Here are some of the best cricketers in world history who do not get the respect they deserve.
27th May 1878. England are the undisputed kings of the game they invented, and the MCC are playing the visiting Australians at Lord’s.
Fred Spofforth tears in to bowl at the mighty MCC, and leads their destruction by helping dismiss them twice in one day, for scores of 33 and 19. Spofforth picks up ten for 20 that day. But it’s not so much how many wickets he takes but more about how he does it.
Spofforth dismisses the redoubtable W.G. Grace for duck to start off proceedings. He jumps in the air and shouts “Bowled! Bowled! Bowled!”. At in the dressing room at the end of the session, he is still pumped up and keeps saying “Ain’t I a demon? Ain’t I a demon?”
The name sticks. He is thereafter known as ‘The Demon Bowler’.
Not only does this performance permanently establish the reputation of Australia as a force to be reckoned with in cricket, Spofforth also becomes the first fast bowler in the world to stamp his dominance on batsmen by going up to them, staring them in the eye, and scaring them into submission – even before the next missile comes down the pitch at them. This is a sight we then see time and again in modern cricket.
And as if that is not enough, on August 29th 1882, with England needing 85 runs to win the Test at Melbourne, Spofforth tells his disheartened teammates, “Boys, this thing can be done”. Then he proceeds to take 7-44 and lead Australia to an unlikely and famous victory by seven runs.
This victory gives birth to The Ashes series.
But Frank The Demon Bowler Spofforth is far from being the only cricketer the fans of today have forgotten.
Until 100 years ago, cricket was America’s most widely played team game, and then baseball displaced it.
And Bart King, the cricketer, was the best known American of his time in England.
While it was played all over, cricket thrived most in and around Philadelphia. In 1905, 400 matches were played in Philadelphia. In 1912, Philadelphia defeated the Australian Test side by two runs. King, then 39, took 9-78 for the match with his fast in-swing.
But his entire career was pretty remarkable. In a 24-year career from 1892 to 1916, he took more than 2000 wickets at 10.47 runs apiece. In 1908, in this third tour of England, King topped the English bowling averages, the only American ever to do so.
His 87 wickets cost 11.01 runs apiece, which remained the best figures for an English season until 1958. For good measure, he became the first American to score a triple century – 315 in 1905, and then followed that with 344 not out in 1906.
Bart King – a talent who would undoubtedly have ranked among the all time greats if he had played for England or Australia at the time.
Neville Cardus famously described him as ‘the Midsummer Night’s dream of cricket’. Unorthodox, with fast reactions, he revolutionised the game, by introducing the back foot technique for both defence and attack, in the process, inventing the leg glance.
Ranji is widely regarded as one of the greatest batsmen of all time. And his is indeed a remarkable story.
Born into a farmer’s family in the state of Nawanagar in India, adopted by the ruling family of the State, introduced to cricket at Cambridge, Ranji was playing for Sussex within three years of joining Trinity College.
He would have played for England in the first Test of the 1896 season, but Lord Harris, who had just come back from a colonial stint in India, opposed his inclusion on the grounds of race. He was chosen by a different committee for the second Test in July 1896, and after a 42 not out in the first innings, scored 154 not out in the second and almost saved England from defeat.
The next highest English score on that last day was 19.
Ranji played 15 Tests for England with a high score of 175 and an average just shy of 45. He retired from cricket, returned to India, and unexpectedly found himself on the throne after the untimely death of his cousin.
He remained The Maharajah of Nawanagar until his death in 1933.
Today, sadly, Ranji is remembered only because India’s premier domestic cricket competition carries his name.
Born in 1917, Martin Donnelly was one of New Zealand’s finest batsmen. Because of the war years, he played only two series, one before and after the war. But, he made those seven Tests count like few batsmen have done before or after him in such a short career.
Donnelly, was a flamboyant, risk-loving strokeplayer, with nimble footwork and was renowned for playing the ball late. Neville Cardus said of him “…had a touch of style, of class. What England would have done had he been one of us and available for selection in 1948…”.
Unfortunately, Donnelly played for one of the weakest teams of his era. His record is remarkable, precisely because of this. An average of 52.90 from seven Tests with a high score of 206 scored at Lord’s in 1949. In fact in the 1949 series, he had a remarkable average of 77.00, which helped the unfancied Kiwis hold the English to a 0-0 series draw. His 206 remains the only Test double-hundred by a New Zealand batsman on English soil.
And between his two Test series, Donnelly fought in World War 2 and served as a Tank Commander in Egypt in 1941. He also represented England against Ireland in rugby in 1947.
He quit cricket at an early age (he found fishing a more attractive pastime), and went on to become a successful businessman based in Sydney.
Donnelly was inducted into the New Zealand Hall of Fame in 1990, and remains perhaps the only Kiwi cricketer on that list who never played a home Test.
These were hardly the only greats who we rarely hear about. But it’s a start.
It’s time we remember the greats who played the sport we love so much, and celebrate their place in history that time and circumstance has robbed them of. That would be justice delayed, but finally delivered.