From Tom Sueter to Alan Knott, 1972

The great wicket-keepers

Rowland Ryder

In the early days of cricket there were no wicket-keepers, as such; generally the bowlers fielded behind the stumps when they were not bowling. It is one of the paradoxes of cricket that although wicket-keepers became part of the game many years later than batsmen and bowlers, there is so much specialisation in wicket-keeping today and so much tradition concerning this department of the game.

Two of the earliest wicket-keepers were William Yalden (1739-1824), of Surrey, who took the bowling of Lumpy Stevens, and Tom Sueter (1749-1827), of the Hambledon Club. William Yalden, a 'keeper of incredible agility, was due to go on the first English overseas tour -- to France -- with the Duke of Dorset, in 1789; but the tour was cancelled owing to the French Revolution, and William Yalden returned to Chertsey. Tom Sueter, immortalised as The Ladies' Pet in Andrew Lang's Ballade of Dead Cricketers, kept to the fiery bowling of Thomas Brett.

In 1835 round-arm bowling was legalised, and Alfred Mynn, The Lion of Kent, bowled, says G. D. Martineau, in his incomparable book The Valiant Stumper, with a terrifying hum on murderous turf. Ned Wenman (1803-1879) kept wicket to his bowling -- barehanded and without pads. Wenman was the first of the great Kent wicket-keepers. He was not expected to take every ball the batsman missed, especially those on the leg side: the position of longstop was no sinecure.

Round-arm bowling eventually caused wicket-keepers to wear protective clothing; wicket-keeping pads and gloves were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. One of the first gloved and padded stumpers was Tom Box (1809-1876) who played for Sussex from 1832 to 1856.

In 1864 -- two years after the first English team visited Australia -- over-arm bowling was legalised. Thomas Lockyer (1826-1869), of Surrey, was then in his heyday. He was one of the pioneers of taking balls on the leg side and was as a wicket-keeper, said Richard Daft "the finest the world ever know."

In the next twenty years there were four outstanding professional wicket-keepers. George Pinder (1841-1903) kept to the legendary Tom Emmett, taking his sosteneuter -- a ball that pitched on the leg stump and flicked off the pitch towards the off bail. He was also a pioneer in keeping wicket without a long-stop. Edward Pooley (1838-1907) of Middlesex and Surrey, quick as lightening, nonetheless suffered terrible injuries to his hands, owing to the rough wickets of the time; he won the esteem of Jem Mace the prizefighter, who said he would rather face any man in England for an hour than keep wicket for five minutes. Mordecai Sherwin (1851-1910) secured a place among the immortals of cricket with three words in the Nottinghamshire idiom -- "Nowt fears me." He kept wicket at Trent Bridge for fourteen years, and toured Australia in 1886-7. Richard Pilling (1855-1891), a native of Bedford, who played for Lancashire, always stood right up to the wickets and stumped very effectively. He went to Australia in 1881, and returning to England, kept wicket in all four Test matches of 1882. He died, prematurely, at the age of thirty-five.

There were two outstanding amateur wicket-keepers of this period. The Hon. Alfred Lyttelton (1857-1913), youngest of eight cricketing brothers, played in the first Test match in England (1880); in the Ashes Test of 1882; and in The Oval Test of 1884, when he discarded his pads for a short while and took four for 19 with his lobs in a total of 551. E. F. S. Tylecote scored 404 not out in a match between Classical and Modern at Clifton. He was the first of six Kent wicket-keepers who have played Test match cricket for England -- the others being G. E. C. Wood, Leslie Ames, W. H. V. Levett, Godfrey Evans and Alan Knott. He became renowned in cricket verse for helping to recover the Ashes in the Hon. Ivo Bligh's team of 1882-3. Wisden (1939) described him as one of the greatest wicket-keeper-batsmen of all time.

