Stan McCabe: 3 masterpieces and 14 life facts of the belligerent buccaneer

Stanley Joseph McCabe, born July 16, 1910, did not have an outstanding record, lagging behind contemporary giants in run-fests in the 1930s. However, he relished a challenge, and played at least three knocks that are contenders for an all-time top 10. His footwork was outstanding, as was his reflex against pace, and he handled bounce more than most men of his generation. Also a brisk medium-pace bowler, McCabe often took new ball when Australia opted for a three-spinner strategy during his career. Abhishek Mukherjee re-lives McCabe’s three masterpieces and narrates 14 facts about the man who once Don Bradman wanted to emulate and invited teammates to watch.

Stan McCabe never plundered runs. He seldom feasted on easy attacks. But when the chips were down, he rose to the challenge in a manner matched by few. And three of those were outrageous knocks, innings so good that all of them are contenders for an all-time list of top ten innings, whether compiled by statisticians or scribes.

McCabe’s numbers, 2,748 runs at 48.21 with 6 hundreds, make impressive reading despite his inconsistency. However, if one takes away those iconic three innings — writing for CricketCountry, Arunabha Sengupta referred to them as Single-handed at Sydney, Joyride at Johannesburg, and Tornado at Trent Bridge — the figures come down drastically, to 2,140 at 38.21. The three masterpieces also remained his only Test 150s.

In this piece, we will go through 14 facts about McCabe. However, for the uninitiated, it is crucial they know about the three innings in question. Let us, thus, start with the three innings before moving to lesser-known aspects of his life.

Innings 1: The Sydney 187

We all know the story. Bradman had pulled out of first Test of what would eventually unfurl as the most controversial in history. There was stubborn resistance at first before Harold Larwood and Bill Voce went flat out, aiming for both the stumps and the men guarding them.

McCabe’s turn came at 87 for 3. His parents, William and Harriet, were at the ground. It is not known how Harriet had reacted at Australia’s top four being peppered by Larwood and Voce, but as one wicket fell after another, young Stan famously told his father, “If I get hit, Dad, stop Mum from jumping the fence.”

They did hit him all over. And he hit them back, all over. They bounced. McCabe rocked back, using his right leg as fulcrum, hooking and pulling Larwood and Voce with disdain. Those present at the ground recollect the bat meeting ball with sounds of cracking thunder.

He lost Alan Kippax on 96, but Vic Richardson hung around gamely for two hours for his 49. McCabe dominated the partnership, and though Bert Oldfield fell early, McCabe found a partner in Clarrie Grimmett.

His maiden Test hundred came up before stumps. Seldom has Sydney witnessed such audacious strokeplay. Years later, when David Frith asked Bill O’Reilly exactly where McCabe had hit those fours, the champion leg-spinner simply responded with “There! And there! And there! And there!”

Larwood did not spare an inch. He bowled short that he was barracked, sometimes on the lines of “that would have been a yorker if you’d bowled from the other end!” But the boy returned unvanquished, dismissing the fastest bowlers in the world with authority to every corner of the ground.

He continued the morning after, his body sore from the blows taken from Larwood. When Grimmett and Lisle Nagel fell, he assured O’Reilly, who walked out to face Larwood: “Don’t worry about him. He’s not as fast as he looks; I’ll handle him.”

Years later O’Reilly would hail McCabe as his “batting hero”.

And handle he did. He went on to make 187, only to be left stranded by his teammates. With Tim Wall he added 55 for the 10th wicket in 33 minutes, Wall contributing with one solitary four.

They clapped till their hands went sore, all fifty-eight thousand of them (including a 11-year old Ray Lindwall), all the way till the boy with the Napoleonic face disappeared into the dressing-room. Hedley Verity later recalled that the sound of applause reminded him of FA Cup Finals at Wembley.

All that mayhem had lasted a mere four hours. McCabe had scored 187. During his stay at the wicket his teammates — extras included — combined to accumulate a mere 91. Of the 70 Australia scored on Day Two, McCabe had got 60.

When selector ‘Chappie’ Dwyer asked McCabe whether the raving newspaper reports had given him a swollen head, the youngster responded: “I haven’t read any of them. I took a book to read on the ferry. I thought there might be a lot of exaggerated praise in them that it wouldn’t do me any good to read.”

Incredibly, Australia still lost by 10 wickets. England needed a solitary run in the fourth innings, and Herbert Sutcliffe settled things off the first ball, bowled by — McCabe.

Innings 2: The Johannesburg 189

All three innings were phenomenal, but the one was the most bizarre. Australia were without Bradman on the 1935-36 tour of Australia, but they did have both O’Reilly and Grimmett, with Chuck Fleetwood-Smith added in the mix.

South Africa were bowled out for 157. Australia scraped their way to a 93-run lead. The hosts were reduced to 90 for 3 before a whirlwind called Dudley Nourse took the ground by storm. Nourse hit 231 in less than 5 hours; Australia were set 399.

Bill Brown fell early, for 6 on the fourth evening. At stumps the score read 85 for 1 with Jack Fingleton on 20 and McCabe on — 59.

At 4.55 that evening Fingleton and McCabe had a mid-pitch conference:

McCabe: I can hardly see the ball.
Fingleton: No foolin’?
McCabe: Well, you mightn’t think so, but I’ve got my work cut out to see it. We have all day tomorrow. This is a good start. I think we had better give the light a go.

So they appealed, and returned to the pavilion. Not for a moment did McCabe think that 399 was out of reach.

Fingleton fell the next afternoon for a solid 40, bowled round the legs. The ball was turning sharp and taking off from a length. By then McCabe had taken the score to 194 for 2. In a stand of 177, he had got 148.

Fingleton later recalled: “I had made 40 in a hard struggle to keep out shooters and big and sudden breaks — which made McCabe’s innings at the other end seem like a crazy dream to me.”

It was a good thing for McCabe that he had got in early. Fingleton called him “a bad pavilion waiter,” someone who grew more and more restless till his chance came.

There was a dust cloud that held up play for some time. The pitch was uneven, and Bob Crisp was making the ball spit off a length. Dark clouds loomed in the horizon. Streaks of lightening flashed in the Johannesburg sky, followed by thunder.

But they were nothing compared to the way McCabe’s bat flashed, or the perfectly-middled strokes that sounded like gunshots.

An awestruck Fingleton, holding up one end, would later refer to the innings as “bordering on miraculous.” He added: “McCabe never put a foot or his bat in a false position … [he] pulverized the South African attack into the dust.”

McCabe reached his hundred in 90 minutes, 150 in 145. He was hardly through, for he found an ideal partner in the aggressive Les Darling. At lunch he was 159, adding exactly a hundred in the first session. Australia were 217 for 2.

Despite the hostile bowling and the uneven bounce, 399 suddenly looked too small a target as McCabe marched along after lunch when, to quote Fingleton, the light “was as murky as a tunnel”.

The new ball was taken, but McCabe did not care. Australia’s 250 came up in 199 minutes. At this stage both Darling and the fielders were finding it difficult to spot the ball, but… who cared?

Then, with McCabe on 189 and Australia on 274 for 2 and three hours of play left, the near-unthinkable happened. Herby Wade appealed for light on the grounds that the conditions “had become too dangerous for the fielders.”

It poured down after that, submerging the pitch completely. It was perhaps the only way to stop McCabe that day.

Innings 3: The Trent Bridge 232

Many eye-witnesses have rated the Trent Bridge blitzkrieg as not only McCabe’s finest, but also as the greatest innings they have witnessed.

England had batted Australia out of the Test with 658 for 8. Fingleton fell early. The onus fell on Bradman, who began confidently but edged one to Les Ames for 57. McCabe walked out at 111 for 2. He departed 300 runs later for a 277-minute 232.

There was no support at the other end, and at 194 for 6 hope was scant. So McCabe decided to take them on. He found an ally of sorts in wicketkeeper Ben Barnett, and later, O’Reilly. The two men combined to score 31, but by then McCabe had taken the team total to 319.

