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George Giffen (1859–1927)

by Arthur Herbert Gregory

from Sydney Mail

Born at Adelaide on 27th March, 1859, George Giffen played his first test match in 1881, and his last at Kennington Oval in 1896, and he was the only Australian to score over 10,000 runs and capture over 1000 wickets in his first-class career. He batted in 429 first-class innings, and bowled in 229 matches.

For 23 years, except for a short break here and there, George Giffen represented South Australia, yet, notwithstanding his long period of service, his value to his State cannot be limited to that, for long before he retired, and after, he devoted his spare time to imparting his remarkable knowledge to the rising generation. The young people were up betimes in the morning, batting, bowling, and fielding under his tuition, so that it will be years, if ever, before the influence of George Giffen will pass away. He was a wonderful power in the game, and he is generally regarded, as far as the actual play is concerned, as one of the greatest cricketers that the world has produced. Great bat, as he undoubtedly was, it is rather surprising that in his test career there are not more big scores to his credit than there are. No doubt the reason is to be found in the fact that he was too much worked as a bowler to do himself full justice with the bat.

With Giffen either batting, bowling, or fielding you had the embodiment of physical exercise and celerity in action, combined with intuition. He would bowl all day and say at the end that he was not tired. Every ball he sent down had something insidious wrapped up in it; it was bowled with an object. His short run to the wicket was springy, and he 'put' the ball rather than bowled it, something after the fashion of Tom McKibbin, and there was plenty of spin. It was the same with his batting. It was attractive, even when he was stone-walling. He was not a man to take risks at any time, yet his was sound batting, free and vigorous and versatile. His opening first-class engagement was against Victoria in 1880, when he scored 63, and in his last, in 1903, 81 and 97 not out, and he secured 15 wickets for 185 runs.

It was against Alfred Shaw's 1881-1882 eleven that Giffen first appeared in a test match. The result was an even draw, Australia requiring 155 and having seven wickets in hand. Giffen batted only in the first innings, and got 30, and he failed to get a wicket in the short trial given him. He bowled but three overs. Going to the Old Country with the 1882 Australian Eleven, he was one of the band that won that famous match against England by seven runs — the most sensational in the long line of 50 years of that class of cricket, which set the seal upon Spofforth as being the foremost bowler in all the world. England required 84 to avert defeat, and how the side was dismissed for 77 is thus graphically described in Mr. J. N. Pentelow's book: — 

At 3:45 W.G. and Hornby went in. Spofforth sent down Hornby's off stump 1 for 15
Barlow bowled next ball 2 for 15
Ulyett, followed. Both batsmen hit out and 36 were added. Then Ulyett was caught at wicket 3 for 51
Thirty-four to win, seven wickets to fall. Lucas went in. W.G. caught at wicket Lyttelton followed and made a hit for two. Lucas played the stonewall game. Twelve successive maiden overs. A hit purposely misfielded so that a run should be made and Spofforth should have a chance at Lyttelton 4 for 53
Ruse succeeded after four more maidens
5 for 65
Nineteen now wanted to win. With Steel in, Lucas hit a four. Sleel caught and bowled 6 for 70
Maurice Read clean bowled second ball  7 for 70
Barnes hit a two. Blackham let three byes. Lucas played on after a wonderful display of defence 8 for 75
Blacklum caught Barnes off his glove 9 for 75
Peate joined Mr. Sludd, hit a two to square leg, tried to do it again, and was bowled 10 for 75

It is not generally known that in the great match of 1894, which Australia lost by 10 runs, Syd. Gregory was not chosen in the first selection. The list was shown to George Giffen, who was amazed at the omission, so much so that he at once told the selectors: 'You can strike my name out if Syd. is not picked, for he is worth his place on the side for his fielding, even if he does nothing with the bat.' The list was amended. Syd. was included, and he got 201 and 'Giff' 161. There is, I understand, a parallel case to this with regard to Clem Hill. It was due, so it was said, to George Giffen's advocacy that Clem was taken to England in the 1896 eleven, and something similar has been said with respect to the late Jack Lyons and Joe Darling. Nobody could say to 'Giff,' in the words of Falsfaff, 'Call you that, backing of your friends?' And he would not go to England in 1893 with Mr. Victor Cohen's eleven unless brother Walter went also.

