Frank Woolley © Getty Images
Frank Woolley © Getty Images

Frank Woolley, one of the finest all-rounders ever, was born May 27, 1887. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the man who took cricket in the County Championship to astonishing heights.

“When I am batting, I am the attack,” Frank Edward Woolley often used to say. This was no blank fire.

“There have been few like FEW”, ran a common pun based on his initials. It was no exaggeration.

Few batsmen have combined elegance and have been dynamic at the same time while batting, and also score a lot of runs as well. If you add to that his mixed bag of left-arm medium-paced and orthodox spin bowling and superlative fielding (especially in the slips), you get an incredible package. Frank Woolley was that package.

For England, Woolley scored 3,823 runs at 36.07 with 5 hundreds and took 83 wickets at 33.91 with 4 five-fors and a 10-for, along with 64 catches. There is a general thumb-rule that a good all-rounder is someone whose batting average exceeds his bowling average — and Woolley passed that test comfortably.

He played 64 Tests (including a run of 52 consecutive Tests, which was a world record), spanned over a period of 27 years (this included World War I, which took away his prime years — from an age of 27 to 32) under 14 English captains — a record that stands till date (Jack Hobbs and Mushtaq Ahmed are next with 12 each). As Neville Cardus had said, “no other cricketer served the meadow game as happily and faithfully as [Frank] Woolley”.

It was in First-Class cricket, though — playing mostly for Kent — that Woolley is mostly remembered.

The records

Let us get mind-boggling array of records out of the way first:

- In a career spanning over 32 years Woolley had played 978 First-Class matches — second-most after Wilfred Rhodes (1,110).
- He scored 58,959 First-Class runs at 40.77. This puts him at the second place in history — after Hobbs (61,760).
- He scored 145 First-Class hundreds — 7th in history – after Hobbs (199), Patsy Hendren (170), Wally Hammond (167), Phil Mead (153), Geoff Boycott (151), and Herbert Sutcliffe (151).
- He took 2,066 First-Class wickets at 19.87 with 132 five-fors and 28 ten-wicket hauls.
- He is one of only two men with over 50,000 runs and 2,000 wickets at First-Class level — the other being WG Grace (54,211 runs and 2,809 wickets).
- His 1,018 catches are the most by any non-wicketkeeper. Grace comes second with a distant 887.
- During his 305 not out against Tasmania at Hobart in 1911-12, he reached his triple-hundred in 205 minutes — the second-fastest 300 of all time. It has been bettered only by Denis Compton, who had reached the landmark in 181 minutes against North-Eastern Transvaal in 1948-49.
- He topped 1,000 runs in a season 28 times — a count only equalled by Grace.

For Kent, Woolley

- Played most matches (764), the next being Wally Hardinge (606).
- Scored most runs (47,868), the next being Hardinge (32,549).
- Scored most centuries (122), the next being Les Ames (78).
- Scored most fifties — hundreds included — (361), the next being Hardinge (226).
- Has highest scores at batting positions 4 (270 against Middlesex) and 5 (224 against New Zealanders), both in 1931.
- Is the only one to score 10 hundreds in a season, and has done it twice.
- Is the only one to score 25 fifty-plus scores in a season.
- Has fifth-most wickets (1,680) after Tich Freeman, Colin Blythe, Derek Underwood, and Doug Wright.
- Holds the partnership records for the fifth (277 with Les Ames against New Zealanders in 1931) and tenth (235 with Arthur Fielder against Worcestershire in 1909) wickets.
- Has scored a hundred and taken a five-for in the same match 15 times (Jack Mason comes next with 6).
- Has scored over 100 runs and taken a 10-for in the same match 5 times (Mason has also taken 5).
- Has taken most catches for a non-wicketkeeper (773), the next being James Seymour (659).
- Has scored over 1,000 runs and taken 100 wickets in a season 6 times (Les Todd is the only one to have achieved the double, that too only once)

All this was achieved by a man of whom Cardus had written “the scoreboard does not get anywhere near the secret of Woolley”. Indeed, few, perhaps none, has combined numbers and (irresponsible) romance as seamlessly as Woolley.

