John Wisden: personal recollections



Wisden played his first match for Sussex, against Kent at Brighton, in July 1845, and his last, against the M.C.C. and Ground at Brighton, in August, 1863. After 1863 he did not take part in first-class cricket. He made his first appearance at Lord's in 1846. His first Gentlemen v. Players' match was in 1848, and his last in 1859. He and James Dean founded in 1852 the United All-England Eleven, whose famous matches with the All-England Eleven began in 1857. In conjunction with George Parr, Wisden took an England Eleven to Canada and the United States in 1859 - two years before the first England team, with H.H. Stephenson as captain, went to Australia.


SIR KENELM DIGBY writes - I am glad to have the opportunity of noting down a few reminiscences of John Wisden, who was engaged as a professional bowler at Harrow School during the four years 1852 to 1855. As those were the years in which I was a member of the Harrow eleven and captain for the last three of them, I was during the cricket season brought into close and daily connection with Wisden. I have the pleasant recollection of his quiet, modest, and unassuming character, his unfailing good temper, his keenness in and enjoyment of his work, his genial disposition which made him a great favourite with all the present and former members of the school with whom he came in contact. He was engaged by old Harrovians not so much as a cricket coach, as for the purpose of giving the young cricketers constant practice in dealing with moderate-paced, first-class bowling. The actual teaching of cricket was mainly carried on by Frederick Ponsonby, afterwards Earl of Bessborough, whose thorough mastery of the theory and practice of the game no one who had the advantage of his instruction could ever forget. With wonderful insight and quickness he saw at a glance the weak and the strong points of each young player, and taught him how to correct the one and develop the other. As a batsman Wisden was a learner rather than a teacher, and greatly improved during the four years he was at Harrow. As a bowler he was quite in the first rank, and though other bowlers might occasionally bowl more brilliant and difficult balls, no one surpassed him in the steadiness of his attack on the wicket, in command of the ball, in straightness, and in length. He was probably the most useful member of the United All-England Eleven; and from time to time it was necessary to give him leave to be absent for some great match, in which his services could not be dispensed with. It was, it must be remembered, the day of round-arm bowling, when the raising of the arm above the level of the shoulder was prohibited. The alteration of this rule has, it seems to me, largely altered the characteristics of first-class bowling. Wisden had a perfect delivery; with a short but rapid run, a graceful and easy sweep of the arm, moderate pace, hardly a loose ball, varying his pace occasionally, but always "on the spot," he was unsurpassed as the standby of the side in first-class cricket. In round-arm bowling there was not, I imagine, the same power of manipulating the ball with the fingers, so as to make it break from the off, or come in from the leg, at pleasure, as can be done by the 'windmill' bowlers of the present day. On the other hand, what was a prominent feature of the bowling of the past, seems, so far as my observation goes, to have entirely disappeared. I do not believe that any one under the age of fifty has ever seen a real shooter. I attribute this largely to the alteration in the mode of delivery, aided no doubt by the greater smoothness and diminished vivacity of the wicket. On which side lies the greater gain, or the least loss? I confess, if the gods could bring back to earth an eleven of the past to contend with an eleven of the present, I should like to see a side containing Wisden and W. Clarke as bowlers, and Fuller Pilch and George Parr as batsmen, matched against a first-class team of the present day, whether British or Colonial.

SIR SPENCER PONSONBY FAYE writes: - I knew Jack Wisden very well and played with or against him for about ten years in the important matches of those days, for which I was able to get away from the Foreign Office, such as Gentlemen and Players, North and South, Kent and England, etc. He was a very fine and accurate bowler, perfect length, but with little work, except what the ground gave it. He was a fast medium, but I think he was classed as a fast bowler - and played on that side in the match, Fast v Slow. He was a delightful bowler to play against, but required very careful watching, for he was apt to send in occasionally a very fast shooter, then so fatal on Lord's Ground. I have no recollection of his bowling a "yorker" called a "Tice" in those days - a mode of attack not in vogue at the time. I believe he was the first of the players to play in a straw hat, instead of the white topper worn by the older players. He was a good field, and an excellent bat, which was rather exceptional for a bowler at that time, when bowlers were not expected to be very able performers with the bat. He was a genial, pleasant, and respectable fellow in every way, liked and respected by every one with whom he came in contact.

