Robert Menzies was an avid cricket lover © Getty Images
Robert Menzies, the longest serving Prime Minister of Australia, was a great cricket fan — perhaps the most devoted dignitary the sport has ever witnessed. Arunabha Sengupta recalls an incident during his early days as a lawyer, when this great man used cricket to win a case for his client.
Robert Menzies — the 12th and the longest serving Prime Minister of Australia. Renowned as a masterly speaker with sparkling wit. He could quote hundreds of lines of Shakespeare and spent his train and aeroplane journeys devouring whodunits. After Alfred Deakin and before Gough Whitlam, Menzies was probably the most well-read Australian Prime Minister, but preferred to keep his erudition in the sheath of his wonderful mind.
In 1949 he became the Prime Minister for the second time and held office for 17 long years. And substantial chunks of his time, as head of state or otherwise, were spent alongside the lush green cricket fields, watching the heroes going about their task in their flannels. Seldom has the game of cricket been graced with a more devoted dignitary.
Menzies watched cricket whenever he could, and he generally manipulated his busy schedule to fit the games in. He hosted dinners for the cricketers, spent time in the dressing room offering best wishes, congratulations and sympathy. He befriended Don Bradman and the rest of them, wrote comic verse in the honour of each member of the Australian team, offered advice during the Bodyline controversy, extended help to past cricketers like Chuck Fleetwood-Smith who had fallen in bad times.
Cricket was a passion for him, and lives on in the various Menzies foundations and scholarship programmes built around the game.
Menzies fully believed that — as Tom Brown put it during his last school match: “It’s more than a game. It’s an institution!” And according to him, “Like all great institutions which are part of our inheritance, it gets into the blood, and can even invade the seats of judgment.”
Menzies knew this to be true. In 1918, he was admitted to the Victorian Bar and to the High Court of Australia. He enjoyed a flourishing practice for 10 years as one of the leading lawyers of Melbourne before giving it up in 1928 to enter the state parliament as a member of the Victorian Legislative Council from East Yarra Province.
And in his days at the Victorian Bar, Menzies did occasionally use cricket to tilt the judgement in his favour.
Cricket in the court
Young Menzies made it a point to study the presiding judges and their foibles astutely, and used any visible chink in the legal gown.
Those days, he came up before an elderly judge quite often — a man not really the greatest of lawyers but someone who had been a top notch cricketer. And the future Prime Minister had looked beyond the austere bench to note that while outwardly fussy and frowning upon unparliamentary language, this judge could always be approached through his three hobbies — roses, poultry and cricket.
There came up a case for civil action for certain events that had taken place around Ballarat. Menzies was the counsel for the defendant — an honest man, but dull and incoherent, for whom the greatest challenge was stating his thoughts in an understandable manner. The judge was once again the ex-cricketer.
The plaintiff and his witnesses appeared first and Menzies did not have too much success during the cross-examination. The judge was impressed at adjournment, when the counsel for the plaintiff had just closed the case.
“Mr. Menzies, I think I should tell you that I find the plaintiff’s case and witnesses most impressive,” the judge confided. Menzies, trying to sound confident, asked him to defer his judgement until he had heard the defendant.
In his chambers, the lawyer now tried his best to prepare his client. Yet, the man’s inability at articulating his thoughts was frustrating. Hence, Menzies approached the problem differently. According to his own version, this is how the dialogue followed:
Menzies: “Have you ever grown roses?”
Client: “I think the wife has some in the garden.”
Menzies: “But can you distinguish a La Belle France from a Frau Carl Drushki?”
Client: “Not a hope!”
Menzies: “Do you keep fowls?”
Client: “The wife has a few.”
Menzies: “Can you distinguish between a White Leghorn and an Orpington?”
Client: “Not for the life of me!”
Menzies: “Have you ever played cricket?”
Client: “Ah! Now you’re talking. I played for Ballarat and District against Ivo Bligh’s Eleven!”
The following morning, Menzies called the defendant in the witness box. The answers proved predictably difficult and confusing. But, the future Prime Minister suavely asked his client about a date. Before the defendant could reply, Menzies asked him to take his time because dates were not always easy to remember. He added, “Now, if I were to ask you about the date when you played cricket for Ballarat and District against Ivo Bligh‘s Eleven, that would be much easier!”
The hitherto disinterested judge now reacted. He swivelled in his chair and asked about the match. “Were you a batsman or a bowler?” The discussion entered the realms of the game and did not emerge from the arena for a considerable while. The judge wanted to know everything. Who was the fast bowler for the opponents? How many runs did the defendant score? For half an hour the court waded through cricketing memories.
By then the client was completely relaxed and concluded his evidence. The judge turned to the plaintiff’s astonished counsel and said, “Of course you may cross-examine if you like. You have a perfect right to do so. But I think I should tell you that in all my years on the bench I have never been more favourably impressed by any witness.”
Needless to add, the defendant won. Menzies maintained that his client had won on merits, but cricket had played the critical role.
According to the great man, “I suppose that purists will say that no advocate should play upon the weaknesses or foibles of a judge. My reply is that any advocate who does not study and know his Judge or Judges is going to lose many cases, most needlessly.”
And if the weakness turned out to be cricket, it found Menzies in mid-season form.
(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)