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Ashes 1953: A saga of poetry — Robert Menzies and Lindsay Hassett

Robert Menzies © Getty Images
Former Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies © Getty Images

 

June 27, 1953. On the evening of the third day of the Lord’s Test, Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies threw a memorable party at the Savoy. Arunabha Sengupta takes a look at the fascinating evening that witnessed Menzies reading out his poetry about the Australian cricketers and captain Lindsay Hassett responding in kind.

 

On June 27, 1953, on the evening of the third day of a gripping Test match at Lord’s, the cricket mad Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies threw a grand dinner in the River Room of the Savoy in London.

 

It was a gala evening for fifty guests with no expense spared to entertain. Menzies himself had shipped steaks from Australia for the occasion. The food was delicious, the wine heady and the atmosphere informal. Lindsay Hassett’s men were there in excellent spirits, enjoying the party to the fullest on the eve of the rest day.

 

A surprise special guest of honour was Douglas Jardine, then the last English captain to reclaim the Ashes. His presence amazed some of the Australian cricketers. Ron Archer recalled later, “Being from Australia I’d been brought up on stories about what a bastard Jardine was. But, now I was across the table from him and he was just this charming, interesting, aristocratic Englishman.”

 

Jardine was not averse to self-effacing humour as well. When Menzies began a story saying, “As you all know I’m the man in Australia who has most often had the legitimacy of his birth queried…” Jardine interrupted: “Surely, sir, I still hold that honour.”

 

The high point of the evening was the long poetry recital. The Prime Minister had penned 23 verses devoted to the individual members of the touring team — and he proceeded to recite them with flourish.

 

Most of the lines sparkled with humour, but several underlined the great eye for detail with which the Prime Minister followed the game.

 

The respect he had for certain cricketers was also apparent from some of the stanzas.

 

About Neil Harvey, he penned:

 

“Oh, for a word of rare Cardusean fire

Oh, for a song upon the poet’s lyre

Oh, that the bells should ring a noble peal

To hymn the glories of our sinister Neil.”

 

And for Keith Miller he gushed:

 

I care not whether Keith gets runs or not

(That statement is, of course, the purest rot)

But what I swear is that his off-drive yet

Is worth a lengthy paragraph in Debrett.”

 

On rare occasions he offered sterling references to his political domain. In the recent half-Senate elections in May, only in Queensland had the coalition won more seats than Labour. Hence, when he spoke about Ron Archer, Menzies said,

 

“If Ronald Archer were no good at all

Instead of adept with both bat and ball

I still would cheer him both louder and faster

For Queensland lately saved me from disaster.”

 

Menzies also revealed his keen eye for cricketing character when he summarised the new leg-spinning all-rounder Richie Benaud as:

 

“Benaud be bold, Benaud the giant killer

Bowls like Doug Ring but gestures like Keith Miler.”

 

And his knowledge of cricketing history was apparent when he consoled teenaged Ian Craig on his low scores on the tour by drawing parallels with the young Stan McCabe.

 

“The infant Craig reclining in the shade

Takes comfort from the history of McCabe.”

 

Of course, he was well aware of his limitations as a poet. And hence, while writing about wicketkeeper Don Tallon he observed,

 

“The clutching Tallon oft the Umpire hails

Before he’s actually removed the bails

(I know that it is libellous, but stay

I could not get a rhyme another way.)

 

When it was over, captain Hassett replied in kind:

 

“With his iron grey hair and his pugnacious air

His appearance tends to the sinister

But there’s no need to fear for he’ll quaff down his beer

And he’s merely our worthy Prime Minister.

 

When they play on the swards of the Oval or Lord’s

Though the state of Australia’s distressing

His time he’ll employ at a pub called Savoy

For external affairs are more pressing.

 

But we’ll hide our hate of this terrible state

Though the blot on our conscience will stay

We’ve eaten and drunk and can now do a bunk

But he’s got to bloody well pay.”

 

(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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