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Busting cricket myths: Trumper was failure in 1905 and 1909

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Roar Rookie
20th September, 2021
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This is one of those time-honoured notions that has long since entered into Australian cricket folklore.

Everyone knows that Victor Trumper was failure in 1905 and 1909. After all, the Tests numbers present an open-and-shut case. In 1905 he scored 125 runs at 17.9, and in 1909, he scored 211 runs at 26.4.

When we draw such a conclusion, we do so having made one important assumption: that Trumper approached each innings with the foremost intention of making a good score. Suppose we keep an open mind and look for evidence to confirm such a premise. Let us contemplate a few of Trumper’s dismissals from that 1909 series.

On the last day of the Oval Test, Australia was leading the home side by 312 runs with just an over plus one session remaining. The Australian captain was prepared to declare the innings at tea so this last over before the adjournment was also the final over of the innings. Trumper, on 20, was facing Douglas Carr with his series tally 211 runs at 30.1. To the first ball, a higher tossed leg break, Trumper ran down the wicket and was stumped, and his series average dropped by four.

On the last day of the Old Trafford Test, Australia was leading the home side by 266 runs with just ten overs plus one session remaining. Once again, the captain was ready to declare the innings at tea so when Trumper faced up to Wilfred Rhodes with his score on 48, the declaration was 60 balls away. To Rhodes’ third delivery, he tried to clear the fence at long on and was caught by Johnny Tyldesley a few yards in. As a result, Trumper’s average fell another four points.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The first Test at Birmingham was an extraordinary affair. Half an hour before play, a deluge engulfed the wicket and play was postponed more than five hours, the first day ended with Australia 2-27. At this stage, a result appeared most unlikely given that there were only 220 overs left and the game had barely begun.

Early on the second day, Trumper decided that risk-taking was the order of the day. This is how a newspaper editor saw Trumper’s dismissal.

“Trumper, quite unnecessarily it seemed, walked out and hit Blythe hard and low to Hirst at mid-off.” (Referee, Sydney, July 14, 1909, p1).

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For his second innings, Trumper served up an encore.

“The very next ball, a half-volley, Trumper deftly turned in the direction of square leg, only to be neatly caught by Rhodes. Several times lately, twice at Lord’s, he has been bowled trying to make the same stroke, which seemingly would be far more effective if played in the customary orthodox manner.” (Referee, Sydney, July 14, 1909, p1).

To the doyens of English cricket, this type of profligacy was an anathema. In this era, playing with a cross bat was frowned upon and former great, Allan Steele, described how he felt about modern batsmen and their preference for the pull stroke.

“As for batting, I am convinced that a straight bat is still the best, in spite of the pull stroke. Jumping in front before the ball reaches the bat is and must be radically wrong. The once best bat on the present Australian side (Trumper) has spoiled his play by continually playing with a cross bat to a straight ball. Grace never did this, and though I was not in the same class as him, I think I never did it.” (Referee, Sydney, August 11, 1909, p12).

Jack Davis, The Referee editor, concurred.

“Hundreds in Sydney will agree with his reference to Victor Trumper. When VT was younger, he was able to make the strokes but now that he seemingly does not sight the ball so minutely, he frequently falls in trying to guide to leg a ball which he might easily have driven straight to the fence… When Trumper plays a straight bat driving game he is still a wonder, but he is rarely able to play the orthodox game. The ‘jugglery’ with him has become a mechanical action.” (Referee, Sydney, August 11, 1909, p12).

Jugglery is a quaint cricket term that has been out of fashion for more than a century. In Trumper’s day, artistic batting (jugglery) was an important and cherished ideal. To bat artistically, a player needed to employ dangerous and unorthodox strokes such as cutting and glancing off the middle stump, pulling balls two feet outside off and in general, experiment with strokes just for sheer pleasure.

For example, striking the same good length ball to three different parts of the field via a cut, a pull, and a drive, a sequence that Trumper had turned into something of a monogram.

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Victor Trumper. Image: Wikicommons.