A curious thing happened when O’Reilly walked out to bat. Farnes had removed Barnett, and ran in to bowl at McCabe. He over-pitched, and McCabe casually flicked it over the square-leg fence. It went so far that retrieval took significant time and effort.

As exasperated Farnes blurted out: “What can I do next?”

“Well, you could run down and get his autograph,” O’Reilly responded promptly.

Ernie McCormick had to depart 15 runs later. Then began the real assault: when Fleetwood-Smith, a man with 597 wickets and 619 runs in First-Class cricket, McCabe went all out; the No. 11 hung on with a patient 5, but that was enough, for McCabe added another 77 for the last wicket.

Before we list the accolades, let us sit back and digest this: Australia added 217 for the last 4 wickets in a little over 2 hours. The last 4 men had scored a mere 40.

“It is a pity that the whole cricket world could not see this double-century,” sighed former captain Bill Woodfull.

Neville Cardus, always one to jump at the slightest chance of using superlatives, recalled the innings as “one of the greatest innings ever seen anywhere in any period … he is in the line of Trumper and no other batsman today but McCabe has inherited Trumper’s sword and cloak.”

Wisden, unlike Cardus, seldom gave in to eloquence, but this time even they could not help it. They hailed McCabe’s effort as “an innings the equal of which has probably never been seen in the history of Test cricket; for the best part of four hours he maintained a merciless punishment of the bowling.”

Syd Barnes told Bob Wyatt that it was the greatest innings he had seen. Jack McHarg, who penned down the biography Stan McCabe: The man and His Cricket, wrote that the innings “was a sort of encyclopaedia of attacking batsmanship, a triumph of character, technique and judgement.”

But the greatest compliment came from Bradman. When McCabe was taking on the English bowlers, Bradman sat in the pavilion, stunned, before summoning his mortal teammates to the balcony: “Come and look at this. You will never see the like of this again.”

When McCabe returned after his 232, Bradman greeted him with “If I could play an innings like that I would be a proud man, Stan.”

And yet, Australia followed on. This time Bradman did not fail. Both he and Brown scored hundreds, and the match was saved comfortably.

Let us now move over to the less mundane aspects of the man who could perform such extraordinary feats on the ground.

1.  Edward comes to Victoria

Over half a century before Stan was born in Grenfell, New South Wales, Constable Edward James McCabe made the long journey from Ireland (not Scotland, despite the surname) to Victoria as an outcome of the gold rush. He married one Catherine. They parented several children (it is not very clear how many), though we know they had 37 grandchildren.

When Edward and Catherine were relocating to Grenfell with their children, they were attacked by a gang of bushrangers. They escaped unharmed.

Stan was the son of William, the village barber, and Catherine (née Glynn), as mentioned above. He had four siblings — Violet, William Jr, Leslie, and Robert. Stan was fourth in chronological order.

2.  The McCabe foursome

As McHarg wrote, McCabe was an enthusiastic cricketer from an early age, a passion shared by all four brothers. They played with a wooden bar for a bat and a cork ball wrapped in old socks. Whenever there was a doubt, the brothers challenged each other at boxing, and the winner’s decision stayed put.

Of the other brothers, Leslie went on to play some serious cricket, for NSW Second XI and NSW Colts.

3.  Alma mater

Thanks to his immense talent, and won a scholarship to St Joseph’s College, Sydney. It is to be noted that St Joseph’s was a Catholic institute. We will come back to this.

McCabe played with the big boys at a mere 14. Playing with strong, big boys meant he had to improvise, especially against the rising ball. On the other hand, it also improved his ability to play the short ball. It is usually believed that his hooks, pulls, and cuts were honed at this stage of his life.

McHarg mentioned that McCabe cut so hard that the backyard fence of one of his friends had to be bolstered.

Stan remained short, but with time he gained weight and muscle strength, and even made it to the championship-winning rugby team of St Joseph’s.

