Sir George Abell: Civil Servant and double centurion on Ranji Trophy debut


Civil Servant and Cricketer Sir George Abell had a more distinguished career as the former, but he was a splendid all-round sportsman as well. Pradip Dhole recollects the life and career of the man who was the first to score a double hundred on his Ranji Trophy debut.


In a thesis entitled Cricket’s Contribution to India’s National Solidification, submitted in “partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Security Studies (Middle East, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa) from the Naval Postgraduate School of Monterey, California, in March 2009, researcher Jason H. Brightman quotes a diary entry of a British sailor from the Port of Cambay (on the North-West coast of India), in the year 1721, as follows: “Though the country was inhabited by Culeys, we every day diverted ourselves with playing Cricket and to other Exercises, which they would come and be spectators of…” 

The story, then, begins in Colonial, undivided India, with John Laird Mair Lawrence, later, the 1st Baron Lawrence, and more commonly referred to as Sir John Lawrence, and his elder brother Henry, making the journey to India in 1830 to take up positions in the British Indian Civil Service. John served initially as an assistant Judge, Magistrate and Tax Collector. His services to the Crown during the First Sikh War (1845-46) and during the great Mutiny of 1857 resulted in his being awarded a Baronetcy as Knight Grand Cross of the Bath. While on a home visit in 1863, John Lawrence was sent back to India as Viceroy upon the sudden and unexpected demise of Lord Elgin. His tenure as Viceroy was to last from 1864 to 1869.

Lahore having always enjoyed the accolade of being the cultural capital of North-West India, and later, of Pakistan, and  himself being a man of refined and aesthetic tastes, John Lawrence hit upon the idea of laying out extensive Botanical Gardens in Lahore on the lines of the Kew Gardens of London during his tenure as the Viceroy. The original layout had incorporated 176 acres, and had included a zoo in addition to the Botanical Gardens, together with appropriate roadways to facilitate approach to these places of interest. There used to be a statue of John Lawrence on the premises of what came to be known as the Lawrence Gardens, but that was later shifted to Foyle and Londonderry College in Northern Ireland, where the young Lawrence had gone to school.

One of the chief attractions of the Lawrence Gardens was the Lahore Gymkhana Cricket Club, founded in 1880, the second oldest in the South-East Asian subcontinent, and nestling cosily within the confines of the Gardens. The wicket at LGCC has been very thoughtfully laid out in a North-South orientation to obviate any difficulty that batsmen may have in sighting the ball against the backdrop of the morning or evening sun.

Casual cricket began at the LGCC from 1880, and a turf wicket was laid out in 1882, using earth imported from Worcestershire, England. The Maharajas of Patiala and of Jammu and Kashmir were regular visitors to the LGCC with their respective teams to play against the host club in the early 1900s. In 1911, a cricket match was played on this ground between a British Army XI and a World XI, the latter winning the game by 61 runs. The victorious team had included several players from Gloucestershire and Lancashire, whilst the Army XI had been mainly drawn from representatives from the following Regiments: the 87th Punjab, the 17th Lancasters, the 15th Sikh, and the King’s.

The pavilion used to contain a central high-ceilinged hall that was used as a Museum, and was reputed to be a treasure trove of cricketing memorabilia, recalling great past deeds for or against the Club. Former Pakistan captain Fazal Mahmood was fond of saying that the LGCC has always been sacrosanct in Pakistani cricket circles, and was “the most prestigious in the province. Every cricketer dreamt of playing there".

First class cricket began at the LGCC grounds with the Lahore Tournament of 1922/23, when a match between the Muslims and the Sikhs was played at this venue from 27 Feb/1923, with the Muslims winning the game by an innings and 74 runs. After the partition of India and the independence of Pakistan, Lawrence Gardens was metamorphosed as the Bagh – e- Jinnah. We shall visit this venue again later in the narrative.

Confusion around birthplace

At the turn of the 19th century, one George Foster Abell, Justice of the Peace, and Director of Lloyd’s Bank was to be found residing at the Foxcote Manor, Andoversford, Gloucestershire, one of the stately homesteads of England. GF Abell and his wife, Jessie Elizabeth, nee Brackenbury, had raised a family of four children, comprising two sons, the elder being born on 22 June/1904, and the younger seeing the light of day two years later, and two daughters.

George Abell’s biographers seem to be somewhat at odds amongst themselves regarding his place of birth. ESPN Cricinfo has him being born at Worcester. His profile in The Peerage, giving details of the genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe, mentions the Gloucestershire habitation of his father at the time of his birth.

