The Extraordinary Career of Wilfred Rhodes
A bit over 100 years ago it was said in Yorkshire that we don’t know who the world’s best all-rounder is, but it is certain that he bowls left-handed, bats right-handed, and comes from Kirkheaton. The joke was that this description, astonishingly, applied to two players – Wilfrid Rhodes and George Hirst. Rhodes, famously, batted at every position for England, from 11 to 1 (more or less in that order); and nobody would dispute that he was the best slow left arm bowler in the world between about 1899 and 1907. Hirst also had excellent claims, although he was more famous in Yorkshire than wider afield.
In all other ways Hirst and Rhodes were dissimilar. Hirst was a kind of erstwhile Wasim Akram, a master of left-arm-over swing bowling (in fact he invented it), and an aggressive late middle order batsman. Rhodes was a canny left-arm spinner and an obdurate middle order or opening batsman. There is no modern equivalent to Rhodes, for reasons which will become apparent, but in effect he was something like a combination of Ragana Herath and BJ Watling – pretty formidable in fact.
In 1899, when Rhodes made his debut for England, their premier spinner was Lancashire’s Johnny Briggs, who was one of the pioneers of the art of left-arm spin. Rhodes, then 21, was one of those cricketers who, like Athena, sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus. He had made his championship debut for Yorkshire in May 1898, taking 13 for 45 against Somerset. He went on that season to take 154 wickets at less than 15 each (statistics pretty much typical of his whole career at county level), being named as one of Wisden’s cricketers of the year. Briggs had on the other hand had displayed disappointing form on tour to Australia in 1897/8. In 1899 he played in the 3rd test against Australia at Leeds, but collapsed during the game, one of the first X-rays revealing that a rib, cracked in an earlier game when batting, had penetrated his heart. Briggs never played again. Sadly, an ebullient and popular character, where Rhodes was famously laconic, he suffered mental health problems, dying of epilepsy in 1902 at the age of 39. Fortunately for England, Rhodes was well on the way to replacing Briggs. In that 1898 series he took 13 wickets at 26, including the wickets of Trumper, Darling (twice), and Monty noble (three times). Symbolically enough, Rhodes’ first test, at Nottingham in the first test, where he took seven wickets, was WG Grace’s last. A team photo shows Rhodes sitting at the feet of the great (in all senses) WG, who seems about twice as large compared to the slim, youthful Rhodes. Test cricket was just starting to resemble its modern form. For the first time an England selection committee was established, and 1899 was also the first year in which there were five test matches.
With the sad sudden fading of Briggs, Rhodes became a regular selection as main spinner for England from 1902, and he rapidly became the best spin bowler in the world, a status achieved virtually in a single match, the first test against Australia at Birmingham in 1902, where he took 7 for 17 as Australia crumbled to 36 all out. The series gave him 22 wickets at 15, and in the following series in Australia in 1903/4 he took 31 wickets at less than 16. The performance that cemented Rhodes place as a great bowler was his 15 wickets for 124 in the 2nd test at Melbourne in 1903, which England won by 185 runs. His victims were notably Australia’s best batsmen – Darling, Trumper, Gregory, and most often Noble, whose wicket he seemed to claim every time they met -Noble must have been fed up of facing Rhodes.
Rhodes also began to display his ability as a batsman with a record last wicket stand of 130 with Tip Foster in the 1st test, an England record until Root and Anderson’s 198 against India in 2014. In that series he also, rather bizarrely, batted at 2, 6, 8 and 10. Nowadays such enormous changes in batting order would provoke cries of human rights’ abuse.
What then was the secret of Rhodes’ success? He came from a demanding cricket school and tradition in Yorkshire, which even then was the leading county in England. In his twenties he was known for his sharp spin as well as flight and drift. Later on he relied more on the Ray Illingworth notion that a spinner only has to turn the ball half a bat’s width. A short run and easily repeated, smooth action enabled Rhodes to bowl for hours and work the batsman over. Some hints of his method come from famous quotes from Rhodes himself. “I were nivver cut and I were nivver pulled”, he said. Not likely to be literally true, of course, but consider also this response to the question whether, if the ball was turning, he would bowl a fuller length – “Nay, Ah wouldn’t bowl a fuller length, Ah’d bowl half-volleys”. And most famously of all, of course, this rather metaphysical statement: “If t’ batsman thinks it’s turning, it’s turning.”
My favourite story, though, about Rhodes is this one. A newly-at-crease Australian batsman was struggling mightily against Rhodes, befuddled by his spin, flight, drift, dip, and variations of length. Over five balls of an over he could not get bat on ball. Off the fifth he was drawn forward, the ball spinning past the outside edge and the bails whipped off with the batsman half an inch out of his ground. “I say, Wilfred”, said a young player as the batsman trudged back, “that was a beautifully flighted ball!” Rhodes looked him over. “Nay, lad, it were a beautifully flighted over.”
What I would make of all this, consistently with assessments by his contemporaries, is that Rhodes was a master of length bowling. He could be driven and perhaps pushed into gaps, but you could not go back in your crease to attack him off the back foot – that would be suicidal. His length was indeed generally full, and on helpful pitches the half-volley prevented the batsman from playing him ‘off the pitch’, as we say. His economy rate was extremely high and he created what we now call scoreboard-pressure, occasioning rash strokes and attempts to hit him straight or over cover, or – heaven forbid – against the spin – all somewhat suicidal too. And he would not try to turn the ball all the time, mixing spun with straight balls. Anticipation of spin would give him many bowleds and LBWs, the presence of close fielders adding to the web of deceit.
However, in spite of all this talent, Rhodes was not necessarily quite secure in his place, as another talented left-armer, Colin Blythe of Kent, had had some success in Australia in 1900/1 (Rhodes being unavailable), and had almost as impressive a county record as Rhodes, taking more than 100 wickets a season every year from 1902 to 1914, as Rhodes also did. Unfortunately, Blythe was one of many outstanding cricketers who perished in World War I. Despite Rhodes pre-eminence, Blyth played in 19 test matches, taking 100 wickets. Whenever Rhodes turned in a modest performance he was replaced with Blythe, and then later with Woolley or Blythe, Woolley, another great allrounder, taking Rhodes’ place gradually after the end of the war. Both Blythe and Woolley had some success, and from 1905 through 1914 Rhodes’ importance as a bowler gradually declined just as his batting improved. As a result he never lost his place for long, but the reasons for retaining him shifted dramatically as he moved up the batting order and bowled fewer overs. So, although he was regularly selected, it was only in the middle of that period that he was selected strictly as an allrounder in the modern sense.
From 1909 until the end of pre-war test matches in 1914 Rhodes played almost entirely as a batsman, eventually establishing himself as Jack Hobbs’ regular opening partner, a role in which he was highly successful, with several century opening partnerships. Most notable was the 323 he added with Hobbs for the first wicket at Melbourne in 1912, when Rhodes scored 179, taking the total to 425 before he was fourth out. During that highly successful tour of Australia Rhodes bowled only 18 overs in the test matches, and reached his nadir as a bowler in South Africa in 1913, being the eighth of England’s bowlers tried in the second innings of the 5th test. However, he scored 152 in the 2nd test and participated in four stands of 100 or more. There is not much information about Rhodes as a batsman, other than his statistics. He was often criticised for obduracy, a quality that would make the Hobbs-Rhodes combination a pretty frustrating experience for bowlers, cover driven at one end and blocked at the other.
With Rhodes 37 at the outbreak of war, his career appeared to be over. But there were to be several more twists. After the war Yorkshire found themselves several bowlers short, so many talents having died in the war, and so Rhodes was called on again for service mainly this time as a bowler. In truth Rhodes’ skills as a bowler had never deserted him at county level, and from 1919, now in his 40s, he just got better and better: 164 wickets at 14 in 1919, 161 at 13 in 1920. And he piled on the runs too. Although he immediately reestablished himself as Hobbs’ opening partner, he did not perform strikingly in six tests in 1920-1 and was dropped.
This was not, however, the end by any means. In 1926 Rhodes, even more than before a bowler to be reckoned with, although the sharp spin of his youth was no longer there, was recalled by England at the age of 48, and enjoyed one of his finest hours in the 5th test at the Oval. The first four tests had been either washed out or were high-scoring draws. England soon found themselves 22 behind on first innings. Rhodes contributed 2 for 33, dismissing Woodfull and Richardson. In their second innings England piled on 436, thanks to a big opening stand between Hobbs and his latest opening partner, the great Herbert Sutcliffe. Confronted with Rhodes (4 for 44) and Larwood (3 for 34) on a crumbling pitch Australia collapsed to 125 all out, Rhodes claiming the all-important wickets of Ponsford, Bardsley, Collins and Richardson, in an effort that won back the Ashes for England.
This was still not the end. Rhodes was selected as a bowler to tour the West Indies in 1929-30, by which time he was 52 years old – until now the oldest player ever selected in test matches. In a gruelling, high-scoring, four-match series he was England’s main spinner and stock bowler, toiling in temperatures of up to 35 degrees, delivering more overs than anyone on either side. Altogether his figures for the series were 256 overs, 92 maidens, 453 runs, 10 wickets. His economy rate was 1.77 per over. In the 4th test, Rhodes’ last, 1815 runs were scored over nine days before a draw was agreed, and Rhodes’ figures for the match were an astonishing 45 overs, 25 maidens, 39 runs and 2 wickets. Not a bad effort for a 52-year-old. His wickets included that of the young George Headley. He played against Bradman only once – for Yorkshire v The Australians at Sheffield in 1930; Grimmett destroyed Yorkshire with 10-37 in a drawn match. Rhodes, who took 3 for 93, must have bowled at Bradman, who scored 78, but did not dismiss him. How interesting it would be to know what Rhodes thought of the 22-year-old Bradman.
Rhodes retired from cricket the following year with a record that is without parallel in the history of the game and will never be surpassed. He played in 1110 first class games (a record that still stands), scored nearly 40,000 runs, with 68 centuries and 197 half centuries, averaging 30. He took 4204 wickets at 16.7 apiece. And remember that four of Rhodes’ best years were taken away by the war. He was the first man to score the test double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets, taking 127 wickets altogether at 26 while averaging 30 with the bat, with two centuries. His 323 stand with Hobbs in 1912 is still, 108 years later, the highest opening partnership for England against Australia. Statistics do not lie, but they do not convey the truth of an almost unbelievable career of mastery of the game.
Rhodes lived until the age of 95, having gone blind some years earlier. In old age he sat at Lord’s with his beloved England team-mate Syd Barnes, who narrated the events on field to him. By then the laconic youth had become a highly garrulous and outspoken ancient. He could tell the quality of the batsman by the sound of ball hitting bat.