It is no mystery that today the name of Jack Iverson is virtually unknown. For most of his life he was an unexceptional estate agent in Australia. He died in obscurity, by his own hand, at the age of only 58. He was a clumsy fielder, and a hopeless batsman. But for four years he was the best spin bowler in the world.
The story of Jack Iverson is one of the most remarkable in the history of cricket. ‘Every now and then,’ wrote one journalist, ‘there comes a man who can do the right thing the wrong way round.’ Iverson took up cricket, at the advanced age of 31, as capriciously as he left it — joining a club 3rd XI in Melbourne one day, and instantly announcing himself as the most prodigious and improbable spinner of a cricket ball.
Using a unique technique he appears to have perfects with a ping-pong ball during wartime service in Papua New Guinea, he doubled back his middle finger and found he could bowl leg breaks, top spinners and googlies, every one dropped on a perfect length and impossible to pick. Within four years he was bowling the Australian Test side to victory over England in the Ashes series of 1950–51. Then, in his moment of triumph, he retired from international cricket, and was never the same bowler again.
Mystery Spinner is more than that beautifully written life of an elusive and forgotten hero who, after his brief burst of celebrity, has left strangely little trace in posterity. It is also the utterly compelling story of Gideon Haigh’s quest to solve the enduring riddle of Jack Iverson’s life — a quest which led him across Australia following tenuous clues in school registers and county records. And above all it is a moving study, for an age that presumes sporting prowess to be the ultimate definition of personal identity, of how skill is only half the battle in sport, and how it takes an extraordinary individual to cope successfully with extraordinary achievement.