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Archie Jackson: The batsman many felt would have outshone Don Bradman had he not died at 23

Archie Jackson: The batsman many felt would have outshone Bradman had he not died at 23

Bill Woodfull (left) and Archie Jackson going out to open the Australian innings against Worcester on May 1, 1930. © Getty Images

February 4, 1929. Archie Jackson announced himself by scoring an impeccable 164 on debut against a strong English attack, a knock that put Don Bradman in the shadow. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the brilliant innings from the batsman who died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 23.

In his splendid biography on Archie Jackson, David Firth called him The Keats of Cricket.

No epithet was more deserved. Jackson produced poetry on the 22 yards and died tragically at 23, two years younger than the celebrated Romantic poet.

If he had lived, many say he could have outshone Don Bradman. Fate did not allow the claims to stand the test of time. But, when he scored that century on debut, Arthur Mailey commented, “It was Bradman’s bad luck to have batted with a partner whose brilliancy would have overshadowed any man.”

One swallow does not make a summer, but summer never did bloom for the youthful Jackson, so cruelly plucked away from the earth in the spring of his life.

So let us turn our attention to that swallow that took flight on that glorious February day of 1929.

The masterpiece

Jackson had failed in the Test trial, and had scored four and 40 when the touring MCC sideplayed New South Wales. However, when his state had later played against South Australia in the Sheffield Shield he had caressed 162 and 90. With England having taken an unbeatable 3-0 lead in the series, the cry was heard loud and clear from several quarters: “Jackson for Australia.” The Ashes was lost, but the Australian public wanted some seeds to be planted for future.

And he was selected. Arthur Mailey ran over from the office of the Sun to give him the good tidings. His hometown Balmain buzzed with joy.

It was a gruelling hot day as Jackson took field for the first time in a Test match. England batted and Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe put on 143 for the first wicket. However, with the pitch responding to wrist spin, Clarrie Grimmett had the visiting batsmen in a spot of bother. Wally Hammond, following scores of 251 and 200 in the series, played one of the toughest knocks of his career to score 119 not out, shepherding England to 334. Interestingly, in this innings, while taking five for 102 off 52.1 overs, Grimmett, the prince of parsimony, bowled a rare wide ball.

It was mid-afternoon on Saturday when the slightly built Jackson walked out to open the innings with the vastly experienced Bill Woodfull.

The start of the innings could not have been worse. Woodfull snicked one down the leg side. Stork Hendry hung his bat out at Harold Larwood and Alan Kippax somehow managed to be yorked by the left-arm spin of Jack White. White’s tossed up deliveries, which would hang in the air and dip in late, would create problems for the Australians all through the match.

It was 19 for three, but the 19-year old Jackson was looking unfazed in the middle. Maurice Tate was driven handsomely and Harold Larwood was played with the full face of the bat. And when Maurice Tate pitched on and around the leg stump, he was flicked through square-leg. Once Tate loudly appealed for a leg before decision, only to find that Jackson had actually played the ball at the last moment to the leg side boundary. He turned and murmured to umpire George Hele, “This kid’ll get a century.”

But, the assurance that Jackson displayed in the batting was not what he really felt in his youthful heart. Later umpire Hele wrote, “I stole a glance at him. An umpire is not supposed to have any feelings, but I was just as keenly interested to see Jackson succeed as any of the 50,000 spectators. It was with something like dismay that I saw Jackson standing there with his face as white as a sheet and nervously trying to moisten his lips.”

It changed when captain Jack Ryder came in and displayed willingness to play his shots. Larwood was driven with severity. In between overs, the skipper kept walking up to Jackson saying, “Stick to it, son, you’ll be all right.”

White flighted a ball, and Jackson waited for it before whipping it through the covers. And a spate of strokes, including some audacious and delightful late cuts took him to his half-century. The Englishmen were by now aware that a rare talent had entered the premises of Test cricket, and with Bradman already there, it did not augur too well.

Ryder and Jackson raised the 100 run partnership at almost a run a minute. The Australian captain was batting well, but it was the youngster who was capturing the imagination. There had been only one false stroke, when he had closed the face of the bat too early in attempting to glance Larwood. The leading edge had curled up in the air and fallen out of reach of 46-year old Hobbs at cover.

