Saturday, January 26, 2013

Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh's book 'Don's Century' ..... 4 - Chapter 7 : PEERLESS RUNGETTER AND OTHER MASTERS OF THE WILLOW (4. Jack Hobbs)

Three of the finest batsmen whose careers straddled the First World War were England’s Jack Hobbs and Frank Woolley, and the Australian Charles ‘Governor General’ Macartney, all having been born in the 1880s, and making their first-class debut between 1905 and 1909. Test cricket was disrupted for seven years when they were in their prime.

The terms ‘master’ and ‘great’ are bandied about so often as to be bestowed on several of the undeserving by many who perhaps do not comprehend the true import of such encomiums. If one were to choose one batsman best suited to be awarded the distinction of a master batsman, it would have to be Jack Hobbs. If a batting technique can be perfect, then Jack Hobbs did indeed have the perfect technique for all types of wickets against bowling of every kind. That he was a great batsman follows naturally, whether viewed in terms of the runs and centuries that he scored or the averages he achieved against all the opposition that he faced on every surface.

In one of his letters to me, Bob Wyatt who played alongside Hobbs and later captained England, wrote: “Hobbs in my opinion was the greatest batsman on all types of wickets. He was always so well poised.” In another letter Wyatt elucidated, “Poise is more than balance. One can be well balanced and badly poised whereas one cannot be well poised and badly balanced. I would describe poise as being balanced in such a way that one can assume another position rapidly without losing one’s balance.”

Eldest of eleven children, Jack Hobbs was rejected by Essex. It was a decision the county was to rue very soon. In his second match for Surrey, Hobbs trounced the Essex bowling in a knock of 155 that was a precursor of things to come.

Wrote Hartland, “Before the war he played a more dashing game, in keeping with the spirit of the age and his own youthful instincts, but his batting was always based on sound orthodoxy and perfect technique. Hobbs remains one of the two greatest English-born batsmen - Grace is the other - his position resting on an ability to master all types of bowling on any wicket, turf or matting. More than any other batsman in history can it be claimed that he had no weakness. The more difficult the circumstances, and the greater the pressure, the more likely was Hobbs to make a hundred, without taking all day over it.”

Exuding the unfailing reliability and class of a Rolls Royce or a Rolex, Hobbs turned batting into a perfect art. E.W. Swanton observed: “Of all the batsmen he was the most versatile; the glazed wickets of Sydney and Adelaide, the matting of Johannesburg and Durban only enhanced his reputation.” It must also be remembered that Hobbs successfully countered swing bowling that was pioneered during his time by George Hirst. 

The most prolific scorer in first-class cricket in a career spanning thirty years, Hobbs is the only batsman to score 60,000 runs, in the process notching up nearly 200 centuries. When he retired in 1934, Hobbs had amassed 61,237 runs at an average of 50.65 with 197 hundreds and a highest of 316 not out. No one is likely to score so many ever again. He was no less impressive in his 61 Tests, logging up 5410 runs, the record at the time, at 56.94 per innings, 15 centuries and a top score of 211, marking a career in which pedigree and numbers matched to the highest degree.

Hobbs had all the shots in the book which he played with utmost ease. He was able to score quickly, testimony to which are the twenty occasions when he rattled up a hundred before lunch on the first day of a match. He paired up with Tom Hayward and Andy Sandham for Surrey, and Wilfred Rhodes and Herbert Sutcliffe for England in many of the famous opening partnerships. Yet for all his run-scoring feats, Hobbs maintained a disdain for the record books. As Rhodes observed, “He was often content to throw away his wicket when he had reached a hundred and give someone else a chance.”

With Hayward, who was renowned as a defensive batsman, Hobbs put on 352 against Warwickshire at The Oval in 1909, and 313 versus Worcestershire at Worcester in 1913. The duo was associated in 40 century stands. Hobbs’ biggest opening partnership came in 1926, when he featured with Sandham in a 428-run saga against Oxford University at The Oval.

In Tests he combined with Rhodes in the then record partnership of 323 against Australia at Melbourne in 1911-12, and with Sutcliffe raised 283 against the same adversary, who had knocked up 600 runs in their innings, at the very venue in 1924-25. Perhaps their most crucial partnership was in the Oval Test of 1926, which played a significant part in regaining the Ashes. Hobbs scored a brisk 100 on a difficult track, rated as one of his finest innings, while Sutcliffe compiled 161. Earlier in the third Test at Leeds, they had put on 156 in the second innings to help salvage a draw. The famous Hobbs-Sutcliffe pair put up 15 century stands for the first wicket. In all, Hobbs’ century opening partnerships totalled 166. He was, doubtlessly, an opener beyond compare.

