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Australia's greatest: Victor and the Don

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Roar Rookie
9th July, 2021
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1612 Reads

“Many a time when Trumper was batting and the team was in a safe position some player in the dressing room would call out ‘Vic’s 95, or 96 … Who’s in next?’”

I had a great chuckle when I first came across this remark which sounds like a good old-fashioned yarn and not something to be taken seriously.

As a matter of fact I have investigated the claim and discovered that it is not apocryphal. Australian wicketkeeper Hanson Carter made the remark in the vicinity of a young and impressionable Warren Bardsley, who recalled the event 20 years later in his memoirs.

Digging a little deeper, we can see that in first-class cricket Victor made 11 centuries in the first innings a match – that is, when there was no possibility that his team could be in trouble – and they read as follows: 101, 113, 104, 125, 113, 108, 110, 101, 133, 105, 113.

Carter was offering sage advice: if you were scheduled to go in next and Trumper was 95 or 96, you could expect to be out there within the next ten minutes.

Victor’s disdain for easy runs is well known among scholars. His record in drawn Test matches merely confirms the obvious, but when his numbers are compared with Australia’s greatest batsmen, the contrast is spectacular: Don Bradman (111.9), Steve Smith (106.6), Allan Border (68.8), Matthew Hayden (60.0), Greg Chappell (59.0), Ricky Ponting (52.0) and Trumper (23.3).

Now, if the point of comparison is switched to situations where the team is losing, Trumper’s position is reversed: Trumper (62.3), Bradman (45.8), Border (34.0), Hayden (31.1), Smith (28.9), Chappell (26.8) and Ponting (25.9).

This is not a statistical trick or sleight of hand, and I haven’t manipulated the data to get the result I want. It is a reflection of a player unique in the annals of cricket.

Steve Smith.

Has Steve Smith played enough match-winning knocks? (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

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Trumper combined outrageous skill with an utter disregard for run accumulation. Some readers may be thinking, “So what is the point of all this? We know this already.”

These observations are made to underpin the assertion that Trumper needed an important role in order to reveal his true worth.

Aside from a crisis in the game, another situation guaranteed to elevate this quixotic genius was the beginning of a match. Naturally, by the beginning of the second, third and fourth innings, the game will have moved in a particular direction, either in favour of one side or as a likely draw.

Of course as the gravity of the matched changed so did Trumper’s attitude. One only needs to reaffirm his record in drawn matches to quash any discord. Therefore the first innings provides an opportunity to study Victor in a solemn attitude.

Moreover, most of Trumper’s cricket was played in England and over three days. During his Test years Victor played 131 matches in England compared with just 78 at home. As I have mentioned before, three-day cricket is much like an ODI but with two innings .There are just nine sessions in which to complete four innings – that is, roughly two and a bit sessions each. Any rain could reduce this even more.

Consequently, just like in one-day cricket, it is only the first three batting positions who get the chance to play properly and build an innings, and as often as not, batsmen further down will need to take chances.

victor-trumper-jumping-out

Victor Trumper (George Bedlam, National Portrait Gallery)

More than this, England was looked upon as the home of cricket, and at this time the British Empire ruled the world. For a batsman of this era to prove their worth, they had to perform in the motherland against the cream of English bowling.

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The giants of this age were William Gilbert Grace, Francis Stanley Jackson, Charles Burgess Fry and Reginald Herbert Spooner, and their opinions carried a great deal of weight.

An indication of the low esteem in which Australian cricket was held can be seen by the fact that in a very long career Grace toured Australia only twice. The other three, despite being offered the captaincy, could not be bothered to tour even once. A county match against Yorkshire or Surrey was considered more important than a Test match Down Under, at least to an Englishman.

Yorkshire went as far as denying Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst the opportunity of a tour in 1901-02, stating that it would make them stale for the following home season. This idea may shock people today, but such were the views of the time.

