The year 1920 witnessed the births of two cricketers who would wear the White Rose with distinction and Paul Dyson looks at their careers. Both played for England and one would make his mark, internationally, in two sports. The photo of Willie Watson comes courtesy of Mick Pope and is of him with Len Hutton at Scarborough in 1953 – the year of his most famous innings.
Most of Yorkshire’s main wicket-keepers since the Second World War have family names beginning with the letter B (Brennan, Booth, Binks, DL Bairstow, Blakey, Brophy and JM Bairstow) and the first of these was born on February 10th, 1920 in Eccleshill, Bradford. At Downside School, where Don Brennan had one season in the 1st XI, he was a fast bowler; he first played for Eccleshill in 1938 but it was not until after the hostilities had finished that he started keeping wicket with the same club. So impressively did he take to his new role that he became Yorkshire’s wicket-keeper from the start of the 1947 season in succession to Paul Gibb who had temporarily left the first-class game after losing his place in the Test team to Godfrey Evans.
Like Gibb, Brennan was an amateur and the pair were the most significant of those of that status who kept wicket for the county. So competent was Brennan in his first season that he was awarded his county cap in early August of that first year and spent seven full seasons behind the stumps. A stylish operator, he caught the eye of the England selectors and took Evans’s place in the team for the final two Tests of the 1951 season against South Africa, making his debut at Headingley. The following winter was spent touring India, Pakistan and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on a trip from which many top players were absent. Led by Lancashire’s Nigel Howard, it was Warwickshire’s Dick Spooner who kept wicket in the five Tests (all against India) and England returned to Evans for 1952.
Unusually tall for a wicket-keeper, Brennan was especially brilliant when standing up to the wicket for the spinners and kept particularly well down the leg-side. As a batsman he had a limited range of strokes but was well-respected for his dogged qualities. However he made only one half century and that was in India. In 204 matches for Yorkshire he scored 1,653 runs at 10.66 and made a total of 380 dismissals of which the stumpings were exactly 100. Because of his amateur status he occasionally deputised for the official skipper and led Yorkshire in 12 Championship matches winning seven and losing only two.
Brennan retired after the 1953 season in order to concentrate on his business activities but retained his involvement with Yorkshire cricket. As a member of the county committee he was often an outspoken voice in the anti-Boycott camp in the troubles of the 1970s and ’80s. He died in Ilkley in January, 1985 at the age of 64.
Two months after the birth of Brennan was born Willie Watson – on March 3rd, to be precise – in the mining village of Bolton-on-Dearne, Rotherham. A family move into the Bradford area saw him attend Royds Hall Grammar School, where he captained the 1st XI, and Paddock CC. His debut for Yorkshire came as a 19-year-old in 1939 but, for obvious reasons, he had to wait until 1947 for his first full season and his county cap. This was the first of 14 seasons in which he scored at least 1,000 runs; a fluent, left-handed stroke-maker, he batted very stylishly but could adapt his game to the needs of the team.
Watson made his Test debut in 1951 and played in 23 such matches but they were spread over nine series and he batted in every position in the top six in the order. The match for which he is most remembered occurred in 1953; in what was his seventh Test Watson came to the wicket at Lord’s with the score on 12 for three. Not only did he proceed to score his maiden Test century but, in the company of Trevor Bailey, took part in a four-hour partnership which ultimately denied victory for Australia. Watson’s 109 was compiled in almost six hours and remained the most celebrated feat of his entire career. His final Test came at the end of the disastrous tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1958/59 and his career at the highest level had seen him score 879 runs, including two centuries at an average of 25.85.
Watson received a benefit in 1956 but left Yorkshire after the 1957 season. His career with the White Rose ended with him scoring 13,953 runs, including 26 centuries, in 283 matches at an average of 38.22. He then moved to Leicestershire, where he had been offered the captaincy; he led that county for four seasons and retired at the end of the 1962 seasons but returned to play for the first six weeks of 1964. With Leicestershire he had the best season of his career when he scored 2,212 runs, with seven centuries, in 1959 at 55.30. He scored over 7,700 runs in 117 matches for his new county. It had never been crowned county champion but he led them to one of its rare top-half-of-the-table positions in 1961.
As well as his heroics at Lord’s in 1953, Watson is also well-known for him being a double-international in that he represented England at soccer as well as cricket. A wing-half, he began his career with Huddersfield Town, before the War, but had nine successful years (1946-54) with Sunderland during which time he made 211 appearances and four for England. He made his debut against Northern Ireland in 1949 and was in the 1950 World Cup squad but did not play in any of the games. He returned to Yorkshire to be player-manager of Halifax Town and later managed Bradford City in the late 1960s. He returned to cricket as a coach in South Africa where he settled. He died in Johannesburg in 2004 at the age of 84.