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Ashes anniversaries: Armstrong’s Australians

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16th July, 2021
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This winter marks the centenary of the Australian team’s record-breaking feats under Warwick Armstrong’s leadership. After regaining the Ashes at home 5-0, it then retained them away 3-0.

Its eight consecutive victories is an Ashes record. It was a world record until the West Indies broke it in 1984. Armstrong is still the only captain to have led a team in eight or more matches without a single defeat.

It’s timely to acknowledge those achievements a century later, and also to consider how his side that went to England might fare today. How strong was it, and how good a captain was Armstrong?

The background 
Cricket’s strength immediately following its golden age is open to debate. Armstrong viewed the team for his first ever tour to England in 1902 as having been much stronger than the one he himself led in 1921.

It goes without saying that life in Australia was very different one hundred years ago. WWI took more than 60,000 lives. A further 150,000 were wounded, gassed or captured. 15,000 died from Spanish Flu during 1919. For a nation with a population of only five million the loss of so many, including high numbers of young men, was devastating.

Fortunately for the sport it continued to enjoy popularity in the absence of other pastimes. Additionally all available talent was concentrated into just three Sheffield Shield teams, maintaining that competition’s high standard.

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The tour
The format would be unrecognisable to a modern cricketer. It commenced in March with a six-week sea voyage, and ended nine months later in December. The touring party comprised just 15 players including two specialist wicketkeepers.

In Britain the side played 38 matches in 19 weeks. Three of the games ended on the day preceding a Test match, necessitating a rushed evening or even overnight train trip. Six of them took place after the series had already been completed. The team then returned home via South Africa where it played six further matches including three Tests.

The squad included only five previous tourists. Australia had last travelled to England nine years before. A tour to South Africa in 1914-15 had been cancelled. Many pre-war stars had died or retired. Some talented new ones were yet to realise their potential.

Nevertheless it was well-prepared. Twelve players had made their first-class debuts prior to WWI. Most had participated in the clean sweep over England a few months before. Five had featured during 1919-20 in an Australian Imperial Force team’s 46-match tour of Great Britain, South Africa and Australia.

The youngest of them were already 25 years old and keen to make up for lost time. Two Sheffield Shield seasons had been conducted post-WWI.

Playing conditions differed greatly from those of today. Each match lasted three days and 120 overs were bowled during a typical day’s play. Pitches were not protected from rain. A new ball could be claimed after 200 runs had been scored. The leg-before-wicket and no-ball laws were different.

Power bats, helmets, arm guards and chest guards had not been invented. There were no coaches or other support staff. A decision review system, video cameras and sports science did not exist.

Generic Ashes urn

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

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The series
In the first Test at Trent Bridge on a damp pitch, the visitors won by ten wickets in two days. Pacemen Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald shared 16 wickets in its innings of 112 and 147. Teammate Warren Bardsley scored the match’s only half-century.

Australia extended its series lead at Lord’s with an eight-wicket win. Gregory and McDonald claimed a combined 13 wickets, and leg spinner Arthur Mailey six. Bardsley continued his fine form with two half-centuries.

At Headingley a 219-run victory extended the visitors’ winning run to eight games. Charlie Macartney scored a century and Armstrong, Nip Pellew, Johnny Taylor and Tommy Andrews half-centuries. Gregory and McDonald shared ten wickets, and Armstrong and Mailey eight.

The fourth Test at Old Trafford was an anti-climax. The Ashes were already retained, and the first day’s play lost to rain. England improved to claim a 187-run first-innings lead on a soft and slow pitch, but not enough time remained thereafter for a result. The game’s most notable feature was Armstrong bowling consecutive overs, either side of a 20-minute interruption to play.

The Oval hosted the last Test match. McDonald claimed five wickets in the home side’s first innings. For a second time, Andrews narrowly missed his century. Rain frequently interrupted play. Once no result was possible, Armstrong distinguished himself yet again. He bowled his part-timers and positioned himself in the outfield, where he read a newspaper that had blown onto the ground.

The side was still undefeated following the final Test, but six tour matches remained. Had it not unexpectedly lost two of its last four games, it would have become the inaugural ‘Invincibles’. Instead, Bradman’s post-WWII side claimed that iconic title 27 years later.