In the 21st century batsmen prove themselves through their Test and international ODI performances – at the World Cup in particular. For a batsman of the golden age the equivalent was a tour of England, pitting yourself against Yorkshire, Lancashire and of course England.

Furthermore, wickets in England favoured the ball, sometimes to a remarkable degree. Therefore it is a great mistake to think that playing the low-tier county sides like Essex meant soft opposition and easy runs. Monty Noble averaged 68 in the Shield but just 35.9 in England; Clem Hill, 52 in Shield, 33.7 in England; Reg Duff, 50 in Shield, 28.9 in England; Syd Gregory, 41 in Shield, 23.1 in England – need I go on?

The combination of damp, green and (sometimes) dry wickets plus crafty bowlers who knew how to operate in such conditions meant an authentic examination for every Australian batsman who toured the motherland.

In summary, I have emphasised three concepts: the first innings is a great opportunity to see Trumper in a serious attitude, England was a place where you proved your worth as a batsman of the golden age, and batting in the top three gives one the chance to play a decent innings.

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Without further ado, here is the record of Victor Trumper and his main rivals under the given conditions. Scores in brackets were made on bad wickets – for example, 50 on a bad wicket appears as (50).

Batting first in England

VT Trumper 104, 50 101, (38), 70, (31), (3), 113, 1, 104 2, 0, 77, 85, 36, 108, 92, (58), 86 133
C Hill 19, 11, 52, 6, 34 11, 33, (7), 54, (46), (34), 1, 18, 29, 65 87, 6, 50, 149, 31, 41, 115, (14), 11
RA Duff 8, 8, (12), 6, (1), 25, 90, 54 4, 4, 10, 61, 48, 49, 13
MA Noble 41, 26, 0, 7, 7, 49 10, 1 0, 17, 107, 13, 2
SE Gregory (26) 46, 21, (6), 1 36, 150
J Darling 67, 115, 57, 11, (0), 2, 22, 20, 70, 194, 27, 4, 6, (8), 105, 59 22, 16, 47, 0, 7
W Bardsley 219, 42, 14, (2), 56, 1, 118, 41, 1, (9), (13), 136 13, 20, 88, 121, 58, 34, 37, 43, (17)
DG Bradman 66, 252*, 32, 38, 1, 334, 14, 58 0, 37, 29, 244 258, 58, 278, 22, (5), 104, 12, 59, 56, 67 81, 146, 187, 98, 11, 54, 38

Suppose that on a good wicket we define success as 70 runs and on a bad wicket as 30 runs.

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The next table summarises the performances of each batsman and highlights their rate of success.

Batsman Tours Innings 100(50)s 70(30)s Scoring speed Success rate
Victor Trumper 4 20 7 14 83 70.0 per cent
Donald Bradman 4 29 8 10 73 34.5 per cent
Clem Hill 3 24 2 5 51 20.8 per cent
Warren Bardsley 2 21 4 5 54 23.8 per cent
Sydney Gregory 3 7 1 1 43 14.3 per cent
Monty Noble 3 13 1 1 32 7.7 per cent
Reginald Duff 2 15 0 1 59 6.7 per cent
Joseph Darling 2 21 3 4 40 23.8 per cent

The number of tours is a count of all tours where the player batted at least once in the top three. Joe Darling had four tours but in only two did he bat in the top three.

Warren Bardsley had four tours of England, but I want to focus on those from before the First World War since the strength of English cricket deteriorated significantly thereafter.

The Don is included in order to find someone comparable to Trumper.

The order has been determined based on their success rate against the strongest teams of the era, which were England, MCC and the top three counties: Yorkshire, Surrey and Lancashire.

Success against the strongest teams:

  1. Trumper (five from eight): 63 per cent
  2. Bradman (six from 16): 38 per cent
  3. Hill (three from 15): 20 per cent
  4. Bardsley (one from nine): 11 per cent
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The other four combined – Duff, Noble, Gregory and Darling – are none for 32.

