Fred Spofforth: The first aggressive fast bowler and one of the greatest ever
Fred Spofforth © Getty Images
Fred Spofforth, born September 9, 1853, was one of the greatest bowlers to have played the game and nicknamed ‘The Demon’ for his many scary and diabolical spells. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the life and career of the first fast bowler with an aggressive attitude.
Not even GRACE, of matchless skill
(No worthier in the land),
The ‘Demon’s’ onslaughts could resist,
His awful speed withstand;
By lightning smit, as falls the oak,
The wickets fell beneath the stroke!
Thus ran the verse published by Punch after the heart-stopping Oval Test of 1882 which Australia won by seven runs, perpetuating the tradition of the Ashes. After the great WG Grace, had thrown down the stumps as young Sammy Jones stood doing a bit of gardening outside the crease, an incensed Fred Spofforth had unleashed a violent verbal barrage at the English champion in the dressing room, showcasing a rich Australian vocabulary, ending with the ominous words, “This will cost you the match.” As England had walked out to chase 85 for victory, Spofforth had taken seven for 44 to bowl them out for 77.
If WG Grace with his gigantic frame and a beard harking from the Old Testament strode upon the cricketing universe as the powerful Almighty, Spofforth was as feared with the ball; but the diabolical guile of his deliveries and distinguishing physical traits characterised him as The Demon.
No, he was by no means a villain. A hero if there ever was one in his native Australia, and even more so in England. When he bowled Australia to their first major win in England, over MCC in 1878, it paved the way for serious cricketing relationships between the two nations and thereby established the future of Test cricket. And soon crowds would gather wherever the Australian cricketers travelled, peeping into the railway carriages, enquiring, “Which be Spoffen?”
He was devilish in his cunning and speed, as well as his hypnotic run up. Equally significant was his spirit — combative and colourful — that always propelled him to perform better as the situation grew more difficult. His physical presence underlined his aura — in a diametrically different way than Grace. Tall, gaunt and wiry, he stood at 6’3″ and seldom weighed over 11 stone. His nose protruded, in a hook, much like the popular physical notions of what the Devil looked like. With time the moustache became more pronounced, and dropping, rendering a more sinister appearance. As Rev. RL. Hodgson, writing under the pseudonym ‘Country Vicar’, observed about his striking physical presence: “I met Spofforth in after years and he had rather the type of countenance which one associates with the Spirit of Evil in Faust. A long face, somewhat sardonic; piercing eyes; a hooked nose; and his hair, parted in the middle, giving the impression of horns. He was also immensely tall, sinewy and loose limed — with long thin arms; he would have looked the part of the stage-demon.”
Later Sir Compton McKenzie described his ‘heavy drooping moustache.’ Spofforth was fond of boasting his moustache measured a foot from tip to tip. However, like much of the stories he recounted, this was stretching facts by some distance.
He did have other nicknames, bestowed by the Australian press. ‘Windjammer’ because of his famed yorker, ‘Loup’ as Dave Gregory called him. But, ‘The Demon’ soon superseded all. He became Fred ‘Demon’ Spofforth, the bowler of devilish speed and cunning. The popularity of the name skyrocketed when after the scintillating win over MCC in May, 1878, he was featured in a ‘Spy’ cartoon in the Vanity Fair series. Before him, WG Grace had been the only other cricketer to be caricatured in the magazine, the great man labelled simply as ‘Cricket’. Spofforth’s sketch appeared as ‘The Demon’ and became one of the most famous cricket cartoons ever. As Spofforth himself claimed to Lord Harris, “I made my reputation in May (1878).” The original caricature of The Demon sold for £2,200 in 1985.
Caricature of Frederick Robert “Fred” Spofforth. Source: Wikimedia Commons first published in Vanity Fair on July 13, 1878.
A much needed hero
Spofforth came to the fore at a crucial juncture in Australian sport. The sporting arena was slowly becoming professional, club structures were coming under proper governance. The press was also starting to cover sports seriously, specialist sporting newspapers appearing in increasing numbers.
Australia the country also needed heroes in the 1870s. There was an emerging sense of national worth. There was also a deeply ingrained sense of inferiority, stemming partly from the sense of shame for a convict past and partly from ideas derived from Social Darwinism that British blood may have deteriorated in the far off lands of the Antipodes. Hence heroes in sports were celebrated as evidence of national achievement. The first was a Sydney-born quarryman, a sculler called Ned Trickett, who won the world championship on the Thames in 1876, and it caught the national imagination. Next, Spofforth emerged on the cricket scene as the greatest bowler of the world.