The style

With Woolley it was not only about the records, though. Sheer records would not have made him the delight of contemporary cricket authors. Cardus often went ecstatic over Woolley. Consider this excerpt from Good Days, for example: “Cricket belongs entirely to summer every time that Woolley bats an innings. His cricket is compounded of soft airs and fresh flavours. The bloom of the year is on it, making for sweetness. And the very brevity of summer is in it too, making for loveliness. Woolley, so the statisticians tell us, often plays a long innings. But Time’s a cheat, as the old song sings. Fleeter he seems in his stay than in his flight. The brevity in Woolley’s batting is a thing of pulse or spirit, not to be checked by clocks, but only to be apprehended by imagination.

“All the loveliness of the world seems no more lasting than the dew on the grass, seems no more than the perfume and suppliance of a minute. Yet the miracle of renewal goes on, and all the east winds in the world may blow in vain. So with Woolley’s cricket; the lease of it is in the hands of the special Providence which looks after things that do not look after themselves.”

But Cardus has been accused (rightfully) of going overboard with elegance while ignoring the disciplined and determined. What, then, about RC Robertson-Glasgow, who confessed he found his vocabulary too limited when he tried to describe Woolley’s batting — and advised others to use no adjective instead?

“When you wrote about him, there weren’t enough words. In describing a great innings by Woolley, and few of them were not great in artistry, you had to be careful with your adjectives and stack them in little rows, like pats of butter or razor-blades. In the first over of his innings, perhaps, there had been an exquisite off-drive, followed by a perfect cut, then an effortless leg-glide. In the second over the same sort of thing happened; and your superlatives had already gone. The best thing to do was to presume that your readers knew how Frank Woolley batted and use no adjectives at all… there was all summer in a stroke by Woolley, and he batted as it is sometimes shown in dreams.”

It is to be noted how frequently the word ‘summer’ has been used while describing Woolley. Romanticism was a key component in the works of the men who enriched cricket literature before World War II, and nearly all of them perceived that Woolley’s batting was as welcome, as soothing, as picturesque as an English summer. Woolley’s batting was about the fresh grass, the chirping birds, the serene rivers, the damselflies that are so synonymous to summer.

He cheered numb, dejected souls living mundane lives, bringing the long-lost smile back to their lips. He was that sort of a batsman. Thus, for every ode composed and every almanac rewritten for Don Bradman’s accomplishments, there was a ray of sunshine Mother Nature sent to the world in honour of Woolley.

He was also an incredibly aggressive batsman, scoring as quickly as anyone else in the business. RL Arrowsmith wrote: “Few now alive have seen a player who approached him in ease and grace, and his average rate of scoring has been exceeded only by Jessop and equalled by Trumper. His philosophy was to dominate the bowler.” Arrowsmith added: “I was lucky enough to see him innumerable times. Obviously I often saw him out for small scores, but I never saw him in difficulties. If a ball beat him, the next would probably go for four or six.”

However fast he may have scored runs, though, he remained an epitome of aestheticism. There was never anything crude about Woolley’s style. If anything, he made the 21 other men on the ground look ugly. Bill Woodfull, in awe of Woolley’s grace, wrote: “He made the game look so untidy. It appeared as if the wrong bowlers were on and the fieldsmen all in the wrong places.”

Early days

Woolley made his debut at 19 against Lancashire. He scored a duck in the first innings, but came back strongly with 64 in the second. He also dismissed ‘Monkey’ Hornby in the match.

It did not take Woolley time to establish himself. He took his first five-for — 6 for 39 against Somerset — in the next match; a match-winning performance of 72 and 23*, along with match figures of 8 for 119, in a nail-biting 1-wicket victory against Surrey followed next; and he eventually got his maiden ton in the next match — 116 against Hampshire at his hometown Tonbridge — to help Kent win the match by an innings (he also took 8 for 57 in the match).

From a rookie, Woolley had become a Kent mainstay in a span of just 4 matches. Kent went on to win the Championship for the first time that season, and as expected, Woolley played a pivotal role, scoring 779 runs at 31.16 and picking up 42 wickets at 21.11.

