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Herbie Collins: Former Australian captain who was also a soldier and gambler

Herbie Collins. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Herbie Collins. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Herbie Collins, born January 21, 1888, was a dour batsman and a respected captain of Australia, whose exit from Test cricket was marred by controversy. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the soldier, cricketer and gambler.

The gambler with a difference

According to Ray Robinson, Herbie Collins possessed, “by card‐table habit”, and a face which “revealed no more than the sphinx’s inscrutable smile tells the camels”.

The ‘card-table habit’ was a legacy of the years spanning the Great War. Collins had indeed been a bohemian and a gambler, but much before that he had been a soldier. A brave-heart who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces, he served in Sinai and Palestine and survived the extremely hazardous job of driving shells up to the front-line in France.

Perhaps, his instincts trained on the vagaries of the card games, he wagered on chance once in a while — but then, which cricket captain does not? Fate sided with him often. Arthur Gilligan branded him ‘Horseshoe’ when he kept winning toss after toss during the 1924-25 Ashes series. The England skipper also subtly got down on his knees to check whether Collins was flicking a two-sided coin.

On rare occasions though, his gambles failed. It did during that all-important fifth Test at The Oval in 1926, when his bowling Arthur Richardson on a sticky wicket was negated by the brilliance of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe. His weakness for the cards was associated with the move and the defeat, and it led to some unkind — and unnecessary — rumours that he had thrown the match away. Suspicions of match-fixing dogged the last days of his successful cricket career.

However, no evidence was ever supplied and many of his teammates, including the ebullient Arthur Mailey, stood steadfastly beside him.

It does not seem likely that Herbie Collins threw a Test match. He was far too proud a cricketer, and way too patriotic a man. And even though he often gambled, even on two flies going up the wall, it was done in personal life. He refused to play cards with his teammates.

He was a man who had his vices, but somehow balanced them — refusing his cricket to be affected by his obvious weaknesses. He returned from the army as a chain smoker, but the only alcohol he took was champagne during celebrations of victory.

Why, he was the captain in the 1924-25 series when England needed 27 runs with two wickets in hand on the final morning at Adelaide. The series alive and throbbing, the match on the keen edge of a knife, Gilligan and Tich Freeman stubborn at the crease. And then there was that sensational incident at the team hotel.

A fabulous looking race-course man, smoking a big cigar, called to see Collins. And the skipper, after speaking to him, took him along to Mailey.

“This fellow says it’s worth 100 quid if we lose the match,” Collins said to his leg-spinner. Without changing his poker player’s expression, he continued: “Let’s throw him downstairs.”

Mailey hesitantly made note of the size of the man and Collins was forced to reconsider: “I’d better ring the hall porter then.”

Even that day Collins was criticised and suspected of underhand dealings when he chose the erratic Mailey over the more reliable Charles Kelleway to start the proceedings with Jack Gregory. But, with 18 to win, Gregory got rid of Gilligan and then Mailey induced a snick off Freeman. Australia won by 11 runs.

When he was on the cricket field, Herbie Collins was an honest man.

The observer

The son of an accountant, Collins was born among the workers in Darlinghurst. By the time he started watching the game, Victor Trumper and Monty Noble were already making heads turn with their cricketing feats. He watched them from close quarters as they turned out for Paddington.

By the time Collins himself started rolling his arm over and sending down carefully thought out left-arm spinners, both Trumper and Noble were established Test stars. He continued to study them, as well as making notes of the other cricketers. He was one of the keenest students of the game, his keen eyes seldom missing anything. Mailey even called him ‘Squirrel’ because of those intense eyes, which seemed to shine brighter in the dark.

After some useful performances for Waverley, Collins was selected for New South Wales (NSW) in December 1909. However, it took him three seasons to become a regular. He finally stamped his class while on a trip to Hobart, benefitting from four missed catches, amassing 282 in 290 minutes.

During the 1913 Australian winter, Collins was part of an Australian team that toured North America, playing the Gentlemen of Philadelphia and a combined Canada-United States team.

