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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 33 — The Game's Greatest Players

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Chapter 33
The Game's Greatest Players

Each cricketing country has its own noted players who make reputations in their own land, but it is England and Australia who provide the great and very great players whose names and reputations become known in every country. The very great are a few super players who stand out above all others and by whose feats the standard of play of the different periods is usually judged.

In my schooldays, it was Grace, Spofforth and Blackham whose names were handed down to me as being the greatest in their respective departments. Shaw, Shrewsbury and Murdoch came next. Looking back to the days before the 'nineties, it is hard to find fault with those first impressions of youth.

As far back as the 'seventies, W. G. Grace had outstripped all other batsmen, and for twenty years remained the acknowledged champion. The brilliance of Ranjitsinhji, beginning in 1896, made conservative Englishmen, loath to allow their old idol to be displaced, agree that the Indian prince had won the right to rank equal with the great “W.G.” A few years later A. C. MacLaren became a contender, for at the turn of the century his batting was magnificent. One can still find old Australians who would say that if the match against Mars was to be played on the Sydney Cricket Ground, MacLaren would be among the first selected for the world's team. We did not have long to await the arrival of another star, for in 1902 Trumper was to thrill the crowds at Lord's, the Oval, and every county ground in England. It was as though he had caught up on “Ranji,” rather than “W.G.,” for his brilliance and graceful style matched that of the Indian prince. And so, for a considerable period, Grace, Ranjitsinhji, and Trumper were, by common consent, bracketed as the greatest batsmen the game had known. But more challengers appeared; Hobbs made a persistent and close bid to reach the top of the ladder; Macartney was both brilliant and great in his attempt to equal Trumper; Hammond's 227 at Christchurch, and 336 not out page 444 at Auckland enabled New Zealanders to see for themselves that he had claims to be classed among the very great players; but it was not until the arrival of Donald Bradman that Australians and Englishmen alike acclaimed in him another “first equal” who had won the right to rank with Grace.

And so one could go on, grading and re-grading the great batsmen of the game, but the moment comparison is made between those who came after the famous first four—Grace, Ranjitsinhji, Trumper and Bradman—the subject becomes more controversial, and better left to the critics. As in the case of these super players, so one hesitates to separate MacLaren, Hobbs, Macartney and Hammond, though modern opinion would probably place Hobbs first. The fact that none of the great left-handers are included in the first eight will show what openings there are for argument, but Clem Hill would come next, though I hesitate whether to place him above or equal with Johnnie Tyldesley. Hayward was a fine batsman and comes into the class of this third group, but was too stolid to win a higher place; he never attempted to take hold of the bowling as did the topmost players. From what I saw of Murdoch's batting in 1903, this Australian champion of the 'eighties ranks high on any list, while the determined Armstrong must always be classed among the best batsmen of the game, although, like Giffen, his place is among the all-rounders.

Reference to two more great players of the past will end this analysis of famous batsmen. The Hon. F. S. Jackson played for England when still at Cambridge and for more than ten years was an outstanding figure in English and International cricket. His success against the Australians was remarkable. I once asked Trumble what it was that made Jackson such a great Test Match player. “Because he wouldn't let us get him out in the first quarter of an hour,” was the surprising reply. Trumble said he was more proof against temptation than all other great English amateurs; it mattered not whether the ball was over-pitched or a short one on the off, Jackson refrained from attempting his usual scoring strokes until he had got a sight of the ball and the pace of the wicket.

Jim Phillips gave us much the same picture of Shrewsbury. He told of the days when players of both sides would go out in front of the pavilion and have a few hits before the start of the match. The dashing young amateur would hit every ball he page 445 could on the half-volley and appear to be batting well. Shrewsbury, on the other hand, would play back to everything, even to the over-pitched ball, until the spectators would say, “By Jove! Old Arthur isn't in very good form.” The amateur was certainly loosening his limbs, but Shrewsbury's sole object was to gauge the pace off the turf. When the game began it was soon evident who had profited most from the practice beforehand, especially if the wicket was a slow one. Shrewsbury shone most when other batsmen were failing, for he was a master of defence and an outstanding player on a bad wicket. Like Hayward, he never dominated the bowling, but must win a high place among the noted players of the past.

