Greg Chappell famously opined that “talent is a bit like fruit – if you don’t pick it, it can go rotten.”
While many in both Australian and Indian cricket disagree with him, the number of great cricketers who debuted at a tender age does lend weight to his theory.
This article selects an Australian team by two simple criteria – each player must have debuted before turning 21, and then performed at a high level before turning 23. Almost 40 cricketers have represented Australia before their 21st birthday.
Many of them have justified selection with immediate success, while others have also prospered but only when older.
I had hoped to also name an English team, for another Ashes contest to complement last week’s “Ashes Masters; if you’re good enough, then you’re still young enough.”
But unfortunately, Denis Compton is the only great batsman to have gained an English cap before turning 21. Extending the age-limit by another year or two would have added a few more to the list of eligible Englishmen, but also pushed the definition of “prodigy” too far, while tripling the number of eligible Australians.
In summary, it proved impossible to pick evenly-matched elevens of very young Australian and English players.
Australian cricket has long benefitted from a strong club-to-state pathway that both identifies, and prepares, future Test cricketers from an early age. Many of those players have exhibited the self-confidence of youth, and little fear of failure.
Almost all were dropped early enough in their career, to be able to return later and better. But most crucially, generally the right young players were selected in the first place.
More recently, age-based competitions and rookie contracts have accelerated (or muddied, depending on your perspective) this path. For some critics, talented youngsters should not play predominantly with and against each other, and instead should compete with and learn from adults.
If such competitions do not operate fully during this coming season for financial and bio-security reasons, club cricket will enjoy greater focus, and many fringe State players will once again play the majority of their matches on weekends and against older amateurs.
Time will tell whether or not such an enforced restructure improves the pathway to the Test team.
Here is the team, as well as a second one of other worthy players. It would be a pleasure to watch such a combination of supremely-talented young cricketers, play together before they became all-time greats.
And as a final note, the figures stated are players’ performances before their 23rd birthdays.
Baggy Green Prodigies XI
Archie Jackson (debuted aged 19 in 1928-29)
Eight Tests before age 23, 474 runs at 47.40, one century
Many observers considered the graceful Jackson the successor to Victor Trumper and equal of Don Bradman. He scored 164 on debut in Adelaide in 1928-29, after his side had been reduced to 3-19 against an attack that included Harold Larwood, Maurice Tate and JC ‘Farmer’ White.
Unfortunately he never enjoyed good health, and died of tuberculosis at the age of 23. A grandstand at Sydney’s Drummoyne Oval bears his name.
Phil Hughes (debuted aged 20 in 2008-09)
15 Tests before age 23, 1031 runs at 38.18, three centuries
The left-handed Hughes died tragically young, just like Jackson. At 19, he scored a century in a Sheffield Shield final.
On Test debut, he scored 0 and 75 in Johannesburg. In his next match he became the youngest batsman to score a century in each innings, with 115 and 160 in Durban. While out of the Test side during his last 16 months, he had the talent and time to make a comeback.
Given that no wicketkeeper has debuted for Australia before his 22nd birthday, Hughes must also take the gloves for this team. He did so in a Test while Matthew Wade bowled, and in a State match following an injury to Brad Haddin.
Sir Don Bradman (debuted aged 20 in 1928-29)
14 Tests before age 23, 1889 runs at 94.45, eight centuries
Bradman recovered from being dropped after his first Test, to dominate opponents while still young. In that same series against England he scored 112 and 123 at the MCG.
In England in 1930 he scored 131 at Trent Bridge, 254 at Lord’s, 334 at Headingley and 232 at The Oval. That triple-century included 309 runs in a single day’s play.
Against the West Indies the following summer, he scored 223 at Brisbane’s Exhibition Ground and 152 at the MCG. He was, as RC Roberston-Glasgow wrote, “a genius with an eye for business.”
Neil Harvey (debuted aged 19 in 1947-48)
14 Tests before age 23, 1321 runs at 73.38, six centuries
Left-handed batsman and brilliant fieldsman Harvey has the most outstanding record of any young Australian cricketer apart from Don Bradman.
In his first 13 innings, he scored six centuries. They included 153 against India at the MCG in his second match, and 112 at Headingley in his next during the 1948 Invincibles’ record-breaking chase of 404. In South Africa in 1949-50 he scored 660 runs at 132.00 with centuries in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.
The most famous of those was 151 not out at Durban after Australia was dismissed for 75 in its first innings and reduced to 4-95 in its second, yet reached its target of 336 with five wickets to spare.
Clem Hill (debuted aged 19 in 1896)
11 Tests before age 23, 783 runs at 41.21, two centuries
Hill was cricket’s first great left-handed batsman, and statistically the equal of any Australian batsman prior to Bradman. After failing to pass 20 in any of his first seven innings, his next four comprised 96, 58, 81 and 188.
