Briggs was a notably short man at about five feet five or 165 centimetres. Briggs's skill lay in his ability to vary the flight and pace of the ball as well as in achieving prodigious spin on the primitive pitches of the nineteenth century. As a batsman, Briggs was capable of hitting very effectively, but as time went by an eagerness to punish every ball set in and led to a decline.
Briggs was born in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, the son of a professional club cricketer and he first played as a sub pro at the age of 13 (at Hornsea in Yorkshire). His father James played cricket and rugby for various teams and took his wife and five children around the north of England until he settled down as a pub landlord near Widnes. The 1881 census suggests James kept the Cross Keys at Appleton village.
Rugby was an amateur game at this time. James and later Johnny played rugby for Widnes but supported themselves through professional cricket. James became cricket professional at Widnes in 1877.
Johnny remained with Hornsea until the end of the 1877 season, when he was not retained, and migrated to Lancashire. His next professional appointment was at the Northern Cricket Club in 1878. He was retained by Northern for the 1879 season, during which he was called up by Lancashire to make his county debut against Nottinghamshire in late May.
Briggs played five times for Lancashire in 1879, and established himself as a regular player by 1882 despite hardly bowling at all and doing little of significance with the bat. He was however a famous fielder at cover. In 1883 and 1884 his batting improved so much that he was chosen to tour Australia with Alfred Shaw’s team and played in all the Test matches, scoring an impressive 121 in Melbourne.
In 1885, Briggs developed amazingly as a bowler: having scarcely bowled at all in previous seasons, he took 67 wickets for 13.74 each, and in 1886, his bowling helped England achieve a 3–0 cleansweep of the series, their last whitewash victory in a series of three or more Tests in the Ashes until 1977. His batting did not suffer: Briggs hit a career-best 186 against Surrey at Liverpool – adding a then-record 173 for the tenth wicket with Dick Pilling. In the exceptionally dry summer of 1887, Briggs took 100 wickets in a season for the first time, whilst in the appalling summer of 1888 he was consistently deadly on the treacherous pitches. His 160 wickets cost only 10.49 each, and the following year he was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year. He was ruthless on the matting in South Africa’s first two Test matches in 1888/9 (only canonised as such much later), taking 15 for 28 in the second Test, of which fourteen were clean bowled.
For Lancashire and England, Briggs shouldered an incredible burden. For Lancashire, as a professional or “player” in a team largely made up of “gentleman” amateurs he was expected to open the bowling and sometimes to bowl all day in tandem with the other professionals; Barlow, Crossland, Mold. He toured Australia five times and went to South Africa, experiencing very high temperatures. Professional cricketers were expected to play through injuries, if they didn’t play, they would not be paid. His health suffered even before his infamous injury and last illness.