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Vernon Ransford — the first in the long line of graceful left-handed batsmen

Vernon Ransford was one of the first elegant stroke-making left handers in cricket. Picture Courtesy - Wikipedia
Vernon Ransford was one of the first elegant stroke-making left handers in cricket. Picture Courtesy – Wikipedia

Vernon Ransford, born March 20, 1885, was one of the first aesthetic left-handed batsmen to grace the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who unfortunately played his last Test match at the age of 26.

The lure of the left-hander

Vernon Ransford was perhaps the first southpaw in cricket who brought with him the aesthetic delight that is associated with classy left-handed batting.

When we look back at the art of the willow as wielded by the left-handers, we are taken across a mental montage of dreamy drives and perfectly timed pulls. We tend to think of the great names of Neil Harvey and Garry Sobers, the men who gave rise to the yarn of the natural elegance of the southpaw, and then Alvin Kallicharran, David Gower, Brian Lara – all those who kept the story alive.

Yet, during the first couple of decades of Test cricket, a left-handed batsman was quite an aberration.

William Scotton of Nottinghamshire did occupy a slot in the top order for England, and he seldom seemed to score runs. In fact, so accomplished a stone-waller was he that Punch went on to parody Alfred, Lord Tennyson by producing the lines:

Block, block, block

At the foot of thy wicket, O Scotton!

And I would that my tongue would utter

My boredom. You won’t put the pot on!

Oh, nice for the bowler, my boy,

That each ball like a barndoor you play!

Oh, nice for yourself, I suppose,

That you stick at the wicket all day!

And the clock’s slow hands go on,

And you still keep up your sticks;

But oh! for the lift of a smiting hand,

And the sound of a swipe for six!

Block, block, block,

At the foot of thy wicket, ah do!

But one hour of Grace or Walter Read

Were worth a week of you!

If left-handed batsmanship was rare, Scotton succeeded in making it look laborious — living up to the synonyms of southpaw as gauche or awkward.

Then there was William Bruce, the first Australian left-hander to tour England. He was as different from Scotton as possible, a real dasher without much ado about defence. And as a result, his successes were more exciting, but few and erratic.

Hence, batting with the other hand was not really a common sight. Some did indulge in it from the lower order and did occasionally prosper — able men like Bobby Peel, and later the South African all-rounder Charles Llewellyn whose main skill lay in the other department. But the world had to wait until the second half of the 1890s for the advent of the first great left-handers.

And then arrived two men from Prince Albert’s College, Adelaide: Clem Hill and Joe Darling. The first ton by a left-handed bat was notched up soon, and several other hundreds followed. As the old century gave way to the new, Dave Nourse came into the fray. Left-handed men of cricket were now touched with consistency, even prolific run-making in the case of Hill. However, the grace and class we now know of were still some way off.

In the second half of the 1900s, a new leaf was turned to reveal a chapter on glittering left-handed stroke-play. In 1907, there arrived Ransford, later described as ‘a Neil Harvey who came 40 years earlier… a man with an impatient streak of brilliance, one who could cut loose in a gale of run-getting.’

And two years later, cricket of England was blessed with the sublime grace of Frank Woolley, while Australia unveiled Warren Bardsley. Attractive left-handed stroke-making had now come to stay.

The rise of Ransford

Ransford was born at Nicholson Street, South Yarra on March 20, 1885. Father Henry Ransford was a clerk in Melbourne.

He picked up the game during his days at Yarra Park School and later Hawthorn College, and was coached under the watchful eyes of Herbert Carpenter, the former Essex batsman. In his last year at Hawthorn he scored over 1000 runs. And at the age of 18, he was considered good enough to represent Victoria.

The First-Class debut in 1903-04 was memorable but not quite for the right reasons. Ransford batted at No 5 when Plum Warner’s visiting Englishmen played the Victorian side. He did a decent enough job in his first outing, scoring 26. However, in the second innings, Wilfred Rhodes and Ted Arnold demolished the home side for just 15 runs — which still stands as the lowest First-Class score in Australia.  Ransford got a duck, falling to a curious combination of the destroyers, caught by Rhodes off Arnold.

However, in the following season, he underlined his credentials by scoring 152 against Queensland. Carpenter, his old coach in Melbourne, voiced that he could be taken on the tour to England in 1905.  But, international recognition was slow in coming. The selectors chose to bank on experience rather than potential, and Ransford missed the boat that left for the English summer. Back home, he suffered a lean 1905-06 season, not managing even a half-century in the Inter-State matches. His two innings of note that Australian summer were played for the Melbourne Cricket Club.

It took a while to get back to his top form. In February 1907, Ransford walked out at No 3 for The Rest of Australia against New South Wales in Syd Gregory’s benefit match at Sydney. And he went on to compile a glistening, flawless 136, adding 89 with the beneficiary.

In the next season, he came up against Rhodes once again when the visiting Englishmen took on Victoria, and this time hit an impressive 102 not out in the second innings.In the very next match, Ransford hammered 109 against South Australia.

This sequence of tall scores propelled the 22-year-old into the Test team. The spree of scoring in the initial Tests was decent, but not exceptional. His best performance came at home in Melbourne in the fourth Test. With the series intriguingly poised at 2-1 in Australia’s favour, Ransford played a key role in clinching it for the home side. In both the innings, he came in with the side in crisis, at 105 for five in the first and 77 for five in the second. He top-scored with 51 in the first essay and added 54 in the second, sharing match defining stands of 91 and 85 respectively with Warwick Armstrong. His fluent effort in the first innings against the masterly deceptive pace of Jack Crawford was especially brilliant.

The dream seasons

If there was any doubt about his place in the side for the 1909 tour to England, it was quickly dispelled by a dream Sheffield Shield of 1908-09.