John McCarthy (Old Jack) Blackham (1853-1932) is generally considered to be the first of the great modern wicket-keepers. Between 1877 and 1894 he played in thirty-five Test matches for Australia against England: he caught 36 and stumped 24. Black-bearded, with menacing humorous eyes and skin-tight gloves, Blackham was one of the first wicket-keepers to dispense with a long stop; perhaps George Pinder learnt a thing or two from him.

Coming first to England in 1878, Blackham kept to the bowling of Spofforth, Boyle and Garrett; he generally stood right up to the wicket, though he sometimes stood back to Spofforth. In his last Test he shared with S. E. Gregory in a ninth-wicket partnership of 154.

Blackham's successor was J. J. Kelly (1867-1938). Kelly made four tours of England; he took the fast bowling of Trumble, and the erratic fliers of Ernest Jones and Cotter; in thirty-three Test matches against England he caught 39 and stumped 16. Like Blackham he was a useful batsman: in the Old Trafford Test of 1896, despite the superb bowling of Tom Richardson, Kelly and Trumble scored the 25 runs necessary to win in a hour's stubborn batting; in 1905, against Gloucestershire, Kelly scored 74 out of 112 -- also in an hour.

Gregor MacGregor (1869-1919) played in eight Test matches for England against Australia between 1890 and 1893. He won his Blue as a Freshman, keeping wicket to Sammy Woods. Later he took Kortright, in a Gentlemen v. Players match, standing right up to the wicket; there were no byes in either innings. MacGregor, who played Rugby football for Scotland, was conspicuous for his unobtrusiveness as a wicket-keeper: Ranjitsinhji described him as "Sphinx-like in his calm fixity." In the Lord's Test of 1890 he took the bowling of Lohmann, Peel, Attewell, Barnes, Ulyett -- and W. G., without conceding a bye.

Arthur Augustus (Dick) Lilley (1867-1929) went to Warwickshire from the Cadburys team of Bournville. He first played for the county in 1888 against the Australians at Edgbaston. Here he met Blackham, watched him at the wicket and talked to him in the pavilion; Blackham helped Lilley a great deal. In 1896 Lilley was playing for England. He made four catches in the first Test, five in the second -- he was also put on to bowl by W. G., and got Harry Trott out. In the third Test he ran out Clem Hill and Iredale, much to the delight of Ranji, who presented him with a gold pin.

Lilley was hard-pressed in friendly rivalry by William Storer of Derbyshire, who was chosen to tour Australia with A. E. Stoddart's team in 1897-98.

In the vintage year of 1902, Lilley kept for England throughout the series, and he toured Australia in 1903-4, his understudy being a promising youngster named Herbert Strudwick. Lilley stumped five of Bosanquet's 16 victims, and stumped M. A. Noble in three of the Tests. He finished his Test match career in 1909, having played for England in 35 Tests and taken the bowling of Richardson, Lockwood, Fielder, Hirst, Rhodes, Bosanquet, Blyth, He dismissed 84 Australians in Test matches.

Lilley handed over his gloves at Edgbaston to E. J. (Tiger) Smith, who had also started his cricket career at Bournville. Smith had lost the joints of two fingers in a works accident, but skilfully concealed the fact. He played for England in the 1911-12 series in Australia. Strudwick was reserve wicket-keeper, playing in the first Test; Smith played in the remaining four. In the second Test, at Melbourne, Barnes had Kelleway, Bardsley, Clem Hill and Armstrong (caught Smith) back in the pavilion for 11, in the Australians' first innings. England won this Test, and the next three; Smith acquitted himself well, taking the bowling of Foster, Barnes, Douglas, Hitch, Woolley and Rhodes. In the rain-ridden Triangular Tournament of 1912, Smith kept wicket in all six Tests that England played; during the 1913 tour of South Africa, Strudwick was Smith's senior partner, keeping wicket in all five Tests.

In 1920 Strudwick toured Australia, Dolphin of Yorkshire, his deputy, with the ill-starred side that lost all five Test matches. Strudwick played in four of them: he was responsible for 14 dismissals. In 1921 England did a little better against their Australian visitors; Strudwick played in the first two Tests, before being superseded by George Brown of Hampshire. Against South Africa in 1924 Strudwick was picked only for the fifth Test; G. E. C. Wood playing in the first three and the young George Duckworth in the fourth. Strudwick played in all five Tests against Australia in Gilligan's 1924-25 touring side, conceding 81 byes in a total of 3,730 runs.

In the 1926 series against Australia, Strudwick, now 46, played in all five Tests. In the final Test at The Oval, when England recaptured the Ashes, he played his last game for England, keeping to the bowling of Tate, Larwood, Geary, Stevens and Rhodes. His total of 1,493 victims, and his 1,235 catches are world records: he achieved 71 dismissals in 28 Test matches. Neat, unobtrusive, dedicated, Strudwick ran to the boundary's edge to retrieve the ball; but he often took catches in front of the wicket; once playing against Kent, with a piece of remarkable anticipation, he ran out a batsman from point.

Strudwick's Australian counterpart, W. A. Oldfield, was born in Sydney in 1897. He had been buried by a shell in the 1914 war, and first came to England in 1919, with the Australian Imperial Forces team; then as understudy in 1921 to Hanson Carter, a small, wiry wicket-keeper, who played in 28 Test matches for Australia between 1907 and 1921.

Oldfield came into his own in the 1924-25 series in Australia, taking catches at critical periods. In the third Test at Adelaide, when England, with nine wickets down, needed 12 to win, he caught Freeman off Mailey -- and the Ashes stayed in Australia. In the fourth Test he stumped Hobbs, Woolley, Chapman and Whysall; in the fifth Test he caught Hobbs wide on the leg side in England's first innings, and, in the second innings, he stumped Hobbs and Whysall off a bowler named Clarrie Grimmett, who at the age of thirty-two was playing in his first test match for Australia and took eleven wickets for 82 runs.

In the 1926 series Oldfield did as well as fate permitted; in 1928-29 he conceded only three byes during England's first five innings, which totalled 1,912 runs. Australia, with Oldfield as wicket-keeper triumphed in 1930; in the bodyline series of 1932-33, Oldfield was knocked out with a blow on the head from one of Larwood's deliveries. My own fault said the Australian. In 54 Test matches he claimed 130 victims.

Strudwick has recounted that on one occasion he appealed for a catch at the wicket against Oldfield; the umpire gave him not out, but Oldfield, who knew that he had touched the ball, walked. "You never knew he was there till he had you out" said MacArtney. "He was the greatest wicket-keeper of all time," said Frank Chester.

Strudwick's England successor was George Duckworth (1901-1966) who played in 24 Test matches between 1924 and 1936. He made his name in Chapman's team of 1928-29, when he played in all five Tests, and claimed 14 victims. One of the first of the flamboyant wicket-keepers, famous for his vociferous appeal -- Australian barrackers called him Quack! Quack! -- he was once described as a little indiarubber ball of a man with an enthusiasm for the game which no custom can stale.

Leslie Ames' career lasted from 1925 to 1950: he scored 102 centuries in first-class cricket, and is without doubt the greatest wicket-keeper-batsman in the history of cricket. Leslie Ames' partnership with Tich Freeman brought him a host of victims; he dismissed 121 batsmen in 1928 and 127 in 1929 -- a world record. He first played for England in 1929, and established himself in the bodyline series of 1932-33; his adaptability in taking one of the greatest pace attacks ever known in the game -- Larwood, Allen, Voce and Bowes --after learning his craft to the far slower Kent bowling of Freeman, Woolley, Ashdown and C. S. Marriott gave him the stamp of greatness.

In 1933 Ames scored 3,000 runs; and he was responsible for eight West Indies dismissals in The Oval Test. His aggregate of 415 stumpings is a world record. Between 1929 and 1938 he played 47 times for England and had 98 victims. His greatest game? -- That's easily answered. The Lord's Test in 1934. "I made a century and caught Bradman."

Ames' successor for a brief period was Paul Gibbs, who played in eight Test matches, then Godfrey Evans kept wicket for England from 1946 to 1959. He played in 91 Test matches and dismissed 219 batsmen, including 75 Australians. Sir Neville Cardus (Wisden, 1960) refers to three truly sinful catches when he dismissed Harvey, at Brisbane in 1950; at Melbourne in 1955; and at Lord's in 1956, and to the avaricious opportunism with which he took various bowlers, notably Bedser. Evans, with his jack-in-the-box acrobatics was even more flamboyant than Duckworth. Strudwick, who admired him greatly, suggests that he made some easy catches look difficult; but he often made the nearly impossible look easy. Following Evans' retirement England have played several wicket-keeper-batsmen -- J. T. Murray (Middlesex), Alan Smith (Warwickshire), J. M. Parks of Sussex, who played in 46 Test matches and Alan Knott, the sixth Kent wicket-keeper to wear the England blazer -- and the fiftieth wicket-keeper to play for England.

To pick up Australian threads, Oldfield was succeeded in 1938 by B. A. Barnett, then for some years after the 1939-1945 war Australia was served by Don Tallon, Langley and Maddocks. The tall Tallon, who played in 21 Test matches between 1946 and 1953, challenged comparison with Oldfield, but owing to the war he had no chance of playing Test cricket until he was thirty.

A. T. W. Grout (1927-1968) kept wicket for Australia from 1957 to 1965. In 51 Test matches he caught 163 batsmen and stumped 24; only Godfrey Evans has a better record. He twice claimed eight victims in a Test match; playing for Queensland v. Western Australia in 1960 he caught eight batsmen in an innings. Alan Smith, England wicket-keeper in the 1962-63 series, has vivid memories of him: "There was a bit of everything in Grout: he was essentially a competitor. When you were batting you knew there was someone behind you."

More recently, B. N. Jarman, H. B. Taber and Rodney Marsh have kept wicket for Australia.

The first of the great South African wicket-keepers was E. A. Halliwell (1866-1919), who played in eight Tests between 1891 and 1902, standing up to the intimidating fliers of J. J. Kotze: it is not surprising that he kept wicket with raw beef under his gloves. Murray Bisset (1876-1931), a wicket-keeper-batsman, captained the South African tourists in England in 1901.

P. W. Sherwell (1880-1948) played in 13 Tests between 1906 and 1911. He kept wicket to four great googly bowlers -- Schwarz, Vogler, Faulkner and White: Bosanquet had taught the googly to Schwarz, who had passed it on to the others. In the 1905-6 series, South Africa, under Sherwell's captaincy, outplayed England, winning the rubber by four matches to one; Sherwell and A. D. Nourse (senior) shared in an unbroken last-wicket stand of 45, to win the first Test. In 1907 Sherwell made 115 against England at Lord's; in 1910-11 he claimed 10 dismissals when the South Africans visited Australia for a series of three Tests.

H. B. Cameron (1905-1935) played in 26 Tests between 1927 and 1935. He became South Africa's third wicket-keeper captain; he was a brilliant batsman--in 1935 he hit 30 in an over off Verity. He was swift at stumping and was often compared with Ames. The two wicket-keepers were complementary in their positioning: Ames had his left foot flat, but, right-footed, was on his toes; Cameron crouched with his right foot on the ground, and, left-footed, was on his toes.

J. H. B. Waite took part in 50 Tests between 1953 and 1964; he claimed 141 dismissals. In 1955, he played a great part in the South African victory at Old Trafford, making 113 in the first innings, and taking five catches off the bowling of Adcock and Heine. He scored two centuries against Australia, and in 1961-62 he claimed 26 victims against New Zealand -- the world record for any Test series.

In 1926, India, New Zealand and West Indies were admitted to the Imperial Cricket Conference, thereby attaining Test match status.