The last of those ensured a recovery from 6-58 to 9-303, and an Ashes-winning victory at the MCG. He subsequently scored 52, 80, 135 and 34 in consecutive innings in England in 1899, with that century at Lord’s assisting a comprehensive victory.
Doug Walters (debuted aged 19 in 1965-66)
12 Tests before age 23, 1007 runs at 59.23, two centuries, 11 wickets at 36.00
Crowd favourite Walters scored 155 on Test debut against England at the Gabba and 22 and 115 in the next match at the SCG, ending that series with 410 runs at 68.33 and nine inexpensive wickets.
He was then promptly conscripted for national service during the Vietnam War and missed two years of first-class cricket. But he still had time before turning 23 to then play two home Tests against India and all five on the 1968 tour to England.
Stan McCabe (debuted aged 19 in 1930)
20 Tests before age 23, 992 runs at 36.74, one century, 23 wickets at 33.34
McCabe was a dashing batsman best known for three innings. The first took place at the SCG when he was aged 22, during the first two days of the Ashes series of 1932-33.
English captain Douglas Jardine employed bodyline tactics for the first time in a Test match, and McCabe counter-attacked brilliantly against Harold Larwood and Bill Voce after arriving at the crease with his team’s score 3-82.
His innings ended at 187 not out from a team total of 360, and he faced only 230 deliveries. During these early years, he also scored five half-centuries against England, South Africa and the West Indies. His most-famous later centuries were 189 not out at Johannesburg in 1935-36, and 232 at Trent Bridge in 1938.
Pat Cummins (debuted aged 18 in 2010-11)
One Test before age 23, seven wickets at 16.71
In his very first match, rookie paceman Cummins showed experience beyond his years to earn the Player of the Match award for 1-38 and 6-79 with the ball, one catch and an innings of 13 not out as Australia successfully chased 310 against South Africa in Johannesburg.
His victims included Hashim Amla, Jacques Rudolph, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers. Due to injury he did not play a further Test for five years and four months.
He has since confirmed his promise of greatness with a tally of 143 wickets from 30 matches, and is currently ranked the world’s best bowler. Ian Craig is the only Australian to have played Test cricket at a younger age than Cummins.
Craig ‘Billy’ McDermott (debuted aged 19 in 1984-85)
22 Tests before age 23, 73 wickets at 34.02
Red-haired fast bowler McDermott burst onto the scene against a dominant West Indies side, taking 3-118 and 3-65 at the MCG, and then 2-34 and 2-56 at the SCG where Bob Holland and Murray Bennett spearheaded victory. Belying his tender years, he then led a struggling attack in England in 1985, taking 30 wickets at 30.03.
His series highlights included 6-70 and 2-84 at Lord’s in his team’s only win, and 8-141 in a hard-fought draw at Old Trafford where the rest of the attack went wicketless in England’s only innings of 9(dec)482.
He subsequently took 17 wickets at 25.05 in three matches against New Zealand in 1987-88. No other Australian has played more Tests or taken more wickets before the age of 23 than McDermott.
Graham ‘Garth’ McKenzie (debuted aged 19 in 1961)
15 Tests before age 23, 56 wickets at 32.25
Teenaged paceman McKenzie was immediately successful, when selected following the retirement of Lindwall, Miller and other experienced new-ball bowlers. At Lord’s in his first match he took 1-81 and 5-37 to commence a formidable partnership with Alan Davidson.
His other early Ashes highlights included 5-89 and 1-64 in Adelaide in 1962-63, and 1-53 and 5-53 at Trent Bridge in 1964.
Jack Ferris (debuted aged 19 in 1886-87)
Six Tests before age 23, 35 wickets at 14.65
Left-arm swing bowler Ferris played for both Australia and England, and he and Charles Turner formed a brief but almost-unplayable combination. He took 4-27 and 5-76 at the SCG in his first match, and 5-71 and 4-69 at the same ground in his second.
At Lord’s in 1888, he took 3-19 and 5-26 from 44 four-balls overs to help ensure a memorable victory. He died at the age of 33, while serving with the British Army in the Boer War.
Matt Renshaw (debuted aged 20 in 2016-17)
11 Tests before age 23, 636 runs at 33.47, one century
Left-handed opening batsman Renshaw impressed during his first summer with 71 and 184 against Pakistan at the Gabba and SCG respectively, and resolute half-centuries in India. While his form subsequently dipped, his most productive years are surely still ahead of him.
