William Bruce: Australia’s first left-handed batsman. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
William Bruce: Australia’s first left-handed batsman. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Let us cast our minds back to a balmy summer Monday, July 17, 1893, with the first Test between England and Australia about to begin at Lord’s. Having won the toss, England skipper Andrew ‘Stod’ Stoddart and “Give me Arthur” Shrewsbury make their stately way to the wicket to open the England innings. On the way, they pass one William Bruce, in the field for Australia. Let us freeze the frame at this point for the nonce and come back to it later.

The following is an extract from a newsletter issued by Scotch College Melbourne (established 1851): Recent research reveals Scotch has produced 11 Australian Test cricketers — meaning that Scotch has produced more Test players than any other school in Australia.” One of the 11 Test players referred to in the above list is William ‘Billy’ Bruce. He is seen to be in excellent company, rubbing shoulders, as it were, with the likes of Joe Darling, John McIlwraith, Colin McDonald, and Bob Cowper, also named as alumni of the school.

Bruce was born May 22, 1864 in the South Yarra area of Melbourne, and spent much of his childhood in Cromwell Street. He is known to have been educated at Scotch College, entering the Seminary on February 10, 1879. That cricket formed a large part of the youngster’s interests is evident from the fact that Bruce is seen to have been a member of the First XIs of 1880 and 1881. While at Scotch, he developed his cricket skills as a left hand bat and a left-arm medium-paced bowler.

His record shows the interesting fact that even before he had been enrolled at Scotch, Bruce, playing for a Bendigo XXII, had had the opportunity of playing against a team entitled Australians, at Bendigo. Here is the line-up for the Australians, in batting order: Charles Bannerman, Billy Murdoch, Tom Horan, Alec Bannerman, Tom Garrett, Fred Spofforth, Frank Allan, Harry Boyle, Jack Blackham, Tom Kelly and skipper Dave Gregory – dream adversary for a wide-eyed beardless young man not yet admitted to Junior College. Unfortunately, the youngster scored a mere 3.

He eventually made his First-Class debut with Victoria, against Ivo Bligh’s XI in 1882-83. The 19-year old did not disgrace himself, scoring 2 and 40.

David Frith, in his epic volume Silence of the Heart, reports that at the age of only 19 Bruce had once held the Australian record for the highest individual score in any level of cricket, with 328* for Melbourne against Hotham. His ability and talent seemed to have been quite evident even at a young age.

In a First-Class career spanning 1882-83 to 1903-04, he played 145 matches, aggregating 5,731 at at an average of 23.97 (fairly good, given the uncertain nature of the wickets in those days). He scored 4 centuries and 28 fifties, and held 102 catches. He had 143 wickets at 29.67 as well and had 5 five-wicket hauls.

A strange turn of events led to Bruce making his Test debut for Australia against the visiting England team in 1884-85. The Australian team for the second Test at Melbourne showed 11 changes from the team that had taken the field for Australia in the previous Test. The match notes state: “Australia’s team showed eleven changes as a result of the 1884 touring team (who had contested the 1st Test) demanding fifty per cent of the gate money for this match. Thus was ended the unique run of JM Blackham who played in each of the first 17 Test matches.”

Bruce was among the 9 Test debutants for Australia in the Test, along with Sam Morris, the first man of African origin to play Test cricket for Australia, though this turned out to be Morris’ only experience of Test cricket. Bruce thus became the first of an illustrious line of brilliant left-handed batsmen for Australia.

Winning the toss, Shrewsbury went out to open the innings in the company of William Scotton. Perhaps on a hunch, the new Australian skipper Horan threw the ball to Bruce to begin proceedings. Wisden tells us what happened next: “Scotton was not at home with the left-hander, Bruce, who twice nearly succeeded in bowling him, and with the total at 28 sent him back with the fast ball.”

In the team primarily as a left handed batsman, Bruce, retrospectively awarded the Baggy Green No. 32, did fairly well with ball in the first innings, taking 3 for 88 in an England total of 401 as Johnny Briggs scored 121.

Australia replied with 279, with Horan and debutants John Trumble and Affie Jarvis scoring fifties. Bruce scored 3 not out from No. 10, and was hence asked to open when England enforced the follow-on. Bruce repaid the trust by top-scoring with 45, even hitting the only six of the innings, but Australia were bowled out for 126. England won by 10 wickets.

As always, Wisden adds the personal touch: “On the last day a large attendance was not to be expected, and only three or four hundred onlookers were present. A generous supporter of cricket gave prizes to the value of 30 pounds. Briggs and Jarvis secured 10 pounds each as highest scorers on either side; and Barnes and Jones received 5 pounds each for the best analysis — English and Australian.”

