Currency LadsMartin Chandler |
Author: Bonnell, Max
Publisher: The Cricket Publishing Company
Rating: 4 stars
Currency Lads is a biography of four Australian cricketers. The four had much in common. All played for Sydney University and all were born in Australia, hence the description as ‘Currency Lads’ – had, by contrast, they been born in the British Islands they would have been ‘Sterling Lads’. All four men also enjoyed long lives, something to make their biographer’s task a little more arduous.
Tom Garrett was born in 1858 and was 85 when he died, the last survivor of the first Test match of all. A bowling all-rounder Garrett played in 19 Tests over eleven years. Even at a time when scores were much lower than they are today Garrett’s batting record is modest, there only ever being a single half century. With the ball his right arm fast medium took 36 wickets, but his record does not compare with that of his better known contemporaries, the likes of Fred Spofforth, Charlie Turner and JJ Ferris.
Three years younger than Garrett was Sammy Jones. All but one of Jones’ twelve Tests was played alongside Garrett. Another all-rounder his record too is not a great one. He batted rather more strongly than Garrett, although he took only six wickets at Test level. In time schoolmaster Jones moved to New Zealand where he died a fortnight before his ninetieth birthday.
In the one Test in which Jones played without Garrett, the reason for Garrett missing the match was what amounted to industrial action by the Australians’ Melbourne based players. A number of reserves had to be called up at short notice and one of those was Rowley Pope. Born in 1864 Pope’s First Class record is unimpressive, and in his only Test he scored 0 and 3. He was the last of the Currency Lads to depart this mortal coil, in 1952 at the age of 88.
Shortly before Pope’s death Reginald Allen, another one Test man, had died at the age of 93. Also with a very modest First Class record Allen did pretty well in his single Test, scoring 14 and 30 in a low scoring defeat. He was to become a leading Sydney solicitor and his nephew, George Oswald Browning (‘Gubby’) Allen went on to lead England against Australia in 1936/37.
According to author Max Bonnell one review of Currency Lads described the book as harder to get through than a Fred Spofforth opening spell. The identity of the reviewer in question will have to remain anonymous, as despite a modest amount of research I have not been able to locate the publication the comment appeared in but, given the reputation of the ‘Demon’ I assume the writer concerned was not impressed*.
Despite not finding the review I was looking for I did locate one contemporary review of Currency Lads, written by the always entertaining Robin Marlar, whose opinions are always worth taking note of. Marlar described the book as a brilliant idea, persevering research and a well told story, a view with which I have to say I entirely concur. The reference to research is particularly apposite because Bonnell goes well beyond the cricketing deeds of his subjects. He reconstructs their family histories and tells the stories of their later lives.
Garrett was a civil servant for many years and, only after retiring from that at 65, did he go on to be a solicitor in private practice for a number of years. As already indicated Allen was a heavyweight in the legal profession and, as something similar himself, Bonnell fully understands what both did.
I am almost certain that Bonnell has no expertise or qualifications in the field of eye surgery, but that doesn’t stop him from dealing as fully with Pope’s later career as he did the two lawyers. It helps that Pope remained involved with Australian cricket throughout his life, and was also a noted bibliophile, possessed of a long run of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. I have to say that I do wonder what became of those books. Are they intact as a run somewhere in a collection or library, or are they scattered amongst Australian collectors?
The later life of Jones proved more elusive. He emigrated to New Zealand and became a schoolmaster, largely turning his back on Australia. Bonnell did not find as much material on Jones, albeit not through want of trying. Certainly in England the only real memory of Sammy Jones arises out of his rather fleeting involvement in the Australians’ famous victory in 1882 at the Oval that gave rise to the legend of ‘The Ashes’.
The youngest member of the Australian team was out without scoring in the first innings. Jones made a better start in the second before, his inexperience showing through, wandering out of his crease before the ball was dead and being run out by WG Grace. Such was the ire of Spofforth at what he saw as Grace’s sharp practice it is said that was what inspired him to bowl as well as he did in the England second innings. In any event to, finally, make my point, the thoroughness with which Bonnell approached his research is illustrated by his being able to track down in New Zealand Jones’ own impression of the famous incident, thoughts that were not recorded at the time.
To anyone whose love of cricket stretches back to Victorian times Currency Lads is highly recommended. To those whose interest in the game begins to flag when time goes back to before the days of Warne and Tendulkar the recommendation is a little more guarded, but even for an audience that finds limited interest in the cricket of many generations ago the book is still a worthwhile slice of social history.
*In fact I did finally manage to locate the review in question just before clicking “publish”. It was a short piece that appeared in the old Wisden Cricket Monthly and was penned by Peter English, a gentleman I believe, despite the splendid name, to be as Australian as the currency lads themselves. English is a lecturer in journalism at the University of the Sunshine Coast, so clearly knows his stuff, but perhaps his fondness is for cricket modern rather than cricket ancient? That said the line he came up with to describe Currency Lads is a tiny masterpiece in itself and it would have been a shame if it had never seen the light of day, although it could certainly have been deployed in a more appropriate context.