Alec Marks cricket New South Wales Australia
Alec Marks. Courtesy: Sporting Globe (Melbourne)

During the latter half of the 1920s, there was a wind of change wafting over New South Wales cricket, beginning in the guise of a gentle zephyr, but later assuming the character of a strong blast. There was a general dissatisfaction among the fans at the fact that between 1919-20 and 1929-30, NSW had managed only five titles, whilst arch rivals Victoria had also won the same. South Australia had slipped in with the title for 1926-27. Disappointed with the perceived lowering of cricketing standards, the cognoscenti began to raise a cry for youth in the playing ranks.

This narrative involves three relatively young Australian cricketers who made their First-Class debuts for New South Wales in the period between the World Wars.

Let us begin with Archie Jackson, thought by many to have been blessed with the flair of the immortal Victor Trumper, who made his presence felt in senior cricket in 1926-27 as a boy of 17. Jackson was followed closely by one Don Bradman, who made his First-Class debut in 1927-28 at 19. The trio was completed by Alexander Edward ‘Acka’ Marks, a promising left-handed batsman, who debuted in 1928-29, aged about 18.

They shared several common traits, all being born within three years of one another; Jackson at Rutherglen, a hub of the coal-mining industry of South Lanarkshire, Scotland, on September 5, 1909; Bradman on August 27, 1908 at Cootamundra, a small town in the South West Slopes region of NSW that was incorporated as a township in 1862; and Marks on December 10, 1910 at Toowong, a suburb of Brisbane which was first known in 1862 as the Village of Toowong.

In Tales From the Sports Field: The Best of Neil Marks, quoted by Ken Piesse in Great Australian Cricket Stories, Neil ‘Harpo’ Marks, son of Alec Marks, and himself a noted cricketer, elaborates on the situation. The old order was gradually sliding into a state of decline with the immediate post-war stalwarts like Arthur Mailey, Jack Gregory, and Tommy Andrews falling prey to Anno Domini and losing their magic dominance of old. The stage was set for the graded induction of younger players like Jackson, Bradman, and Marks by the “Blues”.

The entry of the younger players was not taken to very kindly by the veterans, who looked upon the incursion as an intrusion into ‘their’ turf. They preferred to adopt an attitude of polite detachment from the younger brigade. This resulted in the newer players drifting together and forming their own group within the team. This propinquity fostered a sense of comradeship among these players, and they tended to be comfortable with each other, gradually becoming good ‘mates’, to use a typically Australian term.

Neil Marks relates a poignant story involving Archie Jackson and his father in the latter’s debut season. As related, the tale involved a Sheffield Shield match at Sydney Cricket Ground in 1928. In point of fact, however, Alec Marks had actually made his First-Class and Sheffield Shield debut for NSW against Victoria, in 1928-29. Another young man debuted for the ‘Blues’ in this match, the 20-year old Jack Fingleton. That Fingleton, with his Roman Catholic upbringing, did not turn out to be a very close ‘mate’ of one illustrious member of the younger NSW set is another story altogether.

Apart from that debut match, Marks played only one other Shield game in the season at SCG against SA. On the second day of this match, NSW was in the field the whole day while the visitors ground out 197 for 7. While the identity of the specific match involved in the story is not mentioned, the second day’s play of this game may fit the bill.

It seems that while getting ready to proceed to SCG in the morning, Marks had grabbed a towel from his mother’s closet in his haste and had put it in his kit bag. At the end of the long and hot day, he had enjoyed a long shower in the changing rooms. On emerging from the cooling shower, he had noticed Jackson rummaging around in his own bag for something. On enquiry, it transpired that Jackson had forgotten to bring his own towel. Marks had then immediately offered his friend his own, warning him that it was somewhat damp. Accepting the offer, Jackson had gone in to the showers.

The incident had been completely erased from his mind till Marks reached home to face his irate mother who was rather indignant that he had used that particular towel because it had just happened to be the best they had and was used only for guests. Having heard the story of Jackson using it, Marks’ mother had asked for it so that she could wash it and keep it away for the exclusive use of her guests. It was only then that Marks realised that he had forgotten to ask back for it. His mother had not been very pleased to hear that.