Overlooked for the next two Tests when the senior players returned to the fold, Bruce was recalled for the fifth, at Melbourne. England won the Test by an innings and 98 runs, but the match notes speak of some unusual activity on the umpiring front regarding the designated officials, George Hodges and Jim Phillips: “TW Garrett deputised for umpire Hodges when the latter refused to stand after tea on the third day because of England’s complaints about his decisions. JC Allen stood for Phillips on the third and fourth days. McShane played in this Test after umpiring in the previous one.”

Bruce opened batting and scored 15 in a total of 163. He opened bowling as well, taking 3 for 99, as Shrewsbury remained undefeated on 105 in a total of 386. Bruce then batted at No. 6 and top-scored with 35 in a total of 125.

Bruce would eventually play 14 Tests for Australia from 1884-85 to 1894-95, scoring 702 runs at 29.25 with 5 fifties. He took 12 wickets at 36.67.

Preparations for the fourth Test-playing tour of England by an Australian side were carried out under the auspices of the Melbourne Cricket Club, the oldest sporting club in Australia. While the previous three tours had been privately organised, this time there was a more official ring about the whole venture. The prime mover for the tour was one JG Sutherland of Melbourne CC, and the tour was conceived of in reciprocation of Lord Harris’s 1878-79 visit to Australia. Certain uncertainties had cropped up about the participation of the New South Wales (NSW) and South Australia (SA) lobbies, but these were finally put to rest. The selection of the team was done mainly by representatives of Melbourne CC, with inputs from Dr Henry Scott, the captain-designate.

The list of the selected team members was released to the press on February 1. Among the 13 members selected, there was a surprise in store for the English hosts. For the first time, a touring Australian team to England was to include a left-handed batsman — William Bruce.

The majority of the touring party reached Plymouth on May 4, and the tourists spent 62 days in England getting acclimatised to the weather and wickets before the first Test. On the tour, the Australia party were bolstered on occasion for a few matches by the likes of Roly Pope, a 22-year old Medical student at Edinburgh University, Henry Hyslop, aged about 45, and J Hardie, a young amateur from Sydney on a private visit to England. Team Manager Ben Wardill also pitched in for a game.

Frith speaks of an interview of Bruce with Cricket on his arrival in England during which Billy is reported to have revealed that fact that he stood 5 feet 10 ½ inches “in his stockings” and that he was currently articled to a firm of solicitors in Melbourne in the pursuance of his legal studies and training.

The overall performance of the Australian team was rather disappointing in the 3-Test series: England won all the Tests, by 4 wickets at Old Trafford, by an innings and 106 runs at Lord’s, and by an innings and 217 runs at The Oval. Of the six men with 100 or more runs in the series, there were three Australians — Sammy Jones (145), Joey Palmer (130) and skipper Scott (110). Bruce played the first and third Tests, scoring only 22 runs. Apart from Spofforth, who took 14 wickets in the series, the others disappointed on the bowling front, Bruce being one of three Australians who went wicketless.

He played 33 First-Class matches on the 1886 tour of England, scoring 704 runs at 16 with only 1 century (106, his maiden First-Class century, against CI Thornton’s XI). He took only 13 wickets. It must be said that Bruce’s performances on the tour belied his talent.

Back home after the England tour, Bruce, turning out for a team known as Melbourne CC’s Australian XI, was soon confronting the visiting English team. Although the visitors won the game by 57 (even after following-on), Bruce found some solace after his under-par performances in England by top-scoring in both innings with 48 and 32.

There was an interesting experience in March, when a team of Smokers played another of Non-Smokers. For the purpose of this game, members of the touring English team mingled with the local talent to constitute the teams. Winning the toss for Non-Smokers, Shrewsbury opened the innings with Bruce, a wonderfully educative experience for the 23-year old to be batting in the company of such an established star. It had been reported in the contemporary press at the time that members of the Smokers team had taken the field with lighted cigars in their mouths.

The first wicket produced a stand of 196 before Bruce (131) was dismissed. This innings from Bruce had earned high praise at the time, Cricket going so far as to proclaim that “Bruce is probably now the best batsman in Australia.”

From there on, there was a wonderful 310-run partnership between Shrewsbury (236) and William Gunn (150). The Englishman Billy Barnes was absent hurt and the innings ended at 803. Reporting on Shrewsbury’s innings, The Argus stated that “no less than 160 of his runs were the results of four hits.” This was the first time that any team had topped 800 in a First-Class innings in Australia or anywhere else.

Bruce was unavailable for the 1888 tour of England. The 1891-92 visitors to Australian shores were Lord Sheffield’s team from England led by WG Grace. Only 3 Tests were played, Australia winning 2 and one going to the visitors. Bruce played in all 3, giving a fairly good account of himself, with 57 and 40 at Melbourne, 15 and 72 at Sydney, and 5 and 37 at Adelaide.

