Clem Hill: Criminally forgotten all-time great

Clem Hill.jpg

It is a quirk of history. Some figures are remembered with awe, while others with equally great, and sometimes even more glittering contributions, are often criminally forgotten. It all boils down to certain parameters of chance.

Clem Hill. It is incredibly unfortunate that people seldom remember this great batsman today. If some do, it is more often than not because of the associated trivia of three consecutive 90s in Test cricket, or the stimulating, non-cricketing anecdote of the infamous fisticuff in which he engaged as captain of Australia, landing a few juicy ones on a fellow selector.

Serious adherents of the history of the game may still remember him as a batting giant of his day, but sadly it is almost always prefixed by the qualifier ‘other’ or ‘second’.

Yes, his days as a Test cricketer overlapped those of the nonpareil, dashing and debonair Victor Trumper. The aesthetic beauty of Trumper’s batsmanship often put his efforts in shade and his limitations in limelight.

Yet, Clem Hill was too good a batsman to be described as just a contemporary of Trumper. In Test cricket, Hill’s record was in fact a shade superior. In his day, Hill notched up records with metronomic regularity, and it generally took the proven run making machinery of Don Bradmanand Bill Ponsford to go past the milestones he set up.

Just as the old century was changing into the new one, there were quite a few who thought Hill was the greatest batsman of the day, regardless of right or left-handedness.

In 1902, five different players held the Test record for highest number of career runs. Arthur Shrewsbury had led the field when the year started. During the first few months, Syd Gregory went past Shrewsbury, Joe Darling overtook Gregory, and MacLaren raced past Darling.  During the Sheffield innings, Hill went past MacLaren, and then it was a tussle between the two. After the final Test at The Oval, Hill had 1562 to MacLaren’s 1543, while Gregory and Darling trailed with 1465 and 1402 respectively. After the tour, Hill would hold the record for another 22 years.

In 1924-25, Jack Hobbs went past him to become the new man on the summit. It is said that Hill was not really aware of his feat. When Hobbs broke his record he raised his bat in the direction of the seat from where Hill was watching the game. It was left to the wife of the Surrey batsman to remind the Australian that he had held the top position till a few moments ago.

Hill and Trumper

Trumper and Hill: Whose score was better?

Trumper and Hill: Whose score was better?

3412 runs at an average of 39.21 was remarkable in an era of pre-WW1 non-standardised wickets. He did fractionally better than Trumper (3163 at 39.04). In First-Class cricket too they had very similar numbers.

The difference becomes stark when only the toughest oppositions are considered. It is then that Hill with 2660 runs at 35.46 against England ends some distance ahead of Trumper's 32.79. Yes, Trumper, for all the well-deserved eulogy of being a master on difficult surfaces, did capitalise a lot against the rather weak South African attacks.

Through the lens of analysis, Hill does come up as a superior performer. But Trumper had incredible style, panache and a game that delighted spectators more than anyone in his day. Hill, with a solid and attractive game, was a mere mortal when it came to aesthetic beauty of batting. Trumper was a sight fit for gods.

With his crouched stance and propensity to play cross batted back foot strokes more frequently than the elegant eye-pleasing drives of his era, Hill was perhaps not the favourite of the romantic. Yet, when he passed away in September 1945, some obituaries bestowed on him the title of the greatest left-handed batsman ever. That was quite a tribute, surpassing men like Joe Darling, Frank Woolley and Warren Bardsley. But, perhaps the laurel was deserved enough to rest justly on his noble head until men like Garry Sobers, Graeme Pollock, Allan Border and Brian Lara arrived on the scene.

Besides, the newly federated country of Australia was looking for heroes during the turn of last century. It was Trumper whose supreme deeds on wet English tracks of 1902 that captured the imagination of cricket scribes of Old Blighty and gave the new nation the hero they were looking for. Even during the 1902 series, it was Hill (258 runs at 36.85) performed considerably better than Trumper's 247 (30.87). But Trumper scored that 100 before lunch at Manchester, and plundered way more runs and centuries in the side matches when batting was ridiculously tough. His style moved writers to poetic flourishes. And thus Trumper emerged as the hero, Hill merely as one of his several formidable sidekicks.

Not that either Trumper or Hill made much of it, they were not that sort of men, neither of them. But, with cricket writing more prone to repetition than rigorous reconstruction, Trumper remains a hero, Hill a footnote for the rather serious academics.

It also helped that Trumper died young. Just like Archie Jackson later, the early demise led comparisons to Don Bradman down the line, without too much concrete rationale. Jack Fingleton, whose noble life was scarred by an insatiable hatred for The Don, even penned a major biography of Trumper just to underline that he was perhaps greater than Bradman.

Hill, in conrtast, just held a few world records of batsmanship and was gradually forgotten as a great cricketer. He remained in touch with the game as a journalist with splendid insights into the tours and Tests, where he seldom talked about himself. Indeed, even his miniscule collection of reminiscences, compiled by Bernard Whimpress, contains little or no description of some of his greatest feats. That should be a lesson to modern day cricketers-turn-journalists/commentators who confuse between media centres and self-promoting old boys clubs.

Warwick Armstrong and some others were steadfast in the belief that no modern cricketer could be better than their generation. Hill suffered from no such delusion. Hence, there was a degree of self-effacement in his writings. That perhaps added to his being ranked as just another Test cricketer rather than one of the greatest ever. Self-aggrandisement does matter.

Clem Hill was born on March 18, 1877. That makes him the first Test cricketer to be born after the commencement of Test cricket.

 Text: Arunabha Sengupta
Illustrations: Maha