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Opinion

Commemorating the birth of Victor Trumper

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Roar Rookie
23rd October, 2020
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In 1877, two momentous events would transform the cricket world in ways that were unimaginable at the time.

As many people are aware, March 15 saw the dawn of Test cricket for the first time where an English side would meet the Australian cricketers on level terms. Eight months later, on November 2, another happening would transform the cricket community.

Very little is known of Victor Trumper’s early days; no one has been able to locate his birth certificate and it is highly likely that he was adopted by his putative parents. Nevertheless, despite this humble beginning, it was not long before he began to make his presence felt.

We know that by age 12 he had forced his way into the Crown Street first XI, and was seen reclining beside teammates five years his senior.

Two years later, in the summer of 1890-91, he established himself as the star batsman, scoring 90 runs at 45 while peers averaged seven, and higher honours were already presumed.

Sure enough, in the very next season, he made his first-grade debut for the Carlton Cricket Club, taking his place alongside Charles Bannerman. At the age of 14 years and 145 days, he remains the second youngest person to debut in Sydney Grade (six days behind G Southwell, who appeared 60 years later).

In 1894-95, Trumper become the youngest player to debut for NSW, aged 17 years and 68 days, and the records were to continue season after season. This appreciation will attempt to convey to a modern audience exactly what all the fuss was about.

Unlike his great successor, the Don, Trumper’s progress was not always linear. His first-grade debut brought the upstart a golden duck; his first-class debut yielded 11 and 0.

By 1896-97, the 19-year-old was yet to establish himself at Grade standard, averaging 3, 4, 28, 33, 8 and 25 in six consecutive seasons. However, the kid made up for lost time with a run of scoring that had never been approached before.

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Consider his scores over the next two-and-half seasons.

1897-98 1898-99 1899-00
Grade 82ro, 123, 125, 84, 120*, 191*, 133, 162* 34, 37, 15, 113, 103, 260* 119, 118
State 5, 0, 48, 13, 12, 12, 4, 23, 68ro, 7, 292*, 68, 0, 4, 19, 0, 15, 23, 253 208, 77, 165, 57, 112, 7

In this list, Trumper’s penultimate state innings was a ‘sticky wicket’ 45 and has been scaled to the normal wicket equivalent of 112.

Although this is ‘only’ grade and state level, no one, including Bradman, had been able to approach this level of mastery at the same age (19-22). In fact, the Don did not reach this standard until 1932-34, in his final years of grade cricket.

It was clear to everyone that Australia had unearthed a cricketer to rival WG Grace.

Moreover, Trumper had completely mastered the art of conventional, orthodox batting. In these 30 months, he demonstrated to every countryman that his powers of concentration, stamina, technical capacity and physical endurance were a match for anyone.

Unhappily, for those who love record-breaking, his appetite for colossal scoring had been satiated. By January 1900, he had delivered his last, needless, monster score.

Bored with this conventional play, and determined to give teammates an equal opportunity, over the next 13 years, in the first innings of the match, Victor would reach 67 on dozens and dozens of occasions without ever going on to double that score (in fact, it was 25 occasions and his highest was 133).

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Hence, it could never be claimed that Victor did not throw his wicket away. In all likelihood, he simply lost concentration, having no desire to maintain his wicket in the pursuit of records. From this point, unless the situation demanded sobriety, Trumper’s play would be characterised by the most daring and outrageous stroke-play imaginable.

Consider this assessment by longtime teammate Bert Shortland.

“Trumper achieves his ends by methods all his own. A coach who teaches the young to shoot along conventional lines would have hysterics watching Trumper. In a big innings, he will hit precisely the same type of ball in four different directions. With him, batting is never mechanical.

“To ninety-nine per cent of first-class batsmen, a ball must be hit by a certain type of stroke. If it is a certain kind of ball, he plays it in a way which comes natural to him after long experience. Wily captains get to know this and place their fieldsmen accordingly, in order to make a terrific exhibition of hitting go for nothing. It is not so with Trumper.

“Of all batsmen, he is the despair of an opposing captain. Placing the field for him is a hopeless business. One ball will be cut to the boundary. A precisely similar ball is sent down in the same over. According to all custom, the stroke should be repeated. Just as likely as not it will be hooked to the other boundary. Now, what is a captain to do when a batsman runs amok in that fashion? He has the skill to get the ball away to the fence in a variety of ways with strokes which would be suicidal to anyone else trying to copy them.” (The Sunday Sun, Sydney, February 6, 1913, p.1)

This gives one a pretty fair insight into how Trumper approached his cricket and why his averages are not what people have come to expect.

Furthermore, no one had the slightest reservation as to the outcome should he decide to revert to orthodox play. Such a transformation away from his preferred daredevil style required a major challenge, in other words, a calamity in the game.

In a recent article, a fellow Roarer highlighted the performances of Trumper in losing causes, describing him as one of the greatest ‘clutch’ batsmen. I would like to explore this theme in a little more depth.

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In the aforementioned study, several of the lost matches saw the Australians level, or even in front, when Trumper’s turn had arrived (the Oval Test of 1902 is one example).

Victor Trumper. Image: Wikicommons.

Image: Wikicommons.

In addition, three-day Tests do not lend themselves to great peril since almost any situation can be salvaged with two sessions of stubborn defence, for 60 not out, say. Consequently, authentic calamities occurred in games that were played to the finish, in this era, we are talking about home Tests and Shield matches.

To make this analysis simple and non-controversial, consider every timeless match where Trumper’s team trailed by at least 100 heading into the third innings (capped at a maximum deficit of 295). This happened on five occasions: against Victoria in 1901, versus England in 1903, 1907 and 1908, and against South Africa in 1911.

Trumper’s scores in these five uphill struggles truly defy belief, in order: 230, 185*, 63, 166 and 159. It is worth noting that no other player reached 85, and only Reg Duff passed 56, from the five innings combined.

A study of the second match innings shows the same phenomenon, once again in home Tests and Shield fixtures when chasing at least 380 (a commanding score in this era). They were five occasions: versus England 1901 and 1902, South Australia in 1903, England again in 1904, and against South Africa in 1911. In these five innings, only two players reached 70, Duff 132 and Hill 98.

Trumper’s five scores: 2, 65ro, 178, 74 (on a sticky) and 214*.

I have never known of any batsman who could even come close to this level of absolute mastery, especially when fighting in an apparently lost cause. In fact, Trumper’s team won four of these ten games and lost another three by less than 40 runs.

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In England, where three-day cricket was standard, a third innings deficit of 100 happened on five occasions: against England in 1899, London County and the South of England in 1902, England in 1905 and an England eleven in 1909. Vic’s five scores were (remembering that 60 is usually sufficient to stave-off defeat): 63, 64, 120, 30 and 150.

At the risk of sounding monotonous, no other batsman scored a century and Australia drew all but one, losing the 1905 Test when Trumper ‘failed’ with 30. This rather repetitious collection convinces me that Trumper was the most accomplished player to ever pick up a cricket bat – either that or he was the luckiest batsman in history!

More often than not, Victor’s genius would reveal itself in other ways. For example, he specialised in the ‘first-morning blitzkrieg’; his Old Trafford century before lunch, coming off 95 balls, is easily the fastest in Ashes history (second is Macartney who needed 138 deliveries).

In grade cricket, Trumper scored a staggering 335 off 205 balls in just three hours; a Grade record that stands to this day. His performances on a sticky wicket are legendary.

Eight times a rival captain decided to send in the opposition, knowing that Trumper would open proceedings. In appalling conditions, Victor’s peers batted 48 times for a combined eight innings total of 450 (at 9 per wicket) and only once did a peer reach 40. Trumper’s scores: 45, 0, 16, 46, 58, 47, 51, 25

If we regard a score of 45 as approximating a century in normal conditions, Victor made five ‘hundreds’ and one ‘fifty’, all scored at the rate of 83 per 100 balls. But these weren’t his best sticky-wicket efforts.