The Dictionary of National Biography (1901 – 1990), founded in 1882 by George Smith, edited by CS Nicholls, and published by the Oxford University Press, expresses the view that George Abell was born at Sanderstead, Surrey. The whole paradox leaves the seeker after the truth rather bewildered on the issue, particularly given the fact that he was to later make his first class debut for Worcestershire, rather than for Surrey or Gloucestershire.  

The eldest child, the elder son, was named George Edmond Brackenbury, and was educated at Marlborough College, going on to become a Senior Prefect. Going up to Oxford University, George Abell studied at Corpus Christi College, where he obtained a First Class in Classical Honour Moderations (1925), and a Second Class in Literae Humaniores (1927). He was a triple Blue for rugby, cricket, and hockey, and captained the Oxford rugby XV in 1926.

His cricket profile shows George Abell representing Marlborough College in 9 second class games between July/1921 and Aug/1923, and playing against such opposition as Rugby School (3 games at Lord’s), Winchester College, Cheltenham College, and Wellington College, generally as a right hand batsman and wicketkeeper.

Abell’s first documented cricket match during his tenure at Oxford appears to be a Freshmen’s Match between two teams called CH Knott’s XI and TB Raike’s XI (though each team had, in point of fact, comprised 13 players), from 30 Apr/1924. The first day of the 3-day game had been washed out. Representing Knott’s XI, Abell had scored 23 in his only innings, and had made a stumping in the rival 1st innings.

First-Class career

Abell had just about celebrated his 19th birthday and had barely finished his school career when he made his first class debut playing for Worcestershire against Essex at Worcester from 4 Aug/1923. Indeed, his profile shows that Abell had last represented Marlborough College in Aug/1923, while playing against Rugby School at Lord’s, the game being completed on 2 Aug/1923.

JWHT Douglas, having won the toss for Essex, opted to bat first, and the visitors scored a healthy 407 all out well before stumps on the first day. The batting stars of the innings were CAG “Jack” Russell (147) and Percy Perrin (122). For the home team, Fred Root captured 7/118, opening the bowling with his mixture of right arm medium pace and off spin bowling. Skipper Maurice Foster bore the torch for the home team with an innings of 97 at the top of the order in an all-out total of 263. Debutant wicketkeeper Abell, not having been able to put his name on the scorecard during the Essex 1st innings, was dismissed for 1 in the home 1st innings.

Essex put on a total of 279/8 in the 2nd innings, with opener John Freeman (128) and Russell (88) shining with the bat. Root (5/97) was again the most successful bowler for the home team. Worcestershire were dismissed for 319 in the 2nd innings, Foster (149) scoring a solid century, and Leonard Crawley contributing 85 runs. This time the bowling hero for Essex was skipper Douglas with 7/89, and Essex won the match by 104 runs.

George Abell represented Oxford University in first class cricket from 1924 to 1927, playing a total of 24 matches for them and scoring 418 runs from his 33 innings (remaining undefeated 9 times), with a highest of 50 and an average of 17.41. He held 27 catches for his university team, and completed 10 stumpings.

Abell’s career for Worcestershire lasted from 1923 to 1939 and entailed 34 matches during which he scored 1290 runs from his 58 innings (with 7 not outs), with a highest of 131, and an average of 25.29. He had 2 centuries and 3 fifties for his county, and held 41 catches as a wicketkeeper, adding 13 stumpings to his tally of dismissals.

Having completed his studies at Oxford, Abell joined the Indian Civil Service in 1928, being posted initially as a District Officer in the Punjab, and being instrumental in quelling a riot in Dera Ghazi Khan jail almost single-handedly by walking right into the middle of the fracas while the jailers and warders thought it prudent to take refuge on the roof. Recognising the young man’s sterling qualities, the Governor of Punjab appointed Abell as his private secretary in 1941.

In 1943, Abell was promoted to the post of Deputy Secretary to the Viceroy, the 2nd Marquess of Linlithgow. Two years later, he was the Private Secretary to the then Viceroy, Viscount Wavell. Abell continued in the capacity of Private Secretary to Viceroy Louis Mountbatten till the sun set on the British Empire in India. When Lord Mountbatten later became the Governor-General of India, Abell continued to serve as his Private Secretary. He was reportedly one of the members of the brains trust behind the draft of the Partition Plan of undivided India, along with General Ismay, and Christopher Beaumont, private Secretary to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, Joint Chairman of the Boundary Commission. In this privileged capacity, Abell was privy to many undisclosed secrets of a traumatic period of the history of the Indian sub-continent.

Back in England, Abell joined the Bank of England in 1948, and served as a Director of the Bank from 1952 to 1964. During this time, one of his major contributions in the Human Resources Development of the Bank was to do away with the dichotomy between female and male staff members, integrating both genders into a unified workforce of the Bank.

