On December 16, 1911, Victor Trumper scored the last Test century of his fantastic career and England stumbled to a huge defeat. Arunabha Sengupta revisits the day when the tourists were perhaps done in by a curious piece of strategy.
A great fighting man
Did England lose at Sydney because an overconfident boxer upset the greatest bowler of all time? Or was it due to quiet resolve of the most gallant of batsmen after the sad loss of a grand partner? It might even have been due to the furnace like carriages in which the England team had travelled for 27 hours from Brisbane to Sydney.
It was perhaps a curious mix of all these peculiar causes. Because on the boat, the England team was hailed by Harry Altham as “better balanced and better equipped at all points than any which had left our shores.”
It was on this tour that Johnny Douglas would be conferred the nickname ‘Johnny Won’t Hit Today’, thus immortalising the initials JWHT in a somewhat undeserved mnemonic. And it was he who became the focal point of criticism as England lost by 146 runs on the sixth day of the first Test.
Three and a half years ago, Douglas had out punched Australia’s own multi-skilled Snowy Baker to win the middleweight boxing gold at the London Olympics. His opening combinations as he sparred with the Australian cricket team were, however, a bit misguided. Not that he was really to be blamed. He had hardly been the first choice captain.
The captaincy of the touring side was offered to CB Fry. The Sussex batsman thought about it, and thought some more. And then he went back to think further. In the end he announced that he could not leave his Training Ship Mercury, a nautical school for preparing boys for service in the Royal Navy. Fry was the Captain Superintendent of this ship and a more honourable excuse for refusing the England captaincy has seldom been heard in Ashes history.
The choice fell on Plum Warner, the man who had led them to triumph in 1903-04. And he was happy with the side — a sparkling mix of veritable champions. Jack Hobbs, Frank Woolley, Jack Hearne and the vastly improved batting of Yorkshireman Wilfred Rhodes combined to form as good a line-up as any at the top of the order. Douglas was a bustling all-rounder. Syd Barnes could spin it both ways at medium pace, perhaps the best ever bowler to turn his arm over for England. And Frank Foster was a brisk left-armer, whose deliveries seemed medium-paced from the pavilion, but approached the batsmen with trebled velocity off the pitch, with accompanying swing and bounce. He was often a brilliant bat as well.
Warner started off with 151 against South Australia at Adelaide. Foster got 158 and George Gunn 106. Barnes and Foster got among the wickets soon enough, routing the state side for 141 and 228.
And after this superlative start with his bat, the captain suffered a ruptured duodenal ulcer during his train trip to Melbourne. He was admitted into a nursing home. The team had two other amateurs in Douglas and Foster. Both were county captains, Douglas for Essex, Foster for Warwickshire. Neither had played a Test match. However, Douglas was senior — in both age and experience. This was significant. From his sickbed Warner instructed that Johnny Douglas should take charge of the team. Apart from being senior to Foster, Warner felt Douglas was ‘a great fighting man.’
Warner did not play on the tour again. He later wrote a book about the trip in which he observed, “The team was destined to eclipse many honours, but I am not sure that my own record did not beat them all — from England to Australia and back for one solitary innings.”
The hits and misses of Johnny
Douglas made an immediate hit as captain. At a civic reception in the Melbourne Town Hall, he quoted another famous boxer, Bob Fitzsimons, and generated loud guffaws, “I ain’t much at making speeches, but I’ll fight any man in the room.” This warmed him to his team of professionals. He was one of them who shunned the ‘Mr Douglas’ bit of the ritual.
But, his side ran into trouble. The team spent 10 days in Queensland, and Hobbs was afflicted with sunstroke. His conditioned worsened on the unbearably hot train journey from Brisbane to Sydney. At Brisbane, on a treacherous wicket, Rhodes was bowled off his chest. His form remained shaky and he had to be pushed down the order.
However, the bowling clicked. Foster and Barnes accounted for 15 wickets in the match. They were indeed the most lethal opening bowling combination since Tom Richardson and Billy Lockwood.
And then, at Sydney, as Douglas led England on debut, Clem Hill won the toss and Australia batted.
