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Jack Blackham – The prince of wicketkeepers

Jack Blackham played 35 Tests and scored 800 runs at an average of 15.68. He also took 37 catches and affected 24 stumpings © Getty Images
Jack Blackham played 35 Tests and scored 800 runs at an average of 15.68 for Australia. He also took 37 catches and affected 24 stumpings © Getty Images

Jack Blackham, born May 11, 1854, was the first ever Test wicketkeeper of Australia and one of the best the great cricketing country has ever produced. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was a permanent fixture behind the wickets for the first 17 years of Test cricket and led the country in eight matches.

 

The prince who enraged the clergy

When he was named the Wisden Wicketkeeper of the Year in 1891, Jack Blackham was 36. He was still at the height of his powers. The publication, not often given to flourishes of rhetoric, observed: “[Blackham’s] name [is] a household word with all who take any interest in the game of cricket. By general consent-and speaking for ourselves we entirely agree with the popular verdict that he is the greatest wicket-keeper the world has yet seen.”

Of course, those were early days. Test cricket was just 14 years old. Blackham had kept wickets for Australia from the day the first Test match had been played. There would be far reaching changes to the game, and wicket-keeping would be affected by transformations as much as the other cricketing departments. In another couple of decades, Sammy Carter would pioneer the method of sitting on his haunches while keeping wickets. In contrast, Blackham, his contemporaries, predecessors and the stumpers who immediately followed him had all preferred to bend from the waist. By the time cricket resumed after the First World War, the art of wicket-keeping had been revolutionised, and plenty of great ’keepers had appeared on the scene to crouch behind the wickets.

Yet, when John McCarthy Blackham passed away on December 28, 1932, his obituary in Argus was headed by the words: ‘Prince of Wicket-Keepers’.

When asked to name the best wicketkeeper he had ever seen, WG Grace had responded, “Don’t be silly, there has only been one — Jack Blackham.”

Some maintain that Blackham was the first to stand up to fast bowling. However, there are plenty of counter-claims. Dick Pilling of Lancashire supposedly refused to stand back to the fastest men, while Blackham did recede from the stumps when Fred Spofforth increased his pace. However, of Blackham’s greatness there remains very little doubt.

Historians are generally in agreement that he was the first to dispense with the long-stop. The tale goes that a South Melbourne teammate had complained of having nothing to do at long-stop when Blackham kept wickets. He was moved to fine-leg. Blackham’s first reaction was, “I did not like being deprived of the safety valve.” However, soon he would be roaring at captains who dared to place a man behind him, “Get him somewhere he can be of use.”

Admirers proclaimed his wicket-keeping as ‘simply perfection’. The only complaint came from the English clergy. They said that the long-stop had been the vicar’s position for long in village cricket, and Blackham was leading nothing short of a revolt against the church.

Blackham played 35 of the first 39 Tests played by Australia and led them in eight of them. He stood as the wicket-keeper in the first 17 Test matches. With a spade-shaped beard that remained long, dark and recognisable from the time he played his first Test at 23 till his last playing day, he remained a constant feature behind the stumps, taking every kind of bowling with incredible ease. He stood exceptionally close to the wicket, was characterised by his lightning quick glove-work and “in what was practically one action gathered the ball and whipped off the bails.”

Wicketkeeper by chance

Blackham was born on May 11, 1854 at Fitzroy, Melbourne. His father Frederick Kane Blackham was a printer for The Age, and kept wicket for the press cricket matches.

As a schoolboy of 15, Jack Blackham played for the Carlton Cricket Club. His elder brother Robert and younger brother Fred were also members of the Club. Blackham first made his mark as a batsman when he joined the first eleven in 1870. Two years later, he played for the Victorian Colts against the Melbourne Cricket Club.

Wicket-keeping was the quirk of chance. He was standing in for his father in a press match when he impressed John Conway, the captain of South Melbourne. Conway was especially amazed by the way the young kid stood close to the wicket and kept with his bare hands. Blackam was offered a place on the South Melbourne team in 1874. From the same year he became the ’keeper of the Victoria side and remained their stumper in inter-colonial matches till 1895.