CANON McMORMICK says : - Wisden was small of stature, but well made. He was too small to be a brilliant fieldsman. He made his mark as a bowler. He bowled moderately fast, and he was as fair a round arm bowler as could be seen. His delivery was quite easy. The best balls he bowled broke back slightly, and his style of delivery tended to make them shoot. He kept a good length and with a spin and a quick-rising ball he always had to be carefully watched. He was consistent rather than brilliant or original. Though a good bowler, he was not as difficult to play as Jackson or Willsher. His averages show that he always took wickets and in the best matches. As a batsman he was not in the first rank, but it was not easy to get him out. He had a very straight bat and was wonderfully patient. He often stayed in while his partner made a large score. At the Oval on one occasion he and Lillywhite got over 100 runs for the last wicket. He was a thorough cricketer and always did his very best to win. As a professional he was universally liked by Gentlemen and Players. He was modest and good tempered and never pushed himself forward.
I very well remember a celebrated match in which Wisden and I took part. It was at Lord's. The match was "M.C.C. and Ground" against the County of Sussex, at a time when Sussex was about the best county in England. John Lillywhite was then in his prime as a batsman, and Wisden as a bowler. What made the match so remarkable was that Nixon and I, in the second innings, bowled Sussex out for 23 runs! The last big match in which I played against Wisden was Gentlemen and Players. Wisden bowled at the Pavilion end of Lord's: the second ball I cut for 4 and the third was a leg stump shooter, and it took my wicket.
On another occasion I played with Wisden for the United England XI against XVI of Southgate. This was no common match, as the XVI contained some of the best players in England. I was not put on early in the innings but, having started bowling, I bowled throughout, taking seven wickets in the first innings and nine in the second, and nearly all bowled. Though we lost it was a most interesting match, and an exhibition of first-class cricket.
Wisden was a mainstay of the United England Eleven, and did good service against George Parr's Eleven of England, a very powerful team. Wisden has left a very good record as a cricketer and a pleasant memory as a sportsman, a companion, a friend.

THE REV. H. R. BIRON writes : - The first time I saw Wisden play was on the old ground at Canterbury just beyond the Barracks. This was before the present St. Lawrence Ground was in use. I was then a boy at school and I never imagined that eleven years afterwards I should be playing against him for Kent, or that after another 55 years I should be asked to give a few remembrances of this famous cricketer on the 50th Anniversary of the invaluable Cricketers' Almanack which bears his name. John Wisden was born in Sept., 1826, and died April 5th, 1884. Early in his cricketing career he was called the "Little Wonder," a title which, given him by Bob Thoms, he bore through his life. In his time the wickets were not of the "billiard table", or, as I have heard it called, the "bread and butter" type of the present age, consequently the bowlers of the past had a great advantage over those of the present time - but the pitch and precision of Wisden's bowling would have made him difficult even in the present day, and I have but little doubt that his ingenuity would have risen to the occasion as the wickets became easier. Indeed, he lived to see a great improvement in the grounds, but he was a deadly trundler to the end. His bowling, as I remember it, was of a rather fast-medium pace. He sometimes in his later days resorted to underhand slows with which he now and then met with success. Indeed I remember a match at Tunbridge Wells in 1861, when after being rather severely handled, as was thought in those days, he went on with "underhands" and got five wickets at a very cheap cost. But I must say that I was not greatly impressed with their difficulty as it was owing more to the weakness of the opposition than to the excellence that his success on that occasion was due. Still, however, amongst his victims were four excellent batsmen, viz.: Mr. S.W. Norton, Willsher, Hopkinson, and H. Fryer.

But he did not shine only as a bowler; for so short a man he was a powerful hitter, and a good bat all-round. The centuries, which in these days are as common as blackberries, were very rare in Wisden's time, but he scored 100 against Kent in 1850 - his innings including four 6's, and these against Willsher, than whom a better or more difficult bowler never lived - and 148 against Yorkshire at Sheffield in 1855, when he met such clever trundlers as Ike Hodgson, Crossland, Wright, and Chatterton, a formidable quartet indeed - a fact which I can personally assert. In the Kent v England Match at Canterbury in 1853 I saw him make a drive for SEVEN all run out, the ball travelling nearly to the entrance gate. The only boundaries then were three or four tents. I have sometimes wondered, when in the present age I see batsmen resting for breath after the very rare four run out, how they would feel after running a hit for seven. Have the Sybaritic luncheons anything to do with this? But it was not only as a cricketer but as a man that the memory of Wisden may be cherished. We have the testimony of the late V. E. Walker, and of Sir Kenelm Digby as to his character when he coached Harrow. Both spoke of him in the highest terms. So much for the past. May John Wisden's memory be kept alive in the cricket world for another 50 years at least, when perhaps one of my great grandchildren may write another In Memoriam in the 100th Edition of John Wisden's Cricketers' Almanack

SIR H. M. PLOWDEN writes : - When I was a junior schoolboy at Harrow, Wisden was the school professional, about 1855 and 1856. I recall him as short in figure, a little inclined to plumpness, with a beautifully easy, smooth and level delivery as a bowler. I remember that we used to speak of him as " the drawing room player" because he favoured "the draw," a stroke long obsolete but of sufficient importance at that date to form one of the series of drawings by G. F. Watts (No. 86) in the collection of the M.C.C. at Lord's.

© John Wisden & Co