Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ashes Countdown 78

Grimmett’s Grim Ending to a Great Test Career.

Selection of teams in test cricket history had been littered with several instances of surprise inclusions and omissions... If it’s the Selection committee’s whims and fancies and other political factors over the years, off late, the experimentations and prerogatives of the coaches and managers too are leading to players being removed and added for reasons better known to them.

But most of the times it’s been the leading captain’s personal opinions and preferences without giving due importance to the performances and capabilities of the players in question that has created raging controversies, especially when their choices backfired and the preferred players failed to perform. Enough damage would have been already done by that time to the test careers of those players who could not win the Captain’s faith and favor. In many such cases their omission from the team resulted in the end of their test careers.

One such instance which defied logic and backfired terribly though not accepted that way included none other than the greatest batsman ever Don Bradman and history's one of the greatest leg spinners Clarrie Grimmett.

After coming back from a very successful tour of South Africa in 1935/36, to his surprise Grimmett found himself not in the test team for the 1936/37 Ashes. Grimmett set a record for most number of wickets in a test series in that tour, which still remains as the best by an Australian bowler in any test series. If a bowler has taken ten wickets in a test match, it’s fairly obvious that he would get a chance to represent the test team again in the next test unless he is struck by injuries. If that same bowler takes 10 wickets in a match thrice in a row and fails to find a place in the national team for the next test, though played during the next season, it is just impossible to comprehend.

Grimmett was 44, the exact number of wickets he took in that series, when he returned from South African tour of 1935/36. Victor Richardson (Grandfather of Chappell brothers) captained the Australian team as Bradman could not go on that tour due to illness. Had he visited along with the team on that tour, Bradman may have thought differently while discarding Grimmett’s candidature for the Ashes of 1936/37.

Grimmett’s performance on that tour was nothing short of amazing. 2 for 45 & 3 for 83 in the 1st test Victory at Durban, 3 for 29 & 3 for 111 in the drawn 2nd test at Johannesburg were just a beginning of a remarkable series for Clarrie Grimmett. At Cape Town in the 3rd test Grimmett returned with figures of 5 for 32 & 5 for 56 as Australia inflicted an innings defeat by 78 runs. In the 4th test at Johannesburg , Australia won by an innings 184 runs with Grimmett taking 10 wickets (3 for 70 & 7 for 40) in a test match for the 2nd time in a row. However Grimmett reserved his best performance of the series for the 5th and final test at Durban where he returned with figures of 7 for 100 & 6 for 73 that destroyed South Africa as Australia registered their 3rd innings win in a row and Grimmett his 3rd consecutive 10-for in a test.

So, I am certain it’s Bradman’s cult figure stature that did all the convincing rather than any other reasoning when he preferred Grimmett’s South Australian team mate Frank Ward over Grimmett for the Australian team for the 1936/37 Ashes. As per the reasons, the only way he could have avoided being discarded from the test team was to have grown younger. In my opinion, for a bowler who started his career at 33 and obsessed with spin bowling to the extent that he bowled to a marked area day-in and day-out in his backyard for mastering the art and even trained his fox terrier to fetch the ball after he sends another of his flippers, age should not be a factor while selecting him for the test team. Even at ripe old age of 70 Grimmett was seen perfecting his bowling inventions and experimenting with new types of deliveries though the fox terrier was missing.

Clarence Victor Grimmett was born on Christmas day of 1891 in Dunedin, New Zealand and played his initial cricket at Basin Reserve, Wellington. His bowling talent was first noticed when at an age of fifteen he took 6 for 5 and 8 for 1 for Wellington Schools and was soon playing Plunket Shield, New Zealand’s premier cricket tournament at seventeen. However New Zealand was not a test playing nation then and Grimmet had very few opportunities to display his skills.

Grimmett played just one first class game in each of the 1911/12 & 1912/13 seasons. He played in 7 first class games in 1913/14 and was selected as a reserve player for the New Zealand team that toured Australia under Daniel Reese, but he never got an opportunity to play for them. So Grimmet wanted to try his luck himself in Australia and moved there and played club cricket in Sydney for 3 years during the First World War period. During those years he practiced so much and became so meticulous in finishing the overs, he could time the over and was consistently finishing it in 1 ½ minutes. He was completing his 6-ball overs so quickly , Australian great all rounder Monty Noble once asked him to slow down his walk up to his bowling mark as the bowlers bowling at the other end were having hardly any time to change the sweaters before coming back to bowl. After playing club cricket in Sydney for three years Grimmett moved to Melbourne.

As the entire world was engaged themselves in the World War I, Grimmett’s timing was very bad and he was practicing more than he was actually playing. He played just one first class game in each of the 1918/19, 1920/21, 1921/22, 1922/23 & 1923/24 Australian domestic seasons. Grimmett did not get a chance to bowl in the 1st innings of his debut match in Australia in first class cricket and returned with figures of none for 34 of 5 over spell in 2nd. His 2nd first class game came two years later against touring MCC in 1920/21 in which he batted better than he bowled. In 1921/22 season he played the only game against Tasmania. Grimmett played again against the touring MCC in 1922/23 and failed to make an impact with his bowling. The following season in 1923/24 Grimmet for the first time displayed his bowling skills by claiming 8 for 86 against South Australia in the only first class match he played that season.

