Walter Humphreys, the hardworking lobster who rejuvenated the dying art. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Walter Humphreys, the hardworking lobster who rejuvenated the dying art. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Walter Humphreys, born October 28, 1849, was the champion lobster who heralded the quarter century of golden swansong of lob bowling. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who bloomed late but did so wonderfully.

Old Man Down Under

It was a period of pleasant relaxation for the merry band of cricketers under Drewy Stoddart.

Five days ago, they had won perhaps the most sensational Test match ever. George Giffen s genius had forced them on their knees, they had followed on and fought long and hard with their backs to the wall. And then the skies had opened up and Australian captain Jack Blackham had been spotted on the sixth morning with a face as long as a coffeepot. Bobby Peel, drunk as a skunk on the final morning, was put under a cold shower by Stoddart and won the game for England with 6 for 67. The visitors were one up in the series.

So, on that Christmas Day, the happy tourists strolled through Sydney s harbour-side Botanical Gardens and talked about their forthcoming trip to the Randwick Races on Boxing Day. Some of them discussed the match with the Sydney Juniors XVIII that had taken place after the Test, especially the batting of two promising young men. The 21-year-old Paddington all-rounder Monty Noble had struck his way to a serene 152 not out. And there was a slender youth of 17 who had made his first major appearance and hit 67 in 85 minutes a boy called Victor Thomas Trumper.

As evening descended, the men returned to Hotel Australia and sat down for their Christmas dinner. Wielding the carving knife was the father figure, the oldest man on the tour, the 45-year-old Sussex lobster Walter Humphreys.

The grey hair and grandfatherly moustache had prompted publications to already brand him an old man a few years earlier. Wisden said so in 1889.

But Humphreys had no problem with his fitness. Indeed, due to his passion for riding his tricycle around Brighton, he was in excellent shape.

His bowling was hard work, with a long run-up, a proper bend at the time of delivery, and a follow through that went a long way down the wicket. I can assure you that it is the hardest of hard work to bowl lobs, he recounted. It may seem easy but it is not. I put out all my strength when I am bowling, and a fast bowler can do no more.

At 45, he was more than capable of bowling long spells. It is rumoured that his selection for the tour had more to do than his immense success whenever he came across the Australians in England, and also not only due to his incredibly brilliant success in the summer of 1893. Melbourne Cricket Club had specially requested for his inclusion, because of the wonder and anticipation tales of his unusual methods had created.

Humphreys had thus become the first specialist lobster to go on a Test tour with the England side, if we discount the early days featuring Tom Armitage.

Unfortunately, this visit Down Under, which was effectively the swansong of his career, was not a tale of uniform success.

He bowled as well as ever, and as sound judges of the game as Archie MacLaren agreed about that.

He picked up wickets by the bushel against the odds teams. 5 for 29 against Gawler, 10 for 52 against New England, 9 for 48 against Toowoomba, 10 for 51 and 3 for 7 against Broken Hill, 6 for 68 against Danderdong, 3 for 42 and 3 for 5 against Newcastle and 10 for 98 against Northern Tasmania. That amounted to a lot of wickets. The lob bowler s mastery over inferior batsmen was once again there for all to see.

However, on the hard pitches, the First-Class batsmen played him with caution and plenty of application. His four matches against the state teams brought him just 6 wickets at 52.33 and he was not included in any of the Test matches.

After this, Humphreys played only a few matches in the 1895 season and just two in 1896. Later he moved to Hampshire and helped them out in a couple of outings in 1900, at the age of 50.

Success against Australia

Perhaps if he had played in Tests against the Australians in England Humphreys would have been successful. At least, every time the Australians came up against him in the Mother Country, they seemed to be totally flummoxed.

Humphreys was making a comeback when he came up against the Australians for the first time. That was in 1880, a season in which he played just 4 matches. Yet, one of them happened to be against the visiting Australian side.

After dismissing Sussex for 107, the Australians were cruising at 107 for 2. And then Humphreys bowled Tom Groube for 2, held a return catch from Blackham and induced George Bonnor to pop a simple catch to Morton Lucas. It was a hat-trick, although the term was not that common those days. Humphreys also accounted for Billy Murdoch, who in 1893 would become his captain in Sussex; and Percy McDonnell. His first bowling analysis against Australia read 5 for 32.

Of the lob bowlers in cricket, apart from Humphreys, only William Clarke, WW Read and Digby Jephson have managed hat-tricks in First-Class cricket.

Two years later, the famous 1882 Australians did master the Sussex attack. Murdoch hit 286 as the visitors put up 643. Humphreys, still struggling for a regular place in the side, toiled for 40 overs to end with 2 for 122. However, Murdoch did pay him a sterling compliment. Even after I had 200 I could not tell from watching his hand which way he meant to turn the ball.

By the time he met the Australians again, in 1884, Humphreys had become a regular in the Sussex side.

