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Bert Ironmonger, born April 7, 1882, as gone down as the best left-arm spinner produced by Australia. Strangely, he had lost half of his spinning finger in a childhood accident. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the modest, frugal, hardworking man who made his Test debut at the age of 46, and was perhaps the worst batsman of his day.
Old, disfigured and curious
By the time Bert ‘Dainty’ Ironmonger made his Test debut, most of the other cricketers of his age would have sat back in comfortable armchairs, downed tumblers of beer and aired their disparaging views on the game. He was 46, and that is not a misprint.
But, this old man had never known such luxuries — and would never ever get to know them. His had been a life of labour, thrift and hardship — and would remain so till his last day. After calling it a day on a fascinating Test career, he would continue to lead a life of stoic hard work. Even after retiring from First-Class cricket at 53, he would never touch alcohol. One wonders if he ever sat on a comfortable arm-chair, and evidence suggests that it is unlikely.
He lived in the same old house in Melbourne, worked with meticulous sincerity as a gardener with the St. Kilda City Council, diligently tended his flowerbeds and vegetable patch. He could be seen with a hand mower till the age of 70. Perhaps he was making up for all the pay that had been withheld for the days he spent playing cricket.
He was a man difficult to comprehend when we look back at his life, with our modern day eyes used to viewing cricket mixed with glitz, glamour, and a life of plenty. Ironmonger remained frugal and stoic all through his long life, and only at the end of it found his place among the glamorous — sharing the Melbourne General Cemetery at Carlton with prime ministers, diplomats and famous writers.
Even his style of play is difficult to fathom by the modern day cricket follower. He was no athlete. Broad-shouldered due to his outdoor life of labour rather than sporting prowess, his nickname ‘Dainty’ stemmed from clumsy movements, lumbering steps on the troubled old legs. He looked every day of his 46 years as he started to play Test cricket, with his leathery countenance and bushman’s gait.
He was perhaps the worst fielder of his day, and undoubtedly the worst batsman. It is to him that is attributed the story of a phone call to the pavilion, when the caller had offered to hold on learning that he had walked out to bat. In the second Test of the Bodyline series at Melbourne, Don Bradman was on 98 in the second innings when Ironmonger had lumbered out as the last man. Under his breath, the 50-year-old had reassured the young batsman less than half his age — “Don’t worry son, I won’t fail you.” Wally Hammond was bowling, and Bradman later recalled that he had never seen two balls pass as close to the stumps. But, he kept his word and did not get out until Bradman had scored his century. Ironmonger’s final score in that innings was a duck. Such was the case for a quarter of his innings in First-Class cricket. His 42 runs in 14 Tests lagged comfortably behind his74 wickets, while his 476 runs in 96 First-Class matches just about managed to beat his 464 wickets.
He was of another generation where his job was to bowl, and he did it with the same diligence with which he approached his day job as a gardener.
But, even his career as a bowler beguiles the mind on close scrutiny. For here was a finger spinner who had a stub for his spinning finger.
Born in April, 1882, in the rural lands of Pine Mountain, Queensland, Ironmonger was the tenth and youngest child of a farmer.
As a boy, he was working on the family farm when he lost half his left-forefinger on the chaff cutter. His life was probably saved by his sister who thrust the bleeding hand into a bag of flour. He was left with a stump where his spinning finger should have been. And he fired the ball in with that stub as one would have released a marble. The result was the making of one of the premier spinners of Australia during a period when Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O’Reilly operated in tandem and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith waited in the wings.
After several years of fruitless farming in the unfertile farm north-west of Ipswich, Ironmonger became a labourer for the railways at the age of 25.
He was 27 by the time he made his First-Class debut, playing for Victoria. When in 1913 he captured quite a few wickets against New South Wales and then New Zealand, Warwick Armstrong persuaded him to move to Melbourne and switch allegiance to Victoria.