Woolley never looked back. With the grace and elegance that was so characteristic of the man, he scored runs by the tons, season after season. It took him three years to break through into a strong England Test side.

Test debut and the 1910 season

Kent won the County Championship again in 1909, and once again Woolley played a significant role, scoring 1,270 runs at 32.56, picking up 72 wickets at 19.43, and taking 24 catches from 33 matches.

He made a rather innocuous Test debut at The Oval in 1909 – at an age of 22. He scored 8 in the only innings he batted, and went wicketless in the 10 overs he sent down. Nevertheless, he was selected for the tour of South Africa the following winter. He did not exactly take the world by storm over there though he did impress with ball.

Woolley found himself at home again (literally and otherwise), playing for Kent the next season. He scored 1,101 runs from 31 matches at a mere 24.46. But then, he took 33 catches – and more significantly, he picked up 136 wickets at an astonishing 14.50 in the season.

Kent won their second consecutive title, and Woolley was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

The ascent

Virtually everything Woolley touched turned into gold after that.

In the 1911-12 Ashes in Australia Woolley scored runs consistently, his finest innings being the 56 at MCG and first 133* at SCG (his first Test hundred). He finished the series with 289 runs at 48.16, picked up 8 wickets at 26.12, and was instrumental in England’s 4-1 Ashes win.

The zenith of his career, at least in terms of bowling, came in the Triangular Test tournament in England the next summer (by playing which, Woolley also played two mini-series — one against South Africa, the other an Ashes). In the back-to-back matches at The Oval (the same ground where he had made his debut), he showed exactly what he was capable of doing.

The first of the matches was against South Africa — where Woolley combined with Syd Barnes; obtaining prodigious turn on a slow pitch, he took 5 for 41, and South Africa were demolished for 95, from which they never recovered, and lost by 10 wickets inside two days. Less than a week later he scored 62, took 5 for 29 bowling cutters, and 5 for 20 bowling spin, to bowl out Australia for 111 and 65. All of a sudden Woolley became a household name.

In the 6-Test Triangular series (including the two mini-series) Woolley scored 246 runs at 30.75, and picked up 17 wickets at an absurd 8.94. He travelled South Africa next, and met with moderate success. Just when his career seemed to be taking off, The War broke. Even in the curtailed County Championship Woolley was in incredible form, with 2,272 runs at 45.44 (6 hundreds), 125 wickets at 19.45 (9 five-fors, 2 10-fors), and 24 catches.

At this stage Woolley had played 22 Tests for his 937 runs at 32.31, 39 wickets at 23.66, and 27 catches. After The Great War he played another 42 (12 of them after he had turned 40), scoring 2,346 runs at 37.83; he snared only 44 more wickets at 43, and took 37 catches. With age he would go on to turn into a batting all-rounder from a bowling one.

Post-War

The five-year gap did not seem to have had any immediate impact on Woolley. He did the double in both 1919 and 1920. In 1920 he even took 164 wickets in the Championship – topping the bowling charts for the only time in his career (he had to share the honours with Alec Kennedy of Hampshire).

Woolley crossed 1,500 runs for 19 consecutive seasons from 1920 to 1938. Of these, he crossed the 2,000-mark 12 times; he had the back-to-back seasons of 3,352 at 60.94 with 12 hundreds (1928) and 2,804 at 56.08 with 11 hundreds (1929). And at 48, Woolley scored 2,643 runs at 48.05 in 1935 with 10 hundreds.

In 1929 Woolley became the sixth in history to score a hundred hundreds. He sought out Lord’s for the occasion, and scored 176 against Middlesex. Middlesex scored 168 and 186, which somewhat indicated what the pitch was like.

The twin Ashes tours

Then came the 1920-21 Ashes that marked England’s return to Test cricket. Warwick Armstrong’s Australians whitewashed them 5-0. Woolley, just like almost all other English cricketers on the tour (barring Hobbs, who scored 505 runs at 50.50), did not have an impact.