Civil Service Commissioner from 1964 to 1967, he was Chairman of the Rhodes Trustees, affiliated to Oxford University, from 1969 to 1974 (having previously served as a trustee from 1949), Chairman of the Governing Body of his old alma mater, Marlborough College, from 1974 to 1977, and President of the Council of Reading University from 1970 to 1974.

Honours came thick and fast for Abell. He was appointed OBE (1943), CIE (1946), and KCIE (1947). He received an honorary LL D from Aberdeen University in 1947, and became an honorary fellow of Corpus Christi College in 1971. During his Civil Service days in India, despite his ever-increasing load of responsibilities as a career diplomat, however, he found the time to play cricket.

Cricket in India and the feat

While on civil service duty in India, Abell lost no time in pursuing his love for cricket, and played his initial first class match on Indian soil for the Europeans against the Muslims in the Finals of the Lahore Tournament of 1928/29, with the match getting underway at Lawrence Gardens on 19 Mar/1929. The Muslims won the game rather easily by an innings and 74 runs, with Abell scoring 8 in a 1st innings total of only 105 all out. Boosted by centuries from opener Ferozuddin (140*) and S Wazir Ali (153*), the Muslims declared their innings on 389/2 in 117 overs. Abell then top scored with 56 in a 2nd innings total of 210 all out. Jahangir Khan, with figures of 6/49 and 4/48, was easily the pick of the bowlers for the Muslims.

It was the Lawrence Gardens ground again on 1 Feb/1930, and this time, George Abell was leading the Punjab Governor’s XI against the Muslims. Although the result of the toss is not recorded, the Punjab Governor’s XI is seen to have batted first. The second wicket was down at the total of 14, with one of the openers having been dismissed for a duck. Skipper-wicketkeeper Abell, the # 4 batsman, joined the other opener, Vishwanath Hoon at the crease at this point. The 3rd wicket realised 124 runs before Hoon (53) was out. Wickets fell at regular intervals from one end, and it was left to the skipper (92) to play the definitive innings in a total of 225 all out. Jahangir Khan, the perpetual thorn in the flesh of all opposition, captured 4/68, opening the attack.

When the Muslims batted in their 1st innings, the 4th wicket fell at 18, and the 5th at 79, before the champion batsman S Wazir Ali (181) and Fida Hussain (88) combined to add a stand of 224 runs for the 6th wicket, the innings coming to an end at 348 all out. When the Punjab Governor’s XI batted again, the second wicket fell at 12, and it was left to the 1st innings pair of Hoon (37) and skipper Abell (116) to shore up the innings, the total reaching 192/6 before time ran out on the drawn game. The Punjab skipper not only covered himself with glory with the bat with his scores of 92 and 116 in the game, but also behind the stumps, with 2 catches and 2 stumpings.

This was Abell’s second first class century, after his 2nd innings 124 for Worcestershire against Sussex at Hove in July/1925, during his undergraduate days at Oxford University. Worcestershire won the game by 221 runs, Abell contributing behind the stumps as well by holding 4 catches in the Sussex 2nd innings. The 30-year old District Officer’s magnum opus with the bat was to follow at the end of 1934.

In The Shorter Wisden India Almanack 2014, a Cricket Control Board meeting held at Shimla in July/1934 is described with the following quote of the late Anthony de Mello ; “It was with something like trepidation that I submitted my proposal for a trophy to the august gathering….. Even I was not prepared for the events that followed. The late Maharajah of Patiala (Bhupinder Singh) jumped up when I was scarcely halfway through my proposal. The pine-scented air seemed to be immediately electrified. In deep tones, charged with emotion, His Highness claimed the honour and privilege of perpetuating the name of the great Ranji, who had prematurely departed this life only the year before.”

Despite the earnest plea of the Maharajah of Patiala of naming the award for the proposed new domestic first class tournament of India after the late Jamsaheb of Nawanagar, the issue was to prove to be a rather more complicated affair. In a shameless attempt to curry favour with the then British Viceroy of India, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram, popularly known as “Vizzy”, was vehemently in favour of naming the cup the Willingdon Trophy, after Lord Willingdon, a former Eton and Cambridge alumnus who had played 40 first class matches in all, 20 for Cambridge University and 18 for Sussex. Fortunately, better sense prevailed and the tournament was named after Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji Jadeja.

In the inaugural season of 1934/35, a total of 13 Ranji Trophy matches were played all over undivided India. Of these, 2 of the games were played in what is now Pakistan. The West Zone match between Sind and Western India was played at the Karachi Gymkhana Ground from 16 Nov/1934, while the North Zone match between Northern India and the Army was played at the Lawrence Gardens Ground of Lahore from 4 Dec/1934.