Though Grimmett stayed with Victoria for five seasons he had very limited opportunities to play in first class games and when he was offered a position to write for "South Australian Register" , he accepted it and moved to Adelaide. His move proved out to be a turning point as he got more and more opportunities. He took 38 wickets in 8 first class games that season and finally won his first test cap at an age of 33 after playing in first class cricket for more than 13 years. Grimmett then played for South Australia for the rest of his cricket career first under the captaincy of Victor Richardson and then Don Bradman till he played his last first class game against New South Wales in 1940/41.

Making his test debut in the 5th test at Sydney against England in 1924/25 Ashes, Grimmett made his presence felt by registering a ten wicket haul and helping Australia win the test by 307 runs and wrap-up the series by 4-1 margin. In that test Grimmett retuned with figures of 5 for 45 and 6 for 37 which included Hobbs, Sandham, Woolley, Hendren, Hearne, Whysall and Kilner. Frank Woolley was bowled by his googly presenting him his first test wicket.

After his debut test Grimmett visited England in 1926 and played in 3 tests getting just 13 wickets at 31.84. After that Ashes Seris Australia did not play test cricket till 1928. He got his opportunity again in 1928/29 when England started their Ashes campaign at Brisbane in the 1st test. In that same test Grimmett’s future South Australian captain Donald G Bradman and another bowler who was 9 years older than him, Herbert Ironmonger made their test debuts. Grimmet took 23 wickets in that series and finally sealed his place in the team.

Grimmett’s 29 wickets in 1930 Ashes contributed to Australia winning the Ashes as much as Bradman’s 974 runs. Grimmett did not look back after that series and continued his success in subsequent test series at home against West Indies in 1930/31 and South Africa in 1931/32 accounting 33 wickets in each of those series. In the 4th test of the 1931/32 series against South Africa, at Adelaide, Bill O’reilly made his test debut and together with Grimmett they formed one of the most terrifying spin-attacks in the test cricket history though it lasted for just fifteen tests.

In the 1932/33 Bodyline series Grimmett could take just 5 wickets at 65.61 in the first 3 tests and was dropped from the test team whereas the other spin twin O’reilly took 27 wickets at 26.81. Later in the 1934 Ashes tour of England Grimmett and O’reilly were unplayable and took 25 @ 26.72 and 28 @ 24.92 as Australia regained the Ashes with 2-1 margin.

But it’s the Australia’s 1935/36 tour of South Africa during which Grimmett came into his elements and showed his mastery over the art of spin bowling and took 44 test victims @ 14.59 to O’reilly’s 25 a@ 25.20. His performances included five 5-wkt hauls in an innings and three 10-wkt hauls in a match. Australia won the series by 3-0 margin though they were missing the services of Bradman who did not tour owing to illness.

Whatever happened after that series which ended Grimmett’s career is highly debatable and extremely controversial. No bowler in test cricket has suffered the ignominy of not playing test cricket again after claiming three 10-wicket hauls in consecutive test matches. Though Grimmett was 45 when Australia played the next test series, age itself may not have been the only criterion when Australia selected Frank Ward, his South Australian teammate, who was 14 years younger to Grimmet. Frank Ward played just four tests in his entire career (three in 1936/37 and one in 1938) and took just 11 wickets, less than Grimmett’s tally in his final test.

Bradman thought Ward was better leg-spinner at that time as Grimmett was obsessed with his new found weapon ‘the flipper’ and convinced that he forgot to bowl the more traditional leg-spin. Numerous times Grimmett was found bowling his new found delivery rather than the leg-spinners despite repeated requests from Bradman. Bradman made his frustration clear by declaring that Grimmett is no longer able to bowl the leg break. Grimmett found himself so insulted with that comment, next time he got an opportunity to bowl at the great Don in a benefit match for himself and Vic Richardson; he reminded Don Bradman in an emphatic manner that his skill sets are still very much intact.

David Mortimer in his book “Classic Cricket Clangers” narrates the incident in that Benefit match between DG Bradman’s XI and Richardson’s XI.

Since the whole point of the game was to raise as much money as possible for Grimmet’s and Richardson’s retirement, it was important that Bradman should be batting on Friday afternoon. If he was at the crease then it was reckoned an additional forty thousand would come to the ground after lunch, when they knocked off work, just to see him.

In the event, the Don came in to bat shortly before lunch on the Friday. So far, so good. Whatever else happened, he must not be out, and as Grimmett was to bowl the last over before the interval to Bradman, Richardson’s mind was, he said, at rest. “Clarrie could be counted on to realize how his bread was buttered – his bread and my bread”. He should have known him better. The fourth ball pitched on a perfect length just outside leg stump, spun sharply and removed the off bail with surgical precision. ‘That’ll teach him I can still bowl a leg break,’ yelled an exultant Grimmett to Richardson.