In the return Ashes that summer, Australia gave them a 3-0 drubbing. However, Woolley played what he considered two of his best knocks at Lord’s. The Australian attack, consisting of Jack Gregory, Ted McDonald, Arthur Mailey, and Armstrong himself, was as good as any.

After Armstrong put England in, Woolley, coming out at 20 for 1, virtually batted through the innings. Johnny Douglas (34) was the only man who scored anything more than 11. Woolley, curbing his natural instincts, scored 95 in 183 minutes with 10 fours.

He later told in an interview: “I don’t think I ever worked harder at any match during my career to get runs as I did then; nor did I ever have to face in one game such consistently fast bowlers as the Australian pair, Gregory and McDonald. Square cuts which ordinarily would have flashed to the boundary earned only two; and I believe that those two innings would have been worth 150 apiece in a county match.”

His role was not over. After England conceded a 155-run lead, Woolley found himself in the middle at 3 for 1. They managed to evade the innings defeat, but Woolley was out in a peculiar fashion: “I hit it pretty plumb between square leg and mid-on and just there was standing ‘Stork’ Hendry. As I made the shot he jumped in the air and up went his right hand. The ball hit him, I think, on the wrist, and he lost his balance. The ball went up ten feet and as he was lying on the ground it fell in his lap and he caught it. He was the only man on the leg side and I think the shot would have carried for six.”

Once again Woolley had missed out on a hundred, this time scoring 93 in 155 minutes with 12 fours. In all, he scored 35 First-Class nineties. He was never upset about it. If anything, he was proud: “I can honestly say that with me it was never a case of the nervous nineties. Lots of times I was out through forcing the game. We were never allowed to play for averages in the Kent side or take half an hour or more to get the last ten runs under normal conditions. We always had to play the game and play for the team. It is a Kent tradition.”

The migration to a batsman

Woolley bowled less and less at Test level after this phase. He found the three-figure mark somewhat consistently, though, scoring 115 not out at Johannesburg and 134 not out at Lord’s — in the span of 4 Tests — both against South Africa. In fact, in the 1924 home series against the Springboks, Woolley averaged 83 with the bat.

He played one of his finest innings against Sussex in 1924. Maurice Tate (7 for 48 in the match). Woolley came out at 29 for 2 to join George Wood, who was having problems facing Tate. “Push a single, Mr Wood, and leave me to deal with Chubby [Tate]“, Woolley requested. After Wood obliged, Woolley drove Tate for two consecutive fours, and continued to dominate the bowler. An exasperated Tate threw the ball on the ground with the words “I can’t bowl to this chap”.

Woolley began the 1924-25 Ashes with a bang. He was clean bowled by Gregory in the first Test, but came into his elements in the second: chasing 605, Woolley came out to bat at 212 for 4. He began cautiously, putting up 51 with Sutcliffe. After the partnership ended, though, England were soon reduced to 276 for 8.

Woolley played in his characteristic imperious style, at a pace that took the Australians by surprise. It was an amazing spectacle for the Sydney viewers. He hit 15 fours, including hit one from Mailey out of the huge ground that delayed play by a full ten minutes. In his typical sense of humour, Mailey commented “at last I’ve found a way of slowing his scoring rate down”. Woolley added 94 with the debutant Freeman, and eventually fell for a 139-ball 123.

Frank Woolley batting against Australia at Headingley, 1926 © Getty Images
Frank Woolley batting against Australia at Headingley, 1926 © Getty Images

The last decade

Even at 40 Woolley’s career was far from over. When West Indies toured England in 1928, Woolley played one of the best innings, turning up for an English XI, at 41. West Indies had a four-pronged pace attack in the match, including George Francis, Herman Griffith, Joe Small, and Learie Constantine. The West Indians took a slender lead of 14, and eventually set a formidable target of 285.

What followed next was a spectacle for the Gods. Arrowsmith recollected: “Woolley, as if unconscious of any trouble, set about the bowlers from the start and hit them to every corner of that large ground. Never have I seen fast bowling so massacred. He scored 151 in three hours. Wyatt compiled a gallant 75, and against all the odds the England side won by four wickets. Years later Constantine said it was the worst hammering he ever received.”

