The Keats of CricketMartin Chandler |
Cricket, more so than any other sport, looks after its heroes’ reputations. There are several contributory factors to this. The great body of writing that the game has produced is one of the more important ones, but probably most significant of all is the way that history lives on in the statistical tables that appear every time a record is approached in a game where the media are in attendance, whether that be radio, television or just the reporter from the local newspaper. An example came in the first Test of this summer’s series between England and South Africa as Hashim Amla compiled what was to prove to be the highest ever Test innings by a South African. As he made his way towards the record the names of Graeme Pollock and Jackie McGlew were amongst those whose past innings were discussed as their milestones were overhauled.
A Century on Test debut is one of the more notable feats that a young batsman can achieve, and if he passes the landmark eyes start to look towards the highest maiden innings in the history of the game. It may be that Tip Foster’s remarkable 287 in Sydney in 1903 will never be surpassed, but one day in the not too distant future I have no doubt that Archie Jackson will be squeezed out of the top ten, where he currently still occupies the final place, more than 80 years on from his innings of 164 in a losing Ashes cause in the fourth Test of the 1928/29 series that England won 4-1. His record as the youngest ever centurion in an Ashes Test, at just 19 years and 149 days, has proved to be more enduring.
The tragedy of Archie Jackson is that just four years on from the historic innings that promised so much he was no more, his life claimed by tuberculosis, an illness that in those days, before the advent of antibacterial medication, was not infrequently terminal.
Jackson was born in Scotland, but arrived in Australia shortly before his fourth birthday. He was a year younger than Don Bradman, the other teenager the Australian selectors were to look to in 1928/29 in their failed bid to recapture the Ashes that they had lost, for the first time since the Great War, in 1926. Both youngsters failed in the Test trial that was played early in the season, but after that Bradman set the tone for the rest of his career, and recorded three centuries and two fifties in his next six innings, four of which were against England, and he made the side for the first Test.
The record books show that Bradman’s debut was not an auspicious occasion for him, as he contributed just 18 and 1 to Australia’s eye-watering defeat by 675 runs. He was dropped for the second Test, and only reappeared in the third thanks to Harold Larwood breaking Bill Ponsford’s hand. The start proved to be a false one of course, and innings of 79 and 112 on recall set the tone for the rest of Bradman’s career.
By the time the series reached Adelaide it was lost, with England having won the second and third Tests as well. Against that background Jackson was selected to open the batting with Bill Woodfull against Larwood and Maurice Tate. In reply to England’s 334 Australia slumped to 19-3 before skipper Jack Ryder joined Jackson. Tate’s thoughts on the match were later put into words by writer Denzil Batchelor The partnership of Archie Jackson and Jack Ryder ….. was a combination of all the talents known to batsmanship. On the style of the infant Jackson there glowed already the bloom of fine craftsmanship in its prime. Of Jackson’s shots the pair described a cover drive like a shout of triumph, together with a straight hit that purred all the way to the boundary, and a cut made with wrists as trim and strong as the wrists of a fencer.
Those who were already familiar with his promise were not surprised by Jackson’s wonderful innings. As soon as he had started playing Grade cricket the former Test match leg-spinner, Arthur Mailey, had written Young Jackson is going to wreck the averages of some bowlers. Fortunately, I’m in the same team, so it won’t be mine. AG “Johnny” Moyes, a decent batsman at First Class level himself, but who found greater fame in the press box, wrote; His batting was all beauty. Runs flowed from his bat with a perfection of timing, and every time he swung his bat he held one enthralled, this lovable youth who was the nearest in style to Victor Trumper among all the batsmen I have seen. Jackson caressed the ball rather than hit it. He had the born batsman’s genius for timing and placing.
Of those who subsequently wrote of that debut innings all commented on the manner in which Jackson brought up his hundred. It was just after lunch, with a fresh and firing Larwood bearing down on him. Jackson could have been forgiven for taking the advice that his partner, Bradman, gave to him to be careful and rely on the pair’s speed between the wickets to bring up the runs needed. If Jackson thought about scratching around he soon changed his mind, and the result was an exquisitely timed square drive to the point boundary. After that by all accounts he cut loose and treated the crowd to a thrilling display of batsmanship. But perhaps it was also the sign of a man who had shot his bolt. When he was finally dismissed he was exhausted, and he could not field after the first two sessions of the England second innings, and was not seen again until he and Woodfull began Australia’s pursuit of 349 for victory.
Australia ended up 13 short of their target, and so went 4-0 down, but Jackson contributed 36 to an opening partnership of 65 before he was caught at the wicket. He seems to have been beginning to open up just as he was dismissed, and there is a passage in the account of the tour written by former Australian captain Monty Noble that betrays some emotion as he bemoaned a mid-wicket conference that took place between the openers shortly before Jackson’s dismissal, clearly to the effect that Jackson should show more caution. In fairness to Woodfull the match was, in the manner of the times in Australia, timeless, but the implication in Noble’s writing is that he believed that the sudden imposition of self-restraint by Jackson was what brought about his dismissal, and consequently cost Australia the match.
