Features Icon 1 FEATURES

Twilight’s Last Gleaming

John Barton King

On 25 May 1897 fourteen men boarded the steamship St. Paul in New York City bound for Southampton and a summer of cricket matches. The trip promised a new dawn for American cricket; spearheaded by the talents of Philadelphia it would show the cricketing world that it could compete with the best players of the sport. Instead, rather than providing the seeds for the game to spread throughout the country, the tour and two further trips over the next eleven years could not prevent the sun setting on what in retrospect was the golden age of American cricket.

Cricket has a long history in America: George Washington was reputed to have played the game and Benjamin Franklin brought a copy of the laws back across the Atlantic in 1754. However by the end of the civil war baseball had won out in the battle of the bat and ball sports, leaving Philadelphia as an oasis in a continent of cricketing apathy. Although the sport enjoyed mass appeal throughout Philadelphia, its patrons and players were predominantly the city’s wealthy elite, who used it to create an American version of cricket’s amateur idyll. There were Gentlemen against Professional matches, mirroring the English version, while Plum Warner, the epitome of the English cricketing establishment, described a game in Philadelphia as “like an Eton and Harrow match on a smaller scale.” By the late nineteenth century the most competitive cricket in the country was found in Philadelphia’s Halifax Cup, which was played between the city’s clubs. Previous powerhouses of the game, such as New York, were ever weaker while the national side, made up mainly of Philadelphians, regularly beat Canada.

With few domestic challenges the best of Philadelphia looked abroad for suitable opponents. English sides toured regularly through the 1870s and 1880s, and there were reputed to be 20,000 spectators in attendance on the first day of Philadelphia’s match with Lord Hawke’s team in 1891. The city also turned out two years later when the Australians visited America en route home from losing the Ashes in England. Exhausted after the long journey and a tiring tour they conceded 525 to the Philadelphians in the first innings and eventually lost by an innings and 68 runs. Although they won their second game easily, the Australian captain, Jack Blackham, was full of praise for his hosts, saying “they class with England’s best and reflect great credit on your country. With some improvement you should soon be able to beat England at her own game.” The Australians next visit in 1896 brought a further home victory (as well as two losses) and was seen as proof that the Philadelphians should take Blackham’s advice and test themselves against England’s finest.

There had been two previous tours of England, in 1884 and 1889, but all the matches were against amateur elevens and therefore did not pit the Americans against the best of English cricket. This trip included fixtures against Oxford and Cambridge Universities, eleven counties and the Marylebone Cricket Club. Expectations were high. The Pall Mall Gazette claimed that although the tourists were inexperienced, “most of them compare favourably with the late Australians,” while back in America the New York Times wrote that “there has been a vast improvement in cricket on this side of the water.”

The cream of Philadelphian cricket was on board the St. Paul. The team was captained by George Patterson, an attorney and nicknamed ‘the W.G. of American cricket’ for his batting exploits. Supporting him in the middle order was John Lester, who had learnt the game at Haverford College, and would go on to captain the side in the subsequent two tours. Unlike the rest of the team John Barton King, who led the bowling, came from humble origins. His father was in the linen trade and King only maintained his amateur status with the assistance of one of his wealthy teammates, who secured him a job in the insurance industry. By contrast King’s new ball partner was Percy Clark, a lawyer and the epitome of the Philadelphian establishment.

The Americans were expected to easily defeat the two universities and compete strongly with the county sides. The New York Times reported on the eve of the first game of the tour against Oxford University that “it is expected the American visitors will win” and that the students “stand in some awe of the Philadelphians because of their achievements over the Australians last year.” Instead the hosts had the best of a rain affected draw. As important for the remaining tour the match failed to interest the public and returned a loss of £250, which caused several counties to move their fixtures against the tourists to outgrounds. When the Philadelphians lost their second match against Lancashire and were crushed in their third against Cambridge University by an innings and 163 runs it became apparent that their initial hopes were wildly optimistic.

