Bill Ponsford and Vijay Merchant…..penchant for big knocks in first-class cricket. Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘Don’s Century’

bill-ponsfordSuch was the batting legacy that Bradman inherited. While he was busy making the grade, Bill Ponsford was fast becoming Australia’s answer to W.G. Grace in his penchant for tall scores in first-class cricket. Playing some defining innings for Victoria at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Ponsford hit up a record 429 against Tasmania in 1922-23, overhauling Lancastrian Archie MacLaren’s 424 versus Somerset at Taunton in 1895, the only quadruple hundred of the 19th century. MacLaren had in turn surpassed Grace’s record of 344 for MCC against Kent at Canterbury in 1876.

Ponsford then reeled off 352 – 334 in a day – against New South Wales in 1926-27, and 437 and 336 versus Queensland and South Australia respectively the following season. Ponsford was the only player to score two quadruple centuries until Brian Lara scored 501 not out for Warwickshire in 1994, and 400 not out in the Antigua Test against England in 2004.

Bradman served notice with his undefeated 340 for New South Wales in 1928-29, having already scored a century on first-class debut the previous season. Then in 1929-30, Bradman broke Ponsford’s record with his 452 not out against Queensland at Sydney.

Having scored hundreds in his first two Tests in 1924-25 against England, Ponsford later combined with Bradman in two record partnerships in consecutive Tests – 388 for the fourth wicket at Leeds, and 451 for the second wicket at the Oval in 1934. It was a summer in which Ponsford had a Bradmanesque average of 94.83, having scored 569 runs in 4 Tests. Bradman aggregated 758 runs in 5 Tests at an average of 94.75.

One has then, not surprisingly, come across several references to Bob Wyatt’s famous remark describing Ponsford as “A very great player indeed.” This was during the Lord’s Centenary match in 1980 when Ponsford walked across the former players’ enclosure. Len Hutton recalled the incident, as did Alec Bedser, and both wondered how great, then, was Bradman. Ponsford would indeed be rated very high for his monumental first-class scores, his record Test partnerships with Bradman and brilliant series in 1934. But he had his problems with pace, surprising for an opening batsman. As Hartland noted: “Ponsford possessed a similarly insatiable appetite for big scores, once recording 2183 runs in thirteen consecutive first-class innings at an average of 167, but also a weakness against the fastest bowling, ruthlessly exploited by Larwood.” That would go against Ponsford being rated alongside the true greats despite Wyatt’s generous off-the-cuff remark. Indeed, Ponsford floundered in the Bodyline series, though he did score a brave 85 in the infamous Adelaide Test after Woodfull and Oldfield had been hit.

vijay-merchantIn another part of the earth, Vijay Merchant was perfecting his technique so assiduously that he came to be looked upon as the fountainhead of the Bombay tradition of great batsmen adorned by the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. So wedded was Merchant to his art that he deferred matrimony – which he coupled with philanthropy – for the days when he had finally locked away his wide willow.

Reminiscent of the Ponsford-Bradman big-score upmanship in the Sheffield Shield in the days of yore was the rivalry of the Vijays, the Merchant-Hazare tussle in Indian domestic cricket during the war. If Hazare had scored 316 for Maharashtra against Baroda in the Ranji Trophy in 1939-40 and 309 (amazingly out of a total of 387 all out) for the Rest of India against the Hindus in the Bombay Pentangular in 1943-44, Merchant compiled 359 not out for Bombay the same Ranji Trophy season in the home game against Maharashtra. This was the highest score in Indian domestic cricket until B.B. Nimbalkar scored the only quadruple hundred in the country in 1948-49.

With Nimbalkar anchored on 443, against Kathiawar in Poona, and just 10 runs away from breaking Bradman’s record, the opposing team did not turn up after lunch that day, thereby conceding the match. The story, perhaps apocryphal, goes that they had so much respect for The Don that they could not reconcile to the idea of anyone, even their own countryman, surpassing him. Be that as it may, in 1946-47 Hazare put up the highest-ever partnership for any wicket in all first-class cricket – 577 with Gul Mohammad for the fourth wicket for Baroda versus Holkar. This mark stood for nearly 60 years until Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene put on 624 for the third wicket for Sri Lanka against South Africa at Colombo in 2006.

Not all of Merchant’s runs were scored on familiar territory. He was third in the all-comers averages during the English summer of 1936. A decade later he was second behind the great Wally Hammond. On display during that wet season was his mastery on damp surfaces. A feature of Merchant’s batting was his penchant for the late cut, an indication of a delicate touch quite unique. Significantly, Merchant is second behind Bradman in the all-time first-class career averages, his 13,248 runs having come at 71.22 per innings. Headley’s first-class average was 69.86, having scored 9921 runs. Overseas, Merchant averaged 62, Headley 60. Merchant would have finally come up against Bradman, having been appointed captain for the 1947-48 tour, but had to withdraw on grounds of health. During that series Hazare became the first Indian to score a century in each innings of a Test. Injury curtailed Merchant’s career, and with the war having intervened, he had but a short stint in Test cricket. In 10 Tests, Merchant scored 859 runs at an average of 47.72 with 3 hundreds.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email singh_iv@hotmail.com. Follow Indra Vikram Singh on Twitter @IVRajpipla).

Don's Century cover (front)Don’s Century

Published by Sporting Links

ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0, Fully Illustrated

French Fold 21.5 cm x 28 cm, 188 Pages

Price Rupees 995

Indra Vikram Singh’s latest books published by Sporting Links:

A Maharaja’s Turf  ISBN 978-81-901668-3-6

The Big Book of World Cup Cricket  ISBN 978-81-901668-4-3

Don’s Century  ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0

Crowning Glory  ISBN 978-81-901668-6-7

Distributed in India by:  Variety Book Depot, AVG Bhawan, M-3 Middle Circle, Connaught Circus, New Delhi-110001, India. Tel. + 91 11 23417175, 23412567, Email varietybookdepot@gmail.com.

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