“Many will scratch their heads over the selection of Trumper.”
So mused a critic on learning of Victor Trumper’s selection in an all-time Australian XI.
This article aims to address the seemingly never-ending conundrum that is Trumper’s place among the game’s elite.
The first point to note is that Trumper’s career resembled that of the great boxer, Muhammad Ali. Both experienced an initial phase of unrivalled supremacy (for Trumper, 1900-06 and for Ali, 1960-66), succeeded by four years of semi-retirement, and concluding with a brief return to the days of glory.
Trumper’s reputation was forged in that initial phase, when cricket was his entire focus, before marriage, fatherhood and business took priority. Note during his second phase, Trumper represented NSW in seven of 31 contests.
Controversially, Trumper did not believe that a team sport should be dominated by any one player.
His view, that harmonious teams are characterised by mutual success, may not be shared by the masses but can be consistently found in contemporary reports.
Peers like Clem Hill and Monty Noble often made these assertions on Trumper’s behalf. Consequently, Trumper decided to concentrate his efforts on the first and most critical phase of a match – the first session of play (or the first session in a reply). This was the role he selected and for which he can be appraised.
Finally, Test cricket, as it was played in Australia and South Africa during the Golden Age, was not cricket of the highest calibre.
This may come as a shock but is easily accounted for. Quite simply, England’s best players rarely, if ever, visited the colonies and this is effortlessly verified by the respective performances abroad: eight wins versus 17 defeats. If the world’s 50 best cricketers of 1902 were listed, 44 or 45 would reside in England.
Consider the win-loss record of the Australians from this era, either side of Trumper’s golden years.
In that period, Australia’s winning percentage was 36 against England, 33 against the MCC, 40 against both Surrey and Yorkshire, 50 against Kent, 57 against England in Australia, and 71 against Lancashire.
Amazingly, Australia did better against England at home than against Kent, Surrey, Yorkshire or the MCC. In this epoch, for an Australian to prove his worth, he needed to perform in England.
Integrating these three ideas – Trumper’s scores in the first session of the first innings (approximately 65-plus), the strongest teams in the world were in England, and his reputation was forged between 1900 and 1906 – I have the following table, highlighting the matches played by Trumper against these top sides in the relevant period.
|England XI||67||1||22||14||36||–||–||–||0, 15, 30|
|South Africa 02||18||43||5||1||20||6||6||49||–|
|South Africa 03||70||34||9||11||16||91*||–||3||–|
|England XI||115||35||7||63||10||–||–||–||10, 0|
|England XI||44||10||36||20||52||–||–||–||1, 2|
|England 05||88||9||29||–||32||16||–||–||36, 3|
To the modern reader, opening with a score of 65 may not seem like such a marvelous achievement but consider that Trumper’s opening partner managed it once from 29 innings. Actually, openers from this era would bat 210 times against these same opponents and deliver 15 scores of 65, all up, or one every 14 attempts.
For an Australian opener of the 21st century, a one-in-14 event is a score of 130. This means that for Matthew Hayden, an opener who performed in the first decade of the 21st century, to emulate the deeds of Victor Trumper, an opener who performed in the first decade of the 20th century, Hayden would need to score 130 runs off 148 balls (Trumper’s average scoring rate) and reproduce this standard 18 times in 28 attempts.
This is the reason why Trumper remains unrivalled as the greatest batting exponent in history.