While Sir Don Bradman was busy making the grade, Bill Ponsford was fast becoming Australia’s answer to WG Grace, through his penchant for big scores in first-class cricket.
Playing some defining innings for Victoria at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Ponsford hit a record 429 against Tasmania in 1922-23. This innings overtook Lancastrian Archie MacLaren’s 424, versus Somerset at Taunton in 1895, as the highest first-class individual score.
MacLaren's 424 was also the only quadruple hundred of the 19th century. He had, in turn, surpassed Grace’s record of 344, for MCC against Kent at Canterbury in 1876.
Ponsford then reeled off 352 - 334 of them in a day - against New South Wales in 1926-27; and 437 and 336 versus Queensland and South Australia respectively, the following season.
Ponsford was the only player to score two quadruple centuries in first-class cricket until Brian Lara equalled the feat in 2004. The West Indian maestro scored 501* for Warwickshire in 1994, and 400* in the Antigua Test against England in 2004.
Bradman served notice with his undefeated 340 for New South Wales in 1928-29, having already scored a century on first-class debut the previous season. Then in 1929-30, Bradman broke Ponsford’s record with his 452* against Queensland at Sydney.
Bill Ponsford's Bradmanesque average in The Ashes 1934
Having scored hundreds in his first two Tests, in 1924-25 against England, Bill Ponsford later combined with Bradman in two record partnerships in consecutive Tests. These were: 388 for the fourth wicket at Leeds, and 451 for the second wicket at The Oval in 1934.
It was a summer in which Ponsford had a Bradmanesque average of 94.83, having scored 569 runs in four Tests. Bradman aggregated 758 runs in five Tests at an average of 94.75.
One has then, not surprisingly, come across several references to Bob Wyatt’s famous remark describing Ponsford as “A very great player indeed.”
This was during the Lord’s Centenary match in 1980 when Ponsford walked across the former players’ enclosure. Len Hutton recalled the incident, as did Alec Bedser, and both wondered how great, then, was Bradman.
Ponsford would indeed be rated very highly for his monumental first-class scores, his record Test partnerships with Bradman, and a brilliant series in 1934.
But he had his problems with pace, surprising for an opening batsman. As Hartland noted:
“Ponsford possessed a similarly insatiable appetite for big scores, once recording 2,183 runs in 13 consecutive first-class innings at an average of 167, but also a weakness against the fastest bowling, ruthlessly exploited by (Harold) Larwood.”
That would go against Ponsford being rated alongside the true greats despite Wyatt’s generous off-the-cuff remark. Indeed, Ponsford floundered in the Bodyline series, though he did score a brave 85 in the infamous Adelaide Test after Bill Woodfull and Bert Oldfield had been hit.
Bill Ponsford finished with a fine record: 2,122 runs at an average of 48.22 in Tests and 13,819 runs at 65.18 in first-class cricket.
(Excerpt from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘Don’s Century’).