March 1, 2012

The last of Trumper

It is a hundred years to the day that Victor Trumper played his last Test match. A look back at the genius batsman (and his phobia of clergymen)

The cricketing gods loved one batsman above all others: Victor Thomas Trumper. Whenever Trumper strode boldly onto the green sward on his way to the middle of his beloved SCG, the crowd rose as one to applaud. It was said even the blades of grass seemed to bow respectfully in the wake of the great man, becoming a rolling sea of green, nature's own version of a Mexican wave.

To the day, 100 years ago, Trumper played his last Test innings. It was March 1, 1912, the fifth and last Test of the 1911-12 Ashes series, at the SCG, and Australia needed 363 runs to win the game. At the non-striker's end, little Syd Gregory contemplated the seriousness of the situation, as the great SF Barnes cruised past to deliver the first ball of the Australian second innings.

Barnes, England's finest bowler, operated a shade above medium pace, bowling a combination of swing and spin, the fast legbreak his most potent weapon. The cricketing gods must have been taking a tea break, for Barnes dismissed Trumper for 5 in the first innings, producing a near perfect legbreak, which pitched leg and would have taken the top of off, had not Trumper's bat got in the way - alas, only to catch an edge, giving Frank Woolley, who stood tall and straight like a Grenadier Guardsman, a dolly at first slip. Trumper's fate didn't seem fair somehow. Woolley himself had scored an unconquered 133 in England's first innings of 324. Big Warwick Armstrong hit the top score of 33 in Australia's paltry 176.

But today Trumper was setting out to make amends for a summer of discontent for Clem Hill's Australian team. Trumper's only century in the Test series had been in the first match, at the SCG. He hit 113 in the first dig, and, significantly, it was the only match of the series that Australia won. By the fifth Test Australia trailed 3-1 and were looking to turn the tables on an England team that included some of the greats - among them Jack Hobbs, George Gunn, Wilfred Rhodes, the captain, JWHT Douglas, and, of course, Woolley and the incomparable Barnes.

The first ball from Barnes was a yorker, but Trumper dismissed it in a flash, playing what he called the "dog shot". As the ball careered towards leg stump, having moved from off to leg in the manner of a late reverse swinger, Trumper merely lifted his front leg, swivelled neatly on his back leg, meeting the ball on the half volley and dismissing it from his presence to the backward-square fence. Umpire Bob Crockett broke into a broad grin, unusual for such a stern soul, and the crowd rose to acclaim Trumper's mastery. The four, then a two past gully, and a single to mid-on, brought Gregory to face the music. Two balls in a row from Barnes beat the Gregory outside edge, but he survived.

How could Trumper know then that this day would be his last in Test cricket? Nephritis, the kidney disease, which took his life in 1915, was yet to show its ugly face. However, the mental stress that had always plagued Trumper throughout his career was at its most distressing when he happened to set eyes on a man wearing a dog collar. Those who saw his batting genius at first hand never understood why Trumper believed he was doomed to failure if he spotted a man of the cloth in the crowd.

"How can I get runs with all those clergymen standing about?" Trumper whispered to Clem Hill at Lord's in 1899. The pair had just walked from the field, Australia having got England out for a modest 206. But despite the presence of many dog collars in the crowd, the very next day Trumper scored his maiden Test century, 135 not out. Hill also hit 135 in the Australian first innings of 421, runs that set the side up for an impressive ten-wicket victory. It was Trumper's second Test match. In his first, WG Grace's last, Trumper scored a duck (bowled by Jack Hearne) and 11 (bowled by FS Jackson).

In Australia on December 4, 1891, the 14-year-old Trumper impressed Grace's visiting England team by fielding brilliantly as Grace and others batted on the edge of the SCG. Trumper was one of a number of youngsters who fielded, and he was invited to have a hit. Wearing knickerbockers and a brave face, young Trumper struggled to middle too many on the rough turf and Grace strode towards him: "You can surely field, m'boy… but I am afraid, batting is not your forte. You'll never get anywhere as a batsman."

Eight years on, at Lord's, Grace had changed his mind about the young Australian. He knocked on the Australian dressing room door and asked to see Trumper, who had just made his maiden Test century. The doctor handed him his bat, upon which he had written the words: "From the past champion to the future champion."

Traditionally, cricketers are pretty superstitious. Well, most of them. For Australia the devil's number is 87, which is supposed to date back to the time Don Bradman was dismissed pulling a ball onto his stumps on that score against Victoria once. Keith Miller, then 12, was watching. He looked at the score board. "Fancy getting out for 87, unlucky 13 from 100," he mused.