Richard Bamfield won the toss for the Army in this, the 4th Ranji Trophy match of all, with all 22 players of the match making their respective Ranji Trophy debuts in the game. The Army batted first and scored their runs at a fair clip considering that their total of 203 all out came in 62.3 overs. The main scorers for the Army were opener Ferozuddin (31), St. Leger Morris (44, playing in his only first class match), and Chris Hodgson (33, also playing in his lone first class game). For Northern India, Mubarak Ali and Khadim Hussain captured 3 wickets each.

The first day’s play ended with Northern India on 72/1 after Amir Elahi had been dismissed for 30. At the crease were wicketkeeper George Abell (24*) and Ahmed Raza (9*). The match notes of the game that are available currently are unable to pinpoint the total for Northern India at lunch on the second day, but provide the information that Abell had gone into lunch batting at 128, having added 104 runs to his overnight score. His batting partner the luncheon interval is unnamed.

From the fact that the second wicket stand between Abell and Ahmed Raza, begun on the first day at the total of 53/1, was to realise 304 runs, it may be safe to assume that it was Raza who had accompanied Abell back to the pavilion at the interval, although his individual score at that point is not mentioned. Perhaps a little introduction to this Ahmed Raza may be in order here.

Born on 20 Aug/1910, Agha Ahmed Raza Khan, more popularly known as Aghajan, appears to have been a member of the Burki clan that was to produce 40 first class cricketers in all. Three of Aghajan’s four sisters were to become the proud mothers of three Test captains of Pakistan, as follows: eldest sister Iqbal Bano, married to army officer Wajid Ali Khan Burki, was the mother of Oxford Blue Javed Burki, Mubarak, married to champion all-rounder Jahangir Khan, was the mother of Majid Khan, her second son, and Shaukat, married to the civil servant Ikramullah Khan, was the mother of the iconic cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan.

Aficionados of the history of Indian cricket will be aware that the first individual century in the history of Ranji Trophy cricket had been scored in the 3rd match of all when SM Hadi had remained unbeaten on 132 in the Hyderabad 2nd innings against Madras in end-November 1934 at Secunderabad. The next two individual centuries were scored in the match at the Lawrence Gardens, with Aghajan being dismissed for 101, the only century in his first class career. George Abell was to produce the first double century in the history of the tournament with his 210, and was to become the first to score a double century on Ranji Trophy debut, becoming also the first wicketkeeper to do so.

George Abell was to produce the first double century in the history of the tournament with his 210, and was to become the first to score a double century on Ranji Trophy debut, becoming also the first wicketkeeper to do so.

Given below is the chart of the 9 batsmen to have scored double centuries on Ranji Trophy debut.

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 Of the above, three have been wicketkeepers: Abell, Kunderan, and Gupta

Charles Kindersley, skipper of Northern India, declared the innings closed at 459/7, scored in 108 overs. That ended the action on the second day of the game. For the Army, of the seven bowlers used, Robert Osborne-Smith had figures of 4/134. Only 63.4 overs were bowled on the 3rd (and last) day of the match, the Army being dismissed for 204 runs, with Morris (86) again top scoring for his team. Amir Elahi picked up 4/86 to ensure a facile victory for Northern India by an innings and 52 runs.

George Abell played 75 matches in all in his first class cricket career from 1923 to 1941/42, scoring a total of 2674 runs from his 124 innings (with 16 not outs) at an average of 24.75, with his 210 as his highest. He had 4 centuries and 8 fifties and held 97 catches, adding 35 stumpings to his wicket-keeping statistics. He is seen to have bowled only 3 deliveries on behalf of Worcestershire, conceding 4 runs. Of his 75 matches, he was seen in a captaincy role in 10 games.

The Private Secretary of the Governor of Punjab played his last first class game for Northern India in a Ranji Trophy clash against Southern Punjab at the ground of the prestigious Aitchison College of Lahore from 27 Dec/1941, leading his team to victory by 74 runs. His personal contributions in the game included scores of 11 and 2, 1 stumping, and 2 catches behind the wickets.

The Rest of his deeds

The remaining part of the saga of George Abell can be told quickly. The 24-year old novice in the Indian Civil Service married Susan Norman-Butler, daughter of Arthur Francis Norman-Butler, Inspector of Schools, in 1928. The couple was to raise a family comprising two sons and a daughter.

Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire, Sir George Edmond Brackenbury Abell passed away on 11 Jan/1989, aged about 84 years, at Ramsbury, Wiltshire, England, carrying to his grave many of the murky details of the secret shenanigans associated with the gory tale of the Partition of India.