When Stan McCabe returned to the pavilion after scoring an epic 232 — in 235 minutes with 34 fours and a 6 — out of 277 in the 1938 Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, Don Bradman greeted him with the words, "If I could play an innings like that I would be a proud man, Stan" © Getty Images
When Stan McCabe returned to the pavilion after scoring an epic 232 out of 277 in the 1938 Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, Don Bradman greeted him with the words, “If I could play an innings like that I would be a proud man, Stan” © Getty Images

Stan McCabe, born July 16, 1910, was one of the most exciting batsmen to watch, and immortalised for three supreme innings played during his career. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the batsman who was among the supreme stroke-players and also one of the best loved cricketers of his day.

Single-handed at Sydney

December 1932. Twenty-two year old Stan McCabe was sitting with his parents in the front seats of the members’ enclosure at Sydney. Don Bradman was not playing in the Test. Some said it was because of illness, others conjectured it was more to do with the issues surrounding his contract. However, with Bill Woodfull and Bill Ponsford opening the innings, and with Jack Fingleton and Alan Kippax to follow, McCabe did not think that he would be needed to go in early. With 607 runs in 15 Tests, average in the lower 30s, with no hundred and just four fifties so far, the New South Wales batsman was considered promising, but not yet good enough to go in higher than No. 5.

That was when Harold Larwood and Bill Voce started bowling spitfire like balls that zoomed for the upper torso of the batsmen. A posse of leg side fielders were placed close enough to pick the pockets of the unfortunate Australians at the crease. The crowd gasped at each ball that sought to part the hair of the batsman. Wickets began to tumble. And as the young man left to don his pads, he whispered to his father, “If I get hit, dad, stop mum from jumping the fence.”

Once Fingleton had popped a Larwood scorcher to short-leg, McCabe went out to bat. And from the very beginning he proceeded to give the greatest exhibition of hooking ever seen on the ground. Larwood and Voce continued to pepper him with short deliveries. McCabe pivoted and played the horizontal batted stroke to perfection, the resulting thunder like cracks uplifting the sinking hearts of the Sydney crowd.

Soon he was joined at the wicket by Vic Richardson who also counterattacked characteristic gutsy fearlessness. As many as 129 runs were added in two hours. McCabe took his risks, hooking and pulling the fearsome fast bowlers with disdain. Fortune stood solidly behind him, and the balls that rose invariably fell in the gaps between the fielders patrolling the leg-side country. By the end of the day, he had notched up his first-ever Test hundred and had found another able partner in Clarrie Grimmett. He ended with 129 not out that day and Australia stood on a respectable 290 for 6.

The next morning, Grimmett fell early and Lisle Nagel had his stump uprooted by Larwood. Bill O’Reilly was the next man in. McCabe met him with a reassuring voice, saying, “Don’t worry about him. He’s not as fast as he looks; I’ll handle him.”

The first ball O’Reilly faced cannoned onto the shoulder of the bat before he had raised it. The shell-shocked leg-spinner barked down the pitch, “Not so bloody fast, eh? I’ll say you can handle him.”

And McCabe did. He continued to respond to the blitzkrieg with a volley of fiery strokes of his own. He was still undefeated, on a grand 187, when the innings came to an end. The runs had come in just about four hours off 233 balls, with as many as 25 boundaries. It still stands as perhaps the greatest innings ever played against hostile bowling. Australia ended at 360.

However, his feet, when not pivoting to play those supreme hook shots, remained firmly on the ground. The next morning newspapers, the rest day of the Test match, were filled with prose ballads written with pens dipped in hyperboles, singing lofty praises of his epic innings. McCabe was lunching with selector ‘Chappie’ Dwyer who remarked, “I suppose you have a swollen head after reading all that praise in the press.” McCabe replied matter-of-factly, “But I haven’t read the papers. I thought there might be a lot of exaggerated praise in them it would be better for me not to read.”

Australia lost and McCabe did not quite manage to replicate the brilliance in the rest of the series. But, he batted with heart and pluck throughout, ending as the only batsman apart from Bradman to boast a decent average in the Bodyline series.

