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Monty Noble: Australia’s great all-rounder; supreme captain

Monty Noble Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Monty Noble Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Monty Noble, born January 28, 1873, was one of the best all-rounders produced by Australia and one of the greatest ever captains of the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was known for his skills in every department and the plenty of innovations he introduced into the game.

The champion

He was called ‘Mary Anne’ by the Sydney crowd because of his initials. His teammates called him ‘Boots’ because of the massive footwear in which he took the field.

History, however, cannot afford a flippant nickname for Montague Alfred Noble. Ray Robinson observed that he “must have been the most accomplished cricketer Australia produced as a bowler, batsman, captain and fieldsman, at least in the pre-1954 era of all-weather wickets.” Quite a weighty remark this from one of Australia’s foremost cricket writers, especially given that the pre-1954 era included plenty of all-time greats in every department of the game, with the all-rounders of the period including George Giffen and Warwick Armstrong, along with Keith Miller and Ray Lindwall in their heydays.

He became just the second cricketer after George Giffen to get to his double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets. The  27 Tests that he took to get there places him right after the select band of Ian Botham, Vinoo Mankad, Kapil Dev and Shaun Pollock, and makes him faster than the likes of Imran Khan, Richard Hadlee, Garry Sobers and Keith Miller. His career records undeniably secure his position as second to only Miller in the list of all-rounders produced by Australia.

During the final phase of his career, he became one of the most innovative and astute captains. A superb strategist, Noble was a model skipper whose personal qualities were for long considered to be the template for the ideal Australian captain.

Yet, in what may seem counter-intuitive to the modern day follower of Australian cricket, Noble played the game with absolute adherence to the ideal spirit of the game. According to Malcolm Knox, “Noble by name, he did his best to instil a nobility of nature.”

In his seminal The Game’s the Thing Noble wrote, “The great leader is the embodiment of all the hopes, virtue, courage and ability possessed by the ten men under his command. If he is not, he is but the shadow and lacks the substance of captaincy. He will not last.” He believed in this and most often lived up to this as well.

Bells, choir and cricket

The very birth of Noble was considered highly auspicious. As he was born in Sydney’s Haymarket, a military band passed by playing loud music as if to herald his arrival in the world. Mother Maria immediately declared that her eighth and last child would be famous.

The road to fame was, however, not paved with certainty.

Father Joseph managed a pub in the Paddington Club where Noble would later play alongside Victor Trumper and for whom he would go on to score 10127 runs at 46.24 and capture 657 wickets at 15.97. However, as a boy, Noble showed less inclination for cricket and more towards the Church. He started by ringing the bell at St Mark’s in Darling Point. Later, when touring England, he was known to visit churches, especially the towers. As a young lad, he also excelled at singing solos in the choir. However, the success of one of his brothers as a professional singer made him realise the limitations of his own talents. He did not pursue singing any further except in private family functions.

Noble joined Paddington and his performances were noticed, but he did not quite turn heads with his talent. He was taken as a part of the New South Wales squad to tour New Zealand in 1894, but did not really do much there with either bat or ball. His debut for the state followed in the 1894-95 season, but he was unsuccessful and dropped for nearly two years.

In the third match on his return, Noble scored an unbeaten 153 against Victoria at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG), adding 111 for the last wicket with Bill Howell. His first bowling scalps in Australia were not bad ones either. Playing against AE Stoddart’s men for his state, Noble got KS Ranjitsinhji caught behind. He added the wickets of Archie MacLaren, Tom Hayward and Stoddart himself, ending with a royal flush of English batsmen and figures of five for 111. This earned a surprise call to play the second Test match of the 1897-98 series.

The Test player

Tall and gawky, Noble walked out to bat at number seven, demonstrated an upright stance and high grip, spent 22 minutes at the crease for his 17 with two boundaries, and then shouldered arms to Tom Richardson to lose his stumps. He was exceedingly disappointed, and on return to the dressing room, exclaimed, “I suppose after such a silly display they’ll never pick me for Australia again.” He was wrong on that count.

In the second England innings, on a wearing Melbourne wicket, Noble ran in and bowled deliveries that swerved dangerously. In a grip borrowed from the visiting American baseball players, Noble pinched the seam between his thumb and forefinger. The long, strong fingers managed to control the ball this way. The result was a medium-paced out-swinger that carried the threat of cutting back off the seam.

Noble picked up six for 49, as Australia won by an innings, once again beating Ranjitsinhji with his break-back. Hugh Trumble took the other four wickets, and it was the start of a lethal partnership with the ball. Noble was immediately established as a regular member of the side. In the third Test at Adelaide, he scored 39 and picked up eight wickets, five of them in the second innings. He followed it up with 12 wickets when the tourists met New South Wales for the return match.