However, his ventures into the sporting arena were not limited to cricket. Collins was also active in the first grade rugby league in the New South Wales Rugby Football League premiership. He played at five-eighth alongside the legendary Dally Messenger in the historic final win of Eastern Suburbs in the 1911 season. He also turned out in Brisbane for Toombul’s club, and gained selection for Queensland in 1912.

In the year before the War, Collins played as an opening batsman for NSW and a more than useful left-arm slow bowler. He finished third on the national batting averages and was chosen for an unofficial tour of New Zealand. It was on this tour that he met the likes of Warwick Armstrong for the first time.

However, when the side was picked for the scheduled series against South Africa, his name was omitted. In the end it did not matter, as War intervened and the Tests never took place.

The soldier

In January 1915, Prime Minister Billy Hughes made a stirring address to the sportsmen of Australia: “As you have played the game in the past, so we ask you to play the greater game now. You are wanted in the trenches now far more than you were ever wanted in the football and cricket fields.”

Not all the stars responded. Armstrong, for example, was exempted because of his age and size. However, Collins heard the call. He completed his match against Victoria at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), getting scores of 15 and one. Following that he left for Palestine with the Australian Light Horse.

His role in the War was to drive supply trucks. And if one goes by the change in his face during those years, there were marks left by events of far greater weight than card-games. Lines and wrinkles told an eloquent story of hardship.

Two months after armistice, order number 1539 of the AIF set up a Sports Control Board to occupy the thousands of personnel waiting in England. The response was overwhelming. As many as 12 net sessions had to be arranged at Lord’s to select a squad.

Collins, then a lance corporal, was picked to play under the leadership of Captain Charles Kelleway. Alongside him in the team were all-rounder Jack Gregory and batsmen Nip Pellew and Johnny Taylor. Additionally, in a dingy London flat, Collins discovered the NSW wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield. At first Oldfield was unwilling to play. Collins lent him cricketing gear and talked him into a trial. The first choice stumper, Ted Long, was so impressed by Oldfield that he demoted himself.

There were more developments around the team. After an incident of poor behaviour and unrest among the players, Field Marshall Birdwood, former commander of the Australian Corps, sacked Kelleway as skipper and replaced him with Collins. This meant seven men of higher rank playing under the lance corporal, but Collins led with quiet intensity and it sparked off trust in all.

Initially there had been assurance that AIF’s matches against a combined England XI would be given Test status. But, while they fully supported the AIF tour of the counties, Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) withdrew the promise of Test matches.

Otherwise, the tour was a grand success and unearthed Gregory as a rare talent. The rangy blond all-rounder scored 942 runs and claimed 131 wickets in the 25 matches. Additionally, Collins proved to be a fine opening batsman and left-arm spinner with 1,615 runs and 106 wickets. The AIF team won 12, drew 12 and lost four matches.

The triumph did not end there. On their way back, Australia played two unofficial ‘Tests’ in Johannesburg. The team won both the matches. And in the first game, Collins scored 235 before taking five for 52. The Cape Argus wrote: “In the art of placing a field, Collins had little to learn from the average international eleven.”

On their return, the AIF team went around Australia playing several matches. Collins scored 135 against Queensland and 129 against NSW. However, the profits from the big crowds were all hoarded by the Sports Board. The players had to subsist on their army pay of six shillings a day.

The Test player

When the AIF team was disbanded, Collins went back to NSW, and hit 109 before lunch against Queensland. It was incredible, because Collins was not really a fast scorer. Generally he was considered stroke-less, working the ball around in deflections and seldom going for big hits. This innings remained the major aberration to his normal style of play.

By the next season, he had been made the captain of NSW. The only loss of these early years was that after his AIF days, Collins seldom bowled again.

In 1920-21, England sent their first post-War team to play a series in Australia. Led by Johnny Douglas, the side was doomed from the start. A case of typhoid had forced quarantine for a week at Freemantle on arrival. When they finally landed, embarrassing defeats followed one after the other.