On the rungetting prowess of great batsmen, Len Hutton wrote in his Fifty Years in Cricket, “Genius is a born talent and a very special individualism. Wilfred Rhodes, who rose from no. 11 to set records as Jack Hobbs’ opening partner, always prided himself on being able to spot leg breaks and googlies. On the other hand, according to Wilfred, Hobbs was not able to do so and preferred to play the ball off the pitch. In a Test with South Africa, when the White-Faulkner-Vogler googly trio was much feared, Hobbs and Rhodes were batting together and Wilfred was congratulating himself that he was coping better than Jack. Then glancing at the scoreboard, he read: Hobbs 75, Rhodes 17.”

After the War, when he was already 36 years old, Hobbs scored 132 hundreds. Vic Marks noted: “His footwork was now less ambitious but still totally unhurried, and his ability on rain-affected wickets was the envy of everyone.” In 1924, against Somerset at Taunton, Hobbs surpassed W.G. Grace’s record of 126 centuries.     

As a cricketer and as a man, Hobbs was the ideal role model. H.S. Altham gave a true insight: “A man of natural dignity, with at the same time an engaging twinkle that revealed a charming and constant sense of humour, utterly unspoilt by success and always prepared to help others, especially the young; he soon became and remained throughout his career the embodiment of the highest standards and values of the game.”

It might come as a surprise to many that Herbert Sutcliffe, Hobbs’ ally in one of the most successful opening partnerships in Test history, holder of the record opening stand of 555 with Percy Holmes in first-class cricket - surpassed by six runs only four-and-a-half decades later by Waheed Mirza and Mansoor Akhtar for Karachi Whites against Quetta - and having the distinction of averaging the highest for England - 60.73 for his 4555 Test runs - among many other honours, seldom finds a place in the array of greats. The gentlemanly Sutcliffe was a stodgy, unattractive batsman, better on bad wickets than good, apt to play with the edges of his bat as with the middle, determined and never afraid to hook. If in another era Javed Miandad was the archetypal streetfighter, Sutcliffe was, as Ray Robinson would have it, a ‘dogfighter’. May the case rest there.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh may be contacted on email

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh's book 'Don's Century' ..... 3 - Chapter 7 : PEERLESS RUNGETTER AND OTHER MASTERS OF THE WILLOW (3. Victor Trumper)

W.G. Grace and Ranjitsinhji changed the game as much by novel methods of batsmanship as by their prolific rungetting. Victor Trumper did not outscore his contemporaries, rather he charmed his way into everyone’s hearts by his astonishing strokeplay and endearing personality. William Murdoch had already become the first Australian to score a triple century in first-class cricket when Trumper was just four years old, while the ungainly left-hander Clem Hill matched him run for run in the Tests. If Trumper was hailed as one of the greats of his time, it was for the awesome manner in which he batted, often on bad wickets, rather than for any record-breaking feats. Ken Piesse put things in perspective: “Trumper averaged a century every 9.8 innings, compared with Bradman’s 3.4. ‘The Don’ was undoubtedly a more prolific player. He had an insatiable run-scoring appetite. Trumper didn’t. But his approach and general stroke-play was more pleasing than Bradman.”

No one saw him closer, or knew him better, than the great allrounder Monty Noble, Trumper’s senior at Crown Street School and Paddington Club in Sydney. Noble wrote in The Game’s The Thing (1926): “Victor was a law unto himself. You could talk to him and coach him; he would listen carefully, respect your advice and opinions, and, leaving you, would forget all you had told him, play as he wanted to play, and thereby prove that, although you might be right, he knew a better method. He would hit the first ball in a Test match for four if it suited him. Sometimes, but not often, this would lead to his early downfall. His defence was his offence. If, on a bad wicket, a left-hander was troubling anyone, he would immediately set about knocking him off, and generally succeed in doing so.”

Vic Marks reflected popular sentiment in The Wisden Illustrated History of Cricket: “The true enthusiast would undoubtedly have missed a family wedding to watch Trumper bat.”

It was often due to his weak constitution, seldom his audacious strokeplay, that Trumper did not end up with a better record than he did. Though physically strong, he fell ill often, which affected his form to a considerable degree. Besides he had no use for numbers. As Ken Piesse noted: “Figures didn’t worry him. He would just as soon present his wicket to a deserving youngster after he had made a century, as grind his way to double and triple centuries like Bradman.” Despite this, by the time the First World War began, he had in his bag the Australian records of 8 hundreds and highest score of 214 not out in Test cricket, and the best first-class average of 44 in a completed career. Only Clem Hill had a marginally better Test record for his country with 3412 runs (average 39.21), compared to Trumper’s 3163 runs (average 39.04). And, lest we forget, Hill at that time had the record Test aggregate in Test cricket.

So talented was Trumper that, it is said, he was barred from playing in school because he was impossible to dismiss and, as Noble recounted, soon people were asking, “Have you seen Trumper playing?” As a 20-year-old in 1897-98, playing for Paddington Club, he smashed 1021 runs in 8 innings at an average of 204.20. His scores were 82, 123, 125, 85, 120 not out, 191 not out, 133 and 162 not out.

