His career was brief indeed, a matter of only 133 matches for the county in the eight seasons beginning in 1950, but such was his talent that Bill Bowes, a Yorkshire and England bowler later to become a respected journalist with a superb eye for a talented youngster, named Appleyard alongside S F Barnes and Bill O’Reilly as the best bowlers he saw.
One of the remarkable things about Bob Appleyard – and there are many – was that his career as a professional cricketer started so late, due in no small part to the six years when county cricket was lost to the Second World War. Like many of his generation, Appleyard could claim the war had cost him precious years but the outbreak of hostilities also left mental scars which he was never able to obliterate.
An ardent cricket follower from childhood, Appleyard delighted in recalling days before the war when he would run from Priestman School after lessons had ended for the day, down to Bradford Park Avenue to watch his heroes – Leonard Hutton, Hedley Verity, Maurice Leyland and Bowes himself – on their regal progress to another County Championship.
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He was a good enough bowler to have attracted Yorkshire’s attention when, playing for Bradford Boys against Sheffield Boys in the 1938 County Under-15 Cup final at Undercliffe, he took five wickets for five runs. He was already a junior member of Bradford Cricket Club and was called to Yorkshire’s nets at Headingley that winter.
The following September as a 15-year-old who had developed his cricket and played for Bradford’s Second XI he was sent to stay with his grandmother the day after war with Germany was declared. He returned to his home off Halifax Road in Bradford to find his father, step-mother and two sisters had been gassed; his father, who had been badly affected by the First World War, feared for his young family in another conflict.
Young Appleyard went to live with his step-mother’s parents in Manningham and began work as an engineering apprentice. Cricket was still a major part of his life and he played for the first two summers of the war for Manningham Mills in the Bradford Central League before moving on to Bowling Old Lane in the Bradford League itself, perhaps the strong league in the country at that time. He was watching and listening all the time then working hard in the nets to put into practice what he had learned.
After several unsuccessful attempts to join the Army and the Royal Air Force he was finally accepted, just as the war ended, by the Royal Navy and spent the next two years overseas, still playing cricket at every opportunity.
He returned to Bradford, after a brief period in Scarborough, to take up a position as a salesman for a lift manufacturer and relished the fact that he could once again play for Bowling Old Lane, by now highly enough regarded to be a professional.
Yorkshire, it appeared, had forgotten Appleyard and had introduced a stream of young bowlers to their dressing room but none of them had Appleyard’s unique attributes: he could open the bowling with seam and could also bowl off-spin, the latter an art he had picked up at Park Avenue from Bradford’s professional Stanley Douglas.
By impressing Bowes at Yorkshire’s nets – “I can’t teach this lad anything” was Bowes’s famous remark – Appleyard earned a few games for Yorkshire’s Second XI and finally made his debut, at the age of 26, largely, it was held at the time, because Brian Close was away on National Service and Alec Coxon had decided to concentrate on playing league cricket.
Appleyard had worked hard on his off-spin but his index finger, the digit which traditionally imparts the spin on the ball, easily became raw so he experimented by spinning the ball off his middle finger. The hard work hammering steel sheets as an apprentice engineer had made his already large hands much stronger than the average and he found he was able to spin the ball appreciably with no apparent change in his action.
The following year, 1951, was his annus mirabilis. Making the most of the fact that he was unknown at a time when every county had at least one star batsman and that his 16-stride approach hardly carried any apparent threat, he claimed exactly 200 wickets, reaching the magic mark at the Scarborough Festival in the last game of the season, Fred Trueman holding the decisive catch at mid-on. He remains the only man to have taken 200 wickets in his first season. His wickets had come at the remarkable average of 14.14 each but had demanded the bowling of 1,313 overs, something which would be regarded as an unbelievable physical feat these days.
On leaving the Navy he had undergone an X-ray which had revealed a spot on one of his lungs. After tests the doctors decided that whatever had caused the problem had by now calcified and posed no threat.
But in May 1952, perhaps still feeling the after-effects of the massive effort he had put into reaching his 200 wickets, Appleyard was diagnosed first with pleurisy then with tuberculosis. He underwent surgery at Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield under the renowned specialist Geoffrey Wooler and was not to play first-class cricket again for two years.
His treatment included a period in a sanatorium in Switzerland, paid for by Yorkshire, but when he returned to action, minus half a lung, it appeared the talent was undiluted, even if the stamina was questionable, something Appleyard sought to address by spending countless winter hours at the indoor net at Manningham Mills.
He had his reward with 127 wickets for Yorkshire and seven more on his Test debut against Pakistan, his second delivery removing the great Hanif Mohammad. He was picked for Hutton’s party to tour Australia in defence of the Ashes which had been won in Coronation year – when Appleyard was still confined to bed – and said himself that the best spell of his career came in the fourth Test at Adelaide in January 1954.
With Australia starting their second innings only 18 runs behind, England needed quick wickets but Frank Tyson and Brian Statham were unable to make the breakthrough and Hutton brought on Appleyard, who quickly rewarded him with the wicket of opener Arthur Morris, caught and bowled.
In the evening session Appleyard bowled Jimmy Burke and Neil Harvey – his three wickets coming at a cost of just six runs - and the match had tilted England’s way. Tyson and Statham polished off the remaining wickets the following morning and England required only 94 to win. They slumped to 49-4 but eventually won by five wickets thanks to an unbeaten 35 from Denis Compton and the Ashes were retained.
The following summer Appleyard suffered with a shoulder injury from June and played only three more games for Yorkshire but still ended the season with 73 victims. That was virtually the end of a fleetingly great career, injuries forcing him to play ever fewer games until he decided to retire in 1958. In those 133 matches for Yorkshire he had taken 642 wickets at an average of 15.42. He played his final Test against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1956, taking the last two wickets of an international career which brought him a total of 31 at an average of 17.87 in nine appearances.
It was time to concentrate on business and his family, wife Connie, daughters Rosemarie and Liz and son Ian, who, shatteringly, was to die from leukaemia in 1960. He started work with Waddington’s selling milk cartons in the fledgling vending machine industry, eventually becoming sales manager of their plant at Gateshead, making labels for beer bottles. From Waddington’s Appleyard eventually moved to the British Printing Corporation, owned by Robert Maxwell.
His second career ended with a battle of will over Appleyard’s pension fund with the formidable Maxwell which Appleyard won by refusing to be bullied by the man who employed him. On the brink of High Court action Maxwell stepped back. “I know that Appleyard,” he had told one of his people. “He’s a bloody-minded Yorkshireman. He’ll take me all the way.” He was not wrong.
Appleyard’s love of cricket and Bradford remained and 20 years after his retirement as a Yorkshire player he returned to the county committee where he was an implacable opponent of the Geoffrey Boycott supporters. He worked tirelessly for the creation of the Academy and to keep first-class cricket at the ground he had loved as a boy.
He was also a leading figure in the creation of the Yorkshire County Cricket Club Charitable Youth Trust and was honoured for his enormous contribution to the game in the region when he was elected as Yorkshire’s President at the annual meeting in 2006.
Appleyard lost his beloved Connie in 2008 but found renewed happiness with Julie Dunlop, to whom he was engaged. It was all part of his self-proclaimed 10-year plan as he entered his 90s, further evidence of his unbreakable spirit.
The Yorkshire Post’s Jim Kilburn joined his contemporary Bowes in placing Appleyard in cricket’s pantheon of greats when he wrote: “Misfortune deprived him of a long career, but the history books will always carry and Yorkshire will always remember with gratitude the story of that great season in which he came and conquered.”