By CONRAD SUTCLIFFE
JOHN Harris had no idea when he became a professional cricketer with Somerset in 1951 that it was the start of a career that would last more than 50 years.
Harris, who has died aged 82, was just 15 years old when he left school in the summer of 1951 and joined the staff of Somerset CCC at Taunton.
The following summer, aged just 16 years and 101 days, Harris became the youngest player to appear for Somerset in a County Championship fixture when he made his debut against Glamorgan in Swansea. No one younger has played since.
Over the next five decades – and some - Harris was a full-time professional with Somerset, a part-timer with Suffolk in Minor Counties cricket, a school cricket coach and club groundsman – and finally a First Class umpire for 20 seasons.
When Harris retired from umpiring in 2000 he took up a post with the ECB mentoring new umpires. He acted as a pitch inspector for the Devon Cricket League and returned to ground keeping for a couple of years.
Harris left school with a gloomy warning ringing in his ears, a warning that brought a wry smile to his face when he thought back to it.
Speaking in a 2016 interview with Steve Jennings, Harris said: “On my last day my head teacher, Miss Miller, told me ‘Harris – cricket won’t get you through life!’
“I wish she was still around so I could remind her of that!”
John Henry Harris was born in Taunton in February 1936, and was soon immersed in the world of cricket as his grandfather was the Somerset groundsman.
“My grandparents had brought me up so I was always at the ground when I was young,” said Harris.
“In 1946 he took me to the ground and I met Arthur Wellard and Harold Gimblett which was an eye-opener.”
The schoolboy Harris moved to London aged 12 and turned out in club cricket for Blackheath Wanderers and Crofton Park. He was talent spotted by the England selectors for the School XI and caught the eye of scouts at Kent.
“I had a trial at Kent, who told me to come back in three years and I thought what a waste of time so turned them down,” Harris later recalled.
A letter to grandfather back in Taunton led to a two-week trial with Somerset and the offer of a contract for the young spin bowler.
Wellard, an old pro who was coaching Somerset at the time, suggested to Harris he should start bowling quick and the change paid off.
When Harris made his Somerset debut against Glamorgan it was as an opening bowler with a shiny new ball in his hand.
Harris was never a regular in the Somerset during his time on the staff. He made just 15 First Class appearances between 1951-1959. A two-year sabbatical while doing National Service in the RAF may have slowed his progress, although he played plenty of cricket near his base in York before returning to Taunton.
Harris, like many poorly paid professional cricketers in the 1950s, played 2ndXI and Minor Counties cricket when he wasn’t in the first team.
Towards the end of the 1959 season, while nursing a broken elbow, Harris was playing for Somerset 2ndXI against Devon at Exeter when he received a proposition he could not ignore.
Devon batsman Norman Borrett taught at Framlingham School in East Anglia where a coaching position had become available.
“I did not want to leave Somerset, but was married with two young kids and this offered stability,” said Harris. “Notts were keen to sign me and take a risk on my elbow, but I did not go.”
A new chapter opened for Harris, that of cricket coach, groundsman and Minor Counties all-rounder with Suffolk.
“I had five years at Framlingham – and I played for Suffolk for four years – and it was definitely the right thing to do,” said Harris.
A two-year stint coaching and ground keeping in Kent followed before Harris headed to Sidmouth and a multi-faceted role as groundsman, club professional and finally captain.
Sidmouth played a lot of cricket in those days – six and seven days a week in the height of the summer – and Harris shone. His arm injury prompted a return to bowling spin and in 1972 he bagged 72 wickets and scored 2,356 runs at an average of 62.
Sidmouth fast bowler Alan Wardrop, who later became Harris’ brother-in-law, said he played cricket the right way.
“John was very competitive but always played with a smile on his face and with him the banter was never nasty” said Wardrop.
Harris started the 1973 season with Sidmouth but finished it with Seaton and remained there for the summer of 1974.
Future Somerset CCC chief executive Peter Anderson, then an officer in the Devon & Cornwall police, remembers his time playing with Harris with affection.
“John like all old pros had a fund of amazing stories,” said Anderson.
“I am sure he made half of them up, but they were great stories and no one cared how true they were.”
Exeter were looking for a groundsman-professional in 1975 and Harris was on the move again.
Jeff Stanyer, who played for Exeter at the same time, said Harris formed an effective opening partnership with Bruce Coleman for a number of seasons.
“They were very quick between the wickets and the singles they ran often demoralised opposing teams,” said Stanyer.
Julian Smith, the current Exeter chairman, was a young seam bowler trialling with Somerset 2ndXI when he played with Harris.
Although fame and fortune on the cricket field eluded Smith, unlike Somerset 2ndXI team-mates Ian Botham and Vic Marks, he was always grateful for lessons learned playing with Harris.
“John took a lot of league wickets bowling leg-spin and googlies,” said Smith.
“He was always good for me with advice from first slip, where he caught quite a few too.”
Harris played a handful of games for Devon in 1975, but with his 40thbirthday fast approaching it was time to look for a new career in the game. With Exeter’s support he started umpiring in Minor Counties games in 1979 and new chapter opened.
Harris combined umpiring with ground keeping until 1981 when the former started to overtake the later after he was put on the First Class reserve list of umpires. By 1983 Harris was a full-time man in the middle, where he remained for the next 18 years.
By the time he retired at the end of the 2000 season Harris had stood in 288 First Class games, 309 List A matches, five under-19 international games and 59 second eleven games. He never stood in a one-day Lord’s final, but was the TV umpire when Gloucestershire defeated Warwickshire in the 2000 Nat West Trophy final.
Harris eased into cricketing retirement with two years as an umpiring mentor and stints as a pitch inspector for the Devon League. He also returned to Exeter for a couple of summers as club groundsman.
After the break-up of his first marriage, Harris met wife-to-be Morag at Sidmouth Golf Club, where they were both members.
The couple were married for 30 years and for the last 25 of them ran a kennel at Sidbury near Sidmouth. It was while running an errand for the business that Harris became ill. He died on the way to hospital in Exeter.
Harris was an all-round sportsman who played football and hockey for Sidmouth teams.
John Harris is survived by his wife, four children and a brother, who will be traveling back from Australia for the funeral.