In his first Test series in 1899, Trumper scored a brilliant unbeaten 135 in the Lord’s Test, and his partnership with Hill set up the match for Australia. They went on to clinch the game, the only one that produced a result. Trumper saved the fourth Test at Manchester with a masterly display. After England had enforced the follow-on, there was heavy overnight rain. On that sticky wicket he attacked the bowling in his innings of 63, and with help from Noble bailed the team out. Noble once observed, “You had to be in with him to realise his ability to the full. The most difficult and dangerous strokes were made with consummate ease. His action was so free, in fact, that onlookers were often deceived into the belief that he was facing the easiest of bowling.”

On that tour Trumper scored an unbeaten 300 against Sussex at Hove, his best in first-class cricket. Joe Darling declared the Australian innings as soon as Trumper reached his triple century. The skipper himself was unbeaten on 70, and Noble asked him what he thought of the boy. “What do I think of him?” Darling shot back, “I thought I could bat!” Noble lauded Trumper’s genius: “He made great players at the other end look like schoolboys by comparison; often have I seen them standing staring with astonishment at the audacity of his strokes. Bowlers frequently appealed for l.b.w. against him, only to find that the bat had connected at the last minute. Fast bowlers particularly appealed when they sent down a yorker on the leg-stump before the foot was removed and a beautiful on-side shot resulted.”

On the next tour of England in 1902, Trumper was in irresistible form. It was a very wet summer, and the wickets were often unplayable. Trumper piled up 2570 runs at 48.49 per outing, carving out 11 hundreds, including one in each innings against Essex. The next highest rungetter for the Australians was Hill with 1555 runs (average 31.33). On the first day of the Manchester Test, Trumper and his regular partner Reggie Duff put up an opening stand of 135 in 80 minutes. At lunch the scoreboard read 173 for one. Soon after resumption Trumper was caught behind for 104. In the only Test match ever played at Sheffield, one of his brilliant cameos, and partnership with Hill, took the match away from England. Trumper cracked 62 out of 80 in 50 minutes, and as Wisden recorded, “….. doing just what he liked with the English bowling.” Incidentally, it was in the final Test of that series at the Oval that Jessop turned around the game with his scintillating hundred in 75 minutes, fastest until Australian Jack Gregory’s ton in 70 minutes against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1921-22. Jessop’s 104 enabled England win that Test, thereby reducing Australia’s winning margin to 2-1. 

Unwittingly, Trumper played a part in the evolution of the game when he was clean bowled by what is believed to be the first-ever googly delivered by its inventor B.J.T. Bosanquet at Sydney in 1902-03. This was against Pelham Warner’s touring team, a trip in which no Test matches were played.

Interestingly, neither Trumper nor Duff used a cover for the bat handle. They would roughen the handle string with a piece of glass and apply powdered resin. Trumper explained that he was averse to chamois leather and rubber covers because they interfered with the instinctive movement of his hands. What was immediately noticeable was how high up the handle he gripped the bat. Trumper, indeed, used the long handle, literally and figuratively. He was as much a natural as he was distinctive.

Noble narrated two instances that illustrate Trumper’s true genius: “Perhaps his finest innings on a bad wicket was in a Test match in Melbourne in 1904, when he made 74 out of 122 runs. He was so severe on a left-hand bowler that the latter gave up bowling at the wicket and plied him with off-theory - a complete triumph of the bat over the ball on such a ‘glue-pot’. On another occasion when New South Wales was playing Victoria, J.V. Saunders, bowling on a bad wicket (at Sydney) beat him twice in the first over. After that he gave them the long handle and made 100 before lunch, that is, from noon to 1.30 P.M.”

During that 1903-04 series, Trumper scored a superb unbeaten 185 in the fourth Test at Sydney. This was the game in which R.E. Foster, playing in his only Test series, hit up 287 on debut, the highest score in Test cricket at the time, as England gained a first innings lead of 282 runs. Having been dismissed for just 1 in the first innings, Trumper was dropped down to no. 5 the second time round. Striding in at 191 for three, Trumper raced to his hundred in 94 minutes in an exhilarating post-tea session. At one stage he cut Leonard Braund in his first over thrice through the slips to the boundary. The next ball ran away for four byes. Trumper straight-drove the last ball. The crowd were on their feet as he and Hill ran four, but when the latter was run out, going for the fifth run, all hell broke loose. The crowd bayed for the blood of umpire Bob Crockett, disappointed that the rollicking stand of 63 in a little over half an hour had been abruptly cut off. Unperturbed by the din, Trumper carried on magnificently against a quality bowling line-up. Braund kept pitching his quickish leg-breaks outside the leg-stump and Trumper would back away to leg and repeatedly late-cut him to the boundary. Later Braund threw up his hands, “It didn’t matter where I pitched the ball. Trumper would hit it into three different places in the field.”

He reached 119 by stumps. Twenty thousand people turned up the next day to watch Trumper. He continued the fightback, scoring a chanceless 185 before running out of partners. Thanks to his brilliant innings, rated among the best ever on a good pitch, Australia set a respectable target of 194. Bosanquet, though, had foxed most of the Australians with his googlies, capturing six for 51. It was left to Tom Hayward and George Hirst to ensure an England win, and help regain the Ashes. Nonetheless, this was vintage Trumper, darling of the masses. He aggregated the highest on either side in the series, 574 runs at an average of 63.77.  

