January 21, 2015
If you’re under the age of 35, you may not have heard of Jim Higgs, but older Roarers or cricket history buffs will know that Higgs was a very capable leg spinner for Victoria and Australia.
Personally, I started following cricket from the late 1980s, which by then, Higgs’ career was well and truly over.
So without seeing him play, I had to rely on doing some research on the web.
Higgs played for Victoria between 1970-1983. He collected 399 first-class wickets at an average of 29.66 in 122 matches. He played 22 Tests for Australia from 1978-1981, taking 66 Test wickets at a respectable average of 31.16, including two five-wicket hauls.
On ESPNcricinfo, respected cricket journalist Gideon Haigh described Higgs as “Australia’s best legspinner between Richie Benaud and Shane Warne”.
From that summation, it appeared that Higgs was superior in quality compared to Terry Jenner, Kerry O’Keefe, Bob Holland and Trevor Hohns.
Haigh also added “his misfortune was to play at a time when wrist-spin was nearly extinct, thought to be the preserve only of the eccentric and the profligate, and so to find selectors and captains with little empathy with his guiles”.
As such, it probably wasn’t the right era for a leg spinner, hence affecting Higgs’ career. Judging by his statistics, Higgs deserved more of an opportunity in the baggy green.
Higgs made his Test debut for Australia against the West Indies in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1978 at the height of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. As such, the Australian Test side didn’t have the availability of any of the greats involved in what some scribes called ‘the Packer circus’.
Higgs began his Test career with a second-rate Australian side, while the West Indies had their WSC players in their line-up and were at full strength. Predictably, the Windies won the Test by an innings and 106 runs.
However, Higgs wasn’t overawed by the occasion, taking 4/91 off 24.5 overs. In his debut Test series, he took 15 wickets at 25.
Australia versus India, third Test, Sydney 1981 – India second innings
In his overall Test career, Higgs acquitted himself very well against the West Indies, England and New Zealand. The one country that he found great difficulty was India, where he averaged 47.
Higgs played his final Test against India in 1981 at the age of just 30. He ended his first-class career only a couple of years later in 1983. He retired at an age where the best years of a spinner were still yet to come.
A few years after his retirement from cricket, Higgs became national Test selector. But something even more significent was to occur.
Shaun Graf, captain/coach of Victorian club side St Kilda, called Higgs. He was asking for his assistance with a young leg-spinner by the name of Shane Warne. Would Higgs teach him how to bowl the flipper?
In the initial stages, young Warne couldn’t control the delivery, to the point where many went over the back of the net. But later on, as we all know, Warne did master the delivery with devastating effect, in no small part thanks to Higgs.
Another ex-Test leg-spinner who helped in Warne’s development was Terry Jenner. He taught Warne the top-spinner and other variations with leg spin bowling. It would become the start of a long working relationship between Jenner and Warne.
While at the AIS cricket academy, founding head coach Jack Potter helped Warne with new modifications in the art of leg spin.
When Warne was selected for the Test side, the selection panel included Higgs and John Benaud, the younger brother of legendary leg-spinner and commentator Richie. No doubt, both had faith in Warne, especially after Warne’s difficult debut against India where he finished with match figures of 1/150.
A couple of months later, Warne finished the Sheffield Shield season as 12th man for Victoria.
But Higgs and Benaud gave Warne more opportunities to shine at Test level. Eventually, less than a year later, we started to see Warne’s first glimpses of greatness in a Test match against Sri Lanka.
Before the second innings of that Test, Warne had career figures of 1/335.
Chasing a small total of 181, Sri Lanka were cruising at one stage at 2/127. But Greg Matthews and Warne turned the match in Australia’s favour. Matthews picked up four wickets, while Warne took 3-0 in 11 balls to seal victory for Australia by 16 runs.
It would be the start of a long, successful career for Warne, which yielded over 700 Test wickets.
For many years, Jenner was the man who was credited publicly for mentoring Warne’s career, and rightly so. But other men behind the scenes contributed to the makings of the legend. Graf, Potter and Higgs all played a part and all should be recognised for their work.
Why is Jim Higgs the unsung hero to Warne’s greatness? Higgs coached Warne the flipper, which gave Warne so many Test wickets, particularly in the early part of his career.
My assumption of Higgs as a selector is he continually backed Warne’s ability as a leg spinner – something that was missing from the selectors during Higgs’ playing days. A leg-spinning selector knowing what a leg spinner is going through provides a valuable insight and knowledge on any selection panel. In the end, Higgs was justified.
Since Warne retired in 2007, a dozen or so spinners have been selected and tossed out of the Australian side. If those selectors were around during Warne’s early Tests, he may have had a completely different path in cricket history.
Terry Jenner played a huge part in Warne’s success. But in many ways, Higgs deserves to be on the same level as Jenner.