Wednesday, June 20, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Victor Trumper by S.A. Rennie

My Favourite Cricketer sees the teams at Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch invite the best cricket writers and bloggers to tell us who their favourite cricketers are - and, more importantly, tell us why they stand out.  Today's submission is by S.A. Rennie of Legside Filth.  You can find Legside Filth on the web at, or on Twitter at @legsidefilth

I never saw my favourite cricketer play; he died 56 years before I was born. But like a cricketing Alexander the Great he left behind him a legacy of achievement, literature, and myth, and changed the face of batting forever.

It could have been my first reading of Arthur Mailey’s recollection of bowling to him in club cricket, with its famous last line (“I felt like a boy who had killed a dove”). It could have been my first viewing, in the Lord’s museum, of that iconic photo by George Beldam of Trumper jumping out to drive, taken at the Oval when Australia played Surrey in July 1902. Whatever triggered it, my obsession became total and all-absorbing. I read everything I could about the man, spent a fortune on books and ephemera and bitterly rued the impossibility of time travel, because unlike Harold Pinter with Len Hutton, I never saw Trumper in his prime, and it was another time - a time when a batsman could successfully break the shackles of orthodoxy, could have stories told about his greatness as a human being and as a cricketer. That fascinated me just as much as the man.

If Trumper were a superhero, he’d have been rocketed to Earth as a baby from the planet Krypton to crash-land behind Charles Trumper’s boot factory. It is believed he was born in Sydney in 1877, but no record of his birth exists. There is a theory that he was the illegitimate son of an Auckland chambermaid, adopted into the Trumper family through a cousin of his mother’s. Like Phar Lap, he could be another hero New Zealand might claim for its own.

His accomplishments glow like an illuminated manuscript amongst fusty tomes. 300 not out against Sussex at Hove on his first tour to the “mother country” in 1899; first man to score a century before lunch on the first day of a Test match, at Old Trafford in that damp but glorious annus mirabilus of 1902; 335 in 180 minutes for Paddington against Redfern in 1903; that last, poignant hurrah at Lancaster Park where he contributed 293 to a record 8th wicket partnership of 433 with Arthur Sims for a touring eleven against Canterbury. That was in 1914; fifteen months later he was dead from kidney disease. News of his passing knocked the Great War off the front pages, and thousands of Sydneysiders lined the streets to watch his funeral cortege on its way to Waverley Cemetery.

He excelled on sticky wickets and his career encompassed innings of adamantine resistance and furious blitzkrieg, with a distinct preference for the latter; he broke windows while breaking bowlers’ spirits. True, there are others whose achievements impress more, by sheer weight of numbers - Trumper’s Test average was 39.04 - but it was in the manner of their making that he assured for himself sporting immortality. “He has no style, and yet he is all style,” CB Fry wrote. “He has no fixed canonical method of play, he defies all the orthodox rules, yet every stroke he plays satisfies the ultimate criterion of style - minimum of effort, maximum of effect.” Mrs Fry seemed rather taken with him as well, rhapsodizing once in a magazine of the time over his “splendid neck bared to the wind... Trumper is an artist... a white-flannelled knight”. The reactions of a mongoose, the looks of an Adonis, with feet that danced like Fred Astaire’s; as Cardus has noted, he was the eagle to Don Bradman’s jet plane, the free spirit that emptied the bars compared to the relentless run-machine that would often prompt merely a cursory glance up at the scoreboard to register that another hundred had been added to the total.

His achievements have gained mythical status through the lens of time and distance, and stories of his kindness and generosity are legion - cricket equipment given away to needy youngsters, newspaper boys sent home in the rain with pockets full of money, team mate Reg Duff’s funeral paid for out of his own pocket when a whip-round failed to produce enough. The other side of the coin tells a rather different, gloomier story; he was a failure in business, and died debt-ridden, leaving his wife and children in poverty. His pecuniary incompetence was notorious enough that the New South Wales Cricket Association kept the money raised during his 1913 testimonial in trust, for fear he would mismanage it.