What were the methods of this legendary man who was perhaps the first aggressive fast bowler in the history of cricket? It is difficult to ascertain after looking back through the misty trail of time. There is no video film of his bowling and the only action-photograph which shows his famous leap before delivery was taken by the famous George Beldam when The Demon was already over fifty. We have to look at the chronicles of the trustworthy sources who have thoughtfully left their accounts.
Methods of the master
After Spofforth’s death in 1926 it was published in the London Times: “He took a rather long run up to the crease, crossed his feet at the moment of delivery, and almost brushed his right ear with his biceps. His long, skinny arm cut through the air like whip-lash and the sharpest sight was needed to detect the pace at which it was moving.”
CB Fry recalled his methods as: “He took a long run, came up to the crease with long vigorous strides, and delivered the ball with all the speed he could muster. He appeared to throw the whole swing of his long arm and his long body into his effort, and after he delivered the ball his body and arm followed right over until his hand almost touched the ground.”
A less studious, but more graphic account came from Lord Hawke, “his delivery was terrifying, for he came to the wicket, a long lean man, all arms and legs, and all apparently making amazing evolutions.”
And according to Grace, he started “some yards to the off-side of the batsman, and giving the impression that he is aiming at a point nearer the short-leg than the wicket.”
The run was not rhythmic or graceful as great bowlers of the future. The length of the run varied from sixteen steps as a young man, to nine when he was older. The 1882 triumph came from fast deliveries delivered after an approach of nine paces.
It was the extravagant action on the point of delivery which impressed most. A high leap was followed by a final bound at the wicket, and his long lean arms came through the air from a commanding height. According to Home Gordon, “he came at the batsmen like a human octopus” and as Sammy Woods put it, “all legs, arms and nose.” Some others referred to it as a catherine wheel style of bowling.
While the Beldam photograph was taken in 1904 when Spofforth had completed half a century on earth, The Bulletin artist W. McLeod captured his vigour and vitality in a cartoon that perhaps gives the greatest impression of his menace. In addition to conveying a sense of speed, the cartoon suggests how his legs, arm and back were extended to their very maximum as the ball was about to be catapulted at the batsman.
This cartoon and another were originally painted on the panels of a door in an old New South Wales station homestead often visited by cricketers. When the building was pulled down, the panels passed on to the New South Wales Cricket Association and remained in a cellar for many decades. They were later discovered and presented to the Museum at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The cricket enthusiasts are often curious about the speed at which Spofforth bowled. It is difficult to answer. When Charlie Turner, the successor of Spofforth as the Australian terror bowler, was measured for speed with chronographs at Woolwich Observatory near London, the registered velocity was 55 miles per hour. That is remarkably slow by today’s standards. Turner was considered faster than Spofforth’s final years, perhaps as quick as The Demon was in his younger days. As Spofforth’s biographer Richard Cashman rightly observes, “Pace is a relative concept: a bowler who is much faster than the others of his generation will appear fast. Spofforth certainly was.”
He was fast enough to intimidate opposition batsmen. He was perhaps fastest when “I bowled (for New South Wales in 1876) against Victoria (XII) at Sydney, taking all eleven wickets (actually nine, Spofforth was always fond of embellishing a good story) and breaking two stumps. In addition to this BB Cooper’s bat was broken three times and at the conclusion of the match Sir Hercules Robinson, the Governor, presented me with the broken stumps mounted on silver.”
We have to take Spofforth’s accounts with healthy pinches of salt, but there were newspaper reports to establish that he indeed broke Cooper’s bat at least once and also Tom Horan’s stump.
From the accounts of SP Jones, we do come to know that he had once been requested ‘not to bowl too fast’ at practice. The man making the request was Charles Bannerman, the first centurion of Test cricket.
Spofforth himself maintained that he was the quickest bowler that ever was. However, Lord Hawke dismissed this as ‘harmless delusion’ because ‘he never had anything like the pace of Johannes Jacobus Kotze or Charles Kortright’, or for that matter, a number of other bowlers such as Tom Richardson who emerged in the 1880s and 1890s. At best he was the fastest bowler around in the 1870s, and maybe the early 1880s.
