Now that the upcoming series between India and Australia down under has been confirmed, further COVID outbreaks permitting, it is timely to stroll down memory lane to reminisce about series past here in Australia.
If you type the name Ross Gregory into your search engine you will immediately be struck by two very different pictures.
The first manages to be both of a fixed time and yet at the same time utterly timeless. It is a brilliantly coloured cigarette card announcing ‘R.G. Gregory’, dating from some time in the late 1930s.
Under a sun-filled and cloudless blue sky Gregory is shown performing a perfectly poised sweep shot. The youthful face looks out from under the baggy green cap as perpetual summers appear to stretch out before him. We understand that the picture is just a cigarette card caricature, a beautifully distorted version of reality. But, even so we can imagine with absolute certainty that the non-existent ball is now and forever skimming its way to the boundary off the middle of Gregory’s bat.
We may even allow ourselves to see a faint smile emerge from Gregory’s face, forever imprisoned in that inanimate card. The other picture is of a boy in a Royal Australian Air force uniform. His hat askance as he smiles engagingly to the camera. His youth apparent he exists within his time and for all time.
Ross Gregory played two Test matches for Australia both in the 1936-37 Ashes series. The series remains on record as the only instance of a team recovering from a 2-0 deficit to win a five match Test series. Perhaps, helped by the timeless Test format that was commonplace in Australia at the time.
Gregory appeared for Australia in the final two matches of the series. Still aged just 20, he batted three times scoring a combined total of 153 runs. He reached a half-century in two of those innings with his highest score of 80 recorded in his final Test innings, ensuring that Australia retained The Ashes.
Gregory won selection for the final two Tests due predominantly to an innings of 128 for Victoria against the English tourists. In his short first class career consisting of just 33 appearances he amassed 1,874 runs at the creditable average of 38.24, with 17 half-centuries and that solitary hundred against the MCC. In addition he succeeded in taking 50 wickets, at a solid average of 35.34, with his carefully flighted leg-spin. Gregory didn’t make the 1938 tour to England (the last before the outbreak of war).
This was the tour of Len Hutton’s world record 364 not out and England’s Test high of 903-7 declared. The series ended in a draw and Australia’s retention of The Ashes, largely due to Bill O’Reilly’s ten wickets at Headingley and the batting dominance of Bradman and Brown. It was a point of conjecture at the time as to whether Gregory was not selected or had made himself unavailable for the tour.
One thing, that we can be certain of, is that Ross Gregory the batsman had a surefooted, certain and happy future laid out before him. Pilot Officer Gregory of the RAAF did not. He was killed in action while on air operations in India on 24th June 1942. He was just 26 years old.
There is a heart-breaking curiosity that forever surrounds that 1936-37 series. In Ross Gregory’s final Test innings at the MCG he scored a disciplined 80 in a towering Australian total of 604. Ultimately, he was caught in the field by England’s Hedley Verity off the bowling of fast bowler Ken Farnes.
The dismissal was viewed as fairly rudimentary at the time. Just another dismissal in the ever-growing compendium of Ashes cricket history. A young man missing what should have been a certain and deserved century. The world quickly moved on as England collapsed to an innings defeat and Australia celebrated their victory.
However, nobody could have imagined at the time but all three participants were in the space of the next few short years to perish in the war. Essex pace-man and later Pilot Officer Ken Farnes in a flying accident above Oxfordshire in 1941.
Captain Verity of the Green Howards, dying of wounds as part of the allied invasion of Sicily. His last known order was to instruct his men to “Keep going”. It is a source of profound sadness yet comfort that these men are permanently connected in our memories.
I find myself returning again to those pictures of Gregory, as well Farnes and Verity. Hedley Verity, looks out of the photograph, mature with receding hair. A man near the end of his career that has achieved many great successes for Yorkshire and England. From the image we can deduce a trustworthy, reliable, humble and decent man. Ken Farnes, tall, debonair yet with a scholarly air born of someone whose profession was a school master.
And, now last of all Ross Gregory….
Take a look at the boy in the RAAF uniform and hold his gaze. Look upon the smile, a mixture of confidence tinged with shyness. A wartime of adventure ahead, more runs for Victoria, brand new centuries to add to the solitary one, and more Test Matches for Australia. But none of these things came to pass.
On Friday at 11am spare a second to look at him and remember. Not just Ross Gregory but thousands like him that never came home. Whose futures remain freeze framed forever in old black and white photographs and frayed cigarette cards.