Left: Australia in England, 1909 Top, from left: Vernon Ransford, Warren Bardsley, Hanson Carter.  Third, from left: Bill Whitty, Peter McAllister, Tibby Cotter, Roger Hartigan, Jack O’Connor. Second, from left: Victor Trumper, Albert Hopkins, Monty Noble (c), Frank Laver, Warwick Armstrong.  Front, from left: Syd Gregory, Charlie Macartney, William Carkeek Right: A young Frank Woolley © Getty Images
Left: Australia in England, 1909
Top, from left: Vernon Ransford, Warren Bardsley, Hanson Carter.
Third, from left: Bill Whitty, Peter McAllister, Tibby Cotter, Roger Hartigan, Jack O’Connor.
Second, from left: Victor Trumper, Albert Hopkins, Monty Noble (c), Frank Laver, Warwick Armstrong.
Front, from left: Syd Gregory, Charlie Macartney, William Carkeek
Right: A young Frank Woolley © Getty Images

August 10, 1909. As Frank Woolley waited to face his first ball in Test cricket at The Oval, Warwick Armstrong kept bowling trial deliveries for 19 minutes. Arunabha Sengupta relives the tactics that kept the young Kent batsman on tenterhooks leading to his cheap dismissal and prompted a change in the laws.

It was an unhappy Australian team, but also one of the very best to reach the shores of England.  They remained caught up in constant bickering with the parent organisation, the recently established Board of Control. They lost the first Test at Edgbaston to some magnificent bowling by Colin Blythe and George Hirst. But, by the time they reached The Oval, they had retained the Ashes and led 2-1 in the series.

A team led by Monty Noble with such talent as Warren Bardsley, Charlie Macartney, Warwick Armstrong, Victor Trumper, Syd Gregory, Vernon Ransford, Tibby Cotter and Frank Laver — they could not help but win.

Yet, the victories hardly brightened the mood in the side. The presence in the side of the supposed opening batsman Peter McAlister and the ‘observer’ Colonel Justin Foxton, infuriated the Australian cricketers.  They were obviously the not-so-secret agents of Billy McElhone, the future Lord Mayor of Sydney and the supremo of the Board of Control.

A photograph of the tour from Frank Laver’s collection is revealing. It was taken in Scotland, on a wide-bodied rowing boat. At the bow, half turned to the camera we can see Peter McAlister. All the others are gathered near the stern. On seeing the picture, Gilbert Jessop had remarked, “Not a happy family.”

When the team travelled to Nottingham, McAllister was left behind in London, without being informed of the departure of his colleagues. The largely unwanted man did have his moment in the tour, but it was neither on the cricket ground nor among his teammates. With Les Poidevin he attended the inaugural Imperial Cricket Conference (ICC) at Lord’s, discussing the possibilities of a triangular series involving England, Australia and South Africa. But, on the whole, the tour was a bitter experience for him.

Armstrong vexes Hobbs

The tourists benefitted from some weird selection policies of England — which saw 25 players turn out in the five Tests. The methods, according to Wisden, touched ‘the confines of lunacy’. Australia won at Lord’s and Leeds and drew at Manchester. However, the continuing peevishness spilled out of their dressing room and manifested itself in the action as well. Soon the Australian was branded as a boorish mercenary for whom “cricket is nothing but a business proposition and he plays it mercilessly with not an atom to give his demeanour, but ‘take all’ as his motto.” The principal culprit was perhaps the huge leg-spinning all-rounder Armstrong.

At Lord’s it was Armstrong’s leg-spinners which had done the trick — and he had confused the batsmen and observers by being the first Australian bowler to bowl the googly on English soil. But, his conduct on the field was far from exemplary.

At Headingley, his manner had so affected Jack Hobbs, that most gentlemanly of batsmen, that the Surrey professional had thrown his wicket away. Pulling Macartney through mid-wicket, Hobbs had slipped while taking off for a run and his heel had dislodged a bail. The Australians had appealed for hit-wicket and Hobbs had been on the verge of walking away when partner John Tyldesley had asked him to tarry. Umpire William West had given him not out.

But, the reaction of the Australians and Armstrong in particular had jarred against the sensibilities of this great batsman. In My Cricket Memories Hobbs later wrote: “The Australians made a rare fuss. They gathered together in the field and confabulated. The chief offender was Warwick Armstrong, who got very nasty and unsportsmanlike, refusing to accept the umpire’s decision. This upset me. I did not know whether I was standing on my head or my heel, with the consequence that two balls later I let one go, never attempting to play it, and it bowled me. I still bear this incident in mind against Armstrong.” It was unusual for Hobbs to express such degrees of displeasure.

However, in the Oval Test, Armstrong went much further — giving a thorough lesson in extending antics to the limits of the rules without breaking them.

The odd selection

The Oval Test was played in constant good weather, unusual for that summer.

England sprang their final selection surprise, opting for the 37-year-old leg-break googly bowler Douglas Carr. The recent success of the South African googly quartet and the exploits of Armstrong had perhaps influenced this strange decision, otherwise the selection defied logic. Carr’s total experience of First-Class cricket consisted of 3 matches, none of them in the championships. Initially he had bowled fast while at Oxford. After that he had played only some club cricket at Kent while working there as a schoolmaster. With time, he had developed his leg-spinners. And after the sensation of the googly had started to make waves in the cricket world, he had started experimenting with back of the hand deliveries.

In the summer of 1908, he had taken seven wickets for Free Foresters against Oxford. Although few had seen him bowl, there had been rumours about his phenomenal success at club level. So just before the Australians had arrived in England, he had been recruited as an amateur for Kent.