The old debutant
So, Ironmonger did move to the big city, and after a few days spent as a barman and tobacconist, he took up his job as a gardener which he would perform till 70. He made his Sheffield Shield debut in December 1914, aged 32 and continued to pick up wickets by the bushel, bowling his left arm spin at a pace close to medium.
His style and speed was very similar to that of Derek Underwood, and like the Kent and England stalwart, Ironmonger was also a terror on rain-affected wickets. However, he had a higher action and got more bounce from the wicket.The stub which flicked the ball through undoubtedly gave rise to the unique nip in the delivery. It caused some to question his action, but he was never called for throwing.
The wickets continued to be scooped up by regular half-dozens per innings even after the First World War. The First-Class sides fell to his guile, especially if it rained. On a wet wicket, the adjective ‘unplayable’ was appended to him often enough.
When Arthur Gilligan’s Englishmen visited in 1924-25, Ironmonger bowled against them for Victoria and dismissed Maurice Tate, Herbert Strudwick and Harry Howell off successive balls to claim a hat-trick.
Perhaps this modest, reliable and hardworking man was among the most surprised when he was called up to play for Australia against England at Brisbane in 1928. It was after 18 years of First-Class cricket. The 46-year-old approached the job with the same ethics of hard work, sending down 94.3 overs with his gnarled fingers at Brisbane. He followed it up with 68 more in a single innings at Sydney. None of the batsmen, including Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe, Wally Hammond, Patsy Hendren, Douglas Jardine and Percy Chapman, managed to take him apart. But after just six wickets for 306 runs, he perhaps thought his brief foray into Test cricket was over.
However, Ironmonger was recalled two years later against the West Indies. And in the fourth Test, on a rain-affected Melbourne wicket, he returned with a haul of 20-7-23-7, skittling the visitors for 99. In the second innings, the 48-year-old spinner captured four for 56 to end the match with 11 for 79.
11 for 24
His series of glory took place in the following Australian summer. The South Africans had come over and he started with a 10-wicket haul against them for Victoria. This was followed by nine wickets in the Brisbane Test and seven at Melbourne. When the unfortunate visitors returned to Melbourne for the fifth and final Test match, they batted first on a soft wicket and were bowled out for 36. Ironmonger finished with 7.2-5-6-5. In the second innings, his figures were only slightly less remarkable — reading15.3-7-18-6 as the South Africans were all out for 45. Ironmonger finished with 11 for 24 in the match, 31 wickets at 9.54 in the series.
His final Tests were played in the infamous Bodyline series. He turned out four of the five Tests dominated by the Harold Larwood and the rest of the England pace bowlers, and managed a creditable15 wickets at 27 apiece. England won 4-1, and Ironmonger played a major role in the only victory Australia achieved in the series. He captured four for 26 from 19.1 overs in the second innings at Melbourne, combining with O’Reilly to bowl the Englishmen out.
Ironmonger finished with 74 Test wickets from his 14 matches at 17.97. As in his life, he exercised extreme thrift in his bowling, giving away just 1.69 runs per over. Only Trevor Goddard and Bapu Nadkarni have managed more economical figures among bowlers with more than 30 Test wickets.
In First-Class cricket, he lumbered in to bowl for a few more seasons, and toured India and Ceylon with Jack Ryder’s team in 1935-36. In his last First-Class match, he dismissed Lala Amarnath, Amar Singh, the Yuvraj of Patiala, Amir Elahi and Mohammad Nissar to end with five for 50 at the Gymkhana Ground in Bombay. He finished his career with 464 wickets at 21.50. In 15 of the 65 matches he played after turning 45, he bowled more than 400 balls. He was tireless.
After his cricket career was over, Ironmonger lived in his nondescript house, going about his job as a gardener. The family did not own a telephone till 1939 and Ironmonger neither drove a car nor bought one till the end of his life.
On May 31, 1971, Bert Ironmonger died in his sleep in the same house in Melbourne where he had live ever since arriving in the city.
(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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