Victor Trumper — the batsman often rated above Don Bradman
Victor Trumper… crown prince among batsmen and the soul of Australian batting © Getty Images
Victor Trumper, the crown prince of all batsmen and the knight in the most shining flannels, was born on November 2, 1877. Arunabha Sengupta pays tribute to the hero who still occupies a place in the hearts of many cricket lovers.
On this day 135 years ago was born the crown prince of batsmen. The eternal knight in flannels who hauled the art of batting out of the clutches of Victorian orthodoxy and guided it into a new century with his flashing blade.
Of him Neville Cardus said: “When Victor Trumper got out, the light seemed to die for a while from an Australian innings. ‘The eagle is gone and now crows and daws.’ ”
Agreed, Cardus, the doyen of cricket writers, often carried the élan and éclat of his romantic prose to stretch facts to the limits and further, often beyond recognition. Emmott Robinson is a defining example of how his pen could plunge into the most mortal of men and inject the unsuspecting soul with unearned immortality.
However, the magic of Trumper performed the reverse miracle. The deeds of his willow often elevated men rooted to the ground to Cardusian flights of eulogies.
Speaking of him, Johnny Moyes said: “When he came he opened the windows of the mind to a new vision of what batting could me. He lifted it to heights never before known, gave us thrills we had never experienced.”
Even Jack Hobbs called him “Champagne of Cricket”. Hobbs said: “He is the most perfect batsman in his scoring methods I have ever seen. He makes every orthodox stroke quite after the best models, and in addition he has several strokes of his own which is quite hopeless for other batsmen to attempt.”
The story of spending sleepless nights in anticipation of playing against Trumper and worrying that the great batsman would cut himself while shaving in the morning of the match, and finally bowling him with a googly and repenting it as if he had killed a dove … all these been proved to be products of fertile imagination. However, Arthur Mailey’s boundless admiration of the man rises from the pages of his writings, lending life to the legend. In 10 for 66 and All That, he even brings the ephemeral hero back to life, inviting him to dine along with Don Bradman – the man who took over the mantle of the greatest batsman of all time in Australian minds, but not in their hearts.
The long suffering wives of Test cricketers have not been known for gushing out in eloquence about the deeds of their husbands. Years later Frances Edmonds, the wife of the England left-arm spinner Phil, demonstrated the normal spousal school of thought by titling her account of the Caribbean adventures of 1985-86, Another Bloody Tour.
But, even the ladies were moved to ecstasy by the genius of Trumper. Mrs. CB Fry was spellbound by his grace and style: “He is a poet of cricket; he has a poet’s extra sense, touch and feeling. Trumper can play, with his bat, a cricket ball as Paganini played his violin.”
Trumper shared his Test debut with another great of the era, Wilfred Rhodes. Ages later when Rhodes was asked about the greatest batsman who he came up against, he responded, “There was only one. Victor Trumper.”
The debut Test match was also the last time WG Grace played for England. The Grand Old Man of cricket was not one to waste his words in unnecessary praise. It was during this tour, some days after his first century in the second Test match at Lord’s that the giant form of the good doctor suddenly loomed in the doorway of the Australian dressing room. Through the forest of his beard, Grace demanded that Trumper present him the bat he had used, with his autograph on it. As the dazed young man complied, in return he got one of WG himself. Placing one of his hallowed blades into Trumper’s hands, the doctor said, “From today’s champion to the champion of tomorrow.”
Australian frontline off-break bowler Hugh Trumble was unequivocal in his verdict, “Trumper stands alone as the best batsman of all time.”
Even after Don Bradman had revamped the landscape of the game to make the milestones unrecognisable, there were many who still put Trumper above him as the greatest batsman of all time.
CB Fry was not much behind his wife in admiration of the man. He observed in the 1930s: “No matter how many runs Bradman makes, Vic Trumper’s name comes up time and again, and his great deeds are discussed. He took a hold on the hearts and minds of the people in England as no other batsman has done.”
In January 1947, Lock Walmsley, president of the Sydney Musician’s club, passed away. Walmsley, who was from a very old cricketing family, recorded his last will and testament on gramophone disc, and in it he stated, “I would like to record for posterity that Victor Trumper was the best batsman of the lot.”
It is indeed today that we celebrate the birthday of this ever youthful, most charming batsman of all. NSW Public Service Gazette tells us that he was born on November 2, 1877. But, the New South Wales records show no trace of a birth certificate. Given that his parents got married in 1883, it is often conjectured that he was adopted, or was the child of a close relative of the Trumper family.
He spent hours and hours of his childhood, soaking up the sun on cricket grounds. As a schoolboy he played alongside his senior Monty Noble and attracted attention of the great Charles Bannerman – the same Australian cricketer who has an eternal place in the history books, having scored first run and the first century in Test cricket.
