JJ Ferris © Getty Images
JJ Ferris © Getty Images

JJ Ferris, born May 21, 1867, was an ace left-arm swing bowler.  Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of a bowler who ranked among the greatest of the 19th century.

It was sad that JJ (John James) Ferris got to play only 9 Tests. He should have played a lot more — given his mind-boggling bowling records — 61 wickets from 9 Tests at an absurd 12.70 and a strike rate of 37.7. In the 16 innings he got to bowl, he took 4 or more wickets 10 times, of which there were 6 five-wicket hauls. Of all bowlers with 50 or more Test wickets, he ranks second in the history of the sport after George Lohmann in both average and strike.

Ferris wasn’t a man with a big frame. Slightly short in build for a pace bowler, he made up for his lack of height by his strong shoulders and an uncanny ability to swing the ball. He usually came over the wicket, and swung the ball away from the batsman after pitching it on the leg-stump, but his shock delivery swung the other way, foxing most batsmen. He often used a hint of spin as well, adding to the woes of the batsman, and bowled with a nagging accuracy.

He was also one of those workhorses who could send down over after over all day, without losing his stamina — an attribute that earned him the nickname ‘plucky little Jack’. Along with Charlie Turner, the right-handed fast bowler specialising in lethal off-cutters, he formed one of the most fearsome bowling partnerships of the 19th century.

Test debut

Ferris was picked for New South Wales (NSW) to play against Alfred Shaw’s XI, and combining with his future partner-in-crime Charlie Turner, bowled out Alfred Shaw’s XI for 74 and 98. Ferris picked up 4 for 50 and 3 for 49, and NSW won by 7 wickets.

He took 18 wickets in the next 3 matches, and was picked to play in The Ashes later that year. He made his debut at Sydney, and bowled unchanged throughout the innings with Turner to bowl out England for 45 in 35.3 four-ball overs. Turner took 6 for 15, while Ferris returned figures of 4 for 27.

However, even after conceding a 74-run lead in the first innings, England scored 184 in the second innings — despite Ferris picking up 5 for 76, and Billy Barnes won the Test for England by the slender margin of 14 runs.

He was picked for the next Test at Sydney as well; this time Ferris got the first over ahead of Turner, and picked up 5 for 71 (Turner took 5 for 41) and 4 for 69 (Turner 4 for 52). However, Lohmann turned out to be too good for Australia’s batsmen, and England clinched the Ashes after winning the second and last Test by 71 runs.

He had to wait for a full year to play his third Test, when England came over for the one-off Ashes Test at Sydney. It was déjà vu — Ferris took 4 for 60 and 2 for 43 (Turner took 12 in the Test), but Lohmann and Bobby Peel clinched the Test to retain the Ashes — yet again.

England tours and migration

With 24 wickets from 3 Tests, Ferris was an obvious choice for the England tour later that year. It was a grand outing in every sense of the word for Ferris: he picked up 199 wickets from 37 First-Class matches on the entire tour at 14.74 (with 17 five-fors in 37 matches), and did splendidly in the Tests as well.

In his first Test on English soil at Lord’s, Ferris took 3 for 19 and 5 for 26 (bowling unchanged in the second innings with Turner) to bowl out England for 53 and 62, clinching the first Test. However, England bounced back at The Oval and at Old Trafford, clinching the series 2-1. English batsmen stepped out against his bowling to counter his swing, but to no avail.

Ferris’ outstanding performance granted him an entry in the Wisden’s firstever list.  That year the list was for the six best bowlers, and Ferris and Turner both made it to the list (along with Lohmann, Peel, Johnny Briggs, and Sammy Woods).

He returned to England in 1900 as well, after playing sparingly at home. Once again he had an excellent tour, picking up 186 wickets from 30 First-Class matches at 14.28 with 15 five-fors and 5 10-fors.

In the first Test of the series he picked up 2 for 55 and 2 for 42 at Lord’s, but England won the Test by 7 wickets. In the next Test at The Oval Ferris bowled his heart out in each innings, picking up 4 for 25 and 5 for 49, but could not stop England from winning the Test by 2 wickets, and with it, the series.

After a dominant home season he shifted base to England, playing as a professional for Gloucestershire. Playing alongside WG Grace, Ferris established himself in the county circuit in the very first season (1891). From 14 matches he picked up 70 wickets at 15.57 with 6 five-fors.

The final Test

Towards the end of the year England toured South Africa for a one-off Test. By this time Ferris had become eligible for selection, and made the tour. Also making his debut for England alongside him was ex-Australia captain Billy Murdoch. Frank Hearne, on the other hand, played for South Africa after having played for England earlier. To complicate things further, Franks brothers Alec and George also went on to make their Test debut — for England.

Amidst all this, Ferris opened bowling and ended up with figures of 29.2-11-54-6 (five-ball overs) in the first innings, bowling unchanged — dismissing South Africa for a paltry 97. After England amassed 369, Ferris and Fred Martin bowled unchanged throughout the innings, Ferris returning figures of 25-16-37-7. The 13 for 91 remained his best career haul and his only 10-for.

For the third time in his career Ferris had been the part of a pair who had bowled unchanged throughout an innings (the previous two were with Turner, playing for Australia). He became the first person to achieve this feat in Test history. He also remains the only one to achieve this for two countries.

Back to domestic cricket

After quitting Test cricket, Ferris played for Gloucestershire for four more seasons, but it was evident that he was losing his touch as he approached the high twenties. Forever a tail-ender, he batted quite well in 1893, scoring 1,056 runs at 22.46 with 5 fifties, and — a hundred, his only one, which came in early May against Sussex at Hove: opening batting, he scored 106 out of a total of 297, but Gloucestershire still lost by 3 runs.

In fact, Ferris’ batting had improved to such an extent that in the prestigious Gentlemen versus Players match at The Oval towards the end of the season, Ferris was good enough to open batting with Grace for Gentlemen. They put up a 117-run opening partnership (Grace scored 57 and Ferris 60), but Players went on to win a keenly contested match by 8 runs.

He also played against the visiting Australians in a tour match in that season, dismissing both George Giffen and Harry Graham in their only innings.

He returned to Australia after the 1895 season, and played 3 more matches in Australia. He was clearly way past his prime now, and was playing mainly as an all-rounder. In his last match, he came out at 141 for 6, added 59 with Victor Trumper (no less), and eventually scored 51 out of 77 scored during his stay at the wicket — but did not get a bowl.

Ferris finished with a First-Class tally of 4,264 runs at 15.67 from 198 matches with a hundred and 15 fifties. He had also picked up 812 wickets at 17.54 with 63 five-fors and 11 ten-fors.

A premature death

During the Boer War, Ferris was posted at Durban while serving the British Army. During his tenure he died of enteric fever on November 17, 1900 — at the age of only 33 years 180 days. The Sydney Morning Herald, in their obituary, wrote: “There was, perhaps, no more popular man in the line of sport which he elected to follow than the late JJ Ferris, and there have been very few indeed better left-hand bowlers, while had his work as a bowler not demanded so much physical exertion and ‘headwork’ he would have been most probably a batsman of the first flight.”

(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)