to become the marketing director of a bank in Jersey. He served for a year as an England selector in 1981, after which he moved to Cape Town. The death of his son in a car crash there in 1992 prompted a return to Britain, where he and Judith lived latterly in Ballater, Aberdeenshire.
In 2005 Edrich was close to death with a rare, incurable form of leukaemia, but after experimental injections of mistletoe he staged a remarkable recovery, allowing him to resume normal activities. In 2006-07 he was president of Surrey, where the Edrich gates at the Oval are named after him.
Judith died earlier this year, and he is survived by their daughter.
• John Hugh Edrich, cricketer, born 21 June 1937; died 23 December 2020