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From WG to Amla: cricketers (and a statistician) with impressive beards
September 12, 2011
You can't start anywhere else: Dr WG Grace was probably the most recognisable face in Victorian England, excepting the dear old Queen herself, and much of that was due to his prodigious whiskerage, which he maintained almost throughout his adult life. Legend has it that the rough-diamond Aussie fast bowler Ernie Jones once whistled a bouncer through the beard, although there are doubts about whether leather actually made contact with bristle. Some reports suggest this was in a Test, but according to the Hon FS Jackson - a future England captain himself - it was during the first match of the Australians' 1896 tour of England, at Sheffield Park in Sussex (near where the Bluebell Railway now chuffs). Writing in Wisden 1944, Jackson took the blame for starting the story: "I went in first with WG Grace and we had to dance about a bit. One ball from Jones hit WG under the arm, and later another one went head-high past him and over Kelly's head to the boundary. This was the ball about which the Beard Story originated. I can see WG now. He threw his head back, which caused his beard to stick out. Down the pitch went WG, stroking his beard, to Harry Trott [Australia's captain] and said: 'Here, what is all this?' And Trott said: 'Steady, Jonah.' To which Jones made that famous remark: 'Sorry, Doctor, she slipped.' I do not think the ball actually touched WG's beard. That story was told afterwards, and I believe I was responsible. When I was out and returned to the pavilion, I said: 'Did you see that one go through WG's beard?'"
"Beefy" didn't always have a beard, and when he did, it wasn't much more than a light covering - but, importantly, it was in place during the series with which he will forever be associated - the 1981 Ashes. There seem to be about a million pictures of that heady summer - and almost all of them feature the hirsute hero, a half-smile gleaming through the foliage as he swipes another six off his nose, or demolishes another set of Aussie stumps.
Arguably the best beard in modern-day cricket, Amla's luxurious number is all the more striking because of the lack of hair on top of his head. He's a worthy successor to WG Grace, who was also a little thin on top in later life.
Many of Australia's cricketers in the 1880s sported beards . One of cricket's best at the time belonged to Bonnor. His seemed all the more striking because his height - six foot six - meant it was more visible at a time when tall men were scarcer than they are today. Bonnor was immensely strong, and could be a prodigious hitter: during the 1880 Oval Test he had nearly completed a third run off a monstrous skier when a rather worried Fred Grace (WG's brother) clung on to a catch in the outfield: "My heart stopped beating as I went on waiting," said Fred later. Pictures of the youngest Grace - who sadly died a fortnight after that match, the first Test ever played in England - show him with luxurious side-whiskers but no beard.
England's cerebral captain Brearley was usually clean-shaven, but for the 1979-80 series in Australia - hastily arranged after peace was brokered between Kerry Packer and establishment cricket - Brearley decided that he needed a spikier image, and cultivated an impressive beard. It wasn't a great success: he quickly acquired the nickname "Ayatollah" (after the bearded Iranian leader at the time), and also lost all three Tests. His opposite number, Greg Chappell, also had a beard at the time, making this the first time since 1893 (WG Grace and Jack Blackham) that both captains in an Ashes series were thus decorated.
After his conversion to the Muslim faith Yousuf grew a luxurious beard that is Hashim Amla's only serious rival for the best in world cricket at the moment. Somehow it bestows even more grace on Yousuf's shots, which were already among the silkiest on show.
It's a classic memory of the 1970s: Bedi gliding serenely in to bowl his teasing left-arm spin, ball seemingly on a piece of string, brightly coloured patka sitting above a full beard - one that often split with a wide grin as Bedi ensnared another victim... or applauded generously when he was hit back over his head for six. That always seemed a good ploy, to encourage the batsman to try it again, and 266 of them fell to Bedi in Tests all told.
Gooch never seemed quite sure about his facial-hair arrangements: when he started in Test cricket in 1975, he sported an impressive moustache, predating Merv Hughes' by about a decade, then after alternating between bushy beard and clean-shavenness, he went for the designer-unkempt look, somehow maintaining what looked like five days of stubble without it ever getting any longer (maybe he just didn't have a very good razor). Anyway, that was what was on display when Gooch enjoyed his finest innings - 333 against India at Lord's in 1990 - in the middle of his finest season (over 1000 runs in Tests alone, and a first-class average of more than 100). After that it never looked quite right when he was stubble-free.
Pakistan's elegant left-handed opener Anwar made up for a poor start in Tests - a pair against West Indies in 1990 - to finish with more than 12,000 runs in international cricket. The last few of those were compiled while wearing a long beard, which he started in sad circumstances after his daughter died. Anwar's run tally was threatened one day in Sharjah when the gatemen didn't recognise the bearded batsman and refused to let him in for a while.
What was almost certainly cricket's most famous beard since WG's day was not attached to a player (not an international one, anyway). It belonged to the BBC radio scorer Frindall, a permanent presence in the Test Match Special commentary box from 1965 until his sudden death early in 2009. Frindall's famous growth, coupled with his ability to conjure up facts seemingly from nowhere, earned him the nickname "The Bearded Wonder" from Brian Johnston.
Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2011.Feeds: Steven Lynch
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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