After leaving school Blackham took up employment as a clerk in the Colonial Bank of Australasia, and it would stay his day job for many years.

Dave Gregory, who became the first captain of Australia, took notice of Blackham when he dismissed four New South Welshmen and scored 32 against Fred Spofforth in an inter-colonial match. Hence, during the great match between England and the Australian XI at Melbourne in 1877, later recognised as the first ever Test match, Blackham was chosen as the wicket-keeper of the home side.

However, this selection gave rise to some controversy and not a little bad blood. The Demon himself, Fred Spofforth, refused to play in the game because his friend and New South Wales ’keeper Billy Murdoch had not been chosen. Dave Gregory, however, had enough confidence in Blackham’s skills, and not really eager to be seen as favouring his New South Wales men. The captain stood by the Victorian. Blackham kept wonderfully, especially to Tom Kendall whose seven second innings wickets won the game for Australia.

When the sides met for the second Test, the Demon was appeased — especially when Blackham stood up to the wicket to Spofforth and took his stinging balls with ease. And he whipped off the bails of Alfred Shaw in a characteristic flash to stump him off the Demon.

One of the four pillars

After that Blackham became the synonym for Australian wicket-keeping. He was acknowledged as the best in business in both the cricketing countries. His combination with Spofforth became the first major bowler-keeper pair to make a lasting impression on the scorecards. Against a Stickport XVIII in 1878, he caught six and stumped four off the Demon. In 1884, in the match against the Gentlemen at The Oval, he stumped the last three batsmen.

At The Oval in 1882, he was seen flinging himself to catch George Ulyett off Spofforth to break a threatening partnership with WG Grace. That was the match that gave rise to the tradition of the Ashes. The ball used in the last innings did not end up in the urn. Blackham pocketed it as a souvenir. In was in 1916 that he sold it in an auction to aid Australia’s War effort — for a whopping sum of £617.

In 1882, Cricket wrote, “He stands up without the slightest fear, no matter how fast or slow the bowling. There is no pretence or show about his keeping, but he takes every kind of ball with the greatest of ease, and on the leg side he is surer than anyone ever seen.”

His performances in front of the wicket were gutsy as well. After Ivo Bligh’s team had regained the Ashes, the sides met for a fourth Test at Sydney in 1882-83. Blackham scored 57 in the first innings and an unbeaten 58 in the second to steer Australia to a thrilling win. He became the first ever man to score two fifties in a Test match.

Appointed captain of Victoria in 1882-83, Blackham remained one of the four pillars of the Australian side alongside Spofforth, and Murdoch. In 1884-85, he scored 66 in the first Test at Adelaide. In the match that immediately followed, Blackham led Victoria against New South Wales and spent a considerable amount of time in the pavilion reprimanding his young batsmen for chasing wide off-side balls. After that he went in at No 6 and scored 109, an innings full of impetuous strokes, before being bowled by Harry Moses to give the bowler his only wicket in 14 seasons. When he returned to the pavilion, the younger teammates asked him about the balls he had chased during the innings. Blackham replied, “From now on I hope you’ll know how to do it.”

Standing (from left): Carpenter (umpire), V. Cohen (manager), Affie Jarvis, Walter Giffen, William Bruce, Alec Bannerman and umpire Thoms. Sitting (from left): Harry Trott, Hugh Trumble, George Giffen, Jack Blackham (c), J.J. Lyons, Bob McLeod and Charlie Turner. Front row, (left to right): Harry Graham, A. Coningham and Syd Gregory © Getty Images
Standing (from left): Carpenter (umpire), V. Cohen (manager), Affie Jarvis, Walter Giffen, William Bruce, Alec Bannerman,  Thoms (Umpire). Sitting (from left): Harry Trott, Hugh Trumble, George Giffen, Jack Blackham (c), J.J. Lyons, Bob McLeod, Charlie Turner. Front row (from left): Harry Graham, A. Coningham and Syd Gregory © Getty Images

Blackham the captain

The first time Blackham missed a Test was in 1884-85, when a number of players from Victoria were banned due to disagreements regarding pay. However, it was the same series that saw him captaining Australia for the first time in the fourth Test at Sydney. The match initiated the short-lived experiment of two strips used as pitches. Giffen captured seven wickets, Blackham successfully reversed the batting order to bide time till the pitch became flat. Australia won by eight wickets, and that was the only time Blackham would captain the team before 1892.