In the final Test Australia experimented further and this time were successful in passing a fourth innings target of 286. Jackson’s contributions were 30, run out after slipping in starting off for a single, and 46, so he, together with Bradman and debutants Tim Wall and Alan Fairfax, all made significant contributions to the victory and looked to be the nucleus of a very good Australian side for years to come.
Former England player and Surrey skipper Percy Fender wrote the classic account of the 1928/29 series and he waxed lyrical about the talents of Archie Jackson. Of the debut innings he wrote that Jackson …. displayed quite the best and most polished form that any Australian had so far produced against the English bowlers. He went on to describe his batting, writing that he showed every conceivable stroke, and made them all with a perfection of timing and a crispness which stamped him as a really class player. In summary he described him as a very fine young player indeed, the finest at his age I have ever seen which, given that he had been watching Bradman all winter, must be the ultimate accolade. Tate, who had bowled at both, shared that view, Batchelor writing Jackson and Bradman in that order. Bradman is the young spark of genius, hectoring and iconoclastic; but Jackson is Attic and sublime.
There was no Test cricket for Australia in the 1929/30 season and, his form still looking good, Jackson was always going to be in the party that toured England in 1930. That is not to say that there were not concerns along the way. In early December, in what amounted to a Test trial, a side captained by and bearing the name of Ryder lined up against a similar side led by Woodfull. Opening the batting for Ryder’s side with Bill Ponsford Jackson shared in an opening stand of 278 and went on to reach a fluent 182 in what was to be the highest innings of his career. As at Adelaide earlier in the year Jackson’s ability in the field was affected by his exertions, and two weeks later, after scoring a typically stylish 82 against South Australia in Adelaide, he was briefly hospitalised with what was undoubtedly the stirrings of his final illness.
After his stay in hospital Jackson played little cricket before leaving for England but did undergo a tonsillectomy at the behest of the Australian Board. They were doubtless influenced by Ponsford’s breakdown with tonsillitis in 1926, but Jackson had never had any problems with his tonsils, and given that an already not entirely robust man lost a stone in weight after the surgery, it cannot have done anything to assist him with his preparation for what was to prove, on the whole, a disappointing trip to England for him.
In January 1930, as Jackson recuperated from his spell in hospital, Bradman was wresting the record for the highest individual innings from Ponsford as he racked up an unbeaten 452 against Queensland in a Sheffield Shield match. In the introduction to his book on the 1930 tour Australian writer Geoffrey Tebbutt wrote ..a cricketer’s past is soon forgotten… It is not too early therefore to give the reminder that, before the Australians set foot in England, it was Jackson, and not Bradman, who had been earmarked to win the laurels of the tour.
As matters turned out Bradman rewrote the record books in 1930. In the Tests he scored 974 runs at 139 with a high score of 334. Yorkshire and England’s Len Hutton broke the record high score in 1938*, but one suspects that the series aggregrate record may well survive as long as the game is played. On the tour as a whole The Don’s aggregate was 2,960 at 98.66. For Jackson there were few highlights, although he did just manage to get his 1,000 runs for the summer, thanks in large part to his one century when, thanks to an early let-off, he for once batted as he could, against Somerset at Taunton. He played in just two of the five Tests. A hand injury to Ponsford saw him selected for the third match at Headingley, but he scored only a single whilst Bradman compiled his record score. Then the Taunton innings, and a couple more reasonable knocks afterwards paved the way for his return for the Ashes clinching innings victory in the final Test at the Oval.
That Oval match has gone down in the folklore of the game as being the catalyst for cricket’s most enduring Test series, the Bodyline Tests of 1932/33. The well told story goes that, in the course of a stand of 243 between Bradman and Jackson for the fourth wicket, The Don showed a marked dislike for the short-pitched deliveries that Larwood hurled down at him after a short shower had freshened the wicket. It has to be said that that does not really tally with some contemporary press reports, which praised Jackson and Bradman equally for their bravery, rather than just Jackson, and Bradman did go on to reach 232 before becoming Larwood’s only victim of the match, but it is part of the legend now. What is not in dispute is that Larwood was bumping them down, and that he hit Jackson repeatedly as he compiled the 73 he contributed to the partnership. In his foreword to David Frith’s biography of Jackson Larwood quoted a conversation he had with his great friend during that passage of play Well Harold, it’s only a game, but what a grand one we’re having today! I hope you’re enjoying our battle as much as those spectators seem to be. You know you’ve hit me almost as many times as I’ve hit you!