Arguments about the past versus the present seem to be an integral part of the game, yet there is no means of proving one's opinion, no matter how firmly it is held. Different conditions over different periods, the state of the wicket, the quality of the opposition when this batsmen or that bowler has performed a notable feat, may put an entirely different complexion on the actual performance. Harry Graham's 105 at Sydney in 1895, and Jessop's 104 at the Oval in 1902, will always be ranked among the greatest innings ever played, yet they are a long way down the list of great scores in Test Match cricket if comparison is to be made on the basis of runs. For classic batting, Maccartney's 99 at Lord's in 1912 will always stand out as a gem in Test cricket.

While there may be debates about whether Australian cricket is as good as it was, or New Zealand cricket is better than in earlier years, the chief argument, in an International sense, is around the names of Grace, Ranjitsinhji, Trumper and Bradman. There were arguments in my day, before Bradman arrived, and it is certain that the phenomenal scoring of Australia's latest wonder will have intensified the efforts of some of our Australian friends to dislodge the one and only Grace from the pedestal upon which he has stood for so long. In a fireside chat one evening, Trumper said to me, “I always reckoned that if Grace and Trumper went in first together, Victor would have 75 runs on by the time the ‘Old Man’ got 50,” then added, “Of course Victor might get out at 100 and ‘W.G.’ go on and make 150!” There is a nice problem for students of the game and the self-appointed judges of past and present cricketers.

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If Grace and Shrewsbury, or MacLaren and Hobbs were to open the innings, the amateurs would soon be far ahead of the professionals, while Macartney would score still faster than either of the English amateurs. Now we have Bradman equalling Grace in the speed of run-getting. But no one could keep pace with Trumper. He played more brilliantly, took greater risks and, as a consequence, did not so often make the mammoth scores of Grace and Bradman. This raises the question, what is the basis on which great players are to be judged? Is it their skill and outstanding performances, the merit of which experts alone can be judges, or is it to be the runs they make, or the wickets they take? Trumble was one of the best judges and fairest minded of all cricketers, yet even his comparison is between Grace in his thirties and forties, and Trumper in the prime of his youth.

Mr. C. E. Green, the President of the Essex County, always maintained that the Australians never saw Grace at his best. If he had said they did not meet him during the most brilliant part of his career I would agree with him. Mr. Green played with Grace in the 'seventies, so was in a position to judge.

The records of the game go a long way towards proving that a batsman reaches the height of his career at about twenty-four or twenty-five. Here is a list of innings or short periods in the careers of famous players which are generally conceded to be their greatest performances: Murdoch was twenty-five in 1880 when he made his century and a half at the Oval; Ranjitsinhji, born in 1872, scored 62 and 154 not out against the Australians in 1896; Trumper was twenty-five in 1902; Harry Graham was the same age when he played his famous innings against Stoddart's first team; Syd. Gregory's 201 against the same team was made when he was twenty-four; Hobbs was a dashing player in 1906—six years later, at thirty, he was England's best batsman, but a different Hobbs. A decade later he changed still more, for in 1924 I was to see Mailey bowling to him with a silly point, a silly mid-on and only one outfield, at deep square-leg. This could never have happened when Hobbs was young. He cannot be unduly blamed for this slowing-up; he was still England's best batsman; so much depended upon him, and Test Match cricket had become a very serious affair at the time I speak of. R. E. Foster was twenty-five when he made his record score at Sydney, and Bardsley was the same age at the page 447 time of his double century at the Oval. In order to show the youth of to-day is as bold and brilliant as of yore, it is necessary only to quote the meteoric rise of Bradman who reached such dazzling heights when he was but twenty-two years of age and who, four years later, sealed his world-wide reputation and won a place alongside Grace, Ranjitsinhji and Trumper. This impressive list would appear to establish the age at which a batsman reaches the summit of his powers. It also supports Mr. Green's contention, for the champion was thirty-two years of age when he played in his first Test Match.

I am aware that the critics can submit an almost equally imposing list of great performances in the later years of these same players, but I am dealing only with the greatest moments of their careers.

