ET Reed’s cartoon on Tennyson’s effort. Courtesy: The Bystander.
ET Reed’s cartoon on Tennyson’s effort. Courtesy: The Bystander.

Warwick Armstrong’s Australians were all over England immediately after The Great War got over. Lionel Tennyson was appointed captain midway through the 1921 Ashes. England’s fortune did not change in what turned out to be yet another one-sided contest. However, perhaps everything was paled by one act of valour, by Tennyson on July 4, 1921, as Abhishek Mukherjee recalls.

The Australians, especially their bowling, were too formidable for any side’s comfort. Opening bowling with two fast bowlers was still not the default practice in cricket. Warwick Armstrong can be credited for pioneering the concept.

Of course, he had two seriously quick bowlers in Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald. Armstrong handled them brilliantly, sometimes together, sometimes not. He used them in short bursts to keep them fresh.

Armstrong could afford to do that, for he had the inexhaustible Arthur Mailey wheeling down his leg-breaks all day and taking wickets by the bucketful. Armstrong himself was no ordinary leg-spinner either. Then there was Charles Kelleway to bowl seam.

Mind you, Kelleway and Armstrong were among the greatest all-rounders in Australian history. The batting was handled by Charles Macartney (who also bowled decent left-arm spin), Herbie Collins, Warren Bardsley, and Jack Ryder (also a seam bowler). Bert Oldfield was as fine a wicketkeeper there has been. And Nip Pellew was too good an outfielder for the era.

The result was inevitable. The 1920-21 Ashes was the first 5-0 whitewash in Ashes history. The second Ashes whitewash would take another 86 seasons. The sides clashed again in England in a few months’ time.

Cricketers from both parties considered the two series as part of one massive 10-Test contest. You could not blame them. The tourists played South Australia till March 15. Then they left the East Coast aboard the Osterley three days later, and were joined by the Australians at Fremantle on March 22. The Australians immediately started beating their English counterparts in all sorts of deck games.

After disembarking at Toulon, the English cricketers took a train to Paris, then to Calais to take the boat train to London. They reached Victoria Station on April 17.

They tried to postpone their first tour match but in vain. They took field against Leicestershire on April 30.

Before we move on, it is perhaps pertinent to mention something. The Englishmen were greeted by a massive crowd at the station. The applause was unanimous despite the ignominy of the whitewash: these were, after all, the men who helped restore normalcy to a world ripped apart by war.

Percy Fender, who had made his debut at Adelaide on the disastrous tour, wrote: “Judging by the warmth of our greeting, one would hesitate to guess what would have happened had we come back a winning side.”

The near-Invincibles

To cut things short, Armstrong’s team won the first 3 Tests by 10 wickets (inside two days), 8 wickets and 219 runs, making it 8 wins in a row. The next two were hit by rain (to be fair, England managed first-innings leads in both).

The English selectors, clutching on to straws (but hopefully not drawing the shortest ones as a method), used 30 men for the 5 Tests. Of them, only Johnny Douglas and Frank Woolley played every Test, while 17 got a solitary outing each. In the favour of the selectors, one can say that they were hampered by the absence of Jack Hobbs who played a solitary Test — but we will come to that later.

The Australians did not lose to a single county, either. They remained unbeaten for the first 33 matches before losing a historic match against “An England XI” — a team assembled by Archie MacLaren. It featured Aubrey Faulkner, two county cricketers, and a plethora of freshmen.

They also lost the Scarborough Festival match, their penultimate of the tour (was it out of shock?). They left the English shores with 22 wins, 14 draws, and 2 defeats.

The Big Ship

But there was more to Armstrong than just being the commander of an unstoppable force. Armstrong attained the image of a demon of sorts in the English cricket fraternity. He was enormous (at 133 kg he was the heaviest international cricketer; they called him The Big Ship for a reason), but that was not all.

Armstrong was as great a gamesman as any in the history of the sport. When a debutant Woolley had come out to bat in 1909, Armstrong had kept him waiting for 19 minutes, bowling trial balls outside the pitch (it was legal at that point).

In the Old Trafford Test of 1921 (later on the tour) he bowled consecutive overs without anyone noticing. There is another story (perhaps a rumour) that mentions him reading a newspaper while fielding because “I wanted to see who we were playing.”

The stories may sound redundant, for this is about Lionel Tennyson. But it is important to know the kind of man and opposition England were against that summer, how bad they were hit on the cricket field and psychologically.

Captaincy conundrum

Fender had led Surrey in 1920 when Cyril Wilkinson was unavailable. He had impressed all and sundry with his inventive methods, shrewd observations, and willingness to gamble — to the extent that some even touted him as a potential captain on the 1920-21 tour.

The case for Fender became stronger when Reggie Spooner, the first-choice captain, withdrew himself from the tour. The mantle passed over to Douglas. Now Douglas, built like an ox (he won the gold medal in middleweight boxing in the 1908 London Olympics), was a competent all-rounder. He was also a decent leader of men, but was by no means as astute as Fender.