In the second Test of the 1903-04 series, Australia were forced to bat on a diabolical pitch. Although his teammates were helpless, Victor stroked 74 out of a total of 122 (made off 80 balls). Given the conditions, this standard of batting was considered impossible.

Wilfred Rhodes, the greatest bowler in such conditions, a man who was to capture 15 for 124 in this match, refused to maintain his normal line to Victor, pitching them well outside off-stump with the hope of tying him down. Believe it or not, this was not his best performance on a sticky.

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Two years later, in a Shield match at Sydney, Monty Noble decided to go in first even though the wicket had received a thorough soaking in the days prior. JC Davis, the Richie Benaud of 1906, described Noble’s choice as a blunder.

“… the decision gave general surprise. And as soon as play started, it was quite plain that a serious mistake had been made. Saunders at once turned the ball the width of the wicket, and more, and was most difficult to play.” (The Referee, Sydney, January 31, 1906, p.10)

In the event, the NSW top six, which included Noble, Reg Duff, Charlie Macartney and Jim Mackay, tumbled for 88. Trumper, however, experienced no such difficulty, racing to a chanceless hundred off just 64 balls.

As far as I know, there have only been three hundreds scored on an Australian sticky: in 1895, Harry Graham made 105 of 150 balls (roughly), offering four chances, while three years later, Jack Worrall scored 109 from 125 (again with four missed catches), and finally, there is Trumper’s faultless 101.

Given that Victor was scaling such unimaginable heights, it is easy to understand why people went to their grave adamant that Trumper was the greatest player they had seen. The popular refrain was “there will never be another like Victor”.

One last example of his mastery shall be invoked.

The start of a major encounter was always a signal for Trumper to take matters seriously. In his day, the strongest teams beside England were the MCC, the three strongest counties (Yorkshire, Surrey and Lancashire) and, arguably, the England Elevens.

In the golden years of 1899 to 1906, before his period of semi-retirement, Victor batted at the start of these ‘major encounters’ on a total of 20 occasions, 13 on good wickets and the remainder on those rather damaged. Trumper’s performances were as follows:

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Good wickets: 82, 21, 19, 67, 101, 70, 113, 1, 104, 1, 113, 88, 85, 36
Damaged wickets: 0, 27, 38, 31, 3, 46

If we regard 67 as a major score on a good pitch, and 27 the equivalent on those damaged, Victor made 13 major scores from 20 innings (one every 1.5) while peers achieved 11 from 127 (that is, one every 11.5). Even more, if Trumper survived his first six balls, he would convert 13 out 16 into major scores which in any era would be stunning but given this was the Golden Age, and teammates obviously had their work cut out, this level of success defies credibility.

In fact, the reader is challenged to find a similar example of such sustained mastery – a one in twelve achievement (scoring 67) delivered two in every three innings. Unimaginable.

victor-trumper-jumping-out

(George Bedlam, National Portrait Gallery)

It is always prudent to let colleagues speak loudest, for they can provide the deepest insights into this remarkable cricketer. The following quotes and reminiscences give one an idea of the esteem in which he was held.

Before the 1905 tour of England, Trumper’s health was the subject of much speculation and many were concerned that Australia’s star batsman would be unavailable. On learning this, the English captain Archie MacLaren offered the following:

“I sincerely hope the report is an exaggeration, for if Trumper cannot come to England the Australians might as well stop at home. They have no batsman to compare with him. Clem Hill is going off, and new men seldom do well in the first season over here. They will have to bring at least five new men, so if Trumper is an absentee their prospects are very poor indeed.” (The Australian Star, Sydney, May 28, 1904, p.5)

Frank Iredale was an Australian cricketer of the 1880s and 90s and as such, had grown up idolising William Gilbert Grace (WG). Nevertheless, late in Victor’s career, when it was apparent that he had lost some of his former genius, Iredale reflected on Trumper’s impact and standing in the game.