Many years later, when Richardson came to write his account of the incident and owned up to saying, “I suppose you know you’ve bowled us out of thousand pounds? - ‘Clarrie looked sorry for my sake, but I doubt whether he was for his own. The feat of bowling Bradman with so perfectly pitched a leg break was sufficient reward”.

When Grimmett bowled, he did not think and plan a couple of balls or an over ahead, but sometimes an hour ahead, plotting to draw each batsman inexorably into his trap. He was proud of the fact that, when Bradman was still playing for New South Wales, he averaged twenty less against South Australia than against others. The ball which cost 1000 pounds may have been a bad joke to Richardson, but it was a perfect one for Clarrie, and without doubt he treasured it for the rest of his life.”

Though he made his debut at 33 yrs, Grimmett, who was referred with several nicknames like Scarlett, The Gnome, Grum & The Fox, by his teammates and batsmen who played against him, became the first bowler to have claimed 200 test wickets and if Bradman had given importance to his art rather than his age and personal preferences, Grimmet could have easily become the first ever bowler to register 300 test wickets as well.

Grimmett also is one of the very few bowlers to have taken 10 wickets in a test both on his test debut and in his last test appearance; though for the later of those hauls he may have to thank Bradman for putting an end to his career. Only Tom Richardson, whose form deserted him because of his weight and Father CS Marriot, who played only one test match in his career were able to achieve that record before him and none after that.

This is what Bill O’reilly put forth in the obituary piece he wrote for Wisden:

He was shoved aside like a worn-out boot for each of the five Tests against Gubby Allen's English team in Australia in 1936-37 and he failed to gain a place in the 1938 team to England, led by Bradman.

It was illogical to assume that age was the reason for his discard. He was 47, it is true, when the touring side was chosen, yet two years later, at the age of 49, and he established an Australian record of 73 wickets for a domestic first-class season. Which raises, rather pointedly, the question of why the hell was he dropped? By now Don Bradman was Grimmett's captain for South Australia, and also Australia's captain. As such he was an Australian selector, and Bradman, it seemed, had become inordinately impressed with the spin ability of Frank Ward, a former club mate of his in Sydney. It was Ward who was chosen for the first three Tests against Allen's side in 1936-37 and who caught the boat for England in 1938. Bradman, it seemed had lost faith in the best spin bowler the world has seen. Grum's departure was a punishing blow to me and to my plans of attack. His diagnostic type of probing spin buttressed my own methods to such a degree that my reaction to his dismissal was one of infinite loss and loneliness.

Grimmett’s Sheffield Shield record of 513 wickets from 79 matches at 25.29 still stands as a record and very unlikely to be broken. He is also one of the three Australia bowlers, Bill Howell against Surrey, 1899 and Arthur Mailey against Gloucestershire, 1921 are the others, to have taken all ten wickets in a first class match achieving it against Yorkshire in 1930 when he returned with figures of 10 for 37. And his record of taking 10 wickets in three consecutive tests stood for almost 65 years, before another spin wizard Muralitharan took over with four consecutive test hauls of ten wickets in 2001. Muralitharan repeated the feat this year and in fact still has not broken that stretch as his last four test matches yielded him four 10-fors. Grimmett though still keeps the record of three ten wicket hauls in a test series to his name.
Grimmett took 1424 wickets in first class cricket between 1911 and 1941 and 216 wickets in Test cricket between 1924 and 1936. He dedicated whole of his life to the game of cricket and particularly to the art of spin bowling experimenting with various types of deliveries. He wrote three books Getting Wickets (1930), Tricking the Batsman (1932) and Grimmett on Cricket (1948) , all of them are rated among the best coaching manuals available on cricket.

Renowned for his nagging accuracy and consistency Grimmett was quiet a character about whom Neville Cardus once described as 'an unobtrusive little man … a master of surreptitious arts'. He rarely bowled without wearing his cap. Some would say that it was to hide his bald head. When opposing batsmen figured out his flipper – which came along with snapping of fingers on his right hand – Grimmett used to deceive them by snapping his left hand fingers at the time of releasing the ball and used to bowl a leg-break.

Fortunately or unfortunately for Grimmett, his record of 10 wickets in each of he last three test matches he played in his career may never be overtaken unless , of course, if Muralitharan decides to say quits with immediate affect or again the Selectors, Coaches or Captains interfere with the selection of such a bowler with their whimsical theories and actions.

Though it is impossible to know what was Bradman’s role in Grimmett's disappearance from test cricket, we can at least make some intelligent assumptions and say with conviction that there was at least some kind of involvement from him. Sixty five Years later after Grimmett played his last test match, when Bradman’s controversial All Time XI list was released posthumously – Grimmett’s name was there along with his pal Bill O’reilly. May be the great Don was just making amends for his action years before.

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