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Opinion

Australian cricket’s great entertainers squad

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Roar Guru
23rd March, 2020
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1840 Reads

It’s the dream of any child playing cricket to go on an Ashes tour to England if you’re an Australian, and vice versa if you’re from Old Blighty.

Tours these days seemed to be squeezed into as small a time frame as possible, but even so, a tour of England will probably last at least three months. Spare a thought for touring teams when international cricket was in its infancy, having to face trips lasting six or eight months.

Any sort of trip like this makes it imperative selectors not only choose the players they think will win games, but who will get along with each other off the field. In addition, these players should be able to interact with fans, but generally look to have a good time.

Most touring sides have one or two players like this, but what if a squad was put together containing nothing but entertainers?

The following is my attempt to choose one player from just about every decade of Test cricket who I believe would be great value on the field or off in a tour of England. They are not necessarily the best players of each decade, but they are certainly among the more colourful.

First is George Bonner. Test cricket started in 1877, so I’ve combined the first few years with the decade of the 1880s to come up with my first candidate.

Bonner probably has one of the worst Test records in Australian cricket history, averaging 17.06 with the bat from 17 Tests. Granted, he played in an era of uncovered pitches, but even still, these numbers are very poor. In fact, he managed to make ten single-figure scores in a row before selectors finally dropped him.

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He must have had something going for him, because he was chosen to tour England four times, despite hardly bothering the scorers and having a first-class average under 20. Bear in mind, this was an era when players went on these tours as a way of making huge amounts of money, so it’s safe to say Bonner must have been more value off the field than he was on it.

That said, he apparently once hit a six over the pavilion at Lord’s and was also credited with hitting a catch so high that he and his batting partner were turning for three when the ball was caught.

Bonner was a striking figure, standing more than 190 centimetres and very strong. He once bet a boat passenger 100 pounds he could throw a cricket ball 100 yards from a standing start. The ship docked, he went ashore and threw a ball a shade over 119 yards (109 metres).

He was also a hit on the social front, a critical element of being an entertainers squad member.

Ernie Jones is my choice from the 1890s. There’s something about a seriously quick fast bowler that gets the juices flowing and Jones was certainly fast. He famously bowled a delivery through WG Grace’s beard and when questioned by the good doctor, replied “sorry doctor, she slipped”.

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Joe Darling, his skipper on the 1902 tour, was asked during the Bodyline series about Harold Larwood and Jones. He replied that if Jones had been bowling with the same fields as Larwood, “he would have killed someone”.

Jones was also a miner, immensely strong, who apparently worked shoveling coal on the ships taking touring sides to England so he could stay fit. Safe to say Ernie didn’t mind a beer, another prerequisite for making this squad.

Warwick Armstrong is my choice from the first decade of the 20th century. He’s probably best known for his cricketing exploits after the Great War, but made the Test side in 1902.

Warwick Armstrong.

(Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Most probably know what a great cricketer he was, but the Big Ship makes the team for a few reasons.

He was a rebel who didn’t take kindly to be being told what to do. He was one of the big six who refused to tour England over a dispute with the Australian governing body.

He’s the only player in history to get away with bowling consecutive overs in a Test match.

He apparently had a whiskey or two with mates, while padded up, in a Test against England – then went out and made 158. That has got to be seriously hard to do.

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World War 1 meant not many guys debuted in the decade starting in 1910, so I’ve used a mulligan and claimed a bloke who first played Tests in 1907. Every good touring squad needs a player oozing confidence and Charlie McCartney had this in spades.

Ray Robinson, a noted Australian cricket writer, described McCartney this way: “No Australian batsman, not even Bradman, has approached McCartney for insolence of attack. He made slaves of bowlers”.

McCartney, also known as the Governor General, is also the batsman who liked to hit the first ball he faced straight back at the bowler, because he felt it put them off their game!

McCartney was a very good left-arm spinner and a specialist cover fieldsman. In other words, this guy was a terrific all-round cricketer.

Cricketers love a punt. Remember Dennis Lillee getting set on England when they were 500-to-1 to win at Headingley in 1981? My next choice is Herbie “Horseshoe” Collins, a former Australian Test captain, bookie and all-round gambler.

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Collins was a genuinely good bat, averaging a tick over 45 in his 19 Tests. He was renowned for winning the toss and was equally renowned for his skill with cards. He was a true poker-face skipper, the complete opposite of Steve Smith in that regard. He’d be the guy at the centre of any euchre or 500 school when this squad was on the tour bus.