The next day, Marks asked Jackson about the towel. Embarrassed and red-faced, Jackson had then dipped his hand into his bag and produced a brand new towel still wrapped in its protective sleeve and had handed it over. It was very obviously a pristine and newly-bought towel and not the one that Marks had loaned Jackson. When Marks had asked about his mother’s favourite towel, Jackson had merely commented enigmatically: “the other towel is gone,” and had walked away.

Back home that evening, Marks’ mother was not at all pleased to see what he had brought back, the quality of the article being very obviously inferior to her own guest towel. She had been very upset about the whole incident, so much so, that Marks had bought her a better quality towel himself. The whole episode had gradually faded from everyone’s mind.

As is well known, Jackson had succumbed to tuberculosis at the tender age of 23 years 164 days on February 16, 1933 during the Bodyline Series. Marks had gone to visit his friend at his sick-bed some time before Jackson’s untimely passing away. Jackson being very sick and wan, the visit had been a short one, with snatches of desultory conversation. As Marks was about to leave, Jackson had suddenly brought up the topic of the towel that had been loaned to him at SCG. Somewhat embarrassed, Marks had tried to evade the topic and to make light of the incident.

Jackson, however, had insisted on explaining the circumstances surrounding the episode. Explaining that he had known for some time that he was in the iron grip of tuberculosis, Jackson said that he had made a habit of never lending or borrowing any article of clothing or other personal effect from anyone. However, when Marks had thrown him his own used towel that day at SCG, Jackson had used it to dry himself without thinking. It was only upon returning home that realisation had struck. He had gone to a local store and bought a new towel for Marks’ mother: “The man behind the counter said that it was the best towel in the shop. I hope your Mum liked it.”

Choking back tears, Marks had assured his friend: “Archie, Mum said it was the best towel she ever owned.” Back home, Marks has taken out Archie’s towel, still in its pristine cover, from his mother’s closet, gone to his bedroom and had buried his face in it, unable to hold his tears back any longer.

Marks had always shared a special relationship with Bradman, rooming with him on numerous occasions during their playing career. A story is told of the two of them batting together against Queensland at The Gabba when an express delivery from Eddie Gilbert had reared up unexpectedly. Playing a hook, Marks had top-edged the ball on to his forehead which had immediately been bloodied and bruised. Shaken and stirred, Marks had taken some time off by moving off the wicket and sauntering down the pitch to compose himself.

At the end of the over, Bradman, who had been batting at the other end, had walked up to his friend and remarked that he had been very lucky. Thinking that Bradman had been referring to his injury, Marks had agreed, adding that he might well have lost an eye. Quick to dispel any ambiguity, Bradman had reportedly commented: “No, I mean you were lucky it hit you in the head, otherwise you’d have been caught behind.” The great Bradman had always been renowned for his pragmatic attitude to cricket.

In the halcyon days of their youth, Marks, or ‘Acka’, and Bradman, affectionately known as ‘Braddles’, had shared a special bond of friendship. The following story is set at a time when both were young and enjoying their bachelor status.

In the late 1920s, the famous Pacific Highway, the 790 kilometre-long freeway along the Central East (Pacific) coast of Australia, linking Sydney and Brisbane, and later to be incorporated into the National Highway 1 of Australia, was a far cry from the motorway of today. Back then it had boasted only two lanes of traffic, one up, and the other down, and was macadamised only in parts. Stretches of it were nothing but packed dirt and motoring along many of the stretches was likely to be fraught with nasty surprises at any moment.

Marks and Bradman were mentioned together in connection with a motor trip from Sydney to Berowra, a suburb of the upper North Shore of Sydney, and about 38 kilometres from what is now the central business district of Sydney. Although the specific date is not mentioned, the trip had definitely taken place before April 30, 1932, when Bradman had tied the knot with his childhood sweetheart Jessica Martha Menzies. It was a foursome in a four-seater making the trip, Bradman and Marks, along with their respective lady friends Jessica and Lillian, all four in a festive mood.