Noble would be a regular feature in the side for more than the next decade.

Hailed as an all-rounder of class, Noble’s arrival was eagerly awaited when he made his way to England aboard SS Ormuz for his first tour in 1899. A fanatical athlete, he had spent his time on the boat doing push ups and with the skipping rope. On arrival, he impressed immediately, hitting 116 not out against South of England at the Crystal Place against a strong bowling attack.

In the Tests, Noble started with useful runs and wickets at Nottingham and Lord’s, including an enterprising half-century contributing to the win in the second match. But, this was followed by a pair in the third Test at Leeds. So upset was he at getting out first ball to Jack Hearne, the second wicket of an eventual hat trick, that he walked off in the wrong direction.

After this he modified his approach. Having struggled with his front foot play, he watched the ball closely off the slow wicket and played back, deflecting the deliveries off his pads and cutting square and late. Coming in at three for 14, he batted patiently for an unbeaten 60, shepherding Australia to 196. In the second innings, Darling sent him in to open the innings and Noble left the pavilion saying to his teammates, “You won’t see me back here for some time.” He batted 320 minutes for 89. It led the crowd to sing ‘Dead March in Saul’. He was booed off the ground and lampooned for scoring ‘1000 runs in 1000 years’. However, he did save the Test and Australia held on to the 1-0 lead.

In the fifth Test, he once again scored a match saving 69 not out, thereby topping the averages with 367 runs at 52.43. He had also taken 13 wickets in the Tests. Ranjitsinhji was left marvelling at his late curl. CB Fry wrote, “He has made a complete study of the art of deceptive variation of pace and the art of deceptive flight.”

Apart from the Test matches, he took seven for 15 against Leicestershire. The other highlight of the tour was not that flattering. Former Australian all-rounder, Albert Trott, hit him into the Lord’s pavilion during the match against Middlesex.

When England visited in 1901-02, it was the bowler in Noble that flourished again. On a sticky Melbourne wicket, he upstaged Sydney Barnes, arguably the best ever bowler to have graced the cricket ground. As many as 25 wickets fell on the first day. Barnes skittled the Australians out for 112 with figures of six for 42. But Noble sent down equally unplayable deliveries, accounting for the last seven English batsmen conceding just 17 runs, bowling them out for 61. In the second innings he claimed six more, this time for 60, to earn a big victory for Australia. It was his best ever bowling analysis in Tests. He followed it up with three for 78, a sparkling innings of 55 and five more wickets for 54 in another win at Sydney.

Hiccups

In England in 1902, there were early problems. Noble suffered from flu along with captain, Darling. Others of the Australian line up, including Trumper, Trumble and Jack Saunders, were indisposed in a variety of ways.

Noble recovered in time to play a crucial role in the third Test. In the only Test match ever hosted at Bramall Lane, Sheffield, Australia were caught on a sticky wicket. Noble top scored with 47 in the first innings and took five for 51 to ensure a 46 run lead. In the second innings, he captured six for 52 to secure victory by 43 runs.

However, even though he scored a half century in the final Test, 1902 was perhaps the only time that Noble faced a slump in his career. He struggled with the bat all through the tour, and, apart from the 11 wickets at Sheffield, took just three more in the remaining Tests. He did boast a decent tour average, but most of it was due to the career best 284 against Sussex. Playing three Tests in South Africa on the way back, he was not really able to produce his top form.

Returning to Australia, he came face-to-face some unforeseen complications. Jack Worrall, the captain of Victoria and once a Test batsman, had been omitted from the tour to England. Writing for an English newspaper, Worrall now accused Noble and his own state-mate Saunders of bowling with illegal actions.

This was a bolt from the blue for Noble. He had never before been suspected of chucking. Shortly afterwards, New South Wales were scheduled to play Victoria soon. Noble, having been appointed the captain of his state was to walk out to toss with Worrall. This made matters very delicate and awkward.

However, support was on the way from an unexpected quarter. Armstrong, the young Victorian all-rounder, joined Saunders in refusing to play against Noble under the captaincy of Worrall. Some heated discussions took place after which Worrall was forced to withdraw. He never played cricket again. Noble on the other hand was beginning a new chapter as the leader. In that match marred by these unpleasant issues, he scored a duck in the first innings, before recovering to get 60 in the second. In a performance fit providing a romantic ending to the short tale, Armstrong claimed a hat-trick.