Giffen and Blackham were close friends for much of their careers. In With Bat and Ball Giffen wrote, “With eyes keen as a hawk, and regardless of knocks, he would take the fastest bowling with marvellous dexterity, and woe betide the batsman who so much as lifted a heel of his back foot as he played forward and missed the ball.”

However, both these great cricketers were too competitive for their friendship to shield them from on-field confrontations. During the Victoria-South Australia match of 1889-90, Giffen refused to walk when the Victorians appealed for hit-wicket. Blackham threatened to take his team off if Giffen did not leave. Both stood their ground until Blackham, being the visitor, backed down.

When Murdoch became unavailable, the burden of captaincy fell on the wicket-keeper as the senior-most cricketer of the Australian side. Malcolm Knox calls Blackham the captain “the Allan Border of his time — never the most imaginative, willing or inspiring.” However, when he was made captain at the age of 37, Australia’s performance began to improve.

His first full series as skipper was of curious. The 1891-92 England side was led by Grace, while Blackham was at the helm of Australia. Right from the toss it was a battle of the beards. Blackham always used his lucky Victoria coin till Grace objected.

When in the Melbourne Test Blackham stationed a silly mid-off for Grace, the father of cricket wheeled around and asked his counterpart, “Do you want a funeral in your team?”

In the second innings, Blackham threw the new ball to Charlie Turner and the Victorian leg-break bowler Harry Trott. Australia won. They came back from a 162 run deficit to triumph in the second Test as well. The series was won 2-1.

The 1892 series in England was very different. In the almost tropical heat at The Oval, the second Test was lost by an innings. Generally cool and calm, often funny and humorous on the ground, Blackham the captain became a tense man during the long, hard tour. Giffen named him ‘The Caged Lion’ because of the way he paced around changing rooms, complaining about luck, identifying imaginary bad omen. He often buried his face in a towel, passing on his anxiety to his players. When Australia batted in tense situations, Blackham would often hire a hansom cab and ride around the ground in circles.

During the series, he lost one stone between the first and third Tests. He did not sleep during the Tests and stayed fixed at one place in the changing room, urging his teammates to do the same. In this facet also he can be considered a pioneer for present day dressing room superstitions.

There were clashes with Giffen, once his close friend. He also faced criticism when his men got into a fight during a train trip. His bowling changes lacked imagination, and he conceded 72 byes in the three Tests. He had been reduced to a bundle of nerves.

With age creeping up on him, Blackham was getting increasingly involved in on-field spats. In January 1894, in a New South Wales-Victoria game in Sydney, he accused umpire Jack Tooher of favouring the home side. Tooher was furious and declared he would never stand in any match involving Blackham. The New South Wales Cricket Association president George Reid — later an Ausralian Prime Minister — said that Blackham was ‘blue mouldy for a fight.’ Eventually the wicketkeeper apologised.

Blackham realised he would have to retire sooner or later, but neither could he visualise a life without cricket, nor could the cricket world picture an Australian team without Blackham. He was retained as captain when Andrew Stoddart’s team visited in 1894-95.

The final Test

At toss during the first Test at Sydney, the pitch looked perfectly dry. Stoddart said to Blackham, “Someone will be swearing directly, Jack. I hope it’s you.” However, Blackham won the flip of the coin and Stoddart swore.

Australia piled on the runs. Giffen got 161. Syd Gregory 201. Blackham came in at 409 for eight and hit the ball fiercely to notch up his career best score of 74, adding 154 with Gregory. During the innings, a ball rose sharply and his thumb was split open. However, a man who was seldom hindered by lost teeth or dent in the chest, he hardly felt it. He wanted a century, to match that of Giffen. In the end, he was bowled by Tom Richardson for 74. Australia piled up 586, their highest score at that time.