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“To Trumper and he alone Australia owes a position in cricket which no other player can ever lay claim to. To say he once stood alone as a batsman, would be only speaking the truth. One indeed could go further and say that he is the only player the world has known who could lay claim to be considered the equal of WG Grace. Personally, I could go as far as to say that had he been born with the physique of Grace, and played the game in England, he would have outshone that great cricketer.” (The Sydney Mail, December 13, 1911, p.43)

One does not become the editor of cricket’s bible, Wisden, without knowing the game inside-out. For 35 years, starting in 1880, Sydney Herbert Pardon held this position, having watched all the greats from William Grace to Jack Hobbs and Charlie Macartney. As expected, his opinions were always authoritative and treasured. In 1920, having just named the greatest wicketkeeper and bowler he had seen, he was asked to name the greatest batsman.

“Batsmen, my boy? The old man (WG Grace), Steele, Shrewsbury, MacLaren, Jackson, Ranjitsinhji, Hill and Darling, Noble, Ransford – they could all bat a little – but there is one man they would all take their hats off to – his name was Trumper – the greatest batsman of all time.” (The Arrow, Sydney, July 30, 1920, p.14)

Pelham Francis Warner was England’s captain on two successful Australian campaigns and a true patriot. As a teenager, he had worshipped Grace and later Sir Jack Hobbs, but nevertheless, the sight of Trumper’s batsmanship had its usual profound effect.

“I have exhausted my stock of superlatives on the extraordinary player; in my humble opinion, he is the greatest batsman the world has ever seen. To no one does batting appear quite so natural. Grace, Ranji, Fry, MacLaren, Jackson, Hill, of all those superb players, not one, to my mind, is quite the equal of the Australian champion.” (The Evening Journal, Adelaide, March 24, 1911, p.4)

Most cricket fans will have heard of the name Fred Spofforth, probably Australia’s greatest bowler from the 19th century. He too was a contemporary of WG Grace, nonetheless, Spofforth was unequivocal when asked to name the world’s greatest batsman.

“I am often asked who is the greatest batsman I have seen. I think Victor Trumper stands out from the other great ones. I have seen him hitting the bowling about on wickets where the rest of the side were helpless – not by wild slogging, but by perfectly timed strokes.” (The Daily Mercury, Sydney, February 12, 1925, p.2)

I will end this commemorative piece by sharing some amusing anecdotes that have been verified contemporaneously and so are not apocryphal.

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“In a Test at Sheffield in 1902, when Australia won by 143 runs, George Hirst was bowling at Trumper in Australia’s second knock. Every ball of one over swung into Victor’s body, the magician getting four of them away to the leg boundary [the sequence actually went (. 4 . 2 . 2) with two shots going to the leg boundary, plus a late cut]. ‘What’s the matter?’ said MacLaren to Hirst, ‘Can’t you keep them away from his legs?’ ‘They weren’t on his legs!’ said the Yorkshireman, ‘they come from the off right at the leg stump. It is my best ball.’ ‘Well’ was the reply ‘you had better send along some off your other stuff, for if you keep them there he will soon make a century.’ [As it turned out, Victor made 62 off 65 with eight boundaries and four 3s, and Hirst was removed from the firing line in the very next over]. (The Burnie Advocate, December 27, 1928, p.5)

“In the 1930s, at an annual general meeting of the Cumberland Cricket Club, former NSW batsman Gar Waddy told of how the Parramatta men on one occasion laid their plans to ‘check’ Victor Trumper. ‘We decided,’ said Gar, ‘to place all our fieldsmen, except one, on the off, and bowl about two feet outside off-stump. The first ball went down according to plan but Vic stepped across and pulled it to the boundary. After he had repeated the stroke three times, we placed another man on that side, but Vic merely pulled the ball a little farther round. After a few overs, our scheme was all to pieces, and Vic was getting runs on both sides of the wicket.'” (The Cumberland Argus, Sydney, October 22, 1931, p.17)

Previously, a reference was made to the phenomenal 335 that Victor produced in an afternoon of grade cricket. The next story came to light in the days immediately after.

