Victor Trumper is one of the most revered cricketers in Australian sporting history.
A man universally loved at the time for his strength of character, integrity, honesty, general warmth and generosity to a fault. Oh, and he was one of the most stylish and daring batsmen of his, or any time.
People loved Trumper for his attractive batting. Not only did he generally score his runs quickly, but he did so with a grace rarely seen.
The photo of Trumper striding out (side on), bat back-raised high, ready to swing down into a cover drive, is an iconic sporting moment.
» The Khawaja snub: Now it’s personal
» Can Steve Smith win another Allan Border Medal tonight?
» Meet Chadd Sayers, Australia’s unlikely new Test paceman
» Street cricket at sundown on Australia Day
» Scorecard: Australia vs India T20
Unlike Bradman, who came after him, Trumper never possessed the attitude of grinding down the bowlers every time he batted for as big a score as possible. This was Bradman’s mantra, but not Trumper’s.
Vic believed once he had set his team on the road to a good total, or had saved them from a batting collapse, it was time to step aside and let someone else enjoy his “day in the sun.”
Trumper came from the ‘golden age’ of cricket, circa 1895-1914. These players of the ‘heroic era’ had a different outlook.
For them style, both literally and figuratively, was a constant companion of substance. Not superior, not inferior, but a mate striding side by side.
These players were from the same time and had the same philosophy as the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He said “the most important thing in the Olympic games is not to win, but to take part.”
Old Vic lived his life, both on and off the cricket pitch, by this creed. However, Victor Trumper is also a divisive figure, although this has nothing to do with the man himself.
Often when chosen in an all-time Australian cricket XI, his selection raises eyebrows, especially among more recent devotees of cricket. ‘But his Test average is only 39.05, they exclaim!’
Indeed, this is the enduring problem of statistics. As often quoted, stats are like the bikini – what they show is revealing, but what they hide is crucial!
You would think a stats-dominant sport like cricket would be easier to decipher with so many stats to fall back on. Perhaps only MLB (baseball) can match cricket for its myriad of stats.
But those who are entirely or mostly dependent on stats will soon find that it is often an unforgiving path to follow that becomes more and more confusing instead of enlightening.
It is almost impossible to appreciate how differently the environment is that David Warner bats in today compared to the environment Victor Trumper batted in 100 years and more ago.
Today, the cricket batsman is protected by state of the art equipment, from helmets with grills, to body padding, elbow guards, thigh pads, plus the obligatory gloves, protective ‘valuables’ box and leg pads.
Fear of death is almost non-existent – albeit the Phil Hughes tragedy shows that cricket can still be unsafe.
But this was a fluke accident. In Trumper’s time, death was a much more potential scenario for the careless or the unwatchful.
There were no helmets back then, just caps and sunhats. Indeed, helmets only came into vogue around 1976.
Today, Warner can hang his bat out and if the ball catches a thick edge it will run way quickly to the boundary for a four. Today’s bats have a 95 per cent sweet spot, meaning even a mistimed shot can look good.
The pitches are generally well-rolled with an even surface, while the outfields can be as smooth and fast as glass. Boundaries have been shortened for safety and security.
In Trumper’s day, although pitches were rolled andamp; the outfields cut, the technology wasn’t as advanced as today.
Bounce could be variable, with the ball sometimes flying awkwardly at the head, or off at an acute angle inwards or outwards.
And all this before we talk about ‘sticky wickets.’ Until the early 1960s, pitches were left uncovered and open to the elements.
With a sticky wicket, as I understand it, the bounce becomes lower because of the water that has permeated the pitch, causing the ball to seemingly ‘stick.’
Playing normal cricket shots becomes difficult. However, as the sun dries the wicket, different parts of the pitch will dry at different rates.
If a ball hits a dry spot, it will fly off at either an alarming height or angle. Again, conventional batting techniques are tested to the limit and beyond.
It was not unusual ‘back in the day’ for a captain to reverse his batting order on a sticky wicket, in the hope that by the time the specialists arrive, the wicket will be playing more truly.
Because of the advantages Warner appears to enjoy today from technology compared to Trumper 100 years ago, it’s almost impossible to know how many runs Trumper loses by comparison. But it’s an exercise still worth pursuing.
Indeed, as someone I read said the other day, that while the technology of the cricket ball has hardly changed in 100 years, bats, pitches, outfields and protective equipment have undergone a massive turnover.
Have a look at the three tables I have constructed below. The first table shows the best 10 Test Australian batting averages of the first 50 years, 1877-1926.
