It’s Ashes summer again and another opportunity for the Barmy Army to wind up Mitchell Johnson who is the latest in a long line of Australian fast bowlers who have become pantomime villains. In years past the likes of Merv Hughes and Dennis Lillee have fulfilled this role. The original villain was Frederick Robert (F.R.) Spofforth (1853-1926) who played in the very early Tests. In fact it was Spofforth who bowled Australia to victory at The Oval in 1882 a result that prompted the mock obituary in The Times and burning of a bail that gave rise to the Ashes. This was actually a publicity stunt for the campaign to legalise cremation (evidently a successful one as cremation was finally permitted from 1883) but ever since England and Australia have competed for the Ashes. Chasing 85 to win, admittedly on one of the dodgy pitches that were common at the time, England had reached 53 for 2 when Spofforth was handed the ball. He allegedly said to his captain ‘We can do this thing’ and promptly did. England were bowled out for 77 and lost by 7 runs, prompting the national wailing and breast beating that has been part of most English summers since.
Spofforth bowled fast off cutters, which was a popular way of bowling at the time but was particularly adept at mind games, fixing each incoming batsman with an intimidating glare. He was a fiery character generally. In that 1882 Test there was bad blood between the teams, largely the result of the gamesmanship of W G Grace. At one point Spofforth burst into the England dressing room and squared up to WG.
Spofforth later settled in Surrey and became a wealthy and successful businessman, importing tea. He is buried in Thames Ditton.
nor Mephisto, though you fancy
he could have played
both with his parted hair,
waxed moustache, malevolent glare.
With that fierce gaze he
withered the batsman’s will
and when the cutting, quick ball
had done its work, wrote the epitaph
You can see it still, a sepia plate
in a musty book, that chilling stare
which, even from beyond the grave,
always makes children behave.
Copyright Peter Bateman 2006