Trumper delighted the crowds for another decade. His most prolific Test series was against South Africa in 1910-11 when he made 661 runs at an average of 94.42. Hartland noted: “Where Trumper remains unapproached to this day is in the range and grace of his strokeplay, and in his ability to carry on attacking successfully with those strokes on pitches so treacherous that others were grateful merely to survive.” In his The Immortal Victor Trumper, Jack Fingleton, who played alongside Bradman and saw him at close quarters, declared that Trumper was the greatest batsman of all time. Fingleton wrote, “He was like a surgeon, deftly and classically dissecting everything that was offered against him.” Arthur Haygarth put it simply in the monumental MCC Cricket Scores and Biographies: “His timing has never been excelled and in the art of placing the ball he was unsurpassed.” In first-class cricket Trumper scored 17,150 runs at an average of 45.01 with 43 hundreds.

There are as many legendary tales of Trumper’s mind-boggling exploits in club cricket as of his kind and modest nature. On one occasion a distinguished bowler decided to deliver the ball from a yard behind the bowling crease. Though initially perplexed, Trumper launched such a furious assault that he raised the team’s hundred in thirty-three minutes. In another instance a brash young bowler bragged about a magic delivery that he could dismiss Trumper with whenever he chose to. Trumper heard about it and, as was his wont, let his bat do the talking. There was a buzz around the ground as the sizeable crowd, that had gathered in keen anticipation, saw the fielding captain put the wannabe trundler on. Trumper’s riposte was, fifty runs off this bowler in ten balls, it is believed, in a matter of five-and-a-quarter minutes!

As his generous and kind nature was an open secret, Trumper would invariably be flooded with requests for free tickets to cricket matches. Not one to disappoint anyone, he would often be seen outside the grounds obliging the seekers. When he could not give a ticket, he would hand over the cash required to pay the entrance fee.

Monty Noble, it would appear, loved Victor Trumper as his younger brother. Noble struck a deeply poignant note when Trumper fell ill just after the outbreak of the First World War: “Bright’s disease developed, and he lingered on till June 1915, when he died in great pain at his home at Chatswood. The irony of it. He was a teetotaler, a non-smoker; he never gambled and he never kept late hours. Indeed, he was such a clean liver and had such a wholesome mental outlook that one would have expected him to live his full measure of his allotted span. But it was not to be. The funeral was a great public one, attended by many international and inter-state cricketers, and as it passed through the streets of Sydney on its way to the cemetery, tens of thousands paid their last tribute of respect to the greatest, yet most modest, batsman the world has known.”

Victor Trumper was just thirty-seven years old. Perhaps for someone so immensely talented, and of such delightful character, the only place to be was in heaven.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh's book 'Don's Century' ..... 2 - Chapter 7 : PEERLESS RUNGETTER AND OTHER MASTERS OF THE WILLOW (2. K.S. Ranjitsinhji)

Batting, having already been defined by Grace, saw its next two stars descend from distant lands. If Prince Ranjitsinhji, later the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, delighted with his artistry at the crease, the Aussie Victor Trumper provided the thrills with his panache. The very thought of Ranji conjures images of the leg-glance. He was the inventor of the shot, one that was patently his own and an early glimpse of the suppleness of wrists that characterised the batting of later Indian stalwarts Gundappa Viswanath, Mohammad Azharuddin and V.V.S. Laxman.

Ranji worked hard to hone his talent, hiring professional bowlers from Surrey while he was at Cambridge. Simon Wilde wrote in his biography Ranji A Genius Rich and Strange: “He practised with as much purpose whether he had just been out for 100 or for 0. He was a severe critic of his own game, and if he was indeed a genius it was for his infinite capacity for taking pains, not for becoming a superlative cricketer overnight. He enjoyed theorizing about the game and putting those theories into practice.”

The outcome was a batting style that was as unique as it was novel, and it perplexed the English. Cardus elucidated in Good Days (1934): “In the ‘nineties the game was absolutely English; it was even Victorian. W.G. Grace for years had stamped on cricket the English mark and the mark of the period. It was the age of simple first principles, of the stout respectability of the straight bat and the good-length balls. And then suddenly this visitation of dusky, supple legerdemain happened; a man was seen playing cricket as nobody in England could possibly have played it. The honest length ball was not met by the honest straight bat, but there was a flick of the wrist, and lo! The straight ball was charmed away to the leg-boundary. And nobody quite saw or understood how it all happened.”

All those who saw Ranji bat vouched for the fact that he had an exceptionally quick eye and could hook the fastest bowling with ease. Though he had appeared in English first-class cricket since 1893, Ranjitsinhji’s first full season was in 1895 when he made his debut for Sussex against the MCC at Lord’s. He caused an immediate impact, carving out scores of 77 and 150. From then on he captured the imagination of the public and became a very popular, even mystical, figure.

