25 December 1891: The best ever spinner born in NZ

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Clarrie Grimmett was born at Dunedin NZ on 25 December 1891. In my opinion, the statistics of his first-class and Test career make a strong (possibly unassailable) case that he was the greatest spin bowler who ever played the game of cricket.

Grimmett was small, wiry and seemingly inexhaustible. He bowled with his cap on, probably to hide the fact that he was going bald which, in turn, was a clue to his advanced age for a Test cricketer.

He had a loping, Groucho Marx-type run-in. His delivery was round-arm, lower than Shane Warne and a far cry from the classical high, brushing the ear delivery of Richie Benaud. This style gave Grimmett great accuracy. He was also able to get the ball above the eye-level of the batsman before dipping sharply and spinning.

From his round-arm point of delivery, Grimmett snapped his wrists to impact a terrific spin on the ball. His deliveries hummed on its way down to the batsman. Batsmen were often stranded and stumped.

Warne talked a lot about developing mystery balls. But he never delivered. Grimmett, along with Bosanquet who invented the ‘Bosie’ or wrong’un, invented the other great weapon in the armoury of the right-hand leg spinner, the top spinner.

Grimmett practised for 12 years on developing the top spinner, a ball that skids through low and fast and is fatal for batsmen essaying a pull or a hook. The story is that his dog used to retrieve the balls Grimmett bowled as he toiled away to master the new delivery to knock over opposing batsmen.

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding Grimmett. He made his first class debut in Wellington at the age of 17. When he was 23 he immigrated to Australia. Why? The theory is that he wanted to play Test cricket, and New Zealand was not a Test-playing nation at the time.

Grimmett spent three years playing club cricket in Sydney. He spent another six year playing in Victoria, where he finally got to play some first class cricket. It was not until he moved once more to South Australia in 1923, at the age of 32, that he regularly played Sheffield Shield cricket.

A year later, he started his Test career.

I once asked Bill O’Reilly why it took Grimmett, or’ my mate Grum’ as he called him, so long to break into Test and first-class cricket. Was there some discrimination against him because he was a New Zealander?

O’Reilly insisted that this was not the case. There were many leg spinners in Australia at the time and Grimmett had to work his way to the top of the list. In the Australian dressing room, Tiger O’Reilly assured me, Grimmett identified entirely as an Australian and was accepted as a mate by most of the dressing room.

I say ‘most’ because Grimmett, like O’Reilly and Jack Fingleton, did not get on with Don Bradman. In the case of O’Reilly and Fingelton, two Catholics of Irish background, the hostility related to the fact that Bradman was a Mason, in the days when Catholics and Masons were essentially enemies.

Grimmett’s problem was that he often talked about the fact that he could get Bradman out. The Don never liked bowlers who made this sort of boast. Cricket historians believe that this mutual hostility was the reason why Bradman insisted on dropping Grimmett for the 1936/37 Ashes series in Australia and from the 1938 tour to England.

Now for some of Grimmett’s statistics to prove the case for his ‘best ever spinner’ status. Most of these statistics are taken from Ashley Mallett’s excellent biography ‘Scarlet: Clarrie Grimmett- Test Cricketer’.

Grimmett played 248 first class matches, from 1911 to 1941 and took 1424 wickets at an average of 22.38. He took five or more wickets in an innings 127 times and match hauls of 10 wickets or more on 33 occasions.

Mallett asserts that a five-wicket bag equates with a century in an innings. If this is truth, he argues, then Grimmett’s bowling record is better (slightly) than Bradman’s batting figures of 117 centuries in 234 matches.

In Test cricket, Grimmett’s figures were just as amazing. These statistics are recorded on Wikipedia.

He played 37 Tests between 1924 and 1936 (when he was in his middle 40s), taking 216 wickets  at 24.21 runs a wicket. He took an average of six wickets a Test.

He is the only bowler to have taken 200 Test wickets in fewer than 40 Tests.

He is only one of two bowlers (Dilip Doshi is the other one) that played their first Test after the age of 30 and took over 100 wickets.

He took five wickets in an innings 21 times, and 10 wickets in a Test on seven occasions. These are Bradmanlike statistics.

As a measure of his control, Grimmett bowled 73,987 balls in first class cricket. He never bowled a wide or a no-ball.

Grimmett was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 1996 as one of the 10 inaugural members. He was a man of strong opinions, many of which Mallett has recorded.

He once told Bradman, ‘Oh you’re a bloody squib, Bradman!’ when the great batsman avoided the strike during a vigorous attack from fast bowler Ernie McCromick in the last half hour of play. The next day, though, Bradman belted 192 before losing his wicket (suspiciously, according to Hans Ebeling) before the second new ball.

Grimmett rated Victor Trumper, to whom he once bowled one over, as a better batsman than Bradman. Trumper, he argued, was able to master all conditions better than Bradman who was lethal on hard, true pitches.

Scarlet: Clarrie Grimmett by Ashley Mallett. The Cricket Publishing Company, Post Office Box W27, West Pennant Hills, NSW 2125

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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