What does he think I am — a bloody change bowler?
Foster bowled the first over. Two or three steps, followed by a graceful skip, and then a short run. He bowled round the wicket, with four short legs — three behind and one in front of the wicket, a long leg and mid-on. On the off-side there were just a mid-off, cover and deep third man. And the deliveries rocketed through at alarming rate. Bert Strudwick stood up to him for some unknown reason, and the ball eluded him. It hit the fence almost before he could turn and follow it with his eyes. Nothing Ernie Jones had bowled had been faster. It was not for nothing that Douglas Jardine visited Foster some two decades down the line as he chiselled out his strategy of Bodyline.
And on the field, Barnes nodded approval. He often praised Foster’s ability to make the batsman play almost every ball. That ‘almost’ was an important part of the appraisal. Only Barnes himself was allowed to be rid of such words depicting some distance from perfection.
But, as Foster ended his over, Barnes stood aghast. For it was Douglas who had taken the ball and had the audacity of preparing to bowl. The professional could not believe his eyes. He was not one to subdue his outrage under a shield of modesty. That last word did not exist in his make-up. He fumed on the field.
Woolley fielded close by and Barnes bellowed, “What does he think I am — a bloody change bowler?” The Kent professional tried to placate him, “Never mind, Syd, he’s just going to take the shine off for you.” From cover, Hobbs tried to tell him it was okay. Barnes was not amused. He bristled, he boiled, he burned in resentment.
Years later when biographer Leslie Duckworth asked him about the match, Barnes was reluctant to say anything negative about Douglas who was ‘so fine a sportsman’. Nevertheless, he proceeded to reveal, “It is generally agreed that but for misjudgement on his part, we should not have lost the Test.”
Even the equivocal Warner found Douglas guilty of tactical error. “One should not use the best bowler in the world as a change bowler.”
Hobbs too, who perhaps respected Douglas more than any of his captains apart from Percy Fender, later said, “Douglas’s idea had been to make the first use himself of the good ball, but there was the temperament of the superseded bowler to consider, as well as the practical results.”
Strudwick and Rhodes, the other two senior professionals, were also critical of the bloomer. By the time Barnes was given the ball, his energy was consumed by the initial overs of seething rage. Ralph Barker described how the master, given the ball later, bowled at half-strength, “scowling and sulky at what he regarded as a personal insult.”
The magnificent Trumper
At 121, Clem Hill was run out and Victor Trumper entered at number five. Since the South African tour the previous season, he had come down the order.
In a previous match against the tourists, for an Australian XI at Brisbane, he had scored 30. Two days after the match was over, Reggie Duff, Trumper’s partner in many a great opening partnership for New South Wales and Australia, suddenly passed away. He died from heart disease at the age of 33 in Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.
Trumper had gone down there, helping the family make arrangements for the burial at the Gore Hill cemetery. He persuaded his New South Wales teammates to contribute towards the cost of the funeral. When it raised about half of the total required, the chivalrous Trumper had paid the other half himself.
The first day of the Test was played just after the burial. And Trumper batted with quiet focus, perhaps as a tribute to the deceased, to score his sixth hundred in Ashes Tests — a record at that time. He was also the only Australian to register a century in that series.
The 17,000 spectators who had crammed the stands to watch their hero were treated to sustained mastery. Trumper began with a scorching on-drive that rattled against the pickets. But, apart from the occasional spark of his genius, his wizardry was restrained, always waiting for the loose ball. He batted for 25 minutes for his first five runs, and when he finally took a single off Douglas, the crowd burst into an ironic applause. Trumper just smiled and shrugged in faint amusement. His first fifty, which was reached with a flashing straight drive off Foster, came in 98 minutes, and was slow for a Trumper masterpiece.
He proceeded to pull Barnes for two and on-drove him to the boundary to move into the seventies. And as the light deteriorated he resisted the urge to take risks, moving through the eighties and into the nineties with a series of cuts and drives to the off. He was on 95 when play was halted for the day, with Australia on 317 for five.
