November 22, 2013

The best player not to play a Test

From the mid 1890s until the First World War, the Philadelphia Gentlemen could match the world's best sides. All thanks to Bart King

Bart King: a truly fast outswing bowler with the occasional, devastating, inswinger © PA Photos

In golf, there is an informal award called the "BPNTWAM" (Best Player Never To Win A Major). Adam Scott and Justin Rose both had been claimants to that title until winning the 2013 US Masters and US Open respectively, leaving Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Matt Kuchar as current contenders (Henrik Stenson might have recent claims to be added to the list).

In cricket, the nearest equivalent is the "BCTNPT" (Best Cricketer To Never Play Tests). It would seem illogical to argue that you could be a great cricketer and yet never play Tests, the ultimate form of the game. Nevertheless, there are a number of candidates who can genuinely be classed as great who never represented their country at Test level.

For example, a whole generation of South African players such as Clive Rice, Vince van der Bijl, Garth Le Roux and Ken McEwan never had the chance due to their country's political exclusion. Jack Massie, the giant left-arm quick from Australia, took 99 first-class wickets at 18.42, almost all in the 1912-13 and 1913-14 seasons. However, Australia did not play a Test match during those years, and while Massie was chosen to tour South Africa in 1914, the tour was cancelled due to the outbreak of the First World War. Massie was never to bowl again in first-class cricket as he was seriously injured by shrapnel from a grenade during the battle of Lone Pine at Gallipoli.

If we exclude anyone who played prior to the inaugural Test in 1877, some (but not all) of the other main candidates as "BCTNPT" include Charles Kortright and Don Shepherd from England, Mahadevan Sathasivam and Anura Tennekoon from Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Padmakar Shivalkar and Rajinder Goel from India, Cec Pepper and Jamie Siddons from Australia, Tom Pritchard from New Zealand and Franklyn Stephenson from the West Indies. However, the cricketer I feel most appropriately fits the category of "BCTNPT" is Bart King from the USA.

John Barton King, or "Bart" King as he became known, was born on October 19, 1873. Bart grew up playing baseball in his hometown of Philadelphia and didn't start playing cricket seriously until he was 15. Cricket was primarily introduced to the USA by English immigrant mill-workers within the New England area. It is often forgotten that the first-ever international cricket game took place in 1844 between the USA and Canada. Cricket thrived within Philadelphia from the 1890s through to the First World War.

Bart joined the Tioga Cricket Club in 1889 and throughout the season he took 37 wickets for just 99 runs. During his career in the USA, Bart took 2088 wickets at an average of 10.47, and also scored 19,808 runs at 36.47. His score of 344 for Belmont in a Hallifax Cup game against Merion in 1906 is still considered to be a record score within North American cricket. Obvious questions can be raised about the standard of opposition, but it would appear from anecdotal evidence that the standard of Philadelphian cricket was at least the level of minor country cricket in England at the time.

However, it is Bart's performances in international games that remain the outstanding aspect of his career. He was first selected to play in an international match in 1892 for the Gentlemen of Philadelphia against the Gentlemen of Ireland while only 18 years old, and took 19 wickets at 13.53 in the three-game series.

The unique component of King's action was that in the final strides of his run, he held the ball above his head in both hands, much in the manner of baseball pitcher

The following year saw the Australian team play a series of games against the Philadelphian Gentlemen on their way home from England. It had been a long and arduous tour, and Australia unwisely agreed to play the Gentlemen on the day following their rough crossing of the Atlantic. Winning the toss, the Gentlemen smashed an impressive total of 525. The Australian team was very rusty, dropping numerous catches and misfielding regularly. The game was to go from bad to worse for the tourists as Bart ran through the Australian top order to take 5 for 78. Australia were bowled out for 199, and then shot out again for 258 after following-on to be beaten by an innings and 68 runs.

