Sports historian Megan Ponsford, grand-daughter of the legendary Bill Ponsford, reveals stunning anecdotes about the inaugural Australian team that toured India almost 80 years ago.
On October 9, 1935 a team of excited, yet ill prepared, cricketers departed from Port Melbourne. After a long-winded wrangling, this unofficial tour had eventually acquired the reluctant support of the Australian Board of Control. The unimaginably wealthy Maharaja of Patiala undertook financial responsibility for the tour, providing £10,000 for the venture. This was payback to the India cricket board for their support of him over his arch nemesis, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagram. The murky world of Indian cricket in the twenties and thirties thrived on such backroom deals.
The Australian board was anxious that the tour could jeopardise the coinciding Test tour to South Africa and the domestic Sheffield Shield competition. They insisted that the touring party was not an official Australian XI and the matches played could not be called Tests as stipulated in the September 1935 minute books. Possibly the tour smelt suspiciously professional to the Australian administrators with each team member receiving £300 and £3 spending money per week. For these Australian cricketers, in the post-Depression era, this was a significant amount of money and no doubt a contributing factor to participate. The distinction between professional and amateur was firmly entrenched in the game with cricket, like the rest of society, rigidly constructed on class lines.
The team comprised a mixed bag of players: some veteran greats, well past their prime, and some promising debutants. The age of the players ranged from the grand daddy of the tour, Bert Ironmonger aged 53, to young Ron Morrisbey, who would celebrate his 21st birthday in Lahore. The team was described in the Sporting Globe as ‘veterans and colts as happy as schoolboys’. Less flattering descriptions circulating the press rooms included ‘has been and never will be’.
Aboard the SS Mongolia the team, captained by veteran Jack Ryder, were captivated by tour manager Frank Tarrant’s glamorous tales of life in colonial India and sanguine stories of Indian cricket in its infancy. The purpose of the Australian tour was to assist with the preparation of an official Indian Test team to tour England the following year. This was not an easy task as cricket, along with the wider Indian society, had problems achieving cultural and communal unity. Tarrant promised the boys an unforgettable adventure: tigers to shoot, gala events to attend and five months immersed amongst the decadence of the Indian nobility.
Illness and injury
In reality, the schedule was gruelling. The team had 23 games to play and an exhaustive commuting train travel itinerary, which appeared to make no sense with the same ground frequently being covered multiple times.
The tour was marred by illness and injury. Arthur Allsopp, Lisle Nagel and Bert Ironmonger acquired enteric fever. Allsopp was lucky to survive and spent three months in Bombay’s St George Hospital, where only European patients were admitted. Luckily for Allsopp, the Maharaja picked up the bill for his internment. Charles Macartney and Ron Oxenham incurred debilitating leg injuries. Wendell Bill’s jaw was broken by the pacy Mohammad Nissar. Leather returned home having acquired pyorrhoea, inflammation of the teeth sockets, resulting in the loss of his teeth. At times the team was so depleted that the call went out for available players and Australian tourists Joe Davis, Frank Warne, Frank Tarrant and his son Bert made up the numbers. An equally important and rigorous social agenda had to fit in amongst cricket. Prior to the start of play in Patiala both teams attended an early morning shoot where 400 grouse were bagged.
Success of goodwill tour
On the teams return to Perth on the Strathnaver, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled Tour a Great Successclaimed:
“The Captain Jack Ryder said that the tour had been a great success in every way. The Australians had left a wonderful impression behind them of skill, sportsmanship and good companionship. Cricket in India was booming. It was played everywhere. The smallest crowd at the team’s matches was 5000 and at the big centers there were daily attendances of more than 20,000.”
Despite the grueling schedule, the Australians embraced their role as cricket educators and goodwill ambassadors enthusiastically. The camaraderie of the tour was evident with players of both teams mixing not just on the field but also in the playgrounds and palaces.
The tour is largely ignored in history books due to its unofficial status, yet it is an intriguing story that informs a contemporary audience of the landscape of the 1930s and gave birth to an enduring sporting and cultural relationship.
(Megan Ponsford, grand-daughter of the legendary Australian cricket Bill Ponsford, is a sports historian with a particular interest in cricket and Australian Rules Football. She is employed as a researcher at Monash University and is currently researching the first Australian cricket tour to India, initially inspired by inheriting a box of cricket artifacts from her great-uncle, Tom Leather, a fast bowler on the tour. In 2003 Megan produced Home Ground, her book on the Melbourne Cricket Ground)