In the first game, Collins made a century against the visitors for NSW. When the first Test was played at Sydney, he became one of the six AIF XI cricketers to make his Test debut. He was also the vice-captain of the side. Strangely, Collins was one of the selectors while captain Armstrong was not.

The NSW batsman scored 70 and 104 on debut, becoming only the fifth Australian to hit a century in his first Test. In the second match, he hit 64. And in third Test at Adelaide, Collins batted for 258 minutes, scoring 162. After a long wait it turned out to be a fascinating start. Collins ended the series with 557 runs at an average of 61.88.

The trip to England in 1921 with Armstrong’s famous all-conquering side ended in disappointment for Collins. During the First Test at Trent Bridge, he broke his thumb while fielding at silly-point. It ruled him out of the next second and third Tests. He returned for the fourth Test and scored 40 in 289 minutes to force a draw. However, overall, it was not a very successful venture from his personal point of view.

 

The captain

But, things started to change on the way back. The team stopped to play three Test matches in South Africa. And with Armstrong recovering from illness in a sanatorium in Durban, Collins led Australia for the first time.

The match at Durban was drawn as was the second Test at Johannesburg. But in the latter, Collins scored a magnificent 203. At 128 for two, he was joined at the wicket by Gregory who hammered his way to a century off 67 balls in 70 minutes. The two added 209 in 85 minutes.

In the final Test at Cape Town, Australia cruised to an easy win. With just one to score in the fourth innings, Collins sent in tail-enders Mailey and Harry Carter to get the run. All through, his captaincy had been superb, the players carefully handled with little display of moods or temper. All he asked of his men on the field was to keep an eye on him between deliveries to follow a quick nod of the head or the jerk of a thumb. Now, with the series almost won, he showed his sense of humour by his altered batting order — a decision taken due to the entreaties of Mailey.

The following series was against Arthur Gilligan’s Englishmen in 1924-25. By then, Armstrong had retired and Collins was the automatic choice to lead the side.

In the first Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), Warren Bardsley was out early. Maurice Tate was looking threatening. And joining him at the wicket was the debutant Bill Ponsford. Collins took pains to shield the youngster from Tate. The pair went on to add 190. Collins scored 114, reaching 1,000 runs in 12 Tests — then a world record. Clem Hill remarked, “That’s the toughest bowling I’ve ever seen on the first day.” Ponsford later said, “I was most grateful for Herbie taking [Tate's bowling] until I was settled in. I doubt I would have scored a century but for his selfless approach.”

Australia won by 193 runs on the seventh day. Collins missed the third day’s play due to the sad demise of his sister. However, he was back on the fourth morning to score 60 in the second innings.

In spite of facing a strong England side with Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Frank Woolley, Patsy Hendren and Tate, the hosts won the series 4-1. There were some magical moments of captaincy. After Hobbs and Sutcliffe had put on 283 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Collins threw the ball to Mailey at the start of play on the fourth morning. The off-side was kept open, Mailey bowled a full-toss and Hobbs was bowled.

As mentioned earlier, the Australian captain’s luck with the toss continued, but he ran out of form with the bat. He was getting on in years and there were suggestions that he should step aside. However, in the 1925-26 season, he led NSW to the Sheffield Shield and notched up two centuries along the way. Hence, he was considered fit for the tour to England in the summer of 1926.

Unfortunately, it was to be his last and would ruin him for life.

The tragedy

During the 1926 tour, Collins suffered from neuritis and was in constant pain from his arthritic condition. As a result, he had to be hospitalised and missed the third and fourth Tests. The weather also intervened and the first four Tests resulted in draws.

When Collins was seen leading on the field, the tactics were often found to be risk-averse. The resources he had with him were also limited. Ted McDonald, half of the terrorising Gregory McDonald duo of 1921, had moved to Lancashire. Mailey had been joined by a new leg-spinner, a New Zealand-born Victorian named Clarrie Grimmett. But the attack was hardly adequate.

