Bill Ferguson (right) with Alan Melville © Getty Images
Bill Ferguson (right) with Alan Melville © Getty Images

The touring side to England for the 1905 Ashes included a young unassuming member who went on to tour with the Australian team on 43 occasions. Arunabha Sengupta traces the journey of William ‘Fergie’ Ferguson towards becoming a scorer and baggage master who passed away on September 22, 1957.

The Noble craft of dentistry

It is not often that a 24-year-old youth has savoured multiple visits to the dentist. Not even when, as in this case, his daily duties amounted to filing names of householders, streets and districts from nine to five-thirty – nine to one on Saturdays.

Yes, it was one of the most monotonous jobs in the world. His work for the Sydney Directory, full of card-indexes and filing cabinets, apart from an hour of day dreaming along the Sydney waterfront from 12 to one. But was that sufficient reason to risk extractions of every tooth one possessed?

But, William Henry Ferguson decided to risk it. He was no different from all those fearless and upstanding men who blanch, quake and quiver at the mention of a dentist. But, this young man wanted to get away from it all, from those long, long hours of names and addresses diligently copied till they crammed the head and choked the senses. He wanted to travel. To distant lands, to Calcutta and Cardiff, from Barbados to Brazil. Away from the Sydney streets –and directories compiled with the names of those streets.

He had hatched a plan. He knew that cricketers travelled a lot. He knew the Australian team under Joe Darling was about to embark on their 1905 tour to England. He knew that a person was required by the team who would take up the roles of the baggage master and the scorer. And he knew that a regular application could be lost among the piles of correspondence.

Ferguson had no major cricketing credentials. Yes, he had been on the Hill during the matches played in Sydney. He had kept score while playing for a Church League side. When the English side of 1902-03 had come to Sydney, he had overheard all-rounder Len Braund complain that he had lost his camera, an expensive one. Ferguson had tracked it down to Hotel Australia and had posted it to Bath, Somerset, where Braund lived.

But, apart from that, he hardly had any claims to knowing the game. Yet, he had a burning zeal – never to see a filing cabinet again in his life.

And he visited the dentist. Because the name of the dentist was Monty Noble, one of the greatest all-rounders produced by Australia. He resolved to visit him again and again, to extract, fill, polish and crown every possible tooth.

Thankfully, no extraction was necessary, but he got enough golden fillings to last him a lifetime. With time Noble warmed to him. The curious method of approach amused the cricketer. He introduced Ferguson to men like Victor Trumper, and Frank Laver, the manager of the team for the forthcoming tour. Seated on the uncomfortable chairs of the dentist’s chamber, the resourceful clerk went through with his plan. At an opportune moment the question was popped. Could he be the scorer and baggage man? Noble replied, “There’s no reason in the world why you shouldn’t get the job.”

The touring party left for England early, because they would travel through New Zealand and Canada, playing matches on the way. Ferguson feared the worst. What if they appointed an Englishman for the services during their tour?  He would be left copying street names and addresses for his life.

And then the summons arrived. The heading on the notepaper was a bit too ornate and artistic for a business letter, but the contents could not have been more joyful.

From SS Manuka at sea near Auckland:

“Dear Sir,

Re: your application to score and look after the luggage, etc. of the Australian cricket team whilst in England, I have the honour to inform you that the team has decided to appoint you to the position at a salary of two pounds a week, and to pay your train fare to the various grounds upon which we play. We hold to ourselves the right to dispense with your services at any time upon giving you a week’s notice. The engagement begins from the date of our first match in England and will last as long as you give satisfaction until the completion of the tour in England.

Yours faithfully,

Frank Laver.”

It was the opportunity he was looking for — to forget all those names and addresses and never turn his tracks towards the Sydney Directory.

Fergie takes charge

His father was not amused. The erstwhile clerk’s health was not really robust and the English climate could supposedly be dangerous for a fragile constitution. Ferguson could not be less bothered. He set off for the offices of White Star shipping and purchased a single ticket to England on Suevic for £17.

It was at the Crystal Palace that he scored his first match, the Gentlemen of England against the Australians. His entries showed WG Grace out for five, Plum Warner for a duck.

Apart from managing the baggage and scoring, he was soon assigned other duties. Against Worcestershire, Trumper, Noble and Warwick Armstrong had dug in and Australia seemed set for a huge total when the fast bowler George Wilson started knocking them over. With the first few batsmen looking set to bat through the day, the lower order had gone back to the hotel to catch a few winks. A member of the team came running along to the scoring box, crying out, “Fergie, run back to the hotel immediately and root out the rest of the team. They’ll be needed to bat soon.” And the scorer did run and within the next 20 minutes had removed the blankets, sheets and slumbering men from the hotel beds. They were all padded and ready by the time they were called to the wicket.

There were some huge scores during the trip. Armstrong got 303 against Somerset, Noble 267 against Sussex. But, for Ferguson it was captain Joe Darling’s 99 against Gloucestershire at Cheltenham that stood out for the breakneck rate of run-making, before he was out caught at the long field. When he saw the number of runs he had made, the skipper sought out the scorer with the words, “Why didn’t you signal that I only needed one run for my century? I’d have hit a single for a change!”

Some occupational hazards did surface from time to time. Clem Hill’s wife, for some reason best known to herself, maintained a scorebook of her own. And at the end of a long day, she would badger her husband with the complaint that there had been scoring mistakes on the part of Ferguson. Hill himself would look indulgently at his wife and turn to Ferguson, “For goodness sake, Fergie, check the wife’s book. She insists you’re wrong, but I can’t be bothered with it.” Ferguson later observed that there was something to be said for the countries which imposed a strict ban on wives travelling with cricketers.

But, he was not that averse to the requests of some spouses. Victor Trumper’s better half often exclaimed to him, “Just look at Victor’s clothes. Whatever does he do with them?” Ferguson took it upon himself to approach the master batsman’s bag after he had rolled up his crumpled flannels in it. He used to fold Trumper’s clothes neatly and repack the kit. The legend told him not to bother. “You’ve enough work to do without me causing you extra trouble.”

Ferguson enjoyed himself thoroughly on the tour. On this visit to England, he was often treated as a poor relation of cricketers, not invited to the dinners, parties, theatres and concerts. But, he had his own fun, listening to barrel organs on the streets or watching performance by buskers outside the halls.

With time he was accepted as an integral part of the touring side. He continued to tour for Australia for 52 years, to England, South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand, apart from the Tests at home in Australia. He remained the favourite baggage master of the cricketers across generations. He went on 43 tours, scoring 208 Test matches, and never lost a bag. Apart from the scores, he kept diagrams of every stroke played and the runs obtained from them. These Ferguson charts later became the wagon wheels. Looking at his scores and charts, he could account for every ball sent down in the matches. Two master strategists, Douglas Jardine and Don Bradman, actually employed his charts to study the strengths and weaknesses of opposition batsmen.

During the swansong tour of Bradman in 1948, the greatest batsman of the world signed off with 2428 runs in the summer. It was on this tour that William ‘Fergie’ Ferguson was presented to King George VI. The King asked him the royal question that has gone down in cricketing folklore: “Mr. Ferguson, do you use an adding-machine when the Don is in?”

Ferguson was awarded  the British Empire Medal in 1951 for his services to cricket.

In May 1957, four months before his death, Ferguson’s autobiography Mr Cricket was published. The foreword was written by the cricket-loving Prime Minister of Australia, The Rt Hon. Robert Menzies.

(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://twiter.com/senantix)