By today’s standard, his fastest ball could be categorised as fast-medium. His first Test wicket, in the second ever Test match, was taken in his opening spell in the fourth over. It was a stumping dismissal. Five of his 94 Test wickets were the work of quick glovework behind the stumps. Jack Blackham and Billy Murdoch stood up to his bowling, although they retreated a few paces when Spofforth signalled that he was about to unleash a faster one. This suggests that his pace was perhaps comparable to Alec Bedser.
Spofforth played in an era far before developing tracks for the game became a science. Well directed fast-medium and medium pace were enough to get wickets in that period. In fact, according to JW Trumble, Spofforth started as a fast bowler, but soon realised that fast bowling on the wickets of his day did not pay and came down to slower bowling with a pacy ball put in occasionally as a faster delivery.
Spofforth also bowled with a ball less glossy and slightly larger than the modern cherry. The seam was also less raised. Hence, he never quite swung the ball and only three of his 94 Test wickets came through catches to slip. In the early days, the field set was vastly different, with Spofforth often starting with a short slip, a point, third man, long stop, long-leg, cover, mid-off, mid-on and short-leg. He sometimes used a silly mid-on to great effect, cutting the ball into batsmen. Catches at point — four of his 94 wickets — were not due to swing, but variable bounce which saw batsmen fending to the man stationed there.
However, Spofforth was a master of the cut and breakback, and he was always dead accurate on the stumps or hovered in their vicinity. He bowled 50 of his 94 Test victims. He was also a master of disguise and almost no batsman was confident that he could pick the pace or likely movement of a delivery. Without any change of action, he could send the ball faster or slower at will.
Strategies, thoughts and deliberations
Apart from all this, he was also a master strategist. He knew the strengths and weaknesses of all batsmen and bowled to exploit them. And his self-confidence was a powerful psychological weapon. Neville Cardus regarded Spofforth as ‘a stark man who let in with him the coldest blast of antagonism that ever blew over a June field’. He quoted a player feeling the full brunt of this characteristic: “It was at The Oval. I were in right form and not afeard of him when I goes in to bat. He’d just taken a wicket, but I walks into t’ middle jaunty like, flicking my bat, makin’ rare cuts through t’ slips as I went over t’ grass … as I got near Mr Spofforth he sort of fixed me. His look went through me like a red-hot poker. But I walks on past him along t’ wicket to t’ batting end. And half-way down something made me turn round and look at him over my shoulder. And there he was, still fixin’ me with his eye.”
According to grand-daughter Pamela, Spofforth had psychic powers and sensed the death of a close relative even though physically far removed well before he actually knew the event. Whether or not this power contributed to Spofforth’s success we cannot say, put some batsmen have suggested the presence of exceptional mental energy and some sort of mysterious inner power.
Spofforth was the pioneer of the glare, that weapon of the fast bowler’s artillery that later went into the eyes of Dennis Lillee and the others. He played on the mind of the batsman with theatrical gestures as well. Once, hit for four down the leg side, he slowly took off his cap and deliberately prepared for his run. The batsman, made aware that the bowler was about to get serious, was soon bowled by a yorker.
Spofforth was a deep thinker about the science of bowling as well. He invented a family trick of throwing an egg on the ground at seventy yards, landing it on its end so that it would not break. That was used as a drill to perfect accuracy.
Spofforth grew up in the 1860s, when the world of cricket was transitioning from the underarm to round arm to over arm bowling. It was in 1862 that as a kid he watched George Tarrant bowl at the colonial batsmen as part of George Parr’s visiting England side. In 1874 he was greatly influenced by James Southerton and James Lillywhite while turning out for New South Wales XVIII against Grace’s Englishmen. In 1876-77, he played against England in the second ever Test match and watched Alfred Shaw from close quarters.
He deliberated between the pace of Tarrant and the control of Southerton, Lillywhite and Shaw. And soon he realised that: “there was no reason why I shouldn’t copy them as well as Tarrant, and try to combine all three. I very soon found the variation of pace was the most important thing of all, and with the object of disguising it I tried various experiments until I gradually found what seemed to me a style which was best for disguise as well as ease.”
Spofforth, with his keen analytical mind, was a path-breaking thinker among bowlers. As a 17-year-old, he wrote to a learned University Professor asking him for an explanation of swerve. When the Professor replied ‘it is impossible’, the young man summed up the learned man as an idiot on bowling.
Finally, Spofforth was a superb athlete. He could bowl for hours and maintain pace and line. Seldom did he get injured, even on long strenuous tours and continuous cricket.
