Ernie Toshack was born on December 8, 1914. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the meteoric Invincible whose truncated Test career lasted only two years.
Sometime in the late 1940s a teacher asked his students the names of the trio who had walked into the fiery furnace in Babylon (and were saved by divine intervention). The teacher was, of course, referring to the three Jews, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
An excited cricket-enthusiastic student blurted out in response, “Shadrach, Toshack and Abednego!”
Such was the reputation of Ernest Raymond Herbert Toshack at his peak. He could oscillate with ease between left-arm medium pace and left-arm spin, and while he bowled to an extremely miserly line and length, he could also run through sides at ease. On the Invincibles tour, he became a figure as popular as the glamour-boys who shared the new ball — Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller.
It had a lot to do with his appearance as well. His tanned complexion, handsome, rugged looks (that earned him nicknames like “The Black Prince” and “Film Star”) with a perpetually unruly mop of hair made him stand out in a crowd; add to that his tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, and he was easily one of the most popular faces in the side.
On the Invincibles tour, Toshack was often located sporting with a bowler hat, a wound up umbrella, and a massive cigar on him: it was his idea of looking ‘English’. He mingled with the locals easily, was extremely popular both on and off the ground, and had the privilege of being John Arlott’s drinking partner on a consistent basis.
Toshack preferred to bowl over the wicket, even when he bowled finger-spin; he bowled with a packed leg-trap, and could move the new ball either way. He stuck to an off-stump line, and often used two short-legs and a silly mid-on, and often added a leg-slip to the lot when things seemed to be going his way.
When Toshack found the slightest assistance — especially on a ‘sticky’ — he reduced his pace substantially and resorted to slow medium-pace and left-arm spin. It was under such conditions that he thrived, bowling in-swing, out-swing, off-cutters, leg-cutters, and finger-spin with the canniest of variation of pace, all with the same action, and landed the ball on the same spot.
Toshack’s inextinguishable stamina allowed Lindwall and Miller to bowl long spells. On normal wickets he was very difficult to score off; on ‘stickies’ he was unplayable. Don Bradman wrote of Toshack: “I cannot remember another of the same type. He [Toshack] worried and got out the best bats, was amazingly accurate and must have turned in fine figures had not his cartilage given way.”
And then, there was the appeal: the moment the ball touched the pad or flew to anyone in the keen leg-trap there was the scary “Ow-wizz-eeee” that might have killed an on-field umpire with a weak heart. His voracious appeal earned him the name “The Voice” from Jack Fingleton.
Indeed, it was for injuries and World War II that Toshack could not make his Test debut before the age of 31. It was for a different injury that he had to quit at 33. One can safely assume that had the injuries not happened Toshack would have ended with a lot more wickets than he actually did.
He had his distinctive style of batting (or, rather, non-batting). Gideon Haigh wrote in The Guardian that Toshack was “uninhibited in his usual batting slot at No 11”. Other than Bill Johnston Toshack was the only Invincible to return from the English shores without a fifty against his name.
Toshack played only 12 Tests, in which he picked up 47 wickets at a phenomenal 21.04 and an economy rate of 1.88 with four five-fors and a 10-for. Put a 40-wicket cut-off and Toshack ranks next to only Alan Davidson (20.53) in average and next to none in economy rate among Australians.
From 48 First-Class matches (he had batted only 45 times; yes, he was a batsman that bad — he averaged 5.78) Toshack had picked up 195 wickets at 20.37. His tally included 12 five-wicket hauls and the same 10-wicket-haul.
Toshack was born in Cobar, New South Wales [NSW]; he was the son of a railway station-master. Unfortunately he was orphaned by the time he was six and was brought up by his relatives at Lyndhurst. He played cricket and rugby in Cowra, a place closer to Sydney. He was not a cricketer to begin with: he was more interested in rugby and boxing instead.
He played for the NSW Colts and Second XI by mid-1930s. He approached the local Petersham for a contract; he was turned down. Toshack later complained that they “didn’t want to know me”. He joined Marrickville soon afterwards and rose to First Grade.
Just when Toshack’s career seemed to have taken off a torn appendix confined him to a wheelchair in 1938. By the time he recovered World War II had set in, and his opportunity to play First-Class cricket was delayed. Due to his injury he was rejected for War service.
Toshack took up a job at the Lithgow Small Arms Factory in Blue Mountains near Sydney. However, he continued to play cricket and as soon as cricket resumed after war Toshack made his First-Class debut against Queensland at The Gabba, picking up four for 69. In his next match, against South Australia at Adelaide, Toshack returned figures of four for 30 and four for 78. In the entire season Toshack had 35 wickets at 18.82.
He was selected for Australia’s first tour of New Zealand, and picked up his first five-for in the first match of the tour, routing Auckland at Eden Park with figures of five for 27. With figures of two for 18 and six for 40 against Wellington at Basin Reserve Toshack made his Test debut along with Lindwall, Miller, Ian Johnson, Don Tallon, Colin McCool, and Ken Meuleman in the one-off Test at Basin Reserve.