Against NSW at Melbourne Bruce scored 128, on his Sheffield Shield debut. Earlier that season, playing for Melbourne against St Kilda in a Grade match over three Saturdays, Bruce had scored 260 out of a total of 530. He was, at this point of time, squarely in contention for the next tour to England.

This was the statement issued by Victor Cohen, Treasurer of the NSW Cricket Association in an interview: “In March, 1892 I invited the co-operation of Messrs Bannerman, Turner, Bruce, Blackham and Lyons to assist me in choosing the remainder of the team.”

This was one of the preliminary stages in the preparation for the 1893 tour of England by Australia. A 14-member team was ultimately finalised and the list was issued to the press on January 12. The newly-formed Australasian Cricket Council were not very happy with the selection of some team members, but were powerless to interfere with team selection. For reasons unknown, the captaincy issue was kept in abeyance and settled only upon the arrival of the touring party at England on April 27. Blackham, on his eighth tour to England, was given the responsibility. One of the team members, Harry Trott, was to remark: “The team was not a happy family.” For a second time, Bruce was seen to be the only left-handed batsman of the party, having played 7 Tests by then.

Bruce and Hugh Trumble left on March 2 for England, ahead of the rest of the team and was reported to have indulged in a fortnight of sightseeing before the serious business of the tour began. Bruce played 17 First-Class games before the first Test, gradually getting in trim. His batting performances were not very convincing and there was a possibility that he would not be selected for the first Test. It was, ironically enough, his bowling in the game against Yorkshire that really turned the scales in his favour: in a game that the tourists won by 145 runs, Bruce, not used in the first innings, captured 6 for 29 opening the bowling with Charlie Turner.

The first Test in Lord’s ended in a draw. An injured finger kept WG Grace out of the game for the first time that Test matches had been played in England. Copious amounts of rain had fallen on the previous day but the sun was out by the time play began. Stoddart was named skipper. Shrewsbury led off with 106 in the England total of 334, debutant Stanley Jackson playing a mature knock of 91. Bruce opened the bowling and captured 2 for 58.

The Australian first-innings total of 269 was possible because of a century on debut by Harry Graham (107), who became the second Australian batsman after Charles Bannerman, to score a century on Test debut. With bad weather casting a shadow on the proceedings, Stoddart declared the England second innings closed at 234 for 8 at lunch on the third day, becoming the first captain to declare an innings closed in a Test match.

Bruce batted only once in the Test and scored 23. In the truncated England second innings, Bruce captured 1 more wicket. Persistent rain after lunch on the third day brought the game to a premature close. There were reports in the press of an altercation between skipper Blackham and Bruce in the dressing room, vehemently denied by the skipper, and of some of the Australian players having a run-in with the manager Victor Cohen.

In a game between the Australians and Oxford and Cambridge Universities Past and Present at Portsmouth, the visitors ran up a total of 843, at the time the highest team total achieved in England. There were 3 individual centuries in the innings: Alec Bannerman (133, skipper for the game), Bruce (191, his highest First-Class score), and Hugh Trumble (105, his maiden First-Class century). The University team could muster only 191. When the game ended in a draw, the University men, following on, had scored 82 for 1.

Batting form in the Tests, however, continued to elude Bruce as the England tour progressed. England won the second Test at The Oval by an innings and 43 runs, Bruce scoring 10* and 22.

The third Test at Old Trafford ended in another draw. In the Australian first-innings total of 204, Bruce (68) was easily the top-scorer. England responded with 243. Giffen (4 for 113 in 67 overs) was in the forefront of the attack, ably supported by Turner (2 for 72) and Bruce (2 for 26).

The Australian second innings was not without its share of drama. Alec Bannerman did what he was famous for and scored 60 runs in 235 excruciating minutes. The next highest scorer was Bruce (36). In a truly heroic knock, No. 10 Turner and No. 11 Blackham put on 36 precious runs for the last wicket, in the process, also consuming valuable time. The match notes include this interesting information: “During his match-saving second innings, Turner was struck on the hand and dislocated a finger. Dr Grace pulled the joint back into place and he was able to continue his last-wicket partnership of 36 with Blackham which occupied valuable time for Australia.”

Bruce (159) finished only next to Bannerman in series aggregate among Australians. He also took 5 wickets. He also scored 1,227 First-Class runs, finishing next to only JJ Lyons and Trott, and picked up 33 wickets. There was a short jaunt in the USA following the English tour, comprising 2 games for Bruce, both against Gentlemen of Philadelphia. Bruce scored 26 runs and took 5 wickets.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
W Bruce. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

When England toured Australia in 1894-95, Bruce was not selected for the first Test at Sydney, an exciting contest that England won despite following-on. He was inducted into the team for the second Test, at Melbourne. Despite being dismissed for 75, England staged a remarkable recovery to win the Test by 94 runs.