Once again, the Australians were cruising at 100 for 2 on the second afternoon, when Humphreys came on and was immediately driven for four by Giffen. As so often happens against lobsters, the batsman tried to repeat the stroke off the next delivery and was bowled. Harry Scott was fooled by a flighted lob which trapped him leg before. Bonnor was bowled for a duck attempting to drive.

The next morning Australia resumed at 223 for 6, their first target being 317 to avoid follow-on (mandatory at a deficit of 80 runs according to the rules of the day). Billy Midwinter played a superb hand of 67 before the lobster got him caught. Joey Palmer and Fred Spofforth both charged down to meet the slows and were stumped. Australia were all out for 309 and followed on. Humphreys had 6 for 97.

When the next innings started, the lob bowler was given the new ball. In his second over, he dismissed Alec Bannerman, who pushed one straight back to him.

And then off the fourth (and last) ball of his fourth over, he caught McDonnell off a skier. Off the first ball of his fifth over, Giffen was easily taken at the wicket. The next ball saw Scott once again fooled by the loop of the lob and trapped leg before. Humphreys had achieved the hat-trick once again. Australia were staggering at 13 for 4.

After this he did take a bit of punishment as Murdoch and Bonnor got stuck into him. He finished with 5 for 69 and Australia s second innings total of 144 left insufficient time for Sussex to chase down the target. However, Humphreys had got 11 for the match. A hat was passed around for him and 18 10s was collected by the Brighton folk for their hero.

When the 1886 Australians came along, Humphreys troubled them in the first innings with 4 for 86. But, yet another spectacular success awaited him in 1888.

This time the Australians opened with the fearsome combination of Charlie Turner and JJ Ferris. The poor Sussex line-up was blown away for 98. But then Humphreys came in as first change after the new ball had been shared by the Hide brothers Arthur and Jesse. Once again the visiting batsmen were clueless. He dismissed five of them for 21 and the Australians folded for 68.

Turner and Ferris returned the compliments and Sussex were bowled out for 116 in the second innings. But Humphreys was there to counter the charge, picking up 4 for 19 as Sussex won an incredible match by 58 runs.

In 1890, he was all over the visitors yet again, with 5 for 65.

Finally, when Blackham s men visited in 1893, Murdoch had taken over as captain of Sussex and knew exactly when to bring Humphreys on and bowled him in short, effective spells. Australia won by eight wickets, but none of them could make sense of Humphreys. Yet again the lobster had them in a scurry, picking up 6 for 49 in 22.1 overs.

In his career, Humphreys played 7 matches for Sussex against the Australians, picking up 43 wickets at 15.26. It was no wonder that he was taken on the tour with Stoddart s men, and the remarkable 153 wickets in the summer of 1893 did nothing to dampen his claims.

It was also perhaps a tad unfortunate that he did not play in a home Test for England against the Australians.

The Grandfather of Percy Fender

However, Humphrey s deeds had a lot in it other than success against the Australians. In fact, the chequered career is curious in many ways and as full of twists and turns as a pot-boiler.

The Sussex professional started his career as an opening batsman as far back as 1871. His 176 for Brighton Club against a local eleven got the attention of the county club, and on debut he went in first and scored an impressive 44 against Kent.

However, for the next few years, an occasional half-century aside, his performances remained erratic. By the end of the 1878 season he had played only 36 matches and scored at 15 runs an innings. He was no bowler then, having sent down only 40 balls all these years. Sometimes he deputised for the wicketkeeper and did his job with a fair amount of success.

But, by 1878 he had lost his place in the side in a manner that looked permanent. He did not make it to the team in 1879.

By then Humphreys was 30 and the indications were that his career was over. He spent more time on his business as a cobbler.

Humphreys started out as a batsman    Getty Images
Humphreys started out as a batsman Getty Images

During these two seasons, however, he played for Brighton Brunswick. And in this club, he came under the guidance of Herbert Fender, the grandfather of future Sussex and England star Percy Fender. It was under Fender s tutelage and encouragement that Humphreys took up lob bowling. And in 1880, it was suggested to the Sussex Committee that this professional could be tried out as a lob bowler.

The success was almost immediate. Humphreys captured 5 for 74 against Surrey, including the wickets of Read and James Shuter. This was followed by 4 for 61 against Derbyshire. And then came the first hat-trick against the Australians.

However, for the next couple of years, he was by no means a regular in the side. There was the odd five-wicket haul against Hampshire, but people were not really open to the idea of a lob bowler being a vital cog in the line-up.

The great years

Things changed after Sheffield, 1883, when Yorkshire went in to lunch with 17 to win with 3 wickets still standing. After the break 9 runs were scored without a hitch, and the ask was down to 8 runs. It was now that Humphreys was put on, and he captured the wickets to ensure a 3-run victory.

It was in the 1884 season, aided by the success against the Australians, and some notable performances with the bat, that Humphreys became a force to reckon with for his county. By the end of the summer, he had made it to the main feature of Cricket.