Jim Burke (debuted aged 20 in 1950-51)
Three Tests before age 23, 143 runs at 28.60, one century
Burke scored 101 not out on debut, against England at the Adelaide Oval. His total career comprised 24 Tests and yielded three centuries.
Against England at The Gabba in 1958-59, he scored 28 not out in 250 minutes to anchor an eight-wicket victory in pursuit of 147. He took his own life at 48.
Ricky Ponting (debuted aged 20 in 1995-96)
12 Tests before age 23, 690 runs at 38.33, one century
Ponting scored 95 in his first match before perhaps-unluckily being adjudged leg-before-wicket, and 71 in his next. His sole three-figure score during his early Tests was 127 at Headingley in 1997. After a few short periods out of the team, he cemented his place and became one of his country’s finest batsmen.
Percy ‘Greatheart’ McDonnell (debuted aged 19 in 1880)
Eight Tests before age 23, 428 runs at 32.92, one century
McDonnell was a brilliant attacking batsman who excelled on wet pitches, and is the only Greek scholar to have captained Australia. Against England at the SCG in 1881-82, he shared a 199-run partnership with Charles Bannerman while scoring 147 himself in a team total of only 262.
He suffered from poor health, and died at 35 after a long illness.
Steve ‘Tugger’ Waugh (debuted aged 20 in 1985-86)
18 Tests before age 23, 676 runs at 29.39, highest score 79 not out, 28 wickets at 31.60
All-rounder Waugh made his Test debut five years before younger twin Mark, and arguably should have toured England in 1985 rather than Simon O’Donnell.
Australia’s investment in his obvious potential paid off three years later, against the West Indies in 1988-89 and England in 1989, and continued to return regular dividends for a further 15 years.
Ian Craig (debuted aged 17 in 1952-53)
11 Tests before age 23, 358 runs at 19.88, highest score 53
Precocious is the best word to describe middle-order batsman Craig, his country’s youngest Test cricketer. He represented New South Wales at 16, and scored 213 for New South Wales against South Africa at 17. Like many young batsmen before and since, he was quickly dubbed the next Bradman.
He later became Australia’s youngest captain, at the age of 22 for the successful tour to South Africa in 1957-58. But at 26 and having already played 144 first-class matches, he retired to build a very successful business career.
Ron Archer (debuted aged 19 in 1952-53)
19 Tests before age 23, 713 runs at 24.58, one century, 48 wickets at 27.45
Archer was a very useful batsman and swing bowler. His Test career ended two weeks before his 23rd birthday, when he suffered an ACL injury in a Test in Karachi. Only three months previously, opening the bowling at Headingley in 1956, he had taken three wickets for three runs from his first nine overs.
His batting highlights included scores of 84, 98 and 128 in the West Indies in 1954-55. He was a member of Queensland’s Team of the Century, and later an ICC match referee.
Ashton Agar (debuted aged 19 in 2013)
Two Tests before age 23, 130 runs at 32.50, highest score 98, two wickets at 124.00
Left-arm finger-spinner Agar made a sensational debut in Nathan Lyon’s place at Trent Bridge. He scored 98 from 101 deliveries in a 163-run tenth-wicket partnership with fellow youngster Phil Hughes, to assist his team from 9-117 to 280. He also dismissed Alastair Cook and Jonny Bairstow in the same match.
Tom Garrett (debuted aged 18 in 1876-77)
Three Tests before age 23, 74 runs at 18.50, three wickets at 28.00
All-rounder and fast-medium bowler Garrett played in the first three Test matches, and 19 in total.
His best performances were during the 1878 tour that included no Test matches but comprised 71 matches in 14 months across Australia, England, America and Australia again. He remained Australia’s youngest Test cricketer until Ian Craig in 1952-53. Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett is his great-grandson.
Jack Blackham (debuted aged 22 in 1876-77)
Two Tests before age 23, 54 runs at 13.50, three catches, two stumpings
Blackham is Australia’s youngest wicketkeeper to date, and was its first-choice gloveman for 18 years. Unfortunately he is ineligible for selection in this team because he was already 22 years old when what is now recognised as the inaugural Test match took place, for which he was chosen ahead of Billy Murdoch to the displeasure of Fred Spofforth.
As he invariably stood up to the stumps to the fastest of bowlers, his keeping to Cummins, McDermott and McKenzie would have been interesting.
Albert ‘Tibby’ Cotter (debuted aged 20 in 1903-04)
Five Tests before age 23, 24 wickets at 24.04
Pace bowler Cotter took 6-40 and 2-25 against England at the MCG in only his second match, and 7-148 and 2-73 at The Oval in 1905. His career ended after he and a number of other leading players refused to tour England in 1912. He died five years later in WWI, shot by a sniper while serving with the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba.