Wally Grout, that fine Australian wicket-keeper, was born on March 30, 1927. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at an excellent player, a thorough gentleman with an excellent sense of humour, and an extremely popular personality.
When you hear the name Arthur Theodore Wallace Grout, you possibly have an image of a stiff upper lip Earl or Count, or at least a business magnate — with a strong, rigid, snobbish personality. Grout was exactly the antitheses of that image: he was cheerful, he was fizzy and a livewire on and off the field, ready to crack a joke of any genre at the slightest opportunity, and yet — used to play cricket the way it should be played.
He was an outstanding wicket-keeper, to begin with. Don Bradman once said “he was one of the finest wicket-keepers of all time.” Bobby Simpson went a step ahead: “He was the greatest wicket-keeper I saw.” Wes Hall, who had played against Grout in Tests, and alongside him for Queensland, was also in awe of Grout: “He was the finest wicket-keeper I either played with or against in my ten years of big cricket.”
He was not really a batsman of class – he scored 890 runs in 51 Tests at a rather pedestrian average of 15.08. However, he had pouched 163 catches and had effected 24 stumpings – 187 dismissals in all. When he retired, he was behind only Godfrey Evans in terms of dismissals, and was the best Australian by a distance. He had 1.91 dismissals per innings – which is the seventh on the list for any wicket-keeper with over 150 Test dismissals.
In the introduction to Grout’s autobiography My Country’s Keeper, Bradman compared him to the legendary Don Tallon, mentioning that Grout had “the same basic type of footwork, the same ‘swoop’ on the snick, the same inevitability about holding a chance, and even the same air of aggressive intent”.
Grout was very nimble-footed and athletic behind the stumps. He moved with great agility, squatting down and getting up at an amazing speed. He was also prompt at spotting batsmen’s weaknesses, and often walked up to bowlers and plotted out dismissals. He recommended efficient and strategic bowling and fielding changes as well. In Richie Benaud’s words, “he was able to read a match as well as any captain, and was always of tremendous value to me in captaining the Australian side. Add to that his chirpy presence behind the stumps, and you’ll get an idea how pivotal a role Grout played in the Australian side. It was not a coincidence that Australia had never lost a series in which Grout had played.
Other than the aggregate feats, Grout had several achievements that set him apart from the other wicket-keepers of his era and his predecessors.
Grout made a name at a very early stage at school-level. Though he opened batting, he was not considered as a regular wicket-keeper. It was only at Grade Cricket that he was assigned a role behind the stumps. He rose through the ranks very fast, and was soon a contender for the Sheffield Shield side.
Grout tried to break through to the Queensland side, but was kept out by the Tallon, who was also the wicket-keeper for the Test side. When Tallon was selected for the 1947-48 home series against India, Grout was hopeful, but Doug Siggs was preferred ahead of him on the ground that Siggs was a better batsman.
This was a major setback for the youngster. He could not accept the fact that the selectors had opted for the better batsman ahead of him. He had always been vocal about the fact that a batsman’s contribution was in no way comparable to a wicket-keeper’s.
In his autobiography Grout writes: “I dropped [Lindsay] Hassett in a Shield match at home in 1947 off-spinner Mick Raymer before the perky little Victorian had scored. Lindsay said ‘Ta’ and thrashed 200. Where was I going to get a double century to compensate? My two innings in that match totalled seven runs.”
After Tallon’s retirement, Grout became the first wicket-keeper for Queensland, and a contender for the Test slot. His fizzy presence behind the stumps earned him the nickname ‘The Voice’. The selectors, however, kept their faith in Len Maddocks and Langley. Not willing to give up, Grout fought harder on his fitness, and a debut was soon on the cards.
Along with Barry Jarman, Grout was selected for the 1957-58 tour of South Africa. He had picked up a hairline fracture on his thumb on the tour, but got to play the first Test, thanks to a 95 against North-Eastern Transvaal. He made his debut at Johannesburg and, as mentioned above, set the world record by taking six catches in the Test. Grout finished the series with 16 catches and three stumpings from five Tests.
It was on this tour that Grout acquired the nickname ‘Griz’, in reference to his grizzling (complaining) about poor throws. On a side note, Neil Harvey and Grout had a narrow escape when they were chased by lions and elephants in the Wanke Games Reserved as they risked a bit too much to shoot a better photograph.
In the home Ashes that followed, Grout went a step ahead, taking 20 victims in the series. In the fifth Test at Melbourne, Grout helped add 115 with Benaud for the seventh wicket, and eventually guided Australia to another victory and a 4-0 rout. Grout had scored 74, which remained his highest Test score.