The suburb of Hornsby, about 25 kilometres from the central business district of present day Sydney, appears to have been named after one Samuel Henry Horn, an ex-convict who had later made a name for himself in the local constabulary, being instrumental in the apprehension of several notorious bushrangers in the mid-1830s. A grateful local government had granted him the ownership of a tract of land in appreciation of his zealous efforts. He had built his homestead there and had named it Hornsby Place. In later years, the area would boast a railway station.

The motoring party was hardly out of Hornsby, when one of the tyres was punctured by the uncertain nature of the road surface. The spare tyre proved to be of such dubious appearance that Marks thought it best to have the damaged tyre looked into immediately. Fortunately, there was a service station a little further up the hill and Marks took it upon himself to wheel flat tyre uphill to have it repaired. Bradman remained behind near the car along with the ladies.

Having had the tyre ‘fixed’, Marks thought it would be good idea to roll it down the hill while he ran alongside. The rejuvenated tyre outran Marks, however, and despite shouted warnings to ‘Braddles’ to stop the rampaging wheel, the tyre, seeming to have acquired a playful life of its own, gathered momentum, evaded the party beside the car, “crossed the road, hit a boulder, jumped high in the air, and plunged over the side of the cliff,” to the consternation of the young motorists. Having crashed through the dense undergrowth, the tyre disappeared into the bowels of a virgin forest about hundred feet below, leaving the four holiday-makers bemused at the turn of events.

There was no choice then but to use the spare tyre of doubtful integrity and to continue the journey gingerly and with a prayer on the lips. Having finally reached Berwora, much later than they had planned to, the party decided to hire a motor-boat for a trip along the Hawkesbury River. The two ladies repaired to the primitive toilet of the boat-owner to “freshen up”, while Marks and Bradman decided to give the boat a short test run in preparation for the projected trip.

It was not turning out to be a lucky day for the two youngsters. The engine died on them barely a hundred yards downstream and no amount of pressing the self-starter could coax any life out of the recalcitrant and ancient engine. All that they could elicit from the machinery was a series of plaintive flatulent noises. Meanwhile, the ladies, having completed their toilette, sauntered down to wharf to watch the men-folk going about their business.

Bradman, the great mechanic of the millennium, suggested that he be allowed to have a look at the delinquent engine, feeling that there might be a blockage somewhere in its nether regions. Well, the sight of the upturned posterior of arguably the most prolific contemporary batsman in Australia proved too much of a temptation for the practical joker in Marks. According to the story, Marks sent Bradman into the Hawkesbury River with a quick movement of his left leg, leaving the victim spluttering about in the water.

Marks and his girlfriend Lillian were in raptures of mirth at the sight of the hapless Bradman floundering about in the river. Not so Jessica, who shouted to Marks at the top of her voice: “Grab him, Acka, grab him. He can’t swim!” Sobered by the sudden realisation of the gravity of the situation, Marks dived in and rescued his half-drowned mate from a premature and watery grave.

Neil Marks, the narrator of the story, relates how, many years after the incident, Alec’s golfing friends had been of the opinion that if Bradman had really drowned that fateful day, Marks would still be rotting in Long Bay Jail. Another member of the group was of the opinion that Marks would never have had the opportunity of going to prison, and that the next day’s news headlines would have read Bradman Drowns — Marks Lynched at Berowra Wharf. Alec Marks, ever the optimist, had reportedly not agreed with these doleful prognostications of his friends. According to him, the headlines would probably have read Bradman Dead – Marks Moves up the Batting Order.

Another tale involving Marks and Bradman typifies the famous streak of competitiveness in Bradman and the friendly state of comradeship that the two of them used to enjoy. On a rainy day in Sydney, with cricket in abeyance due to the inclement weather, Marks had supposedly ‘thrashed’ Bradman in a friendly game of snooker. As is well known, Bradman had moved to Adelaide in 1934 and had switched allegiance to South Australia.

The next episode of the story was played out at 2 Holden Street, Kensington Park, Adelaide, when NSW were playing an away game against South Australia at a later date. Bradman invited his old friend to dinner at his new home. The victuals consumed, Bradman suggested a game of snooker. The balls had already been set up and everything was in readiness as Marks took up the challenge, only to be ‘thrashed’ out of sight by his host. “I’ve been looking forward to that since the day you beat me five years ago,” Bradman had commented.

