One hundred and five years since his untimely death, Victor Trumper’s renown for statistical mediocrity remains intact. The widely held view that his reputation is not supported by ‘on field performance’ continues as one of cricket’s enduring delusions.
Brave is the enthusiast who dares to rank Trumper alongside the world’s greatest match-winners: Jack Hobbs, Walter Hammond, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Brian Lara, or Graeme Pollock. Some even contend that Victor grades below his great colleague, Clem Hill. The notion of comparing Trumper with the greatest of all run makers is to most people, laughable.
Interestingly, the vast majority of cricketers blessed with the good fortune to watch both considered Trumper the more accomplished. To the best of my knowledge, 18 of Victor’s peers offered a verdict – Monty Noble, Clem Hill, Hanson Carter, Vernon Ransford, Charlie Macartney, James Kelly, Warwick Armstrong, Joe Darling, Hugh Trumble, Jack Ryder, Herbie Collins, Hunter Hendry, Arthur Mailey, Len Braund, Wilfred Rhodes, Francis Jackson, Percy Perrin and Kumar Ranjitsinhji – and of this group only one considered Don Bradman superior (Rhodes).
Most historians discount the value of such testimony claiming that loyalty and nostalgia mitigate against sound judgment and, while I concede that bias is certainly a factor, to explain away such an overwhelming conclusion as pure partisanship is to grossly overstate the power of prejudice.
For example, Greg Chappell was an outstanding batsman, one of the very best, but you will never hear a colleague claim that he was better than Bradman. Bias alone is insufficient to bridge the gap.
Now contemplate another thought-provoking detail. Five Englishmen (James Lillywhite, Charles Lawrence, Allan Steele, Walter Read and John Shutter) who played alongside the phenomenal W.G. Grace, and would later watch Trumper, ranked the Australian as superior. That is, Trumper’s genius managed to overcome the bias of nationality and generation. Think about that for a moment, imagine a contemporary of Sachin Tendulkar, watching an Australian circa 2030 and deciding that the chap from ‘down-under’ was the more accomplished. Impossible.
Nevertheless, testimony aside, the modern critic is not loath to look at Trumper’s Test average and assert that 39.04 disqualifies him from a place among the game’s elite. Some have gone as far as to say that with his average of 99.94, Bradman was two and a half times better.
These types of comparisons are based on the assumption that both men went out to bat with the idea of making as many runs as possible. No one who saw Trumper would make this assertion. Here is what contemporaries thought.
“The Lancastrians used to declare that in the days of the famous Trumper-Duff combination, the locals were really more pleased to see the back of Duff than Trumper. Why? Because the Duff lad is too blooming sound, he plays the correct game all the time, and my word he takes some shifting, but the other chap is a merry lad who smacks them to all parts of the ground, but he is daring, he takes risks and gives us a chance. The other chap is for keeps all the time” (The Daily Telegraph, February 5, 1913, p.16)
“Trumper has only made four centuries in these (Shield) matches, which may be ascribed to his taking extraordinary risks.” (The Arrow, January 3, 1913, p.8)
“The fact that Trumper’s method of attaining runs – extreme brilliancy – is against high scores makes his record all the more remarkable.” (Beaudesert Times, January 31, 1913, p.8)
“When Trumper plays a straight bat driving game his is still a wonder; but he is rarely able to play the orthodox game.” (The Referee, August 11, 1909, p.12)
“Trumper’s wicket fell at Chatswood on his first appearance for Gordon. In trying to take a straight ball from C Docker to the on-side. It is a favourite way VT has of getting out.” (The Referee, December 04, 1909, p.2)
“Looking at Trumper, I expect to see him lose his wicket every ball, and though that ball is often a long time coming I do not seem surprised when he loses his wicket.” (The Mail, April 15, 1903, p.944)
“Trumper has seldom taken his cricket seriously. What I mean is this – that he has never gone to the wicket to stonewall or play for averages.” (The Mail, September 21, 1910, p.54)
“Victor Trumper stands unrivalled, even by Ranjitsinhji, as the man who plays the game for his side, and for that reason it is hardly correct to consider him when dealing with statistics.” (The Mail, January 11, 1911, p.53)
“He (Jack Gregory) is essentially a great man for a great occasion. In this respect he resembles Victor Trumper, who did not care a continental whether he made runs or not in many matches. He went in and derived delight from taking risks and plugging the ball in all sorts of ways impossible to other men in ordinary matches. But when his side was up against it, the real fighting Trumper came to light.” (The Arrow, May 06, 1921, p.7)
The list of quotes in this vein could stretch for miles but the point has been made. Now, although Trumper did not take his average seriously, we do know that his run scoring was based around the needs of the side; put him against a soft opponent or in match destined to be drawn and he would be dismissed for next to nothing. As far as I can tell, Victor is the only batsman of repute who never reached 88 in any soft situation (that is, drawn matches, easy opponents, and in the second innings when comfortably placed).
Furthermore, these are the very circumstances where most batsmen make their greatest scores. To cite one example, there have been 97 innings of 250 or more in Test cricket, 75 of these were made in drawn games or against the weaker nations of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
Accordingly, let us make an impartial comparison between the two legends of Australian cricket using only data from matches that were decided, and in their most important stage.