Joyride at Johannesburg

McCabe played his cricket during an era of tall scores and beautiful batting wickets. He did indeed end his career with an excellent record. But, with Don Bradman striding like a colossus over the cricket world, Wally Hammond and George Headley setting grounds on fire with their brands of batsmanship, Bill Ponsford and Herbert Sutcliffe going strong during the first half of the 1930s, and Eddie Paynter making most of his limited opportunities, this New South Welshman’s numbers were not really staggering.

Yet, there are three immortal innings that are still recalled with unrestrained awe even after the passage of close to eight decades. The Bodyline classic was one of them, which established the promising lad into a batsman of class, one of the mainstays of Australian batting, and after the retirement of Kippax, certainly the most pleasing.

The second great innings was played in Johannesburg against South Africa in 1935-36, which took Australia to the brink of a remarkable win before a thunderstorm brought the game to an end.

McCabe’s 189 not out was a superlative display of grace and power that almost achieved the magical. Chasing a near impossible victory target of 399, Australia were 274 for 2 when South African captain Herbie Wade appealed for light. Yes, the fielding captain appealed for light, and it was upheld because the umpires thought that the fieldsmen were in real physical danger from the balls that emerged from the middle of McCabe’s willow and flashed past them under the cloudy skies. The players went off and a thundershower effectively ended the match. McCabe scored 189 out of the 257 Australia managed while he was at the wicket.

Tornado at Trent Bridge

And finally there was the 232 at Trent Bridge, 1938, when captain Bradman called his men out on the balcony with the words, “Come and look at this. You will never see the like of this again.”

McCabe came in at 111 for 2, with Australia under the looming shadow of the enormous England total of 658 for 8. Four more wickets fell within another 83 runs. At 194 for 6, McCabe decided that the only chance to obtain a draw was the policy of all-out attack. For the next two hours, it was enchantment performed with a willow-wand. Spectators remained transfixed, and from all accounts, so did the bowlers and fielders. In the pressbox, Bill Woodfull lamented, “It is a pity that the whole cricket world could not see this double-century.”

Don Bradman (left) and Stan McCabe going out on the field to bat in 1938 © Getty Images
Don Bradman (left) and Stan McCabe going out on the field to bat in 1938 © Getty Images

McCabe, by then the vice-captain of Australia, added 170 while his last four partners scored 38. The arrival at the wicket of Chuck Fleetwood-Smith was unequivocally accepted as the start of rigor mortis of any innings.

However, in this case, flourishing life was added to the Australian essay. McCabe enhanced the brilliance of his strokeplay to the realms of blinding dazzle. Wally Hammond tried the oft-repeated tactics of spreading the field on the boundary during the initial balls of the over. McCabe found the fence through the many sentinels who paraded the outfield. And when at the end of the over the men were brought in, tightening the field into a net through which no single could escape, the batsman threaded through the crowd for easy ones.

The debonair wrist-spinner at the other end also rose to this great occasion, surviving as many as 18 balls, even managing five runs of his own. McCabe spent the 28 minutes in his company by plundering 72.

According to Neville Cardus, “Now came death and glory, brilliance wearing the dress of culture. McCabe demolished the English attack with aristocratic politeness, good taste and reserve. He cut and drove, upright and lissom; his perfection of touch moved the aesthetic sense; this was the cricket of felicity, power and no covetousness, strength and no brutality, assault and no battery, dazzling strokes and no rhetoric; lovely brave batsmanship, giving joy to the connoisseur…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.”

Drives, stylish and impeccable, raced to the large arc between cover point and mid-wicket.. Hooks and pulls were essayed with customary easy elegance. Cuts were essayed so late, so delicately, that the slips of the day swore that no sound was heard. The bat, a rapier when flashing towards the front, was a feather when deflecting behind point.