Trumper’s record here is so far beyond everybody else that this comparison becomes farcical. No-one has ever approached this level of success on all wickets and against all comers. And this is success in the truest sense of the term, triumphing with the greatest frequency.

We shouldn’t expect any batsman of the future to be successful in 70 percent of their innings. The idea is absurd.

The Don even in his most consistent season was successful in four from seven (57 per cent). That Victor was simultaneously the fastest scorer merely lends weight to all the accolades he received at the time. Characteristically he was described as incomparable, and we can see why.

Furthermore, it may have escaped your attention that Trumper has no scores between three and 36 – none – and only two between three and 70 (on good wickets). In other words, after an over or so, there was almost no possibility that he would be dismissed before 70. It happened only twice in 16 innings.

I can anticipate the objections here – that this is only the first innings and cricket is played across four innings. That’s true, but don’t these players all have an equal chance to succeed in this section of a match, the first and most important innings?

Besides, no-one will win a comparison with any player who is successful in 70 percent of their innings.

The second objection will clearly be around the significance of first-class cricket. I can hear it now: who cares about these first-class matches? Well, it would be a gross mischaracterisation to suggest that Don Bradman was not interested in first-class cricket, that he was not after every conceivable record he could possibly gather. But let us suppose this is true, and let us go with the theory.

How about we compare Vic and Don in the first innings of an Ashes match? All the decided contests plus any draws that looked like achieving a result before the weather intervened. Trumper played in 29 decided Ashes Tests plus two draws that were on track to be completed – Leeds in 1899 and Old Trafford ten year later. Bradman had 27 decided Ashes Tests plus two draws that were on track before rain spoiled matters – Leeds in 1934 and Old Trafford 14 years later.

Here are their scores when batting first.

Series E 1928-29 E 1930 E 1932-33 E 1934 E 1936-37 E 1938 E 1946-47 E 1948
Bradman 40 0, 76, 48 29, 244 13, 26, 169 187 38
Series E 1899 E 1901-02 E 1902 E 1903-04 E 1905 E 1907-08 E 1909 E 1911-12
Trumper 12 (0), (27) 1, 104, 42 1, 113, 88 49, 4, 0, (10) (10), 27*, (2) 113, 13, 26, 17

Counting their runs from zero to 100 gives both an equal opportunity to shine given beyond 100 Victor had no interest in continuing, which means the comparison would be like matching two sprinters when one is running and the other is walking.

Besides, in none of their six combined hundreds were extra runs needed. Trumper’s team won all three with his ‘small’ centuries, and Bradman’s three resulted in modest first innings leads of 380, 365 and 504.

I am going to go out on a limb as say that if Bradman had settled for an even hundred, the team would probably have been okay.

Let’s compare averages, Don versus peers and Vic versus peers.

Bradman Trumper
Record 609-08 629-16
Average 76.1 39.4
Peers 2426-50 2871-122
Peers averge 48.5 23.5
Performance above peers 56.7 per cent 67.7 per cent

Trumper comes out with a considerable advantage, although Don didn’t have many innings. Shall we consider the first innings reply?

Unlike the first innings, the match may now have taken a turn in one direction or another and this ought to be considered.

Unlike the first innings, the match may now have taken a turn in one direction or another, and this ought to be considered. Therefore we shall divide this first innings reply into two groups: one where the side is not in trouble and the other where it is.

The obvious question is: when is a team in trouble?

Here is an easy-to-apply definition. Should an even hundred by the star batsman prove insufficient to give their team a first-innings advantage, we shall call this a position where the side is in trouble.

The following scores were made in Ashes Tests that were either decided or on track to be decided and where the Australians were not in trouble.

