Bill

Had there been no Don Bradman, William Harold Bill Ponsford, born October 19, 1900, would have been remembered as Australia s greatest run-machine. Indeed, RC Robertson-Glasgow called Bradman and Ponsford the lightning of Sydney and the thunder of Melbourne respectively. In a First-Class career spanning just over a decade, Ponsford amassed 13,819 runs at a whopping 65.18 with 47 hundreds (out of 90 scores in excess of fifty) two of which were in excess of 400. At Test level he scored 2,122 runs from 29 Tests at 48.22 with 7 hundreds (of 13 scores in excess of fifty). Ponny retired almost too early, at a mere 33, which was the only reason that prevented him from notching up another couple of triple-hundreds. Arunabha Sengupta and Abhishek Mukherjee recollect 20 facts about the giant of big scores, one who could almost match The Don when it came to a voracious appetite for runs.

1. First-Class giant

Let us get the records out of the way first. With a cut-off of 50 innings, Ponsford has the fifth-highest batting average of all time (after Bradman, Vijay Merchant, George Headley, and Ajay Sharma).

Ponsford score 4 triple-hundreds. He is the only one to do so barring Bradman (6) and Wally Hammond (4) in First-Class cricket.

Ponsford was the first batsman to score two quadruple-hundreds in First-Class cricket. Brian Lara later emulated him.

Of all double-centurions to have held the world record for the highest First-Class score, Ponsford is the only batsman to have improved on his own record. He slammed 429 against Tasmania at MCG in 1922-23, and five seasons later, 437 against Queensland at the same ground.

In the two seasons 1926-27 and 1927-28 he played 12 matches, scoring 2,446 runs at 135.89 with 10 hundreds. This included a run of 133, 437, 202, 38, 336 in 1926-27 a whopping 1,146 from 5 innings at 229.20. Unfortunately, he could not keep the tempo going, and scored only 108 and 84 in the following innings.

Two of his triple-hundreds resulted in the only four-digit scores in First-Class cricket. His 429 came during Victoria s 1,059 (they were 259 for 4 at one time); when he scored 352 against New South Wales in 1926-27 Victoria amassed 1,107.

On a side note, when he tried to play one off the back-foot off Gordon Morgan after scoring 352, he famously exclaimed Cripes, I m unlucky!

2. Test giant

One of the features of Ponsford s career was his clustered hundreds . He scored 2 hundreds in each of his first 2 Tests; the next 10 did not yield any; the next 4 saw 3 more; he went without a hundred for another 12 Tests before signing off with 2 in his last 2 Tests.

He remains the only batsman to score hundreds in his first 2 and last 2 Tests. The last 2 hundreds were spectacular. Ponsford (181) and Bradman (304) added 388, a world record for any wicket at that time, at Headingley. In the next Test, his last, Ponsford (266) and Bradman (244) surpassed that, adding 451.

3. Humbling the Don twice

Ponsford s 29 Tests came across eight series, six of which came after Bradman s debut. In two of these he actually averaged more than Bradman: against West Indies at home in 1930-31 he scored 467 at 77.83 (to Bradman s 447 at 74.50) and in the 1934 Ashes in England, his last series, he scored 569 at 94.83, edging marginally past Bradman s 758 at 94.75.

4. A bat with a name

Ponsford s bat weighed 2 pounds 10 ounces (roughly 1.19 kg, absurd by the standards of the era). They even doubted whether the size, breadth, and weight were as per restrictions. The club of a bat even had a name Big Bertha after a super-heavy howitzer developed by the armaments manufacturer Krupp in Germany on the eve of World War I. (Wikipedia)

In Australian Cricket: The Game and the Players, Jack Pollard mentioned that Big Bertha was indeed bigger than what was allowed the wood had expanded as a result of powerful hitting. Bottle caps were used to scrape off the extra width.

5. A cap at an angle

There is many a tale about Ponsford s cap, probably the most iconic headgear in cricket after Graham Yallop s crash helmet and Jack Russell s hat. Ponsford was famously shy, and as Ray Robinson wrote in Between Wickets, Ponny covered his face almost entirely in his cap when photographed.

That, however, was not what Ponsford s cap was famous for. It acted almost like an indicator: it usually covered his eye at an angle facing point, but it moved further and further to the left as the innings progressed.