And in spite of the rate that was seldom seen even in the halcyon days of Gilbert Jessop and George Bonnor, not a stroke could be categorised as a slog. Nor was there a hint of force. It was, to quote Gideon Haigh, “power without violence, dash without slap.” His 232 poured forth in 235 minutes with 34 fours and a six, scored out of 277. When he returned to the pavilion, Bradman greeted him with the words, “If I could play an innings like that I would be a proud man, Stan.” No batsman has ever received a greater compliment.

Spectators cheer Stan McCabe as he returns to the pavilion after scoring 232 — one of the greatest innings in Test history — on June 13, 1938 at Trent Bridge © Getty Images
Spectators cheer Stan McCabe as he returns to the pavilion after scoring 232 — one of the greatest innings in Test history — on June 13, 1938 at Trent Bridge © Getty Images

Run down and get his autograph

Unfortunately, McCabe did not play Test cricket after the 1938 series. In his last Test, he opened the bowling with his part time medium-pacers. After sending down one over he turned to umpire Frank Chester and said: “Frank, they’ll get a thousand.” England declared their innings at 903 for 7 in that Oval match. McCabe sent down 38 overs, highest ever in his career. And then he was dismissed twice, facing 17 balls in all. Len Hutton was dropped off his bowling by wicketkeeper Ben Barnett before reaching 50 and went on to score 364.

After the tour, health problems and the Second World War ensured that McCabe’s career was over. He managed just 39 Tests.

He scored six centuries in all, but those efforts at Sydney, Johannesburg and Trent Bridge stood out as immortal. Bill O’Reilly maintained that all three were the greatest innings he had ever seen. O’Reilly was a big fan. He had been at the non-striker’s end when Ken Farnes had run in and pitched a ball near the leg stump. McCabe had swivelled and effortlessly lofted it over square-leg for six. The ball had to be retrieved with some effort. As Farnes stood scratching his head, he looked at O’Reilly and asked, “What can I bowl to him? What can I do next?” O’Reilly, that old master of one-liners, replied, “Well, you could run down and get his autograph.”

O’Reilly’s spin twin Grimmett regarded McCabe’s technique as superior to that of Bradman. Of course the latter scored more, but that was due to concentration and determination. Fellow New South Welshman Bill Brown agreed, describing McCabe as the “finest stroke-player I ever saw … When Stan was in command, he was so magnificent to watch, and he left everyone, including Bradman, for dead. Certainly Bradman scored more runs, but Stan was the batsman you most wanted to be.”

The rise of Napper

McCabe was born at Grenfell, New South Wales.  After creditable performances against strong teams visiting the small town, led variously by Charlie Macartney, Chappie Dwyer and Arthur Mailey, McCabe caught the attention of the right people. Dwyer was suitably impressed to convince his parents to let him move to Sydney to further his cricket.

In 1930, he was just 19 when chosen to tour England with the Australian team. He had no First-Class hundred till then, but the young man had stuck 90 against the MCC team that had visited under Harold Gilligan. He was proving to be a promising batsman with some audacious strokes, and also an useful change bowler who could sometimes slip in a quick one. In the field he was energetic and accurate.

On his first tour McCabe did decently with the bat, averaging 35, but surprisingly headed the bowling table with eight wickets at 27 each. His first scalp was one to remember — the great Jack Hobbs caught by Richardson.

His debut at Trent Bridge was memorable in other ways as well. In his first Test innings, he hit the first ball for a boundary and was caught off Walter Robins off the next. In the second innings, Australia required 428 for a win. Bradman hit his first hundred in England and along with McCabe took the score to 229 for 3. But then The Don was bowled by Robins for 131. A few runs later McCabe hit Maurice Tate in the air towards mid-on and Syd Copley, a member of the ground staff substituting for Larwood, ran yards before flinging himself, rolling over, but not letting the ball go. Australia lost by 93 runs.

He did not score a hundred during the tour matches or the Tests, but was established in the team. And he had been accepted by the hardened professionals.

