As we leaf through the history of The Ashes with academic rigour, we do come across quaint old by-lanes of peripheral cricketing interest which, in the course of the journey of time, have perhaps fallen off the map.
But, some of these snippets demonstrating the evolution of the various facets of the game make for incredible reading.
For instance, as far back as in 1920, there was an innovation in the way normal scorecards were reported in Australian newspapers that seem way, way ahead of the times.
Those were the days when the clock still held sway, and rate of scoring was seldom equated to the number of deliveries. A hundred-run partnership made in quick time would point at an hour’s fast scoring, but not really that the strike rate of the batsmen exceeded 100 or 120.
Hence, when one sees extraordinarily detailed player vs player analysis reproduced in Percy Fender’s Defending The Ashes, one is indeed taken by surprise.
More so because it was the first ever series played after the First World War. Cricket, especially international cricket, had limped back to scrap for its place in a life striving to get back to normalcy. In such circumstances, just getting the show on the road was a big task. Finding new ways of scoring matches was really not the priority, nor expected, in such an era.
But, as Johnny Douglas’s England side was hammered by Warwick Armstrong’s Australians, the reporting of the scores in newspapers reached a level of sophistication seldom accessible to general public.
Yet, when the visiting MCC side played New South Wales, Sydney Morning Herald reported the normal scorecard along with a table that really rivals the graphics that are generated through computer analysis. Fender was fascinated enough to list it in his book with the words: “Two interesting tables of a type which I have never yet seen in this country [England], and I reproduce them as they may be of interest to those readers who are fond f delving a little bit deeper into facts and figures than they would be able to do with an ordinary score sheet.”
The tables showed the way the New South Wales batsmen had scored runs against English bowlers in their first innings, by tabulating the number of balls and runs scored against each bowler/batsman pair. The second table dealt with the same sort of data for the second England innings.
The same is reproduced here.
This type of details in scoring proved so popular with the reading public that James Young, the official scorer of the Australian team, compiled the same sort of statistics for the Sydney Daily Telegraph, in tables that were incredibly advanced for the ancient 1920-21.
From these tables, one finds out how Warwick Armstrong treated his rival skipper Johnny Douglas with respect, while Charlie Macartney had no time for such restraint. It also shows Nip Pellew, while a magnificent stroke maker against the faster bowlers, was very circumspect against the slower bowling of Cec Parkin, Wilfred Rhodes and Frank Woolley.
It also shows how Armstrong’s legspin, bowled outside the leg stump and with a packed leg field, throttled all English batsmen except the fleet-footed Jack Hobbs. It underlines the genius of Hobbs as we move across the table and find him audacious against Arthur Mailey’s flighted googlies and also way more fluent than the rest against Jack Gregory’s thunderbolts.
Of course, by 1920 Fergie had established himself as a scorer of repute and his tables and wagon wheels were much sought after by captains who wanted to study the opposition. However, such details were earmarked only for the private scoresheets to be accessed by men of such special interest.
We also know that way before that, during the 1902 summer series in England, newspapers had maintained ball by ball scores, and therefore we can say with certainty that the Gilbert Jessop hurricane hundred at The Oval was reached in 76 balls.
However, this sort of data-rich newspaper reporting was really unique in those bygone days.
No wonder Fender was impressed.