Of these Meuleman was the only one who did not make it to the Invincibles tour. The Test was also Bill O’Reilly’s last; it thus marked the transition of Australia cricket from one era to another. As things turned out, the Test was won easily despite Bill Brown declaring Australia’s only innings closed 199 for eight.
Opening bowling with Lindwall in each innings Toshack finished with remarkable figures of 19-13-12-4 (he bowled unchanged) and 10-5-6-2. The inexperienced hosts were no match for the combination of Toshack and O’Reilly (five for 14 and three for 19) and were bowled out for 42 and 54.
Of all bowlers who had taken five or more wickets on debut Toshack’s 0.62 is the best economy rate (miles ahead of Laurie Nash’s 1.15); the 18 runs he had conceded is also the least, and his average of 3.00 is also the best. In short, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Toshack had had one of the best debuts of all time. The Test, however, was not given Test status until up to two more years.
The home Ashes
Toshack was an automatic choice in the first Ashes after the War, but was ‘relegated’ to first-change after Lindwall and Miller in the Test at The Gabba. Bradman did not declare (it was a six-day match) and Australia were bowled out for 645 on Day Three. Steady bursts of rain reduced the wicket to a ‘sticky’, but Toshack was not very successful with his leg-stump line: Wally Hammond and Norman Yardley countered him with ease.
Before play began on Day Five Bradman took Toshack to the pitch and suggested that a slower pace, accompanied with a leg-middle line, would suit Toshack more. The Don even took Toshack to the pitch adjacent to the playing strip and asked him to bowl on the same spot. Toshack later admitted it was Bradman in this Test who actually taught him how to bowl on a ‘sticky’.
Toshack finished with 16.5-11-17-3 (one must remember that these were eight-ball overs). Miller picked up seven for 60 and the tourists were routed for 141 (they were 121 for five). In the absence of Lindwall (who was down with chickenpox) Toshack opened bowling and finished with six for 82 (including Bill Edrich, Denis Compton, Hammond, and Yardley) and bowled out England for 172.
He never reached the high standards of the Test at The Gabba in the remainder of the series (other than in the second innings at Adelaide, where he picked up four for 76). Despite his supposedly ordinary show, Toshack finished with 17 wickets at 25.70 at an economy rate of 1.83. On a side note, he put up a rare display of his batting skills in the second innings of the Melbourne Test when he hung around to help Lindwall score his famous 88-ball hundred.
With the Indians coming on their first tour to Australia they had the misfortune of running into Toshack on a rain-affected ‘sticky’ at The Gabba. Toshack returned astounding figures of five for two (not a typo; not two for five). It still remains the cheapest five-for in Test history, and nobody has taken less than his 19 balls to reach a five-for.
The Indians were not spared in the second innings either: they scored 98, which was slightly better than their first-innings effort of 58. Toshack finished with six for 29 and match figures of 11 for 31, and barring Chandu Sarwate no Indian seemed to fathom what was going on.
Bradman was all in praise: “Only 12 months before, [Ernie] Toshack had seen his first wet wicket. One could scarcely have expected better figures from [Wilfred] Rhodes or [Hedley] Verity, and it augured well for his chances in England.” Bradman’s predictions were correct.
However, towards the end of the Test Toshack’s foot slipped on the wet ground and he had to leave the ground with a twisted knee. The injury deteriorated as his career progressed, but more of that later. He came back for the fourth Test at Adelaide but could manage only two wickets.
Toshack was one of the first players chosen by the panel of selectors for the 1948 Ashes tour, but the medical tests almost saw him out of the tour. In the end he got the nod by a 3-2 margin from the medical panel.
He had an innocuous debut in the traditional tour opener against Worcestershire at New Road, picking up only three wickets. Bradman used a rotation policy on the tour, which meant that almost all cricketers got sufficient rest and match practice at the same time.
Toshack’s first success came in the terribly one-sided match against Essex at Southend-on-Sea. The tourists virtually killed the match by scoring 721 on Day One. Toshack then broke the back of the locals: he picked up five for 31 (though these were the last five wickets of the innings) to bowl them out for 83. He picked up two more wickets in the second innings as well.
As the juggernaut rolled on Toshack grew in confidence. At Lord’s, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) side included seven men who would eventually play in the Test series: after the hosts scored 552 Toshack, coming on first-change, removed the likes of Len Hutton, Compton, and Martin Donnelly to return figures of six for 51. “If only his [Toshack’s] fascinating duel with Denis Compton had been caught on film,” wrote Wisden.
Toshack played the first Test at Trent Bridge where Australia won by eight wickets. Though he flailed (and connected) to score 19 in 18 minutes he did not achieve a lot with the ball, picking up two for 88 from the Test. Hundreds from Bradman and Lindsay Hassett and some splendid bowling from Miller and Johnston sealed the Test for the tourists.