Some photographs of Beldam also suggest a facial similarity with Dennis Lillee –perhaps that is due to the moustache and the intensity as thinking fast bowlers. Spofforth was the pioneer, Lillee the revolutionary.
The boy from Balmain
Spofforth hailed from Balmain, New South Wales. TW Reese, historian of New Zealand cricket, claimed that he was born close to Opononi, Hokianga Harbour, in North Auckland. However, JC Davis, editor of Sydney Referee later established the Balmain birth and Reese admitted his mistake.
Father Edward Spofforth, a keen horseman, left for Australia from Howden in Yorkshire in 1836. He married Anna McDonnell of the McDonnell family settled in New Zealand. The McDonnell genes might have had an impact in Spofforth’s future, because his mother’s side of the family was related to the prominent cricketing family of Lord Lyttleton.
As a young boy, Spofforth grew up in the outskirts of a large forest or bush at Elswick. Whenever a chance presented itself, the young Spofforth and his friends wandered in the bush, killing snakes and birds. Till his late life Spofforth maintained a love for the bush, and even missed colonial matches and Tests by retreating to the solitude of the country.
Cricket was always present from his earliest days. “I don’t remember quite when I first played cricket, but I cannot remember when I did not.” His young days were spent playing in the grassy piece of ground nearby, with a big felled tree used as a makeshift net to prevent strokes from hovering dangerously near the windows of the house.
Spofforth played his first grade cricket for Toxeth Second XI in 1869-70. The Toxeth Cricket Club had been formed in 1863, and the ground was procured by the Allen family, owner of Toxeth House — Sir George Wingram Allen and his son Reginald Charles Allen. The latter played one Test for Australia and was the uncle of the future England captain Gubby Allen.
The next club Spofforth played for was Newton, where he established himself as a promising, if somewhat wayward bowler, and handy with the bat who ‘liked a short life but a merry one’. The taint of being erratic would follow him around till the 1878 tour.
And after Spofforth found immense success at Newton, he was unable to purchase too much on better wickets he came across. This made him convince his father to procure subscription for the Albert Club at Sydney for his brother Edward and himself. The Albert Ground was a professionally maintained turf on which intercolonial and international matches were played there before the venue was superseded by the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) in 1878.
Fred Spofforth (front row extreme left) with the first Australian team that toured England in 1878 © Getty Images
Into top grade
Spofforth achieved immediate success for Albert Club, and his most outstanding performance came against the Sydney University side, when he clean bowled seven batsmen, and finished with nine for 10. The only batsman not dismissed by him was Edmund Burton, later Prime Minister of Australia.
It was during the visit of Grace’s 1873-74 side, that Spofforth represented the New South Wales XVIII and had moderate success with figures of two for 16. Grace commented that Spofforth was a promising youngster and a very fair bowler, who was a long, thin fellow standing in the deep field and throwing in terribly hard.
There is a quaint story of WG at the nets in Melbourne, when Spofforth was supposedly one of the many youngsters bowling at him. “I stood at six feet three inches and weighed ten stone six, but I could bowl faster than any man in the world. WG was at the nets and I lolled up two or three balls in a funny slow way … Suddenly I sent down one of my very fastest. He lifted his bat half up his characteristic way but down went his off stump. And he called out in his quick fashion, when not liking anything, ‘Where did that come from? Who bowled that?’ But I slipped away, having done my job.”
Charming as the story is, it is most certainly a figment of Spofforth’s imagination. There is no record of Spofforth travelling to Melbourne during that period. His brother and he were on a voyage from Sydney to Hobart during the time the incident was supposed to have taken place.
Lillywhite’s professional team came visiting in 1876-77 and by then Spofforth was a renowned name in Australian cricket. However, he did not play in the game which went on to be recognised as the first ever Test match.
With close friend Murdoch not chosen as wicketkeeper, Spofforth withdrew in protest. Of course, no one knew at that time that the match would go down as the first Test in history, and one wonders what his reactions would have been if it was publicised. Spofforth was well aware of the importance of Test matches and when the Australians of 1921 played England for the 100th ever Test match, he went to the dressing room and presented every participating player with a gold medal.
The press had a field day accusing the 23-year-old bowler of being big-headed in asking for a personal ’keeper. However, Spofforth was perhaps more concerned about the injustice as Murdoch’s merit in the side purely based on his batting skills. Later, when Murdoch was selected as a batsman, Spofforth did not have any problems in playing for the side.
