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An Australian "what might have been" XI

Roar Rookie
28th August, 2010
9

Posts on The Roar in recent weeks have discussed selecting all-time World, West Indies, India v Australia and West Indies regional teams. Some of them have then devolved into picking Australian state teams, a Queensland all-time imports team and “favourites” teams.

Of course this isn’t a phenomenon that’s magically arisen in just the last few weeks – it’s a perennial favourite of the cricket lover/tragic.

When inexorably drawn into one of these exercises I sometimes think about players I’ve seen or read about who shone brightly for a while but who for whatever reason didn’t completely fulfill the promise they showed, or didn’t get the opportunity to.

So the fantasy team I propose trying to pick is the Australian all-time “what-might-have-been” XI. Selection criteria are simple: you have to be Australian and you have to be able to point to something that stopped you having the cricket career it looked like you might have. If it comes down to a choice between a better player and a better story, the better story wins out.

I’ll try to more or less follow the Sheek time-honoured well-balanced team formula, and apologise in advance for any Queensland and post-1970 bias that creeps in. So down to it:

Openers – a popular position for the cruelly described one (or two) Test wonder, so you have to earn a spot here.

My choices both lost prime years to World War II (and I’m sure there are lots of other contenders for a side like this who could point to such losses – or to wartime death or injury):

Sid Barnes – Test average of 63 from 13 Tests. Dropped at age 32 and never picked again after averaging 82 in the 1948 “Invincibles” series. There seems to have been a highly developed (over developed?) commercial streak in his character that made him look for money making opportunities at all times, and a great inability to get on with authority – combine those in Australian cricket at the time and you were heading for trouble.

Selected for a Test side in the 50’s, only to have the board veto the selection “on non-cricketing grounds”. If he’d tugged the forelock, or the times were more accommodating, would he be talked about with Pollock, Sutcliffe and Headley in the “over 60’s” club?

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Jack Moroney – arguably replaced Barnes, when picked for the tour to South Africa in 1949. He played in all of those Tests, hitting a century in each innings in the second and averaging around 50. That (a century in each innings) is one of those feats which some very good players have never managed – and which no-one who isn’t a good player has, and is what gets him in this side.

After that tour he was picked for the first Ashes Test in 50/51 – but dropped after a pair. You’d have thought that the second innings being played on a raging sticky (Aust 7-32 declared) might have cut you some slack, but no. He did play one more Test the following year, but by then he would have been nearing 35 and despite continuing solid state form, that was it.

It’s to be hoped for his sake that the parallel you can draw now between Moroney and Phillip Hughes ceases to be valid in the future.

3 to 5 – I have to confess the part of team I had most trouble with. I’m sure there are other candidates out there, but I just can’t think of them.

Archie Jackson is one strong contender at least. Debuting at age 19 in the same Ashes series as Don Bradman, he hit 164 opening against Harold Larwood and Maurice Tate. At age 23 he was dead of tuberculosis.

Kim Hughes – perhaps a slightly left field choice, because he had a long Test career – 70 matches. However, he more than anyone seemed to suffer from the effects of World Series Cricket, and the shotgun re-merger afterwards. He played at least two very great innings – an even 100 against the West Indies (Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Colin Croft) in 1981 (innings total 198, next highest score 21, and Australia won helped somewhat by Dennis Lillee’s 10 for) and in the Centenary Test in England. If he could do that, what else could he have done if spared all the other distractions?

For the final spot I’m stuck between Ian Craig and Stuart Law. Ian Craig of course is the poster boy for the they need to get some consistent runs on the board before they get picked, and if you pick them too early it could do a lot of damage to them, school of thought (which I have to admit to flirting quite seriously with). Picked for Australia at 17 he got 53 and 47 on debut against South Africa, but failed abjectly in England later that year.

After a couple of years out of the game for study and national service (another fruitful potential source of candidates for this team – for a while it looked like Doug Walters might be one of them because of Nasho) he came back and looked a better player at age 22 when appointed captain against South Africa. Having overcome (arguably) being picked too early, the pressure of overblown expectations, and an enforced break from the game he then ran into hepatitis, and that finished him as a test player – at 22.