– the first innings of games against England;
– the first innings against other nations where the opposition dominate from the start;
In choosing this approach, I have made the following assumptions:
(A) Drawn matches are not particularly competitive. Usually the pitch is too flat for either side to claim 20 wickets and so these games are ignored;
(B) Decided matches against England were always competitive;
(C) Decided matches against the weaker nations (South Africa, West Indies, and India) were not usually competitive, unless they began with a great score (more than 400);
(D) The first hundred is the serious part of an innings, these are the runs which are made for the team. Unless the side is in trouble, runs beyond 100 benefit the individual far more than they help the team. Hence, hundreds are treated as 100 not out unless the side was behind (these scores are underlined).
The following tables list the performances of each player in the given conditions, all of Trumper’s 29 decided Ashes contests plus one game against South Africa, where the Proteas started with a intimidating 482; and Bradman’s 27 decided Ashes contests plus one game where the West Indies led-off with 6/350 declared, leaving Australia to bat on a wet surface.
|E 28-29||E 1930||WI 30-31||E 32-33||E 1934||E 1936-37||E 1938||E 46-47||E 1948|
|18, 79, 40, 123||8, 254, 232||43||0, 8, 76, 48||29, 36, 244||38, 0, 13, 26, 169||103||187, 234, 12||138, 38,33, 0|
|E 1899||E 01-02||E 1902||E 03-04||E 1905||E 07-08||E 1909||SA 10-11||E 11-12|
|135*,||2, 0, 65ro, 7, 27||1, 104, 42||1, 74, 113, 7, 88||13*, 11||43, 49, 4, 0, 10||10, 28, 27*||214*||113, 13,26, 17, 5|
Summary (centuries) (Half centuries on a sticky are considered as the equivalent of a hundred in ‘normal’ conditions)
Bradman: one every 3.1 innings; (Peers: one every 8.4)
Trumper: one every 4.7 innings; (Peers: one every 61)
Averages (Trumper’s 74 is recorded as 70 not out. At this point, Australia had reached the follow-on target and the goal was to get out and make England bat on the diabolical surface, as quickly as possible. This is confirmed in the match reports (The Age, January 5, 1904, p.5), Trumper was caught on the fence, at long-on.)
Bradman: 1468-20, average 73.4; (Peers: 5698-127, average 44.9) – percentage above peers: 64%
Trumper: 1180-22, average 53.6; (Peers: 4605-180, average 25.6) – percentage above peers: 110%
Considering that these innings represent the most important matches of his career, this is a mighty performance by Trumper. His numbers compare more than favourably with the greatest of all run makers. Not surprisingly, the absolute numbers favour Don, but the real meaning is derived by the comparative figures. Notwithstanding the Golden Age reputation for low scores, it’s hard to believe that Trumper’s peers made just three hundreds from 183 attempts.
For all the comparisons between Hill and Trumper, in the crunch moments of the crunch games, there is really no basis for comparison. Hill made a century in their first game together, at Lord’s, where they both made hundreds and then never did it again.
In total, Clem scored 786 runs at 30.2 which pales beside Victor’s 53.6 and yet, Hill was clearly the next best. A player as celebrated as Warwick Armstrong could do no better than score 561 at 23.4, with a top score of 60.
Perhaps the most telling statistic is this, in the 30 major contests of Trumper’s career the Australians registered nine centuries: Hill, Noble and Ransford made one each and Trumper scored the rest.
This gives one an insight into the magnitude of Victor’s success and his staggering influence. It is also worth recording that before his period of semi-retirement (1906-1910) where marriage, family and business took precedence, he made four centuries from 15 innings (plus scores of 88, 65 run out and a sticky-wicket, 27). In the Golden Age, this level of performance was unthinkable. Underneath is the comparison with Bradman when both were at their peak (their first eight years).
Summary at their peak
Bradman: 985-16, average 61.6; (Peers: 4109-91, average 45.2) – percentage above peers: 36%
Trumper: 634-11, average 57.6; (Peers: 2053-81, average 25.3) – percentage above peers: 128%
When it mattered, Trumper outperformed peers by a margin that is truly breathtaking. In addition, from the top of the order, he scored runs faster than any specialist batsman (at 68 per 100 balls) until the advent of Virender Sehwag.
Of course, without the inclusion of second-innings performances, the significant ones, this study does not provide a complete picture and the reader can anticipate a future article which addresses this question. For the moment, it is worth noting that Trumper performed even better in the second half of major contests, scoring 185*, 166, 159, 63 and 50 from ten such innings.
Anyone who questions the status of Trumper as the greatest of batsmen has not done their homework. By the age of 22, Trumper had conquered the art of conventional batting; play with a straight bat, avoid the dangerous strokes, wait for the bowlers to tire and for the ball to lose shine.
Victor found this approach dreary and monotonous and so his default setting was to play in the most brilliant and hair-raising fashion, which the earlier quotes make abundantly clear.
However, when it counted, he imposed himself on the opposition in a manner that has rarely, if ever, been approached. Peers understood this in 1920 and as cricket lovers who enjoy celebrating the greatest exponents, this fact ought to be acknowledged one hundred years later.