Bill Ponsford, born October 19, 1900, was one of the run machines of Australian cricket of the 1920s and 1930s whose partnerships with Don Bradman have gone down in record books as immortal feats of run-making. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who is the only cricketer to break his own record for the highest score in First-Class cricket.
Habit of big scores
The 2 pounds 10 ounces of the “Big Bertha” had struck the ball with enormous power. Was it wider than what laws of cricket allowed? Opposition cricketers often thought so during the course of the many huge innings essayed by Bill Ponsford.
And the Cambridge University men of 1934 surely felt the full brunt of the reverberating hits. On that May afternoon Ponsford ended his innings undefeated on 229 and returned to the pavilion exhausted. “Never again, too much like hard work!” he is supposed to have exclaimed on his return. The next game was against the MCC at Lord’s and Ponsford vowed, “Today if I get 50, I’ll throw my wicket away.”
It was a surprise to his teammates because Ponsford’s appetite for huge scores had remained insatiable for more than a decade. But, as he worked his way to a chanceless half century on the second day of the match, Len Darling was asked to get ready. “Get your bat, Ponny will be out any minute.”
However, soon Ponsford marked out a new guard, and continued to another 50. By that time his cap was being tugged further and further to the left. According to Ray Robinson, “If you saw the peak at a rakish angle towards his left ear you could tell he was heading for his second hundred.” And he was not far from the truth. By the end of the day, Ponsford was unbeaten on 199. The following day, when Australia declared at 559 for six, he was still there on 281.
Bill Ponsford could not help scoring huge. His colossal feats went down as legendary and the Englishmen still felt the weight of his runs long after he had retired. When the Fascist Grand Council ditched Benito Mussolini in 1943, leaving Hitler as Europe’s only major dictator, a member of the House of Commons remarked, “We’ve got Ponsford out cheaply, but Bradman is still batting.” According to Robinson again, “The only thing Ponsford and Il Duce ever had in common was a well-fed appearance, and Bradman looked nothing like the Fuehrer, but everybody knew what the MP meant, because the two Australians formed the greatest and most merciless run-getting axis that ever dictated to bowlers.”
In Ponsford’s last two Test matches, the pair scored 839 runs together in consecutive innings in 1934. They put on 388 for the fourth wicket at Leeds and then 451 for the second wicket at The Oval.
The colour of success
There were opinions that his phenomenal run-making had a lot to do with his wonderful eyesight. Hence it was a surprise when during the Second World War, Ponsford volunteered to join the Royal Australian Air Force, but was rejected on account of his colour blindness. The doctor who examined him was himself unable to believe the results.
“What colour did the new ball look to you?” he asked.
Ponsford replied, “Red.”
“What colour did it look after it became worn?”
“I never noticed its colour then, only its size.”
A later study discovered Ponsford’s condition as protanopia, a form of dichromacy in which red appears dark.
“Bill couldn’t differentiate between red and green, which one would imagine would have made cricket a difficult sport to play,” says Megan Ponsford, the charming grand-daughter of the Aussie legend. Megan, a sports historian associated as a researcher with Monash University, adds, “Luckily he played after sight boards were introduced as otherwise playing cricket would not have been possible.”
The early scores
Ponsford was born in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy North in October 1900. His father worked in Melbourne as a postman. Uncle Cuthbert Best was a former club cricketer for Fitzroy and the man who introduced him the basics of the game.
At the Alfred Crescent School, Ponsford excelled in cricket with both bat and ball and became captain at the age of 15. The local Fitzroy Cricket Club awarded him a medallion for his performances, along with an honorary membership. While youngPonsford had the honour of receiving the medal from the local mayor, more important for him was access to the club. He ran from his school to the Brunswick Street Oval in the Edinburgh Gardens for his net sessions.
The general secretary of Fitzroy Cricket Club was Les Cody, a former cricketer who had played for New South Wales and Victoria. Ponsford received some instructions from Cody and also modelled his cricket after him.
As the First World War intervened, the exodus of the men for the War effort led to a demand for cricketers. Ponsford, having moved to Orrong Street in Elsternwick, appeared for St Kilda cricket even before he had turned 16.
Once cricket restarted after the War, he made his First-Class debut for Victoria against the visiting Englishmen in early 1921. However, it was not a very convivial atmosphere in which he played the game. He had been selected at the expense of the legendary Warwick Armstrong and Ponsford made it to the ground wading through a large number of demonstrators protesting the omission of “The Big Ship”. In any case, he did not score too many. But, in his next match ten days later, he scored 162 against Tasmania.
The World Record
Victoria met Tasmania again the following year at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the weak opposition was utilised by the state selectors to try out a team of promising youngsters. Ponsford was named captain of the side. It was just his third First-Class game and he batted three minutes short of eight hours to score 429 — a world record beating Archie MacLaren’s 424. The Victorian total also looked unreal — 1059, and it necessitated some quick work with a brush and can of paint to display a four-figure score. The Tasmanians must have thought themselves cursed by the devil — their margin of defeat was an innings and 666 runs.