The next season he made his highest Test score, against South Africa at Lord’s. Coming out at 36 for 2, Woolley (154) dominated a 245-run partnership with Wyatt. South Africa surrendered meekly to Freeman, losing by an innings.

In the previous Test at Headingley Woolley had 83 and 3 for 35; and when England were 13 for 2 chasing 184, he strode out and polished off the runs in characteristic fashion, remaining unbeaten on 95.

He was almost 43 when he toured Australia and New Zealand next season. In Australia he scored 425 at 60.71 and took 7 wickets at 38.57 but was not selected for the Tests. In New Zealand he scored 355 runs at 35.50 and picked up 29 wickets at 20. On a flat wicket in the Wellington Test, he picked up 7 for 76, his career-best figures, and bowled out New Zealand for 440 after they were 276 without loss.

He played one of the most destructive innings of his career against Yorkshire in 1931. Against an ensemble bowling attack comprising of Bill Bowes, Emmott Robinson, and Hedley Verity, Woolley slammed 188 in 200 minutes out of 265 scored during his stay. As the legend goes, the Bradford authorities placed a man at the adjacent football ground to retrieve the balls Woolley hit.

Woolley played his last Test at The Oval — a ground that was so significant in his Test career — in 1934, at 47. In his last innings he scored a duck (what is it about The Oval and last-innings ducks?). In the same season he scored a 63-ball 100 against Northamptonshire at Dover, and Kent scored 194 for 4 in 100 minutes to pull off a spectacular chase. In the process Woolley became the first person to win the Walter Lawrence Trophy for the fastest century in a season.

Then, in his last season, in 1938, a 51-year-old Woolley was promoted as an opener. They were surprised, but Woolley calmed them down: “Beginning as a bowler made Kent place me four or five in the order, and moreover the county was always rich in opening batsmen. Consequently my wish to start the innings was denied until 1938.”

He finished the season with 1,590 runs at 32.44 with 2 hundreds, and still managed to pick up 22 wickets at 23.86. He was also agile enough to take 22 catches, mostly in the slips. Towards the end of the season he was still good enough to rout Leicestershire twice with 5 for 49 and 6 for 57.

Post-retirement

After the Second World War, Woolley played for Old England against Surrey at — surprise, surprise — The Oval. After Surrey declared at 248 for 6, 59-year old Woolley was joined by 57-year old Hendren. Wisden wrote: “The most exhilarating cricket came after the fall of Sandham and Sutcliffe for two runs. Woolley, at the age of 59, drove with the same ease that delighted crowds before and after the 1914-18 war.” Woolley scored 62 against Alec Bedser, Eddie Watts, and Jack Parker, and Old England finished with 232 for 5.

After being made a life member of both Kent CC and MCC, Frank Woolley passed away on October 18, 1978 leading a very active life, even in his eighties. He flew down to Australia to watch two Ashes Tests at of 83. He remarried  in Canada, at 84.

He was inducted into Federation of International Cricketers’ Association’s Hall of Fame in 2000, along with Rhodes, Ian Chappell, Graham Gooch, and Andy Roberts. He was also inducted in ICC’s Hall of Fame in 2010 along with Compton, Gooch, Richie Benaud, Harold Larwood.

72 High Street, Tonbridge, Woolley’s birthplace and childhood home, has now been converted into a Starbucks. However, a blue plaque has been erected, with the words “Site of the Birthplace of Frank Woolley, Kent and England Cricketer”. Woolley Way, a road in Maidstone, Kent, has been named after him.

His love affair with Kent remained till the very end: “If I was a youngster starting as a batsman I think I should like to play always at The Oval, but the Kent grounds, with their natural decorations of beautiful trees, members’ tents flying their own colours and bedecked with flowers, lend the right tone to cricket.”

As was his pride for being an Englishman: “As a final hint, try to ‘be British’ through and through. You can’t do better than try to stick to that prescription. It’s a winner every time in the end.”

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and can be followed @ovshake42)