Alexander Downes (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
Alexander Downes (courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

“Once a great, always a great. And Alexander Downes was certainly one of the greatest players to have represented Otago.” — Otago Daily Times

History tells us that the Melbourne Cricket Club, the first of the properly organised cricket clubs of Australia, was founded November 15, 1838 through the initiative of five cricket enthusiasts: Frederick Powlett, Robert Russell, George B Smyth, and the brothers Alfred and Charles Mundy. A brochure of the august club, recalling the early days of its history, comments: “Initially, it was not intended to establish a club in perpetuity — until well into 1840s, the MCC and other sporting clubs in Melbourne re-formed annually as the season for their activities approached.”

Across the Tasman Sea, the Albion Cricket Club was founded in Dunedin in 1862, and the members proudly claim that their club is the oldest continuously running cricket club in Australasia, despite Melbourne CC having been established in 1838. In an article for ESPN in 2014, Will MacPherson speaks of how he had met Warwick ‘Fox’ Larkins, ‘heartbeat’ of Albion CC. Speaking on the issueof the antecedents of the Club, Larkins had this to say: “We’re accepted to have been founded in 1862, although there’s no records in newspaper archives until 1869, and the Otago Cricket Association and formal competition didn’t emerge until 1886. I’ve contacted various clubs, including Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne, and while older clubs exist, none have been continuously active like Albion has. No one has ever disproved it and I guess until that happens, it stands.”

On one wall of the clubhouse hangs a list of the names of all those Albion players who have represented New Zealand in cricket over the years. Heading the list is one AD Downes.

During the period 1855 to 1883, the municipality of South Melbourne used to be known as Emerald Hill. The region was essentially an elevated area that rose above a predominantly swampy stretch. The so-called Hill was a protruding area of volcanic origin. The Emerald Hill township was surveyed in 1852, mainly in response to the gold rush population increases. By the early 1860s further survey activity expanded the extent of the township. At the summit of Emerald Hill was the Orphan Asylum reserve, on which the Emerald Hill town hall was built in 1880.

The household of the Emerald Hill plumber Thomas Nichol Downes and his wife Isabella Livingstone was blessed with a son on February 2, 1868, about a year prior to the discovery of the 69-kilogram gold nugget, named Welcome Stranger, from Bulldog Gulley. It was the height of the Australian gold rush, with the population of Victoria swelling by about a million by the end of the 1860s.The child was christened Alexander Dalziel, ‘Alec’ to one and all. By about 1870, the Emerald Hill plumber thought it fit to emigrate to Dunedin, in the South Island of New Zealand, often known as the Edinburgh of the southern hemisphere.

It turned out to be a wise decision, with the Otago gold rush of the late 1850s having boosted the economy and prosperity of the area. The plumber gravitated towards A & T Burt Limited, a firm of plumbing and electrical engineers, metal founders and manufacturers, the business having been established in Dunedin in 1862 by Scottish brothers Alexander and Thomas Burt. Having set up as plumbers and gas-fitters, the Burt brothers rapidly diversified into manufacturing, producing drinking fountains, fire-fighting systems, bells, rabbit-exterminators, brewing and distilling equipment, passenger and goods lifts, and boilers. By the early 1870s, it was a booming enterprise.

While not much is known about Alec in his growing years or about his schooling, it is on record that he had been attached to A & T Burt in 1882 as a brass-finisher, a relationship that would end with his retirement from the firm in 1945, a 63-year mutually beneficial symbiosis.

With the impending visit of James Lillywhite Jr and his band of Englishmen in 1876-77, Otago cricket enthusiasts felt that the time was ripe for the formation of an official cricket association. In Where The Game Was Played By Decent Chaps, Greg Ryan describes how the Otago Cricket Association was formed at a meeting held on July 16, 1876, “having for its objective the management of interprovincial matches and the general advancement of the game … Under the Presidency of W.D. Murison, editor of the Otago Daily Times, the original OCA was more an elite ‘super-club’ than a central controlling body for constituent clubs. For an annual subscription of 10s/6d members gained free admission to all matches under the jurisdiction of the Association. A determination was also expressed to involve country cricketers in order to make the OCA truly provincial rather than just a Dunedin entity.”

One of the blue-collar cricket clubs under the jurisdiction of the OCA was the Albion CC, catering to the families of the carpentry, printing, plumbing, and similar tradesof Otago, with a common interest in cricket. While enjoying a historic significance in its antiquity, the clubgradually introduced a junior brigade that played some documented matches as a boys’ team from 1869. It was not long before Downes became a regular member of Albion CC, rising gradually in proficiency till he was selected to turn out for Otago.

David Richmond, in his biography of Downes, says that the latter had first come into prominence in the sporting circles of Otago for his rugby skills: “He was one of Otago’s greatest centre three-quarters and was known for his ability to drop-kick goals. He was associated with the formation of the Alhambra Rugby Football Club in 1884, appearing in their inaugural senior team of 1887 and representing the club until 1893. He represented Otago on 13 occasions between 1887 and 1893, and the South Island in 1888 against A. E. Stoddart’s English team. In 1897, he was made a life member of the Alhambra Rugby Football Club.”

