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
    Spiro Zavos

    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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    The Crowd Says (12)

    • Roar Guru

      December 25th 2010 @ 6:08am
      Vinay Verma said | December 25th 2010 @ 6:08am | ! Report

      Spiro,It is always so difficult to compare across eras and especially bowlers one has never seen. Grimmett certainly ranks up the top on his statistics and the hearsay about his being a stormy character. Fingleton in his book lends credence to the animosity between the Catholics and masons.

      I like to limit myself to the bowlers I actually saw live. Of the leggies I saw Benaud,Simpson,Qadir,Gupte,Warne,Kumble and Mushy. Warne by a country mile and then subhas Gupte. Not only did they spin the ball prodigiously but they looked to attack with a shortleg. and two slips sometimes. They were both accurate and also had a streak of the rebel in them. In his own understated way Richie benaud was also a rebel but he had the class to make it seem matter of fact.

    • December 25th 2010 @ 6:52am
      ChrisT said | December 25th 2010 @ 6:52am | ! Report

      Geez I get fed up of this dewey eyed nonsense. Bradman was almostly certainly the best of his era. Grimmett may well be the same. The game is light years apart these days. Can we please stop using the ‘ever’ term. There’s simply no basis for it.

    • December 25th 2010 @ 6:56am
      Atawhai Drive said | December 25th 2010 @ 6:56am | ! Report

      Spiro raises the question of why Clarrie Grimmett decided to migrate to Australia aged 23. It’s a valid question: few if any other NZ cricketers (i.e. ones already playing at first-class level) have trodden that path.

      The answer might be provided by a story I heard on the balcony of a Christchurch club cricket team’s pavilion one summer’s evening in about 1974, as a few of us sat around after practice having a well-earned beer.

      Apparently an Australian team had toured NZ in the early years of the 20th century, a tour that featured unofficial “tests” as well as games against provincial sides, including Wellington. At Wellington, the story goes, a young local leg-spinner called Clarrie Grimmett approached Australia’s champion leggie Arthur Mailey in the nets and humbly asked for some tips. Mailey, later to become renowned as a raconteur and all-round good bloke, wasn’t feeling too benevolent on this occasion and told the young Kiwi to go away in fairly blunt terms.

      For Grimmett, this was his “I’ll show you” moment. Realising that he would have to rely on himself to realise his cricket ambitions, he also realised the only way to develop was to embrace the superior cricket culture of Australia. And so he headed across the Tasman. We all know the rest.

      The story sounds apocryphal and probably is, but it’s interesting to note that on March 20 and 21, 1914, a touring Australian team played Wellington at the Basin Reserve. Rain affected the first day and the match was drawn. Wellington got 151 in their only innings, Arthur Mailey bowling just two overs for eight runs and no wickets. The Australians replied with 237, Victor Trumper top-scoring with 67. Clarrie Grimmett bowled six wicketless overs, conceding 31 runs.

      So who knows where the truth lies? Incidentally, it’s interesting _ although not necessarily significant _ that Clarrie Grimmett never served in World War I. As far as I know, Sheffield Shield cricket continued uninterrupted in the war years.

    • December 25th 2010 @ 3:49pm
      Plasmodium said | December 25th 2010 @ 3:49pm | ! Report

      Atawhai – I believe Grimmett never served because he was deemed unfit. Seeing that he died in his mid to late thirties in 1915, this sounds about right.

      Spiro – a timely post given the approach of the test and the date. Grimmett was born on a day sacred to the Persian-Roman god Mithra, originator of the Mithraic Mysteries, and I’ve read that an erudite English cricket writer thought this appropriate as Grimmett’s deliveries mystified many a batsman. Apparently he had his own technique – he placed his index finger along the outside edge of the stitching which he said gave him better purchase.

      He was way too early for me, of course, as was Bill O’Reilly, but I was watching cricket when Colin McCool played, a clever leggie who sharpened his skills by bowling to Bradman in the nets on tour. McCool was brought up in Paddington which, when I was a kid, was known as Paddo, an ungentrified area back then where a sideways glance could lose you a few teeth.
      McCool went to the same school as Trumper, Crown Street, another tough spot, Against Hammond’s team he took eight wickets in one test and scored 95 with the bat, then got his century in the next test. He was a good example of a spin bowler who knew what the opposition spin bowlers were serving up to him. He was a tremendous success in English county cricket as an all rounder, and was a marvel in the slips.

      He reminds me a little of your own Jeff Wilson as Colin also played some serious rugby.

      • December 25th 2010 @ 4:30pm
        Atawhai Drive said | December 25th 2010 @ 4:30pm | ! Report

        Plasmodium . . . as Spiro wrote, Grimmett was born on December 25, 1891, so he was 22 years old when World War I broke out in 1914 and was not quite 27 when it finished in November 1918. He died on May 2, 1980, aged 88. If he had died in 1915 he would never have played Test cricket.

        • September 26th 2013 @ 11:57pm
          Jeff Thomas said | September 26th 2013 @ 11:57pm | ! Report

          I believe Plasmodium was thinking about Victor Trumper, who died in 1915 in his mid-30s.. just typed Grimmett because their names were referenced together in your comment.

    • December 25th 2010 @ 11:45pm
      Hooplah said | December 25th 2010 @ 11:45pm | ! Report

      Problem is for Kiwis, to make a name for yourself you gotta move to the mainland or you are just irrelevant. Russell Crowe, Phar Lap and Lion Nathan Breweries.

      • December 26th 2010 @ 6:32pm
        Je Geniko said | December 26th 2010 @ 6:32pm | ! Report

        “…move to the mainland….” a.k.a the West Island.

        Sorry, I could not resist…

    • December 26th 2010 @ 7:14am
      Plasmodium said | December 26th 2010 @ 7:14am | ! Report

      Atawhai – you’re quite right, I erred. Maybe Grimmett was just too smart to fight in such a colossal blunder as WW1. Many other sportsmen weren’t as prescient and paid for it – like Noel Chavasse who repped GB in the 1908 Olympics, Jack Morkel who was a Springbok. And somebody you must know very well: David Gallaher who captained The Originals.

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