Published on December 12th, 2018 | by Abhishek Mukherjee1
Cricket history in quotes, part 26: “I’m always turning up when least expected”🕓 Reading time: 7 minutes
Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….
Complete quote: “I’m just like a bad penny. I’m always turning up when least expected.”
By: Bill Ferguson, in an interview with The Mail (Adelaide), October 31, 1931
The quote perhaps sums up the amazing career of Bill Ferguson, the first superstar of cricket scoring, more than any other.
Over 52 years, “Fergie” made 43 trips for Australia – to England, South Africa, New Zealand, and West Indies. Such was his renown that other boards (especially MCC and the South African board) invited him to score in Test matches not involving Australia. In all, he scored in 208 Test matches.
How busy was Ferguson? Here is his itinerary, as published by The Longreach Reader (Queensland): “1935: In England with the South Africans; 1935-6, met the Australians at Durban and toured South Africa with them: 1936, toured England with the Indians; 1936-7, toured Australia with the English team under [Gubby] Allen; 1937, back in England the New Zealanders; 1938, toured England with the Australians; 1938-9, toured South Africa with the Englishmen.”
One must remember that these tours spanned months, often six months, and intercontinental travel was by water.
Ferguson devised his own method to score. He maintained his own chart – a diagram of the cricket ground demonstrating the zone where every shot was played. This innovation, known as Ferguson’s Chart at that time, was the predecessor of the Wagon Wheel.
The amazing bit was the fact that Ferguson did this manually. Such was the accuracy of these charts that both Douglas Jardine and Don Bradman – two of the finest brains to have graced the sport – sought him out for his help.
They were not the only ones. Ferguson maintained charts during Test matches, Sheffield Shield, and even Grade Cricket. Batsmen and bowlers of all level dug into his charts to figure out their errors.
After all, the greatest minds in cricket – or any sport – have always taken to data to identify strengths and weaknesses of their own and the opposition.
But that was not all. Ferguson was also a baggage handler for Australia on 43 tours; he had the distinction of not losing or misplacing a single piece of luggage across a career spanning over more than five decades.
“Bill was a wizard at his job. There will never be another to compare with him. He produced porters, lorries, railway carriages and everything almost by magic,” admitted Bradman in A Farewell to Cricket.
Ferguson later settled in England. Though MCC did not use his scorebooks, they cross-checked their official versions against Ferguson’s. To quote from a 1947 piece in Examiner (Launceston), “Bill’s special charts and diagrams are not handed to the M.C.C., because it has its own official score sheet, and after seeing that the official sheet is correct in every detail, Bill is able to keep them.”
How it all started
Ferguson’s day job at the Sydney Directory involved filing names of individuals, streets, districts, and more. To most, the job description would have sounded extremely annoying. But it was here, somewhere amidst a mind-numbingly mundane job that the seeds of cricket’s first celebrity scorer sown.
Ferguson wanted to travel. And he knew that the Australian national cricket team travelled a lot. Despite being a dreamer, however, he was aware of his limited skills as a cricketer. He knew he would never make it anywhere remotely close to the side.
So he decided to apply for the roles of the baggage master and scorer for Joe Darling’s men for the 1905 Ashes tour. He had almost limited credentials for the latter role. Len Braund had lost his camera during the 1902-03 Ashes; Ferguson found it and shipped it to Braund’s home at Bath, Somerset. But he had almost never scored.
Ferguson prepared an application, but there was a problem – that of ensuring the letter fell into the right hands. So he decided to take a more direct route. The plan he hatched was as innovative as any in history.
Sometime towards the end of 1904, Ferguson visited a dentist’s clinic in Macquarie Street and requested the dentist to work on every single tooth (or as many of them as possible) of his – fill them, cap them, extract them, anything.
The unsuspecting dentist agreed. While there was no extraction (which was not as painless as they are today), Ferguson spent a fortune on gold fillings. Their conversations often turned to cricket until it reached a point when the patient could confide his ambition. “There’s no reason in the world why you shouldn’t get the job,” he was told.
It mattered, for the dentist was a certain Monty Noble, one of Australia’s greatest cricketers and captains. Noble introduced Ferguson to two extremely important men: Frank Laver, the Australian manager for the tour, and Victor Trumper, the superstar of the side.
Ferguson applied to Laver. The uncertainty hung till he finally received the historic letter, from SS Manuka at sea, near Auckland:
Re: your application to score and look after the luggage, etc. of the Australian cricket team whilst in England, I have the honour to inform you that the team has decided to appoint you to the position at a salary of two pounds a week, and to pay your train fare to the various grounds upon which we play. We hold to ourselves the right to dispense with your services at any time upon giving you a week’s notice. The engagement begins from the date of our first match in England and will last as long as you give satisfaction until the completion of the tour in England.
Must to his father’s chagrin, Ferguson quit his “secure” job to pursue the unknown. Barely out of his teens at that time, he paid £17 for his way to England. The first match he scored was between Gentlemen of England and the tourists at Crystal Palace.
Twelve years before this, one John Atkinson Pendlington had demonstrated the Linear Scoring Method to WG Grace. With little experience of scoring, Ferguson decided to adopt the method, or that was what Bill Frindall theorised in Bearders: “Fergie must have been aware of the Pendlington Method and using a school exercise book, he recorded the remaining matches in both that and the traditional scorebook.”
Ferguson improved upon the amazing innovation of Pendlington. And Frindall kept the torch burning till computers took over.
Thus began one of the longest cricket journeys in history. The thankless job of scoring required serious concentration, more so in an era when there was no automation. There were also some unusual challenges.
For example, Clem Hill’s wife Rebecca maintained scores as well. Hill obviously eliminated all risk in case of conflicts: “For goodness sake, Fergie, check the wife’s book. She insists you’re wrong, but I can’t be bothered with it.”
Jane Trumper, on the other hand, had problems of a different sort: “just look at Victor’s clothes, whatever does he do with them?” So Ferguson had to undergo the onerous task of finding Trumper’s kit and folding his flannels. Thankfully, Trumper, nice guy that he was, came to his aid: “You’ve enough work to do without me causing you extra trouble.”
Years later, Ferguson would write of Trumper in his Mr Cricket, his autobiography: “I can still see him now, after slaughtering the best bowling in England, taking off his flannels in the dressing room, rolling them in a ball and cramming them into an already overloaded cricket bag – there to remain until they were worn again the next day.”
Not a side of Trumper you get to hear every day.
Career, personal life, legacy
Ferguson settled down in Bath, where Braund had received his camera in 1905. In 1937 he married Mary Meade, a Somerset woman, at St Jude’s Church in the Sydney suburb of Randwick. The bride was given away by Noble, who had married Ferguson’s sister Ellie in 1914.
He was not usually flustered, but the 1939-40 timeless Test of Durban tested even his patience. “The MCC scorer didn’t know where to get another book,” commented journalist William Pollock after the day’s play. So long was the Test that Ferguson’s scorebook had reached its last five pages!
In 1951 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to cricket. By then he had remarried. Decades later, Charles Davis, the iconic cricket statistician of the 21st century, used Ferguson’s scorebooks to form his databases.
Davis also pointed out how ahead Ferguson was of his times in the sense that he often maintained balls faced by batsmen when everyone else recorded minutes batted: “Ferguson realised quite early the value of the statistic and that it was fairly easy, if time-consuming, to calculate,” wrote Davis.
He was supposed to keep scores in the 1957 Test series between England and West Indies. He even started the tour before getting injured and opting out of the rest of the summer. He passed away that September, at 72.
His autobiography had come out a few months earlier. The foreword was written by Robert Menzies, the Australian Prime Minister.
“He is an MCC institution and has watched more big cricket, I suppose than any man living,” said Wally Hammond of Ferguson. He was not exaggerating.