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Gubby Allen

There will be few who begin reading this feature who are not well aware of the 4-1 victory achieved by an England side led by Douglas Jardine in the famous 1932/33 “Bodyline” series. The Iron Duke and his men came back to England as conquering heroes but, as the fast leg theory tactics he had relied on found their way into county cricket, opinon began to turn against Jardine. He remained England captain for the series against West Indies in the 1933 summer, and in what was to prove to be his final Test innings in England, no doubt to his enormous satisfaction, scored a skilful, courageous and defiant century at Old Trafford when Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale subjected him to a taste of his own medicine. His teammates were not however so happy to be on the receiving end, Walter Hammond most notably, and opinion at Lord’s began to turn against Jardine.

That winter Jardine took an England side to the country of his birth, India, for the first series of Test matches to be played on the sub-continent. England won the rubber comfortably enough, and there were no major incidents, although the fiery Northants left arm pace bowler, Nobby Clark, did cause some concerns with his aggressive attitude. With Australia due to visit in 1934 there might have been a difficult decision for the MCC about the captaincy. Jardine would certainly not have been prepared to be dictated to on tactical matters, and on that basis would not have been acceptable to Australia, but in the end Jardine spared the stuffed shirts any embarassment by declaring that he was not available. In his stead his vice-captain in 1932-33, Bob Wyatt, was appointed. There was no Harold Larwood or Bill Voce, and no leg theory bowled. Hedley Verity took 15 wickets at Lord’s in the second Test, as England beat the old enemy at Headquarters for what was to prove to be the only time in the 20th century, but Australia won back the Ashes comfortably enough, Donald Bradman and Bill Ponsford both averaging more than 94, and wrist spinners Clarrie Grimmett and Tiger O’Reilly taking the bowling honours. That defeat was rather less surprising than the two that followed under Wyatt’s leadership, in the Caribbean in 1934/35, and at home the following summer against South Africa, and by the summer of 1936 England wanted a new captain.

Gubby Allen was Australian born and that has led some to conclude that his consequent acceptability to the Australians, who would also remember his refusal to bowl to anything other than an orthodox field in 1932/33, was the main reason for his appointment. The reality was rather different. Given that at this time the England captain had to be an amateur Allen was, once the decision was made to relieve Wyatt of the position, as a cricketer by far the best equipped for the job.

India did not, as expected, prove too harsh a Test for England in 1936 and, as was the manner of the times, the party for 1936/37 was announced in dribs and drabs through the course of the summer. The main batsmen were the undoubtedly great Walter Hammond, and Yorkshire’s Maurice Leyland, both veterans of two previous Australian tours. The selectors should also have picked Herbert Sutcliffe, by now 41 but still a fine player. That they didn’t seems to have been because of the antipathy between him and Allen, Sutcliffe having been one of the keenest supporters of leg theory last time. They should also have selected Eddie Paynter, who had been successful in 32/33, and ended his career with an average against Australia of more than 84. It was said that Paynter’s technique was suspect against genuine pace, but with Grimmett and O’Reilly having swept aside the South Africans in the previous winter in even more emphatic style than they had bowled out England in 1934, there was no reason to expect that theory to be seriously tested.

Working on the presumption that class will out the selectors could also have included Len Hutton and Denis Compton, but they were thought to be too young. As it was only Charles Barnett of the other batsman enjoyed any real success in 1936/37. Arthur Fagg, Stan Worthington and Laurie Fishlock achieved almost nothing, and Joe Hardstaff was not a great deal more impressive. There were two other seniors, Les Ames and, thanks to a late call-up, Wyatt, but neither contributed a major innings in the Tests.