The next year at the age of 23, Ranji topped the first-class averages at 57.92, surpassing Grace’s record season aggregate by scoring 2780 runs, and equalling the great senior’s 10 hundreds. In a unique feat, Ranji hit up a century in each innings of a match on the same day. Resuming at zero not out, he notched up 100 and 125 not out for Sussex against Yorkshire at Hove. The English were reluctant to pick him in their Test side, but his huge popularity ensured that he was selected for the second match. Appropriately, Ranji became the second England batsman after Grace to score a hundred on Test debut, an unbeaten 154 against Australia at Manchester, having hit 62 in the first innings. In the process he nearly pulled off an improbable win. In the 1897 season, Ranji scored 1940 runs at an average of 45.12. He hit up his first double-century, 260 in just 250 minutes with 36 fours and a six against MCC at Lord’s, the highest by a Sussex batsman.

Ranji never took the tedious sea journeys well. Prone to attacks of asthma, he was taken ill during the month-long voyage to Australia in 1897-98, even though he joined the team only in the south of the European Continent. He was still unwell when the first Test began in Sydney. Even so, he battled through, carving out a monumental 175, which was a record for England until R.E. Foster bettered it with 287 at the same venue six years later. Ranji’s knock enabled England to win their only Test in a series they lost 1-4. It was a productive tour for him personally, averaging over 50 in the Tests and over 60 in the first-class matches. In all he collected 1157 runs. At the end of the tour, Ranji returned to his homeland after a decade.

Having missed the English season of 1898 as a result of a long sojourn at home, Ranji’s best came at the turn of the century, even though he was not quite as slim and his feet seemed not as nimble. In 1899 he became the first to score 3000 runs in a season. He bailed out England in the first Test at Nottingham, scoring 42 and 93 not out, and holding Australia to a draw. By the end of the series he had scored 970 runs in 12 Tests at a brilliant average of 53.88. He amassed 3159 first-class runs at 63.18 per innings.

After a trip to the United States during the winter, Ranji’s 1900 season was just as brilliant. So irresistible was his form that he knocked up successive double centuries, both for Sussex - 222 against Somerset at Hove, and an unbeaten 215 versus Cambridge University at Fenners. Quite the master on rain-affected wickets, he breezed to 202 in three hours off the Middlesex bowling after a thunderstorm at Hove, the next highest by a Sussex colleague being 17. His five double centuries were a record for a season, bettered only by Bradman with six in 1930. Everton Weekes of the West Indies equalled Ranji’s five double tons exactly half a century later. The now-unstoppable Ranji logged up 3000 runs for the second successive season, this time scoring 3065 runs and topping the averages at a mind-boggling 87.57, hitting up 11 hundreds.

1901 was yet another splendid season. Again Ranji scored two double centuries in a row, once more representing his county, an unbeaten 285 against Somerset at Taunton and 204 at the expense of Lancashire at the home ground of Hove. The first was an amazing feat, not only for the fact that it was his top score and the highest-ever by a Sussex batsman, but because he was out fishing the entire previous night! For the 1901 season his tally was 2468 runs at 70.51 per innings. In three consecutive seasons, Ranjitsinhji had totalled 8692 runs at an average of 72.43 with 27 hundreds. The wizard from the orient continued to enchant and befuddle at the same time.          

He did not sail to Australia in 1901-02 and, perhaps due to the troubles in his personal life, lost form dramatically in the Tests in 1902, managing just 19 runs in four innings and never played at that level again. He still finished with a Test average of 44.96, a splendid achievement at the time. In first-class matches, though, Ranji continued to blaze away till 1904 when he again topped the 2000 mark as well as the averages - 2077 runs at 74.17.

Succession issues in Nawanagar kept Ranjitsinhji back in India, and he missed the next three seasons. He returned to England in 1908 as His Highness The Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, having being installed as ruler of the 3791 square miles, 13-gun salute princely State in circumstances so full of intrigue and danger as to render a racy novel hopelessly mundane. He played that season as well as in 1912, remarkably notching up 1000 runs each time. Ranji was seen on the cricket field one last time in 1920. Astonishingly, he played three first-class matches and, as was only to be expected, failed miserably. The fact was that his right eye had been removed five years earlier when on August 31 he had met with an accident while shooting grouse on the Yorkshire moors. This was soon after he returned from France, ending a brief and miserable stint in the army during the First World War.      

It is quite uncanny that another Indian of princely origin and dashing batsman who was also to lead Sussex, Nawab of Pataudi junior, Mansur Ali Khan, also virtually lost vision in his right eye after a car accident on July 1, 1961 on the way back to Hove after dining out at neighbouring Brighton. The difference was that Ranji had his mishap after his cricket career was over, while Tiger Pataudi met this fate when his journey in the game had hardly begun.

