Tom Wills: public hero, private tragedy

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Tom Wills is vaguely known to a limited number of Australians as the man whose letter to a newspaper led to the establishment of the game we know today as Australian Rules Football.

This scant recognition is not only a disservice to Wills but to all those with an interest in the history of this country.

As an engaging and well researched book by Sydney psychiatrist Greg de Moore reveals, Tom Wills can make legitimate claim to the title of Australia’s first sporting hero and, sadly, Australian sport’s first fallen star.

Thomas Wentworth Wills was born on 19 August 1835 on a sheep run on the Molonglo River 290 kms southwest of Sydney the first of Horatio and Elizabeth’s nine children.

When Tom was four, the family moved south and took up land on Mount William, on the eastern edge of the Grampian range some 220 kms north-west of Melbourne. When he was eleven, Tom was sent to school in Melbourne and it was there in September 1846 he played his first cricket match.

Even at this early stage Tom showed promise and he certainly preferred physical exercise to academic endeavor.

Horatio was ambitious for his son and so in February 1850 Tom, travelling alone, set sail for England to further his education at Rugby School.

It was the second half of 1850 and late in the summer when Tom played his first game of cricket at Rugby. At first he bowled underhand, which was the popular style in Australia, but this marked him as a backward colonial.

He adopted the latest style of bowling – a sweeping round-arm action in which his arm swung laterally and was never raised above the height of his shoulder.

Tom was a gifted sportsman and excelled at cricket, athletics and football, as then played at Rugby.

Each detail of sport was important to him: how a game was conducted, its rules, its history and its winning. He became and remained for the rest of his life, very competitive.

As a sixteen year old he was one of a pair of opening bowlers who obliterated opposing teams. He intimidated and cowed batsmen with his speed and bounce. However, there were murmurs that Tom threw rather than bowled the ball and at the end of the 1852 season these suspicions found a voice in the national paper, Bell’s Life in London.

Such accusations would follow him throughout his life.

The following year he played his first game at Lord’s Cricket Ground. By now his name was on the lips of everyone in England.

The seventeen year old Australian, bowling like a professional and batting like a gentleman amateur, had made Rugby School the most watched team in England. A member of the School XI and a champion athlete, his sporting accomplishments were considerable.

He bowled fast and slow, batted and kept wickets and emboldened less gifted team mates with his optimism. The genesis of an inspiring captain was clear in his words and actions.

Football was the other game Tom played and excelled at.

Rugby School played its own style of football. The game had evolved over several decades and was played under rules devised by the boys. In a game that might involve hundreds of boys, individuals were rarely named.

Tom was the exception.

He could exaggerate and extend the moment on the field of play and drew eyes to himself through his skill and byplay. The description of play in the 1850s gave little sense of the tactics or scores and a game could be played out over many days.

The rules changed constantly as the boys sought to refine them.

Tom examined each point of play with a commander’s eye, absorbing tactics and theory. Just as in cricket, Tom rose to national attention in the press.

He played as a “dodger,” crafty players who flitted in unpredictable dashes running fast to elude tacklers, and when caught, writhed about to set themselves free. And when the ball had been run in for a try at goal, it was Tom Wills who was summoned to kick.

As the summer of 1855 approached, he was named the School XI cricket captain. Now in his final year, he was the dominant bowler and batsman in the Rugby School team, untouchable as the school’s most prestigious sportsman.

School finished in the June, but Tom, courtesy of his parents’ largesse remained in England for a further fifteen months playing cricket as he pleased.

As a gentleman cricketer, he played for any team that would have him – and there were few that did not. His hallmarks of persistence, stamina and competitiveness were honed and his body had filled out to a manly height of 178 cms and the scales tipped 71 kgs.

Tom returned to Melbourne in December 1856, having been away for nearly seven years.

With a reputation that preceded him, his arrival in Australia had been expected by the Victorian cricketers. Soon his name and feats filled the pages of Bell’s Life in Victoria, Argus and the penny papers.

He seemed to be everywhere at once.

Cricket, which had seemed dull before Tom, now illuminated Melbourne. The newspapers spoke of Tom bowling sparklers, rippers, fizzers, trimmers and shooters, leaving a batsman perplexed at being bowled.

The colony was obsessed with cricket and cricketer’s views and experiences were published in the press.

Tom became a voracious letter writer and his voice was louder and heard more often than any other cricketer. He could do anything on the cricket field and was recognised as the finest bowler and captain in the country, as well as a determined, cautious batsman who could hit the ball hard.

Whenever he played, large crowds gathered to watch. It was said men admired and envied while woman swooned as they studied his sculptured physique.

On 10 July, 1858, Bell’s Life published his letter calling for the formation of “a foot-ball club … a code of laws.”

He was concerned not to allow a “state of torpor” to creep over cricketers during the winter months.

Several games of football, conducted with little formality, were recorded in the winter of 1858. Tom Wills was not the only person who organised these early matches, but his voice was the clearest and his is the name, more than any other, that writers of the day referred to in their portrayals of the Melbourne game of football.

As with cricket, in the football matches he played, he was the only one on the field mentioned in the press.

On 17 May, 1859, the first known written rules of Australian Rules football were agreed upon at the Parade Hotel.

When the ten “Rules of the Melbourne Football Club May 1859″ were written and signed, Tom Wills headed the list of rule writers.

The game spread quickly and Tom became the most influential figure in football, playing against and alongside men with whom he played cricket.

Of the early footballers, he was regarded as the most highly skilled tactician and astute leader on the field. Competitive and aggressive, he was a dominant player whose long kicking was a potent source of goals.

He experimented with tactics, improvised on the football field and his original and competitive mind saw strategies and opportunities not previously seen.

His innovations were brilliant at a time of unimaginative manoeuvres.

Over the following years Tom did little else but play cricket and football. He was an automatic selection for the Victorian team against New South Wales in annual inter-colonial cricket matches and was usually elected captain by his peers.

Notwithstanding his sporting income and that his share of the family estate was managed on his behalf, he was constantly in debt.

This situation was made worse by heavy drinking and, on occasions, he had been intoxicated when on the cricket field.

As the years went by, his once unsurpassed skills began to fade. He played his last competitive game of football in 1874.

His final game for Victoria against New South Wales was in February 1876 and Victoria lost by 195 runs.

Tom, well past his prime, was jeered by the Sydney crowd. It was a sad ending to what had been an illustrious career.

With his playing days over, the world became a muddle to Tom. The greatest cricketer of his generation and the man who, more than any other, had influenced the start of the new game of Melbourne football was broke and on the run.

His genius with bat and ball offered him little solace beyond the playing field.

On 2 May 1880, his brain damaged by alcoholism, rational judgement lost, and with all hope gone, he committed suicide.

Australia’s first sporting hero had met a tragic end.

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