Gripping Yarns 1 – Ponsford

As the Australians prepare to take on England at Lord’s in the last ODI of the series, Third Man takes a look at two famous cricketers from Down Under who defied the coaching manuals, one with his grip on the bat, the other with his grip on the ball and asks Bill Ponsford  and Bill ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly   “how did you do that?”

A week or so ago Third Man took a close look at the Ponsford grip.  As the photograph above of Ponsford in the nets further illustrates he held his the top hand with the back of the hand round the top of the bat, facing straight down the wicket. 

Famously he also used a very heavy and much treasured bat, ‘Big Bertha’.  On one morning in Sydney, as he prepared to bat, an umpire decided to put a gauge on ‘Bertha’ and found it to be over sized.

In these days of lightly pressed bats it seems odd that a batsman should cling onto a piece of willow that had been so battered and its spring so exhausted that it had actually been flattened by repeated impacts until its breadth had been discernibly widened.  Did he discard old Bertha or get out a plane?

The photograph also shows good balance and a perfect sideways position.  The back foot points out to (well yes …) point bringing the hips and shoulders into line at the moment of impact.

Contemporaries describe how he used a short arm jab that he’d brought from baseball to hit the ball over mid-on’s head. Was it that the grip made it harder for him to get his hands above a more steeply rising ball but helped him bunt the ball powerfully?

In the Sydney Test of December 1928 he turned his back on a short ball (not a bouncer) and was struck on the back of the left hand. This resulted in a fracture of a small bone and he took no further part in the series.

It was also said that his onside play was faultless and the photograph does suggest the solid balanced base from which all shots are best played.  Yet when Larwood arrived on the scene his tendency to move across and leave the leg stump unguarded became a liability.

Of 1932/33 Jardine said, “Ponsford was inclined to move too far on to the off-side, leaving his wicket uncovered.  Indeed we got Ponsford out round his legs three or four times during the course of the tour.”

Just a quick look through the scorecards of 1930 and 1932/33 reveal a high percentage of dismissals in which he was bowled and not just by Larwood and Voce. 

Double Bill - Bill Voce to Bill Ponsford. Doesn't that leg-stump look inviting to the left arm over Voce?

In the 1930 series he played four matches and averaged 55 but he was bowled twice by Tate in the first Test, by Robins in the second Test, by Hammond in the fourth and by Peebles in the Fifth, even though he had scored 110.

Tate had bowled him three times in the 1924/25 series including twice in his first Test when he had started his Test career with an innings of 128 at the start of which he had been shielded from Tate by the selflessness of his captain, Herbie Collins.

Two questions arise, why was he bowled so often – he was rarely dismissed LBW – and why did he fail in the way he did against Bodyline?

The above photograph reveals a very modern wide footed stance for the period.  Did he also habitually clear his front leg out of the way to favour the drive?  This would have facilitated that baseballer’s technique.  Baseballers call it ‘stepping into the bucket’.  If so, did he also clear the front foot to club fuller pitched balls and yorkers down the ground as modern batsmen are again perfecting? 

In his innings of 352 against NSW when Victoria scored 1,107 he is said to have scored very few runs behind the wicket which seems further evidence of the baseball influence.

Finally, against the rising ball it is difficult with this grip to get over the ball, but a step across the stumps and a flick could send the better length leg stump ball high to the boundary behind square-leg, which maybe exactly what was going on in the image of Ponsford chipping a ball over Chapman in the previous post on this batsman.  Of course, if he missed, he lost the leg pole.

Once again the innovations coming to the fore in Twenty10 may be merely echoes from the past.  Coaches please note.

Tomorrow Third Man is in the grip of a Tiger.

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