In any case, the man chosen to replace Spofforth, Frank Allan, refused to play because he preferred to visit the Warrnambook Agricultural Show with his friends. But, even then, Australia won the inaugural Test match by 45 runs.
Spofforth made his debut in the second Test, enjoying moderate success with three for 67 and one for 44.
It was the England tour of 1878 which made Spofforth a hero and he was to stay at the top of public adulation till the end of his playing days.
The trip of 1878 was hard work. The initial sets of matches were played in Australia and New Zealand, generating the funds for the tour. The voyage was a speculation with no guaranteed monetary benefit for the players. To go on the tour Spofforth had to take leave of absence without pay from his employers, the Bank of New South Wales.
He played a key role in most of the eight victories. He captured 12 wickets against Players, 12 against Gloucestershire of the Graces, eleven against Surrey, and ten against MCC in that great match that made all the difference. Particularly, his success against Grace and the discomfort of the great batsman against his offerings plummeted him to crest of public opinion. In the tour he bowled more than a third of the overs and took 97 of the 223 First-Class wickets captured by Australia. John Lillywhite wrote, “His bowling I consider second to none in the world, having the great gift of bowling fast or slow, with the same action, it being very difficult to judge his pace.”
The myth of Social Darwinism was laid to rest. The Australians returned as perfect heroes when they arrived at the Sydney Harbour.
Early next year, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Spofforth claimed the first hat-trick in Test cricket, bowling Reverend Vernon Royle and Francis Mackinnon, and getting Tom Emmett skying to the long-stop. He finished with six for 48, and then scored a valuable 39. In the second innings he wrecked England with seven for 62.
This commemorative stamp was brought out in 2003 to honour the first-ever hat-trick on the 150th anniversary celebration of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. However, the date is slightly wrong. The hat-trick took place on the first day of the Test, on January 2. The date shown here, January 4, was the last day of the Test match. Spofforth claimed all the four wickets to fall that day, but there was no hat-trick.
By the time he returned to England in 1880, Spofforth enjoyed legendary stature. As is common, myths and legends developed around him. One common story was that “he was the demon emu. The reason he was such a good bowler was that he was an emu-hunter, and made his living catching emus, his mode of operation being to knock them over with balls made of wood, the same size as cricket balls.”
He displayed great form yet again, capturing 391 wickets at 5.6 during the tour matches including those against the odds. However, he broke his finger just before the Test match. WG Grace scored 152 as he sat out and England won the first ever Test match played in the country.
It would be two years before he would return to England and win the famous Test match at The Oval, resulting in the folklore and tradition of The Ashes.
There was a reason Spofforth fumed about Grace’s act of running out Jones in the 1882 Test. During the previous innings, he had found England captain ‘Monkey’ Hornby out of his ground in similar circumstances and had said, “Don’t you know Hornby, I can stump you now?” Hornby had replied, “Yes, but surely that’s not your game is it?” To this Spofforth had simply replied, “Well, no.”
Hence, it was with truly demonic rage that Spofforth ran in at The Oval, signalling Blackham to stand back. The batsmen, according to the English press, had been scared into submission by the Demon. The Pall Mall Gazette commented that ‘on bad grounds he was unplayable, on moderate grounds effective, and on easy grounds rarely expensive.’ Cricket noted that Spofforth had bowled ‘a little slower’ than in 1878 and 1880 but ‘we class him as superior to any bowler we have.’
Again a huge welcome was given when the team returned to Australia. Spofforth was a hero both in England and Australia. Such was the aura surrounding him that for years after he retired, touring Australian players used to compete with each other to sleep in the room always occupied by Spofforth at the Australian team’s London hotel.
At home he was the quintessential Australian hero. In England he was considered an Englishman upholding the country’s traditions far away in distant lands.
The negative press
However, the press in Australia were not always singing his praises. In between accolades, they kept dogging him about his moods, criticising him for not appearing in certain matches, for keeping the public guessing about his availability, for behaving like a prima-donna.
In the age-old tradition of downplaying a hero, the press built up the image of Edwin Evans, a medium paced bowler of New South Wales, who was touted as a better bowler. An accurate trundler, Evans was immensely successful in the intercolonial matches, but often withdrew for selection for international matches, especially tours. His exemplary modesty was contrasted with Spofforth’s supposed arrogance, and it was speculated that had he gone on tours he would have outshone The Demon. Spofforth was reported to be mediocre on good wickets, a ridiculous claim in retrospect, but enough to stir up public debate.