Robinson wrote: If you saw the peak at a rakish angle towards his left ear you could tell he was heading for his second hundred. AG Moyes wrote in Bradman s biography: The angle of Ponsford s cap was always an indication of his state of mind. It was the weather-vane showing which way the wind blew.

6. Pads with girth

Ponsford wore a pair of the thickest pads of the generation. Indeed, in combination with Big Bertha, the entire structure (Ponsford was prone to gaining weight, and was 83 kg at 5 9 ) looked quite formidable.

To quote Robinson (again), He had the thickest calves ever owned by a man of 5 feet 9 inches. Yet, not once in his 51 Test innings was he out leg-before-wicket.

7. The Best of all, and Mr Cody

Ponsford learned the basics of cricket from his uncle Cuthbert Best, a former club cricketer. An all-rounder, he captained Alfred Crescent School at 15, and won a medallion from Fitzroy CC at a remarkably young age.

A batsman who bowled occasional leg-breaks, Leslie Cody played 30 First-Class matches, averaging 34 with bat and 28 with ball. Cody was also a prolific rugby league player, and went on to become General Secretary of Fitzroy CC. However, history remembers him as Ponsford s batting instructor and role model.

8. Fits both Bills

Woodfull, of course, was the other Bill the namesake with which Ponsford forged a long-partnership at the top (note that Bradman walked out if one of them got out). They were often, affectionately, called the two Bills , Willy and Po , Mutt and Jeff , and more. The pair batted 30 times together, scoring 1,173 runs between them at 41.89.

While Woodfull retired on his 37th birthday, Ponsford quit a few months short of his 34th in the same Test. [Bill Woodfull: 16 facts about Australia s Bodyline series captain who refused knighthood]

9. Shyness personified:

As mentioned above, Ponsford was an epitome of shyness, but he did talk while batting. Robinson cites another example in Between Wickets: In one picture he was oblivious of the camera which caught him talking out the corner of his mouth to Bradman. It transpired that he was saying, What are the beggars up to now? He had scarcely passed through the gate before he noticed that a couple of English fieldsmen were taking up positions a few yards (or feet) away from where they had been before the luncheon interval.

Ponsford worked at State Savings Bank before taking up a job at MCG (where else would he be more comfortable?) and retired in 1969. His shyness increased manifolds after retirement. When travelling on trains he usually covered his face with a newspaper what if somebody recognised him? He spoke rarely and even then only if he could improve on silence , said Bill O Reilly to Ponsford s biographer John Leckey. Indeed, he insisted on no one visiting him at workplace.

Despite this, he was extremely witty, and when he said something funny, his teammates were often found shaking in laughter.

There was more. In a shipboard fancy parade, Ponsford blackened himself completely and appeared as an aboriginal. He wore only a white shirt a familiar figure in the Pelaco shirt advertisement with the caption Mine tinkit they fit.

10. Standing out

It was only logical that MCG would have a Ponsford Stand. The 1968 Olympic Stand was renamed the Bill Ponsford in 1986, five years before the great man passed away. Obviously, Ponsford had one condition: he would not appear for an interview.

When the stands were demolished, Ponsford s granddaughter Megan (a fantastic researcher of the sport herself) obtained the letters F and S for her sons Eduardo and Alesandro.

The three stands (1928 Members Stand, 1956 Olympic Stand, and the Bill Ponsford Stand) were demolished to form a single stand in the 21st century that goes by the name WH Ponsford Stand.

In 2005 they erected a statue of him outside the MCG pavilion.

11. A very, very good habit

The poor Cambridge students were at the receiving end of Big Bertha in 1934. Ponsford, after scoring 229*, was exhausted, and exclaimed never again, too much like hard work! on his return.

When he took field in the next match at Lord s he made a vow: Today if I get 50, I ll throw my wicket away. The teammates were surprised, but kept to themselves. Once Ponsford reached a chanceless fifty, Len Darling cautioned his teammates: Get your bat, Ponny will be out any minute.

Nothing of that sort happened. Whether it was habit or poor memory is not documented, but Ponsford remained unbeaten on 281 when Woodfull declared the innings; this included a 389-run stand with Stan McCabe.

He did not choose to score big. He could simply not help himself.

