From left: Cigarette cards of Herbie Collins, Bill Ponsford, Herbert Sutcliffe © Getty Images
From left: Cigarette cards of Herbie Collins, Bill Ponsford, Herbert Sutcliffe © Getty Images

Herbie Collins was one of the most astute captains cricket has seen. During an Ashes Test on January 3, 1925, he had a plan for Herbert Sutcliffe, no less. Unfortunately, as Abhishek Mukherjee describes, Bill Ponsford made a hash of it.

Cricket has seen greater cricketers and perhaps greater captains too, but seldom has there been a gambler to match Herbie Collins.

The gambling nature stretched beyond the playing arena. He bet heavily on the card-table (though he never played with teammates). He gambled everywhere, even on, as Arunabha Sengupta mentioned, “two flies climbing up a wall.” He bet on number of carriages and windows on trains, ribbon-cutting contests on voyages…

In fact, to quote his teammate Arthur Mailey, his life outside cricket was confined to “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.

Such was his reputation that when Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe won The Oval Test of 1926 with masterful batting on an absolute gluepot, there were rumours that he had thrown the match. There was no evidence, and Collins was too patriotic anyway. When he was actually offered a hundred pounds to throw a match, Collins simply told Mailey, the only other man at the scene: “This fellow says it’s worth 100 quid if we lose the match. Let’s throw him downstairs.”

Despite all that, surprisingly, his career as a bookmaker never came off. A late marriage ended in a divorce. The gambling habit never left him, and he died penniless at 59, of lung cancer.

But as a captain he was as astute as they made them. He took his risks (which was obvious), but he was one of the most observant of cricketers. He was also an excellent judge of character, which added to his leadership skills. Among his achievements was the seemingly random discovery of Bert Oldfield from “a dingy apartment near Horseferry Road, beneath street level.”

This story is about an immaculate field placement, of which he was a master. Jack Fingleton mentioned Collins having three mid-ons for a batsman on one occasion to curb his favourite stroke.

Collins had already led Australia to a 193-run win in the first Test at Sydney. Hobbs (115 and 57) and Sutcliffe (59 and 115) added 157 and 110 in the two innings of the Test, but the rest did not stand up to the challenge.

And then, at Melbourne, Australia piled up 600 in the first innings before Hobbs and Sutcliffe emerged again. They continued serenely to lunch, putting up 70, Hobbs 39, Sutcliffe 28; there was obviously no question of a wicket.

As the teams emerged after lunch, Collins caught hold of Bill Ponsford, who was supposed to field at deep fine-leg: “Jack [Gregory] will open the bowling. Now, just before he bowls the fourth ball of the over I want you to leave fine-leg and walk some 40 yards squarer and come in about 15 yards. That is, of course, if Herby Sutcliffe has the strike. I don’t want to be waving my hands. It’s up to you. If you move, without me coming into it, Jack will bowl a short ball and, I think, Sutcliffe will play the hook. You might get a catch.”

These were probably the most meticulous set of instructions ever dished out. The first three balls passed by without any event. Then Ponsford, one of the great students of the sport, carried out Collins’ orders to the minutest details.

Collins had figured out where Sutcliffe’s hook would go. Gregory bowled the perfect bouncer. Sutcliffe, unaware of Ponsford’s new position, hooked. And Ponsford, a responsible fielder on almost every day, dropped the catch.

Poor Collins and Ponsford spent the rest of the day, watching Sutcliffe reach 123 by stumps. He finished on 176, and added 127 in the second innings for good measure, and 143 more in the fourth Test of the series, at the same ground. England lost the series 1-4, but Sutcliffe finished with 734 runs at 81.55, well ahead of anyone from either side.

Brief scores:

Australia 600 (Bill Ponsford 128, Johnny Taylor 72, Vic Richardson 138, Albert Hartkopf 80; Maurice Tate 3 for 142, Arthur Gilligan 3 for 114) and 250 (Johnny Taylor 90; Maurice Tate 6 for 99, Jack W Hearne 4 for 84) beat England 479 (Jack Hobbs 154, Herbert Sutcliffe 176; Jack Gregory 3 for 124) and 290 (Herbert Sutcliffe 127, Frank Woolley 50; Jack Gregory 4 for 87, Arthur Mailey 5 for 92) by 81 runs.