It was while Ranji was recuperating, eye still bandaged, that he travelled to Beckenham, Kent, on October 26, 1915 to attend the funeral of his former England captain W.G. Grace. The curtain had come down not just on one era, but for all practical purposes, two.

Hartland summed up the impact of Ranji on the game: “The batting star of the Golden Age in England was Ranjitsinhji, with a first-class average of 56 - virtually as high as any English-qualified player has ever achieved and quite phenomenal for the time, particularly since he scored at around 50 runs an hour. Taking a qualification of ten thousand runs for all English batsmen who faced their first ball in the nineteenth century, Ranji’s first-class average is approached only by Sussex teammate Fry with 50. Test bowling did not slow Ranjitsinhji much, and the combination of his high average and scoring rate in relation to others really does mark him as out of the ordinary.”

Ranji’s first-class average of 56.37 was the highest for a full career by an England-based player until as late as 1986 when Geoff Boycott retired with a fractionally higher average of 56.84. And if one considers that Ranji’s career was all but over in 1904; his appearances thereafter were sporadic in 1908 and 1912, and farcical in 1920, his deeds are even more astounding. Upto 1904, Ranji had scored 22,402 runs at an average of 58.49 with 65 hundreds in 267 matches, really in less than a decade. That is the true reflection of his genius.

To the outside world Ranji was an exceptionally gifted prince who toiled diligently in the nets to emerge as the finest batsman of his era. Yet not many realised the inner turmoil that he undoubtedly underwent during his best years at the wicket, what with the drama of his adoption that never was, the machinations over his succession as ruler and his financial woes at the time. And he was laid low by illness for long periods. One has to marvel at the fact that he excelled at the game under these trying circumstances. Or more likely, he used them as a spur to motivate himself and to prove to those who mattered that he was fit to be king.

Yet his charm transcended all the elegant runs that he made. As Jessop wrote: “From the moment he stepped out of the pavilion he drew all eyes and held them. No one who saw him bat will ever forget it. He was the first man I ever knew who wore silk shirts, and there was something almost romantic about the very flow of his sleeves and the curve of his shoulders. He drew the crowds wherever he went, and at the height of his cricket days the shops in Brighton would empty if he passed along the street. Everyone wanted to see him.”

There was little doubt that Ranjitsinhji had transformed batting forever. As late as 1944, Pelham Warner wrote in The Book of Cricket: “With his wonderful eye and wrists, he could play back to almost any ball, however good a length, and however fast. Like Bradman, he seldom played a genuine forward stroke, for, again like Bradman he found that balls to which he could not play back he could, with his quickness of foot, get to and drive.” This ‘play back or drive’ method, however, could only be used by one with a sharp eye and quicksilver footwork, like a Ranji or a Bradman. English batsmen attempted to copy it with disastrous results. It takes someone extraordinary to play in an extraordinary way. Ranji scored more profusely than anyone had done before, just as Bradman was to do three decades later.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh's book 'Don's Century' .....1 - Chapter 7 : PEERLESS RUNGETTER AND OTHER MASTERS OF THE WILLOW (1. W.G. Grace)

“Bradman’s achievements stagger the imagination. No writer of boys’ fiction would dare to invent a hero who performed with Bradman’s continual consistency. His batsmanship delights one’s knowledge of the game, his every stroke is a dazzling and precious stone in the game’s crown,” was Sir Neville Cardus’ famous observation. So, was Bradman the best batsman of all time?

He was certainly the greatest rungetter if the criterion is runs per innings and the frequency with which he got the big scores - centuries and, more significantly, double centuries. But was he the best in terms of quality, in all conditions, against all types of bowling? Critics have put forward various theories and lauded the merits of several great batsmen for nearly a century-and-a-half.

Inarguably, the first great batsman was W.G. Grace. He is credited with developing batting technique as we know it today. Another wizard who joined Grace during the later stages of his career, K.S. Ranjitsinhji wrote in The Jubilee Book of Cricket (1897): “He revolutionized batting. He turned it from an accomplishment into a science….. Before W.G. batsmen were of two kinds; a batsman played a forward game or he played a back game….. It was bad cricket to hit a straight ball; as for pulling a long hop, it was regarded as immoral. What W.G. did was to unite in his mighty self all the good points of all the good players and to make utility the criterion of style. He founded the modern theory of batting by making forward and back play of equal importance, relying neither on one nor the other, but both….. I hold him to be, not only the finest player born or unborn, but the maker of modern batting. He turned the old one-stringed instrument into a many chorded lyre.”

The emergence of Grace saw significant developments in the game. In 1864, over-arm bowling was approved. Grace was then able to develop batting technique that countered this revolutionary over-the-shoulder style of delivering the ball. Cricket received the impetus it required. County cricket began the same year, as was Wisden first published.