12. Body lines

Bodyline did not suit Ponsford, for he was a mere human. He averaged a mere 23.50, but this included 85 in the historic Adelaide Test where Harold Larwood hit Woodfull on his heart and hit Bert Oldfield on the temple (albeit due to a top edge).

Australia folded for 222, but Ponsford stood firm, taking blow after blow deliberately on his torso. When he returned with bruises all over his left shoulder and back, he told O Reilly: I wouldn’t mind having a couple more if I could get a hundred.

13. Retirement during testimonial

Woodfull and Ponsford were given a testimonial match at MCG in 1934-35. It was announced in advance that Woodfull would retire after the match, and the crowd, 43,878 over four days, helped raise 1,831.

Ponsford (83) and Woodfull (111) batted in the middle-order, adding 132. When they walked out to bat after a break, the crowd chanted For He s a Jolly Good Fellow. Ponsford was obviously Woodfull s heir-apparent for Victoria.

And then, to the astonishment of teammates and fans alike, he announced during the match that he would retire after the match. Test cricket has become too serious; it is not a game anymore but a battle, he said. He played club cricket till 1939.

14. Ponsford and World War II: Part 1, a tale sans colours

Ponsford enlisted for Royal Australian Air Force for World War II. Astonishingly, they detected he was colour-blind. The following conversation ensued:

Doctor: What colour did the new ball look to you?

Ponsford: Red.

Doctor: What colour did it look after it became worn?

Ponsford: I never noticed its colour then, only its size.

He was later diagnosed with protanopia; in other words, he could not tell red from green. Megan explained: Bill couldn t differentiate between red and green, which one would imagine would have made cricket a difficult sport to play. Luckily he played after sight boards were introduced as otherwise playing cricket would not have been possible.

15. Ponsford and World War II: Part 2, when Ponny became Mussolini

After Benito Mussolini was ousted in 1943, Adolf Hitler was left Europe s last standing major dictator. A House of Commons member remarked: We ve got Ponsford out cheaply, but Bradman is still batting.

Some analogies need not be explained.

16. Other ball games

Ponsford is considered by many to be the best baseballer of his time in Australia Joe Clark, History of Australian Baseball.

One name in Australian baseball stands pre-eminent above all others and that is the name of Bill Ponsford … Ponsford will always remain amongst the greatest sportsmen of all time. Claxton Shield Programme, 1952.

Ponsford started his baseball career as shortstop before going on to become a catcher. He played for Victorian Schoolboys also the national school championships. John Mugsy McGraw, New York Giants Manager, saw him in action, and tried to convince Ponsford’s parents to send him to USA.

Ponsford played for Victoria from 1919. The Sporting Globe called him Best Batter of the Season in 1923. He led Victoria in 1925, and was centre fielder in three matches between Australia and United States Pacific Fleet. He played baseball in the antipodean winter, and quit both cricket and baseball in the same year.

He also remained active in lawn bowling, and was good enough to be an award-winner. He also followed football, and was a frequent visitor to Melbourne Football Club matches with his family.

17. An odd habit

Arunabha Sengupta wrote: Ponsford had a curious detachment towards his cricketing memorabilia. On one occasion he was discovered burning off the garden leaves, turning the embers over with a stump that was supposed to be a souvenir from a Test match. He would also turn up to work in the garden in his Test blazer.

18. Freemasonry

Ponsford became a Freemason in 1922, and continued to be a part of the movement till 1985. He retired as Master Mason. Other famous Australian Freemasons included Bradman, Oldfield, Wally Grout, Bobby Simpson, and Bill Lawry.

[Note: The above list contains two famous batting pairs and two legendary wicketkeepers: nothing conclusive, but just a remark.]

19. The oldest of them all

Ponsford was Australia s oldest living cricketer when he passed away at 90 years 169 days in a nursing-home in Kyneton. He was also the only surviving member of Herbie Collins Ashes team that toured England in 1926.

20. Honours galore

Deservingly, honours were aplenty: Ponsford was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1935 and was awarded MBE in 1982 for services to cricket.

Ponsford was one of the ten initial inductees into Australian Hall of Fame, in 1996. He was announced opening partner of Arthur Morris in Australian Cricket Board s Team of the Century, named in 2000. He was also named in Melbourne CC s Team of the Century, announced in 2001.