Marks had been born into a family with cricket in their genes. His son relates an incident involving his grandfather and the latter’s betrothed some time before the couple had been married. In the early days of their acquaintance and courtship, the lady had deigned to come out for a match in which her intended had been turning out as an opening batsman for Randwick. On a wretched, wet wicket, Marks Sr had had to call upon all his skills to negotiate the early overs of the game while wickets fell around him regularly at the other end.

His batting expertise had then helped him to reach a coveted century in the game. Coming in to general applause, however, he had met an irate fiancée, relatively new to the nuances of cricket, who had fumed: “All the other boys went out onto the ground, played for a little while, then came back to the pavilion and sat with their girlfriends. But not you. Oh, no. You had to stay there all afternoon while I sat here all on my own.”

Between 1928-29 and 1936-37, Alec Marks had played only 35 First-Class games, 33 of them for New South Wales, as a left-handed batsman. In all, he scored 2,038 runs at an average of 37.05. His highest individual score was 201, and he had 3 centuries and 12 fifties, and held 19 catches. Marks played almost all his early cricket and much of his rugby, at the Coogee Oval of Sydney, a short distance from where Richie Benaud would spend his eventful life.

As mentioned above, there was a cricket heritage in the family, Alec’s sons, Neil, born 1938, and Lynn, born 1942, both having played Sheffield Shield cricket. Later in his career, Neil was to become a team manager, state selector, mentor to players like Mark Taylor, and a well-known broadcaster and writer, besides being an extraordinary raconteur of cricket tales, particularly in connection with his father and other illustrious players of his time. At the age of 20, Neil was diagnosed as having a congenital heart problem that necessitated three operative procedures.

Between Alec and Neil, they hold a combined Sydney Grade cricket record, last updated in 2012, of being the most prolific scorers of centuries as a father-son pair (Alec with 12 centuries between 1927-28 and 1944-45, and Neil with 14 between 1956-57 and 1968-69).

Alec, however, despite his undoubted class, never made it to the Australian Test team. It is said that he had been in contention for a berth in the famous 1930 squad to England under Bill Woodfull, but had missed out when Stan McCabe had been selected instead. However, his performances for NSW were impressive, with 1,837 runs from his 33 matches at 36.01, all his 3 First-Class centuries being scored for his state. He is best remembered for his 201 against Queensland at Sydney in 1935-36.

Alan McGilvray had won the toss for the home team and chosen to bat. NSW had been dismissed at the stroke of stumps for 366, Marks contributing 21. Gilbert, only 5’ 7” and weighing 9 stone but with unusually long arms, the muscles of the shoulder and hands developed to a remarkable degree from years of throwing the boomerang, was the spearhead of the opposition bowling.

This was the man, who, in that epic over at The Gabba on November 6, 1931, had upended Bradman and sent him sprawling on the wicket, before knocking the bat out of the great man’s hand (the only time that anyone had done this), and had then imposed the ultimate indignity by dismissing him, caught behind, for a duck. On the present occasion, however, Gilbert had figures of 2 for 98.

Queensland replied with 344, ‘Cassie’ Andrews scoring 118. The home team began their second innings on the third day of the game with a 22-run advantage. They scored 276 for 9; Marks was last out for 201. The media were all in praise of the way in which Marks had repeatedly hooked Gilbert, almost off his eyebrows, during the innings.

Wonderful as Marks’ innings was, it must be remembered that Gilbert was in his last season of First-Class cricket. Indeed, he was to play only two more games, and was nowhere at the express pace of his earlier years. Gilbert’s haul for the innings was 3 for 113. In the end, NSW won the game by 182 runs when they dismissed Queensland for 216. In later years, Gilbert was fond of saying that in his short 23-match First-Class career, he could recall only two batsmen really get on top of his bowling; McCabe and Marks.

Marks’ career ended with a drawn game against Victoria at Sydney in 1936-37. He signed off with a duck. His last documented cricket game was as skipper of a Sydney Metropolitan team against NSW Country in 1938-39. He was dismissed for a golden duck, though his team won by an innings and 106 runs.

Alec Edward Marks passed away at Sydney on July 28, 1983, aged about 72, leaving many living and abiding memories in his son, Neil’s mind.