Such a long career produced, of course, incidents so numerous that they would fill a book. There are two performances that stand out prominently in my memory. One was against Ivo Bligh's eleven and the other the contest, referred to above in 1894. Four tests were played against Ivo Bligh's XI. Up to the end of the third the position was England two up and one to play. And Australia evened up by securing the fourth after the most exciting contest which it has ever been my pleasure to witness. I can see at the present moment, in my mind's eye, Giffen, practically on one leg — for the other was 'game' owing to sciatica — playing two wonderful innings, not for many as figures go — 27 and 30 — but worth a hundred; Bonner hitting for 87 and being missed several times; and, above all, Jack Blackham handing in two contributions of 57 and 58 (not out); and Australia winning by four wickets. A. G. Steel played a wonderful innings for 135 not out. That was in 1883. This was the last test that two fine English cricketers played in — G. B. and C. T. Studd. They went out as missionaries to China.

The other occasion the memory of which dwells prominently in the minds of all that witnessed it was that match, in 1894, of which I have written, when George got his only century in test cricket — 161. We had three wickets down for 21 when the late Frank Iredale and George got together, and there they remained until the total had advanced to 192, at which Frank departed. Then came Syd. Gregory, and 331 was on the board when 'Giff' went. But when later Blackham joined the little New South Welshman, the bowling was pulverised to the extent of 154 in 73 minutes! Then it was that Syd. was caught close to the boundary between square leg and long-on by Peel off Sloddart. The Australian score of 586 was a record up to the 1924-5 season. How we lost by ten runs after a heavy night's rain, followed by a hot sun, has been frequently told.

South Australia was captained many times by Giffen. He was easily the best all-round man that State has ever produced, and about the year 1890 he was entitled to be so regarded in Australia; but, as for being the best Australia has produced, that is hardly likely to be conceded in my opinion. His weakness as a captain in not knowing when he should take himself off puts him behind both Noble and Armstrong, if, when arriving at the best all-round man, we take into consideration captaincy as well as batting, bowling, and fielding. The true chronicler will admit that it was unfortunate that he could not have deputed another to lead the side while he himself was at the bowling crease; it would have been to the advantage of the side and also of himself. I have often heard it said that a bowler should never be captain. It did not matter in the case of Hugh Trumble and Trott. It applied in Giffen's case. It is said that in the Melbourne test match in 1895 — the deciding test of the series — George had bowled so long (he was captain) that one of the team suggested that there should be a change. 'Yes,' said 'Giff,' 'I think so, too,' and he went on at the other end. Albert Ward and J. T. Brown punished him unmercifully on that occasion, and England won by six wickets after being set 298.

There are only three who have to their credit 1000 runs and 100 wickets in test matches. They are Noble, Giffen, and Rhodes, and their figures are as follow-:  

  M'ches Inngs. N.O. Total. H.S. Avge.
W. Rhodes (Eng.) 41 69 14 1706 179 31.01
M. A. Noble (Aust.) 39 68 6 1905 133 30.72
G. Giffen (Aust.) 31 53 0 1238 161 23.35
  Inngs. Balls. Mdns. Runs. Wkts. Avge.
W. Rhodes (Eng.) 65 5790 232 2616 109 24.00
M. A. Noble (Aust.) 66 6845 353 2850 115 24.78
G. Giffen (Aust.) 43 6391 434 2791 103 27.09

In addition to his 15 wickets and 178 for once out against Victoria in 1903 he accounted for 17 for 201 in 1886, 12 for 169 in 1887, 14 for 125 and 13 for 159 in 1888, 12 for 192 in 1891 (and 237 in his single innings), 12 for 147 (94 not out). From 1885 to 1895 he was the best combined batsman and bowler in Australia. During that period he secured against Victoria no fewer than 125 wickets for 1945 runs (15-55). He was not as successful against. N.S.W., his best being 16 for 186 in 1895. Other fine performances were 12 for 150 in 1892, and in the same year 12 for 191, and his biggest innings were 120 in 1892, 47 and 205 in the following year, and 104 not out in 1897.

It was a bright day for 'Giff' when, in 1894 he captained the South Australian team which defeated the Englishmen. His countrymen showed their appreciation by presenting him with an illuminated address and 400 sovereigns. For many years Giffen carried the South Australian side on his shoulders, and for his State there are quite a number of excellent records to his credit. Let me mention one in particular. It is his 271 and 10 wickets against Victoria. In the 1880 Australian Eleven tour of England he secured the honours in batting and bowling, a feat never performed before or since. In his five tours he accounted for 541 wickets for 10,009 runs, averaging 18-50. Thrice he obtained a thousand runs and took a hundred wickets, and he totalled 5815 runs for 252 completed innings, averaging 23-07. He made five tours, 1882, 1884, 1880, 1893, and 1890.

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Arthur Herbert Gregory, 'Giffen, George (1859–1927)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

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