Stan’s achievements for his school kept hitting the newspapers. He was selected for Sydney Schools, which went by the imposing name of Combined Great Public Schools of Sydney.

4.  Growing up

On graduation, McCabe became an accountant’s assistant at 16. He returned home, and played for Grenfell Juniors, eventually making it to the senior team alongside his brothers. The McCabes contributed heavily towards Grenfell’s two-year unbeaten run.

With time Stan’s bowling improved as well. Those medium-paced deliveries looked innocuous, but every now and then he slid in a vicious off-cutter.

He made his First-Class debut in 1928-29. His second season saw him amass 804 runs at 56.26. He crossed fifty 9 times in all (one of them being a hundred) from a mere 11 matches. He also claimed 17 wickets at 30.82 with a five-for.

5.  The 39-Test run

They picked him for the England tour of 1930. He made his debut at Trent Bridge, and played all 5 Tests. In fact, McCabe played all 39 Tests from his debut till the beginning of World War II. Of Australians, only Bert Oldfield (34) and Bradman (33) crossed the 30-Test mark during this phase.

6.  Starts and stutters

As mentioned above, the epic 187* at SCG was McCabe’s first Test hundred. However, he did not actually fail in his first 15 Tests before that, though he got only 4 fifties. He averaged 35, 32.67, and 33.50 in the three 5-Test series before Bodyline, which meant he neither plundered runs nor flopped. In fact, there was a 16-innings run when he reached twenty 13 times.

It was not the last time he would have such a run. He would have another streak of 10 consecutive scores in excess of twenty; these included six fifty-plus scores including a 112 and his famous 232.

7.  The one-innings wonder

Another crucial aspect of McCabe’s career was that he seldom backed up one big score with strings of others. He seldom dominated series.

McCabe started the Bodylines series with 187*. From the remaining 9 innings he got 198 runs at a mere 22.

He did get a hundred (149 at Durban) on the 1935-36 tour of South Africa where he got that 189*, but once again there was a pattern. His other 4 innings yielded 82 at 21.50.

And in 1938 in England, barring that scintillating 232, he got another 130 runs at 18.57.

Perhaps his finest series was the 1936-37 Ashes, where he did not play that one outstanding innings, but had an outstanding run. Had there been no Bradman, England would almost certainly have clinched the series, but McCabe would probably have emerged a hero.

From 5 Tests Bradman scored an astronomical 810 at 90 (despite starting the series with 38, 0, 0, 82, and 13). He crossed fifty 4 times, but 3 of them were hundreds; he finished the series with 270, 26, 212, and 169.

On the other hand, McCabe’s 491 came at 54.55. Of his 6 scores in excess of fifty (from 9 innings), only one was a hundred.

8.  Of Napoleon and shoes

The 1930 tour also gave McCabe his nickname Napper, one that had nothing to do with falling asleep. On a detour of Paris, Richardson and Kippax were sharing a luxurious room at Elysee Palace Hotel.

They were resting on the bed when a smug, satisfied Kippax exclaimed lazily: “All we need now, Vic, is for Napoleon to walk through the door.” And McCabe, with a face that bore a striking resemblance to Napoleon’s, walked in. Thanks to Richardson, a nickname was born.

While still on appearances, it might be interesting to note that McCabe had mismatched feet. He wore size five shoes on foot and size six on the other.

9.  The Wyatt incident

The incident took place in the Scarborough Festival match in Australia’s 1934 Ashes tour. The hosts succumbed to an innings defeat after McCabe and Bradman made merry with the bat.

The incident happened when McCabe was bowling to Herbert Sutcliffe. A great judge of short runs, Sutcliffe knew there were three runs in it the moment he hit it, and called. Unfortunately, the ball hit the leg-umpire’s foot and went towards Hans Ebeling at mid-wicket.

By then Sutcliffe had realised the danger and sent his partner, captain Bob Wyatt, back. The ‘no!’ was not quick enough for Wyatt, and by the time he turned, he realised that he would fall yards short of the crease, for Ebeling had already thrown it to McCabe.