By the time England became competitive in the series, it had already lost it. It used 30 players, including 16 debutants. Many of them were past their peak. Batting great Jack Hobbs was unavailable due to illness and injury. More than 60 regular county cricketers had been killed in action during WWI. Two seasons had proven insufficient for developing new Test cricketers.

The Wisden Almanack of 1922 commenced its editorial “During all the years I have edited Wisden there has never been a season so disheartening as that of 1921”. England would go on to lose the 1924-25 series by a 4-1 margin, before regaining the Ashes in 1926.

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The players
The team’s leading members are now recognised as all-time greats. They included two batsmen, two all-rounders, two bowlers and its wicketkeeper.

While few supporting players stood out statistically, that was largely due to the match’s formats, the margins of the team’s wins, and wet weather’s impact on the drawn matches. The side batted down to number nine, and its fielding was consistently brilliant.

The team also represented a continuation of the famous Gregory family name. Dave led his country in its first match. One of his nephews, Syd, was a teammate of Armstrong’s between 1902 and 1912. Another, Jack, played under Armstrong in this side. And in Jack’s final match in 1928-29, Don Bradman made his debut.

Warwick Armstrong (captain) 
‘The Big Ship’ was aged 42 and a veteran of three previous tours. He was a ruthless leader in the mould of Bradman, Ian Chappell or Steve Waugh.

Armstrong was also an outstanding batting all-rounder. He had a wide range of strokes and the capacity to bowl long spells of accurate leg spin. Following his first Ashes tour 19 years previously, Wisden named him one of its Cricketers of the Year.

During a 50-match career he scored 2863 runs at 38.68 with six centuries, and took 87 wickets at 33.59. The home Ashes series of 1920-21 yielded him three centuries and a batting average of 77.33. Edmund Blunden wrote that he made “a bat look like a teaspoon and the bowling weak tea”.

At 1.9 metres tall and initially of athletic build, by 1921 he weighed 133 kilograms yet was still able to bowl 733 overs and score 1000 runs during the tour. In the Tests he scored 152 runs in five innings, with a highest score of 77 in 94 minutes in the series-deciding Test. As the team’s fourth bowler he took eight wickets at 26.50.

Many Englishmen deplored his consistently poor conduct. The popular Hobbs described him as “very nasty and unsportsmanlike”. Wisden stated that he “bore himself in a way likely to cause offence”.

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Warwick Armstrong.

(PA Images via Getty Images)

At the Oval in 1909 when Woolley arrived at the crease for his debut innings, Armstrong bowled trial balls down the side of the pitch for an incredible 19 minutes. It necessitated an amendment to the law that allowed it.

He made himself unavailable for the 1912 tour along with other leading players collectively dubbed ‘The Big Six’. During the 1921 tour he was constantly in conflict with team manager Syd Smith.

It is tempting to speculate on how his win-at-all-costs, officialdom-flouting behaviour would be received today. Would an image-conscious board approve his nomination as captain? Perhaps he would instead find his calling with the Australian Cricketers’ Association, or as a player-manager or media entrepreneur.

Charlie Macartney
‘The Governor-General’ was another pre-war star who batted in that era’s attacking style, bowled left-arm finger spin, and fielded superbly at mid-off. Aged 34 when the tour commenced, he was a key member of the side.

Between 1907 and 1926 he played 35 matches. In them he scored 2131 runs at 41.78 with seven centuries, and took 45 wickets at 27.55 including 11-85 at Headingley in 1909. During his final series he scored a century in three consecutive innings, including one before lunch on the first day of the Headingley game.

The series yielded him 300 runs, the most by any Australian, at 42.85. His 115 in 186 minutes in the decisive third Test was his side’s only century of the series. It would prove crucial in enabling the visitors to end the match’s first day with 407 on the board and England reeling at 2-22 in reply.

His other tour highlight took place at Trent Bridge. Dropped on nine, he punished Nottinghamshire with a record 345 in less than four hours.

