PonnyMartin Chandler |
Bill Ponsford was the first man to record two scores of more than 400 in the First Class game, a landmark that even Sir Donald Bradman didn’t achieve, and indeed only Brian Lara has a similar record. In addition Ponsford stands fifth, on 65.18, in the list of the highest career batting averages. Only Bradman,inevitably, has a greater percentage of centuries from innings played in the First Class Game. These are remarkable figures for a man who was denied the opportunity to serve in the Royal Australian Air Force in World War Two as a result of being red/green colour blind, yet despite those achievements he is a peripheral figure in batting’s Hall of Fame, and his name seldom crops up when cricket talk turns to the subject of all-time greats.
Part of the reason for Ponsford’s low profile today is doubtless his shy, almost diffident nature. Rather perversely, as far as the outside world was concerned, that seems to have dominated the ruthless determination that usually characterised his time at the crease. He was, apparently, a nervous starter, in keeping with the initial impression he gave in social situations, but once that was overcome he had an iron will. Only once, in the penultimate game of his 162 match First Class career, was he dismissed by a bowler whilst in the 90s, and there were as many as 47 centuries.
Ponsford was 20 when he made his First Class debut, selected to bat at number five for Victoria against Johnny Douglas’ MCC tourists of 1920/21. The home side were not particularly strong, a number of their better players being engaged on a tour of New Zealand, so several youngsters were selected. The side in New Zealand was captained by a Victorian, former Test player Vernon Ransford, and it seems that England’s Percy Fender might have believed that Ponsford had that pedigree even then, as in his account of the match Ponsford is named as Ransford throughout. In light of the relative weakness of the home side for once the Englishmen had a good game (they lost the Test series 5-0) , winning comfortably enough by seven wickets. Ponsford’s contributions were modest, 6 and 19, and the game’s main talking point was the absence from the Victorian side of the Australian skipper, Warwick Armstrong, who was available for selection.
There was to be another year pass before Ponsford appeared in a First Class match again, although its status is open to question. The game was played in Launceston in February 1922 and was the first occasion on which Tasmania had raised a representative side since before the Great War. There was not a single man in the Victorian side who had played against New South Wales in their previous First Class outing, and while Clarrie Grimmett’s name was on the teamsheet, this was only his third appearance for the state in four seasons. The game was drawn with Ponsford, batting at number eight for the only time in his career, top-scoring in the sole Victorian innings for 162. Whatever arguments there are about the rights and wrongs of according the match First Class status that effort was, remarkably when looked at in light of his later career, Ponsford’s first century in any form of cricket.
Another year passed before the next occasion on which Ponsford was chosen for a First Class match, a game that brought him into conflict with the former England skipper, Archie MacLaren. Once again the opponents were Tasmania, and once again the Victorian side was wholly dissimilar from that which had just played New South Wales, and indeed bore only a passing resemblance to the second eleven that had turned out against the New South Wales second string before Christmas. Victoria amassed a record score, 1059, and Ponsford scored 429 of them, eclipsing MacLaren’s 424 in 1895 against Somerset. MacLaren was livid and embarked on a bitter series of correspondence with the editor of Wisden regarding whether the match should have First Class status. Ponsford himself received a letter from MacLaren about the matter although, sadly, did not retain it nor, by the time John Leckey published his biography of Ponny in 2006, was there any family member able to help other than to confirm that the letter had indeed been received. An earlier biographer, Marc Fiddian, who had had discussions with his subject, also mentions the MacLaren letter but either did not discuss its contents with Ponsford or, if he did, chose not to refer to them. Despite all his bluster MacLaren failed to secure the removal of Ponsford’s record from the annals of the game.
After his record score Ponsford finally did earn selection for a Sheffield Shield match and scored a century in that before, the following season, scoring four centuries in his eight visits to the crease. At the end of the 1923/24 season his career average was more than 112 and, the following season, England were due to visit Australia in an attempt to avenge the drubbing of four years previously and take the Ashes back to the mother country.