Four years older than Spofforth, and lacking in ambition, Evans finally toured England in 1886, already way past his prime. And Spofforth was sufficiently gutted by the words in the press to proclaim that he would take a hundred wickets more than Evans on the tour. This was hardly ideal for team spirit, but Spofforth did give vent to his emotions when pushed.
In the end Evans took seven wickets in six Tests at 47.42 in contrast to Spofforth’s 94 wickets in 18 Tests at 18.41. So much for comparisons of the media.
In the third Test at Sydney against Hon. Ivo Bligh’s Englishmen in 1882-83, Spofforth was accused of using his spikes to damage the wicket, rendering George Giffen’s balls from the other end unplayable.
The accusation provoked Spofforth into a fight, the exact details of which have not been ascertained. The Age reported that he had punched Walter Read, and the genial Surrey secretary had controlled his temper, and managed to avoid a potential fisticuff with a smile. According to Sydney Sportsman “One word led to another and [Dick] Barlow made some insulting remark to Spofforth and the Demon replied with a blow that knocked Barlow over the seat. A big fight seemed imminent, but friends dragged Spofforth inside, and Walter Read (a champion amateur boxer) stood in front of Barlow to protect him.”
Historians agree that it was perhaps the accusation of cheating which cut Spofforth to the quick. Whatever be his crowd pulling image, he had always played the game in the best spirit and was not amused when allegations were directed at him. The man, who reserved his energies for springing the ball at batsmen with endless fervour all day, sometimes could be short tempered enough to get into fights.
More bowling feats
However, Spofforth put all this behind him and went on his most successful tour of England in 1884.
If we just look at Test matches, it is easy to miss his brilliance on this trip. Virtually on his own, he won two back to back matches against the Gentlemen and the Players — two of the strongest sides fielded against the Australians. Against the Gentlemen, for the first time, Spofforth bowled with half a dozen men in the slips, and was at his fastest from the Pavilion end with Blackham standing back. He got Grace yet again, and finished with seven for 68 in the second innings, 11 for 162 in the match. Against the Players, he captured 13 for 123. Overall he ended the tour with 216 wickets.
Spofforth remained behind after the tour, probably to be close to Phillis Cadman of Derbyshire, whom he married two years later. He arrived in Australia when the England tour was already in progress in the 1884-85 series. Controversy over gate money had led to a strike amongst the Australian cricketers.
After recovering from weariness, Spofforth opposed the strike and played in the third Test match at Sydney, boosting a depleted side with England 2-0 up.
He almost took his second hat-trick in Tests, and ended with four for 54 in the first innings. As England chased 214, he flattened the stumps of William Scotton and Arthur Shrewesbury. When he bowled William Bates, England were struggling at 92 for six. But Wilf Flowers and Maurice Read took them to 194, and 20 runs remained to win with four wickets intact. Captain Hugh Massie tossed the ball to Spofforth once again. And The Demon beat Read with a slow straight ball that bowled him for 56. JW Trumble later said it was the cleverest ball he had ever seen, a reproduction of its predecessor in flight, action and delivery, but slower. With seven runs required to win, spectators in the wildest state of excitement, Spofforth had Flowers caught by Evans. He ended the Test match with 10 for 144, bowling 96.1 overs.
In the following match he took five second innings wickets to make it 2-2. And in the final Test at Melbourne, he came in at number eleven with the score reading 99 for nine and hammered his only 50 in Test cricket, taking the total to 163. It was a blistering innings with a six and four four, the runs scored in just 70 minutes. But England won by an innings to take the series.
After the tour, James Lillywhite noted, “on every occasion when England has been defeated on the tour it has been by the aid of the demon.”
The last English tour of Spofforth took place in 1886. He did not quite fulfil the promise of taking 100 wickets more than Evans, but he did capture 89 even though hampered by injuries. Evans finished with 28.
The highlight of the tour was perhaps an interview, which was thoroughly anticlimactic, as Spofforth, for all his satanic glamour, came across as extremely affable. He misled the journalist, saying he seldom played in Australia and never trained. In truth, he trained even on ships during the long voyages. In his late age when he played just club cricket, he ensured that every house he lived in had a billiards room, so that he could practice his run up in the winters.