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Wisden wrote in 1959 that “except Victor Trumper at his best, no Australian batsman has ever demoralised our bowlers to the same extent” and “there was no stroke, orthodox or unorthodox, of which he did not show himself master”. EW Swanton described him as “arrogantly brilliant”.

His aggressive batting, skilled slow bowling and capable fielding would probably make him one of the first players picked in any contemporary Test, one-day or Twenty20 side.

Warren Bardsley
Bardsley was an opening batsman and, like Armstrong and Macartney, an established team member before WWI. Wisden described him in 1954 as “one the greatest left-handed batsmen produced by Australia”. His driving was especially strong.

His career comprised 41 matches, in which he scored 2469 runs at 40.47 with six centuries. On his first tour to England in 1909, he scored a century in each innings at the Oval and was named one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year. On his last in 1926 he carried his bat at Lord’s for 193, at the time the highest Test score ever made there.

In 1921 and aged 38, he was his team’s leading batsman and played important innings in its first two victories. They were 66 and eight not out at Trent Bridge, followed by 88 and 63 not out at Lord’s. For the series he scored 281 runs, second only to Macartney, at 46.83.

Bardsley strikes me as a Mark Taylor-like batsman. His skill and reliability in all conditions would have been the perfect foil for Clem Hill and Victor Trumper pre-WWI, and Macartney.

Jack Gregory
Gregory was a fearsome right-arm pace bowler, hard-hitting left-handed batsman and brilliant catcher. Unfortunately his career was delayed by WWI, and later ended by injury.

After being discovered during the AIF’s tour, he made his Test debut against England in 1920-21. His figures for that series were 442 runs at 73.66, 23 wickets at 24.17, and a still-record 15 catches. During a 24-match career he scored 1146 runs at 36.96 with the fastest of his two centuries taking only 70 minutes, and took 85 wickets at 31.15.

In 1921 he commenced with a destructive display at Trent Bridge, taking 6-58 from 19 consecutive overs and 2-45, and knocking out Ernest Tyldesley. At Lord’s he contributed 1-51 and 4-76, as well as 52 runs in 75 minutes. At Headingley his 2-47 and 2-55 helped seal Australia’s eighth consecutive victory, and with it the Ashes.

Today he would be outstanding in any format, a combination of Ben Stokes and Merv Hughes.

Ben Stokes celebrates winning the third Ashes Test

(Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Ted McDonald
McDonald made his first-class debut in 1909-10 for Tasmania, then had to wait until 1921 and the age of 30 to represent Australia. He and Gregory comprised the first great fast-bowling partnership, which Armstrong deployed superbly against batsmen ill-equipped to withstand it.

In the series, McDonald was even more effective than his partner and took 27 wickets at 24.74. He began with 3-42 and 5-32 at Trent Bridge, and followed with 4-58 and 4-89 at Lord’s, then 4-105 and 2-67 at Headingley. At the Oval in the last match, he took 5-143.

He ended his career two months later after just 11 games, to play professionally in England. His Test record was 43 wickets at 33.27. He then represented Nelson and Bacup in the Lancashire League, and Lancashire in the County Championship. His final tally of 1395 first-class wickets at 20.76 assisted Lancashire to four titles.

Neville Cardus described him as ‘The Silk Express’, and Duncan Hamilton “a Michael Holding of the 1920s”. His encounters with Bradman in 1930 and Jardine each county season, strongly influenced the development of what would in 1932-33 become Bodyline theory.

Arthur Mailey
Mailey was a wrist spinner who perfectly complemented Gregory and McDonald. He gained prodigious turn and bounce, had mastery of the wrong’un invented barely a decade earlier, and was happy to buy his wickets. Despite making his first-class debut during 1912-13, he had to wait a further eight years when aged almost 35 for his first Test cap.

In 21 matches between 1920 and 1926, he took 99 wickets at 33.91. His strike rate was an outstanding wicket every 61 balls, and 18 of his victims were stumped. At home to England in 1920-21, he took 36 wickets in four games including 4-115 and 9-121 in one match.

In the 1921 series he played three matches, in which he took 12 wickets at 33.16. At Lord’s he took 4-55 and 2-72. Another highlight of his tour was 10-66 in an innings against Gloucestershire.

