Is George Lohmann the best bowler of all time? You won't hear his name all that often when the conversation turns to the greatest, but George dominated the cricket scene in the late 19th century. George's story is one of a tragedy as well. I once read a quote, 'the star that burns twice as bright, burns half as long', and this is the perfect summary for Lohmann's career.
Lohmann's introduction to professional cricket would be highly fortuitous, having accompanied his friend who was appearing in a game to the Oval. While his friend was warming up, Lohmann took up a bat and starting practising. He was asked to leave by the head groundsmen as he was not officially supposed to be there. However he was stopped from doing so:
“I was dreadfully disappointed, so I walked disconsolately away. In a few minutes Dick Humphrey came up and asked ‘Will you kindly go to the nets again — the Hon. Robert Grimston wants to see you bat.’ I did as I was asked and went through a sort of test performance — and through this I afterwards played for Surrey, for I was asked to play in the colts’ match in 1884.”
After bursting onto the scene at Surrey in 1884 at just 19 years of age, he actually cemented his place in the side due to his ability with the bat. However, just one year later in 1885, he would take 142 wickets in first-class cricket, before making his test debut against Australia in 1886. He would take 12 for 104 in the 3rd test as England cantered to victory by an inning and 217 runs.
C.B Fry, a former England and Surrey cricketer described Lohmann's action as:
He made his own style of bowling, and a beautiful style it was – so beautiful that none but a decent cricketer could fully appreciate it. He had a high right-over action, which was naturally easy and free-swinging, but, in his seeking after variations of pace, he introduced into it just a suspicion – a mere suspicion – of laboriousness. Most people, I believe, considered his action to have been perfect. To the eye it was rhythmical and polished but it cost him, probably, more effort than it appeared to do.
His normal pace was medium; he took a run of moderate length, poised himself with a slight uplifting of his high square shoulders, and delivered the ball just before his hand reached the top of its circular swing, and, in the act of delivery, he seemed first to urge forward the upper part of his body in sympathy with his arm, and then allow it to follow through after the ball. Owing to his naturally high delivery, the ball described a pronounced curve, and dropped rather sooner than the batsman expected. This natural peculiarity he developed assiduously into a very deceptive ball which he appeared to bowl the same pace as the rest, but which he really, as it were, held back, causing the unwary and often the wary to play too soon.
Lohmann continued to dominate world cricket over the coming years with his medium pace. During a tour game in Port Elizabeth against South Africa in 1986, Lohman would skittle the South African's to the tune of 8 wickets for 9 runs.
During the 1888 season, England experienced an extremely wet summer. This aided the bowling of Lohmann who was able to get movement and spin off the pitch due to his delivery angle and technique. He cleaned up that summer to the tune of 209 wickets for just 10.90 per wicket. He continued to dominate cricket up until the 1892 season, for the previous 7 years he'd been the leading wicket-taker in first-class cricket but his run would end that winter with William Lockwood becoming the top Surrey bowler.
George was beloved, when reaching the top of his mark the Surrey crown would hum with anticipation. It was often noted that he was an attractive fellow who was very popular with the ladies. W.G Grace would comment on that, but he reserved his highest praise for his ability on the field, saying:
“He has no superior as a bowler… He bowls above medium pace —indeed he might almost be classed as fast — has a beautiful action and keeps a splendid length. He alters his pace without altering his action… Today, it is simply ludicrous to watch batsman after batsman walk into [his] trap … it is a triumph of the bowler’s art”
Following the 1892 season, George Lohman became ill after contracting tuberculosis. He sailed to South Africa in the hope of improving his health with some sun during the winter, but he was unable to return for either the 1893 or 1894 season. However, he was able to return in 1895 but Lohman would travel to South Africa in the winter to try and maintain his health.
At the end, it was a pay dispute that ended Lohmann's career. His last test was in June 1896 at Lords against the Australians, a game that England would go on to win by 6 wickets. He would take 3 wickets for just 13 runs during Australian's first inning as Harry Trott's men were skittled for just 53. It was a fitting end for a man who had previously terrorised the Australians.
Lohmann finished his test career having played in 18 official games, taking 112 wickets for a 10.75 bowling average. He holds the lowest test bowling average among bowlers with more than 15 wickets, while also holding the record for the lowest strike rate for any test bowler.
His first-class numbers were just as impressive. He would appear in 293 matches, taking 1,841 wickets at an average of 13.73 with 176 5-wicket hauls to his name.
Unfortunately for George, he was only able to play one more season for the Western Province in South Africa after emigrating permanently to South Africa in 1897. His health started to deteriorate and on the 1st of December 1901, at the age of 36, George passed away having battled bravely against his tuberculosis for 9 years.
His obituary in the Sydney Herald spoke of his great cricketing pedigree, but it also spoke about the man, and I found this the most fitting way to finish:
"Moreover, he was one of the best of good fellows, was as popular amongst cricketers as with the public...unspoilt by his success, and was a gentleman to his fingertips"