(Image: Wikicommons)

Now, let us switch our attention to the 1905 series. In the second Test at Lord’s, England began the match with a score of 282. When Australia started their reply an hour before lunch on the second day, with just 215 overs to complete three innings, the draw was the short-priced favourite.

Trumper began his innings the way he usually did in these circumstances, like a bull in a China shop, his first seven balls went (∙2∙1114), and after 29 deliveries he was on 31. At this point, the English captain decided to enter the fray. Trumper, having noticed there was no third man, predetermined to cut his first ball in that direction with the result that he lost his off stump.

The fourth Test at Old Trafford began in much the same way. England batted for four sessions to reach 446 and there were roughly 195 overs in which to complete three innings. Trumper, being Trumper, started the reply with 11 runs off his first four balls: a late cut for four, a square cut for four, an attempted cut at wide one, and a leg glance for three. Five balls later, he tried to drive on the up tearaway quick Walter Brearley, and Rhodes took a hot chance at mid-on.

In the fifth match, in what could be described as a dress rehearsal for the movie Groundhog Day, England took three and a half sessions to post 430. With 210 overs left and no possibility of rain, the draw is a lay down misère. This is how a respected English critic described Trumper’s two dismissals.

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“In both innings against England at the Oval he committed cricket suicide by cutting hard at balls well off the wicket before he was properly set… he seems to have thrown prudence to the winds. In the second innings of the last Test, for all the trouble the bowlers cost him, Trumper might have been batting still. There are some balls which the greatest of batsman must leave alone. Not even WG Grace in his prime could score off every ball. On each occasion that I have seen Trumper bat this summer, he has been directly responsible for his own downfall.” (The Tatler, London, August 30, 1905, p335)

Generic Ashes urn

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

As I count them, Trumper gave his wicket away twice in 1909, each time in the lead up to a declaration, and across both tours, another six times through outrageous shot selection (not my words but those of contemporaries). But Trumper did not always play in this reckless manner, this was only true when a draw seemed a foregone conclusion. Should one of these three-day Tests be wide open, or Trumper had the chance to bat at the start, you could expect a very different response.

Let us suspend that thought for a moment and examine these three-day Tests and try to determine the conditions needed to keep these games on a result trajectory. A fair place to start is by looking at the state of the game at the end of Day 1 to see which scenarios steer the game in the direction of a result.

The next table shows the likelihood of a obtaining a decision given that the first team has batted for the whole day. Each total in a bracket indicates the number of wickets taken on the first day. Tours begin with Trumper’s first and extend until the final three-day Ashes match in 1926.

Table A: The drawn trajectory

Era 1899 1902 1905 1909 1912 1921 1926
Result (10) (6) (2)
Draw (8), (10), (4) (9), (2) (8), (10), (7) (4), (6) (0), (4) (8), (3), (0)

From the 18 games where the first side batted until stumps, the ones that ended in a result represent 16.7 per cent. Even the three decided Tests would probably have ended in stalemate had rain not injected a little juice into the pitch. The reader should take note of the six games in bold, these were played without any rain whatsoever and all six finished as a draw. The next table showcases the 12 instances where the first side completed their innings at least half an hour before stumps.

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Table B: The result trajectory

Tour 1899 1902 1905 1909 1912 1921 1926
Result (13) (15), (15) (14) (10+), (12) (16), (13), (12)
Draw (14) (20), (12)

This time, when the first team ends their innings at least half an hour before stumps, the ones that end in a result represent 75 per cent. Furthermore, the two drawn games in bold indicate that a full day of play was lost to inclement weather. That is, without major interruptions, these two matches were also heading for a result.

In terms of setting a three-day Test on a result trajectory, the conclusion here should be as plain as a pikestaff – the first team needs to finish up some time before stumps and have a crack at the opposition that evening. The alternative pathway requires the cricketer’s equivalent of a hail Mary, or a rain dance.

