Bart King (above) was hailed by Sir Don Bradman as the greatest cricketing son of America. Photo Courtesy: WIkipedia
Bart King, born October 19, 1873, is without doubt the greatest cricketer to be produced by the United States of America. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was one of the first exponents of swing bowling.
It was a full strength Australian team that toured North America in 1893. Led by Jack Blackham, the side sparkled with stars. George Giffen, Alec Bannerman, Harry Trott, John Lyons, Syd Gregory, William Bruce, Harry Graham, Hugh Trumble, Arthur Conningham — it was a roll call of formidable names.
However, after their long voyage across the Atlantic on the Germanic, the visitors were immediately put on railway car No. 30 at Jersey city. The long ocean crossing followed by a mad rush on a private train left them dazed as they changed gingerly into their flannels.They hardly looked themselves as they took the field against the Gentlemen of Philadelphia at the Belmont Cricket Club Ground.
As a result, even an attack boasting Giffen and Trumble was flayed mercilessly as Philadelphia amassed an American record of 525. The grass was coarse, the boundaries short and the Australians dropped catches and misfielded. The home batsmen made merry, including the No. 11, a 19-year-old lad from the Tioga Cricket Club, who flashed his blade to get 36.
When the visitors batted, that young boy ran in fast, holding the ball above his head in both hands for the last few strides, much like a baseball pitcher. It was not extraordinary for an American bowler to resemble a baseball pitcher. Especially given that the boy, Bart King, had cut his teeth with baseball before taking up cricket. The real surprise was what followed after his run. The balls hastened through, accurate and genuinely fast, and the majority swung a long way away from the right handers. And occasionally one would dip back in, with deadly results. King dismissed Bannerman, Giffen, Trott, Bruce and Conningham to end with 5 for 78. Australia were skittled out for 199.
In the second innings King added Trumble and Graham to his scalps and the vaunted visitors were shocked by an innings and 68 runs. The cricket world sat up and took notice of an American town that had the capability to beat a full strength Australian side. Australia won the return match by six wickets, but captain Blackham acknowledged the talent of the local side with the words: “You have better players here than we have been led to believe. They class with England’s best.”
Young King’s performance was even more remarkable because had been just four years since he had taken up cricket.
Bart King was more than handy with the bat and even had a couple of triple-hundreds to his name. Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia
The King of American cricket
King was not born into the moneyed Philadelphia elite who formed the major cricketing community of the city. His father was in the linen trade, and his roots were firmly middleclass. Starting with baseball as any average American kid, King made his way to the Tioga Cricket Club in 1888 at the age of 15. He joined as a batsman.
Tioga was not one of the stronger outfits in Philadelphia, and lacked bowlers of quality. When the strapping young man was first tried out in a club match in 1889, he was asked to bowl. King’s excellent physique influenced the decision, and by the end of the season it proved to be a wise one. King ended with 37 wickets, conceding just 99 runs.
In 1892, King was selected to play for the Gentlemen of Philadelphia against the visiting Gentlemen of Ireland. He was just 18 and it was his first taste of international cricket. He bowled briskly in the three matches, scalping 19 wickets at 13.53.
King continued to play for Tioga for the next few years before joining the Belmont Cricket Club in 1896.That same year, he won the Child’s Bowling Cup – the award for the best bowler in American cricket. When the Australians, under Harry Trott, visited them once again, King bowled superbly against the supremely strong batting line up that included young guns Clem Hill and Joe Darling, capturing five wickets in an innings in both the matches.
The first tour of England – and bizarre marital arrangements
The following year, 1897, saw the Philadelphian cricket team touring England. It was the first time a American side was scheduled to play against the top county sides as well as the Oxford and Cambridge Universities and Marylebone Cricket Club.
After a couple of low key outings came the epochal match agaisnt Sussex at Brighton. King came in at No 5 and hit 58 in good time before being caught by KS Ranjitsinhji off Fred Tate. The visitors totalled a not too impressive 206, and then all hell broke loose. King ran in and demolished the home team by capturing 7 for 13, including the scalps of Ranji and Billy Murdoch. Sussex was routed for 46 in just 20 overs. When the hosts followed on, King ran through the innnings once again, capturing 6 for 102. Philadelphia won by eight wickets.
