Hugh Trumble: First great off-spinner in Test history

The first great off-spinner, Hugh Trumble was also the first to achieve two Test hat-tricks.

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Hugh Trumble © Getty Images
Hugh Trumble © Getty Images

Hugh Trumble, born May 12, 1867, was the first great off-spinner in the history of the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the Australian bowler who was the first man to achieve two hat-tricks in Test cricket.

Signing off in style

Hugh Trumble was bowling in his final Test innings with England needing 320 to win — a near impossible ask — against Australia at Melbourne in March 1904. The wicket was still sticky — conditions that made Trumble absolutely unplayable. The six-feet-four-inch off-spinner was always dangerous, increasingly so with the wealth of experience gathered with each season. And he was deadly on wet wickets. The ball would bite the soggy turf and proceed to turn and lift with venom. Trumble bid farewell to his Test career with analysis of 6.5-0-28-7 as England were shot out for 101.

Indeed, Trumble had retired earlier from Test cricket after playing one match against South Africa on the way back from the great English summer of 1902. But, when Plum Warner’s men had won the first Test at Sydney by 5 wickets, Trumble had been persuaded to return for one last time. In the second Test he had captured 9 wickets, but had not been able to prevent the Englishmen from taking a 2-0 lead. When starting his spell in the second innings of the final Test at Melbourne, he had already taken 17 wickets in the series.

That day, according to Wisden, “Trumble bowled in his finest form, and was practically unplayable.” He started his spell by getting Albert Knight caught behind, and then accounted for Reggie Foster and George Hirst. Finally, with the score on 61 for five, he induced Bernard Bosanquet into holing out in the deep, caught Plum Warner off his own bowling and trapped Dick Lilley leg before — off consecutive balls. It was Trumble’s second hat-trick in Test cricket. Three years earlier, he had removed Arthur Jones, John Gunn and Sydney Barnes at the same ground to achieve Test cricket’s sixth ever hat-trick. Thus Trumble became the first bowler to scalp two hat-tricks in Test cricket — a feat equalled years later by Jimmy Matthews and Wasim Akram.

Trumble soon had Ted Arnold caught to end the Test match, ensuring a huge Australian win, and personal figures of 7 for 28. With 24 wickets in the four matches he had played after his recall, Trumble signed off as the most successful bowler in the series. In Captain Australia: A history of the celebrated captains of Australian Test Cricket, historian Ronald Perry described Trumble’s final Test as “the most dramatic and memorable farewell performance ever by a bowler.”

All-round brilliance

Trumble ended his career with 141 wickets from 32 Tests at 21.78, making him, according to Christopher Martin-Jenkins, “the first of the great off-spinners of the Test match age.” He retired as the holder of the Test record for the highest number of wickets — a record that stood for almost a decade before being passed by Syd Barnes. All but one of the Tests Trumble played were against England. He went wicket-less the only time he played South Africa. His record of 141 wickets against England stood for three-quarters of a century before Dennis Lillee went past him.

When ICC rankings are regenerated for his times, we find Trumble fluctuating between numbers one and two from 1899 to the end of his career.

Yet, his duties did not end with his off-spinners. He scored 851 Test runs at an average of 19.79, with 4 half-centuries. He started and ended his career as a number eleven batsman, but for a brief while — especially in 1902 — he was a good enough batsman to be called an all-rounder. And he was a brilliant fielder in the slips.

At Adelaide in January 1902, he scored a fourth innings 62 after taking a six-wicket haul in the second innings, to help Australia overhaul a steep 315-run target. Following this Test, skipper Joe Darling made himself unavailable in order to take care of his farm in Tasmania, and Trumble was named the captain of Australia. He promoted himself to open the innings as he took his first strike as the skipper, but soon went back down the order. Australia won both the Tests under his leadership, with the captain himself taking 8 wickets in their narrow 32-run victory at Melbourne.

Trumble bowled well enough in England in 1896 to be named one of the Wisden Cricketers of 1897. He completed the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in the summer of 1899, impressing WG Grace enough to make the old man call him “the best bowler Australia has sent us.”

However, his greatest tour was during that glorious summer of 1902.

The unforgettable 1902

In 1899, aged 31, Trumble had come across 19-year old Florence Christian of Queensland and had fallen head over heels in love. They were married in 1902, the wedding impeccably timed to allow a honeymoon trip during the Australian cricket tour of England. Early in the summer, Trumble broke a thumb during practice, ensuring a cricket-less period, much to the delight of his young wife.

He was back for the third Test at Sheffield, scoring 32 and picking up 4 wickets in a big win. This was followed by the immortal, heart-stopping Old Trafford Test. Trumble finished with 10 wickets in the match, including 6 second-innings scalps as Australia beat England by a wafer-thin 3-run margin, bowling them out for 120. Trumble recalled his final over of the match: “With the ball greasy and my boots unable to get a proper foothold on slippery turf, it was the most trying over I ever bowled.”