Strong westerly winds on Saturday caused a cloudy dust envelope around the arena, but Trumper went on undeterred. Roy Minnett, the young doctor from Manly, provided him excellent company, and Trumper late cut Foster delightfully to reach his century with a boundary. The applause was wild. One old gentleman was heard proclaiming, “I wouldn’t have missed seeing him get the record for a five pound note.”
Woolley soon dismissed him with a short ball, which Trumper skied to Hobbs at cover. His 113 rippled forth in 226 minutes with 12 fours. Minnett got 90 and Australia totalled 447.
Going in to bat on the second afternoon, Hobbs was accompanied by debutant Sep Kinneir. The duo put on 45. Hobbs batted on to the close of the day, but never got on top of the bowling. Several times he edged through the slips, and could not find his timing at all. He scored 63 before being caught at forward short-leg.
Jack Hearne fought hard with 76 and Foster made 56 in an hour, but the dark complexioned googly bowler Dr. HV ‘Ranji’ Hordern tied the visitors into knots. He ended with five for 85. Australia led by 129.
Douglas took the new ball again, and, to be fair, he did scalp four for 50. Foster took five for 92. But, Barnes, who could have even now turned the match on its head, was not really interested in taking wickets after this second slight of the match. Bowling with reduced venom he had nevertheless emerged as the most successful bowler in the first innings with three for 107. Douglas had managed just one for 62. Now, all he had to show for his 30 overs was one measly wicket. The Australian total of 308 meant a target of 438.
In front of the guiles of Hordern, the English batting wilted into tame surrender. The good doctor, who had perfected his googlies while playing for Philadelphia in America, captured seven for 90. The wail in the English dressing room perhaps sounded, “Oh Bosanquet! What mayhem have you started!” England lost by 146 runs.
The criticism against Douglas rang through loud and clear, in words spoken and written, rushing along thoughts and cables. The distraught captain asked Strudwick, Hobbs and Rhodes to write down their analysis on where he had gone wrong. It was decided almost unanimously that Barnes would bowl with the new ball from then on.
Warner too called the leading professionals to his sickbed, and asked their opinion. Many felt Douglas should get the sack. Hobbs disagreed. The issue was voted on and Douglas was retained by a thin margin. Warner now passed on his diplomatic words of wisdom and tact to the captain. The results showed. By now Barnes, ill between the Tests, had recovered sufficiently in body and mind.
The second Test at Melbourne started under overcast conditions on a perfect batting wicket. Hill won the toss again, and Australia batted.
Foster again bowled his over, fast and penetrating. And then the match was decided as Barnes walked up to the bowling mark. Douglas tried to set the field for his leading bowler, failed to get a word edgeways, and left Barnes to position his fielders. And the bowler wanted his men in exact positions.
After having satisfied himself about the field, Barnes ran in to Warren Bardsley. There was the easy approach, both feet leaving the ground momentarily, with the right arm high in its final swing. His first ball swung in late and hit Bardsley on the pad before sliding on to the stumps. And as the batsman departed Barnes glowered at Douglas. “I told you so,” said the look.
Clem Hill found the ball swinging in to pitch on the leg stump and hit the top of the off. Charles Kelleway missed one and was trapped plumb. And Warwick Armstrong edged to wicketkeeper Tiger Smith. Australia were four down for 14. Barnes had figures of 5-4-1-4.
At lunch Australia were 38 for six. Barnes stood at 11-7-6-5.
Douglas had learnt his lesson. The formula to win the Ashes was clear to him by now. Barnes, with Foster, would soon rout the Australians in the last four Tests to win the series 4-1.
Australia 447 (Warwick Armstrong 60, Victor Trumper 113, Roy Minnett 90) and 308 (Charles Kelleway 76, Clem Hill 60; Frank Foster 5 for 92, Johnny Douglas 4 for 50) beat England 318 (Jack Hobbs 63, Jack Hearne 76, Frank Foster 56; Ranji Hordern 5 for 85) and 291 (George Gunn 62; Ranji Hordern 7 for 90) by 146 runs
(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 athttp://twiter.com/senantix)