In the fifth Test at The Oval, in the second innings, Hobbs and Sutcliffe put together a miraculous partnership on a sticky pudding of a wicket. Collins was severely criticised for bowling Arthur Richardson during the fatal morning when the match hung in balance. When Australia lost the Test and thereby the Ashes, the captain’s weakness for card games and earlier approaches by bookmakers were highlighted. Major accusations flew about. All of it was quite undeserved.

Apart from Richardson, who was thwarted by some supreme technique used by Hobbs, Mailey and Grimmett combined to bowl 97.5 overs between them. The arguments clamouring about his not bowling Gregory were also far-fetched, because the fast bowler had not taken a wicket in the previous four Tests. And while the Adelaide incident had shown that Collins indeed knew bookies, it had also demonstrated that he had rejected their advances.

This one result ended the cricketing days of Collins and also, figuratively speaking, crippled him for life. With accusations doing rounds, he was ostracised. The game had been his source of mental sustenance. He now fell back to find both solace and subsistence among his addictions. Stripped off captaincy of Australia, NSW and Waverley, he was also publicly accused of underhand dealings by Monty Noble. Hunter Hendry, who watched the match from the stands, voiced his suspicion that he had thrown the match.

According to Mailey, the hunting grounds of Collins consisted of “the race track, the dog track, a baccarat joint at Kings Cross, a two-up school in the Flanders trenches and anywhere a quiet game of poker was being played.” On tours, he would bet on what train would arrive next, how many carriages it would have and how many windows. He bet even on ribbon cutting contests on voyages. But, he had never placed bets on cricket or cricketers.

He then became a bookmaker, but failed. He served as a steward at pony races in Sydney, and it did not appeal to him. Finally, he became a commission agent for punters and bookies, low on the gambling food-chain. His cricket career had ended with the debacle at The Oval.

The analysis

The 19 Tests Collins played brought him 1,352 runs at 45.06 with four hundreds. A short, slight man, he batted within his limitations, eschewing risks and relying on nudges, pushes and prods. His batting was remarkable for his low back-lift and high degrees of patience. According to Robinson, “Collins had an implacable trench warfare style that in difficult times earned admiration from his own side, put bowlers on the road to exasperation and sent onlookers through the doors of bars.”

However, he did have one stroke that carried the flair of adventure. It was the hook, essayed over his shoulder, the pivot ending on his right foot, his left foot six inches in the air. He also brought with him the curiosity of batting without gloves when the wicket was easy.

With his left-arm spin, Collins captured 181 wickets in First-Class cricket, but seldom bowled in Tests. His four wickets in the highest form came at an expensive 63 apiece. He bowled off two steps, preserving his energy for his more rigorous pursuits.

As a captain, Collins was immensely popular. The players respected the amount of faith he put on them, and appreciated his regard for the different personalities.

Mailey, who played under him for Australia and NSW, wrote, “I learnt more of the psychology of cricket from Collins than all the hundreds of cricketers I met. Without being perceptibly diplomatic, he would carry the burden of responsibility yet transfer the credit to those he thought deserved it most.”

In spite the bitter end to his Test days, he was a successful captain, winning five and losing two Test matches.

The last days

In 1933-34, a benefit was played for Collins, Kelleway and Tommy Andrews. It raised the large sum of £500 for each. But, Collins was soon seen appealing to the NSW Cricketers’ Fund.

In fact, these appeals had started a lot earlier. In 1931, the NSWCA treasurer Edwin Tyler wrote, “I have to report that I interviewed Mr HL Collins in regard to his present financial position. He informs me that he has been right up against it for a considerable time, has tried in every possible way to get employment or means of earning his livelihood, but has failed almost completely. He has an invalid mother who has no hope of recovering. So short has he been of money that on occasion he has not been able to buy the necessary medicine, and more infrequently they have been short of food.” The fund was supplied to him until 1938.

Collins married at the age of 51, his wife was the daughter of a race steward 27 years his junior. A son was born and a divorce followed. His later years were spent in the shadow of gambling, while he worked at the Victoria Barracks having re-enlisted in the army. It was a wretched way to spend the last days for one of Australia’s premier cricketers.

He died of lung cancer in 1959, penniless and forgotten by his peers.

(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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