For the best part of six decades, if you asked any Australian cricket fan who Tiger was, they’d instantly reply: Bill O’Reilly. One of the first guys picked in just about any Test side, O’Reilly was a super competitor on the field, but was happy to have a beer and a yarn once the day’s play was over.

O’Reilly would never leave a person wondering what he thought about cricketing matters and he had no hesitation in give his opinion to people like Don Bradman in a very forthright manner. He is what this team is all about: a great player not afraid to speak his mind but also happy to have a few beers and share some stories.

It wouldn’t be an entertainer’s squad without the ultimate cricketing entertainer of the 1940s and ’50s, Keith Miller. He played his first Test in 1946 and was simply the best all-round cricketer of his generation. He is still the benchmark for all-rounders in this country.

The word that probably best sums up ‘Nugget’ Miller is charisma. A pilot in World War 2, able to do just about anything with bat or ball, a brilliant fieldsman and very popular with fans off the field.

Miller is also the player who would captain this team. As a player, he was never given the opportunity to lead Australia, but that had nothing to do with his cricketing brain, but all to do with his lack of tolerance for those in charge of the game.

He did captain NSW and was a dynamic skipper, so there’s no reason not have him lead this squad, when his off-field skills are included.

Any touring squad needs a person with outstanding skills when dealing with the press and who was better at this, over the past seven decades, than Richie Benaud?

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(AAP Image/Sergio Dionisio)

Many forget Benaud was a brilliant attacking captain as well as a very aggressive batsman and bowler. He played a crucial part in the success of the 1960-61 West Indies series, setting attacking fields and trying to get results.

Off the field, he could talk to anyone and his skills as a commentator are legendary. He would be the liaison with the press, when he wasn’t doing great things on the field. Throw in his love of wine and here’s a player begging to be included.

English cricketer writer Jim Swanton wrote of my next tour member: “if he ever played a dull innings, I never saw it”. He’s referring, of course, to Doug Walters.

Doug would fit perfectly into this squad. He loved a beer, loved playing cards, never took himself too seriously but could play the game at the highest level, sober or otherwise!

Moving into the ’70s and my choice would have to be the most unfashionable cricketer I’ve seen in five decades of watching the game, Max ‘Tangles’ Walker.

It was gob-smacking watching him amble up against Pakistan in his first Test and seemingly bowl off the wrong foot. He looked like a bad park cricketer, but then he took 6-15 in a Test Australia had no right to win and from then on was almost a lock in the Test side. All touring sides need plenty of humour and Walker would help supply that. He’d certainly be popular with the fans.

It was hard to find a lot of humour in the 1980s cricket scene. Australian cricket was being pummeled by the West Indies, then a batch of new guys came onto the scene, including one bloke known as the Fruit Fly.

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Merv Hughes was almost larger than life. He thoroughly enjoyed his cricket and became something of a cult figure with Australian crowds. It’s hard to forget fans joining in when Merv was warming up to bowl.

Hughes would also be in charge of sledging, without crossing the line. He once said to Graeme Hick, “Mate, if you just turn the bat over, you’ll find the instructions on the other side”. There are many more where that came from.

The next squad member is fondly known as Pigeon. Glenn McGrath has to be one of the funniest guys – not when he’s bowling, but when he’s batting.

Here’s a player who in his own mind has had at least a dozen or more centuries nipped in the bud by some brumby umpiring or a recognised bat throwing his wicket away. Over the years he’s provided fans with so many wonderful cricketing moments, he’s a natural for this side.

My second to last squad member is also probably the best fielder in this team and that’s saying something, but it’s hard to go past Andrew Symonds in any position.

(Image: Wikimedia/Privatemusings CC BY-SA 4.0)

In many ways, Roy has been a fair approximation to Keith Miller. On his day, he could do anything with the bat, he was a better than useful bowler and as mentioned, his fielding was elite. He also loved (and still loves) a beer, fishing and having a good time, something he’d have in common with quite a few on this squad.

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My final selection is Stephen Harold Gascoigne. Before you dive onto CricInfo, you have to remember this is a squad that was chosen on the premise it would tour England. If this team were to play any games against serious opposition, it would most likely come across large swathes of the Barmy Army.

Who better to keep them quiet than the famous ‘Yabba’?

He might not get a game, but his comments would be worth a wicket or two and the Army probably wouldn’t know what hit them.

There’s no doubt other cricket fans will come up with different lists and they too would be worthy additions to most cricket squads.

I limited my choices to one player per decade, which meant more than a few had to miss out. Special mentions go to Reg Duff, Chuck Fleetwood-Smith, Sid Barnes who was a great rogue, Kerry O’Keeffe, Jeff Thomson, Gary Gilmour and Stuart MacGill.