The second table table shows the best 12 Australian batting averages from the second fifty years, 1927-76.
Finally, the third table shows the best 12 Australian batting averages of the past 40 years, 1977-2016.
Table 1: Top 10 Test batting averages, 1877-1926
1. Jack Ryder – 20 Tests, 51.63. [career exclusively post-WW1, 1920-28]
2. Herbie Collins – 19 Tests, 45.03. [career exclusively post-WW1,1920-26]
3. Charlie Macartney – 35 Tests, 41.78. [career both sides of WW1, 1907-26]
4. Warren Bardsley – 41 Tests, 40.48. [career both sides of WW1, 1909-26]
5. Clem Hill – 49 Tests, 39.2. [career exclusively pre-WW1, 1896-1912]
6. Victor Trumper – 48 Tests, 39.05. [career exclusively pre-WW1, 1899-1912]
7. Warwick Armstrong – 50 Tests, 38.69. [career both sides of WW1, 1901-21]
8. Vernon Ransford – 20 Tests, 37.84. [career exclusively pre-WW1, 1907-12]
9. Charlie Kelleway – 26 Tests, 37.42. [career both sides of WW1, 1909-28]
10. Jack Gregory – 24 Tests, 36.97 [career exclusively post-WW1, 1920-28]
Note that of the cricketers who played exclusively before 1914, Hill and Trumper, had the best batting averages. Ryder’s post-war effort appears a misnomer. He was apparently very good, but not that good a batsman.
Table 2: Top 12 Test batting averages, 1927-76
1. Don Bradman – 52 Tests, 99.94. [1928-48]
2. Neil Harvey – 79 Tests, 48.41. [1047-63]
3. Doug Walters – 74 Tests, 48.26. [1965-81]
4. Bill Ponsford – 29 Tests, 48.23. [1924-34]
5. Stan McCabe – 39 Tests, 48.21. [1930-38]
6. Bill Lawry – 67 Tests, 47.15. [1961-70]
7. Bob Cowper – 27 Tests, 46.84 [1964-68]
8. Bob Simpson – 62 Tests, 46.82. [1957-78]
9. Bill Brown – 22 Tests, 46.82. [1934-48]
10. Lindsay Hassett – 43 Tests, 46.56. [1938-53]
11. Arthur Morris – 46 Tests, 46.49. [1946-55]
12. Bill Woodfull – 35 Tests, 46.00. [1926-34]
Sid Barnes averaged 63, but his 13 Tests were considered too few for inclusion. Note that after Bradman, not one other batsman, almost all of them greats of Aussie cricket, reached a Test average of 50.
Table 3: Top 12 Test batting averages, 1977-2016
1. Steve Smith – 39 Tests, 57.90. [career continuing]
2. Greg Chappell – 87 Tests, 53.86. [1970-84]
3. Ricky Ponting – 168 Tests, 51.85. [1995-2013]
4. Mike Hussey – 79 Tests, 51.53. [2006-12]
5. David Warner – 49 Tests, 51.34. [career continuing]
6. Steve Waugh – 168 Tests, 51.06. [1985-2004]
7. Matt Hayden – 103 Tests, 50.74. [1994-2011]
8. Allan Border – 156 Tests, 50.56. [1978-2004]
9. Michael Clarke – 119 Tests, 49.11. [2004-15]
10. Adam Gilchrist – 96 Tests, 47.61. [1999-2011]
11. Dean Jones – 52 Tests, 46.55. [1986-1992]
12. Damian Martyn – 67 Tests, 46.38. [1992-2006]
Of the 10 Aussie batsmen to average over 50 in Tests, eight have achieved this in the past 40 years, and seven in the past 20-25 years. This also assumes that Smith and Warner more or less retain their current productivity.
Are these guys really better than the ones that went before? Or are they enjoying the greater benefits of improved technology?
I don’t know for sure, but I think there has to be a counter-balance somewhere. I think sometimes that when converting to today’s conditions, Hill and Trumper are worth a 10 point increase in their averages, to 49.22 and 49.05 respectively. This makes them seriously good players.
Or perhaps some, but not all of today’s batsmen, might require a five point reduction in their average to bring them in line with those players from 1927-76.
Trying to establish the true worth of players across many generations is an amazingly difficult endeavour, but one I enjoy, all the same. I’ll keep burrowing away, in the hope of always getting closer to the absolute truth.
The great Don Bradman said, when contemplating this same dilemma, “a champion in one era is a champion in any era.”
For me, this is always a good place to start, when considering this exercise in any sport.