Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Ponsford, William Harold (Bill) (1900–1991)

by Carl Bridge

This article was published online in 2014

William Harold Ponsford (1900-1991), cricketer, was born on 19 October 1900 at North Fitzroy, Melbourne, eldest of four children of Victorian-born parents William Ponsford, letter-carrier, and his wife Elizabeth, née Best. Bill attended (1906-14) Alfred Crescent State School, North Fitzroy, where he won two medals for cricket. In 1915 he enrolled at Hassett’s Coaching College, Prahran, crammed for the bank clerk's examinations, and, having passed, secured a post at the State Savings Bank of Victoria in the city. After the books were balanced each day, he hurried to the nets at Fitzroy Cricket Club, where he batted as a junior on matting pitches. When the family moved to Elsternwick in 1916, he transferred to the St Kilda Cricket Club, where he played for the first XI on turf wickets. He also played baseball for Fitzroy and St Kilda, excelling as a batter and catcher, and was a regular member of the Victorian team from 1919 to 1934.

Ponsford began playing cricket for Victoria in 1921, but only cemented his place in the side in February 1923 when he broke the world record for a first-class innings with a score of 429 against Tasmania. He made his debut for Australia in 1924-25, playing against the touring Englishmen, and became the first player to follow a century on Test debut with another in the next Test match. In 1927 he broke his own first-class record by scoring 437 against Queensland—the record stood until (Sir) Donald Bradman surpassed it in 1930. Before Bradman burst onto the scene, ‘Ponnie’ was the man who amassed mammoth scores and was idolised by the Australian crowd.

After his second world record, Ponsford was employed as a sports columnist and publicist for (Sir) Keith Murdoch’s Herald and Sporting Globe, and the St Kilda Cricket Club appointed him treasurer on an honorarium of £102 per annum. Both posts were ‘shamateur’ ploys to stop his going to the Blackpool Cricket Club in England on a lucrative contract. On 22 March 1924 at the Orrong Road Methodist Church, Elsternwick, Ponsford had married Vera Gladys Neill, a milliner. They lived in a newly built house in South Caulfield and Bill’s cricket-related earnings enabled him to acquit his mortgage in 1928. They had two sons.

Playing for both Victoria and Australia, Ponsford formed one of the great opening pairs with his captain, Bill Woodfull. Oddly, for an opening batsman, Ponsford was a superlative player of spin bowling and suspect against extreme pace bowling. In his column, drawing on his experience on his first illness-dogged tour of England in 1926, he pronounced foolishly that the England express bowler Harold Larwood ‘was not really fast’ (Leckey 2006, 66). Predictably, in the second Test of the 1928-29 series in Australia, a Larwood delivery shattered Ponsford’s little finger and sidelined him for the season. Touring England again in 1930 he averaged 55 for the series, second to Bradman’s 139, in a winning team.

During the infamous ‘bodyline’ series of 1932-33, Ponsford again succumbed to Larwood’s pace and was dropped from the team for the second Test. Returning to play in Adelaide, but batting ignominiously down the order, he scored a memorable 85. Bodyline cut his series average to 23 and Bradman’s to 56, and England won back the Ashes in controversial circumstances. Touring England for the last time in 1934, with bodyline now banned, Ponsford had his finest Ashes series: averaging 94.83, he shaded Bradman as best batsman, and the two won the series with a tremendous partnership of 451 at The Oval, London. He retired from first-class cricket that year, citing family responsibilities following his father’s death and disillusion with the no-holds-barred modern game.

Ponsford played twenty-nine Tests with a batting average of 48.22 runs and 162 first-class matches at 65.18. Of his 235 first-class innings, 47 (20 percent) resulted in centuries, including thirteen double centuries, and four triple centuries. Ponsford’s ability to convert centuries to larger scores compares favourably with Bradman's record, although Bradman made more centuries at 35 percent of his innings.

In maturity, ‘Puddin’ Ponsford was five feet nine inches (175 cm) tall and square-built. Very taciturn and shy, he was gruff and stand-offish to all but a few cherished intimates; on the field he let his ‘Big Bertha’ bat, weighing 2 pounds 10 ounces (1.2 kg), do the talking. He was a front-foot player, fast between wickets, strong in defence, able to drive through the covers and to the on side, but with a superb cut shot and, when he risked it, the best hook in the game. Deceptive preparatory shuffling heralded deft footwork and his unsurpassed level of concentration was made even more essential by acute colour blindness, discovered only when he applied to join the Royal Australian Air Force during World War II. He was generally an accumulator of runs rather than a flamboyant stroke maker. Opposition bowlers complained that one rarely saw his stumps, though facing bodyline he deliberately turned his back to the ball to avoid spooning catches and, as a consequence, not only suffered many painful blows but often fatally exposed his leg stump. Arthur Mailey, New South Wales and Test leg-spinner and wit, wrote memorably that Ponsford at the crease was ‘dour, sullen, determined, [a] breaker of batting records and bowlers’ hearts’ (Leckey 2006, 100).

In 1932 Ponsford had left journalism for a clerkship with the Melbourne Cricket Club, where he worked until retirement in 1969, meticulously administering net practice, selection, membership, and all events at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Vera died in 1977, and Ponsford, pursuing interests in Freemasonry, fishing, and lawn bowls, moved to Woodend, to live with his younger son. He was appointed MBE in 1981. Survived by his sons, he died on 6 April 1991 in a nursing home at Kyneton and was cremated. He is memorialised thrice at the MCG: in the Ponsford Stand (1986, 2004); on Robert Ingpen’s bronze doors (1988), turning to leg; and in Louis Laumen’s bronze statue (2005), completing a cover drive.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Fiddian, Marc. Ponsford and Woodfull. Melbourne: Five Mile Press, 1988
  • Frith, David. Bodyline Autopsy. Sydney: ABC Books, 2001
  • George, Anthony. W.H. Ponsford: His record innings-by-innings. West Bridgford: Association of Cricket Statisticians, 1986
  • Leckey, John A. The Real Story of Bill Ponsford. Melbourne: Arcadia, 2006
  • Robinson, Ray. Between Wickets. Sydney: Collins, 1946
  • Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. ‘Obituary: Bill Ponsford.’ 125 (1992): 1267-68.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Carl Bridge, 'Ponsford, William Harold (Bill) (1900–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ponsford-william-harold-bill-15504/text26719, published online 2014, accessed online 23 October 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017