The Philadelphians won only two of the fifteen matches on the tour, with four others ending in draws. The only positive aspect of the trip was the rise of King. Wisden called him “far and away the best man on the side” and his ability to move the ball both ways, which he had originally developed in baseball, brought him 72 wickets. Still only 23, King bowled fast enough that a telegram had to be sent back to Philadelphia in the middle of tour requesting a new wicketkeeper because “Mr. Ralston’s hands are quite used up.”

King’s finest moment in England that year was the match against Sussex. Unlike many of the other counties, who rested their star players, Sussex fielded a strong team that included Billy Murdoch and Ranjitsinhji. Philadelphia batted first and owed their score of 216 to a century partnership between Lester, who ended on 92, and King, who contributed 58. In reply Sussex capitulated to King, who took seven wickets for thirteen runs. This included Ranjitsinhji for a first ball duck that the great batsman described as unplayable, and although Sussex batted better in the follow-on they could not prevent the Americans securing an eight wicket win.

There was a second win against an under strength Warwickshire side and the best of a draw against Nottinghamshire, with the county eight wickets down and only 74 runs ahead when time was called at 4.30pm because the Philadelphians needed to catch the train to Bristol for their next match. There they found W.G. Grace at his best as he scored a century from the top of the order and took seven wickets as Gloucestershire easily won by an innings. By the end of the tour there was little disguising the trip’s hubris. Grace himself summed up one of the main problems when he wrote that “when faced by English professional bowling they generally went to pieces.” The captain Patterson admitted as much, saying that the English cricketers “are better players” and that “the team is entirely knocked out” from playing so many matches.

Over the next six years the Philadelphians made do with the Halifax Cup and a stream of touring sides. Warner followed the Americans back in 1897, winning one game in Philadelphia and losing the other, and returned in 1898, this time winning both games. The following year Ranjitsinhji brought a strong side that included Archie Maclaren, Gilbert Jessop and Andrew Stoddart, and won both their games against the Philadelphians. However the sporadic nature of these games and the lack of any other strong opposition brought frustration, summed up in a New York Times editorial that praised the Philadelphians who “play it so well that they can get nobody this side of the Atlantic to play it with.”

The solution was a second tour of England in 1903. Although Patterson had retired, with Lester becoming captain, the backbone of the side was similar to that of 1897 (although this time, wisely, they selected two wicketkeepers.) Again they lost heavily to one university and had the worst of a draw to the other at the start of the tour. However they responded well, winning their first county game against an under-strength Gloucestershire by an innings and 26 runs. For once it was Lester, with eleven wickets, and not King who bowled them to victory but the great bowler soon came to the fore, taking nine wickets in each of the matches against the MCC and Kent.

At the age of 29 King was at his peak, and often opened the batting in addition to his bowling duties. He took nine wickets in an innings against Lancashire, eight of which were clean bowled, with the only other wicket run-out. He finished the tour with 78 wickets at an average of 16.06, and would have taken more but for injuring his side in the match against Warwickshire, which led him to miss the next two matches. Predictably the Philadelphians struggled in these matches, losing to Warwickshire, where King only bowled two overs, as well as Worcestershire and drawing against Hampshire, two of whose batsmen scored centuries. In the final first-class match of the tour, against Surrey, he top scored with 98 in the first innings and 113 not out in the second, his first century in England, and clean bowled Tom Richardson to bring the Philadelphians a victory with only minutes of the match remaining.

The English press, which had largely ignored the first tour, opened their eyes for the first time to King. “Is there a greater bowler today? I cannot think of him” wrote ‘Short Leg’ in the Wakefield Express. Many counties were interested in securing his services, which must at least have intrigued him given the poor quality of cricket back home. King’s lack of wealth was no hindrance, after all W.G. Grace was making an excellent living as an amateur, and several counties offered him a ‘clerkship’. However the most notorious offer came from a widow, who was a “liberal subscriber” to a county club and who could offer King £7,000 per year for his cricketing services.