Ransford started with 131 against South Australia and 94 against New South Wales. In the return matches, he hit an unbeaten 171 against South Australia. He topped it all with 182 and 110 against New South Wales at Sydney against an exceptionally strong attack of Tibby Cotter, Bert Hopkins, Monty Noble, Charles Kelleway and Charlie Macartney. He ended the season with 75 in the selection trial game between Australian XI and the Rest, perhaps overshadowed by the 264 piled by another superb young left-handed batsman Warren Bardsley.

Hence, Ransford sailed for England and arrived in the old country in one of the wettest summers ever seen. And it proved to be the high noon of his career.

The young man got into his groove with 174 against Essex. With damp wickets and persistent rain, Bardsley and he continued to score fluently and in style.

In the first Test at Birmingham, Australia were routed by the left-arm duo of George Hirst and Colin Blythe. Ransford with 43 was the joint top-scorer in the second innings alongside Syd Gregory.

Going into the Lord’s Test with England 1-0 up in the series, Ransford walked in at the fall of Bardsley’s wicket, with the score reading 90 for three. He enjoyed some excellent strokes of luck. At 13, Archie MacLaren dropped him at slip, and at 56 he was missed at the wicket. And then at 61, that splendid fielder, AO Jones, grassed him at second slip. And he made the most of these kind strokes of fortune, batting over four hours to compile a superb 143. Like most elegant left-handers, he struck repeatedly through the cover point region, hitting as many as 21 boundaries. Australia triumphed by nine wickets.

As a result, he was given a firm push up the batting order and came in at No 3 in the next Test at Leeds. He proceeded to play two steady, important innings with impeccable defence against the swerving balls of Hirst in a low scoring game. Australia won the series 2-1 and Ransford topped the batting averages with 353 runs at 58.83.

In the tour, he struck four more hundreds, against Worcestershire, Gloucestershire followed by the huge knocks of 189 against Kent and 190 against the Marylebone Cricket Club. On that difficult summer, his 1736 runs at 43.40 was second only to Bardsley’s phenomenal 2072 at 46.04. Ransford was named one of the Wisden Cricketers of 1910.

Premature end of Test career

Back in Australia, Ransford slipped back to his favoured position in the lower middle order and scored steadily against the visiting South Africans in 1910-11. With Hill and Bardsley, he formed part of the left-handed brigade that blunted the potency of the battery of googly bowlers. His 75 and 95 at Melbourne hammered the last nail in the Springbok coffin as Australia extended their lead to an unbeatable 3-1.

However, he was not really at his best in the home seasons of 1910-11 and 1911-12. When the England side arrived under Johnny Douglas, Ransford could not manage a fifty in the entire series, with Frank Foster and Sydney Barnes troubling him throughout as the visitors triumphed 4-1.

Unfortunately, that was the end of the Test career of the Ransford. He was one of the Big Six who fell out with the Board before the Triangular Test Tournament of 1912. With constant bickering with the Board of Control established in 1905, the senior members of the team insisted on their right to select the tour manager to England. The Board initially agreed but reversed their stance during the 1911-12 season. As a result, Victor Trumper, Clem Hill, Sammy Carter, Tibby Cotter, Warwick Armstrong and Ransford refused to tour.

With the First World War forcing cricket into a distant back seat for the next few years, Ransford never played Test cricket for Australia again. He was just 26 when he played his last Test, remaining one of those unfortunate stories of what might have been.

Ransford carried on scoring runs and hammering centuries with surprising regularity in domestic cricket even after the War. In 1920-21, while Armstrong suffered from fibrositis, he acted as the stand-in captain of Victoria. The following season, he led a Australian side to New Zealand and rattled up three centuries. He visited the neighbouring country again in 1924-25, this time as a part of the Victorian outfit, and continued in the same vein, piling up two hundreds and ending with an average in the 90s.

He was still occasionally turning out for Victoria in 1927-28. With the England team scheduled to arrive for the 1928-29 Ashes, there ensued a serious debate in the Board about the comparative captaincy merits of Jack Ryder and the 44-year-old Ransford. However, with the latter not having played Test cricket for 17 years, Ryder got the nod.

Ransford ended his First-Class career with 8268 runs at 42.40 including 25 hundreds. In the 20 Tests he played during his four year stint at the top level, he scored 1211 runs at 37.84 with one hundred and seven fifties.

The style and the man

Standing with a rather attractive crouched stance, Ransford looked deceptively relaxed at the crease. In fact, some remarked that he gave the impression of being about to take a nap. However, when the delivery was released, it was all grace and timing as he struck fluently through the cover-point along with some strong leg-side strokes. He did not drive as much as a Bardsley or Woolley, but his cover drive was acknowledged as both brilliant and delectable.

In the field, he moved quickly in the deep and followed it up with fast accurate throws. Rarely was he asked to send down his orthodox left arm slows, but he did once pick up six for 38 for Victoria against New Zealand at Basin Reserve.

In 1927, he was elected to the post of President of the Melbourne Football Club and served for two full seasons in 1927 and 1928. In the club’s annual report he was described as an “illustrious cricketer and good sport. For many years an ardent, sincere and enthusiastic worker for our club”.

In 1929, Joe Blair took over as President, but Ransford later returned and was Melbourne’s delegate to the league before retiring to become secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club in 1939.

The story of his association with Melbourne Cricket Club is more interesting. Ransford had been a member since 1913, and in 1939, after the death of Hugh Trumble, his was one of the 150-plus applications for the job of the secretary. One of the co-applicants was a certain man named Don Bradman. Ransford beat the legend by the margin of one committeeman’s vote and served as secretary till 1957.

In 1954, Ransford was honoured with an OBE.

Vernon Ransford passed away in Melbourne in 1958, one day before his 73rd 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)

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