Australia ended the blisteringly hot day at 131 for three. The scoreboard showed 70 against A. Jackson. It was soon to be changed to AA Jackson, as Archie took on his father’s name – Alexander – mainly to maintain uniformity in the scoreboard where everyone had two initials.

By the time he reached the dressing-room, he was exhausted. “We had to mop him with cold towels – the poor little devil,” recalled Hendry many years later – by then the hero of the day had long been claimed by the deadly delivery of tuberculosis.

Relax, the hundred will come

After Sunday’s rest, Jackson was fortified to fight another day. Ryder played across the line early on Monday to be leg before to White. Jackson was joined by Bradman, aged 19 and 20 respectively, in a fascinating cocktail of young talent. The hardened English cricketers applied the pressure and the two lads held on.

Larwood bowled to a concentrated leg side field of four between fine and square-leg. At the other end, White kept bowling with tantalising flight, and his battalion of cover fielders, led by the great Hobbs, cut off a series of drives Jackson played off him. Finally, Jackson reached back, torso almost resting on his right thigh, as he late cut George Geary splendidly to move into the nineties.

Bradman, a close friend and just a year older, kept reassuring his partner. Relax. The hundred will come. At lunch he was on 97.

During the break, Jackson discreetly asked umpire Hele whether he thought England would take the new ball. Hele replied that any captain thinking straight would take the new ball once his bowlers were refreshed.

That proved to be true. Jackson walked out to face a charging Larwood with the new ball. It came in fast, accurate, gearing for the off-stump. Jackson leaned forward, and hit it with the clean sweep of his bat, past cover-point to the boundary in front of the Members’ Stand and Maurice Tate patrolling the outfield could only watch it crash against the picket fence. Archie Jackson smiled as he stood on 101, and the crowd erupted. Hats were tossed in the air as the cheers reverberated loud and long.

Larwood wrote in the foreword to Jackson’s biography, “He cover-drove me to bring up his hundred. The ball was as fast as any I had bowled previously. That glorious stroke has lived in my memory to this day for its ease and perfect timing. I am sure that few among the many thousands present sighted the ball as it raced to the boundary.”

Now that the milestone was reached, all restraint and apprehension that had stifled his expression vanished. The crowd went into ruptures as he unfurled his full range of strokes. The ball was casually lofted to the wide spaces in the outfield. The cuts were played at the last moment, with delayed turn of the wrists, bringing back fond memories of Charlie McCartney. When the ball was down the leg side, he glanced with delicate finesse and when up, he drove through the off-side with minimum effort and perfect results.

Bradman departed at 40, after the magical association had yielded 82. With Ted a’Beckett joining him at the crease, Jackson changed his bat, took a couple of deep breaths, and ventured into recklessness. He could have been run out at 128 if Geary’s throw had been gathered by George Duckworth, but he survived. A superlative late-cut off Hammond brought up his 150. Several over-pitched balls were chopped with the full face of the bat, with the speed of light, past second slip. PGH Fender remarked that he had seen only McCartney indulge in such audacity.

The end came at 164. In trying to turn a full ball from White, he missed and was declared leg before. He had made 51 of the 60 added with a’Beckett. And the end of the series, in spite of the several superb efforts by Hammond, it got the palm for the ‘greatest knock of the series’ from Monty Noble.

Post-script

The South Australian Cricket Association presented the young hero with a set of cut-glass, some local fans gave him a travelling clock and a rug, and at home in Balmain, the Mayor called a public meeting to honour him. For the new star, after batting against Larwood, Tate and White with supreme class, the biggest challenge was to appear in public and make a speech.

An old Charlie Bannerman, 77 years of age, met him to offer his congratulations, for coming within one run of his 165 in the first-ever Test match.

Australia led by 35 in the first innings, but a majestic 177 by Hammond, aided by 98 by Douglas Jardine, ensured a steep target of 349. Jackson, following the sound advice of Noble to go after the spinners, had made an impressive 36 when he was caught behind off Geary. Ryder scored 87, Kippax 51 – and kept Australia in the game. But, captain Percy Chapman took a diving catch to dismiss Ron Oxenham after a fifty run stand with Bradman. And when at 320 for seven, Bradman himself was tragically run out for 58, 29 still remained with two wickets in hand. White picked up the last two wickets, and with figures of 64.5-21-126-8 clinched the Test for England by 12 runs.

Sadly, Jackson could play only eight Test matches in his career – interrupted and finally ended by his illness.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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