Many great cricketers have trod the turf at Philiphaugh but none holds more records, many of which will never be broken, than Wilfred Rhodes.
In his long and storied career, Rhodes played more first-class matches than anyone else (1,110) and took more wickets than any other bowler in the history of cricket. In a career that lasted from 1899 to 1930 4,204 batsmen were defeated by the Yorkshireman’s wily slow left-arm spin. He took his wickets at an average of just 16 and claimed ten scalps in a match 68 times. In addition he scored almost 40,000 dogged first class runs and batted in every position from 1 to 11 in the England line-up. When he played his final test, in 1930, he was 52 years old and he remains the oldest man to have ever played in a test match. He bowled at Grace and he bowled at Bradman and every great batsman in between.
Rhodes was never the biggest spinner of the ball but his command of flight was exemplary and few are reckoned to have ever surpassed his mastery of that part of the spinners’ arsenal. His accuracy was so nagging that the wonderful Australian batsman Victor Trumper was said to have once cried out in exasperation “For God’s sake Wilfred, give me some rest!” Neville Cardus, greatest of all English cricket-writers, considered Rhodes “Yorkshire cricket personified”. No small compliment considering Yorkshire have been England’s most successful county.
And it all began in the Border League.
In 1896 and 1897 Rhodes was engaged by our friends and rivals at Gala as their professional to play in the newly established Border League. He made his debut against Selkirk on May 9th 1896 and helped Gala win the day. According to the Selkirk historian William Anderson, although “The nice, easy left-handed delivery of Rhodes was greatly admired” he “only got three wickets and there was nothing to suggest his future distinguished career.”
Nevertheless, by the time the return fixture at Mossilee came around, “a draw in favour of Gala was the result and this gave Gala the league championship.”
The following season Rhodes returned for Gala while Selkirk engaged Owen Firth “a hefty Yorkshireman” from Redcar as our pro. Firth “proved such a success that he even finished with a better average than Rhodes. Few counties in Scotland, however, ever had at the one time two such fine bowlers as Rhodes of Gala and Firth of Selkirk.”
The matches between Selkirk and Gala that season were epic tussles. In the first, “The Souters continued their good work in the local ‘derby’ at Galashiels, when before a record crowd for the season the Souters beat Gala 88 to 68 and this completed Selkirk’s eight matches in succession which Selkirk not only won, but not one of their opponents had reached a three-figure score.
“Gala batted first, but none of their batting could make anything of the bowling of Ingles, Firth and Harvey, and the latter shattered the wickets of Rhodes after he had scored eight runs. Three Gala players were caught but all the others were clean bowled for a score of only 68 runs. Rhodes, however bowled so well that Selkirk had lost seven wickets before the match was won and they were all out for 88 runs. Rhodes had seven wickets for 41 runs.”
The return fixture: “was a vital one with Gala and there was a record crowd for a Border club match this season. Selkirk were in first but to the dismay of the Souters the side were all out for only 71 runs, and the famous contingent of stonemasons (T Dickson & Co.), who were always Selkirk’s most enthusiastic supporters, were chewing stems of grass in their excitement.
“Rhodes had played ducks and drakes with the Souters, to the great delight of the Gala spectators. True, he only once hit the wickets and the other eight were either caught or stumped. Seldom has anything finer been seen at Philiphaugh as when Rhodes caught and bowled McBain in a drive that was going like a rocket to the boundary. Rhodes finished with nine wickets for 32 runs.”
“With Gala batting, sensation after sensation followed. The Gala crack, Jim Mercer, having the best season of his career and expected to get his 1000 runs for the season, was out to a grand catch at the wickets by ‘Bob’ Anderson, off Firth, in the first over. Rhodes was clean bowled by Firth for four, and Ingles, bowling his fastest, set A.M. Grieve’s wickets all over the shop. Except for W Fairgrieve, who got 12 runs, the others simply made a parade to and from the wicket, and almost before the crowd could realise what had happened the Braw Lads were all out for 37 runs. Firth had eight wickets for 13 and Ingles two for 22. This left the League Championship almost certain for Selkirk.”
Those were the days! As Anderson cheerfully records, “Wilfred Rhodes in his two seasons at Galashiels had played five times against Selkirk, but had only once been on the winning side, but this was no fault of his as he had in five innings scored 100 runs, giving him an average of 20.0, while in bowling he secured 30 wickets at an average of 5.43.”
In 1896 Rhodes took 92 wickets for Gala at an average of 7.2. In 1897
his figures were 351-92-538-77-6.98. He remains, I think, the greatest cricketer to have played in the Border League. To this day, a portrait of him hangs in the Gala pavilion. And rightly so.
Two years later Rhodes, still aged just 22, made his England debut against Australia at Trent Bridge as he built a career that would make him one of the game’s immortals. Even so and even after he mastered all-comers one can reflect with some satisfaction that for all his many other successes he came off second-best in his battles against the Souters.
Previously in this series: Keith Miller. Next week: Rhodes’ great contemporary George Hirst.