Series E 1928-29 E 1930 E 1932-33 E 1934 E 1936-37 E 1938 E 1946-47 E 1948
Bradman 40 8, 254, 232 8 36, 304 38, (0) 103 234, 12 138, 38, 33, 0
Series E 1899 E 1901-02 E 1902 E 1903-04 E 1905 E 1907-08 E 1909 E 1911-12
Trumper 135 7 13* 43 28

Again, counting their runs from zero to 100 (or zero to 50 on a sticky):

Bradman Trumper
Record 813-10 813-10
Average 81.3 63.7
Peers 3027-69 973-28
Peers averge 43.9 34.5
Performance above peers 85.3 per cent 85.3 per cent

Bradman and Trumper are neck and neck, although Trumper did not have many innings. Again, for those who believe that cutting off centuries is not warranted, Bradman’s six centuries produced first innings leads of 304, 290, 384, 19, 404 and 344.

The only time a big hundred was necessary was during Bradman’s 103, so cutting this innings off at 100 actually helps the Don.

Steve Smith and Don Bradman

Steve Smith and Don Bradman (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Now to a first-innings reply where the Australians are in trouble – that is, 100 is insufficient to create a lead.

In this set-up one should include all contests where the Australians were in trouble, Ashes Tests and matches against the minor countries. Both encountered problems against the weaker nations once: Trumpers against South Africa in 1911, when the tourists began with 482, and Bradman against the West Indies, when the touristed declared at 350-6 so that the Australians would bat on a rain affected wicket.

On both occasions the Australians were in trouble and big hundreds were the order of the day

Series E 1928-29 E 1930 WI 1930-31 E 1932-33 E 1934 E 1936-37 E 1938 E 1946-47
Bradman 18, 123 43
Series E 1899 E 1901-02 E 1902 E 1903-04 E 1905 E 1907-08 SA 1910-11 E 1911-12
Trumper 2, 65 (74), 7 11 214 5

Given these are come-from-behind situations, scores should not be cut off at 100.

Bradman Trumper
Record 184-3 378-6
Average 61.3 63.0
Peers 475-17 968-41
Peers averge 27.9 23.6
Performance above peers 119.3 per cent 166.8 per cent

From a very small data set both players shine, although Trumper is exceptional.

Now, combining all of these performances, which represent every important innings of their career from the first half of the match, we have:

Bradman Trumper
Record 1606-21 1174-24
Average 76.5 48.9
Peers 5928-136 4812-191
Peers averge 43.6 25.2
Performance above peers 75.5 per cent 94.2 per cent

This is a clear-cut win by the Paddingtonian and underscores what I have suspected for a long time: that under serious match conditions Trumper towered over his colleagues to an even greater degree than did the Boy from Bowral.

Of course if one allowed Bradman to continue flogging the bowlers until well past 100, his lead over Trumper would be restored.

However, it is sheer nonsense to suggest that reducing any of these oversized scores – those above 130 – to a mere 100 would have cost Australia the match. Of his eight oversized hundreds, Australia’s smallest lead was 290.

This analysis has not been conducted in a mean-spirited way or to denigrate the Don. On the contrary, my purpose is to restore Victor Trumper to the pedestal that he occupied in the 1930s and 40s, at the height of Bradman’s career, when every critic agreed that Trumper was fully entitled to be bracketed with Bradman as the two absolute legends of Australian cricket.

Australia's best-ever Don Bradman

(PA Images via Getty Images)

Over the decades the Trumper name has withered away, and otherwise sensible observers now label him as overrated and are happy to bypass Victor in discussions of the world’s finest cricketers. I will no longer claim that Trumper is the greatest batsman off all time not because I have changed my view on the great man but rather because the complete ambiguity of this ubiquitous term ‘greatest’.

Greatest in what way? Most runs, most hundreds, longest career, greatest impact, best stroke production, hardest to dismiss, biggest crowd-pleaser, best under pressure – the permutations are almost endless.

What I will say categorically is that Victor Trumper is the most capable batsman that the world has known. Or to put this another way, when Victor put his head down, he would bat to a standard that has proved beyond the reach of all the greats in the pantheon, whether this is in the form of a come-from-behind scenario, the first innings of matches in England, the first half of important Test matches or the conquest of a diabolical wicket.

One hundred years on, Victor endures as the incomparable.

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