W.G. Grace and Ranjitsinhji changed the game as much by novel methods of batsmanship as by their prolific rungetting. Victor Trumper did not outscore his contemporaries, rather his charmed his way into everyone’s hearts by his astonishing strokeplay and endearing personality. William Murdoch had already become the first Australian to score a triple century in first-class cricket when Trumper was just four years old, while the ungainly left-hander Clem Hill matched him run for run in the Tests. If Trumper was hailed as one of the greats of his time, it was for the awesome manner in which he batted, often on bad wickets, rather than for any record-breaking feats. Ken Piesse put things in perspective: “Trumper averaged a century every 9.8 innings, compared with Bradman’s 3.4. ‘The Don’ was undoubtedly a more prolific player. He had an insatiable run-scoring appetite. Trumper didn’t. But his approach and general stroke-play was more pleasing than Bradman.”
No one saw him closer, or knew him better, than the great allrounder Monty Noble, Trumper’s senior at Crown Street School and Paddington Club in Sydney. Noble wrote in The Game’s The Thing (1926): “Victor was a law unto himself. You could talk to him and coach him; he would listen carefully, respect your advice and opinions, and, leaving you, would forget all you had told him, play as he wanted to play, and thereby prove that, although you might be right, he knew a better method. He would hit the first ball in a Test match for four if it suited him. Sometimes, but not often, this would lead to his early downfall. His defence was his offence. If, on a bad wicket, a left-hander was troubling anyone, he would immediately set about knocking him off, and generally succeed in doing so.”
Vic Marks reflected popular sentiment in The Wisden Illustrated History of Cricket: “The true enthusiast would undoubtedly have missed a family wedding to watch Trumper bat.”
It was often due to his weak constitution, seldom his audacious strokeplay, that Trumper did not end up with a better record than he did. Though physically strong, he fell ill often, which affected his form to a considerable degree. Besides he had no use for numbers. As Ken Piesse noted: “Figures didn’t worry him. He would just as soon present his wicket to a deserving youngster after he had made a century, as grind his way to double and triple centuries like Bradman.” Despite this, by the time the First World War began, he had in his bag the Australian records of 8 hundreds and highest score of 214 not out in Test cricket, and the best first-class average of 44 in a completed career. Only Clem Hill had a marginally better Test record for his country with 3412 runs (average 39.21), compared to Trumper’s 3163 runs (average 39.04). And, lest we forget, Hill at that time had the record Test aggregate in Test cricket.
So talented was Trumper that, it is said, he was barred from playing in school because he was impossible to dismiss and, as Noble recounted, soon people were asking, “Have you seen Trumper playing?” As a 20-year-old in 1897-98, playing for Paddington Club, he smashed 1021 runs in 8 innings at an average of 204.20. His scores were 82, 123, 125, 85, 120 not out, 191 not out, 133 and 162 not out.
In his first Test series in 1899, Trumper scored a brilliant unbeaten 135 in the Lord’s Test, and his partnership with Hill set up the match for Australia. They went on to clinch the game, the only one that produced a result. Trumper saved the fourth Test at Manchester with a masterly display. After England had enforced the follow-on, there was heavy overnight rain. On that sticky wicket he attacked the bowling in his innings of 63, and with help from Noble bailed the team out. Noble once observed, “You had to be in with him to realise his ability to the full. The most difficult and dangerous strokes were made with consummate ease. His action was so free, in fact, that onlookers were often deceived into the belief that he was facing the easiest of bowling.”
On that tour Trumper scored an unbeaten 300 against Sussex at Hove, his best in first-class cricket. Joe Darling declared the Australian innings as soon as Trumper reached his triple century. The skipper himself was unbeaten on 70, and Noble asked him what he thought of the boy. “What do I think of him?” Darling shot back, “I thought I could bat!” Noble lauded Trumper’s genius: “He made great players at the other end look like schoolboys by comparison; often have I seen them standing staring with astonishment at the audacity of his strokes. Bowlers frequently appealed for l.b.w. against him, only to find that the bat had connected at the last minute. Fast bowlers particularly appealed when they sent down a yorker on the leg-stump before the foot was removed and a beautiful on-side shot resulted.”
On the next tour of England in 1902, Trumper was in irresistible form. It was a very wet summer, and the wickets were often unplayable. Trumper piled up 2570 runs at 48.49 per outing, carving out 11 hundreds, including one in each innings against Essex. The next highest rungetter for the Australians was Hill with 1555 runs (average 31.33). On the first day of the Manchester Test, Trumper and his regular partner Reggie Duff put up an opening stand of 135 in 80 minutes. At lunch the scoreboard read 173 for one. Soon after resumption Trumper was caught behind for 104. In the only Test match ever played at Sheffield, one of his brilliant cameos, and partnership with Hill, took the match away from England. Trumper cracked 62 out of 80 in 50 minutes, and as Wisden recorded, “….. doing just what he liked with the English bowling.” Incidentally, it was in the final Test of that series at the Oval that Jessop turned around the game with his scintillating hundred in 75 minutes, fastest until Australian Jack Gregory’s ton in 70 minutes against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1921-22. Jessop’s 104 enabled England win that Test, thereby reducing Australia’s winning margin to 2-1.
Unwittingly, Trumper played a part in the evolution of the game when he was clean bowled by what is believed to be the first-ever googly delivered by its inventor B.J.T. Bosanquet at Sydney in 1902-03. This was against Pelham Warner’s touring team, a trip in which no Test matches were played.