Trumper, like his teammates, would have been acutely aware of these idiosyncrasies and so the seriousness of his approach – that is, his desire to deliver a good score – would depend completely on whether the match was on a result trajectory. As it turns out, Trumper batted in ten of the 11 games from Table A, that is, those that were on a drawn trajectory and his performances in the first innings are below.

Trumper first-innings scores: Tests on a drawn trajectory

Tour E 1899 E 1902 E 1905 E 1909
VT scores 0, 14, 6 18, DNB, 42 31, 8, 11, 4 10

Trumper has a return of 144 runs at 14.4.

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Here is his return in the first innings of the nine games from Table B, those on the result trajectory.

Trumper first-innings scores: Tests on a result trajectory

Tour E 1899 E 1902 E 1905 E 1909
VT scores 135*, 12 1, 104 13* 28, 27*, 2, 73

Now, Trumper’s return is 395 runs at 65.8.

When you consider that Trumper’s peers averaged 26.4 in these same innings, this is an achievement of Bradman-esque proportions. To be completely accurate, Trumper’s score of 42 from the first data set belongs in second. This score was made in the final Test of 1902 when Australia won the toss and Trumper, batting at the start of the match, would have had no idea that his team would bat the entire day and thereby place the game on a drawn trajectory. Making this adjustment, Trumper finishes with 437 runs at 62.4.

Be that as it may, the mission statement concerns only the 1905 and 1909 tours. Based on the match trajectories, drawn versus result, his first innings numbers are startling.

Drawn trajectory: 31, 8, 11, 4, 10
Result trajectory: 13*, 28, 27*, 2, 73

Depending on the likely destination of a game, Trumper would either deliver 64 runs at 12.8 or 143 runs at 47.7. Consistent with the legend, Trumper was four times more productive when the match was wide open.

Four of his seven second innings performances have already been described, dismissals just before a declaration, flicking a ball off middle stump, and slashing at a wide one before properly set. It is clear that these second innings would not be taken seriously unless the circumstances demanded a more solemn approach and one of his seven scores fits this description.

In the Old Trafford Test of 1905, the Australians were following-on 246 behind and with four full sessions remaining, the situation looked grim. Trumper made the second top score, a chanceless 30, before falling LBW to Rhodes. Putting together his 30 with the 143 runs from the result trajectory performances, the numbers finish as Trumper on 173 runs at 43.3, while his peers scored 996 runs at 26.2.

Trumper’s runs came at a strike rate of 63.8 while those of peers came at 45.5. When these numbers are adjusted in the manner known as fusion, which is an adjustment to averages that incorporates a player’s scoring speed, the fusion averages are Trumper 46.8 and peers 25.6.

Across the 1905 and 1909 tours, in all the important situations, Trumper outperformed his peers by a margin of 83 per cent. To be sure, he was down a notch from the heady triumphs of 1899 and 1902 but from limited opportunities, Trumper remained a star performer. Of the five top-order batsmen who represented Australia on both tours, in the important situations, he came out on top: Trumper 43, Warwick Armstrong 23, Monty Noble 19, Dave Gregory 17, and Bert Hopkins 12.

Warwick Armstrong.

(PA Images via Getty Images)

I started this piece by asking readers to suspend their assumption that Trumper approached every innings with the foremost intention of making a good score. I suggested that we look for evidence to support such a key assumption.

In fact, what we did discover was quite the opposite: evidence of outrageous shots just before a declaration, verification that he began the less important innings as if he was playing Twenty20, and proof that contemporaries knew Trumper was responsible for his own downfall.

Remember the words of The Tatler correspondent.

“On each occasion that I have seen Trumper bat this summer (1905), he has been directly responsible for his own downfall.”

It is very hard for many enthusiasts to accept that a top-class cricketer – leave alone the most capable batsman in history – would choose to operate in this way. However, such overwhelming evidence simply cannot be ignored.

Trumper’s form when the match was an authentic contest conjures up an assortment of adjectives but failure is not one of them. I shall now hand over to the Roarers. Is this another myth busted?

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