Arthur Shrewsbury Biography
Did WG Grace really say “Give me Arthur”? It may be apocryphal, but the world acknowledged Arthur Shrewsbury as the greatest professional batsman of his era, and the greatest in the world if one took WG aside. He finished with 26,505 runs from 498 matches at 36.65 with 59 hundreds; 1,277 runs at 35.47 in 23 Tests. At the time of his final Test, no one had more runs or a better average in the short history of Test cricket.
EHD Sewell, who knew Shrewsbury during the last few years of his life, observed: “Little by little, this little man playing a quite different kind of cricket to any of the other Big Noises of his time, perfected his own chosen method: never heeding anything in the shape of advice or an adviser, until he became a kind of legend.”
This ‘method’ was Shrewsbury’s celebrated back-play. While most batsmen of the 1870s and 1880s scored off the front foot, Shrewsbury concentrated on playing back, keenly following the ball till the last moment. This allowed him to master the very poor wickets still prevalent in county grounds.
According to old Surrey cricketer William Caffyn, “Shrewsbury has always been the master of the grand secret of playing a totally different game when on a hard wicket to when on a soft and sticky one.” This ability, according to Caffyn, was the hallmark of a really great batsman.
Never very well built, Shrewsbury did not quite hit the ball, but steered or stroked it to different directions. The bat seemed to be an extension of his body. His play was unconstrained and graceful. According to biographer Peter Wynne-Thomas, “Every swing and motion of the bat proclaimed a polished expositor of the fine art of cricket.”
One of the few adverse comments about Shrewsbury’s batting was his use of pads as a second line of defence. But, in that domain too, he was the pioneer. He was also the pioneer in training almost religiously, to keep himself fit as he aged, keeping diligent records of his practice sessions.
As a man, he was shy. As soon as a game was over, he was keen to return home. Even his fellow professionals claimed he did not mix freely with them. He was acutely sensitive of his baldness, which spread while he was still a young man. He was never seen without a hat. On the field he wore a cricket cap, and immediately on the completion of the day’s play, he would change it for a hat — preferably with no one noticing the sleight of hand.
However, in spite of his shy diffidence, at 22 he was standing up for his rights as a professional cricketer against the bellicose Captain Holden. He was the leader of the strikes among Nottinghamshire professionals. And he had enough enterprise to flourish in his business, dealing with clients regularly, without any training, running the firm Shaw and Shrewsbury almost single-handedly because Alfred Shaw stayed far away from the store. His batting was devoid of risks, much like another complex character of the later days Geoff Boycott, but he did take risks away from the game, in his business and in organising Australian tour ventures.
It was perhaps also to do with the complexity of his nature that saw him taking his own life in one of the most tragic instances of cricket.