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Billy Gunn — cricketer, footballer and the founder of bat-makers GM

Billy Gunn  © Getty Images
Billy Gunn © Getty Images

 

Billy Gunn of Nottinghamshire was born on December 4, 1858. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man who represented England in both cricket and football and also founded a famous sporting goods firm.

 

Few men have managed to represent their countries in two international sports — let alone found a firm that has been standing for over 125 years. But then, William Gunn was no ordinary man. He was a quality all-rounder who managed to stretch his amazing versatility outside the arena of cricket.

 

Gunn was tall. Some sources cite him as 6’2”; Wisden wrote that he “must stand about 6 ft 2 in or 6 ft 3 in.” In An English Football Internationalist Who’s Who, Douglas Lamming mentioned that Gunn was 6’4½”. The Memorial Biography of WG Grace writes him down as 6’3”. Despite the height, however, Gunn was easily recognisable among his peers, mostly due to his ramrod spine and the natural grace with which he walked.

 

Wisden wrote of his style: “As a batsman he [Gunn] represented the orthodox — one might even say the classic — school at its best. With his perfectly straight bat and beautifully finished style, he was a model to be copied.” He was also a master of the short ball, but preferred the wristy cut to the cross-batted pull.

 

Despite the fact that he was one of the hardest hitters of the sport, Gunn was reluctant to loft the cricket ball. “I can make as big hits as anyone if I like, but if I begin to lift the ball I never score more than 40,” he used to say. He cut down his risky shots as his career progressed, and established himself as a batsman who played Ashes Tests successfully during the Golden Age of cricket.

 

Gunn was also an exceptional outfielder. Thanks to his football stint, he could run a hundred yards in less than 11 seconds (in other words, 100 metres in 12.03 seconds). To put things into perspective, Thomas Burke of USA had timed 11.8 seconds in the Athens Olympics of 1896. Gunn was also an excellent judge of high catches. He was also an occasional wicketkeeper.

 

In 11 Tests (all Ashes), Gunn had scored 392 runs at a not-too-impressive 21.77. In 521 First-Class matches, mostly for Nottinghamshire and Players, he had scored 25,691 runs at 33.02 with 48 hundreds. He also had 333 catches and a stumping to his name. What was more, his underarm lobs had fetched him 76 wickets at 23.68.

 

 

Early days

 

Billy was the second of four children to John and Sarah Gunn. He had three sisters (Elizabeth, five years elder, Charlotte, three years younger, and Sarah A, six years younger). John was a brewer and Sarah a laundress; the family lived in Russell Street, St Mary’s in Nottingham.

 

By 1873, Elizabeth had become a dressmaker and Billy had taken up employment at Richard Daft’s cricketing warehouse in Lister Gate. The two younger sisters went on to teach music. After a few years John passed away and the family moved to 169 Kirkewhite Street with Matilda Daley, an aunt of Sarah’s.

 

Gunn loved cricket at a very early age. To pursue his interests as well as keep his job, he got up at unearthly hours to practise. Gunn made his First-Class debut against Surrey in 1880. In a low-scoring match at Trent Bridge, he scored 13 not out and nine. It was an ordinary season for Gunn, in which he scored 183 runs at a paltry 10.76 without ever crossing 30.

 

The first hundred had to wait till 1882: opening batting for Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) against Somerset at Taunton, Gunn scored 188 out of a total of 506; opening bowling in each innings, he also returned match figures of three for 94, but Somerset managed to escape with a draw.

 

 

Football

 

An athletic outside-left, Gunn was famous for his ability to throw the football an unreal distance. The FourFourTwo magazine wrote in 2008 that Gunn had established himself “as the [Rory] Delap of his day by hurling the ball inhuman distances… with one hand.”

 

In an unofficial match against Scotland in 1882, Gunn “repeatedly hurtled into Scotland’s penalty area from well inside England‘s own half.” The rules for throw-ins were not formalised at that point of time: Gunn forced Football Association (FA) to change its laws to the current form which involves a two-hand version.