The same intriguing story can be told of the feats of the great bowlers, but in bowling, more so than in batting, physique and stamina enter as factors in helping to determine the moment of greatness and length of career. Thus it is that all the very fast bowlers are at their best when young. On the other hand, it is found that the Trumbles and Giffens, the Peels and Rhodeses, depending mainly on subtle ways and aided by experience, enjoy a longer period of greatness. It is surprising to find a bowler of Lockwood's pace lasting so long, but, like Spofforth, he lost some of his speed as the years advanced. Barnes, too, although a little faster than Trumble, retained his form in the same way, but, as a general rule, veteran bowlers require some help from the pitch to be able to perform as they did in their younger days.

Spofforth stands apart. This was the opinion of all the old players. Murdoch was emphatic on the point and, to quote his own words, “Spoff was the daddy of the lot,” but it must be remembered this was said in 1903. Grace, always prompted by a kindly and generous heart, would have lent a hand to Ranjitsinhji, Trumper and Bradman to climb up on to the pedestal on which he stood; he would have applauded the play of Bradman as I have heard him praise the Trumper of 1902. On the other hand, Spofforth, the man who would not allow Blackham to speak words of encouragement to the young incoming batsman, may have been more jealous of his claim to stand alone on the platform set aside for the greatest of bowlers.

In the earliest years of what is termed modern cricket, page 448 Alfred Shaw was undoubtedly the best of all the bowlers, but when Spofforth burst upon the cricket world with performances as startling as those at Lord's in 1878, and as wonderful as those at the Oval in 1882, he became the acknowledged champion of the world. The first real challenge to his supremacy came from a fellow countryman, when C. T. B. Turner, in Australia in 1887 and in England in 1888, performed as though he might equal—even surpass—Spofforth's feats of a few years earlier. Turner was perhaps the best off-break bowler the game has known. His strong fingers imparted a spin that made the ball fairly “fizz” off the wicket. It was fatal for a batsman to play forward at the pitch of the ball, as MacLaren found out when he first met him, while Shrewsbury, known as the greatest of all back players, was often beaten by the break and pace off the pitch. The Notts champion was the earliest exponent of stepping across and “legging” the off break when pitched outside the off stump. This greatly annoyed Turner who was easily ruffled.

Sammy Jones, the graceful Australian batsman of the 'eighties, once told me that he thought Turner, on certain wickets, was more dangerous than Spofforth. In these conditions the latter always reduced his pace a little, as he did in the Oval Test Match of 1882. I have heard Murdoch claim that Spofforth, at one and the same time, was the greatest fast bowler and the greatest medium-fast bowler in the game. The tallness of Spofforth gave him a very high delivery which he used to the utmost. His whole attitude was one of hostility to the batsman. He would “stare out” a player as he approached the wickets; it was war. Old players always said that Spofforth had to be seen in action to appreciate the amount of devil he put into his bowling, and to understand why he was called “The Demon Bowler.”

It will interest readers to know that at first Spofforth was just a tear-away fast bowler. He was not a bashful young man and claimed that he was the fastest bowler in the world. It was after seeing Alfred Shaw bowl in Australia that he introduced into his own bowling the subtle method of attack of England's champion. No bowler was ever more persevering than young Spofforth. He practised as Shaw had done before him, and as Trumble and Grimmett did afterwards. He soon gained complete control of length and the knack of maintaining it when pace and flight are varied.

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A. Sims' and V. Trumper's Record Partnership

A. Sims' and V. Trumper's Record Partnership

page break black and white photograph of cricketer Victor Trumper
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We are apt to think of Giffen as the greatest of the schemers; this opinion is probably prompted by the number of times his trap came off, but it must be remembered that when he was captain he just kept on bowling until it did come off! Peel and Trumble were noted for their cleverness, but the brainiest of all the bowlers was Spofforth. His accuracy of pitch enabled him to put into effect any of his many plans of attack. How he and Blackham would conspire to bring about a batsman's downfall was often told by old Australians, and provided some of the brightest tit-bits of cricket of sixty years ago. Some years after Spofforth had retired from first-class cricket, Stoddart, who was his team-mate in the Hampstead Club in London, surprised his listeners at a reception in Melbourne by saying: “Spofforth is still the greatest bowler in the world!” This was said in an era of great bowlers!

Spofforth had a business brain, as well as a genius for cricket strategy. Reared as a banker, he was later to have a successful career in the commercial world in England. He argued with his father-in-law that, while Derbyshire is in the middle of England, it is not the centre. His persistence won for him the opportunity, with his brother-in-law, of opening a branch office in London, which, in due course, became the headquarters of the great tea company founded by his wife's people.