But McCabe was not going to run out a batsman after his shot had deflected off an umpire. Not only did he let Wyatt go, he also pretended that nothing had happened and went back to his bowling mark as Wyatt returned to the non-striker’s end.

10.  Tussles with Godfather

McCabe was appointed deputy to Bradman in the 1936-37 Ashes. Australia lost the first two Tests, after which an alleged rift ensued between Bradman the Freemason and the five Catholics in the side — McCabe, O’Reilly, Leo O’Brien, Fleetwood-Smith, and Fingleton.

The Board summoned the first four, alleging them of forming an anti-Bradman unit. The only conceivable reason for leaving out Fingleton — who took his lifelong, single-minded criticism of Bradman almost to the level of obsession — was probably the fact that he was a journalist; curiously, Bradman alleged Fingleton of initiating the rift.

O’Reilly and Fingleton apparently wanted McCabe to replace Bradman at the helm. Things never improved between the pair and Bradman, but the relationship with McCabe was sorted out. While Bradman was not exactly popular, it was not easy to dislike McCabe.

11.  The trundler

An honest trundler, McCabe took 240 First-Class wickets, albeit at an average of 49.38. However, he played a more-than-crucial role in Australia’s Test bowling attack, sharing new ball in 32 of the 62 innings he bowled in. During his career, no Australian had opened bowling as many times.

McCabe finished with 36 Test wickets at 42.86. While these are ordinary numbers, one must remember that he was a batsman rolling his arm over, serving a crucial purpose. It must also be remembered that of all Australian seamers during this period, only Wall (48) had more wickets, and they came at 37.93.

McCabe lent the side the balance they needed in the absence of a proper all-rounder and a long tail. They could afford to go in with three spinners. As a result O’Reilly (169 wickets at 21.95), Grimmett (136 at 23.68), and Bert Ironmonger (68 at 15.05) all thrived during this period, while Fleetwood Smith also had 42 wickets at 37.38.

12.  Family and business

McCabe married Edna May Linton on February 5, 1935, at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. They had a son, Geoffrey, and a daughter, Christine.

In 1939 he opened a sports store in George Street, where he later hired the likes of O’Reilly and Lindwall, when they needed. He also worked at Sydney Sports Ground and Cricket Ground Trust, and was particularly proficient in billiards and snooker.

14.  The curious death

At a mere 58, McCabe was trying to dispose of a dead possum and fell from a cliff near his home. He never recovered.

Geoffrey McCabe narrated the incident to The Sydney Morning Herald: “Mum was watching television while Dad was having a sleep. Dad got up and went into the kitchen and after a while Mum couldn’t hear any noise coming from the kitchen so went looking for him. Yesterday a dead possum was found on the back lawn and Dad had said he wanted to get rid of it, but Mum said not to worry at that stage. We think Dad went into the backyard and slipped and fell when he threw the possum over the edge.”

Given that no one knew exactly what had happened, there were speculations of a suicide, but nothing came of it.

At that time Australia were playing the 1968 Ashes Test at The Oval. When the news broke out, the match was stopped, the players took their caps off, and a minute’s silence was observed.

Len Hutton wrote in McCabe’s Wisden obituary: “It would be hard to think of a greater Australian batsman. He had qualities that even Bradman hadn’t got. I always liked to watch him bat and he was a most likeable fellow.”

McCabe was inducted into Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2010 they erected a sculpture of him at SCG.

14.  Postscript

Steve Waugh, as we know, was a keen student of the history of the sport. As has often been the case with Waugh, he thought of instilling the attitude among the rest of his teammates.

He started with Brendon Julian, quizzing him on who McCabe was. The response was prompt: “Isn’t he the guy out of Jake and the Fatman?” The reference was, of course, to the CBS crime series, where ‘Fatman’ went by the name Jason Lochinvar McCabe.

“End of quiz,” sighed Waugh in his Ashes diary.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor of CricketCountry and CricLife. He tweets at @ovshake42.)