The popular image of Dr. William Gilbert Grace is that of the Grand Old Man, portly, ageing, with a flowing grey beard. But his best came very early in his career. It is reckoned that he was at eighteen years the best batsman in England, and consequently the world. That was in 1866 when, as Vic Marks wrote in The Wisden Illustrated History of Cricket: “W.G. was creating new standards that no one else could reach.” Playing for an England XI against Surrey, Grace scored 224 not out in a crushing victory of an innings and 300 runs. Marks recounted: “On the last afternoon his captain gave him permission to pop off to Crystal Palace to run in a 440-yard hurdle race - he won. Three weeks later he scored 173 not out for the Gentlemen of the South against Players of the South at The Oval, having already taken seven wickets whilst bowling unchanged throughout the Players’ innings.”

Grace’s halcyon days were in the pre-Test cricket era. Peter Hartland reflected in his book The Balance of Power in Test Cricket 1877-1998: “Picture him in 1873 as a 25-year-old, already known for prodigious feats in track and field athletics. At this stage he scored more runs in his short cricketing career - over 10,000 - than anyone else in history to date, at more than double the average. His career average was now 61, the next best being (reputedly the best professional batsman of the 1860s and 1870s) Richard Daft’s 29. Grace was literally twice as good as anyone who had ever played. With a step-change in broad-batted technique, if not in style, he was the first to show that cricket could be a batsman’s game; that bowlers could be forced on the defensive for long periods. The remarkable thing to remember about Grace is not so much his cricketing longevity, remarkable though that was, but the fact that he established a lead over his contemporaries which has never been equalled.”

It must be remembered that Grace had to play on pitches in the 1860s that were terrible for batting. Hartland continued, “….. pitches, still rough and ready with scant regard for evenness or slope, had barely improved. The only tool in regular use was the scythe, complementing the work of rabbits, sheep and, on one reported occasion at Lord’s a brace of partridges.”

Batting was a hazardous exercise as W.G. Grace’s own observation on wickets bears out: “Many of the principal grounds were so rough as to be positively dangerous to play upon and batsmen were commonly damaged by the fast bowling. When the wickets were in this condition the batsmen had to look out for shooters and leave the bumping balls to look after themselves. In the sixties it was no unusual thing to have three shooters in an over.” And there were only four deliveries in an over in those days!

Later the tracks did improve somewhat, and it is no coincidence that in 1871, around the time the heavy roller came to be used, Grace became the first batsman to score 2000 runs in a season - 2739 runs at an average of 78.25 with 10 hundreds, including two double centuries. That was an age when there was a clear demarcation between the amateurs and the professionals, or the Gentlemen and the Players, as they were called. The Gentlemen were the aristocrats of the game and invariably batsmen, while much of the hard labour, bowling, fell to the lot of the Players. Most of the time it was the Players who triumphed but as Marks recorded “Only during the Grace era did the Gentlemen dominate the fixture. W.G. seemed to save his best performance for the occasion, which serves to emphasise the fact that it was the most important game in the cricket calendar.”

That awesome hitter Gilbert ‘Croucher’ Jessop wrote in the July 1923 edition of The Cricketer International: “In the early days the success of the Gentlemen depended almost entirely on the ‘Old Man’. Fifteen centuries in all did he collect against the ‘Professors’ and on two of the occasions he exceeded the double century. His brightest and best patch occurred before I was born, when in consecutive innings from 1871-73 he took toll of the Players bowling to the extent of 217, 77 and 112, 117, 163, 158 and 70. And in those days, mind you, the wickets, to say the least, were not quite up to the standard of modern days. Yet against ‘rib-roasters’, ‘nose-enders’ - yes, even ‘shooters’ - did the Old Man keep his end up and calmly pursue the path which leads to centuries. Rare indeed was the occasion when ‘W.G.’ gave his wicket away, and yet few balls in the course of a long innings passed his bat.”  

W.G. also bowled accurate medium-paced to slow leg-cutters and became the first to perform the double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets in a season in 1873.

Grace came up with a stupendous performance in The Gentlemen versus The Players match at Lord’s in 1876. Opening the batting, he scored 169 out of the team’s total of 449. He then bowled 97 four-ball overs, taking three for 81 and six for 41 as The Players collapsed for 219 and 132 in their two innings. That year he became the first batsman to score a triple century in first-class cricket and, as if to celebrate, hit another, two innings later. His sequence of scores were 344, 177 and 318 not out, and in the month of August piled up 1279 runs. 

The 1870s were a golden period for Gloucestershire in the County Championships, W.G. and his brothers, Edward Mills and George Frederick, with a team composed entirely of amateurs won the title jointly with Nottinghamshire in 1873, and then on their own in 1874, 1876 and 1877, and never thereafter.

Hartland continued, “When the Test match era began in 1877, the process of allowing the batsman as fair a chance as the bowler, though reasonably advanced, still had a long way to go.” In the early 1880s, the heavy roller was complemented by the grass mower, which were used over tended soil. This made life a bit easier for batsmen. Given the awesome stature that he had already acquired, it seemed almost inevitable that W.G. would score a hundred on his Test debut. He did, at the Oval in 1880, the second such distinction after Charles Bannerman’s feat in the inaugural Test at Melbourne in 1876-77. Grace’s 152 helped England win by five wickets. Australian terror Fred Spofforth was injured during that Test, but Grace was at his best against fast bowling.