For more than a decade after Turner's bid for supremacy, there appeared, both in England and Australia, a stream of mighty bowlers more numerous than in any other period of the game. Lockwood and Trumble were perhaps the best, but the latter did not quite equal Turner, let alone Spofforth, while Lockwood also failed to win a first place.

This clears the deck for a final comparison, for modern critics have begun to place S. F. Barnes at the head of the list of contenders, some even acclaiming him as the greatest bowler of all time. Barnes's entry into Test cricket, which I was to witness at the beginning of this century, at once marked him as a great bowler. It was not, however, until his third visit to Australia that he was seriously put forward as a rival of the great Spofforth's. It is remarkable that Australian batsmen did not find Barnes as difficult on English wickets as they did in Australia where he performed his greatest feats. His pace and length seemed to combine perfectly on the fast wickets of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. On the other hand, Turner and page 450 Trumble were at their best in England where the ball has to be pitched a little farther up and more break is obtainable. I think it would be fair to say that on English wickets Turner was a greater bowler than Barnes. English selectors would seem to confirm this opinion, for, during his ten years of Test Match cricket in England, Barnes was omitted from the eleven more often than he was included. It is his sensational performances in Australia in 1911, and one famous over in particular, that won for Barnes such a high place in the list of great bowlers. When these feats pass from living memory and appraisement is made by examining the records of the past, I think it will be found that several bowlers have equal claims to rank “next to Spofforth.” It should be noted that in 1911 Barnes was thirty-eight years of age. Who will say that he was then a better bowler than when in Australia with MacLaren's team ten years earlier? The Spofforth who is always given pride of place was in his twenties. Turner, in 1888, was twenty-six years of age. Trumble, who retired from the game at the age of thirty-seven, told me that when he found batsmen taking liberties with his bowling, which he knew they could not have done when he was younger, he felt it was time he knocked off.

Barnes bowled with the precision of a machine and it was his persistent, relentless length, always a few inches on the short side, more than his slight turn from leg, that pegged down the batsman and made his bowling so difficult to score off. It can hardly be claimed that these qualities could match the genius of Spofforth.

It may come as a surprise that none of the great left-handers find a place in my first group, but Peel comes very close to it.

Coming nearer to present-day cricket, one would find McDonald ranking high among the fast bowlers, and O'Reilly as the only other Australian bowler to approach Trumble's class. Larwood would be ranged alongside the Lockwoods and Richardsons of the Old Country, while Grimmett and Mailey would be classed with Bosanquet, Vogler and Hordern. How to place the googly bowler is the most difficult problem that confronts those who would select a world's team. It is hard to see any of them finding a place.

The earlier mention of Blackham's name suggests that some reference should be made to the wicket-keepers. From the moment of his first appearance in England in 1878, Blackham page 451 became the undisputed champion of both hemispheres and retained his title for a longer period than any other player. Of late there has been a tendency on the part of some to deny the right of this Australian to stand alone as the best keeper of all time. Let us examine the position. Even leaving out Blackham, Jarvis and Pilling—the best of the 'eighties—there is still plenty of room for argument. Blackham was a wicket-keeper all the time, for he always stood close up, even to Spofforth. This will no doubt surprise present-day cricketers who know only of wicket-keepers who stand back to all fast, and medium-fast, bowling; it also accounts for old score sheets, describing the manner of a batsman's dismissal, sometimes reading, “Stpd Blackham b Spofforth.” Of late it has been Oldfield who is put up to challenge Blackham's position. I saw Sherwell, MacGregor and Oldfield, and would not like to decide between them. Many sound judges rank Carter as the best Australian wicket-keeper of this century. Keeping wickets to Hordern, he was just as brilliant as Oldfield was to Mailey and to Grimmett. Sherwell was also favoured in having googly bowlers to keep to. Oldfield's clever and stylish wicket-keeping was always a delight to watch, as was Jarvis with his brilliant, or, as his team-mates said, flash style. Some people consider him the equal of Blackman, but when the whips were out the Australians of years ago would say, “Give us Jack Blackham!” Pilling's style was much the same as Blackham's and the Australians said he was very little inferior to their own champion. The “Prince of wicket-keepers” caught the ball behind the wicket as Trumble caught it in the slips, and it was this absence of snatching that made him so safe, as well as so brilliant.