The tourists’ first match against Victoria took place early in the season and the State won convincingly. For Ponsford the pleasure at the result was doubtless tarnished a little by his personal failure, and he would have been relieved to secure a berth in the Australian XI selected for the visitors final match before the first Test. The game petered out into a tame draw but Ponsford scored 81 in the first innings and, the selectors having presumably seen enough, he was not required to bat in the second innings.
At the Sydney Cricket Ground Ponsford became the third Australian to score a century on debut, and at home in Melbourne for the second Test he became the first to make that two in two. The rest of the series, which Australia won 4-1, was not so productive although he still, with 80, top-scored in his side’s first innings in the final Test. This was the series where England’s Maurice Tate took 38 wickets. He dismissed Ponsford just three times in ten innings, but despite that, in relative terms, modest performance from Tate in their head to head Ponsford still expressed the view, in retirement, that the pride of Sussex was the finest bowler he had faced.
A place in the party that toured England in 1926 under “Horseshoe” Collins was probably always a nailed-on certainty for Ponsford, but he must have been concerned at his poor form in 1925/26 which included two failures in the official trial match. But if there were any doubts a good performance against New South Wales in the final game of the normal season put paid to those. The tour was however to prove a disappointment to Ponsford who was kept out of the first two Tests by tonsilitis, and after forcing his way into the side for the fourth and fifth Tests, the latter won by England as they finally regained the Ashes, he achieved little. In that final Test he might have done better. He had been in good form in the matches that preceded the historic encounter at the Oval, in particular at Swansea against Glamorgan where he carried his bat for 143 out of 283 on a difficult pitch, but he was run out for two after a brilliant piece of work from Harold Larwood in the first innings and, at the other end of the age spectrum, undone for just a dozen by the wily Wilfred Rhodes in the second. Yorkshire’s finest was by then just a few weeks short of his 49th birthday.
There was no Test cricket for Ponsford for the next two seasons but 1926/27 and 1927/28 were his best by a distance. In the first he batted ten times, and passed his hundred in six of those innings. In two of the others he passed fifty. There was a double century against South Australia and 352, out of a new record score of 1,107, against New South Wales, former Test leg-spinner Arthur Mailey returning figures of 4-362. Ponny’s average for the season was 122.90. The following year he carried on as he left off and reeled off three centuries in his first three innings including a new record of 437 against Queensland. It is true that Queensland finished last of the four states in that season’s Sheffield Shield, but their attack contained two men capped by Australia, and they were undoubtedly a First Class side. No one questioned the merits of the record this time, and later on in the season Ponsford added another triple century to his tally, 336 against South Australia. He averaged 152.12 for the Sheffield Shield, although a relatively modest return from a tour of New Zealand reduced his overall average for the season to a mere 104.31.
Inevitably Ponsford’s start to the following season was less spectacular, but he top-scored with 79 in the Test trial and then batted well in the second innings of Victoria’s first encounter with Percy Chapman’s MCC tourists. He then got into his stride with 275 against a South Australian attack containing Test players Grimmett, Tim Wall and Phil Lee shortly before the first Test. Sadly for Australia that form did not continue as Larwood dismissed him cheaply twice, and then broke a finger on his left hand early in the second Test, bringing Ponny’s season to an end.
On his return the following season Ponsford’s form was, by his own standards, mediocre, but he scored a century in a trial match early in December and as expected he was named in January in the party to tour England in 1930. By now his record for the highest individual innings was the property of the young Bradman, who had scored an unbeaten 452 against Queensland earlier that season. The Don had been a little fortunate, at 80 future Test bowler Alec Hurwood had “bowled” him, but the bails had not been dislodged.
The 1930 series was dominated by Bradman, but Ponsford did much better than he had done in 1926, and in the Tests, one of which he missed with gastritis, he recorded three fifties and, at the Oval in the final match of the series, his first Test century in England.