The tourists, however, did not really do very well during the visit. They lost nine of their 15 matches and the only other win came against Warwickshire. King’s contribution to this win consisted of 46 runs and 12 wickets.He ended the summer with 9 for 25 against PF Warner’s XI. His tour figures stood at 72 wickets at 24 and 441 runs at 20. As Wisden recorded he was often the one man army of Philadelphia.
The stirring performances of the young man made many of the English counties interested in procuring his services. By now King had moved away from his family’s linen trade and had set up his career in insurance. According to evidence, this was arranged by some wealthy families who tried to ensure that he could continue to play the game as an amateur.
After the counties figured out King would not be willing to play as a professional, alternative arrangements were made. This included a proposed marriage to a widow with an income of £7,000 per year. But, in spite of the enterprise, King did not tarry in England and returned to Philadelphia to carry on his spectacular deeds in club cricket.
The second visit to England
King’s next major performance against worthy opponents was in 1901 against the touring English team led by BJT Bosanquet. He captured 23 wickets in the two games, including innings figures of 8 for 78, at an average of 10.30. The next tour to England took place in 1903. By now King had matured into one of the very best in business. He started the tour with nine wickets against Cambridge University, and followed it up with 10 against Oxford, including 8 for 39 in the first innings. At Lord’s, he fought a lone battle against a powerful MCC side with 7 for 51 in the first innings.
After nine more wickets against Kent, the tour moved to Old Trafford where the Philadelphians took on Lancashire. In this spectacular match, King started by capturing 5 for 46 to restrict the home side to 158. Philadelphia replied with 187, and the opening partnership of the Lancashire second innings wiped off the small deficit and seemed poised for a formidable score. After lunch on the second day, King started bowling with a strong wind over his left shoulder. In the first over he yorked Frederick MacLaren, and with his next ball he repeated the feat with Frank Hollins. In the following over he picked up two more wickets, both clean bowled. In the third over after the break, he knocked a stump of Jack Sharp out of the ground. His figures after the break at that stage read 3-1-7-5.
George Radcliffe was run out at 80 before King came back and bowled three more batsmen and induced the last man to snick to the ’keeper. His figures were 9 for 62 in a score of 171, eight of the wickets clean bowled. The following day Nelson Graves scored a sterling century to ensure a 9-wicket win for the visitors.
Yet, his finest performance was yet to come – and this time it was more with the willow than the leather. Against Surrey at The Oval, King scored 98 in the first innings before being run out. He proceeded to capture 3 for 89 when Surrey batted. This was followed by an unbeaten 113 in the second innings before ending the match by knocking Tom Richardson’s stumps to finish with 3 for 98. Given that the Surrey attack included the lionhearted Richardson, King’s feats were nothing short of extraordinary. Philadelphia won by 110 runs and at a banquet after the match the exhausted King fell asleep during a speech by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Alverstone.
This time King’s 78 wickets of the tour came at 16.06 while he pitched in with 614 runs at 29.23 with a hundred and three fifties. If there was any doubt about his being the best ever player to come out of the New World, they were put to rest.
During the years that followed without international showdowns, King picked up wickets by the bushel in club cricket. His batting was not without its highlights as well, and some of the feats with the willow were no less dazzling. In 1905, King established a North American record by scoring 315 at the German town Cricket Club. The following year, he scored 344 not out for Belmont against the Merion B in the Halifax Cup, breaking his own record and setting a mark that still stands. Given that club cricket in Philadelphia was reputed to be of a genuinely high standard, this was no mean achievement.
In 1907, a MCC side led by the magnificently named Jhansi-born Hesketh Vernon Hesketh-Pritchard visited America. The team had players like Johnny Douglas and South African stars Reggie Schwarz and Tip Snooke in their ranks. In the second engagement against the visitors, King picked up his regulation five wickets in an innings.That was also the year that he started bowling in tandem with the Australian googly exponent HV ‘Ranji’ Hordern.