The following match was the second immortal thriller in a row. It was Gilbert Jessop who took the match away with his 77 minute 104 on the final day, before George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes shepherded England to victory by 1 wicket. However, the match was marked by Trumble’s monumental effort. He bowled unchanged throughout, 31 overs in the first innings to capture 8 for 65 and 33.5 in the second, to pick up 4 for 108. And if that was not enough, he top-scored in Australia’s first innings with an unbeaten 64. He played just 3 Tests in the series but ended with 26 wickets.

In his first tour to England in 1890, where he struggled as a part of an Australian attack without George Giffen. After that, according to Wisden, Trumble improved ‘beyond belief’ with each of his next four visits.

The feather-touch

Trumble was born in the inner Melbourne neighbourhood of Collingwood, Victoria. His father William was Irish, and the superintendent of a lunatic asylum. Whether his profession has any bearing on his methods is left to conjecture, but Trumble senior had a significant role to play in the development the cricketing skills of his sons. Apart from Hugh, elder brother John played for Australia in seven Test matches, as another off-spinning all-rounder.

A decent club level leg-spinner himself, William Trumble laid out a cricket pitch at the family home, placed a feather on good-length and asked his sons to pitch on it. Hugh Trumble, noted for his legendary accuracy, later recounted: “Of course I couldn’t repeatedly hit the feather, but I soon reached the stage when I was always pretty close to it.”

Trumble played his early cricket for Kew CC, before moving to Melbourne CC from 1887-88. In his first season, he took 36 wickets at 6.77, finishing ahead of Fred Spofforth. From there to his First-class debut for Victoria was but a short step, and bowling in tandem with Spofforth, Trumble captured 7 for 52.

It did not take him long to get into the Test side when Australia toured England in 1890. As mentioned, success took a while to grace the young man, but with age he kept getting better.

The legacy of the great camel

CB Fry called Trumble ‘one of the greatest bowlers of all time, a cunning and long-headed adversary.’ According to Johnny Moyes, while most bowlers attacked the weakness of the batsman Trumble fed to the opposition’s strength, challenging the ambition. Moyes ranked this “imperturbable and resourceful bowler as one of the immortals of the art.”

Trumble’s lanky build, long bones, prominent nose and large ears led Plum Warner to describe him as ‘that great camel’. He bowled his off-spinners at almost medium-pace, making the most of his height. Monty Noble described his approach to the wicket as ‘sidelong and insinuating, with his neck craned like a gigantic bird’. He bowled over after over, keeping an impeccable length, using his long fingers to turn the ball sharply. He could also swing the new ball, varied his pace, and had a very well-disguised slower delivery. He revelled in the softer pitches of England, becoming almost impossible to play on the wet ones. Although he had to work harder for wickets on the Australian wickets, he was always a handful to face.

His slower ball was good enough to fox the great Stanley Jackson, prompting the English batsman to tell him: “You old devil. You get me caught-and-bowled whenever you like but I’ll pick that slow one sooner or later.”

In the slips, he was helped by his long and incredibly prehensile fingers. Johnny Douglas was incensed enough by his catching ability to say, “Trumble should not be allowed on the cricket field—his natural place would be up trees in the bush.”Trumble perfected his slip fielding by catching a tennis ball thrown against a brick wall believing that this taught him not to snatch at the ball but allowed it to fall into his safe hands.

He was also known to be an astute thinker about the game. CB Fry called him “the perfect master of the whole art of placing fieldsmen and changing bowlers.” During his days, imposing the follow-on was not optional if the team batting second could not get the required runs. On one occasion when captaining Victoria, Trumble deliberately bowled two wides, allowing them to roll to the boundary each time.This prevented his tired bowlers from having to bowl again. As he explained later: “I had to do it, old chap, but I wonder what my father will think of it?”

Trumble was enormously popular among teammates and opposition cricketers, with an excellent sense of humour and an inexhaustible collection of cricketing anecdotes. Wisden remarked: “Always the same, whether on the winning or the losing side, Hugh Trumble is … one of the most popular of Australian cricketers.”

Yet, he was fallible to an incorrigible weakness for practical jokes. On board a ship travelling to England, he offered to coach fellow travellers in quoits — a game popular on decks of ocean liners. When several agreed to be instructed, Trumble made them contort themselves into a number of ludicrous positions, adopting some of the stances himself, as his teammates and other passengers in the know bent double with uncontrollable laughter.

An employee of the National Bank of Australasia, Trumble was made a life member of the Melbourne Cricket Club and appointed secretary from 1911. He held the position until his death in 1938. As an administrator he shrewd, genial and the popularity of his cricketing tales and his irresistible sense of mirth remained undimmed to the very end. While serving as secretary, Trumble oversaw the building of two new grandstands at MCG.

Trumble was honoured with induction into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2004. Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack ranked him among the great Australian bowlers of the Golden Age of cricket.

MCG, his home ground and the very venue of his two hat-tricks, now hosts the Hugh Trumble Café serving bistro style food on Level 1 of the Members Reserve.

(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)              

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