Ian Craig made his debut for Australia at the age of 17 © Getty Images
Ian Craig made his debut for Australia at the age of 17 © Getty Images

Ian Craig, born June 12, 1935, was the youngest Australian Test cricketer and the nation’s youngest ever captain. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who could never quite manage to handle the burden of expectations of being prematurely labelled the New Bradman.

Burdened with expectation

“The infant Craig reclining in the shade
Takes comfort from the history of McCabe.”

It was 1953 and the teenaged Ian Craig was having a hard time living up to the label of the new Don Bradman. The Ashes tour of England had found him desperately short of runs and confidence.

And when the cricket mad Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies threw a dinner party for the team in the River Room of the Savoy on the third evening of the Lord’s Test, he had the verse of solace quoted above to soothe for the young batsman. After all, the great Stan McCabe had also managed less than great numbers during his first Ashes tour.

Those were the days when the Australian public saw the shades of a new Don in every new talent wielding the willow with a modicum of panache. As the sun set on the most brilliant of all cricket careers, the great man’s gigantic shadow was cast across the Australian cricketing landscape. Norman O’Neill never quite got out of the shade. And even more affected was Craig.

In fact, so desperate were the countrymen to see new blood that flowed in the manner of The Don, that when the slight figure of the 17-year-old batsman trotted out on debut with the score a comfortable 269 for 3, he was given an uproarious reception from the gate to the crease. And his 53 received more ovation and eulogies than Neil Harvey’s double hundred against Jack Cheetham’s South Africans on that day at Melbourne.

The normally prosaic Hec de Lecy of the Sporting Globe became intoxicated in this novelty of a young talent, Australia’s youngest ever Test cricketer: “Craig made only 53, but he made them like a champion. He showed no signs of a swelled head, no flashness [sic]. Craig sold himself to his public for what he is — a level headed fellow with dynamite in his willow and purpose in his life.” And when the youngster scored 47 in the second essay, the emergence of a champion was underlined in most minds eager for another Don Bradman.

In fact, his greatness was being put down as gospel even earlier than that. Almost at the stroke of the New Year, Craig had batted for New South Wales and stroked his way to 213 against the South African visitors. The Test debut was mere confirmation of what many dearly wanted to believe.

Unfortunately, that 53 remained Craig’s highest score in Test cricket.

The promise of greatness

A banker’s son, Craig attended the North Sydney Boy’s High School and had been hailed as a sporting prodigy. By the age of 13, he was already playing under-16 baseball for New South Wales and representing the prestigious Mosman Club in cricket.

With a high forehead more appropriate in a scholar, and a slender figure weighing less than 10 stone, he hardly looked a sportsman. However, he was chosen to play for New South Wales in February 1952 at the age of just 16.

He did not seem to have the power to hit the ball long. Indeed, in that first innings of his in First-Class cricket, the boundary was reached only three times. Yet, he stayed there, putting together 91 in over four hours. What dazzled many was the elegant grace that accompanied his output of runs.

And when the Springboks came along the next season, his deeds were like manna from heaven for a nation starved of the Bradman feast they had got used to. During his double hundred for New South Wales, Craig’s lack of physical stature did not prevent him from outscoring the big hitting captain Keith Miller. The legendary all-rounder scored 58 as the pair put on 159.

Yet, it was Miller who warned against too much pressure put on the impressionable young man. However, at the same time he could not help saying: “For a boy of his age, it was an unbelievable innings. He hit almost every shot off the meat of the bat, very little that was streaky or off the edge. He had the composure through it all that many veterans could not have matched.”

And Dick Whittington, a man who not really restrained when talking of the prowess of men he liked, was effusive in his eulogies: “The promise of Craig must have been as beautiful and promising as the sight of the stars over Bethlehem to the wise men. Here at last was a young man who could change the horizon of the cricket world and cause cricket lovers to flock to watch him as they flocked, like so many children from Hamelin town, after Bradman.”

All these hyperboles did not help. When Craig reached England in 1953, his batting underwent a degree of scrutiny that had been reserved for Bradman. He managed just 429 runs at 16.50 in the tour matches and did not play any Test.