All such offers were declined, and King headed back home with his teammates having won seven games, lost six and drawn three. The New York Times boldly claimed that these results “are likely to have an important effect on the future of the game, not only in this country, but also in Great Britain.” Although a clear improvement from 1897, the tour elicited little interest among the English public, with fewer than a hundred spectators in attendance at the Lancashire and Nottinghamshire matches. Neither did it greatly influence American, or even Philadelphian cricket, with the number of scheduled fixtures in the city increasingly only slightly in the following season, and the decline across the country continuing unchecked.

The old problems continued to dog Philadelphian cricket at the end of the 1903 tour. It was a remote outpost of the cricket community and still only rarely witnessed competitive action. King’s performances during this time demonstrated the dominance that he and the best Philadelphian cricketers exerted on domestic cricket. From 1904 to 1908 he hit two triple centuries, while bowling figures such as 8 wickets for 17 runs, which King achieved for the USA against Canada in 1906, were a common occurrence.

The demand for another tour was strong and a third, and final, trip commenced in July 1908. Lester maintained the captaincy and King was still the main bowler, but his bowling partner on the last two trips, Percy Clark, could not make the tour. His replacement was Dr. Herbert Hordern, an Australian who would go on to play seven tests, and who was available for the tour because of his dentistry studies at the University of Philadelphia. Known as ‘Ranji’ due to his dark complexion, his googlies were probably equalled at the time only by the South African spinning quartet.

After a warm-up victory against South Wales in which between them King and Hordern got all twenty wickets, the Philadelphians beat Worcestershire in their first county match. After being dismissed for 132 in the first innings, King and Hordern again bowled them to victory at New Road, this time with nineteen wickets in the match. Defeats followed against Hampshire, Middlesex, Northamptonshire and Surrey, which were all marred by regular batting collapses, before the highlight of the tour, a tight win against the MCC. In a low scoring contest it was once more the bowling of King, with seven wickets, and Hordern, with ten, that won the match for the Philadelphians, which was the first time that an American side had beaten the Marylebone club.

The remaining three matches continued the pattern of strong bowling and weak batting. Their final victory was against Derbyshire, where King demolished the county with match figures of thirteen wickets for 116 runs. King’s fourteen wickets against Nottinghamshire were undermined by a second innings collapse, and it was a similar story in the final match versus Kent, where his five wickets for 34 runs in the first innings could not paper over the Philadelphians second innings collapse of 34 all out.

The tour showcased the talents of Hordern to the cricket world and cemented King’s reputation. His 87 wickets at 11.01 led the English bowling averages, and was a record average in an English season for the next 50 years. Although he must have lost some pace since his debut in England eleven years earlier he had also matured into a bowler with absolute mastery of swing and seam. The Times led the plaudits, writing of King that “no one probably knows more than he of the art of the swinging ball.”

The Americans returned to a sport that was stagnating. Despite his performances in England, King’s best days were behind him, Hordern completed his studies and returned to Australia, while Lester, Clark and the others who formed the backbone of the Philadelphian tours were also well into their thirties. There were no talented youngsters to replace them, as schools and universities gradually stopped playing cricket in favour of baseball while wealthy Philadelphians, the bedrock of support for the game, began favouring tennis and golf as their sports of choice. The final hammer blow was the formation of the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909 that limited membership, and therefore international cricket, to countries within the British Empire. Cricket in Philadelphia was withering away by the start of the First World War, by its end it was only a memory.


Excellent article. Thanks.

Comment by Monk | 12:00am BST 16 September 2012

I enjoyed reading this article. I understand that King topped the English first class bowling averages in 1903, a truly astounding feat for any touring player. I’ve written about the International Series in my self-published book on the history of Canadian cricket. It can be downloaded for free from http://www.lulu.com (just search for Canadian cricket!) It’s interesting that cricket in New York declined during the Civil War, as unlike Philadelphia, New York was relatively unaffected by the conflict.

Comment by Patrick Adams | 12:00am BST 16 September 2012

I wish this article was up for auction, so that I could bid a wildly, shockingly inflated sum for it, just so I could indicate how good I think it is.

Comment by Jon | 12:00am BST 16 September 2012

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by David Mutton