He was rested for the Northamptonshire match but was brought back against Yorkshire at Bramall Lane. Yorkshire was the only side who could put up a challenge of some sort against The Invincibles (they did it twice). Here, at Bramall Lane, they bowled out the tourists for a paltry 249.
Bowling 40 overs out of 90.1 Toshack had a career-best of seven for 81 (including the wickets of Hutton and Yardley) as Yorkshire collapsed from 81 for one to 206. He bowled way slower than his original pace; in fact, he bowled so slowly that he had Ted Lester stumped by Ron Saggers. Bradman did not go for a sporting declaration and had only his change-bowlers to bowl in the fourth innings. The match petered out to a draw.
England returned on a high after Day One in the second Test at Lord’s having reduced the tourists to 258 for seven by stumps. On the next morning, however, Tallon, Lindwall, Johnston, and Toshack all made merry with the bat, taking the score to 350. Toshack scored 20 not out, his First-Class best, and added 30 in a last-wicket partnership with Johnston.
A demoralised England were bowled out for 215. Toshack bowled 18 overs for 23 but did not manage a wicket. A ruthless Bradman then set England a target of 596; England were out of the Test after Toshack removed Cyril Washbrook, Edrich, Yardley, and Alec Coxon. He finished with the wicket of Doug Wright and finished with five for 40; England lost by a whopping 409 runs.
The rain-affected third Test ended in a draw as Australia finished with 92 for one chasing 317. Toshack picked up three wickets, but could not prevent the hosts from taking a 142-run lead. With a 2-0 lead with two Tests to go Australia had retained the Ashes.
England finally managed to do well with the bat, scoring 496 in the fourth Test at Headingley. Toshack sent down 35 overs but picked up a single wicket. However, the really bad news was that his knee injury had flared up again.
Australia were reduced to 355 for eight when Johnston joined Lindwall and the pair added a quick 48. When Toshack walked out Johnston stayed back as a runner, which was when the comedy of errors began. None of the two had a serious experience of running between the wickets.
Johnston had already set the ball rolling — even before Toshack had arrived. He made a huge scene of arguing with the fielders and the umpires after he was given not out and was booed by the crowd. Then, when Toshack’s frame emerged from the gates, they realised that Johnston was faking it and broke into a cheer.
The crowd was in splits when Johnston had scampered home to beat Yardley’s throw – only to find Toshack out for a stroll. Apparently he had no idea that both the batsman and his runner had to be inside the crease. Turning to Yardley, he pleaded: “You wouldn’t do that to me, would you, Norman?”
Much to his glee, Toshack remained not out on 12 and helped Lindwall add 55. With Toshack unable to bowl Yardley set Australia a target of 404 in 345 minutes, which the tourists chased down surpassing all expectations. However, immediately after the Test Toshack had to be moved to London for an emergency cartilage surgery which virtually ended his career.
On his return Toshack played only one more match on the tour — against Lancashire at Old Trafford. He bowled only seven wicket-less overs in the first innings and did not bowl in the second. He eventually finished the tour with 50 wickets at 21.12. Though the numbers sound exceptional, in the context of the team it was rather ordinary with Lindwall, Miller, Ian Johnson, Johnston, and Colin McCool all averaging below 20.
Toshack also managed to finish the Test series with an absurd (by his standards) batting average of 51.00. Despite missing the matches towards the end of the tour he remained as popular as ever. He was chased for autographs to such an extent that he was forced to ask a friend to oblige. As a result the spelling ‘Toshak’ appeared on multiple score-sheets.
Toshack never recovered from his knee injury. He missed the home season that Australian summer but came back in the next. Against Queensland at The Gabba he was back at his best, picking up four for 41 and five for 59. In his next match against Western Australia at NSW Toshack picked up four for 68 before the injury relapsed. He could not bowl in the second innings; it turned out to be the last match of his career.
Despite that Toshack was offered a place for the South Africa tour of 1949-50 when Johnson was injured in a car crash. Miller had been initially dropped from the squad because he had apparently angered Bradman by bowling three consecutive bouncers to the great man in a testimonial match.
However, Miller was selected at the last moment, and eventually both Miller and Johnson played in all five Tests. All three pulled off admirable performances, and with Lindwall also coming good, the door was closed for good on Toshack.
After he hung up his boots Toshack joined as a foreman in a firm of builders. He was promoted to a supervisor on construction sites (mostly around Sydney) and worked for 25 years. He was also a popular cricket columnist and took up vegetable gardening as a hobby in his home at Hornsby Heights.
He was not in touch with cricket in his later days, though he was a welcome presence in the reunion of the Invincibles in 1998. He passed away at Bobbin Head on May 11, 2003 at an age of 88 years 154 days. He was survived by his wife Cathleen Hogan (they had married in 1939), his daughter Maria, three grand-daughters, and two great-great-grand-daughters.
On his passing away Australian Cricket Board (ACB) Chairman Bob Merriman commented: “Ernie [Toshack] will be remembered for playing an important part in an unforgettable era of Australian cricket as a member of the late Sir Donald Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles.”
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components Ernie Toshack
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