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Stuart Law had a lot of good players in front of him, finally got an opportunity, made a not out 50 before his captain declared, and never played again. His fellow debutante, Ricky Ponting, also did well in that game (out in the 90’s) but has received one or two more opportunities since then. Would Stuart have matched Ricky given the chance? Realistically, most likely not, but as he kept making piles of runs for years afterwards, he must have sometimes wondered.

I’m afraid the Qld bias (one of the few times it helps at the selection table) has to give this one to Stuart.

All-rounder – given this is one position Australia hasn’t always been strong, we have a few candidates.

One is Albert Trott. You hear about him as the only man to hit a ball over the pavilion at Lords. He also has the highest test batting average for Australia – three Tests, 205 runs for twice out (which doesn’t show in his overall figures as he later played twice for England). You would think that those figures, and a match-winning 8-43 on debut would see you on the bus for the next game, but no (for reasons Cricinfo describes as never having been explained). After being ignored for Australian touring sides (where the money in Australian cricket then was), he went to England to play county cricket. It’s said that his batting suffered after the shot over the pavilion – he wouldn’t stop trying to repeat it. The grog also got to him.

Another serious contender is Ron Archer, good enough to have hit a Test 100 and taken a Test five for as a fast bowler before destroying his knee just before turning 23. You read people saying that he would have been a very great player, and a Test captain (instead of Ian Craig) had he been able to play on.

A perhaps not-quite-so-serious contender would have to be Otto Nothling, who played one Test as a replacement for Don Bradman, dropped after his own debut Test. A decent all-rounder at state level, he made a 44 in that Test, but couldn’t snag a wicket.

The “might have been” comes in because the story goes his first ball in Test cricket (opening the bowling – Australia seemed to like to pick a bunch of spinners to do most of the bowling, with back-up from all-rounders who could bowl medium or medium-fast to take the shine off the ball back then) hit Jack Hobbs on the pad. Nothling didn’t appeal not being sure it was out (an utterly incredible concept to the modern mind). The umpire is reputed to have said to him later “why didn’t you appeal? I thought it was plumb”. If Nothling had got that one, then got one or two others early, would Bradman have come back for the next game (where he got his maiden ton)?

Poor Albert Trott is really up against it – both Archer and Nothling were Queenslanders. If Nothling hadn’t played his interstate rugby for NSW, he’d have been in with a real chance, but since he did, it has to be Ron Archer at six.

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Keeper – I’m sure there are plenty of other hard luck stories down the years, but this one seems a relatively easy choice.

For a keeper, it’s all about the 3 O’s – opportunity, opportunity and opportunity. There’s only one in a team, and once he’s there, it usually takes a serious injury or some sort of front-end loader to remove him. Consequently, if you’re a very good keeper but you get your timing just wrong, you can sit back and enjoy watching someone else’s glittering test career that neatly coincides with your own blighted career. Step forward Peter Anderson.

Queensland keeper for a season and a half, and getting good reviews as an excellent gloveman (today, his handy, but no more than that, batting would probably cause him problems). But it’s early 1988 and there’s possibly some reaction to the not totally successful Australian experiments with picking batsman/keepers in the past few years.

Not only that, there are rumblings about the incumbent Australian keeper Greg Dyer. Anderson’s name comes up as the best keeper going around and a serious prospect to replace Dyer. He picks that moment to badly break a finger or two. That lets one Ian Healy into the Queensland team. Healy had played two games the previous year, but now gets the last four Shield games of the season. I remember watching the last session of one of those games on TV, with Rod Marsh commentating, and going into raptures over Healy’s keeping. And that of course was enough – Australian didn’t tour in the winter of 1988, and by the time they next toured to Pakistan in late 88, Dyer was out, and Healy was in. The first Test was his 9th first class game and no-one else got a look in from there on in.

Bowlers – given Ron Archer is already in the side bowling quick, you could go for 2 spinners and 2 pacemen here. And there’s plenty of choice.

Spinners – there are at least a couple still playing – Jason Krejza and Beau Casson, who might be thought to qualify. I’d rather be optimistic for them and think that it’s not all over yet for either one.

Another recent name, who again is a bit left field, is Stuart MacGill. Given that he took over 200 Test wickets in 44 games, it’s fair to think he shouldn’t have much cause to rail against the fates for too long (which he never appears to do it must be said). But how many games would he have played, and how many wickets might he have taken, but for a certain Shane Warne, or if the selectors had been prepared to play two spinners more often?