The great Victoria and Australia fast-medium bowler Alan Connolly always took the field for his country with a piece of Hugh Trumble's green-and-gold Test hat-band on his person. Celebrated England wicketkeeper Alan Knott had a peculiar habit of having a handkerchief hanging precariously from his trouser pocket, and when standing up to the wicket to Derek Underwood and Co, he would always gently touch the top of the stumps for good luck.

As the ball careered towards leg stump, having moved from off to leg in the manner of a late reverse swinger, Trumper merely lifted his front leg, swivelled neatly on his back leg, meeting the ball on the half volley and dismissing it from his presence to the backward-square fence

Bill Whitty, the left-arm medium-fast bowler from Mount Gambier in South Australia, once told me that during Trumper's brilliant summer of 1910-11, he "could do anything at any time. All the bowling came alike to him, and he was just as likely to get a couple of fours off the first two balls of the day as he was off the last two. But he could not relax at the batting crease if he saw a clergyman, either on the way to the wicket or in the crowd while he was out in the middle."

Trumper's fear of the men in dog collars was extraordinary, and his superstitiousness was in complete contrast to Bradman, the man who took over from Trumper as Australia's batting idol, and had no fear. "Friday the 13th, black cats, treading on cracks in the pavement and the figure 87, are all silly superstitions and pure nonsense," Sir Donald told me in 1974. For many years Bradman occupied Room 87 on the eighth floor of an office block opposite the Adelaide Town Hall. I wonder if Geoff Boycott would have occupied Room 111 in a Leeds building, given that 111 is England's devil's number - derived, I believe, from the legend of Admiral Nelson: "one arm, one leg, one a***hole…"

In Manchester in 1902, Neville Cardus, a boy then, sat transfixed as Trumper and Reg Duff walked to the wicket. He said to himself: "Please, god, let Victor Trumper score a century today for Australia against England - out of a total of 137 all out!" Trumper scored 104 before lunch. Ever self-effacing, he wrote in his diary that day: "Wet wicket. Fourth Test. Won toss. Made 299. Self 104…" Only three Australians have scored a century before lunch on the first day of a Test match - Trumper in Manchester in 1902, Charlie Macartney in Leeds in 1926, and Bradman, also in Leeds, in 1930.

Surely there were men of the cloth in the crowd that day. Maybe Trumper's eyes were only for the ball. Imagine if the opposition today knew of such a weakness. Masks with the image of a man of the cloth on them would be handed to every fan barracking for England. England under JWHT Douglas or Archie MacLaren could have done with the likes of David Sheppard in the side, who was among the dozen-odd clergymen to have made their mark in English cricket history, and who wore his dog collar to matches.

Reverend Sheppard certainly incurred the wrath of Freddie Trueman once, who, upon a misfield, said to him: "It is a pity, David, that you only put your hands together on a Sunday." During that England tour Down Under, of 1962-63, Sheppard wore his dog collar to a reception and when a bishop appeared, Trueman called: "Hey, David, is that your senior pro?"

Today we mark 100 years since Trumper played his last innings. Australia lost that match, but Trumper scored exactly 50 - again caught at slip by Woolley off Barnes.

Trumper's legacy to the game of cricket was not the number of runs he scored, but the way he played the game. We don't rank Sachin Tendulkar above Bradman just because he has scored a mountain more runs than him - albeit in 130 more Test matches. Cardus summed it up best when he said of Trumper: "You will no more get an idea of the quality of Trumper's batsmanship by adding up his runs than you will get an idea of the quality of Shelley's poetry by adding up the lines written by Shelley."

The great CB Fry said of Trumper: "Victor Trumper is perhaps the most difficult batsman in the world to reduce to words. He has no style, yet he is all style."

In 1980, Kim Hughes, the gifted yet wayward Australia batsman, hit a magnificent century at Lord's in the Centenary Test match. In batting terms that innings was the epitome of Trumper. The memory of its class and style lingers, as has that of Michael Clarke's amazing unconquered 329 at the SCG this golden summer. Methinks there was more than a touch of Trumper in both those innings.

Trumper, the Illustrated Biography by Ashley Mallett
A Century of Cricketers by AG Moyes
Victor Trumper's 1902 diary

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He is the author of over 25 books, including Lords Dreaming, the story of the 1868 Aboriginal tour of England.