Through the second half of the 1880s, Humphreys was seen as an asset. Cricket writers lamented the lack of lob bowlers such as Humphreys in other counties. In addition, knocks such as 51 not out against the Australians for GN Wyatt s XI in 1886, and 117 against Cambridge and 82 against Lancashire the following year, both underlined the value of this excellent cricketer.

Yet, his hair greyed, his features took on an elderly countenance, and by 1889 Wisden was writing of him as an old man.

And then came the remarkable period of success of this ageing star.

By 1891, Humphreys found himself shouldering an unusual burden of a lob bowler, that of carrying the attack. Sussex did not have a great bowling unit, and Humphreys had evolved to be their main bowler. Yes, a lobster was the mainstay. And he rose to the challenge with 70 wickets in 1891, and 74 in 1892. Performances such as 8 for 89 against Lancashire at Old Trafford belied both his age and methods.

And then came the amazing season of 1893. Murdoch stepped in as skipper of Sussex, and the canny captain used Humphreys with an acumen thus far lacking in the way the lobster had been handled. Murdoch brought him on to bowl to every new batsman, and used him in brief but effective and frequent spells.

At Hove Gloucestershire required just 200 to win on a flat wicket, and were 127 for 2. Murdoch put Humphreys on to vehement protests of the crowd. Humphreys going on! We might as well chuck it all up! The lobster captured 7 for 30, and Sussex won by 3 runs. The wickets included that of the dangerous EM Grace.

The season saw 8 for 98 against Yorkshire, 7 for 109 against Kent and 8 for 83 against Middlesex. When the county side went up to Taunton, Humphreys was told You won t be of much use today. Mr ID Walker has been giving the Somerset eleven some practice in facing lobs. The match was drawn, Humphreys doggedly clinging on to his wicket with Sussex 9 down in the second innings. However, his bowling fetched 7 for 72 and 8 for 121. The tips of Walker did not seem to have helped much.

That season JT Hearne captured 212 wickets, Tom Richardson 174, Arthur Mold 166. They were all bowlers of medium or greater pace. Johnny Briggs, the left-arm spinner, picked up 166 as well. Humphreys tied for the fifth position with 150, alongside fast bowler Bill Lockwood. His average for the season, 17.32, was very comparable with the rest. Turner, Peel, Ted Wainwright, Giffen, Hugh Trumble and George Hirst were some of the names that were left behind the lobster.

The final days

After the tour of Australia, Humphreys did not really shine again. In 1895 and 1896, he played just a few matches. After that he moved back to Hampshire, where he had been born. In 1900, he played twice for the new county, and captured 5 for 71 and 3 for 105 against Kent at the age of 50.

By then, Walter Humphreys Jr, the son of the old lobster, had started playing for Sussex. He bowled lobs as well, and the county club hoped that one Humphreys would fill the void left by another. He did pick up 48 wickets across three seasons from 1898 to 1900, but they came at a high cost of 28 runs per wicket and he lost his place in the side.

Humphreys senior finished his career with 718 wickets from 273 matches at 21.52 apiece. His batting became his minor craft. However, he still totalled 6,268 runs at 16.11 with a hundred and 17 fifties.

Humphreys often bowled with the sleeve of his pink flannel shirt flapping in the breeze. This distracted quite a few batsmen. After some complaints he fastened it with plenty of sincerity and continued to pick up wickets as regularly.

His method of following up his rather long run up by running down the wicket sometimes placed him in considerable peril. Once Stanley Jackson hit a ferocious drive back at him at Scarborough, but somehow Humphrey not only managed to live to tell the tale but also held the catch. There was another such incredible catch taken off HT Hewett, the left-hander, who according to Humphreys was the most powerful hitter of the day.

Humphreys, in fact, enjoyed bowling to hitters. He told WA Bettesworth, There is a considerable amount of excitement about it. He also preferred to bowl on a fast wicket: The ball goes on at once and does its work. However, as we have seen from the testimony of Murdoch, one of his greatest strengths was the way of disguising the break.

Sammy Woods considered Humphreys the best lob bowler he had played. Richard Daft suggested that others should follow his example and learn to bowl lobs. Humphreys has been so successful with his lobs to make one convinced about the advisability of having a good under-hand bowler in all county teams I would advise all young players, who are played for their batting and are not good bowlers, to practise bowling lobs. And I would advise any captain to try a lob bowler against any batsman who is difficult to get out.

After his career with Sussex, Humphreys also umpired a few matches. Later, in the days after the Great War, he could be seen sitting in the ground at Hove, on the benches, watching the game. He did not really talk to the spectators. But according to Gerald Brodribb, One of them, then a schoolboy, recalls the thrill of speaking with him, his own hand completely enveloped in the huge soft hand of the veteran, who murmured something about it being good to see the young interested in cricket.

Walter Humphreys was the last professional lob bowler. He passed away in 1924.