Bannerman guided Trumper with great care, and the willing student complied by absorbing the lessons dutifully. However, whenever Trumper batted in matches, Bannerman was known to shout, “Leave it alone Vic, that wasn’t a ball to go at.” And the blade would keep venturing out of safety zone, unerringly connecting with the far away ball, sending it screaming to the fence.
After a while, Bannerman realised that the best way to nurture Trumper’s genius was to let it flow unabated. However, before the cavalier strokes were chiselled to perfection in the armoury, the teacher and student had laid the foundations of a solid defence.
The genius of Trumper was evident in the very first inter-state game that he played.
George Giffen, the old Australian bowler, often delighted in enticing the young players to move out to slow flighted deliveries, and then run forward to get snap them caught and bowled. Trumper also fell for it, was beaten in flight, but at the last moment, he shifted his weight backwards and cocked the ball over Giffen with the bottom of his bat. It landed exactly where Giffen would have been standing at the end of his action had he not sprinted forward to anticipate the catch.
It was indication of the imaginative mind that would rule behind the celebrated co-ordination of the hand and the eye.
Emergence on international scene
Trumper was included as a surprise 14th member of the side to tour England in 1899. Much of the decision was influenced by a peerless 292 not out against Tasmania, then the highest maiden hundred, and – as a cricketing curiosity – the 100th double century in First-class cricket.
He did not really have a very good debut, scoring a duck and eleven. But, he was soon making runs all over England, including a dazzling 135 not out in the second Test at Lord’s, full of glorious drives, cuts and pulls. HS Altham, in A History of Cricket, wrote, “It was obvious a new star of unsurpassed brilliance had joined the cluster of the Southern Cross.”
His game in 1899 was adventurous, yet safe. His drives through the off and the on were imperious and he never seemed to hit them hard, the timing exquisite right thall his career. The cuts and leg glances were delightful as well, but his specialities were the deflections from the stumps off fast balls that sped towards the leg boundary in front of square. The other shot that stood out was a shot to the leg-side off a yorker. There was a supple lissom grace and a graceful flick of the wrist in everything that he did at the crease. And all the strokes were along the ground.
It was during this English tour that Trumper was fielding at Lord’s when Albert Trott famously lofted Monty Noble over the pavilion. It is widely conjectured that Trumper took to lofting the ball after watching Trott that day. From then on his game was studded with hitherto absent huge lifts, executed with the same grace that touched all his other strokes, without any perceptible effort.
1902 – a glorious summer
Back home, he made loads of runs in First-class games, but failed in the Ashes Tests that followed. Wisden attributed his failures to working late into the night at office. He was a junior clerk in the Probate and Interstate Estates Office at an annual salary of £90.
It was during the 1902 tour of England that Trumper reached the zenith of his powers. Rain fell in torrents all summer, wickets were sticky, soft and difficult, batsmen struggled and fell, and Trumper batted on. He could play an orthodox game, and when customary methods were unavailing, could fall pack upon his huge resources of imagination.
In the fourth Test match at Old Trafford, Australian captain Joe Darling courageously opted to bat on a soft wicket after rain, and Archie MacLaren told his formidable bowlers FS Jackson, Rhodes, Bill Lockwood, Fred Tate and Len Braund, to concentrate on keeping Trumper quiet, and the match would be theirs.
Cardus, just 12 year old when he saw the innings, wrote: “His cricket burns in my memory with the glow and fiery hazard of the actual occasion, the wonderful and all-consuming ignition. He was the most gallant and handsome batsman of them all.”
Trumper got his century before lunch on the first morning, in 115 minutes, the first batsman to achieve the feat. Australia won the heart stopping thriller by three runs.
During that summer, Trumper became established as the best batsman of the world. Hugh Trumble later identified the 1902 team as the strongest Australian side ever, and Trumper as the jewel in the crown – easily worth three for Australia.
Plum Warner noted, “During 1902, Trumper scarcely knew what it was to fail. The state of the wicket made no difference to him. Runs flowed from his bat.”
To this day, he is often remembered as the best batsman ever on bad wickets. His popularity during the tour saw his bat fetch £42 in an auction sponsored by Daily Express. KS Ranjitsihji’s blade went for £13, and Gilbert Jessop’s for just £8. Only WG’s willow fetched more – £50.
Trumper achieved prodigious success during the home series against England in 1903-04. He hit two centuries in the Tests, including a brilliant back to the wall second innings 185 not out in Sydney. There is a charming story of his grabbing a bat from the shelf of his sports goods shop and travelling to the ground to score that hundred, and then selling the bat as a used second hand piece. This delightful anecdote is apocryphal. His shop, Trumper and Carter, opened only in 1904.
The Australian side contained luminaries like Clem Hill, Syd Gregory, Joe Darling and Noble, but the dreams of the nation rode on Trumper’s bat that most often led the way at the beginning of the innings. So much so, that when Trumper was out for 35 at Melbourne during a fourth innings chase, newspaper placards proclaimed: “Trumper Dismissed – Hope Abandoned”.