Bart toured England for the first time in 1897, with the Philadelphian Gentlemen playing 15 first-class games against county teams. The highlight of the tour was the match against the full-strength Sussex side. The Philadelphian Gentlemen batted first and totalled 216, thanks largely to a 106-run partnership between John Lester and Bart who made 58. Bart opened the bowling and in less than an hour Sussex were dismissed for 46. Bart took 7 for 13, including the prized wicket of Ranji clean bowled first ball. Sussex followed on with 252, with Bart's figures of 5 for 102 giving him 12 wickets for the match that the Gentlemen won by eight wickets. He received many offers to remain in England and play county cricket, however he chose to return home.

International games were few and far between around the turn of the 20th century, so Bart's next major performance was not until 1901 against a touring English team led by BJT Bosanquet. Bart took 23 wickets in the two games, including a best of 8 for 78, at an average of 10.30. His ability to swing the ball late combined with express pace simply proved too much for the tourists. His place as the pre-eminent United States cricketer had been established, and he continued unchallenged in this role until his retirement.

The secret to Bart's bowling success can be largely traced to his ability to swing the ball in both directions. While he was rated by his contemporaries as truly fast, his most dangerous ball was an inswinger. He referred to it as his "angler" and he only used it rarely as he felt that the less batsmen saw it, the less chance there was for them to get used to it. His normal ball was an outswinger, but he commented that this merely increased the danger of his inswinger.

It is said that Bart's ability to swing the ball was developed as the result of his early years as a baseball pitcher. The unique component of his action was that in the final strides of his run, he held the ball above his head in both hands, much in the manner of baseball pitcher. In spite of this, there were never any claims that he threw, unlike some other fast bowlers of the day, and he was renowned for his very high and pure action. At six feet one and 178 pounds, Bart had long and loose arms, a powerful torso with strong shoulders and wrists. Team-mate Lester said of Bart that "nature endowed this man completely with the physical equipment that a fast bowler covets".

Bart toured England again in 1903 with the Gentlemen of Philadelphia playing 16 first-class games. He took 93 wickets at an average of 14.91, and scored 653 runs at an average of 28.89. The two highlights of this tour were defeats of Surrey at The Oval and Lancashire at Old Trafford. Against Surrey Bart took 3 for 89 and 3 for 98 in the game, but his batting was the highlight. He scored 98 in the first innings before being run-out, however he followed this up in the second innings with his highest first-class score of 113 not out. His bowling was to the fore against Lancashire, taking 5 for 46 and 9 for 62. His chance of taking all ten wickets in the second innings was ruined by a run-out.

Bart toured England for the third and final time in 1908. Despite being in his mid-30s by this stage, he produced his best bowling performances in English conditions. He took 87 wickets in only ten first-class games at an average of 11.01. This average was the best performance by any bowler in the summer, better than any average for the previous 15 years, and then was not matched for another 40 years.

Bart's first-class career was drawing towards a close, however he still had a few great performances left. Playing against the Gentlemen of Ireland in 1909, he performed the amazing effort of bowling all 11 batsmen (GA Morrow was bowled off a no-ball and remained not out at the conclusion of the innings). This was one of three occasions that he took all ten wickets in an innings. The last two international matches that Bart played were against the weak 1912 Australian Test team. In spite of the fact that he was approaching 40, Bart took match figures of 9 for 78 in the Philadelphian Gentlemen's victory by two runs in the first game, and 8 for 74 in the second game that Australia won by 45 runs.

For a golden period from the mid 1890s until the First World War, the Philadelphia Gentlemen were able to put forward a representative team that could match many of the best sides around the world. While there were other players of significance in the side such as batsman Lester and bowling partner PH Clark, without the performances of Bart, the Gentlemen wouldn't have been anywhere near as successful.

John Barton King was elected as an honorary life member of the MCC in 1962, and died on October 17, 1965 aged 91. He remains the greatest of all American cricketers, and is my nomination for the best cricketer never to play a Test.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow