Fuller Pilch, born March 17, 1804, was the best batsman of England in his days, and considered to have been the best of all time till the arrival of WG Grace. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was the pioneer of front-foot play.
“Fuller Pilch pulls on his pipe
And nonchalantly pops his top hat on his head.”
Thus run the lines of Gentlemen and Players, a song from the 2009 cricket themed album curiously named The Duckworth Lewis Method – created by the Irish duo Thomas Walsh and Neil Hannon.
It is a measure of the greatness of this batsman hailing from ancient times that he found his way into the popular culture more than 200 years after his birth, some 150 years after he had played his last cricket match. And this was not his only such mark either. As we will see later, he also appeared in a novel written in 1977.
But, then, Fuller Pilch, who indeed played in his top hat, was known to be the greatest batsman ever until the giant bearded form of WG Grace appeared on the cricketing landscape.
Pilch was a trendsetter, the man who introduced forward play. A fine figure of a man, little over six feet tall and well-proportioned, he reached forward and drove with commanding ease. He placed the ball in front of the wicket, the first one to do so with remarkable ease, using a stroke now obsolete, then known as Pilch’s poke.
Batting in an era when balls shot through or rose sharply on primitive wickets, keeping batsmen on tenterhooks and runs uniformly low, Pilch managed to score consistently high. He is also credited to have been one of the very first men to have used pads while batting.
The third tailor
Pilch was born at Horningtoft, in Norfolk, on March 17, 1803, to a family of tailors. His name was derived from father Nathaniel Pilch and mother Frances Fuller. Pilch was the youngest of three cricketing brothers — the others being Nathaniel and William. All of them grew up to be tailors as well.
At a very young age, Pilch migrated north and learnt the tricks of the willow and leather at Sheffield. And as a lad of 17, he was already a member of the Norfolk side that came down to play Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s on July 24, 1820.
It was the match in which gentleman cricketer William Ward played his great innings of 278. Pilch, in contrast, scored just zero and two, conspicuously overshadowed by eldest brother Nathaniel who hammered 52 out of Norfolk’s second innings score of 72. However, Pilch’s slow round-arm bowling dismissed one MCC batsman in the first innings and three in the second.
Somehow, even with those low scores, he managed to impress with his batting. Ward himself had encouraging words to say about his style. And soon a poet penned his prophetic lines:
“Another bold tailor, as fine a young man
As e’ver hit a ball and then afterwards ran,
Is from Bury St Edmunds, and Pilch they him call,
In a few years ’tis thought he’ll be better than all.
At present his batting’s a little too wild,
Tho’ the Nonpareil Hitter he’s sometimes been styled;
So free and so fine, with the hands of a master,
Spectators all grieve when he meets a disaster.”
During the next ten years, Pilch brought batting to a level of perfection never seen before. Beldham of Hambledon had so far been accepted as the model of a classical batsman. But, even the old fogeys, whose eyes could not help but glance perennially backwards, to supposed golden days of the past — even they generally agreed that Pilch was good enough to be Beldham’s master.
From 1820 to 1824, Pilch was engaged by the Bury St. Edmunds Club. After that he returned to Norwich and became the lessee of the Norwich Cricket Ground. Within another three years, he came to be recognised as one of the best cricketers in England.
It was in 1827 that Pilch played in his first Players versus Gentlemen match at Lord’s. He would go on to participate in his fixture on 23 occasions.
The Single Wicket matches
Those were the days when single-wicket matches were the rage across the country. And Tom Marsden of Sheffield was one of the major names in this format.
In 1830, Marsden issued a challenge to “F Pilch or any other man in England,” to play two matches, home and home, at single wicket. Pilch took a while to accept it, and did so only in 1833. It is argued that he did not really enjoy single wicket matches, and later events would point towards the same.
Marsden was a fast underhand bowler and a hard hitting left handed batsman, well suited for this kind of competition. Pilch was not a great bowler himself, though he usually managed to take wickets whenever he did bowl. However, his batting was way too superior for Marsden to match. At Norwich, Pilch’s home ground, Madsen could manage only seven and zero, while Pilch responded with 77, winning the match by an innings and 70 runs. The return match at Hyde Park, Sheffield, was an equally devastating win. Pilch scored 78 and 100, while Marsden could manage just 26 and 35. Over 20,000 people attended the matches.
With these two matches, Pilch established himself without a rival in the land except the great Alfred Mynn. There was much talk of an impending match between the two. On May 31, 1835,Bell’s Life reported that such a showdown had indeed been arranged.
Three weeks later, Mynn seemed to send him a challenge through the paper, wording his letter with due respect, “Sir – Having been much annoyed by numerous letters and inquiries in consequence of a reported match of single wicket, for 100 guineas, between Mr Fuller Pilch and myself, you will oblige me by inserting this letter, as only means of checking any further annoyance to me. I am open to Mr Fuller Pilch or any other player in England from 20l. to 50l. a side, for a single wicket match at cricket, between this and 31st of August, provided it is played at Lord’s or the Camberwell Ground. If, therefore, Mr Pilch feels inclined to accept the challenge, time, place and amount at stake, may be easily arranged, by applying to Mr Hall, at his cricket ground, Camberwall.
I am, Sir, obediently yours,
Later, this letter was detected to be a forgery, and Alfred Mynn supposedly never issued such a challenge. In any case, Mynn and Pilch never played each other in a single wicket match. Pilch later said that he never liked playing against Mynn because the two of them were ‘like brothers’. It also seems that Pilch did not really like to play single wicket matches anyway. The two games against Marsden were the only important ones he ever contested.
The Kent Eleven
That same year, 1835, Pilch moved to Town Mailing, Kent, earning a salary of £100 a year. He worked as the keeper of a tavern, with a cricket field attached to it.
Many ‘grand matches’ were played during his stay. The Kent side of the 1830s and 1840s were built around five mighty cricketers, Nicholas Felix, Ned Wenman, Bill Hillyer, Alfred Mynn and Fuller Pilch. The comradeship of the Kent Eleven was said to be at par with the comradeship of King Aurthur’s Knights. In the words of Pilch himself, the Kent Eleven was an ‘eleven of brothers who knew one another and never knew what jealousy was.’
Wenman led the Kent side on the field, and Pilch managed Kent cricket off it. He was responsible for the ground and his care and supervision made Town Mailing among the best cricket grounds of the country. He was also the principal selector of the teams, and always on the look-out for emerging talent. While grooming professionals like himself, he encouraged many an amateur and always looked for aggressive play in them. He is supposed to have voiced: “We players must show the public the game, and cannot go in and hit her; but I like a young gentleman who is active as a cat in the field, and as mischievous as a ship’s monkey when he is in — who doesn’t care for anybody, and who will hit her all over the shop.”
When Wenman was not available Pilch led the side — his being an era before the trend of amateur captains. The great Mynn and Felix played as team members while Wenman and Pilch acted alternately as captains.
During the 1830s, leg-guards of some sort began to appear and were worn by an increasing number of batsmen. Pilch is generally considered to have been one of the pioneers in donning advanced form of pads.
In a letter which appeared in Cricket in March 1886, CA Wilkinson, signing himself as ‘Septuagenarian’, wrote about a match in 1833 or 1834 in which Pilch came out to bat in pads that were surprisingly like the ones worn in the 1880s. According to Wilkinson, the great batsman went on to hit over fifty. However, the memory of the venerable gentleman is often questioned because there is no recorded evidence of the match he so astutely described.
In 1839, Pilch took part in his benefit match, played between England and Kent. It was a thriller won by Kent by two runs, and plenty of money changed hands in shady betting deals. Pilch did himself extremely well from the gates. And after the match, he received a lucrative offer from Sussex. However, even as Pilch vacillated due to the large sum promised, the Kent supporters rallied around and assured him that he would be given the same financial benefits if he stayed on with Kent.
In 1842, Pilch moved on to Canterbury, becoming the landlord of Saracen’s Head and continued playing for Kent. Later he played alongside William Pilch the younger, his nephew, son of eldest brother Nathaniel.
Pilch retired from the Kent Eleven side in 1855, aged 52. He played 19 seasons and in 16 of them he never missed a match. His highest score for Kent was 98, but he did score 10 hundreds in his career. It was almost miraculous for his times. Two of the hundreds were scored within a fortnight of each other in 1834, 105 not out for England against Sussex and his highest score of 153 not out for Norfolk against Yorkshire.
The best batsman before WG
In 1847, Pilch started working as the first groundsman of the St. Lawrence Ground and remained employed in the role till 1868. Once again, under his care, the ground became one of the best cricket venues in England.
In his Scores and Biographies written in 1862, Arthur Haygarth branded Pilch as “the best batsman that has ever yet appeared … His style of batting was very commanding, extremely forward, and he seemed to rush to the best bowling by his long forward play before it had time to shoot or rise, or do mischief by catches.”
However, when WG Grace passed away in 1916, Sydney Pardon, the Wisden editor, wrote in the great man’s obituary: “A story is told of a cricketer who had regarded Fuller Pilch as the final word in batting, being taken in his old age to see Mr. Grace bat for the first time. He watched the great man for a quarter of an hour or so and then broke out into an expression of boundless delight. ‘Why’, he said, ‘this man scores continuously from balls that old Fuller would have been thankful to stop’.”
Pilch never married and passed away in Canterbury in 1870.
Starting in 1969, George MacDonald Fraser wrote a series of novels about Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown’s School Days. In one of them, titled Flashman’s Lady and published in 1977,Pilch appears as himself, and is caught and bowled by Flashman in a fictional game between Rugby Old Boys and Kent at Lord’s in 1842.