Record still stacks up

Alex Downes is congratulated by A.W. Roberts and Otago captain Lankford Smith at Carisbrook after...
Alex Downes is congratulated by A.W. Roberts and Otago captain Lankford Smith at Carisbrook after celebrating his 80th birthday. Photo: Evening Star
Once a great, always a great.

And Alexander Downes was certainly one of the greatest players to have represented Otago.

Name: Alexander (Alec) Dalziel Downes.
Born: February 2, 1868, Emerald Hill, South Melbourne, Australia.
Died: February 10, 1950, Dunedin.
Bowling: Right-arm off-break.
Batting: Right-hand batsman.
Otago record: 44 matches, 287 wkts at 13.59.
First-class record: 51 matches, 311 wkts at 14.67.
New Zealand record: 4 matches, 14 wkts at 23.57. 

In 27 seasons - yes, 27 - between 1888 and 1914, the right-arm, off-break bowler took 287 wickets for the province at the scarcely believable average of 13.59.

His tally remained an Otago record until left-arm spinner Stephen Boock overtook it in the summer of 1986-87.

While Boock's exploits are still relatively fresh, the march of time has reduced Downes' magnificent efforts to mere statistics in dusty almanacs.

In the 96 years since he retired, it has been increasingly difficult to put his performances in context.

Cricket was a different beast in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The game was played on surfaces which favoured the bowlers, and the batsmen were poorly equipped by today's standards.

The contest was, perhaps, as heavily stacked in the bowlers' favour as it is in the batsmen's nowadays.

Pitches were left uncovered and not as well prepared as modern wickets, and a downpour could leave batting almost impossible.

Bowling statistics from the era point to a game dominated by the ball.

A score of 200 was an impressive total in the late part of the 19th century, whereas a similar effort would earn brickbats today.

It is tempting to dismiss Downes' record as a product of its time, which is unlikely to ever be repeated.

But his achievements cannot, nor should not, be so easily dismissed.

While he undoubtedly struck helpful conditions, you still have to bowl a good line and length, skills which remain immutable, even in the modern game with its barren pitches and defensive field settings.

And spinning the ball as prodigiously as he was able is an uncommon talent only the gifted master.

So it is perfectly reasonable to assume a bowler such as Downes would have been formidable, whatever the era.

But perhaps the best way to assess a player's ability is to compare him with contemporaries.

Downes was not the only outstanding bowler of his time.

Otago had what was widely regarded as the best bowling attack in the colony.

Left-arm swing bowler Arthur Fisher formed a long and successful partnership with Downes.

He took 176 wickets at 15.71 in 40 games for Otago and is one of only three players to take nine wickets in an innings for the province.

His haul of nine for 50 against Queensland, in Dunedin, in January 1897, remains the Otago record.

Like Downes, he kept playing summer after summer - 20 in all - and was regarded as a hard-hitting batsman and superb fieldsmen.

English professional Joseph Lawton also made a huge impact in a brief career from 1890-94.

He was a miserly medium-pace trundler of unknown hand who took 67 wickets at 9.26 in 10 matches for Otago.

Both were fine cricketers in their own right but Downes stood out because of his phenomenal strike rate.

While he played just four more matches for Otago than Fisher, he captured 111 more wickets.

He took five wickets in an innings 33 times and took 10 wickets in a match 13 times, compared with Fisher's haul of nine five-wicket bags and one 10-wicket bag.

His strike rate of 39.74 in first-class cricket is nothing short of remarkable.

To put that into context, Boock took a first-class scalp every 63.60 deliveries.

Had Downes played more than the 1.6 matches a season he averaged, his wicket tally would have been enormous.

Otago plays 10 first-class matches this summer and if Downes, who took 6.52 wickets a game, averaged six games a season during his career he would have taken more than a 1000 wickets.

Perhaps the only feat more impressive than his ability to prise batsmen from the crease, was his incredible durability.

Downes made his first-class debut at Carisbrook in January 1888 as a fresh-faced 19-year-old.

He made an immediate impact, snaffling five Canterbury wickets for 34 runs and bowled unchanged through the visitor's first innings.

There was no mention of workload in the early part of last century and at the end of the day's play there was no physiotherapist waiting to give him a rub down.

When he retired in February 1914, Downes was 46 and still had a spring in his step, getting through 33 overs and taking four for 133.

But it was an honest rather than impressive end to a career jammed with highlights.

Arguably his finest hour came in January 1892 when he took eight for 35 to help Otago beat Canterbury by five wickets.

His haul included four wickets in a maiden over of five balls.

The Otago Witness cricket writer, under the pseudonym, Notes by Slip, described his bowling as "unplayable".

"Downes' bowling was breaking back about a foot from the pitch, and something of a `funk' had been established by it ..."

At one stage Downes had eight for 18 but rain forced the players to seek shelter.

When play resumed Downes was not as deadly and had his figures spoiled somewhat.

By 1894 some were beginning to talk of Downes as the best bowler in the country.

The OtagoWitness quoted an unnamed Auckland cricketer's comments in the Auckland Star with glee:"I consider Downes the best bowler in the colony, combining as he does a great variety of pace with a big off break and fine length ..."

Downes was duly named in the New Zealand team to play New South Wales in February that year but was forced to pull out after he was unable to secure leave from his employment as a brass finisher with A. & T. Burt.

However, Notes by Slip was not convinced the spinner should have been selected.

"It may be rank heresy to say so, but I consider Downes is not worth his place as a bowler on Lancaster Park.

"Experience has proved he is not as deadly on the Christchurch wickets."

From 1889 to 1893, Downes delivered 500 balls, 35 maidens for 195 runs and nine wickets, Notes by Slip argued.

"An average of over 21 runs per wicket is not sufficiently good, I think."

However, he concluded his argument claiming if the match was in Dunedin, Downes should be among the first picked.

While cricket was Downes' first love, he also made his mark in rugby.

He played 14 games for Otago between 1887 and 1893.

He played in the centres and had the handy knack of being able to slot dropped goals.

A fit man, Downes continued to play club cricket for Grange until 1922.

During his long stint at the club he helped his side lift nine titles.

He remained active in retirement and refereed club and provincial rugby matches.

He officiated in a rugby test between New Zealand and Australia at Carisbrook on September 13, 1913 and also umpired in eight Plunket Shield matches and countless club games.

Sources - Otago Witness; David Richmond: Downes, Alexander Dalziel 1868-1950; Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.


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