J. G. Navle played for India against England in 1932 and 1933. He was a neat and efficient wicket-keeper; Dilawar Hussain, who followed him, was equally competent. N. S. Tamhane played from 1954 to 1960; Farouk Engineer has performed with notable success since 1961.

Tom Lowry, New Zealand's first Test match captain, kept wicket against England in seven Tests (1929-1931). K. C. James was more of a specialist wicket-keeper: he played in 11 Tests (1929-1932). E. C. Petrie played for New Zealand between 1955 and 1965: in the first test at Edgbaston in 1958, standing back, he held six catches.

The West Indies batsmen, C. L. Walcott and Rohan Kanhai also kept wicket in their early days. F. C. M. Alexander played in 25 Test matches for the West Indies between 1957 and 1961, captaining the teams versus India and Pakistan, D. L. Murray, a specialist wicket-keeper, claimed 24 victims against England in 1963, during the golden heyday of Griffith and Hall; he caught John Edrich five times out of his six innings in the series. George Duckworth noted Murray's ability to spot Sobers' googly. J. L. Hendriks, another specialist wicket-keeper, played in 20 Tests between 1962 and 1969, taking the bowling of Griffith, Hall, Gibbs and Sobers.

Pakistan was admitted to the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1952. Her brightest star in the wicket-keeping firmament has been Imtiaz Ahmed, who played in 41 Tests (1952-1962). When Pakistan defeated England at The Oval in 1954, Imtiaz made seven catches -- all off Fazal Mahmood, catching Hutton and Compton in both innings.

Other wicket-keepers, surely among the great, include F. H. Huish of Kent, who kept to Colin Blythe, J. C. Hubble -- also of Kent; Tich Cornford of Sussex; David Hunter, R. T. Stanyforth, Arthur Wood and Jimmy Binks of Yorkshire; H. R. Murrell, W. F. Price and J. T. Murray of Middlesex; George Brown and W. H. Livsey of Hampshire; William Farrimond (Lancashire) and Harry Elliott (Derbyshire).

The greatest of them all? This can only be a matter of opinion; many England cricketers, from Arthur Gilligan to Colin Cowdrey give their votes for Oldfield; Blackham, Lilley Strudwick, Ames, Evans, Tallon, Grout, cannot be far behind: Strudwick himself placed Evans, Oldfield, Cameron and Lilley as equal top. The world's best wicket-keeper today is probably the restless, muscle-flexing Alan Knott. In the 1970-71 series in Australia, says Alan Smith, Warwickshire captain and England Test selector, Knott achieved a personal pinnacle possibly never exceeded by any other wicket-keeper. His own team mates on their victorious return spoke in awe of some of his far flung catches, and above all of the general effect upon the side of his verve and vigour as the focal point in the field. The opinions of his colleagues were fully supported by seasoned judges in the other camp. There are many who believe that given a greater consistency he will ultimately rival Oldfield.

Lilley learnt from Blackham, and discussed his problems with Halliwell and Sherwell; Oldfield modelled himself on Strudwick; Alan Knott took his problems to Keith Andrew; some part of Alan Smith's knowledge of this craft within a craft has come from Blackham, via Lilley and Tiger Smith; Alan Knott, playing for Kent, may have unconsciously inherited wisdom stemming from Ned Wenman himself. "The details of wicket-keeping have probably changed a great deal in the last hundred years," says Alan Smith, "but basically it remains the same."

One last look at the job from the inside -- "I regard the wicket-keeper's brain as a computer," writes W. H. V. Levett. "There are important factors that have to be fed into it -- the amount of grass on the wicket, the amount of moisture in the wicket, the texture of the wicket; as each bowler comes on to bowl, his characteristics and tricks are memorised and fixed in the computer; one even takes the direction and strength of the wind and the atmosphere into consideration."

A great wicket-keeper is like a great painter, he must be proficient in all aspects. Wicket-keepers are born not made.

© John Wisden & Co