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Rhodes, Hill, Trumper, Haigh: How believable are player memories?

By Arunabha Sengupta | Published:Thu, September 17, 2015 2:26pm

The memories of cricketers are as fallible and prone to errors as the romantic imagination of cricket writers and fans.

Cricket is a game rich in anecdotes and reminiscences. The opinions and voices of past cricketers determine much of the conception of generations of fans and followers, as do the accounts of reputed chroniclers. Many a considered and researched analysis of the past cricketers rely heavily on accounts of their celebrated contemporaries. However, do they always remember and recount correctly? Arunabha Sengupta looks at one supposed fascinating duel between Victor Trumper and Clem Hill against Wilfred Rhodes and Schofield Haigh, as documented in the biography of Rhodes and recounted by the great man, and finds out that everything that we read and hear cannot be trusted.

Lord’s 1905.

The rain was back that Thursday night.

It had hardly ever stayed away that summer. The days preceding the Lord’s Test had witnessed heavy and incessant pouring, and according to Wisden it had reduced the ground to the condition of a mud-heap. There had been sunshine through the Whitsun weekend just before the start of the Test, but the wicket had been rendered slow and tricky.

Accordingly, after Stanley Jackson won the toss on Thursday morning and elected to bat, the runs came at a sluggish pace. Archie MacLaren spent almost two-and-a-half hours over 56, CB Fry three-and-a-half over 73. It did not help that Monty Noble and Frank Laver bowled their cutters into the batsmen with six men stationed on the leg side. The score at the end of the day was 258 for 8, and the general consensus was the cricket had been slow. The run rate hardly crept over two an over. Golden Age of Cricket indeed.

The overnight rain literally queered the pitch. The three remaining wickets fell for just 24, and soon the Australians commenced their innings.

The wicket being wet and sticky, the England bowling was opened by the great left-arm spinner Wilfred Rhodes and his Yorkshire colleague Schofield Haigh. The latter was bowling his medium-paced off-spinners, finding himself in the team because the other great Yorkshireman, George Hirst, was out with a strained leg. The prevailing opinion was that Rhodes, Haigh and Jackson, all experts at using a wet wicket, would bowl the Australians out without much trouble.

The fascinating duel that did not take place

Let us pass the baton of story-telling Sidney Rogerson, and his biography of Wilfred Rhodes, titled simply Wilfred Rhodes with the subtitle Professional and Gentleman. After all this book, published in 1960, is considered the best biography of the legendary Yorkshire all-rounder. (Not that there is much competition in this regard, with the hagiographic AA Thomson volume Hirst and Rhodes being about the only other widely known work on the subject.

Rogerson writes, “It was perhaps typical for Rhodes the outstanding memory of the 1905 series was of a hard-fought duel of tactics during the second Test match. The right-handed [Victor] Trumper and the left-handed Clem Hill were batting against the slow left-arm spinners of Rhodes and the pronounced off-breaks of Haigh. Now here was a pretty how d’you do’ for Haigh found himself confronted by Trumper and Rhodes by Hill.”

After this Rogerson quotes Rhodes himself, the quintessential raconteur, who, even after losing his eyesight went to the cricket matches to hear the willow strike the leather and regaled the listeners during breaks with his treasure-trove of memories. How often has Rhodes been quoted in the serious scholarly assessments of cricketers whom he had seen and played alongside? Countless number of times, by the most discerning of cricket writers.

And here, in Rogerson’s book, Rhodes explains: “I could have made the ball go away from (the right-handed) Trumper and Haigh from (the left-handed) Hill, but the Australians knew that too. I could not get to bowl at Trumper and nor Haigh to Hill. They stopped at the same ends and only ran 2s and 4s. Batsmen were beating us at our own game. The press said we did not bowl so well.”

Rogerson writes, “I would dearly have liked to know what Hill said to Trumper and vice versa, about that little battle of wits.”

Why only Rogerson, every cricket aficionado would love to know that. Cricket-lovers drool on such tales of tactics and strategy. Trumper and Hill, two of the best batsmen of the era, against Rhodes, one of the greatest left-arm spinners ever, and Haigh, a fantastic bowler in his own right. Stuff of legends. Battle of wits. All those things that make cricket the game it is, and the cricketing reminiscences so irresistible.

