Monday, April 13, 2009

100 Years Ago - a Unique Cricketer

Since the very first Test Match of all was played in March 1877, a total of sixty-five different men have found their way to the top of the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for batsmen. Furthermore, there have been 73 players who have topped the bowling charts. However, only one man’s name appears on both lists – and it will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the all-rounder Rankings of late to discover that he is a South African.

However, the identity of this player is somewhat harder to guess. The first obvious candidate is Jacques Kallis, who has spent the majority of the past eight years at the top of the all-rounder tree, but he has never reached higher than number six with the ball. His long-time team-mate Shaun Pollock never reached higher than number 37 with the bat, and Brian McMillan – whilst topping the all-rounder charts – never reached higher than number eight with the bat. In fact, the only man to achieve this feat was just establishing himself in the South African team exactly one hundred years ago and his name was Aubrey Faulkner.

He was born in 1881 and made his Test debut at the age of twenty-four against the touring English team at Johannesburg in January 1906. He started well, taking six wickets, and it was his bowling that kept him in the team as he failed to pass fifty with the bat in any of his first eight Test Matches. However, the turn of the decade saw a sharp upturn in his batting fortunes as he scored 545 runs and took 29 wickets in the five-Test series against England and even held seven catches for good measure.

His startling run of form continued the following winter as the Australians were put to the sword to the tune of 732 runs in the five Tests in Australia, including a career-best innings of 204 in the second Test at Melbourne. It was during this series that he reached the top of the batting tree and he spent pretty much the whole of 1911 in top spot. His series aggregate was a Test record which stood for fourteen years until England’s Herbert Sutcliffe sneaked past it by a mere two runs in the 1924/25 Ashes series in Australia.

Despite starting the 1912 Triangular Test Series in England with an undefeated century against Australia at Old Trafford which took his batting Rating to 879, by that time Jack Hobbs had started his almost-unbroken run of sixteen years as number one. Faulkner’s form with the bat fell away, and in his last seven Tests he didn’t manage to pass 25.

His seven for 84 in England’s first innings at The Oval in August 1912 helped him to rise to number two in the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings for Test bowlers at the start of the First World War – albeit a massive 348 points behind leader Sydney Barnes of England. Enlisting in the British Army, he served on the Western Front and in Macedonia, Egypt and Palestine. His bravery earned him the ‘Distinguished Service Order’ and the ‘Order of the Nile’ despite contracting malaria.

Upon the resumption of international cricket when the hostilities had ended, Barnes was now aged 47 and considered too old for Test cricket, despite continuing to pick up wickets for Staffordshire at an alarming rate. This had the effect of lifting Faulkner to the number one spot by default, a position he held for a mere six months before being overtaken by the Australian leggie Arthur Mailey.

Faulkner was recalled to play for South Africa in response to an injury crisis on their 1924 tour of England, but he was past his best and after one disappointing performance at Lord’s, he retired for good to start up a cricket school in London – the first of its type in the world. Alas, the Aubrey Faulkner story has a tragic ending, as he suffered from prolonged bouts of depression and ended up taking his own life in September 1930.

However, nearly one hundred years after he started his ascent to greatness, he remains the only member of this most exclusive of Test Match Ratings clubs. Next time, it is the turn of the two players who have achieved this feat in the shorter format of the game, and they are two very surprising names indeed.