Alfred Shaw: Emperor of Bowlers - Part 1

Alfred Shaw

Alfred Shaw

Some of Alfred Shaw’s achievements were bowling the first ever ball in Test cricket, taking the first five-wicket haul in Test cricket, being one of the earliest ever promoters to organise Anglo-Australian cricket matches and also being the organiser of the first ever rugby tour of the British Isles to Australasia. These were only some of his achievements. In this series Pradip Dhole examines the life and career of this extraordinary personality.

“To say that he was one of the Kings of Cricket is to understate, rather than exaggerate, the case, for all good judges of the game are unanimous in regarding him as having never been surpassed as a bowler; indeed, the saying ‘As accurate as Alfred Shaw’ has, among cricketers, as much significance as ‘as safe as the Bank of England’ among people generally. It is of course impossible to compare Shaw with such old-time worthies as David Harris, William Lillywhite, Lumpy and others, for the conditions that existed in his time were quite different from those of sixty or seventy years earlier. It is nevertheless quite as impossible to believe that either of the great trio mentioned, ever excelled the Nottinghamshire crack so far as precision is concerned. That Shaw must be reckoned the greatest of all medium pace bowlers is everywhere acknowledged. His extreme accuracy of pitch and a deceptive flight combined to credit him with hundreds of wickets.”

-       From the eulogy appearing in Cricket of Jan/31/1907. The above quoted extract is reportedly less than one tenth of the original eulogy.


Gentle readers, let us go back in time to the early 1840s and embark on a respectful pilgrimage to the English village and civil parish of Burton Joyce on the banks of the river Trent, incorporated in the Gedling district of Nottinghamshire, about 7 miles east of Nottingham. It was here that one of the greatest medium-paced bowlers in the history of English cricket was born on 28 Aug, 1842 (although the date of birth has also been variously reported as 29 Aug, 1842). The 13th and last issue in the harmonious family of William Shaw, a frame-work knitter, and Mary Goodwin, the youngest child, subsequently named Alfred, was always the “baby” of the family, and perhaps, the favourite of an indulgent mother. Two of his other brothers, William and Arthur, would also become cricketers in their later years.

In his biography written for the Dictionary of National Biography by William Benjamin Owen, we learn that Alf Shaw, as he was affectionately known among his friends and acquaintances, lost his loving mother in 1852 as a 10-year old. Leaving school at that time, Alf began working on a farm, his job being to scare crows away from the fields. His immortal soul, however, was not comfortable with the mundane act of deterring birds of the genus Corvus from feasting on the produce of the farm. Cricket had already claimed the mind and the heart of the young boy, and he was soon dismissed from his farm job for playing truant and indulging in cricket when he should have been “scaring” the crows. 

In his book Talks with Old English Cricketers, noted author and cricket columnist AW Pullin, otherwise known as “Old Ebor” begins the chapter on Alfred Shaw as follows: “An anonymous historian of Notts cricket, writing in the year 1865, described Alfred Shaw as ‘a slow, sure, excellent cricketer, giving promise of future greatness.’ Shaw was then twenty- three years of age. To-day he is fifty-eight; and looking back on a career that is closed, one is able to see that the ‘promise of future greatness’ prophesied thirty-five years ago has been abundantly fulfilled. Shaw's most capable contemporary, Richard Daft, speaks of him to this day as ‘the Emperor of Bowlers.’ (the bold letters have been inserted by the narrator). It is an imperialistic title, but one that few, if any, will question.”

His biography suggests that at the age of 18 years, Shaw was apprenticed to a hand-frame stocking knitter, working on a piece-work basis that gave him sufficient time to indulge in his love for, and to develop his skills at, cricket. By the time he was 20 years old, Alf Shaw, having learnt to bowl “on the road to Burton Joyce,” was sufficiently proficient at cricket to replace his elder brother Arthur as the professional for his local Grantham Cricket Club. As always, there is a story involved here, in Alfred Shaw’s own words.

“I had an elder brother named Arthur, who was engaged as a professional cricketer at Grantham. He was laid up with an attack of rheumatism, and I went over to see him, with no idea of playing cricket myself or taking to cricket as a means of livelihood. While at Grantham a gentleman asked me to bowl to him at the nets. I did so, and he soon said, ‘Why, you can bowl better than your brother Arthur.' As Arthur did not get better that season, I acted as his deputy. The following year my brother went to Glasgow, and I took his post at Grantham. I should then be about twenty years of age.” That turned out to be Alfred Shaw’s initiation to the senior game.

Unbeknown to him at the time, the sense of fraternal duty that had prompted Shaw to visit his ailing brother Arthur was to set off a remarkable chain of events that would lead to his blossoming as one of the premier professional cricketers of England in the latter part of Victorian age and for the duration of the Edwardian era, a vocation that he would probably not have imagined for himself in his younger years.

It is reported that while playing for the Nottinghamshire Colts against the Nottinghamshire County team in a game in 1863, Shaw had captured 7 wickets, displaying great variety and dexterity for one so young, to help dismiss the county for 41 runs. The scorecard for the game has, unfortunately, not come down to us. Alf Shaw and William Oscroft, a right-hand batsman and right-arm round-arm fast bowler, were sent by the Nottinghamshire Committee to Lord’s to play for the Colts of England in May, 1864.

The game was to be Shaw’s first documented cricket match, a second-class affair, played at Lord’s, a 2-day game, in which he represented the Colts & Professionals against a team representing the Marylebone Cricket Club. Although the MCC won the game by 10 runs, Alfred Shaw had figures of 7/21 and 6/34 in the game. The potential for being the great bowler that he was to ultimately become, the “promise of future greatness” quoted above, was clearly there in him from an early age. Interestingly, all 11 players of the Colts & Professionals team turned their arms over in the MCC 2nd innings.

Not quite the image of an athlete

In his phenomenal compilation, World Cricketers: A Biographical Dictionary, Christopher Martin-Jenkins describes the outward appearance Alfred Shaw as follows: “In old portraits, Alfred Shaw looked the epitome of Victorian uncles: grave, portly, benign, a small cap perched on the top of rather a large head, and a short avuncular beard round his chin.” A man of unremarkable countenance, then, and standing only 5’ 6 ½” tall in his socks, with a rotundity about his middle usually associated with publicans (he was to fulfil that role later in his life), Alfred Shaw would have been the very antithesis of the archetypal concept of the athletic sportsman; he, however, compensated with his remarkable cricketing virtuosity.

 A brochure of the Trent Bridge Ground has this to say about the external appearance of the late Alfred Shaw: “gazing at the 19th century photographs, Shaw looks astonishingly like Edward VII, having the same shaped face, the stout figure and the spade beard. Edward VII however only played a handful of cricket matches and achieved nothing. The Lillywhite Companion of 1866 places H.R.H. at the top of the first-class batting table – he had two innings and scored 2 runs!” To confound it all, “The editor published a letter from H.R.H.’s Secretary acknowledging receipt of the book in the front of the annual!” Sycophancy is nothing new, and interested students of cricket history will be well aware of Alfred Shaw’s stature as a cricketer and of his phenomenal cricketing feats.  

The young Shaw, about 2 ½ months shy of his 22nd birthday, made his first-class debut with Nottinghamshire against Kent at Trent Bridge from 13 Jun/1864. The home team won the encounter by an innings and 38 runs courtesy two remarkable bowling performances from the home team. In the Kent 1st innings total of 62 all out in 49 (4-ball) overs, right-arm round-arm bowler James Grundy had figures of 25-15-19-9. In the Kent 2nd innings effort of 124 all out in the 89th over, debutant Alfred Shaw, the last man to be introduced into the attack, returned figures of 25.2-11-31-6, his first five-wicket haul at this level. The other first-class debutant for Nottinghamshire in the match was the aforesaid William Oscroft.

In a first-class cricket span of 1864 to 1897, Alfred Shaw played 404 documented matches, these including 193 games for Nottinghamshire, 10 for Sussex, and 7 Test matches. In all first-class cricket, he scored 6585 runs at 12.44, with a highest of 88. There were 12 fifties in his overall tally, and he held 368 catches, usually close to the wicket. On the bowling front, his stronger suite, he captured 2027 wickets at 12.13, with best figures of 10/73. Shaw captured 5 or more wickets in an innings 177 times, and 10 or more wickets in a match 44 times. As if these figures were not enough, his overall strike rate was 50.32, and his career economy rate was 1.44 runs per over.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins reckons that in all classes of cricket, Alfred Shaw had bowled the equivalent of one ball less than 25,700 (6-ball) overs, conceding 24, 873 runs in all, therefore sending down more overs than runs conceded, in itself, a remarkable statistic, and an outstanding tribute to his accuracy as a bowler.

In the relatively early days of cricket, there used to be first-class matches played every season between the so-called ‘amateur” cricketers under the banner of “Gentlemen” and professional cricketers under the banner of ‘Players”. These matches used to be played at one or both of the two London Test venues, Lord’s, and The Oval, though these matches have also been known to be played at other venues. These games used to be keenly contested and very much looked forward to as sporting and social events.