Carr had taken 5 wickets against Oxford on his First-Class debut. He had followed it up with 8 for the Gentlemen against the Players at The Oval, and 6 more in the return match at Lord’s. It was mainly due to the speculations of the press and public that this virtually unknown cricketer suddenly found himself rolling his arm over for England. And the debutant scalped Gregory, Noble and Armstrong with just 55 on the board.

With Syd Barnes getting rid of Ransford with a ball that came off the pitch at speed of lightning, it became 58 for 4. Things looked gloomy for Australia, but for a man riding the crest of his supreme confidence.  Before the game, Bardsey had sought out the team scorer William ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, and proclaimed, “Bill, I am going to score two centuries in this match.” And now he proceeded to play a fantastic innings of 136. At the other end Trumper provided solid support, even if not at his flashiest best.

The peculiar captaincy of Archie MacLaren also helped Australia’s cause. With the top order reeling to the opening bowlers, he took Barnes off and kept the aging Carr on for more than an hour and a half. By lunch, the visibly tired leg-spinner had lost his zip. Although he finished with five wickets, they were in exchange of as many as 146 runs from 34 overs. Australia totalled 325.

The trial balls

With Hobbs out of action with injury, England opened with Reggie Spooner and MacLaren. Tibby Cotter got rid of both of the openers cheaply, but CB Fry and Wilfred Rhodes added 104 for the third wicket. Rhodes and Jack Sharp put on 47 more before Cotter induced a snick off the Yorkshire all-rounder. It was at 187 for 4 when 22-year-old Frank Woolley walked in to bat for the first time in a Test match.

With Frank Laver having hobbled off with a strained thigh, Australians were at a position of slight disadvantage and had no intention of letting up. As the tall, slim left-hander waited with obvious trepidation to face his first ball in Test cricket, Armstrong ambled up and sent down trial balls down the side of the pitch.

According to the rules of the day, trial balls were permitted at the beginning of a spell. However, there was no limit to the number that could be bowled. Common sense usually prevailed and these looseners were normally restricted to the minimum. But now as Woolley waited for what seemed to be an eternity, Armstrong showed no inclination of completing his warm-up deliveries.

Later EHD Sewell described the incident in sparkling prose: “Believe it or not, but before Woolley squared up to play his first ball, 19 minutes had elapsed. This unofficial interval was brought about almost entirely by Armstrong bowling several trial balls from the pavilion end, somewhat sketchy attempts being made to stop them at the other … the ball in consequence trickling down to the Vauxhall end screen , there to be fielded by urchins and handed over reverently to the bobby on duty, for him to risk his dignity and his helmet to fling back so that we might get on with the match which these ‘Colonial chaps’  had come so many thousands of miles to play and who did not … appear, after all, to be consumed with fervour to finish.”

According to Gideon Haigh, Armstrong took “the quest for psychological advantage over a newcomer to an unexampled extreme. It was 40 years before Stephen Potter’s classic essay in sporting whimsy, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, found a name for ‘the art of winning without actually cheating.’”

In his King of Games, Woolley himself recalled the period of farce without naming Armstrong: “I remember that, owing chiefly to the bowling of trial balls, over a quarter hour elapsed between the fall of Rhodes’ wicket … and the bowling of the first ball to me. It was rather a trying time for me, especially as it was my first Test innings… After the long wait it is perhaps not surprising that ‘Tibs’ Cotter bowled me for eight.”

Sewell observed with undisguised sarcasm that Armstrong was “trying to learn how slowly he could make a bowled ball reach the screen.” He went on to add that the marching orders of the Australian team ran: ‘win — at any price’.

The first man to score two centuries in a Test match

The Australians did win the series. Despite Cotter’s lion-hearted bowling, Sharp’s century did earn England a 27 run lead, but Gregory and Bardsley put on 180 for the first wicket in the second innings.

Before Bardsley went out to bat, Ferguson asked him if he would get his second century as promised. The batsman replied, “Certainly.” He scored 130, becoming the first ever cricketer to score two hundreds in a Test.

Bardsley was in impeccable form all through the tour. Against Essex, Trumper had to run him out for 219 with the words, “How many more did you want, Curly? Remember there are others in the side who’d like an innings.”

In the second innings too Carr was given a long bowl, and the leggie finished with 2 for 136. Strangely, MacLaren had him bowl 69 overs in the match compared to just 46 by Barnes, acknowledge as the best bowler in the world. Noble declared at 339 for 5, leaving England an impossible 313 to win in just over two hours. The match ended in a draw.

What followed?

– Carr continued to take wickets in the First-Class matches that summer, but his professional commitments rendered him unavailable for the tour of South Africa. He never played another Test.

– As a result of Armstrong’s rather questionable tactics, the counties tightened the law around trial balls and MCC followed suit.

– Armstrong, however, continued his custom of bowling warm-up deliveries. In a match at Wellington in 1912-13, he repeated the saga of sending down looseners as the new batsman waited. When told by the umpire that it was against the rules, the huge all-rounder nonchalantly asked, “Aw. What’s the penalty?” The umpire however did not back down and informed him that he could have the match replayed.

Brief scores:

Australia 325 (Warren Bardsley 136, Victor Trumper 73, Charlie Macartney 50; Douglas Carr 5 for 146) and 339 for 5 decl. (Syd Gregory 74, Warren Bardsley 130, Monty Noble 55) drew with England 352 (Wilfred Rhodes 66, CB Fry 62, Jack Sharp 105, Kenneth Hutchings 59; Tibby Cotter 6 for 95) and 104 for 3 (Wilfred Rhodes 54).

(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://twiter.com/senantix)