The third and final England tour
The following year, in 1908, King toured England for the third and final time. Boosted by the combination of King’s firepower and Hordern’s guile the Philadelphians won four of their First-Class matches apart from victories over minor sides. The pair took 17 of the 20 wickets in their famous win over MCC, and shared 132 of the 168 wickets captured by the visitors during the entire tour. The 35-year-old King bagged 87 wickets at 11.01, a record for an English season which stood till Les Jackson of Derbyshire went past it in 1958 with 10.99.
The next season, playing against the Gentlemen of Ireland in 1909, King managed the stupendous feat of of bowling all 11 batsmen. He captured 10 wickets in the innings and GA Morrow was bowled off a no-ball and remained not out. This was one of three occasions when he took all ten wickets in an innings.
King’s final international matches were played in 1912 against Australia. It was a less than full strength group of Antipodeans, but nevertheless included players like Syd Gregory, Bill Whitty and Charles Kelleway. In the heart-stopping first match, King picked up 5 for 40 and 4 for 38, bowling Whitty in the end to win it for the hosts by just two runs. In the next game, he picked up 5 for 22 and 3 for 52 and top-scored in both innings. Considering that he was nearing 40, the performances were miraculous. After the 1912 season, King moved to the Philadelphia Cricket Club and played four more seasons, averaging 43 with the bat in his final year.
In all, King took 100 wickets in eight seasons and scored 1000 runs in six, managing the double four times. In his entire career, he took 2088 wickets at 10.47 while amassing 19,808 runs at 36.47 with 39 hundreds. Because of his being born in a largely cricket-agnostic country, the number of First-Class matches King played in his long career was limited to just 65. But, his tally of wickets was a mind-boggling 415 at 15.66 apiece with 38 five-wicket hauls and 11 ten-fors. With the bat he scored 2134 runs at 20.51 with one hundred and eight fifties.
Standing at six feet one and weighing 178 pounds, King was blessed with long and loose arms, a powerful trunk and sturdy shoulders. Teammate John Lester observed, “nature endowed this man completely with the physical equipment that a fast bowler covets.”
King’s success stemmed from his ability to swing the ball at a genuinely quick pace. At that stage of development of cricket, some bowlers were able to generate swing, but King is considered to be the first to do it wilfully and with control, with the old ball and the new.
He could swing it away a long way and sometimes send down a dangerous inswinger. He also developed the late swing in both directions and his in-swinger came in with his right hand coming down starting from somewhere over his left shoulder. According to him, if properly bowled, it could change direction sharply in the last 10 to 15 feet. King bowled it only to very good batsmen. He called this ball the ‘angler’ and it was a product of his days as a baseball pitcher. In 1896, George Giffen confessed, “The Philadelphians really have some high-class players, but it was the fact of their bowlers playing us with baseball curves that upset our batsmen.”
Plum Warner calledKing “one of the finest bowlers of all time. Had he been an Englishman or an Australian, he would have been even more famous than he was. At the top of his power and speed, (King) was at least the equal of the greatest of them all.” Donald Bradman, who did not play against him, nevertheless referred to him as “America’s greatest cricketing son.”
The affable man
There is a story about King playing for Belmont against Trenton in the Halifax Cup at the Elmwood Cricket Ground. Some say he sent all the fielders into the pavilion, and some give the version that he called one of them back to a position a pitch length behind the wicket on the leg side to pick up the bail which was promptly deposited at his feet by the famed ‘angler’. The captain of Trentonlater disputed the story saying he made use of the absence of fielders to run six to cover point. However, King was good enough to dismiss local sides without the help of fielders.
As a person King was endearing and a treasure trove of quips and stories. On the field he used to poke his opponents with barbed comments laced with enough humour to leave them chuckling. The same followed if he disputed the decision of an umpire. He was a magnificent speaker as well.During his last tour to England,King is supposed to have spoken for 90 minutes with every second bringing forth a new volley of laughter.All the while King had retained a deadpan expression. One of the attendees noted that King told his impossible tales “with such an air of conviction … that his audiences were always in doubt when to take him seriously. He made their task doubly difficult by sprinkling in a fair mixture of truth with his fiction.”
King was elected an honorary life member of MCC in 1962. The next year, Fannie Lockhart, his wife of 50 years, passed away. King himself died two years later in a nursing home in his native Philadelphia two days short of his 92nd birthday.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)