Yet, it still seemed that success was just around the corner. Soon after the disastrous tour, he turned up in Lindsay Hassett’s benefit match at the MCG and hit a hundred that included four sixes in an over off Ian Johnson.

With the promise still very much in the air, Craig left school and completed mandatory national service as Len Hutton led his Englishmen to triumph In the Ashes. He also went through with his pharmacy training.

Impressive performances in the Shield enabled him to go to England in 1956 with Johnson’s men. Even on his second tour he was just 20, and still looked upon as the bright young hope for the future.

Australia lost, mainly to Jim Laker and Tony Lock. Craig played only the final two Tests and managed only 55 runs in the 4 innings. However, one of those four innings was a defiant 38 as Laker was picking up his 19 wickets at Old Trafford. Besides, with this overwhelming third Ashes defeat in a row, a change of guard was deemed extremely necessary.

Craig accompanied the side to India and Pakistan. He did not really blaze the turf in the subcontinent, but was able to show some poise as it became increasing apparent that the Millers and the Lindwalls could not last forever.

The youngest captain

When Miller retired on return, Craig was appointed captain of New South Wales. He hit two centuries as the state lifted the Shield for the fifth consecutive time. There were questions about his frail constitution, attacks of tonsillitis and the lack of the traditional Aussie robustness. But, by then, the lure of the new guard had overcome the selectors.

First Craig was entrusted to lead an Australian side to New Zealand on a non-Test tour. In the unofficial ‘Test’ at Christchurch, he made a hundred and excelled in after-dinner speeches. The team won five and drew the remaining two matches.

Hence, when Australia toured South Africa in 1957-58, it was 22-year-old Craig who was chosen to lead the country — ahead of a much more experienced Harvey. At the same time he finished his diploma in pharmacy, went to England to play for the MCC and then flew directly to Johannesburg where the rest of the team had arrived. Having led New South Wales at 19, he was an experienced leader in spite of his age.

The tour was a tale of unmitigated success for Australia. The five-Test series was won 3-0, and went undefeated in the 20 matches. It also established two stars who were to be the pillars of the Australian side for several years to come — Richie Benaud and Alan Davidson. Another youngster making his way into the team was Bobby Simpson.

Craig carried out his duties of captaincy with aplomb. And when manager Jack Jantke suffered a heart attack, he became the manager as well and performed the role during the first fortnight. Most Australian players later vouched that the tour was one of the happiest they had ever been on.

However, on the batting front, it was a disaster for the young leader. He started with 14 and 17 in the first Test and followed it up with a duck in the second. Things hardly improved down the line and he even took up smoking due to the resulting stress. At Durban, in the third Test, Craig did come back into some sort of form to score a fighting 52 over 212 minutes. But by then Miller was already asking in the press box whether the captain Craig would have to drop the batsman Craig.

His final tally for the series was 103 runs at 14.71. When the team came home, there was jubilation at the arrival of a new generation of great cricketers. However, the uncomfortably big question what was to be done about Craig.

 End of career

Fate provided the answer. Craig contracted hepatitis and missed most of the action for the next season. When Peter May’s men visited in 1958-59, he made an attempt to get back in the side. However, he failed to score against Western Australia and then Lock dismissed him for a duck when New South Wales met the touring Englishmen.  Those two innings were all that he managed that season. By then Benaud was flourishing as the Australian captain.

Ian Craig never played for Australia again. He remained a rather big attraction as an erstwhile talent in the First-Class arena till the early 1960s. He led New South Wales to another Shield title in 1960-61. And after a visit to India, his job as the production manager of Boots got in the way of his cricket. By then he was also performing his duties as a lay preacher in the Congregational Church. Besides, he was a busy family man with three children.

He retired at the age of 26, the youngest cricketer for New South Wales and Australia, the youngest ever Australian captain, the youngest Australian ex-captain and one of the youngest to retire from First-Class cricket. For a man labelled as the next Bradman, Craig’s career figures are quite pitiable. His 11 Tests got him 358 runs at 19.88 with just two half centuries, and the 144 First-Class matches saw him score 7328 runs at 37.96 with 15 hundreds.

Later Craig became the youngest trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground and headed the Bradman Museum at Bowral.

Ian Craig passed away at Sydney after a battle with cancer at the age of 79.

(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://twitter.com/senantix)