He was John Barton King, also known as Bart King. In a career spanning nearly two decades (1893-1912), the Philadelphia-born quick gun scalped 415 first-class wickets (average: 15. 6). During the 1908 tour of England, King had 87 victims (av: 11) in just 10 games and topped the bowling average that season; a remarkable feat for the 35-year-old pacer.
The Times, London, wrote about him, “No one probably knows more than he of the art of the swinging ball. ” There are accounts how King lost his pace but reinvented himself by adding variation and cunning to his repertoire much like 21st century bowlers do. When a 19th century American cricketer becomes the subject of 21st century biographies (see box), he must be quite special.
On his first England tour in 1897 against a strong Sussex side, King was unplayable. His 13 wickets for 115 fashioned an unlikely 8-wicket victory for the touring club, Philadelphians. Highlight: a first-ball castling of Ranjitsinhji, who later became probably the first Indian to play cricket in the USA.
Ranji later said that the delivery which got him swung late and was unplayable. It was “the angler”, as King would refer to a signature inswinger that doomed many a batter. Some writers have also called him the game’s first swing bowler.
King was over six feet tall and powerfully built. “With his long bounding run up to the wicket, the ball gripped in both hands high above the head in the manner of the pitcher in the final stride, he (King) was a terrifying sight to the batsmen. At the end of that wild gyration of arms there was a beautifully smooth shoulder and body swing as the ball was delivered at a great pace,” writes Ralph Barker in Ten Great Bowlers (1967). The book places King alongside all-time greats such as Frederick Spofforth, Sid Barnes, Hedley Verity, Clarrie Grimmett, Bill O’Reilly.
King was a key player in what’s often described as America’s Golden Age of the game, ranging from the 1890s to 1920s. With MLC attracting packed houses, cricket could get a much needed-boost in the USA and relive its heyday .
Cricket in the USA was highly organised with several different competitions, according to Rowland Bowen in Cricket: A history of its growth and development throughout the world (1970). The matches drew decent crowds. “The standard of their inter-club competition was not far below that of the English first-class game,” writes Barker. At one point, Philadelphia had two cricket monthly magazines. One of them, American Cricketer, starting 1877, lasted till 1929, underlining the game’s healthy social base.
The Philadelphians (the Gentlemen of Philadelphia being the full name) toured England in the 1890s and the early 1900s. The team was an assortment of players from local clubs such as Germantown and Belmont and colleges like Haverford. In 1893, the Philadelphians shocked a visiting Australian side; King’s seven wickets vital to the cause. The Aussies had the classy off spinner Hugh Trumble and the formidable Charles Bannerman, the first Test centurion in history.
King’s resume includes four first-class centuries. Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ tome World Cricketers: A Biographical Dictionary, says that he smashed two triple tons in American domestic league. And his 98 and unbeaten 113 were pivotal to the team’s win over Surrey in 1903. Indeed, the encyclopaedia describes him as “unquestionably the greatest all-rounder in United States cricket. ” He represented the USA 11 times, all against Canada.
Unlike his colleagues, King was a professional, not an amateur, or “a gentleman. ” King was a great raconteur too. Barker calls him “Bob Hope of cricketers” after the boxer turned Hollywood comic star of yore. The fast bowler once recalled how while travelling in interior England the train was held up as the station master and the porter were engaged in playing cricket. King offered to bowl and uprooted the stumps first ball. The porter rushed to him in gratitude and said, “Thank God, sir! I’ve been bowling at him for a fortnight! Thank God, for doing that. ” The journey resumed.
Here are three other cricketers who also played with distinction:
Charles Christopher Morris (1882-1971): Wisden described him as “a beautiful batsman”. Morris was also a decent leg-break bowler, the first to employ the googly in America. The CC Morris Cricket Library is named after him.
John Lester (1871-1969): The England-born cricketer captained the Philadelphians on two tours. The “watchful” right-hander topped the team’s batting average in 1897 and 1903. His proposal was key to the building of the CC Morris library at Haverford College, eight miles from Philadelphia.
George Stuart Patterson (1868-1943) : A first-rate all-rounder, he captained the Philadelphians during their 1897 tour of England. Had a first-class aggregate of 2051 runs with a solid average of 40, including ?ve tons. Also scalped 74 wickets.
(Source: Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ World Cricketers: A Biographical Dictionary)
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