BY John Ward
Many old-timers, including his captain the late David Lewis, will aver that Don Arnott, who died in Harare on April 11 2019 at the age of 83, was arguably the finest wicket-keeper ever produced by the country.
In his brief career for Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, he played in only 28 first-class matches between 1954/55 and 1961/62, but came very close to playing Test cricket for South Africa.
Don attended Plumtree School, where his excellent wicket-keeping won him a place in the strong school team when he was still an Under-15 player. In his final two years at school he was selected for the Rhodesian Schools team that played in the South African Nuffield Week, in 1954 and 1955, and in the second year he was chosen for the South African Schools team that played against the Western Province Currie Cup team in Cape Town.
He had scarcely left school when he was drafted into the national team on its tour to South Africa, after the last-minute withdrawal of Cecil Harris. Unfortunately, he missed the first match against Border after being hit while standing up to the bowling of Joe Partridge in the nets, an accident that also cost him a tooth.
He made his début against Griqualand West in Kimberley, a quiet match for him, but he did well enough to be an automatic selection for the national team after that when available.
He quickly won the admiration of South African experts too, so much so that when, in the 1956/57 Test series against England, the regular South African wicketkeeper Johnny Waite was doubtful for the third Test match, Don was called up as a stand-by in case he did not recover in time — which he, however, did. As Waite was the much better batsman, Don was unable to challenge for his place when fit.
He was credited with having a perfect wicket-keeping technique and, despite his experience in the nets with Partridge, he often stood up to his fast-medium bowling and effected some remarkable leg-side stumpings off his inswingers.
Don was a capable batsman in club cricket, where he played for the then Salisbury (now Harare) Sports Club, but was never able to score heavily in first-class matches. He had an excellent temperament and a sound defence, hard to dismiss and he never flinched from the fastest bowling, so he became the team’s regular night-watchman. It was in this role that he scored his only first-class fifty, an innings of 58 against the touring New Zealand team in 1961/62, his final season. But often he was able to stand in the gap when a collapse threatened and hold up the opposing bowlers with a solid innings that was worth far more than the runs it actually produced.
Unfortunately, his career came to a premature end. In the days when all national cricketers were amateurs, he began his working life in insurance, but in the late 50s decided to go into tobacco farming near Raffingora, in Mashonaland West, far from Harare. He found it increasingly difficult to play for his country, although he continued to play cricket in the country districts for many years. He also played hockey for the Districts.
Don was quoted in the Herald newspaper in 1967 as saying: “I never really retired from first-class cricket. I just faded out of the picture when I went farming.”
There was some talk at that time of his making a serious comeback, but it never materialised – the paper said that he was “still rated by some as the best wicketkeeper in South Africa for sheer technical brilliance”. Fortunately, for the country, he had an outstanding replacement in the late Tony de Caila.
In 1964 he was a member of the Mashonaland Country Districts team to tour England, playing mainly against strong club teams and county second elevens. His wicket-keeping was a major feature of the tour.
When he retired from farming and returned to live in Zimbabwe, he took up umpiring, with as much success as he had keeping wicket — and similar brevity. For several years he umpired in Zimbabwe’s first-class matches during the 1980s against touring teams, mainly A teams, from Test-playing countries and was very highly rated. Unfortunately, before Zimbabwe gained Test status, he felt his eyesight was declining and he retired.
Don went into cricket administration, managing several Zimbabwe touring teams; and in 1994 he was appointed the first chief executive officer of the then Zimbabwe Cricket Union after it gained Test status and needed to develop its administration. This was probably his most difficult job in cricket, as in the days before big television coverage, lack of finance was a serious problem. He ran a tight ship and kept the organisation solvent, but making progress was a great struggle for him, causing him much stress. He was no doubt, relieved in 1998 to hand over the job to Dave Ellman-Brown on the latter’s retirement from Coopers and Lybrand.
He was not altogether finished with the game, as he was sometimes appointed match referee, including during the Under-19 World Cup matches of 2001/02. He was elected a life vice-president and was for some years a Zimbabwe Cricket board member until his resignation in 2004.
As a man he was tall for a wicketkeeper, well built and described as being generally of a retiring and unassuming nature, a man of impeccable character.
His son, Kevin, also played cricket for Zimbabwe, opening their batting in their first four Test matches with an average of 43 and a Test century against New Zealand. He too retired prematurely, due to his legal practice and frequent hand injuries.