My plan to make a pilgrimage to Victor Trumper’s grave was hatched in the winter of 2006. A nebulous daydream, over time it coalesced and merged with a desire to watch England play the final two Tests of the 2010-11 Ashes series, at Melbourne and Sydney. I didn’t care that the distinct possibility existed that the series would be over by then: I wanted to see England play overseas, and I wanted to visit the land of my hero, visit the places that were important to him, walk in his footsteps.

Wikimedia Commons
I suppose, given the fact I was working at a funeral director’s at the time (like most writers, my career path since leaving university has mostly consisted of “anything that pays the bills” - or in my case dishwasher, secondary school English teacher, bookseller and undertaker) my desire to visit Victor’s final resting place could almost be classed as a busman’s holiday, but there were several obstacles standing in my way. Firstly, the funeral business doesn’t pay particularly well. Secondly, my health was at best indifferent, a chronic pain condition that reduced me to three hours of sleep a night and extreme weight loss. Surgery was recommended; I deferred it. As I paid the last instalment for my trip, as the time for departure grew closer, I was determined that I would make my pilgrimage, my Hajj, come hell or high water.

Hell and high water didn’t come, but the big freeze did, in the form of ferociously cold weather and snow-storms that brought the UK and Heathrow Airport to a standstill. Flight QF030 to Melbourne was the last plane to leave that day. Nothing does more to remedy a nervousness about flying than desperation for your journey to begin.

That journey ended at a hilltop cemetery overlooking the Tasman Sea, the sun beating down, the waves booming against the sandstone cliffs. Chris Tremlett had taken the final Australian wicket that won England the series shortly before noon that day; by 3 o’clock I was standing at Trumper’s grave.

As resting places for great men go, it’s a pretty humble affair. The large celtic cross that I used as a pointer to its location doesn’t even belong to him; it merely backs onto his plot from someone else’s. As I placed my flowers, there seemed no evidence of recent visitation, and that surprised me. I’ve seen photos of John Goddard’s West Indies team paying tribute at the grave back in 1950, and in 1977 Bob Simpson laid a wreath to commemorate the centenary of Victor’s birth. I don’t think I was expecting anything along the lines of the litter of tributes that adorns Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise, but it felt like no-one had been here for a long time. The leaded letters that spell out Victor’s name are cracked and falling away; a tangible reminder that he is, as Cardus wrote, “now part of the impersonal dust”.

But it was a peculiarly moving moment for me, standing in this deserted place of rest next to a neglected grave, still buzzing a little from the excitement and emotion of watching England win, and the slightly surreal feeling of actually being there. During my stay in Sydney I’d also managed to visit some other locations central to the Trumper legend: the sites of his old sports stores, the house he lived in in Paddington - with its Audis, BMWs and Saabs a considerably more gentrified area than it was in Victor’s day - and I’d retraced his footsteps up through Surry Hills and through the park he played cricket in as a boy each day as I walked to the SCG. The streets of Sydney achieved an almost psychogeographical significance; by the time the day of my departure came and the coach was taking me to the airport I felt like I was seeing the city through Victor’s eyes.

This June, Victor Trumper will have been dead for 97 years, but those who came after him and named him as their inspiration carried on his legacy of winged batsmanship, with a line of descent that included Charlie Macartney, Archie Jackson, and Alan Kippax, and more recently in spirit with Viv Richards and Virender Sehwag - torchbearers and gamechangers all. I like to think that if Victor was alive now he’d still be playing that raised-leg yorker shot to the square leg boundary for four, still clashing heads with administrators over players’ earnings, maybe even coining it in for an IPL franchise in between scoring 56-ball hundreds for Australia; he knew his worth as a player when he was alive, and I’m sure he would be as conscious of his power to pull in the crowds now.

I’d love to go back to Australia some day. I’m a Scottish-born England fan whose favourite cricketer is an Australian; I’ve never had much time for jingoism or loyalties that are defined only by borders. My admiration for Victor Trumper took me to Australia; I fell in love with the country and its people as well. England waited 24 years to win a series in Australia; I had been planning my journey for four of them. One day, I hope I can return, and follow in Victor’s footsteps once more.

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