“An incident which occurred on Saturday on the Redfern Bowling Green, where a match was being played against Victoria Park by the local club, is convulsing the lovers of the ‘jack’. Trumper sent several balls onto the bowling green, greatly to the discomfiture of the players, but much to the amusement of the crowd. At one particular juncture, a well-known bowler was occupying the mat, and having taken sight of his opponents wood, was in striking attitude, and already chuckling over a won ‘head’, which he deemed as good as being his. Just as he was delivering the bowl thud came cricket ball immediately in front of him and away went the bowl, but alas! Not near the jack, but into the ditch almost behind him. His look of dismay was too much for the players, who sent up the heartiest roar ever heard on the green, which was raised in volume as the dismayed one angrily inquired, ‘Is this a cricket or a bowling match?’” (The Catholic Press, Sydney, February 05, 1903, p.17)

This represents my third piece on Victor Trumper in The Roar. Several times, in the subsequent debate and discussion, reference has been made to the number of low scores Victor produced throughout his career.

One Roarer put it, “he had some bad series and scored a hell of a lot of low scores in the first innings”. This is a true statement that is at the same time grossly misleading. Reading this, the less informed critic may conclude that Trumper was an unreliable batsman whose defensive technique was somewhat deficient. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A batsman with a questionable defence could never have put together the scores Victor did when his team was behind, or at the start of major contests, or those he produced as a colt, rising through the ranks.

What people fail to realise when they look at Trumper’s low scores, is that here is a player who was talented enough, and confident enough, to believe that he could succeed using methods that are fraught with danger; playing across the line, attacking the new ball, exposing his stumps to play through the offside, all of this Trumper did routinely.

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Edgar Mayne, a former Test cricketer and Victorian captain, had watched him at close quarters and was definitely an admirer. Nevertheless, he strongly advised young cricketers against emulation.

“For the majority to try the methods of Trumper is simply suicidal. There has only been one Trumper, and I don’t think there will ever be another. My view is that young batsmen will do nothing but harm if they try to emulate him.” (The Arrow, Sydney, February 15, 1924, p.1)

Sceptics will consider this is an exaggeration as just hyperbole, however, all the available evidence points in the same direction; at a player who disdained safe play and orthodoxy.

His 1905 series is often quoted as the prime example of an unreliable batsman. Yet no one will describe the manner in which he played; he began these eight innings in the most unbelievable fashion imaginable:

(.1..4.44); (..2.1114…); (..1……2); (.W); (44.3…W); (12.1.4..2.); (4..W); (.14.34….)

If Victor was the least bit worried about his low scores in this series, surely, he would have curbed this devil-may-care attitude? The reality was that, after the first Test, when Victor scored 13 retired hurt, it was a series of dull draws and a match decided by rain.

Cricketers have always been judged based on volume, their total output rather than the standard of their play.

If Trumper was a sprinter performing in the 100 metres, he would have registered several performances around the nine-second mark. His batting achievements — whether dragging his team out of trouble, blowing away opponents on a diabolical pitch, or dominating the finest opposition in the opening session match after match — have not been repeated, and if we are sincere, cannot be repeated.

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The nearest analogy I can think of is to imagine the greatest innings played over the last 50 years: Gary Sobers’ 254 in 1972, Kim Hughes’ 100 not out in 1981, Brian Lara’s 153 not out in 1998 or Steven Smith’s 144 in 2019.

This is the standard of play that Trumper could reach, not on a special day when everything ‘clicked’, but whenever he put his head down.

Such a standard was always within his grasp.