Interestingly, neither Trumper nor Duff used a cover for the bat handle. They would roughen the handle string with a piece of glass and apply powdered resin. Trumper explained that he was averse to chamois leather and rubber covers because they interfered with the instinctive movement of his hands. What was immediately noticeable was how high up the handle he gripped the bat. Trumper, indeed, used the long handle, literally and figuratively. He was as much a natural as he was distinctive.
Noble narrated two instances that illustrate Trumper’s true genius: “Perhaps his finest innings on a bad wicket was in a Test match in Melbourne in 1904, when he made 74 out of 122 runs. He was so severe on a left-hand bowler that the latter gave up bowling at the wicket and plied him with off-theory – a complete triumph of the bat over the ball on such a ‘glue-pot’. On another occasion when New South Wales was playing Victoria, J.V. Saunders, bowling on a bad wicket (at Sydney) beat him twice in the first over. After that he gave them the long handle and made 100 before lunch, that is, from noon to 1.30 P.M.”
During that 1903-04 series, Trumper scored a superb unbeaten 185 in the fourth Test at Sydney. This was the game in which R.E. Foster, playing in his only Test series, hit up 287 on debut, the highest score in Test cricket at the time, as England gained a first innings lead of 282 runs. Having been dismissed for just 1 in the first innings, Trumper was dropped down to no. 5 the second time round. Striding in at 191 for three, Trumper raced to his hundred in 94 minutes in an exhilarating post-tea session. At one stage he cut Leonard Braund in his first over thrice through the slips to the boundary. The next ball ran away for four byes. Trumper straight-drove the last ball. The crowd were on their feet as he and Hill ran four, but when the latter was run out, going for the fifth run, all hell broke loose. The crowd bayed for the blood of umpire Bob Crockett, disappointed that the rollicking stand of 63 in a little over half an hour had been abruptly cut off. Unperturbed by the din, Trumper carried on magnificently against a quality bowling line-up. Braund kept pitching his quickish leg-breaks outside the leg-stump and Trumper would back away to leg and repeatedly late-cut him to the boundary. Later Braund threw up his hands, “It didn’t matter where I pitched the ball. Trumper would hit it into three different places in the field.”
He reached 119 by stumps. Twenty thousand people turned up the next day to watch Trumper. He continued the fightback, scoring a chanceless 185 before running out of partners. Thanks to his brilliant innings, rated among the best ever on a good pitch, Australia set a respectable target of 194. Bosanquet, though, had foxed most of the Australians with his googlies, capturing six for 51. It was left to Tom Hayward and George Hirst to ensure an England win, and help regain the Ashes. Nonetheless, this was vintage Trumper, darling of the masses. He aggregated the highest on either side in the series, 574 runs at an average of 63.77.
Trumper delighted the crowds for another decade. His most prolific Test series was against South Africa in 1910-11 when he made 661 runs at an average of 94.42. Hartland noted: “Where Trumper remains unapproached to this day is in the range and grace of his strokeplay, and in his ability to carry on attacking successfully with those strokes on pitches so treacherous that others were grateful merely to survive.” In his The Immortal Victor Trumper, Jack Fingleton, who played alongside Bradman and saw him at close quarters, declared that Trumper was the greatest batsman of all time. Fingleton wrote, “He was like a surgeon, deftly and classically dissecting everything that was offered against him.” Arthur Haygarth put it simply in the monumental MCC Cricket Scores and Biographies: “His timing has never been excelled and in the art of placing the ball he was unsurpassed.” In first-class cricket Trumper scored 17,150 runs at an average of 45.01 with 43 hundreds.
There are as many legendary tales of Trumper’s mind-boggling exploits in club cricket as of his kind and modest nature. On one occasion a distinguished bowler decided to deliver the ball from a yard behind the bowling crease. Though initially perplexed, Trumper launched such a furious assault that he raised the team’s hundred in thirty-three minutes. In another instance a brash young bowler bragged about a magic delivery that he could dismiss Trumper with whenever he chose to. Trumper heard about it and, as was his wont, let his bat do the talking. There was a buzz around the ground as the sizeable crowd, that had gathered in keen anticipation, saw the fielding captain put the wannabe trundler on. Trumper’s riposte was 184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11.6.6, fifty runs off this bowler in ten balls, it is believed, in a matter of five-and-a-quarter minutes!
As his generous and kind nature was an open secret, Trumper would invariably be flooded with requests for free tickets to cricket matches. Not one to disappoint anyone, he would often be seen outside the grounds obliging the seekers. When he could not give a ticket, he would hand over the cash required to pay the entrance fee.
Monty Noble, it would appear, loved Victor Trumper as his younger brother. Noble struck a deeply poignant note when Trumper fell ill just after the outbreak of the First World War: “Bright’s disease developed, and he lingered on till June 1915, when he died in great pain at his home at Chatswood. The irony of it. He was a teetotaler, a non-smoker; he never gambled and he never kept late hours. Indeed, he was such a clean liver and had such a wholesome mental outlook that one would have expected him to live his full measure of his allotted span. But it was not to be. The funeral was a great public one, attended by many international and inter-state cricketers, and as it passed through the streets of Sydney on its way to the cemetery, tens of thousands paid their last tribute of respect to the greatest, yet most modest, batsman the world has known.”
Victor Trumper was just thirty-seven years old. Perhaps for someone so immensely talented, and of such delightful character, the only place to be was in heaven.
(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Published by Sporting Links, 2011
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