Fender wrote an account of the 1930 series and this time said of Jackson; He had a bad start ….. either this or some inability to acclimatise himself to the conditions here, caused him to be far less effective than I had thought he would be.With the benefit of hindsight Moyes wrote, a few years later,In England in 1930 Jackson was never himself, and possibly the sickness which carried him off at an early age was already affecting him.
Back home in Australia the 1930/31 season saw the visit of the first West Indies team to Australia. It was also to see Jackson’s final Test appearances. He played in the first four Tests, all of which Australia won, although only in the first, with innings 31 and 70 not out, did he make any real contribution with the bat. So dominant were Australia in the next three matches that Jackson only had three innings, and with 8, 0 and 15 it is hardly surprising he was dropped for the final Test, although he was clearly unwell, and missed part of the third test through illness. Jackson never played big cricket again after the fourth Test, although in a rather sad piece of trivia his final appearance in a First Class match did come in the fifth Test when, on the final afternoon of what proved to be a consolation victory for the tourists, he did a stint as runner for an injured colleague.
His health problems notwithstanding Jackson was still well enough in late March 1931 to tour Northern Queensland with a side led by Alan Kippax. No First Class cricket was played on the tour, but Jackson scored more than 1,000 runs at an average approaching 100. His health held through the following winter and the 1931/32 season began well for him, and he travelled with his New South Wales teammates in early November expecting to play in the season’s first Sheffield Shield match against Queensland. It was here that he collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital. As a result he missed one of the more remarkable matches in the history of that competition, but that is not part of Jackson’s story – it belongs to Stan McCabe and the aboriginal fast bowler, Eddie Gilbert.
In his own eyes Jackson just had a bout of flu, and at the end of the game he returned to Sydney with his teammates, but he was clearly unwell and went from there to a Sanitorium in the Blue Mountains. By the beginning of the 1932/33 season Jackson had set up home in Brisbane and started playing for a club there. Despite being terribly short of breath his first seven innings for the club drew record crowds and brought him the staggering average of 159.66. There was talk of Jackson facing Jardine’s men, but he was nothing like fit enough, and had to content himself with observing from afar and, through a newspaper column, having the opportunity to put in the public domain his views on the Englishmen’s “leg theory” bowling something which, unlike most of his countrymen, he had no difficulty with. Much of what he wrote did and does make perfect sense, although there would be relatively few, then or now, who would have embraced his view that It is my belief that Larwood would not intentionally hurt a fly.
On 16th February 1933 Lancashire’s Eddie Paynter struck a delivery from Stan McCabe for six to give England an unassailable 3-1 lead in the Bodyline series, and Archie Jackson departed this mortal coil. He had deteriorated rapidly in the preceding few days, although he still had the energy and the desire to send Larwood a telegram on the day before he died. It was to remain the fast bowler’s most treasured possession for the rest of his long life. It read simply Congratulations magnificent bowling. Good luck all matches. Archie Jackson
The newspaper that Jackson wrote for began its tribute with the words As the Ashes were slipping out of Australia’s grasp there closed the innings of a cricketer born to greatness, whose genius flowered in early youth only to be cut down when it delighted the world with its promise.There were, in the nature of these situations, many effusive tributes paid to Jackson at the time. It is sometimes more revealing to see what is said once the initial grief at the sad loss of a great young talent has abated, but with Archie Jackson nothing ever changed. Larwood wrote Archie Jackson, like his hero Victor Trumper, was born to be great., Bradman described him as … tall and slim, rather lethargic and graceful in his movements. To him cricket was a game of finesse not brutality. and Jack Fingleton, of whose technique against Bodyline Jackson had been critical, described hin in his autobiography as …the brilliant New South Wales batsman whose genius always seemed tinged with the inevitability of early mortality.
But perhaps the greatest measure of the talent that Archie Jackson had, and the sort of man he was, lies in the fact that his name, and the basic elements of his story, are still known by followers of the modern game who have much less interest in or knowledge of his contemporaries who achieved a great deal more. He is assisted in that of course by the tragic circumstances of his death, and by being caught in the slipstream of the enduring popularity of the Bodyline series, but he must have been a very fine batsman indeed. It is not easy to be objective about heroes from the past, but David Frith is not given to hyperbole and, unlike me, has been fortunate enough to see some surviving footage, which moved him to describe the batting of the man to whom he gave the soubriquet The Keats of Cricket thus, The casual elegance of his leg glances, the whalebone suppleness of his wrists as he steered the ball square and backward, the lightness of the footwork, the ballet-like inclination of the body as he cover-drove – the artistry, enhanced by a beguiling self-consciousness, burned an impression on my mind.
*The record books now show that Walter Hammond, with 336 against New Zealand in 1933, had already beaten Bradman’s record, but the match concerned was not given Test status until after Hutton’s innings.