Australia toured Pakistan and India next, and it was in the first innings of the series at Dacca that Grout played the finest innings of his Test career. After Pakistan had folded for 200, Australia were down at 151 for eight. Grout smashed an unbeaten 66 in 85 balls, and secured a slender 25-run lead, which eventually turned out to be crucial. Grout opened batting in India, and scored 50 in the Calcutta Test.
In the Madras Test, however, Grout displayed one of the most spectacular examples of wicket-keeping. Grout told Alan Davidson that he would stand up to the stumps, as the batsman Man Sood was standing out of his crease. Davidson threatened him with the words “you come up to the stumps and I’ll hit you between the eyes”. Davidson then let go a fast, wide ball, Sood lost his balance slightly, Grout dived at an incredible speed, and in the same fluid motion, whipped the bails off.
Frank Worrell Trophy, 1960-61
Most cricketers who had been a part of the 1960-61 series have agreed on the fact that it was the greatest series they have ever played in. Grout did not impress with the bat, but he was phenomenal behind the stumps throughout the series. Even if he had not done anything of note, he would have become immortal in history by responding to Benaud’s call when Hall’s delivery sucked the wind out of him, when he was dropped by a collision between Hall and Rohan Kanhai, and he was run out by an incredible throw from Conrad Hunte — all in the last over of the tied Test at Brisbane.
With the sides levelled 1-1, the last Test at Melbourne went down to the wire. When Australia required only four runs for a victory with three wickets in hand, Grout late cut Alf Valentine and ran two, but the ball had dislodged the bails. The umpires ruled Grout not out. However, Grout, in an almost unprecedented gesture of sportsmanship, hit the next ball intentionally high up in the air, only to be caught by Cammie Smith.
Grout finished the series with 20 catches and three stumpings — equalling the world record of 23 victims in a Test series set by John Waite and Gerry Alexander. He received accolades from all and sundry, and was hailed as arguably the best wicket-keeper in the world during that era.
Injury and comeback
In the Ashes later that year, Grout became the first player to take 20 victims in a series thrice, as he took 20 catches and effected a solitary stumping in the series.
A week before the home Ashes of 1962-63, Grout was keeping wickets to Hall in a Shield match. The ball sped off the pitch like a rocket, and smashed Grout’s jaw with a force so hard that even Hall had felt “it made me sick to see Wal [Grout] leaving”. The injury kept him out for the first three Tests. He replaced Jarman in the last two Tests, and gathered nine more victims.
In the return Ashes next season, Grout impressed everybody yet again with his sportsmanship. In the first Test at Trent Bridge, Geoff Boycott played Neil Hawke towards mid-on, and set off for a single. Hawke dived to stop the ball, and collided with the non-striker Fred Titmus. When Hawke’s throw reached Grout, Titmus was well short of the crease. However, Grout, the perfect gentleman, refused to take the bails away.
Grout was not a regular in the tours of India and Pakistan that followed due to injury, and was replaced by Jarman. He played two more series – against West Indies at home (14 catches and four stumpings), and against England at home (15 catches and a stumping). He retired from Test and First-Class cricket soon afterwards at the age of 39.
Later years and death
On his retirement, Grout worked for Rothman’s of Pall Mall (Australia) Limited, and became a Queensland State Selector in 1967. However, he was admitted in a Brisbane hospital next year with a chest pain, and died from of a heart attack at the age of 41. The erratic life, controlled by tobacco and alcohol, did not help. To keep in accordance with his last wish, his ashes were scattered over The Gabba.
The man and his legacy
Grout was probably born to keep wickets, and only to keep wickets. In the words of Davidson, “Wal [Grout] couldn’t run out of sight in a week, but when he put those gloves on he was amazing.” Simpson, who had already called him the greatest he had seen, also mentioned that Grout “wasn’t a natural at anything other than wicket-keeping.”
His tongue-in-cheek sense of humour livened up his team, and everyone related to the sport. When asked by an Englishman whether he had attended a public school, Grout responded “Eton, and drinkin’.”
When Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies had addressed him as ‘Grouty’, Wally replied in his typical fashion that Menzies had just lost the votes of his wife and himself.
On another occasion, when Gubby Allen greeted Grout with the words “good morning, Grout”, Grout responded “Allen, you can call me Wally or Mr Grout, but never Grout.” Allen, former English captain, Chairman of Selectors for England, and a member of MCC, had to oblige.
All in all, Grout, being a champion wicket-keeper as well as a great sportsman, was also a charming personality on the cricket field. Indeed, Ted Dexter had once commented: “More cricketers with the Wally Grout attitude would make cricket fields the happiest of places.”
Jarman, whose Test career had affected seriously because it had coincided with Grout’s, had to admit: “I could not speak too highly of Wally as a wicket-keeper. He was one of the game’s greatest characters. I never begrudged playing second fiddle to him.”
(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 Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)