The captain and the dentist

Soon after becoming captain of his state, Noble decided that he had to invest more time into the game. Thus far employed as a banker, he now qualified for dentistry by training under the prominent Sydney dentist, Henry Peach. His own master in this new profession, Noble could now be flexible with his work hours.

Captaincy brought out the best in both Noble’s game and character. He warmed up for the visit of the Englishmen with 230 against South Australia. Following this, with Darling having departed to manage his Tasmanian property, Noble was made captain of the Australian team.

In the first Test match as captain, Noble hit his only Test century, a chanceless 133 over five hours. The runs had been scored after Reggie Duff, Clem Hill and Trumper had been dismissed within half an hour on the first morning. However, Reginald ‘Tip’ Foster scored his famous 287 on debut to put England ahead by 292 runs. In the second innings, Noble rearranged the batting order with spectacular effect. Trumper came in at number five at 191 for three, and scored 185 not out. England won, but there had been sparks of innovation and brilliance already visible in Noble’s ways.

One of the major changes he brought as captain was the change of bowling. Before this, Test cricket had seen the main bowler continuing from one end, bowling mammoth spells. Noble was the first captain to embrace the concept of keeping all his bowlers fresh with short spells.

Noble scored 59 and 65 in the win at Adelaide. He was heroic at Sydney in the defeat in the fourth Test – scoring an unbeaten 53 and taking seven first innings wickets. England won the series 3-2, but Noble had made an impressive beginning to Test captaincy. He would hand back the reins to Darling on the latter’s return from his Tasmanian business, but he proved himself more than ready for the job.

The beginning of the conflicts

The 1905 tour to England was a mixed affair for Noble. He scored over 2000 runs on the tour including another double hundred against Sussex. But, success in the Tests was limited.

By the time they were back in Australia, conflicts between the Australian Board of Control (ABC) and the players were already underway. New South Wales Cricket Association’s (NSWCA) Billy McElhone and Victoria Cricket Association’s (VCA) Ernie Bean pushed for control of the management and finances of the tours. This kick-started a conflict that would eventually end in the face-off with the Big Six in 1912.

Noble was caught in the skirmishes, and was part of a rebel team of Test players who toured country centres. Led by Trumper, this side included Noble, Duff, Tibby Cotter and Hanson Carter. In retaliation, he was banned by NSWCA. It was only when Darling, Hill and the other star cricketers of Australia made it clear that they would not play New South Wales unless Noble was reinstated, that the management lifted the ban.

When England toured in 1907-08, Noble was named captain. Australia won the series 4-1, Noble as usual leading from the front. He hit three fifties to average 39 with the bat and captured 11 wickets at 27.18.

The triumphant tour

As the conflicts between Darling and McElhone continued behind the doors, Noble found his peak form at the age of 35. In the 1908-09 season, he slammed two identical scores of 213, against Victoria and South Australia. In the match against Victoria, he also bowled 10 consecutive maidens before hitting 69 not out in the second innings. Against South Australia he followed up the 213 with five wickets. He was retained captain for the 1909 tour to England.

The problem lay elsewhere. In a bid to control the finances and management of the tour, the board appointed Victorian batsman Peter McAllister the vice-captain and treasurer. There were bitter arguments about the cash distribution between the board and the senior players. To ensure absolute power for the representatives of the board, Noble was also not named selector on the tour. Hill was disillusioned enough to refuse to go to England.

However, by organising some clever polls conducted among players, Noble managed to garner support, appoint a new vice-captain, and remove McAllister from his post as treasurer. He also managed to knit the team into a strong playing unit.

By this stage of his career, Noble did not bowl other than occasionally, but contributed with the bat at crucial moments. With his superb captaincy, Australia came back from being 0-1 down to win the Test series 2-1, in spite of their severely limited resources.

Winning the toss at Lord’s, Noble surprised England by asking them to take first strike in excellent batting conditions. It surprised Archie MacLaren and his team, and they ended stuttering to a very reasonable total. Noble dealt the final blow by bowling his rival captain with an astonishing break-back in the second innings. Australia won by nine wickets.

At Leeds, his hunch that batting all-rounder Charlie Macartney could win the match with the ball proved vital. “You go on and get them out while I’ll bowl at the other end and keep runs down,” he said and proceeded to bowl maiden after maiden. Macartney finished with 11 for 85 in the match. However, when Macartney roamed the boundary line chatting up pretty women, the captain did not spare his match-winner. Acting quickly, Noble asked him to come in and take up position in the slip.

Sad exit

After the hugely satisfying series win, the tour ended in bitterness. Noble accompanied one group of players back to Australia via Colombo. Their match against the Ceylonese side was a draw. The second team, travelling with McAllister, lost the match and were criticised for indulging in revelry.