He toured England twice more, in 1905 and 1909, but could not recapture the magic of 1902. However, he did enjoy a prolific series against South Africans in 1910-11, and the battery of googly bowlers held no terror for him. It was during this series that he notched up his career best 214 not out.
Sydney Cricket Ground Trust Chairman Rodney Cavalier after naming the new stand in honour of Victor Trumper © Getty Images
His last Test series was against the 1911-12 English tourists, and like every other Australian batsman he had plenty of problems against the fast bowling of Frank Foster and the medium pace of Sydney Barnes. However, the failures were bracketed between a century in the first Test and a half century in the last, both on his home-ground at Sydney. Years later, this Sydney hundred was recounted by the ground’s legendary barracker Yabba.
Although his last days in cricket were marred by illness and the “Big Six” problem with the Australian selectors, Trumper remained hugely popular among the players and public.
A rather retiring man who shunned the spotlight, he was known and loved for his acts of kindness. Monty Noble told the tale of their visit to the London Coliseum in pouring rain during which they spotted a young kid sheltered in a murky doorway, selling sheet music. Trumper went over and bought all his merchandise, sending the lad home.
Joe Darling recounted his suddenly finding Trumper’s bat in his luggage, a spontaneous gift that he had not expected or known of.
So, it was hardly a surprise that the testimonial match for Trumper attracted great players and greater interest, and was a huge success in the end.
The brilliance in numbers
Trumper ended his career with 3163 runs in 48 Tests at 39.04 with eight hundreds. In comparison to modern day numbers, these look extremely ordinary. Often, the many followers of cricket who detest statistics take his example, to point out that batting average does not always indicate the class of a batsman.
For them, let me point out some major stories that these numbers do underline.
From 1899 to 1912, the period when Trumper batted for Australia, saw fluctuating standards of wickets, rainy summers and difficult circumstances.
The only way one can measure his brilliance in numbers is to compare him with players of his own era who had to deal with similar conditions.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Trumper was the third best batsman according to averages – after Aubrey Faulkner and Clem Hill. In the 1910s, he was second only to Jack Hobbs.
In his entire playing duration, he was the highest accumulator of runs – and among all those who scored more than 1500 runs in the same period, only Faulkner, Clem Hill and Hobbs averaged more than him. And Hobbs and Faulkner did not play during a large part of the first decade when conditions were more prone to be difficult.
When numbers are allowed to speak about Trumper, the resulting rhetoric is almost as impressive as anything by Cardus.
Death of a young cricketer
It came as a shock to the cricketing fraternity when the beloved batsman succumbed to Bright’s disease in 1915, at the young age of 37. Weakened by scarlet fever in 1908, he was never in the best of health in his last years. Yet, the news stunned Australia, and when it reached the shores of England riding on sad cables, a pall of gloom was cast on the Old Country as well.
Charley Mcartney, who was later to emulate Trumper by scoring a century before lunch during the first day of a Test match, was philosophical in retrospect, “I have one great satisfaction regarding Victor Trumper – I never saw him grow old as a cricketer.”
Trumper’s long-time club mate Frank Iredale paid him tribute saying, “In future years we may develop great players with great deeds, but one feels somehow or other that we shall never see a man like Victor again.”
Victor Trumper ended his career with 3163 runs in 48 Tests at 39.04 with eight hundreds © Getty Images
The Beldam photograph
The thrill of Trumper batsmanship, the gallantry and gaiety, the unbridled sense of adventure and zest and joy of being at the crease, is brilliantly captured in a photograph taken by George Beldam. In it Trumper is seen striding out to drive, yards and yards beyond his crease. According to Gideon Haigh, it achieves the synthesis of orthodox and spontaneity that defined Trumper’s batting.
A framed version of this photograph hung on the wall in CB Fry’s home at TS Mercury on the Hamble River, and another decorated the cottage occupied by Arthur Mailey. For long, the picture featured on the cover of the New South Wales Cricket Association’s annual report, and it is still the basis of the design on the cover of the Australian Wisden.
It has also been a motif for the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Graham Greene’s The Return of AJ Raffles and “Victor Trumper Everlovin’ Pop and Soul Revue” by Australian rock band You Am I.
It has been made into print by Dave Thomas, a letterhead by Australian cricket bookseller Roger Page, the symbol of a chat-room which goes under the name of the Victor Trumper Cricket Board, and features on the jacket of the Australian cricket writing anthology Endless Summer.
If so far-reaching is the appeal of one photograph of the man, can one guess the magnetism of the cricketer himself?
Victor Trumper died young, but lives on as in the picture, a hero of the past – forever dashing, debonair and daring, blessed with everlasting youth.
(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)