Bobby Abel, popularly known as “The Guv’nor”, overcame the physical disadvantage of being one of the smallest cricketers of all time to become the pre-eminent opening batsman in Surrey and England at the beginning of the last century. Reputedly afraid of fast bowling, he mastered all types of attack to accumulate 32,669 career runs – including 27,605 for his county – at an average of 35.47.

With his faded and shrunken chocolate-coloured Surrey cap, slow half-waddling walk to the wicket and a mastery of technique that could reduce all but the very greatest bowlers to frustration, Abel was in every way a favourite with the crowds. This was especially so at The Oval where he recorded all nine of his innings over two hundred and the majority of his remaining 65 centuries.

Found playing Club cricket in Southwark Park “on wickets calculated to frighten rather than inspire confidence in the batsman”, Bobby took some time to accustom himself to his surroundings and his early efforts gave no idea of the skill that he was to steadily attain. In his third season with Surrey, in 1883, he advanced rapidly as a batsman. Three years later he made a remarkable 144 against the touring Australians and in 1888 – one of the wettest summers on record – he came out first among professional batsmen with 1,323 runs at an average of thirty-one. From then onwards his successful career was interrupted only in 1893 when a serious eye infection interfered with his play.

Bobby Abel, pictured after carrying his bat against Somerset in 1899 to make 357 not out
In every English season from 1895 to 1902 he passed two thousand runs, averaging over fifty in three of them – 1899, 1900 and 1901. By making 12 hundreds in 1900 the Guv’nor passed the record set by Ranjitsinhji. The following year another of the Prince’s landmarks fell to Abel when he completed the summer with a haul of 3,309 runs. He carried his bat on eight occasions in all and his 357 not out against Somerset at The Oval in 1899 – apart from being the highest individual innings for Surrey – is the highest ever made by a batsman performing this feat.

Unflamboyant and calm, Bobby’s greatest innings were built on a foundation of caution which gradually transformed into accelerated run-getting the longer he remained at the crease. Apart from his career best, he recorded 217 and 231 for Surrey against Essex in 1895 and 1896, 250 and 215 against Warwickshire and Nottinghamshire in 1897, 219 against Kent in 1898, 221 against Worcestershire in 1900 and 205 not out against Middlesex in 1901. Abel also had remarkable success in the Gentlemen and Players matches. He made an unbeaten 168 in 1894, 195 in 1899, 153 not out in 1900 and 247 in 1901.

Bobby appeared in thirteen Tests for England, scoring 744 runs at an average of 37.20 including the first first-class century to be made in

South Africa (120 at Cape Town in 1888-89) and 132 not out – when, once again, he carried his bat – against Australia in Sydney in 1891-92. On his Test debut at Lord’s in 1888, Abel played under W.G.Grace who wrote of him: “As a batsman he is in the first flight, having exceptionally strong defence and patience, and for his size he hits very freely all round. His pluck and cheerfulness are really first-rate, whether they are required in fighting an uphill game with the bat or in the field.”

In 1903 Abel’s eyesight began to trouble him again, but, despite wearing glasses, his form suffered as a result of regularly declaring himself unfit to play. The following summer he enjoyed some success in the early matches, but it did not last and in the Somerset game – in August – he took guard for the last time. With nine in the first innings and a duck in the second the career of the Guv’nor met an unhappy end. In the years that followed, however, those who saw him play used Bobby Abel as the yardstick by which to judge the batsmen of the day.