As mentioned above, Douglas was up against an extremely formidable side. To add to that, he remained largely aloof on that tour. He spent a lot of time with his parents away from the team, which did not help. Incidentally, he would die less than a decade later, trying to save his father (who could not be saved) following a collision of two ships just south of Denmark.

But we are digressing. Poor Douglas faced the dishonour of losing 8 consecutive Tests against Australia, one before The War, 5 in Australia, and 2 more in England. The selectors wanted a change. That change, they realised, had already been incorporated into the side.

Of poetry, war, and cricket

Emerging from the shadow of a legend in the family is not easy. Lionel Tennyson’s grandfather was one of the most popular poets of the Victorian era, and continues to remain a universal favourite. The grandson shone in his own right: Lionel’s autobiography From Verse to Worse shows glimpses of the literary genes; his acts of valour on the battlefield earned him recognition; but perhaps his greatest feats took place on the cricket field, as captain of Hampshire and England.

Tennyson was reputed as a hard hitter. He was no Hobbs, but he was superior to most amateur captains, both as cricketer and leader. One must remember that this was an era when amateur cricketers led counties (and England), thus often taking calls.

He barely got any serious cricket till after The Great War. He was certainly robbed of his best years, for he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in the season exactly before that. That was also his maiden First-Class season, so it can safely be concluded that a blossoming career was at least partially clipped.

He had not played for England since 1914 till he had been recalled for the 1921 Lord’s Test (the second of the series in question). The recommendation had come from CB Fry, who was playing for Hampshire under Tennyson at that point. Fry had travelled from Southampton to convince the selectors that Tennyson was the best man to lead the side.

It turned out to be an inspired move. England had barely saved the innings defeat at Lord’s when Tennyson walked out, took on Gregory and McDonald, and smashed 74 not out. More importantly, he hit 10 fours off the pair, showing that they could be countered.

The selectors were desperate at this point. They wanted to replace Douglas. They even asked Fry, then 49, to lead England. Once again they went by Fry’s recommendation. Tennyson, recalled to the side one Test before, was suddenly the captain of England.

Like a lot of hard hitters, Tennyson was a natural gambler on and off the cricket field (stories of his betting can fill several pages). He was brave, played his cricket hard, and never shied from taking risks. These were perhaps the attributes the selectors — who had decided to stick to a bizarre anti-Fender policy — sought for to lift a team defeated in all possible ways. His courage in handling Gregory and McDonald might also have played a role.

To his credit, Douglas stayed on. Hobbs returned for the Test to boost the morale of the team, as did ‘Young Jack’ Hearne. As if to compensate, Phil Mead pulled out due to an injury, but Douglas stayed on gamely.

A quadruple blow

Tennyson opened bowling with Douglas and left-arm spinner Jack White. Douglas removed Bardsley quickly. Tennyson placed himself at silly point for White. Then Macartney hit one extremely hard, so much so that it split the webbing between Tennyson’s left thumb and forefinger. Three stitches took care of it, but it was unlikely that he would bat again.

Then Hobbs suddenly suffered from a pain and had to be rushed to the hospital. He was diagnosed with appendicitis, and had to be operated on during the Test. There was obviously no question of his taking further part in the match.

Douglas was leading in Tennyson’s absence. Now, at this point, a message arrived that Douglas’ wife was down — with appendicitis. He stayed back, but obviously this did little to boost his morale (remember, he was replaced as captain for the Test).

And wicketkeeper George Brown injured himself later in the match. He had to be aided by a runner in the fourth innings. Brown deserves a mention in the passing. He was a legendary Hampshire all-rounder (over 25,000 runs and 600 wickets) who sometimes kept wickets. Strangely, he played Test cricket only as a wicketkeeper.

It was so hot that day that the spectators had to wrap newspapers and handkerchiefs around their necks. The Australians made merry on a true wicket. Macartney scored 115 while Pellew, Johnny Taylor, and Armstrong all got fifties. Even the ninth-wicket stand between Carter and McDonald yielded 55. They eventually finished on 407 as a heavily bandaged Tennyson looked on helplessly from the pavilion.

 Then England collapsed against the fast bowlers and Armstrong. Things looked headed for another two-day Test when they were reduced to 67 for 5 on the second morning (remember, they were two men down). But Douglas hung on grimly as Brown scored a crucial 57 at the other end. The pair added 97, and White fell a run later.

A single-handed effort

As Douglas and Brown led the recovery, a lot went on inside Tennyson’s mind. He later confessed in his autobiography: “The idea came to me suddenly that I could bat after all. I have always been abnormally strong in the right forearm, fingers and wrist; could I wield a bat right-handed for a bit and get at least a few runs for our side that day?”

He opened his kit and brought out the lightest bat. He practised for a while. Since the top hand was out of action, he could only play the odd, unconventional stroke, but his immense strength could still fetch him runs. If not anything, with Douglas at the other end, he could hold the fort.

The Cairns Post, however, reported on the rest day of the Test that “Tennyson will bat with one hand if it comes to the pinch.” This was the day before Tennyson walked out to bat, so the idea might not have been a last-minute brainwave after all.

So Tennyson emerged amidst shocked applause. He held the bat only with his right hand. He “turned the first ball almost to the ropes for two”. Then he cover-drove Mailey for four and hit the next ball back at him — which Mailey promptly dropped.

“Tennyson appeared to use both hands without difficulty,” reported The Newcastle Sun. Exactly how he used the left hand is unclear. In all probability he used it for balance while his right hand was the only one holding the bat. A photograph from Sport and General shows him playing a one-handed semi-slice past point, his left hand clearly out of the way.

Then he drove McDonald through cover. McDonald pitched short outside off, and Tennyson guided it over slip with one hand (a one-handed uppercut?) for four. McDonald bounced again; this time Tennyson merely guided him behind square-leg for another four. The ground erupted in unison.

Tennyson raced to 26 when Mailey dropped him again. Thus reprieved, he kept steering Gregory through the slips for runs. Douglas and Tennyson added 75 in an hour, of which Tennyson scored 50. His fifty had taken 69 balls and had included 9 fours.

He handled Gregory better than anyone. The Age mentioned that “he had a sensational over from Gregory, driving and cutting past cover and through the slips, boundaries resulting.”

Daily Standard (Brisbane) added: “Tennyson’s forward play was great, and though Gregory was bowling in masterful fashion, pitching the ball on the ‘blind spot’ with great accuracy, he had no terrors for the English captain, who scored freely, where orthodox batsmen would have defended.”

 Every run was cheered, for no one has seen anything like this before in a Test match. Media hailed him as “England’s wounded hero who was making big history”. The words were not wasted on a seasoned war veteran.

England needed another 5 to save the follow-on when Armstrong got Douglas. Tennyson stayed on to see Ciss Parkin ensure Australia bat again (remember, this was the last wicket, since Hobbs had been ruled out). Tennyson was eventually by Gregory in the slip off McDonald for a magnificent 63 in 92 balls with 10 fours. Only Douglas (75) had scored more for England.

It was “perhaps the greatest day of my life,” Tennyson would later recall, and why would he not? He was up against probably the greatest side till World War II; he was leading his country for the first time; he was deprived of the services of his greatest man shortly after start; and he had injured his hand. Cricket may have seen greater efforts, but not many as brave. 

It did not end there…

Australia batted with a 148-run lead. Tennyson marshalled his troops on the ground with a heavily bandaged left hand. They cheered loudly every time he fielded the ball. He led intelligently, shuffling his fielders around and making swift bowling changes.

Armstrong declared on the final morning, setting England 422. Five men scored between 27 and 46, which meant that no one really got his eye in. Batting at No. 8 Tennyson smashed a 36-ball 36, a terrific effort. He even hit a six off Mailey.

Take a moment to appreciate this: Tennyson used only his back-hand to hit a leg-spinner for six in a decent-sized ground.

As mentioned above, the last 2 Tests were drawn. Tennyson never played another Test after that series. From 4 Tests against Armstrong’s men, his 229 runs came at 57.25. Over that 10-Test-long home-and-away contest, only Mead averaged more among Englishmen.

 Of batting one handed

The incredible research of Charles Davis is largely responsible for this section.

Davis has listed batsmen who had batted one-handed in Test cricket. Tennyson was obviously the first. The second instance was by Reg Simpson in 1953 — curiously, also for England, also in an Ashes Test, and also at Headingley.

Two of these instances have achieved cult status: when Colin Cowdrey walked out, 9 wickets down, to save the Lord’s Test of 1963; and when Malcolm Marshall helped Larry Gomes score a hundred at Edgbaston Test of 1984 before removing the sling to take 7 for 53.

Later in that 1984 series at Old Trafford, Paul Terry became the first (and only till date) person to bat with his arm in a sling. It turned out to be his last Test innings.

At Faisalabad in 1986-87, Saleem Malik’s left arm was broken. He first tried batting left-handed and failed before switching stance. He is the only one to bat both left-handed and right-handed in the same Test innings. 

Brief scores:

Australia 407 (Charlie Macartney 115, Nip Pellew 52, Johnny Taylor 50, Warwick Armstrong 77; Johnny Douglas 3 for 80, Ciss Parkin 4 for 106) and 273 for 7 decl. (Tommy Andrews 92, Sammy Carter 47; Jack White 3 for 37) beat England 259 (Johnny Douglas 75, George Brown 57, Lionel Tennyson 63; Ted McDonald 4 for 105) and 202 (George Brown 46; Arthur Mailey 3 for 71) by 219 runs.