On the way to England, the team had stayed in the famous Elysee Palace Hotel at Paris. Vic Richardson and Alan Kippax had been sharing a room, too fascinated by the historic trappings of the city to get their sleep. They had been lying on bed when Kippax had exclaimed, “All we need now, Vic, is for Napoleon to walk through the door.” As he spoke, the great double doors had opened and McCabe had walked in, his features strikingly like the first French emperor. Richardson had turned to Kippax and said, “Well, Kip, there’s your Napoleon”. And the nickname had stuck. He grew prematurely bald, but the face under the cap filled up to look more like the old famed Frenchman. He was called ‘Nappers’ all his career.

The perfect sportsman

Returning to Australia, McCabe hit his first century in First-Class cricket in his 60th match, a solid 161 against Queensland.  When West Indies visited in 1930-31, he looked set to score his first Test hundred in the opening match before hitting one back to Learie Constantine when on 90. After this, he did run out of form and the Tests against West Indies and those the following year against the South Africans were lukewarm. Then finally he roared into the man’s world of Test match cricket with that emphatic 187 against England at Sydney.

By the time he visited England again in the summer of 1934, he had made immense strides in his batting. His range of strokes had grown larger, at the same time becoming increasingly safer. The reports of his 187 not out rang loudly still, lending his reputation an aura of great talent. Additionally, he made plenty of runs, managing 8 hundreds on the tour.

Although Bradman’s heroics as usual left the rest of the Australians in shade of his dazzling glory, McCabe did score 483 runs at over 60 per innings in the Tests, with 137 at Old Trafford. While marking him as one of the five cricketers of the year, Wisden remarked, “He showed excellent footwork to supplement a good eye and the outstanding characteristic of his batting — whether driving, cutting or hooking — was the power with which he invested all his strokes. In this respect he almost bore comparison with Bradman; indeed, taking the summer all through it is scarcely too much to say that he instilled nearly as much fear into English bowlers as did his more famous colleague. Going in as a rule second wicket down, he was able, by his bold methods, often to complete the discomfiture of bowlers already disturbed by the attentions of Ponsford and Bradman.”

And even though he was a thorn in the side for the English bowlers, he became popular for his exemplary display of sportsmanship. Herbert Sutcliffe recalled in For England and Yorkshire, “In the final game of the Australians’ tour they played at Scarborough and there I played a ball from McCabe hard enough as I thought at the time, for three runs. The shot was to square-leg and it happened that the umpire was in the way. The ball may have swerved towards him; anyway it struck his foot and was deflected to [Hans] Ebeling who was fielding four or five yards towards mid-wicket. As soon as I hit the ball I called for a run and got three or four yards down the wicket. Then I realised the danger and sent Wyatt, my partner, back. Ebeling had taken the ball easily and just as easily he returned it to McCabe who could have run Wyatt out by several yards …. McCabe never bothered. He made no show of the fact he was allowing Wyatt to escape. He took the ball and turning around walked to the point for the delivery of his next ball.”

The crest and the end

On McCabe’s return to Australia, Kippax gave up captaincy of New South Wales and Bradman moved to Adelaide to work as a stockbroker. McCabe was appointed captain of the state side.

The South African tour of 1935-36 was the happiest for many of the Australians of that era. In Bradman’s absence, Vic Richardson led the team, and McCabe enjoyed the most successful series of his career. Apart from the legendary 189 not out at Johannesburg, he also scored 149 at Durban and ended with 420 runs at 84.

McCabe had a successful Ashes series of 1936-37, which Australia famously won 3-2 after being down 0-2. His contributions in the last three victorious Tests were second only to Bradman’s, with 63, 22, 88 and 55 before hitting 112 in the decider.

Yet, this same series was marred by the worst controversy of his career. After the loss in the second Test, McCabe was summoned to appear before the Board along with O’Reilly, Leo O’Brien and Fleetwood-Smith. The four were accused of undermining Bradman and his captaincy, apart from being unconcerned about fitness. It was significant that apart from Jack Fingleton, possibly spared because of his job as a journalist and the associated chances of this incident finding its way to the press, all the other Irish Catholics in the team were censured. It is well-known that those days the Australian side was split by sectarian conflicts, with the Irish Catholic minority pitted against the Anglican and Protestant majority. Bradman’s relationship with Fingleton and O’Reilly never recovered.