However, Downes found his sporting fame as a cricketer, and made his First-Class debut playing for Otago against Canterbury at Dunedin in 1887-88, just short of his 20th birthday. The match did not last the distance and was over on the second day with Otago victorious by 103 runs. 22 wickets fell on the first day, with Otago being dismissed for 97 and Canterbury for 68. Downes showed glimpses of his enormous potential as a bowler by capturing 5 for 34. Bowled out for 167 in the second innings, Otago struck back by dismissing Canterbury for 93. Downes did not pick up any wicket. The beginning of the rookie off-spinner’s First-Class career had been a promising one.

During a career from 1887-88 to 1913-14, Downes played only 51 matches of First-Class status. At first sight, the statement may appear to be somewhat strange given his undoubted talents. Being an amateur all his life and being employed at A & T Burt from well before his cricketing career began, it was a question of priorities for Downes. The issue is discussed by Anthony Bateman and Jeffrey Hill in The Cambridge Companion to Cricket: “With work leave required for days or weeks at a time to play and tour, inter-provincial cricket became the domain of those with independent means or the most flexible working arrangements. Numerous provincial and national teams suffered from the unavailability of original selections. Undoubtedly, the most extreme case was Otago’s Alec Downes, the best spinner in New Zealand before 1914, who missed numerous matches and played only twice in the North Island during a twenty-six-year First-Class career, as he was unable to obtain leave from employment…”

Batting had never been Downes’ long suite. He had scored a total of 882 runs with a highest of 63, his only fifty, and an average of 10.62. He held 31 catches in his career. He excelled as a bowler, capturing 311 wickets at an average of 14.67, with best figures of 8 for 35. He had 33 five-wicket hauls and 13 ten-wicket hauls, and his strike rate was a phenomenal 39.74.

Downes displayed another interesting aspect of his character by joining the Dunedin City Fire Brigade in 1887 as an auxiliary fireman, remaining with this altruistic service for most of his adult life. Meanwhile, cricket formed a large part of his life.

In a match against Auckland at Dunedin in late 1889-90, Downes made significant contributions with both bat and ball. The Otago innings was over in 25 overs, the total reading 62. Downes scored 25 of these and remained not out. Auckland were then bowled out for 48. This time Downes had 7 for 22. With a slender 14-run lead, Otago were dismissed for 68, after which Auckland achieved an easy victory by 8 wickets. The game was completed in one day, the 49th instance in First-Class cricket.

The match against Canterbury at Dunedin from in 1891-92 was to see an important landmark being achieved in the career of Downes. Otago won by 5 wickets, riding on a wonderful bowling effort of Downes in the second innings when he captured 8 for 35, his best career figures. Downes’ figures included 4 wickets in 5 deliveries in a maiden over. At one stage in this innings he had 8 for 18, but there was a rain stoppage thatmay have upset his rhythm. Describing Downes’ bowling in the game as “unplayable”, the Otago Witness cricket writer, under the guise of Notes by Slip, had this to say about his bowling in this match: “Downes’ bowling was breaking back about a foot from the pitch, and something of a ‘funk’ had been established by it …”

By this time, Downes was in the process of forging animpressive bowling combination with left-arm medium-pacer Arthur Fisher, who would go on to capture 197 wickets from 46 matches. Between the two of them, they would capture 463 wickets for Otago.

Downes married Mary Catherine Reid at Dunedin on June 3, 1891 and they were to raise a family of eight children. As a responsible family man, he could not afford to lose his wages playing cricket. Although OCA were unable or unwilling to pay him regular emoluments for cricketing activities, they did pay him a minimal remittance for his services. Nevertheless, his allegiance to his employers frequently led to his being unavailable for cricket tours outside of Otago. In fact, Downes played most of his First-Class cricket in Dunedin.

In 1893-94, there was another match against Auckland at Dunedin. Auckland were bowled out for 106, Downes claiming 5 for 35. Otago were themselves dismissed for 149. All 20 wickets fell on the first day. Auckland were then dismissed for 156. Isaac Mills carried his bat for 88. Bert Jacobs, the other opener, scored 24, and one-drop man, wicketkeeper John Fawke, scored 25. This was followed by 3 ducks in succession, the sequence being broken by Rowland Holle (9). Three more consecutive ducks followed. Downes picked up 6 for 45, including a hat-trick with the wickets of Holle, William Stemson, and John Lundon. He then made it 4 in 4 with the wicket of Henry Lawson (0). This created quite a stir, and generated a bowling record that was to survive for more than 117 years.

The hat-trick, then, was not unique in New Zealand cricket. His feat of 4 wickets in 4 balls was a pioneering effort in New Zealand and only the sixth instance in First-Class cricket. In 2010-11, Neil Wagner, also playing for Otago in a Plunket Shield match, was to capture 4 wickets with the first 4 balls of the 70th over of the Wellington first innings (and follow that up with another wicket off the last ball of the over), thus setting up an unprecedented instance of a bowler capturing 5 wickets in the same First-Class over. The irony of it all was that, great as Downes’ feat was, Auckland won the match by 13 runs.