He did throw in a small boast now and then during the session, as when he said he was the first one to discover how to break a ball. But, that went with his character.
Spofforth got married on September 23, 1886, at the Breadsall parish church. The bride was 22 and groom 33. More stark was the difference in height between the men and the lady. Spfforth stood at six feet three, his best man George Bonnor at six feet six. Phillis Cadman reached all of five feet three.
The remaining days of his career saw little international cricket. He turned out in one home Test in 1887, but by then Charlie Turner and John Ferris were already running in for Australia with plenty of vim, vigour and venom. Spofforth was not really required to do much. And although he travelled to England in 1888 to set up family along with his wife, and kept himself available lest the Australians needed him at Lord’s, he was not called anymore.
Spofforth ended his Test career with 94 wickets in 18 Tests at 18.41, a wicket every 44 balls, with seven five fors and four ten wicket hauls.
The post-Test life
There were voices which clamoured for his inclusion, but Spofforth had other things on mind. He set up house in Derby City, and joined Star Tea Company as a tea merchant. His ambition was directed at making his business prosper, and it did.
He did play a couple of seasons for Derbyshire, even leading them occasionally. Yet, many counties objected to his inclusion in the side. Spofforth was vexed and did not mince his words. “I have more right to play for Derbyshire than [Billy] Midwinter does for Gloucestershire and Burns, the Lancashire professional, to play for Essex.” He argued that he had a moral right to play for the county because he had come there not as a professional cricketer but for business. If he had indeed come to advance his cricketing career, “Derbyshire would have been the last county I should have chosen to call my own.” As always, he had no problems in calling a spade a spade.
When he did manage to play against Yorkshire, his figures were 33-11-45-7 and 20-8-36-8.
Spofforth also kept turning his arm over for clubs. After six games for Derbyshire in 1890, and one in 1891, he moved to London and played no more First-Class cricket but for an one off game in Scarborough in 1897. The move was due to the birth of their third child and first daughter Dorothy Veice. She became an artist and apart from paintings on social realism, she went on to do a watercolour of Gilbert Jessop which hangs in the Lord’s Cricket Library.
Spofforth played many years for Hampstead Cricket Club on Saturdays. It was here that his bowling was respected, occasional breathtaking innings — such as a 155 against Uxbridge — watched with amusement, and his anecdotes treasured.
Once when Spofforth complained about slips missing catches off his bowling, club historian FRD Monro asked him, “I expect even in Australia your slips sometimes missed catches off you.” Spofforth replied instantly, “Never, I trained them. In the part of Australia I come from, there are hedgegrows and on a Sunday I used to get some stones, put them in my pocket and take out my slip fieldsmen for a walk. I walked on one side of the hedge, and they on the other. I threw the stones into the hedge and they caught the sparrows as they came out.”
Sometimes, when an umpire called him for overstepping, he would bait him by a similar run up, deliberately dragging his foot over, and would not release the ball — forcing the official to call and then withdraw the same.
From 1894 onwards, Spofforth wrote about the game, cleverly blending astute observations about techniques of batting, bowling and fielding with entertaining illustrations. He took a strong view about throwers in the game, and supported Lord Harris in his drive to cleanse cricket from the menace of chuckers.
However, he remained sceptical about swing bowling, and asked whether the new tribe of ‘swing bowlers would not be just as successful if they did not swerve at all.’
At the 1903 annual dinner of the Hampstead Club, Spofforth was honoured with a designed menu — the cover of which displayed yet another caricature, Spofforth, horned and with bat wings, in the act of bowling. He had been depicted as demon and kangaroo, his face often being used as a representation of the Australian side. Now this was yet another incarnation for the legend.
Down the years, Spofforth flourished as a businessman and had the pleasure of watching cricket in England. In early 1925, he went with his family to Australia to watch the last few Tests as home team win the Ashes 4-1.
During the summer of that same year, Spofforth suffered an attack of ptomaine poisoning and never really recovered. He passed away on June 4, 1926.
He was buried in Brookwood Cemetery, and among the mourners were Clem Hill, Dr Rowley Pope and Lord Hawke.
The Daily Telegraph observed, “No one ever bowled with his head so earnestly and so malignantly.” The Times declared, “He was beyond question the greatest bowler of his generation, regarded by many as the greatest bowler who ever lived.”
Teammate JW Trumble claimed: “As a student of the art of bowling Spofforth stood out from all other bowlers.”
(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://twiter.com/senantix)