Notwithstanding his apparently easy-going nature, he played to win like his teammates. He admitted later to lifting the seam for Gregory and McDonald, and carrying powdered resin in his pocket to improve his grip of the ball.

After deceiving and dismissing his hero Trumper with a wrong’un in a pre-WWI club match, he famously later wrote that “I felt like a boy who had killed a dove”. Wilfred Rhodes wrote that “He never gave up. He would have nought for 100 and might finish with six for 130”. Perhaps Stuart MacGill is the modern bowler closest to him in style.

Hanson Carter
‘Sammy’ Carter was a fine wicketkeeper and the team’s oldest member, at 42 years of age. His 28-match career yielded 44 catches and 21 stumpings. An undertaker by profession, he sometimes arrived at grade matches in a hearse.

During the series he handled the pace of Gregory and McDonald and the wrist spin of Mailey and Armstrong equally well, with eight catches and three stumpings from four games. As the only Yorkshire-born player in the match at Headingley, the partisan home crowd gave him a huge ovation.

He also proved difficult to dismiss. His first four innings contributed to the team’s three victories. They comprised 33 at Trent Bridge, 46 at Lord’s, and 33 and 47 at Headingley.

Generic cricket ball

(Steven Paston – EMPICS/Getty Images)

The rest
The touring party’s other members contributed when necessary, albeit with fewer opportunities. Many had played greater roles at home in 1920-21, or would make significant contributions during subsequent series.

Johnny Taylor, Tommy Andrews and Clarence ‘Nip’ Pellew were capable batsmen and brilliant fieldsmen. Each scored useful runs quickly, with a combined five half-centuries including a pair of nineties by Andrews. Taylor also represented the Wallabies twice in rugby union, while Andrews played baseball for New South Wales.

On Pellew’s death in 1981, Wisden wrote that “It is as an outfield that he is chiefly remembered. Credited with being able to run the 100 yards in 10.2 seconds and to throw a cricket ball over 100 yards, he might well, after sprinting 40 yards round the boundary save not one run but two or three, so swiftly did he get rid of the ball.”

Hunter ‘Stork’ Hendry debuted at Trent Bridge and proved a useful swing bowler and slip fieldsman. Opening batsman and future captain Herbie Collins missed two matches while recovering from a broken thumb. Future wicketkeeping legend Bert Oldfield played one match in Carter’s place. Opening batsman Edgar Mayne, and all-rounder and future captain Jack Ryder, had to satisfy themselves with tour matches only.

The judgement
The team’s strengths were Armstrong’s captaincy, a trio of superb bowlers supported by brilliant fieldsmen, and a pair of outstanding top-order batsmen. Like any strong pre-WWII team, it also possessed the capacity to adapt to and perform well in a wide variety of conditions.

Its major weakness was a lack of fast-bowling support for Gregory and McDonald, which would have been tested by a dry summer and more accomplished opposition batsmen. Unfortunately the experienced Charlie Kellaway withdrew from the side after being selected, and Ryder did not enjoy his captain’s confidence.

It is tempting to speculate whether two future stars might have strengthened the team. Clarrie Grimmett had made his first-class debut in 1911-12 and was already aged 29, but it would be another three years before he took 5-45 and 6-37 in his first Test. And Bert Ironmonger was aged 38 and had made his first-class debut in 1909-10, but would have to wait a further seven years for a Test cap.

It is unfortunate that the team’s opponents were incapable of genuinely challenging it. However exactly the same observation could be made regarding the Invincibles in 1948, and Australia’s dominant teams of the late 1990s and 2000s.

Clearly the team was very strong, and proved to be almost invincible. However it is difficult to accept that it was as powerful as those that represented Australia in 1948, or recorded 16 consecutive victories during 1999-2001 and 2005-08. And as noted previously, Armstrong rated the Australian side for his first tour in 1902 a much stronger combination.

I like to think that if the side’s best players had grown up during the current century, they would have been similarly successful in the modern era. Just as today’s best would have prospered in 1921, had they first been given time to develop the necessary skills that have long since become redundant.

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