The board received a handsome profit for the tour, but voiced doubt about the figures and questioned the honesty of Noble and tour manager Frank Laver. By now the scrupulously honest Noble had enough. In mid-January 1910, he wrote a public letter to the board saying he was retiring to pursue dentistry practice.

He remained close to the game though. In 1914 he toured New Zealand with an unofficial Australian team. He came out of retirement after the Great War to lead his state – a laudable effort to rejuvenate the struggling game. In 1919-20, he played against Queensland and injured his leg. His runner, Ted Adams, could not make his ground and Noble was run out in his last First-Class innings. Adams, who became Town Clerk of Sydney, never forgave himself for ending the career of one of Australia’s greatest captains.

The style

Noble ended his career with 13,975 runs in First-Class cricket at 40.74 with 37 hundreds, alongside 624 wickets at 23.14. In 42 Tests, he scored 1,997 runs at 30.25 and scalped 121 wickets at 25.00 apiece at an impressive strike rate of 59.1.

As a batsman he was versatile, his approach based on situational demand, with the ability to vary his methods. He could defend for hours and could also use his height and reach to drive, pull and cut. Neville Cardus wrote, “He was in the classic school through and through but also showed it is possible to be classic without being pedantic.”

One of the masters of spin-swerve, Noble was prone to use break-backs to get his wickets on helpful pitches. Ranjitsinhji considered him to be one of the six best medium pacers he had faced. Robinson wrote, “Instead of pressing two or three fingers on the ball’s seam, like a spinner, Noble held it between his thumb and his strong corn-studded forefinger. On the truest of tracks all he needed was some sort of headwind for this spin-swerve to be difficult.”

Noble was brilliant at point and had a superb throwing arm. Once when the team was passing through Suez Canal, he beaned an Arab on the shore with a perfectly thrown apple after the man had made objectionable gestures.

As captain Noble was exceptional. Apart from the tactic of keeping his bowlers fresh with short spells, he also introduced the trick of keeping the cover open to lure the batsmen into snicking drives to the slip and gully. As a strategist, he synthesised the best of Harry Trott, Trumble and  Darling. He analysed the opposition batsmen thoroughly and remembered their weaknesses forever.

His innovations went beyond the field of play. He used to put sugar cubes in his whiskey to prevent hangover. Some of his playing shirts had air holes in the arms.

He was strict as well. Whenever the opposition demanded a substitute fielder, Noble enquired about the problem with the injured player. In a Shield match, he had objected to a runner for a batsman who had come in without pads. The game had been stopped before the runner had strapped on a pair of leg-guards.

He was stern with his team as well, and liked the junior players to know who was in charge. Once Stork Hendry ran one and refused the second after Noble had called for two. The captain reminded him, “When I say two, I mean two.”

However, he never criticised players in front of the team. He rather let a player wonder about the degree of his anger, and left him to his conscience – followed by a quiet word later.

He instituted an off-field code of discipline as well. He himself drank and smoked, but restricted himself during Test matches. He told his players, “Do what you like with your spare time but take your cricket seriously as I do. You are all potential Australian captains, so make sure you turn out as such for Tests.” Noble was aware about how much prestige the post carried.

At the same time, he was scrupulously fair while playing the game. Standing at point, he discouraged players from appealing when the batsman was certainly not out. As a signal to the umpire that he did not agree with an appeal, Noble sometimes rolled balls back along the ground. Once, while batting for New South Wales, Noble saw the striker hit in the air and cry out, “Come on, he’ll drop it.” When the fieldsman grassed the chance, Noble conspicuously admonished his partner for this show of gamesmanship.

Post-retirement

Noble gave up dentistry to become a manufacturer’s representative and also a member of the SCG Trust. He was one of the members to oversee the grandstand built there in 1938. The grandstand bore his name – the first time such an honour was bestowed on a cricketer.

Noble wrote several insightful books on the game, among which The Game’s The Thing remains a classic. He also became a journalist, and as a broadcaster took part in some of the phantom radio coverage of Australia’s overseas Tests in 1920s and 1930s.

His also contributed to cricket as a dentist. One of his patients was Bill Ferguson who was soon engaged as baggage man and scorer. Fergie served Australia for almost half a century in that capacity and never lost a bag. Ferguson’s sister was another of his patients, and later became his wife and the mother of his four children.

During the Second World War, Noble, at the age of 67, served as a volunteer dentist for the Australian Army in Liverpool, on Sydney’s outskirts. It was in this capacity that he suffered a heart attack while taking part in a social game of cricket.

He died a few days later at his home in Paddington.

(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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