 

Gunn made his debut against Scotland at Cathkin Park, Cathcart Road, Glasgow on March 15, 1884. He was a last-minute replacement for Harry Cusrham. England lost the match 0-1.

 

Two days later, he played against Wales at The Racecourse, Mold Road, Wrexham; England won the match by a whopping 4-0 margin. Gunn scored the fourth goal in the 90th minute of the match. England Football Online describes the goal: “[Billy] Gunn sent the ball along the ground but [Jack] Powell allowed it to pass him without an attempt to arrest its progress, and the goalkeeper [Elias Owen] adopting similar tactics, the leather rolled in between the posts.”

 

Gunn never represented England in football after the Wales match — though he continued to play for Nottingham County Football Club till 1890 (he had earlier played for Nottinghamshire Forest Football Club in 1881). He became an amateur footballer and was later appointed Director of the Club.

 

 

Back to cricket

 

Three years later he scored 203 for MCC against Yorkshire at Lord’s, adding 330 with Billy Barnes. In 1885 he turned up against Hampshire at Southampton. After MCC scored 269, Gunn and William Attewell bowled unchanged throughout the rest of the match, bowling out the hosts for 74 and 82. Gunn’s mysterious underarm bowling fetched him figures of five for 37 and six for 48 (Attewell had four for 37 and four for 33). These remained Gunn’s only five-fors and ten-for.

 

Gunn finished 1885 with 1,451 runs at 36.27, 20 wickets at 11.75, and 21 catches from 27 matches. He was, at this point of time, a strong contender for a place in the Test side. A decent 1886 saw him find a place in the Ashes tour that winter.

 

 

Test debut

 

Gunn did not have a great start to the tour, and came into prominence only after his 48 and 61 not out against Melbourne Club’s Australian XI at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The performance earned him a place in the historic first Test at Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).

 

England were bowled out for 45 by the famous Australian pair of Charlie Turner and JJ Ferris and conceded a lead of 119; however, some excellent batting saw a turnaround, and Barnes and George Lohmann eventually pulled off a 13-run victory. Gunn scored a duck and four, and was bowled in each innings by Turner.

 

He was retained for the second and final Test, also at SCG. He was bowled by Turner in the first innings — again — this time for nine. He fared marginally better in his second outing, holing out to John Cottam off Ferris for ten. England, however, claimed the Ashes thanks to Lohmann’s first-innings spell of eight for 35.

 

On the last tour match at East Melbourne Cricket Ground Gunn turned out for Non-Smokers against Smokers. He went in to bat at 204 for two, added 310 with Arthur Shrewsbury, and eventually scored 150 with 20 boundaries. The Non-Smokers scored 803 (the Smokers, it can be assumed, ran out of breath while fielding) but still could not win the match.

 

In the 1988 Ashes, Gunn failed again, scoring two and eight at Lord’s and 15 at Old Trafford (he was left out for the second Test at The Oval). After four Tests Gunn’s tally read 48 runs at 6.85. Things did not look too bright for him.

 

 

The turnaround

 

In the year 1889, everything changed. He started with 74 against Sussex and 118 against Surrey, both at home. A few days late,r Gunn’s 61 and unbeaten 98 helped Players to win the prestigious encounter against WG Grace’s Gentlemen at The Oval by a nine-wicket margin.

 

From 26 matches that season, Gunn scored 1,319 runs at an impressive 37.68. He was named a Wisden Batsman of the Year in 1890 (it was the second year of the award; they had handed out Bowlers of the Year in the previous season). Gunn shared the award with Shrewsbury, Barnes, Bobby Abel, Louis Hall, Robert Henderson, Maurice Read, Frank Sugg, and Albert Ward.

 

Gunn did not look back from there. 1890 (the inaugural season of the County Championship) started with a 196 against Sussex at home, where he added 398 with Shrewsbury. It still remains the highest second-wicket partnership for Nottinghamshire. The hosts won by an innings.