England replied with 325. Blackham’s injured thumb was knocked about. Following on, England piled up 437, setting the hosts 187 to win. Giffen, tireless and supreme, followed up his century with eight wickets in the match. Australia cruised to 113 for two by the end of the fifth day of the timeless Test. Giffen was on 30, young Joe Darling on 44. The home team, especially Giffen, slept peacefully that night.

Not so Blackham. His untamed anxiety saw him pacing about, like the self-same caged lion, late into the night. It was he who heard the rain. It was he who continued to hear the rain. It was he whom Giffen greeted cheerfully when he woke up to a bright and sunny morning. And it was Blackham who responded with a face as long as a coffee-pot.

Bobby Peel and Johnny Briggs ran amok on that sticky dog. Australia’s innings folded 20 short of the target. Blackham was the last out, pushing one back to Peel for two. The Englishmen celebrated. Blackham walked up and down the balcony like that caged lion, muttering “Cruel luck — cruel luck”. “The rain beat us,” said some of the Australians. Blackham shook his head, “The sun beat us.”

Blackham tried his best to play the second Test, but his thumb swelled up and he had to sit out. He was replaced by Giffen as skipper, and Alfie Jarvis as the wicket-keeper. He came back once more, to play the Sheffield Shield in January. He split his thumb again. And that was that. He never played for Australia or his state again.

The facts and figures

In 35 Tests, Blackham took 37 catches and effected 24 stumpings. He also scored 800 runs at 15.64. On rare occasions Blackham fielded splendidly at mid-off and had a rare bowl. He captured two wickets in his career.

It was an era when the span of career was short for keepers. Their fingers were battered by the balls that they relentlessly collected behind the stumps, wearing insufficient protection for the hands. Blackham was an exception. According to Lord Harris, “His hands were as free from enlargements as a young lady’s.” So sure were his hands, his fingers never took any hammering and remained unbent even at the end of his long career.

However, the same was not true for the rest of his frame. His teeth were knocked out — most of them by 1880 – by balls that hit him on the face. It did not result in missed matches, though. One ball from Spofforth kicked up and made a permanent dent in his chest. It did not bother Blackham.

He revolutionised keeping technique. While Blackham did not squat on his haunches, he perfected the way glove-men would position themselves, take the ball, effect catches and stumpings ever since. Even Dick Lilley, England’s best wicket-keeper at the turn of the century, said that he was first inspired to keep wickets after watching Blackham play against Warwickshire in 1888.

Grace, apart from singling him out as the only great stumper, once wrote, “Blackham was marvellously quick, taking shooters and yorkers between the wicket and the pads with comparative ease.”

His appeal was also characteristic. He raised one arm and asked the question, only when he thought that the batsman was out. Once he whipped the bails off the stumps with WG Grace out of the crease, but did not appeal even when it was certain that the great man had been stumped. He informed the umpire that he had taken the ball fractionally in front of the stumps.

However, it should not be thought that he played a laid-back game. In 1881, when Australia squared off against a Combined XI at Sydney, Jack Edwards played and missed a delivery from George Alexander. The Town and Country Journal reported, “Blackham appealed for a catch…the batsman thinking he was out stepped out of his crease and the bails were whipped off in an instant.”

As a batsman, he was reliable but unorthodox. His stays at the wicket were stubborn, and he remained a difficult man to dislodge. He used to stroll out to bat casually, with the free hand in his pocket, but managed to score a First-Class half century from every position in the order. He would generally be well placed in the table of averages.

Final days

In 1895-96, Blackham played as wicketkeeper for the Melbourne Cricket Club, and topped the batting average in pennant matches. He gave up the game in all forms after that. For long afterwards, he continued to attend First-Class matches in Melbourne. Often his friends pulled together subscriptions and sent him to watch Tests in Sydney. He was always sought after for his enormous reserves of anecdotes and reminiscences. In 1912, the Victorian Cricket Association arranged a benefit match and testimonial in his honour.

Blackham never married and died a bachelor in Melbourne on December 28, 1932. His funeral service in St Paul’s Cathedral was conducted by Canon Ernest Hughes, president of the Victorian Cricket Association. Wisden obituary noted that Blackham was “in the opinion of many people, the finest of all wicket-keepers and unquestionably a player who, in that capacity, had no superior.”

(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)

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