WW Read. One of the greatest amateur cricketers of his era and one of the few lobsters to achieve a First-Class hat-trick. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons
WW Read. One of the greatest amateur cricketers of his era and one of the few lobsters to achieve a First-Class hat-trick. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons

WW Read, born November 23, 1855, often stroked his way into the same bracket as WG Grace and Arthur Shrewsbury as a batsman and was one of the greatest amateur cricketers of his day. Just like EM Grace before him, the Surrey man was much more than just a lob bowler and deserves a separate biography listing all his other and greater accomplishments. However, in this article, Arunabha Sengupta recounts the lob bowling exploits of this singular man. He not only left his mark on the history of lobsters, he also claimed a rare hat-trick achieved with this style of bowling.

The hat-trick

It was akin to being Sherlocked.

There are erudite views that disagree with the hypothesis, but one school of thought is that the celebrated detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle derived his name from two Nottinghamshire cricketers. Wicketkeeper Mordecai Sherwin and fast bowler Frank Shacklock each provided half of what went on to become the most famous name in detective fiction.

And as the summer of 1891 drew to an end, WW Read found himself on the receiving end of the duo.

As the Gentlemen of England met M Sherwin s Nottinghamshire XI at Scarborough to play the last match of the festival week, WG Grace and Arthur Shrewsbury were the notable absentees from the two elevens. But nevertheless, the match was contested with plenty of passion and the excitement in the crowd was considerable.

Sherwin s canny captaincy restricted the explosive batting potential of the Gentlemen. And Read, who came in at No. 5 after stalwarts such as Drewey Stoddart and Billy Murdoch, was bowled by Shacklock for 2.

A total of 116 was hardly much to write home about, but with Murdoch s fellow Australian JJ Ferris opening the bowling for the Gentlemen, the Nottinghamshire men had their hands full as they started out in their response. The first two wickets fell for only 8 runs. But then Billy Gunn and Billy Barnes, two of the best professional batsmen of the day, stitched together a good partnership.

It was just as the score had crossed 50, to be precise when it stood at 51 for 2, skipper Lord Hawke tossed the ball to Read.

During the early days of his career, Read used to bowl fast. Not that he was ever much of a bowler, but when called upon to have a go he used to run in and hurl them down. However, he was more at home standing at point, safe and sure.

Of course, there was hardly a better batsman in the land. Read used to play straight and drive with tremendous power. And later, as his career entered a purple patch, he used to pull short balls with plenty of panache. Never was his brilliance more gloriously showcased as on that mellow afternoon at The Oval in 1884. For some odd reason batting at No. 10, he had gone in at a perilous situation and hammered Fred Spofforth, Joey Palmer, George Giffen and Billy Midwinter to score 117 that would still be talked about half a century later.

It was the same Test in which Hon Alfred Lyttelton had taken off his gloves and bowled lobs to capture four wickets to end a huge Australian innings. And in that very innings, we had also seen Read bowling his version of lobs, getting slaughtered for 36 runs from just 7 four-ball overs.

Yes, by then Read had already given up his fast bowling ways. Ensconced as an assistant secretary at The Oval, he had by then started devoting his life to the game and his extraordinary batting skills had made him forsake his over-arm bowling and turn to light-hearted lobs on the rare occasions that he was called upon to bowl.

On this day, given a bowl by Hawke, he was probably expecting an odd over or two of recreation. Seldom had he bowled more than a handful of overs in a game.

Yes, while touring with Alfred Shaw s team in 1884, he had taken 6 for 70 against a Ballarat XXII, and then again had captured 10 for 20 against Maryborough XXI for GGF Vernon s side in 1887-88. But then, experienced cricketers almost always troubled unknown batsmen of odds sides with their lobs. In First-Class cricket, the highest number of wickets Read had taken in a season was 11, and that too had come back in 1887. That particular season of 1991 had seen him capture only 2 wickets before this match. Perhaps the bowling change was made because of the 5 for 31 he had taken for Surrey against Derbyshire in a miscellaneous game a fortnight ago, but no one was expecting miracles from him.

However a miracle did transpire. That day, September 3, 1881, was destined to be historic as far as lob bowling is concerned.

Read s second ball saw Barnes going for the slog and hitting one down the throat of Stoddart. The following delivery had William Attewell playing all over it. The new batsman was Francis Dixon, one of the also-played of First Class cricket, in his second and last match of his career. He heaved at the first ball which was gently lobbed to him and the ball hit the stumps yet again. Read had achieved a hat-trick, and Dixon would be remembered forever as a historical footnote.