 

Out of favour for the national side, Gunn made a strong claim when he top-scored for Players against the touring Australians at Lord’s with 228 (Barnes was the next-best; he scored 67). Lohmann then bowled the hosts to an innings victory. At that point, it was the highest score against any Australian side on English soil.

 

[Note: Much later, when Syd Gregory was asked whether he was every tired of cricket, the great man responded that he had never felt the same — except when he heard Gunn say ‘no’ for seven-and-a-half hours at Lord’s. It was this match that he was referring to.]

 

Gunn was picked for the Test at Lord’s, but he scored only 14 and 34. When England chased 136 in the second innings, he helped WG Grace add 74, but that was about it. He was retained for the next Test at Old Trafford, where for the first time he came good: after Fred Martin bowled out the tourists for 92 Gunn top-scored with 32, helping the hosts to a slender eight-run lead. The innings turned out to be crucial as England scraped through with a two-wicket win.

 

In another encounter against the Australians, this time for MCC at Lord’s, Gunn top-scored in the first innings with 118 against Turner and Ferris. Once again the Australians lost.

 

 

Gunn’s peak

 

In 1892 Gunn played what many people have considered his greatest innings. He had already top-scored with 38 in the first innings on a treacherous pitch at The Oval. Chasing 165, Nottinghamshire were down to 12 for two when Barnes joined Gunn. The pair added 94 with Gunn scoring 58 and Barnes 40, and Notts won by four wickets against Lohmann and Bill Lockwood.

 

Wisden wrote: “His [Gunn’s] 58 against the superb bowling of George Lohmann and [Bill] Lockwood on a far from easy wicket was a veritable masterpiece of batting. For an hour and a quarter on the second afternoon he and William Barnes withstood a tremendous onslaught. It was cricket that no one who saw it could ever forget.”

 

Gunn began 1893 with consecutive hundreds 109 against Sussex at home and 124 for MCC, also against Sussex, at Lord’s. A couple of matches later he followed up with 120 and 46 against Middlesex at Lord’s and 156 in the next match against Sussex at Hove. With a 150 against Yorkshire at Bradford, he established his claim for a spot in the Test side yet again.

 

Gunn fell to Turner (again) for two in the first innings but scored 77 in the second at Lord’s. In the process he added 152 with Shrewsbury. In the second Test at The Oval he scored only 16, where England won by an innings; Gunn was retained for the third Test at Old Trafford.

 

After Tom Richardson and Johnny Briggs bowled out the tourists for 204, Gunn found himself at the crease early. He found some support in Grace (40), but that was about it, since nobody else reached 20. Gunn stood firm against a bowling attack comprising of Turner, George Giffen, and Hugh Trumble.

 

Gunn was still short of his hundred when Arthur Mold, the No 11, walked out to bat. However, the Lancashire speedster hung around, helping Gunn to reach his only Test ton; Gunn eventually remained unbeaten on 102. It was the first Test hundred in Old Trafford.

 

Gunn had helped his side to a 39-run lead. Wisden called his performance “a really grand innings, lasting four hours and ten minutes. Of the value it was to the side there could be no two opinions.” The Test, however, was saved by a last-wicket partnership of 36 between Turner and Jack Blackham.

 

He eventually finished 1,893 with 2,057 runs at 42.85 with seven hundreds from 30 matches. With 1,223 runs at 47.03 with five matches, Gunn became the leading run-scorer in that season’s Championship. He also went past Shrewsbury’s record of 1,082 runs set in the inaugural season of 1890.

 

Gunn’s fine form spilled into the next season as well, where he was the leading run-scorer in the Championship again. In a low-scoring season, he scored 851 runs at 37.00 with two hundreds (he also topped the average chart, which probably shows the average score in that season). He played in only 13 of the 16 matches. Bill Brockwell, who came next, had scored only 754 runs from 16 matches at 34.27.

 

 

Age? What age?