Other contenders fit into one of two categories – forced off to England to earn a living (Bruce Dooland, George Tribe) and not picked until nearing pension age (Bert Ironmonger, Don Blackie).

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George Tribe was a left arm wrist spinning all-rounder. He took plenty of wickets cheaply for Victoria immediately after World War II, and was picked for three Tests. When immediate success didn’t come then he was out, and after not getting picked for Victoria the next year went to league cricket in England. Some years after that he went to county cricket, taking well over 1000 wickets and scoring useful runs.

Bruce Dooland bowled leggies and is credited with inventing the flipper. His story was eerily similar to George Tribe’s – three Tests immediately post war, but the lack of instant success saw him discarded. He also then got near 1000 wickets in county cricket.

You have to like Bert Ironmonger – the great name and the great nickname “Dainty” are a good start, but then you read that he lost the ends of fingers on his bowling hand in a sawmill accident, used that disability in his bowling, debuted in test cricket when nearing the age of 46 (bizarrely, in the same game as Don Bradman) and was reputedly one of the worst fieldsmen ever to play for Australia.

That he got 74 wickets at a shade under 18 in 14 Tests suggests he could bowl a bit too (although those figures are a bit boosted by returns against not so strong opponents). How might he have gone if the selectors had taken a punt on him as a youngster of 37 back in 1920 (or if they’d stuck with him a bit longer!)? In fact, they did stick with him – he was still playing in the Bodyline series when he was past 50.

I remember reading years ago that Harold Larwood was on 98 batting as nightwatchman in that series when he hit one in the general direction of, but a bit away from, Ironmonger in the deep. Already celebrating the ton, since it was unheard of for Dainty to get anywhere near a ball that didn’t go straight to him, Larwood was astonished to see him run, dive and take a very good catch to leave him stranded.

Don Blackie is the last contender – debuting in the game after Bert Ironmonger, and already well past 46 at the time. He did respectably in that Ashes series, 14 wickets from 3 games at about 32. But again, the selectors wouldn’t stick with him! Apparently he’d only been playing first class cricket for three years at the time, so perhaps he’s not as much of a might have been.

Since we’re picking two spinners, that lets Stuart MacGill and Bert Ironmonger (did I mention he was born in Queensland) into the side.

And finally the pace bowlers. The potential for injury while bowling fast means there have to be plenty of contenders who burst onto the scene only to break down soon afterwards.

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A relatively recent possibility would be Andrew Stuart – three one-dayers, and a five-for including a hat-trick in the third, and then … nothing. Pat Crawford from the 1950’s would be another – five Tests for only seven wickets, but at next to nothing apiece. Hard to fathom until you see he broke down in the first and last tests and hardly bowled a ball in either. He then added to his problems (selection wise) by becoming another to go to England to earn a living.

Next is a contemporary of Crawford and one of the real enigmas of Australian cricket – Gordon Rorke. He looked like he could be anything when he started out, but illness on an Indian tour meant he could only bowl two overs in his fourth, and as it turned out, last, test, as his career stopped dead.

Bruce Reid on the other hand managed, on the face of it, a decent career – 27 tests, 112 wickets at less than 25. Unfortunately, that was over a seven-year period and he would have missed at least as many tests in that period as he played. If he only he’d been as robust as Courtney Walsh…

Another deserving mention would have to be Bob Massie – a stunning 16 wickets on debut, then within a year out of the side never to return. A grim warning on the dangers of too much success too soon? Or a reminder that you have to play to the conditions?

And finally, Eddie Gilbert. An Aboriginal trying to play big cricket at a time when he needed consent to leave the reserve he lived on, in a country far more racist than it is now, and with chucking claims following him. He not only produced some legendary performances, he did so very unconventionally (bowling fast off a very short run up with a follow through that almost saw his bowling hand drag along the ground).

So to round off my team, Bruce Reid and Eddie Gilbert, making it (in approximate batting order):

Barnes, Moroney, Jackson, Hughes, Law, Archer, Anderson, Gilbert, MacGill, Reid and Ironmonger (there’s a lot of competition).