His duels with Spofforth were exhilarating, one such occasion being in what came to be known as ‘Spofforth’s match’ at the Oval in August 1882 when Australia lost at home for the first time. It was this Test that led to the creation of the Ashes. On a treacherous wicket rendered well nigh unplayable due to rain, England were set 85 to win. At 51 for two, with Grace still at the wicket, victory seemed in sight. But he holed out to mid-off for 32, and England collapsed to 77 all out. Spofforth took seven wickets in each innings, and the rest is history.

In 1886 Grace performed the astounding feat of scoring a hundred and capturing all ten wickets in an innings in the same match. He hit up 104 in MCC’s only innings, and bagged two for 60 and ten for 49, against Oxford University.

As late as 1895, at nearly 47 years, Grace was a rejuvenated man. He resurrected his career by becoming the first to score over 1000 runs in May, a cherished achievement at the beginning of the English season when it is generally cold and damp, and the ball darts around; and to notch up 100 first-class hundreds, achieving the coveted landmark in the game against Somerset at Bristol. As if to celebrate, he went on to hit up 288 out of a total of 474. Grace was the lone man to achieve these two distinctions in the 19th century. He topped the run tally for the season with 2346 runs. The next year he made his third triple century, two decades after he had compiled his first two.    

Amazingly, Grace was captain of Gloucestershire from 1871 to 1898. He led England in 13 Tests, playing 22 in all and scoring 1098 runs at an average of 32.29 with two centuries both at the Oval against Australia, 170 being the highest in 1886. Though he played his last first-class match in 1908, when he was sixty, the same year that Bradman was born, W.G.’s career was effectively over by the close of the nineteenth century. His final appearance at Lord’s for The Gentlemen was in 1899. He was still captain but did not bowl, and batted only at no. 7, instead of his customary position at the top of the order. He scored 78 before being run out, his age and bulk unable to meet the demands of sprinting up and down the pitch with youthful partners.

As Marks noted: “The Gentlemen won by an innings, which was hardly surprising since the side contained many of the men who were to become legendary figures of the Edwardian era (Archie) MacLaren, (C.B.) Fry, (K.S.) Ranjitsinhji, and F.S. Jackson. On the Players side was a 21-year-old Yorkshireman Wilfred Rhodes, who was to have the rare privilege - and pain - of bowling to both W.G. and his Australian counterpart of the next generation, Donald Bradman.”    Grace aggregated 6008 runs for the Gentlemen against the Players - more than twice the next man - and also took 276 wickets.

In addition to his three first-class triple centuries, Grace knocked up 10 double centuries in his tally of 126 three-figure knocks. He made up 1000 runs in a season 28 times, the only other player to achieve it so many times being Frank Woolley. Grace scored a hundred in each innings of a match thrice. His career aggregate of 54,896 runs at an average of 39.55 was then a record. It is remarkable that in such a long career played on uncovered wickets of dubious quality, Grace did not bag a single pair. Lord Harris paid his tribute later: “Grace was just as watchful when his score was 200 as when he was on 0 - and just as reluctant to leave the wicket on dismissal.” He also took 2876 first-class wickets at an average of 17.92 and, as was only to be expected from a man of his temperament, a brilliant fielder off his own bowling. Amazingly, even a century later, W.G. Grace is still fifth in the all-time rungetters list, and sixth among the wicket-takers, in the first-class arena.  

Vic Marks, in The Wisden Illustrated History of Cricket, summed up the career of cricket’s first superstar: “W.G. Grace was to dwarf all others in the period 1865 to 1900. He became as celebrated as Queen Victoria herself. Unwittingly Grace carried the game of cricket into the modern era almost single-handed.” There is indeed little doubt that he transformed the game and the public’s awareness of it. Perhaps appropriately, the last word on Grace should come from his memorial biography published under the auspices of the MCC. Sir Home Gordon eulogised, “That he will never have an equal in the future is to us equally an axiom because never again will the conditions under which it is played be so difficult as they were when he built up his reputation by demonstrating his superiority alike over them and over his contemporaries, a position he holds for decades.”

In the twilight of W.G. Grace’s long career dawned what came to be known as The Golden Age of Cricket. This was the twenty-year period before the First World War - 1894 to 1914. As Hartland explained in his The Balance of Power in Test Cricket 1877-1998: “This is largely because pitches had improved, but not too much, and the balance between bat and ball was just about right. In England cricket was at its highest level of popularity relative to other sports, notably football. Another reason is that England and Australia were more evenly matched than at any time. (Test) Matches in England were still limited to three days, while those in Australia were played to a finish.” Vic Marks added in The Wisden Illustrated History of Cricket, “Most of the innovations had already taken place, now was the time to lie back and enjoy the national game at your leisure. The Empire was secure; all that was to be feared was the possibility of a wet summer.”

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email