The innings resulted in a deluge of accolades for the young man. Lord Forster, the Governor General of Australia, came all the way to the dressing room to congratulate him. There was a cable from Frank Woolley, the previous highest scorer against Tasmania with 305. However, the letter that was dispatched by MacLaren himself was not meant for Ponsford but the Victorian Cricket Association. The former England captain vehemently protested that the two teams were both short of First-Class standard and the record should not be recognised. However, Wisden disagreed.
But, if there was a doubt about Ponsford’s class because of the Tasmanian side, there was none when he scored a century against the South Australians in his first Sheffield Shield game. Former Australian skipper Clem Hill, who captained South Australia in the match, called him the best youngster since Jim Mackay of New South Wales.
Soon Ponsford’s penchant for big scores was evident again as was his propensity to figure in huge partnerships. He hammered 248 against Queensland in the 1923-24 season, adding a record 456 with Edgar Mayne. And against New South Wales later that season, he hit a century in each innings.
Century on debut
Test cricket was not far away, and an innings of 81 for an Australian XI against the tourists of 1924-25 pitchforked him into the national team. Ponsford batted at number three at Sydney on debut.
Maurice Tate was moving the ball prodigiously, and Ponsford ran into some real difficulties on joining captain Herbie Collins at the wicket. Tate beat him so often that after a while each time the ball passed close to the stumps, he held his head in his hands and looked up at the sky. Finally one wag from the Hill shouted, “It’s no good, Tate, He won’t help you.”
Help was at hand from the other end. Collins farmed the strike and took most of Tate’s bowling. Ponsford grew in confidence and scored 110. He followed it up with 128 in the second Test at Melbourne, becoming the first batsman to score centuries in his first two Tests. He scored decently in the remaining Tests, ending the series with 80 at Sydney.
Ponsford made it to the England tour of 1926 after another huge First-Class season in 1925-26. However, he was plagued by tonsillitis for most of the tour and could play only the final two Tests. He did score regularly in the tour matches, but his three innings in the Tests were disappointing. Australia lost the series with a defeat in the final Test at The Oval, wherePonsford was famously snared by Wilfred Rhodes in the second innings.
The second World record
On return to Australia, he continued to score with usual voracious run-getting. It started with 214 against South Australia, 151 against Queensland and 352 against New South Wales — 334 of them in a day, the first batsman to score 300 in a day in Australia. The Victorian total read 1107, the highest in First-Class cricket. It is said that when Ponsford finally played on after attempting a back-foot stroke, he exclaimed, “Cripes, I’m unlucky.” By now, for both Australia and Victoria, he had forged the celebrated opening partnership with Bill Woodfull.
In December 1927, Ponsford faced Queensland and this time even Archie MacLaren could not voice any problems with his feat. He became the first — and, till now, only — batsman to better his own world record, scoring a marathon 437. Along with Brian Lara, he remains the only batsman to have scored two quadruple centuries in First-Class cricket.
Yet, he was not done. He followed it up with 202 against New South Wales later that month and as the New Year dawned, he hit 336 against South Australia. That made it 1013 runs in four innings. The Daily News in London called him: “the most remarkable and the most heart-breaking scoring-machine ever invented”.
And then came Larwood
However, for all his heavy scoring, he ran into trouble against fiery pace when Harold Larwood arrived for England’s 1928-29 tour. Perhaps the Nottinghamshire miner was annoyed by Ponsford’s column in The Herald in which he had written that although he was quick off the pitch Larwood’s pace was not really remarkable for a fast bowler. In the first Test at Brisbane Larwood dismissed Ponsford for two and six. In the second at Perth, he hit the Victorian in his arm, breaking a bone and putting him out of the Test series. The sequence did raise some questions about Ponsford’s ability against fast bowling on spicy wickets. The doubts were voiced for most of his career.
By the time the England tour of 1930 took place, Ponsford had been replaced as the number one run-machine by a phenomenon called Don Bradman. And yet again, he was waylaid by ill-health in Ole Blighty. An attack of gastritis made him miss the third Test in which Bradman scored 309 on the first day. However, in the rest of the matches, he batted solidly, laying the foundation in most innings with Woodfull before Bradman walked out to display his brilliance. He had knocks of 81 in the great Test match at Lord’s and 83 at Manchester before ending the series with 110 at The Oval. Wisden wrote: “It is only fair to say that on more than one occasion [Bradman's] task was rendered the easier by the skilful manner in which Woodfull and Ponsford, by batting of different description, had taken the sting out of the England bowling.”
When the inexperienced West Indians arrived in 1930-31 for their first series in Australia, young Archie Jackson was used as the opening batsman with Ponsford while Woodfull moved down the order. They put on 172 in the second innings of the first Test to take Australia to a 10-wicket win. While walking out to bat during the final innings, Jackson supposedly whispered to Ponsford, “I see the skipper padded up. We won’t give him a hit.”
Ponsford feasted on the Caribbean bowling with scores of 93 not out, 183 and 109. The 109 at Brisbane saw one of the many big partnerships with Bradman, a crushing 223.
However, he ran out of form by the time the South Africans arrived and had a forgettable series against another ordinary attack.
Times got tougher as England visited for the infamous Bodyline series of 1932-33. Ponsford was twice bowled in the first Test for low scores, on both occasions losing his leg-stump, and lost his place in the side.
Brought back for the third Test at Adelaide, he batted at number five and scored a valiant 85 in the first innings. In the process he was struck several times. He combated the short balls by offering his torso rather than lobbing a catch to the crowded leg field. It was the match in which Woodfull was struck on the heart and Bert Oldfield was almost killed when he edged a pull on to his temple. Ponsford was finally bowled by Voce and returned to the dressing room with his back and shoulders covered with ugly bruises. The batsman told Bill O’Reilly, “I wouldn’t mind having a couple more if I could get a hundred.”
The rest of the series, again, was not that memorable and after a couple of low scores in the fourth Test at Brisbane,Ponsford was dropped from the side yet again. His ability against genuine pace remained questionable.
Ponsford, as mentioned, offered his shoulder and back to the short balls, and when struck on the body he glared down the pitch at the bowler. Plum Warner, the manager of the England side, thought he played “the fast leg-theory in plucky and able style”. At the same time, English cricket writer RC Robertson-Glasgow was critical of his tactics. Later Bradman voiced that the Bodyline tactics had forced Ponsford into early retirement.
The triumphant exit
Heavy scoring in domestic cricket secured Ponsford his place for the tour of England in 1934. And although he fell ill again and missed the second Test at Lord’s, it was a series of sublime highs for the Victorian and brought about a fairy-tale end to his Test career.
At Headingley, it was 39 for three when Bradman joined Ponsford at the wicket and the two added 388 before the latter was hit wicket for 181 while pulling Verity to the on-side boundary. Bradman scored his second triple century in Test cricket with 304.
With the Ashes to play for, the two combined again at The Oval in the final Test , adding 451 for the second wicket, which stood as the highest partnership for any wicket till 1991 and for the second wicket till 1997. According to Wisden, ”Before Bradman joined him Ponsford had shown an inclination to draw away from the bowling of Bowes but he received inspiration afterwards from the example of his partner, who from the very moment he reached the centre and took up his stance was coolness and mastery personified.” Bradman got 244 and Ponsford, hit wicket again while playing back to Gubby Allen, hit 266, his highest score achieved in his final Test match.
In the four Tests he played on the tour, Ponsford scored 569 at 94.83 and topped the charts ahead of Bradman for the second time in his career — the first occasion being the West Indies tour of 1930-31.
The sudden announcement
On return to Australia, a match was organised between Bill Woodfull’s XI and Vic Richardson’s XI at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). It was organised as a testimonial for the two Victorian openers Woodfull and Ponsford — the former having announced his retirement from First-Class cricket. Both batted in the middle order, Woodfull scoring 111, Ponsford 83. When they walked out together to resume their partnership after a break, the crowd sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” The air was rife with conjectures that Ponsford would succeed Woodfull as captain of Victoria.
And then suddenly, to the surprise of his teammates and the public, Ponsford announced his retirement while the match was still being played. He was just 34. And during his announcement he spoke of the effects of Bodyline, leading to speculations that the infamous series had influenced his decision.
“I am feeling the strain of the last tour. I am thirty four and when you get to that age you start to lose your keenness. … Test cricket has become too serious. It is not a game anymore but a battle … I can remember when it was all quite different to what it is now. I do not want to refer to that ‘bodyline’ business — I am out of all that. Cricket was a different game before bodyline. Naturally I have a tinge of regret … but it is better to go out of cricket before being dropped.”
Ponsford moved away with 2122 runs from 29 Tests at 48.22 with seven hundreds. In all First-Class cricket, he amassed 13819 runs with 47 hundreds at a staggering average of 65.18.
Style and the Man
Ponsford was a keen student of the game, and scrutinised every sway of the body of the bowler, every variation of arm and hand movement. His half-crouched in his stance, never willingly launching it crosswise until absolutely certain of lack of deception. His footwork was similar to a boxer’s, although a pronounced shuffle made it perhaps a little suspect in the eyes of some — such as Douglas Jardine. But he had no problem in stepping out to spinners. He often played the slow bowlers by advancing to the pitched up ball with bent knees and short paces, and was never stumped in Tests If confused about the spin, he was always ready to lie back and play it off length.
His drives were crashing, hooks and cuts devastating and sure, the glance utilitarian rather than delicate and the smothering defensive stroke played with assurance and dead bat. His faithful Big Bertha kept him company through his career, sending balls thundering to the fence. His 13 stone four pounds weighed behind his strokes. His powerful drives had a unique follow through, with arms extended fully, the right wrist not rolling over the left, but remaining beneath, pushing his left elbow as high as his cap.
Once an umpire ran a gauge over his bat and found Ponsford’s bat a wee bit wider than allowed at the bottom, because the wood had been spread with the pummelling of the ball. A few scrapes with a bottle cap were enough to restore it into legal dimensions. When he defended, Big Bertha was joined by a set of bulky pads strapped around his legs. According to Robinson, “He had the thickest calves ever owned by a man of 5 feet 9 inches. Yet, not once in his 51 Test innings was he out leg-before-wicket.”
According to Australian left-armer Bert Ironmonger, Bradman gave the bowler a glimmer of hope, Ponsford none.
At the same time, there were always questions about his ability to play real pace. And he did not enjoy batting on sticky wickets. The Australian teammates often asked, “Did Ponny wake during the night?”— legend had it that even the slightest drop of rain would wake him and make him tense about having to bat on a rain-affected wicket in the morning.
Ponsford was known for batting in partnerships, specifically with Woodfull and Bradman. The opening duo of Ponsford and Woodfull were known by various names, including “the two Bills”, “Willy Wo and Willy Po” and “Mutt and Jeff”. They enjoyed 23 century partnerships in First-Class cricket. And with Bradman his associations were not only prolific, according to Ray Robinson, “[Ponsford] was the only one who could play in Bradman’s company and make it a duet.”
A thickset man, Ponsford was always prone to plumpness, something aided by his sedentary job of a bank clerk and later a journalist. His weight was a constant problem and to control it, he took to fruit lunches and walking a couple of miles to his home.
Apart from his redoubtable skills in cricket, Ponsford had immense talent in baseball. As a junior he played as shortstop, and later as a catcher. He made the Victorian schoolboys side and later turned out in the national school championships. This tournament was watched by John “Mugsy” McGraw, manager of New York Giants. He later spoke to Ponsford’s parents about prospects of the youngster in United States.
Later when Ponsford played for Victoria’s baseball team from 1919, he was touted as the best batter of the season by The Sporting Globe in 1923. In 1925, he became the captain of the Victorian team and was chosen as centre fielder in three matches between Australia and United States Pacific Fleet. He continued to play baseball in the winter and retired in 1934, when he called it a day in cricket.
In History of Australian Baseball, author Joe Clark wrote, “Ponsford is considered by many to be the best baseballer of his time in Australia.”
Statue of Ponsford outside the WH Ponsford Stand at the MCG. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.
A man of shy disposition, even during his playing days Ponsford seldom spoke much. However, he did have a droll sense of humour that would have his teammates shaking with laughter when they recollected the tales dozens of years later. He once set an all-time high for a Test player in a shipboard fancy dress parade by appearing blackened as an aboriginal, apparently clad only in a stiff white shirt — a familiar figure in the Pelaco shirt advertisement with the caption: Mine tinkit they fit.
After retirement Ponsford spent his days as far away from the popular media and fans as possible. He worked over three decades with the Melbourne Cricket Ground, helping with the operations, staying resolutely out of public view.
Late in his life, four years after the death of his wife, Ponsford moved in with his son at Woodend in rural Victoria. He could be seen tending the garden, cutting the long green cyprus hedge which bordered the property. He remained vigorous till an advanced age, and when he was about 80 a passing motorist stopped and offered him a job in Bendigo.
He remained an active bowls player and won several awards even in this sport. Shunning spotlight, he seldom offered views on current cricketing topics. However, Megan Ponsford remembers him voicing dislike for the coloured uniforms of World Series Cricket. Yet, he was not necessarily against change. Another favourite occupation during his later days was cheering the Melbourne football club, with his entire family for company.
Ponsford had a curious detachment for his cricketing memorabilia. On one occasion he was discovered burning off the garden leaves, turning the embers over with a stump that was supposed to be a souvenir from a Test match. He would also turn up to work in the garden in his Test blazer.
Ponsford was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 1982 New Year Honours. He passed away in 1991 as the oldest Australian Test cricketer.
In 1996, Ponsford became one of the 10 inaugural inductees into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame. Four years later, he was chosen alongside Arthur Morris as openers for the Australian Cricket Board’s Team of the Century. In 2005, a statue of Ponsford was installed outside the pavilion gates at the MCG. The Western Stand of MCG has been named WH Ponsford Stand in his honour.