Turner (5 for 32) and Trumble (3 for 15) accounted for the low total in the England innings, while Arthur Conningham, playing his only Test, became the first bowler to take a wicket with his first delivery in Test cricket.

The home team replied with 123, Bruce scoring 4 at the top. Tom Richardson was magnificent, taking 5 for 57. With a first-innings deficit of 48 runs at the back of their minds, England began cautiously, until Stoddart seized the initiative with an epic 173. Following the example of the skipper, the team rallied around to carry the total to 475.

Pondering over a winning target of 428, the home team began well enough, the first wicket realising 98 runs, with Trott (95) and Bruce (54) batting with panache. After the fall of Bruce, skipper Giffen (43) combined with Trott to add 93. However, the only other substantial contribution was by Frank Iredale (68) in a total of 333, well short of the target.

The scene shifted to Adelaide for the third Test with the home team smarting from 2 consecutive defeats.The match notes state that the game was played throughout in temperatures that reached 155° F (68.33° C) in the open, a situation that seems very difficult to believe in this day and age.

Bruce scored 11 in Australia’s 238, which featured a last-wicket stand of 81 between Albert Trott and Sid Callaway (41). The England innings was a very feeble effort of 124. Giffen and Callaway captured 5 wickets each. Australia began on a sombre note, losing Harry Trott and Giffen by the time they scored 41. From there, Bruce (80, his highest Test score) and Iredale, with a magnificent 140, took the total to 142. There was another twist in the tail of the innings when Albert Trott (72*) and Callaway (11) added 64 valuable runs for the tenth wicket to take the total to 411.

England then collapsed to 143 against Albert Trott. Australia won the Test by a formidable 382 runs. In many ways this Test is remembered by posterity for the remarkable performance of debutant Albert Trott. This is what the match notes had to say: “AE Trott on his Test debut had a notable all-round performance scoring 110 without being dismissed and bowled unchanged virtually throughout the second innings to take 8 for 43.”

It was back to Sydney for the fourth Test, one that Australia won the Test by an innings and 147 runs. England took the field with a handicap when Bill Lockwood, one of the principal bowlers, sustained an injury to his hand from an exploding soda bottle just prior to the start of the game, diminishing his effectiveness as a bowler considerably and preventing his from batting in either innings.

The home innings of 284 was built around a solid performance by Graham (105), bolstered from lower in the order by Albert Trott, who remained undefeated for the third consecutive time since debut, scoring 85. Bruce scored 15. England were then brushed aside for 65 and 72.

The teams reached Melbourne for the final encounter with honours even at 2-2. Australia made the somewhat controversial decision of leaving out Turner from the playing XI in favour of Lyons. They put up a good total of 414, Giffen, Syd Gregory, Darling and Lyons all getting fifties. Albert Trott was dismissed for the first time in his fledgling Test career for 10.

MacLaren batted in a majestic manner for England until he was dismissed for 120. The total reached 385 — a deficit of 29. Giffen and Harry Trott took 4 wickets each. Giffen then top-scored with 51 and Darling scored 50. Australia finished at 267, with a clear lead of 296.

That England succeeded in chasing down the winning target of 297 was possible because of a solid 93 from opener Albert Ward and his fruitful 210-run third-wicket stand with Jack Brown (140, scored at a frenetic pace, the first 50 coming off only 28 balls, then a world record). Although England lost 6 wickets in the process, they carried off the series 3-2, winning the last Test by 4 wickets. This match turned out to be the last Test (out of 14) for William Bruce, now about 31 years old, and engaged in legal duties at North Melbourne Police Court.

Towards the end of his career, his legal duties took up more and more of his time and his First-Class appearances became more and more sporadic. His last First-Class match was against NSW at Sydney in 1903-04. Bruce scored 26 and 1.

In his later years he enjoyed coaching youngsters, particularly fellow-southpaws, Vernon Ransford being one of his wards. With age his once-prospering legal practice began to decline, and he appeared to be under tension. He gradually became depressed and took to a moderate amount of drink.

Let us now come back to the frame we had frozen at the beginning of the narrative, containing the images of Shrewsbury, Stoddart, and Bruce.

Shrewsbury, the champion English batsman, was reported to have found himself homeless in the winter of 1901-02. His health began to deteriorate and he suffered from depression. Finally, he purchased a handgun and committed suicide on the evening of May 12, 1903.

Stoddart was burdened with financial worries in his later years, and his health gradually broke down. He shot himself three weeks after his 52nd birthday.

Bruce’s story was not much different. On the morning of August 3, 1925, aged about 61, Bruce kissed his wife and told her he was not sure whether he would be home for dinner. He then left his house on Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, never to return. Some hours later, his lifeless body was fished out from the sea at Point Ormond.

It was stated in the coroner’s report that William Bruce had died by suffocation resulting from “drowning by his own act.” The body was later laid to rest at Brighton General Cemetery, Melbourne.