However, by the time the 1938 Ashes tour came along, McCabe was appointed vice-captain to Bradman. And he celebrated his appointment in style with that stellar innings at Trent Bridge, the third of his masterpieces. McCabe’s biographer Jack McHarg wrote that the innings “was a sort of encyclopaedia of attacking batsmanship, a triumph of character, technique and judgement”.

Yet, apart from the double-hundred, McCabe did not do too much on the tour. His high insteps led to chronic foot problems, and he was largely considered to be in decline.

Returning to Australia, he played just two matches in the next season before succumbing to illness. He continued to play sporadically till 1941-42 before the attack on the Pearl Harbour sparked off the War in the Pacific. No more First-Class cricket was played for years and McCabe’s career ended at the age of 31.

During the War, McCabe was briefly a member of the Australian Defence Force, but was later moved to a clerical job at the Victoria Barracks due to his frail health.

The final figures

McCabe ended with 2,748 runs in 39 Tests at 48.21. Called upon to do a fair amount of bowling because of limited pace resources of Australia at that time, he captured 36 wickets at 42.86. He could sometimes bring the ball back into the batsman at disconcerting pace and once had impressive figures of 4 for 13 from 12 overs against South Africa at Sydney.

However, the career figures do not reveal the delight that McCabe was to onlookers when in full flow. His style and technique impressed one and all, from the die-hard romantic to the most pragmatic.

Len Hutton said that McCabe had several qualities in his batsmanship that were superior to those of Bradman, remarking “It would be harder to think of a greater Australian batsman.”

Neville Cardus could seldom speak of him without drawing comparisons with the great Victor Trumper. “Genial, friendly, Stan was Australia’s most gallant and knightly batsman since Victor Trumper. In his brilliant strokeplay there was certain courtliness. In his most aggressive innings, there was no brutality; his bat was never used as a bludgeon.”

The slightly more sedate EW Swanton observed that McCabe was from “the heroic mould … like those of Hobbs, Macartney and Woolley essentially qualitative …(he) came as near as any player to one’s conception of the perfect cricketer.”

The sculpture of Stan McCabe is unveiled before Day Three of the 2nd Test between Australia and Pakistan at SCG on January 5, 2010 © Getty Images
The sculpture of Stan McCabe is unveiled before Day Three of the Test between Australia and Pakistan at SCG on January 5, 2010 © Getty Images

The curious death

McCabe’s life after cricket however was hardly a happy one. He was plagued by health problems, and his insteps ensured that he could not exercise. He grew heavier, and smoking took its toll as well.

He died at the age of 58, fracturing his skull after falling from a cliff at his home in Mosman, New South Wales. A few days earlier he had told his old selector Chappie Dwyer that he would clean out his backyard. He fell while disposing a dead possum, falling down and rolling off the steep slope in his backyard and over the ledge of the cliff. There were speculations that he had actually committed suicide. O’Reilly’s characteristic quip was heard even through the sorrow, “He had despatched the possum, but had gone overboard with it!” However, it was later established that the death had been indeed accidental.

At the time of his death, Australia were engaged in the fifth Test match of 1968 at The Oval. When the news as announced, the spectators stood up and the players took off their caps to observe a minute’s silence. However, Fingleton later criticised the Australian cricketers for not sporting black arm-bands.

McCabe was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2002.

The best tribute to McCabe was perhaps paid during his playing days by the Australian writer Ray Robinson: “In McCabe the cricketer, you saw McCabe the man — urbane, sociable, unpretentious, straightforward, and incapable of anything mean-spirited. In the entire pre-War Test series he was the best liked by both his own team and his opponents.” Not too many of his contemporaries would disagree, including the bowlers whom he flayed at Sydney, Johannesburg and Trent Bridge.

(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)