The next Ashes series was the notorious “Bodyline” tour of 1932/33, but before that Australia had a home series against West Indies in 1930/31, the first time the sides had met, and the following season a visit from the South Africans, who they had played before, but not for ten years. Ponsford enjoyed himself against the men from the Caribbean, scoring two centuries in the five Test series and also recording a big hundred against them for Victoria. The series was won easily enough by Australia, 4-1, but the visitors were not a bad side at all, and even Bradman, albeit marginally, failed to eclipse Ponsford’s average for the Tests of 77.83.
The South Africans were different however, and Ponsford had an awful time and after averaging less than 20, with a top score of only 34, he was dropped for the fifth and final Test. The South Africans did not extend their hosts, who comfortably won all five Tests, but they had a decent right arm opening bowler in Sandy Bell, who enjoyed a fine series with limited support, but Ponsford also struggled against his opening partner, Neville Quinn, who was a left-armer, and bowled him twice.
And Then Came Larwood was the title of Mailey’s book on the 1932/33 series. Ponsford did not encounter the tourists before the first Test, and in fact only played two First Class innings before it, but the 98 he scored against Queensland followed by exactly 200 against New South Wales indicated that his troubles of the previous season were behind him. He was restored therefore to his customary opening berth, but could do no better than 32 and 2 and was dropped for the second Test. He was back for the third match, the infamous “Battle of Adelaide” where, from number five, he held together the Australian first innings with a brave and defiant 85 out of just 222. He failed in the second innings, and twice more in the fourth Test, before losing his place again for the fifth. His duck in the second innings of the fourth Test was the only one he made in 48 Test innings. In fact he was only dismissed for nought eight times in his First Class career, or 2.9% of his innings. Bradman was so dismissed on eighteen occasions, or on 4.7% of his visits to the crease.
There were many who believed that Ponsford’s Test career was over, notable amongst them Larwood who, in his ghosted book Bodyline?, published in great haste after his return from Australia, did not even consider Ponsford a possible for the 1934 series. The irony of that view was that the man whose international career was ended by the 32/33 series proved to be Larwood. For Ponsford there was to be a triumphant last hurrah as Australia took back the Ashes in 1934
The great English fast bowler was not, however, the only man who felt Ponsford was finished, and his 1933/34 season, that proved to be his swansong at home, was steady rather than spectacular. As ever there were few failures, only twice in thirteen innings did he fail to at least get into the 20s, but there was only one century. He made the cut though, and in the 1934 series averaged more than 94, finally showing English cricket lovers what he was capable of with innings of 181 and 266 (the latter involving a then record stand of 451 with Bradman) in the final two Tests. He was perhaps fortunate to have missed the second Test with flu, when Hedley Verity took 14 wickets in a day to bring England their only Ashes win at Lord’s in the 20th century, and he was put down on four occasions during that 266, but no one scores 569 runs in four Test matches without batting very well indeed. The tour over there was just one more First Class outing for Ponsford, a joint benefit that was arranged by the Victorian Cricket Association for himself and Bill Woodfull following the Ashes-winning side’s return. He was 34.
Had it not been for the emergence of Bradman Ponsford would, to this day, have the highest First Class batting average of any Australian, yet he is seldom remembered now, and when he is the status of all time great eludes him. So I come back to the question that prompted me to write this feature in the first place, as to whether history accords Ponsford a reputation that fairly reflects his abilty or not.
When looking at contemporary writings about Ponsford there is one apparent contradiction that stands out. AG “Johnny” Moyes, a fine writer who was also a decent batsman at Sheffield Shield level before the Great War, expressed the view of many in writing that he was almost infallible against spin. The perceived wisdom that seems to have grown up to accompany that is that he was a poor player of fast bowling, and those who have said that usually go on to add that the reason for that is that he was leaden footed at the crease. Ponsford did use a heavy bat, affectionately known as Big Bertha, but to gain the sort of reputation he acquired against slow bowlers he must surely have been pretty nimble on his feet against the spinners.