Only, none of this actually took place.

Neville Cardus called the scoreboard an ass. He had his reasons. For someone who made up facts by the yard, as also figures to support his fiction, colouring the game with his splendid imagination, the scoreboard was really a nuisance for his art of story-telling.

Here too, the delightful tale of Rhodes falls to bits when we look at the scorecard.

Trumper opened the innings with Reggie Duff. They had already decided that the only way to survive on the wicket was to hit out. And they did. The two added 57 runs in just 35 minutes. By then the opening bowlers had been plundered for runs, and Jackson had put himself on. After a few audacious strokes, including picking a ball from the off-stump and lifting it to the square leg boundary, Trumper was castled by Jackson for 31.

Fry called it one of the best innings he had seen, but then he is another voice of the Golden Age that has to be taken with healthy pinches of salt.

But, to come back to the facts of the story, Trumper was first out. Hill walked in as he returned to the pavilion. They perhaps crossed each other in the process, but definitely did not bat together in that innings. The third day was washed out and Australia did not bat a second time. That splendid battle of tactics and wits took place in the mistaken memories of Rhodes, laced with plenty of imagination.

By the way, Hill scored just 7 in that innings, and was out quickly enough, before Duff got out for 27. For completeness, let me add that the third day was washed out, the match ended in a draw.

Was Rhodes mistaken about the exact match? For someone renowned for his memory, for his delightful anecdotes, incidents and details of matches, it seems difficult to justify the lapse. He was quite unequivocal about the comments about the press as well, so he was obviously talking about this very Test match.

But even if we look at the entire summer of 1905, Trumper and Hill were together at the crease just once against a side involving both Haigh and Rhodes. It was during the match between the Australians and Yorkshire played at Bramall Lane a week before the first Test. In the first innings, Trumper got 85 and Hill 50, but they did not bat together as the former was again the first to be dismissed after a scintillating 90-minute stay at the crease alongside Duff. In the second innings of the match, they did bat together. Trumper got 8, Hill 17 and the partnership was worth 25. Hardly a collaboration to dwell upon as a tactical triumph.

As far as Tests are concerned, the two bowlers did not play together in any other match that summer. Rhodes had played the first Test at Trent Bridge, but Haigh had not. Haigh played the third Test at Leeds, but Colin Blythe was preferred to Rhodes. After that Rhodes returned to play the fourth and fifth Tests, but Haigh was left out of both.

In fact, the Lord’s Test remained the only one in which all four players featured, not only during that season but through their entire careers. The only other time Haigh and Rhodes played together against Australia was at Old Trafford in 1912 during the Triangular Test Tournament. It was a rain-washed draw, and by then Rhodes had metamorphosed into a batsman. He got 92 as an opening partner of Jack Hobbs and did not bowl. And Trumper and Hill were, of course, part of the Big Six who were left behind in Australia because of problems with the management.

Which Test was then Rhodes talking about? When did such a battle of wits and tactics take place?

There was no such Test and no such battle. Yet, it is part of the book acknowledged as the best biography of Wilfred Rhodes’ and thereby the story is prone to be quoted by subsequent writers, and gradually assume the stature of gospel.

As we have seen in the case of Herbie Taylor and Sydney Barnes, the memories of cricketers are as fallible and prone to errors as the romantic imagination of cricket writers and fans.

Yes, it can be considered an endearing part of the game with the sixes becoming longer and the balls more unplayable as the action moves from the middle to the bar.

But if such accounts get into works acknowledged asauthentic history of the game and thereby distort the picture of cricket for future generations, it does become a cause for concern.

Brief Scores:

England 282 (Archie MacLaren 56, Johnny Tyldesley 43, CB Fry 73) and 151 for 5 (Archie MacLaren 79) drew with Australia 181 (Joe Darling 41; Stanley Jackson 4 for 50).

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here)

Published:Thu, September 17, 2015 2:26pm

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Victor Trumper Arunabha Sengupta Wilfred Rhodes Clem Hill Mythbusters Schofield Haigh
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