In First-Class cricket, only William Clarke and Walter Humphreys had taken hat-tricks with lobs before this. And only Digby Jephson would do so after Read.

The day ended with the Notts-men at 60 for 6.

And the following morning, Read was used again, and he dismissed Barnes, Sherwin and Robert Bagguley to end with 6 for 24 from 15.2 five-ball overs. It skittled the Nottinghamshire team for 107 and would remain the only five-wicket haul that Read would ever take in First-Class cricket.

Things were soon back to normal, though.

Hitting all round the wicket with great freedom, Read notched up 52 in less than an hour as the Gentlemen declared at 233 for 8. And when he bowled in the second innings, his 20 balls cost 26 runs without any success. The Gentlemen, however, with Ferris, Stoddart and Sammy Woods bowling splendidly, won by 115 runs, and did not have the need of Read s bowling heroics any more.

The flurry of wickets had constituted one of those proverbial flashes in the pan.

Fun and games

Yes, Read s success was curious. Not many agreed that he could really bowl.

In 1885, Surrey captain James Shuter had used him as a sixth bowler after Johnny Briggs, the leg-spinning Lancashire all-rounder, had belted the cover off the ball. Read, bowling under-arm twisters, had got Briggs stumped for 186.

Later in 1887, Briggs had been belting the bowling again when Shuter had brought Read on. The ball which got the batsman did not seem to rise more than two feet above the ground and seemed it might not even reach the wicket. Briggs tried to block it, but it rolled round him with just enough force to dislodge the bails.

According to the report of The Manchester Guardian (and Neville Cardus had not yet seen the light of the day, so this reportage is probably by a genuine eye-witness) it was the sort of ball a boy of eight or nine sends down. It was absolutely ludicrous to see the daisy cutter roll into the wicket without the astounded batsman making any attempt to prevent it.

Read s bowling often induced fantastic sights on the otherwise serious stage of First-Class cricket.

 

In June 1893, Middlesex defeated Surrey at Lord s in an amazing match after being forced to follow on. Read played a rather minor role in the game, with scores of 6 and 0, and conceding 23 runs in the four 5-ball overs in the second Middlesex innings.

Trailing by 179 after the first innings exchanges, Middlesex roared back into the match with the opening batsmen Stoddart and skipper Sir Timothy O Brien added 228 for the first wicket. It was during this stand that Shuter turned to Read once again. And to induce a false shot, our man went on to toss his lobs with a lag-side packed with fielders.

After a couple of deliveries, O Brien realised that the twisters were not breaking, and Read was pitching them way outside the leg stump. So, as Read tossed another up, the batsman turned completely around and drove it with tremendous force behind the stumps into the pavilion rails. Harry Wood, the wicket keeper, was terrified and ran for refuge to the slips.

Read almost got his man, though. After hitting him for four boundaries in the same way, O Brien attempted a fifth one. The bat hit the ground instead of the ball and a great puff of dust came up. When it cleared, the off bail was seen lying on the ground. Read appealed and Wood claimed O Brien had trodden on his wicket. The batsman was of the opinion Wood had disturbed the woodwork. The umpires were unsighted, or at least claimed so. And O Brien firmly stated, I m not going anyhow. And on he stayed to score 113.

Apart from the odd wicket here and there, only once did Read manage a good outing after this. The new Surrey captain, the immensely corpulent Kingsmill Key, put him on to bowl against Leicestershire at Grace Road in 1896. Read finished with figures of 16-3-32-4 and 3.3-1-10-2, quite remarkable figures for a bowler known to dish out eminently hittable long hops.

Cricket observed, One feels inclined to doubt whether he has ever been treated by batsmen with such great respect. He not only bowled 16 overs, but among them were three maidens.

In all Read captured 108 wickets at an expensive 32.25, and more than 90 of them were obtained with lobs. Indeed, he will be far more important as a batsman with over 22,000 runs and 38 hundreds, but with his hat-trick and curious little spells he did leave his mark on the history of lob bowling.

There was a deeper impression as well.

During Read s final years for Surrey, a young amateur all-rounder was making his way into the team. This young man had been in the crowd as a kid when Read had sent down his lobs against Australia and Lyttelton had picked up those four wickets.

As Digby Jephson matured, Read took him under his wing and became an exemplary mentor. It was largely Read s advice that made him change from fast bowling to lobs. And thus Read did play his role in shaping the destiny of the next great name in the history of lob bowling.