Early in his career he undoubtedly had weaknesses, but then that is surely inevitable in any walk of life. Sir Jack Hobbs mentioned one in reflecting on the 1924/25 series; He disappointed us more than a little in his style of play …… he had a good deal to learn about the art of playing back, and that it was essential, above all, that he should keep a straighter bat.
The former Australian skipper and subsequently widely respected writer, Monty Noble, spotted another technical deficiency in 1924/25; a tendency to crouch when the bowling is good and troubling him, and also to a habit he has developed of drawing away to the leg-side to a good length ball pitched on the leg stump.. Noble clearly felt that problem had been addressed when, in previewing the 1928/29 series with what proved to be misplaced optimism, he wrote Ponsford is really a great run-getting machine and is a very much better player under adverse conditions than many people imagine ….. Let me just add that if there is any weakness in Australia’s batting, it will not be manifested in the opening pair.
As to Hobbs’ observation it seems that Ponsford never quite straightened that bat, as Jardine observed in his book on the 1934 series Considering the queer way in which Ponsford moves his feet, and the crookedness of his bat, there can be no doubt about the excellence of his eyesight. Like all good batsmen, too, he appears to play the ball very late.
The supposed weakness against fast bowling arises largely from just one match, that first Test of the 1928/29 series. His magnificent bowling throughout 1932/33 notwithstanding Larwood’s finest figures, 6-32, came in that match and, it having reached his hearing that Ponsford had questioned his pace, he certainly targetted him both in that game and the next when he broke his hand.
After the torrid time Ponsford suffered in both 1926 and 1928/29 Laurence East, in his pre-tour brochure for the 1930 series, commented Just as everyone agreed that here was the champion of champions he cracked……. it was found that he was only a worldbeater on his native glassy wickets; and even in Australia he revealed a weakness that no batsman can have and still be amongst the greatest – he did not like express bowling. Perhaps East, like Noble had spotted a tendency to pull away to leg, the classic sign of a man who lacks the stomach for real pace.
In 1930 however Wisden, in describing his century in the Oval Test, observed; the manner in which at the start of the innings he dealt with Larwood clearly disproved the idea that he could not face the Notts fast bowler. In fact his real weakness against pace seems to have stemmed from his attempts to cure the tendency to draw away to leg that Noble noted. As his career went on Ponsford started to move the other way, across to his off stump, and had a marked tendency to be bowled round his legs. He was, due to their line of attack, particularly vulnerable in that respect to left armers, and in addition to Quinn of South Africa Bill Voce benefitted from that. Larwood on occasion bowled him behind his legs as well.
So there was a weakness, but any suggestion it was in any way related to cowardice was irrefutably disproved by the way that Ponsford dealt with the bodyline of Larwood and Voce in 1932/33. What Ponny chose to do, rightly or wrongly, was to turn his back on the short stuff and let it hit him. It was that technique that created the impression of slow-footedness, but the reality was Ponsford wasn’t even trying to get out of the way of the ball. Larwood himself had the greatest of respect for Ponsford’s bravery, writing of his superb 85 at Adelaide that he was in pain from eleven blue-black bruises on his ribs, shoulders, and back …. the heavy padding that he wore failed to protect him. He was hit more often by my flyers than the tell-tale bruises indicated.
Perhaps Ponsford’s main difficulty is the accusation that he was a flat track bully, although that seems a little harsh when a close examination of his record shows that it wasn’t just the weaker sides from whom he plundered his biggest scores. It is also not his fault that he played his cricket at a time when the laws and playing conditions were as much in favour of batsmen as they have ever been, and it should not be forgotten that he played some fine innings on difficult wickets. It was 1954 when Johnny Moyes carried out a review of Australia’s batsmen going right back to the 1870s, and his conclusion about Ponsford strikes a chord with everything I have read in putting this feature together; It always seemed to me that this wonderful player who could cut, drive, play to leg, defend, attack, score runs, with such remorseless efficiency, has never been done full justice.