Alfred Shaw was in his 23rd year when he was selected for his first Gentlemen v Players match, played at the Kennington Oval from 3 Jul/1865. There were several cricketing luminaries participating on the game, the list including the Champion himself, his elder brother EM Grace, Henry Jupp, Tom Humphrey, Tom Lockyear, leading the Players, the brothers Edward, Russel, and Isaac Walker, and the Hon. Charles Lyttleton, among others. Indeed, the contemporary media had gone into ecstasies over the participants of the game, commenting that: “Never before or since has such a galaxy of talent appeared for the first time in any great match.” Young Shaw did not disgrace himself, scoring 18 and 8, and capturing 2/20 and 4/64. One of his 1st innings victims was the great WG Grace.

There is a perception that Alfred Shaw was not much of a batsman. His overall batting average would tend to support the impression. However, things are not always as they may seem to an outsider, as these comments, coming from the man himself, would testify to: “I usually could get a fair number of runs (his 12 first-class fifties would support this claim), but I used to save myself for bowling. I knew very well a man cannot do the two things equally well; one or the other must suffer. I therefore made bowling my study, and allowed batting to take its chance. I thought bowling would be most useful to me as a professional cricketer, and, looking back now, I do not think my judgment was at fault. When runs were required, I endeavoured to get them; if not, I tried to get out. Morley and I often used to get out on purpose, without anybody knowing it. Of course, we did not hit our wickets down — that is a silly game. But men can get out without the public knowing it, and I don't think the public ought to know it."

By 1869, as if to lend an air of verisimilitude to his outward appearance, Alfred Shaw became the owner of the public house known as Lord Nelson, situated in the village of Burton Joyce, and was required to be present during a rather sombre official procedure in Jul/1869. Under the heading The Melancholy Suicide of a Girl at Ratcliff, the Nottinghamshire Guardian of 23 Jul/1869 carried the story of the unfortunate suicide of a mentally disturbed young lady of about 20 years of age, who appears to have died by drowning in the Trent. The official inquest for this sad death was held at the Lord Nelson on the Monday, 19 Jul/1869 by Mr Coroner Heath. The 27-year old Shaw, as the landlord of the establishment, and displaying a gravitas in his demeanour well beyond his years, was in constant attendance at this melancholy episode.

The life of being the genial host of a traditional English public house seemed to suit Shaw, and he was the landlord of the Prince of Wales Inn at Kilburn, London, from 1878 to 1880. Shaw was later also the landlord of the Belvoir Inn at 15, Kirby Street, when he had the strange experience in Feb/1881 of being assaulted by a drunken patron named William Marshall, who had used abusive language while speaking to his staff. Shaw thought it prudent to detain the offender whilst he called for the Constabulary to deal with the incident. Records of the 1881 census show the Shaw family, comprising Alfred himself, his wife Easter, sons William, Arthur, and John, and his daughters Millicent and Beatrice to be living at the Belvoir Inn, at 15 Kirkby Street, Nottingham. Sadly, the street is no longer in existence. It may be mentioned that Alfred Shaw’s son Arthur Shaw was to later become a renowned soccer player.

Outstanding feats

 One of his numerous legendary bowling feats was played out at Lord’s from 1 June, 1874 in the match between the MCC and North. When North batted first and put up a total of 175 all out, Alfred Shaw, playing under the colours of the MCC, had bowling figures of 10/73, his best-ever first-class analysis. The scheduled 3-day match was over in 2 days with North winnings by 45 runs, although Shaw managed figures of 3/43 in the 2nd innings.

Another of his outstanding feats occurred in the following season at Derby in the match between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire from 9 Aug/1875. Richard Daft won the toss for the Notts team and batted first. Notts put up a total of 179 all out, wicketkeeper Fred Wyld, opening the batting and anchoring the inning with a well compiled 93. The home team managed to score 138 all out in the 1st innings, and Shaw returned figures of 4/37.  

The Notts 2nd innings amounted to 142 all out, setting the home team a winning target of 184 runs in the 4th innings. Shaw was in majestic form with the ball, returning figures of 8/25 from his 30.3 (4-ball) overs. This included a hat-trick with the wickets of Tom Foster (for the second time in the match), George Hay, and Bill Mycroft. To rub slat into the home side’s wounds, Shaw then captured a fourth wicket with the first ball of his next over to terminate the innings at 66 all out.


History records that in 2nd innings of a game for Nottinghamshire against MCC & Ground, played at Lord’s, London, from 14 Jun/1875, Shaw bowled 41 (4-ball) overs and 2 balls, notching 36 maiden overs, and captured 7 wickets for only 7 runs, as phenomenal an example of accuracy and of parsimony as can ever be imagined. In the process, he had bowled out such luminaries as WG Grace, AW Ridley, CF Buller, and Lord Harris, among others. The Notts Members were captivated by this performance, and he was presented with a handsome cricket trophy made of sterling silver, standing about 9 ½ inches tall and weighing 19 troy ounces (about 600 Gm) and in the shape of a chalice with handles on each side. On one side was the inscription: “Presented to – ALFRED SHAW – Burton Joyce, Notts – for his unprecedented bowling 1875". On the other side was an engraving of stumps and bails. The chalice was mounted on a column made of a set of 3 silver stumps set into a circular base. There was a handle on each side made in the shape of a silver cricket bat and ball.

Canon Edward Lyttelton, Headmaster of Eton College, and author of the book Cricket, 1890, recalls an incident of 1880 that testifies to the shrewd cricketing brain of Alfred Shaw. In a personal letter, Canon Lyttelton recalls: “I think it was in the year 1880 I was playing for Cambridge Long Vacation against M.C.C., and had to face Alfred Shaw upon a beautiful wicket, in fine weather. With few opportunities during that year of first-class cricket I was very eager to render a good account of his bowling, so, early in the innings between the overs, thinking I saw a little inequality in the pitch, I patted it down rather forcibly, and unfortunately for me, with the round side of the bat. This produced a very slight depression on the surface, exactly at the spot where a good length ball would pitch. The great artist was watching this from the other end, and at once decided on his tactics. The depression was in front of the off-stump. A ball pitching on the off-side of the depression would break to leg, a ball pitching on the leg side would break to the off. He chose the off-side. I played forward, and it broke and missed the shoulder of the bat by a fraction of an inch and took off the leg-bail…..”

Alfred Shaw covered himself with unprecedented bowling glory at Trent Bridge from 31 Jul/1884 in a home match against Gloucestershire. It was a Thursday, 31 Jul/1884, and Alfred Shaw, in his relatively new role as skipper of Nottinghamshire, went out to toss with schoolmaster Frank Townsend, the visiting skipper. Having won the toss, Shaw decided to bowl first. It was to be an eventful day.

Gloucestershire succumbed to Shaw in the 1st innings to be all out for a mere 49 in the 82nd (4-ball) over. The only man in double figures was William Pullen (24*). Bowling unchanged through the innings, Shaw (8/29 in 41 overs) and William Attewell (2/19 in 40.3 overs) took all the wickets. Shaw’s figures included a hat-trick, and there were two sequences in the innings when 3 wickets fell consecutively at the same score, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th all falling at the total of 34, and the 7th, 8th, and 9th wickets all falling at the total of 48. Among Attewell’s 2 victims was opener Walter Gilbert (4), cousin of the great WG Grace, and the person who was to emigrate to Canada under a cloud of suspicion of theft from his team-mates’ dressing-room in 1886.

The eventful first day of the match ended with Nottinghamshire on 101/9, 19 wickets having fallen in the day for 150 runs scored. The home team mustered a total of 105 all out. Middle order batsman Wilfred Flowers contributed a solid 50 to the total. When Gloucestershire began their 2nd innings on the second day of the game, they were 56 runs in arrears.

Well, the innings ended at 63 all out in the 76th over. Shaw (6/36 from his 38 overs), and Attewell (4/27 from his 37.2 overs) again bowled unchanged through the innings. Shaw’s 2nd innings figures also included a hat-trick, with the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th wickets all falling at the total of 17 runs. Nottinghamshire knocked off the requisite runs to win the game by 10 wickets. This was Shaw’s own recollection of the match: “Did you ever hear of a bowler being in for the hat trick five times in one match and succeeding twice? I had that experience in a county match at Nottingham. On five occasions in the match I got 2 wickets with successive balls, and on two I got the third wicket and the new hat.”

Alfred Shaw thus became the first Englishman to capture a hat-trick in each innings of a first-class match, this being the first ever instance of such a feat being performed in England. As a point of interest, Australian Test cricketer Albert Trott, turning out for Middlesex against Somerset at Lord’s from 20 May/1907, was to also achieve the feat of claiming 2 hat-tricks in the same first-class game, but not in each innings. Both of Trott’s hat-tricks came in the Somerset 2nd innings, with his figures reading 7/20 from 8 overs, the analysis also included a sequence of 4 wickets in 4 consecutive balls along with his first hat-trick of the innings.