I was in Trumble's office in Melbourne shortly after Blackham died. The famous wicket-keeper had left a note for Hugh to select from his old cricket trophies anything he thought would be of interest to the Melbourne Club. Among the things selected were Blackham's wicket-keeping gloves. They were lying on the table alongside a pair of modern gloves. Blackham's looked about half the size and were more like a pair of motoring gloves. With a chuckle old Hughie asked, “With which could you stump a man the quicker?”

Grace and Murdoch saw Blackham and Pilling, and were still playing when Lilley, MacGregor and Sherwell were at page 452 their best. Trumble lived to see all the more recent wicket-keepers. If the opinion of these and other old players, concerning Blackham, is not accepted, then no true comparison is possible and each generation of cricketers had better have its own champion and stick to him, as the witness in a court case stuck to his evidence when being cross-examined by counsel. He was asked, “You said just now that the horse was 16 feet high. Are you sure you did not mean 16 hands?”

Hesitating for a moment the witness replied, “Did I say 16 feet?”

“Yes,” said the lawyer.

“Well, I'll stick to it,” said the witness!

The story of the fieldsmen of the game would require a volume in itself. I have already discussed the great slip fieldsmen, but I have not said that the finest catch in the slips I ever saw was when Duleepsinhji caught Dempster at Lancaster Park. The ball appeared to have passed him when the young Indian shot out his right arm at full length. It was like a praying-mantis catching a fly. This was a truly wonderful catch.

Cover-point is always considered a key position in the field and I finish with a word about one who has had few, if any, compeers. From Vernon Royle to Hobbs, England has had many fine cover-points, but none to equal Australia's Syd. Gregory. A delightful story that Vernon Ransford told us on one of his visits to New Zealand gives the best flash-light picture one could get of the quickness of movement and unerring aim of little Syd. It was in a match at Lord's when a well-known English amateur hit a ball firmly between mid-off and cover-point, and in his cultured voice called, “Come one—perhaps two,” but he was thrown out before even one run had been scored!

In different parts of this story I have referred to players who excelled in more than one department of the game, but no summary would be complete without setting apart the very great all-rounders. Though they are relatively few in numbers, the records show what a mighty part they have played. In modern cricket Grace was the first of those whom we call “double-barrelled” but, like C. T. Studd, Jackson, Armstrong, Faulkner and Woolley, he was a great batsman who could bowl, rather than a balanced all-rounder like Giffen. On the other hand Peel, Rhodes and perhaps Lohmann were great page 453 bowlers who could bat. Of the others, Steel, Noble, Albert Trott, Tarrant and Ullyett would be likened to Giffen and Hirst, while Faulkner would be compared with Armstrong, and Macartney with Woolley. Jack Gregory was of a different type; he was a magnificent fieldsman, a good bowler and a good batsman; the same could be said of Constantine. Albert Trott, undoubtedly, was a great all-rounder, but he played little or no Test Cricket and Frank Tarrant none at all, which must prejudice their claims to higher positions in the world's ranking list; in the same way there is no knowing what J. N. Crawford's record would have been had he remained an All-England player.

To decide who was the greatest of the genuine all-rounders the choice would be between Giffen, Hirst and Noble; old players of the 'eighties would include A. G. Steel in this select group.

And so, Mr. Critic, I hand over to you this fascinating subject—impossible of unanimous agreement—of analysing and comparing the standards of the play and players of the past. As each generation continues to throw up its very great players, as it has done over the years, the time will come, if it has not already arrived, when increasing numbers will make it necessary to judge them in groups according to class. This takes me back to my first impressions of youth, except that it will be a number of Graces, Spofforths and Blackhams who stand out as the game's super players.

This brings to an end the reminiscences and reflections of a veteran of the game. They tell of “great contemporaries” and of great players, both before and after my time. A memory that can penetrate far back into the past, and first-hand stories told me by players of earlier generations, have been my chief aids in the writing of this sketch of cricket and cricketers of long ago. It is possible that old Father Time, with his longer reach, may wish to make some corrections in the summary I present, but I think that in the main he would pass it as a fairly accurate survey.