 

Gunn was well past 35 now, but his form seemed to get only better. In 1896, he scored 1,383 runs at 44.61 with three hundreds. He also played in the Lord’s Test, where he scored 25 in the first innings and was at the crease with 13 when the winning runs were scored. He was dropped for the next Test at Old Trafford as KS Ranjitsinhji made his debut.

 

Not disheartened, Gunn had two excellent seasons in 1897 (1,266 runs at 43.65 with four hundreds) and 1898 (1,484 runs at 47.87 with four hundreds). At 40, he eventually made a comeback in the first ever Test at his home ground of Trent Bridge; it also marked the debut of Wilfred Rhodes.

 

Gunn was bowled by Ernie Jones in each innings for 14 and three in a Test England managed to save thanks to Ranji’s brilliance. It turned out to be the last Test of Gunn and more significantly Grace.

 

 

Final days

 

Despite not being able to find his way back to a very strong England side, Gunn continued to play First-Class cricket till 1904. By then his nephew, John (a capable left-handed all-rounder), was already a part of the Nottinghamshire side. In 1902, John’s younger brother George also made his way to the side. The brothers played alongside William towards the end of his career.

 

Both John and George went on to become Nottinghamshire legends. Both became Wisden Cricketers of the Year. Their brother-in-law Ernest Stapleton played for Derbyshire, and George’s son George Vernon also became a Nottinghamshire mainstay (the father and the son both went on to score hundreds in the same match).

 

Coming back to Billy Gunn, he walked out at 24 for one against Derbyshire at Derby in 1901. He added 85 with his captain Arthur Jones, 164 with John Gunn, and 245 with Shrewsbury. In the process he scored a career-best 273, breaking John Dixon’s Nottinghamshire record of 268 not out scored four seasons ago (the current record is Walter Keeton’s 312 not out). Gunn’s score also remains the highest by a Nottinghamshire No 3.

 

Two seasons later, he found himself in the middle with John Gunn. John dominated the 367-run partnership against Leicestershire at home (Billy scored 139) and went on to score 294, breaking his uncle’s record (Jones usurped the record two months later with 296). The partnership, however, remains the record third-wicket stand for Nottinghamshire.

 

Bill Gunn’s form never seemed to wane, and in his very next innings in a match against Surrey at home where all three Gunns played he scored 112. However, he played in only one more season. In his last match against Surrey at The Oval (where Bill, George, and John Gunn batted at one, two, and three in each innings), he scored 14 and 22.

 

Towards the end of his career, Gunn was granted three benefit matches two by Nottinghamshire and a third by MCC.

 

 

Gun & Moore

 

Gunn founded Gunn & Moore [GM] along with local businessman Thomas James Moore in 1885. GM was originally based at 49 Carrington Street, Nottingham, though it later shifted base to Trent Lane, Colwick, Nottinghamshire, and has been a part of Unicorn Group since 1969. GM is one of the leading manufacturers of cricket bats, and specialises in bats entirely made in Britain (as opposed to most other brands that outsource the manufacturing).

 

GM currently has outlets in Ryde, New South Wales. It also has distributors in Auckland, Midrand (Gauteng), Batala (Gurdaspur), Lahore, Root [Switzerland], and Dubai. Several current stars (Graeme Smith, Graeme Swann, Ross Taylor, Shane Watson, Faf du Plessis, and Sarah Taylor being some of the more prominent names) as well ex-cricketers (most famously Steve Waugh, Michael Vaughan, Stephen Fleming, and Anil Kumble) have endorsed GM bats.

 

 

Personal life

 

Gunn had married Ann Elizabeth Taylor in March 1883. The couple had a daughter, Mary Florence, and they settled down in 9 Hope Drive. They later settled down in Standard Hill, Nottingham.

 

Gunn suffered from a prolonged illness in the 1910s and was later diagnosed with cancer. He passed away at Standard Hill on January 29, 1921 at an age of 62 years 56 days. He was the Vice-President of the Nottinghamshire County Football Club when he passed away. At the time of his death his estate was evaluated at £57,392-15-9.

 

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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