Richmond says: “By February 1894 Downes was being described as the best bowler in New Zealand. He bowled right-arm with a great variety of pace, a big off-break and a fine length. Downes’s bowling record was nothing short of remarkable, especially in Dunedin. Of the 28 matches that he played there for Otago he took 10 or more wickets in a match on 13 occasions.”

One of the matches that really defined Downes in his playing days was the game between Otago and Hawke’s Bay at Dunedin in 1893-94. Otago won the game by an innings and 112 runs: they scored 316 and bowled out Hawke’s Bay for 63 and 141. Downes claimed 7 for 32 and 7 for 71.

Among other things, the match between Otago and Wellington at Dunedin in 1893-94 was remarkable for the bizarre fact that the first innings of both sides were played out with 5-ball overs whilst the second innings using 6-ball overs, a nightmare for latter-day statisticians. Downes turned in a stellar performance in the game: he first took 4 for 37 in Wellington’s 146, top-scored with 63 (his career best score) out of 145 all out, and took 7 for 31 in Wellington’s 98. All the heroics of Downes came to naught, however, as Otago, dismissed for 54, lost by 45 runs, the match being completed in 2 days.

It seems that Downes had a few run-ins with the umpires during his career, being accused of using foul language by a local official in 1898-99. An apology from Downes had settled that specific episode, but another complaint from another umpire within six weeks of the earlier incident had resulted in his suspension for a month.

In February 1899, a representative team from New Zealand toured Australia playing 2 First-Class games. Led by Thomas Cobcroft (born in and having played for New South Wales), the 13-member team featured Downes and Fisher. This was the maiden visit to Australia, the land of his birth for Downes the cricketer, and he played his first representative match for New Zealand at Melbourne, against Victoria from. Winning the toss, New Zealand batted first and scored 317.

The Victoria total had reached a manageable 129 for 5 when a series of fielding errors by New Zealand allowed the hosts to recover. A seventh-wicket stand of 187 between Percy McAllister (224) and Wyn Murray (92), followed by a solid lower-order effort resulted in a total of 602. Downes, opening bowling, took 4 for 127. New Zealand were then dismissed for 153.

The match against NSW began at Sydney “in delightful weather,” as reported by the Australian Town and Country Journal. This was the first representative contest ever played between the two colonies at Sydney. Cobcroft won the toss and New Zealand batted first, but not for long, being dismissed at about 3.45 for 140, thanks to a 62-run last wicket stand between No. 10 Stanley Frankish and No. 11 Ernest Upham.

The first 2 NSW wickets were down by the time the total was 13. This was followed by a 224-run third-wicket stand between Victor Trumper (253) and Wally Farquhar (110). NSW were all out for 588, Downes taking 2 wickets. The New Zealand second innings folded up for 64. As a postscript to this match, it may be mentioned that Trumper won the Pattison Shield for his sterling performances in the inter-colonial games (including the one against New Zealand) with a tally of 674 runs from his 5 matches in the season with 2 double centuries and an enviable average of 84.25.

In his 44 matches for Otago in his career, Downes captured 287 wickets at an average of 13.59, an astounding performance that remained a record for Otago till 1986-87 when it was overtaken by Stephen Boock. Downes had a strike rate of 39.7 in all First-Class cricket whilst Boock had 63.6 — hardly any comparison. However, putting the whole thing in proper perspective, the Otago Daily Times says: “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.”

Downes announced his retirement from First-Class cricket at the end of the 1910-11. Better sense prevailed, and he was back the following season. He captained Otago on 7 occasions between 1909-10 and 1913-14. His final bow in First-Class cricket was in the Plunket Shield game at Dunedin in 1913-14. He was a sprightly 46 by then but was still fit enough to bowl 33 overs, taking 4 for 133 in the Canterbury first innings of 442.

Even after retirement form the First-Class format, Downes did not give up cricket altogether; he played senior cricket for Grange Cricket Club till 1921-22, being part of winning teams in 9 Senior Championship wins. He developed his batting skills in later years to such an extent that he is known to have scored several centuries in his club-level cricket career after his retirement from the First-Class game.

Following the footsteps of several well-known cricketers in history, Downes took up the duties of match official in his later years, both in rugby and in cricket. He is known to have refereed several rugby games, at club as well as inter-provincial levels, and officiated in the second rugby Test between New Zealand and Australia at Dunedin on September 13, 1913. Downes umpired local club cricket games, and was an umpire in 8 Plunket Shield matches between 1925-26 and 1934-35 seasons. He also stood in a match between New Zealand and Australia in 1927-28.

Alec Downes passed away on February 10, 1950 aged 82, and was laid to rest at the Northern cemetery of Dunedin. He was survived by his wife, four daughters, and three sons. Mary herself passed away on June 7, 1955, aged about 86.