The bowling too was problematic. The leading bowler in England in 1936 was none other than Harold Larwood. The effect of the injury he sustained in the final Test in 32/33 meant he was never as quick again, but 119 wickets at less than 13 runs each showed that he remained a class act. Second to Larwood was Verity, and he was selected, as was the third placed man, Derbyshire’s fast medium bowler Bill Copson, but like so many of that county’s opening bowlers he was best suited to home conditions, and while he was included in the party he did not make the Test side in 36/37. Larwood was not interested in playing for England again, and the next man in the averages, Bill Bowes, was one of the bad boys from the previous tour and seems not to have been seriously considered. The selectors did have Essex amateur Ken Farnes to boost their pace stocks but still needed one more. The selectors told Allen they intended to invite Voce to join the party. Allen was deeply unhappy but agreed to meet Voce and a compromise was reached. Voce had earlier made a similar statement to Larwood, and he told Allen that he would not condemn either Larwood or Jardine, nor was he prepared to forsake leg theory bowling. At the same time however he was equally clear that he was happy to bowl to his captain’s orders, so against expectations Voce sailed to Australia again. It was as well that he did, as he was England’s leading bowler by a distance.

In addition to those named the party also contained George Duckworth as reserve ‘keeper, and two leg spinners, both from Middlesex, being Walter Robins and Jim Sims. Robins was a great friend of Allen, and was to captain England against New Zealand the following year, but their friendship was certainly strained by this tour, probably due in large part to the somewhat irreverent attitude that Robins adopted to most aspects of touring.

As soon as the party arrived in Australia Allen started making friendly and conciliatory speeches, and was clear his side would play the sort of cricket Australians like to see, as firm an indication as he could possibly give that there would no repetition of the tactics of his predecessor. Back in London Jardine was writing for the Evening Standard. He remained firmly of the view that leg theory bowling was the only way to beat the Australians.

The lead-up to the first Test was such that nobody expected England to have a chance against the full might of Australia. They had much the worse of a draw with Victoria and were roundly defeated by New South Wales before failing, albeit only just, to beat Queensland in the last game before the first Test. But Allen won the toss, so at least something went right for him, and he chose to bat. Disaster followed and, almost, much controversy.

Australia’s strike bowler was Ernie McCormick. Neville Cardus described him as for half an hour easily the fastest bowler of the present day. McCormick certainly had his tail up and he dismissed Worthington with his opening delivery, a vicious lifter that reared towards the batsman’s left shoulder, It forced an attempt at a hook from him which succeeded only in popping the ball up for Bert Oldfield to run up to take an easy catch. McCormick continued with the short stuff to Fagg and, two short legs in attendance, there was a distinctly Jardinian feel to proceedings. It was not long before Fagg tried a leg glance from the quick man which served only to give Oldfield a regulation catch. One delivery later the real shock came when England’s champion batsman, Hammond, departed first ball, caught at short leg from a delivery that got up above hip height from a full length. Clearly Bradman well knew there would be no reprisals from England and, had McCormick not been prevented by lumbago from bowling any further after his first eight overs, one wonders whether Allen might have chosen to have words with his opposite number about the big fast bowler’s line and length. As it was Barnett and Leyland weathered the rest of the storm before, with the assistance of the lower middle order, they took England to 358. At the end of the second day Australia were on 151-2. Bradman was gone, but Jack Fingleton and Stan McCabe were well set. Next morning that pair took the score on to 166, and McCabe passed his half-century, before the remaining 8 wickets fell for just 68 more runs. Voce was the chief destroyer with five of those. Having removed Bradman on the second day his 6-41 were a matchwinning performance.

A lead of 124 was very welcome for Allen but his batsmen almost undid all his good work as he came to the wicket on the fourth day at the fall of the fifth wicket with the lead just 246. He went on to play what was probably the best innings of his Test career. When he was last out for 68 the Australian target was 381. Voce removed Fingleton with the first ball of the innings, but shortly after that the umpires accepted Australia’s appeal against the light. With Bradman to come 381 was certainly possible, but it rained heavily overnight and Verity must have looked forward to bowling his side to victory on the sticky wicket that would be the inevitable consequence. If he did he was to be disappointed, as he was not required, Allen and Voce sharing the wickets as Australia subsided ignominiously to 58 all out and defeat by 322. The entire innings lasted just 12.3 eight ball overs.

Moving on to Sydney Allen won the toss again and watched his batsmen spend two days piling up 426-6. Barnett again batted well, and made 57, but the centrepiece of the innings was a superb unbeaten 231 from Hammond. Ordinarily in these timeless matches Allen would have batted on and on, but Lady Luck smiled on him again as the rain poured down overnight, offering the bowlers a third day pitch they would relish. Inevitably and entirely correctly Allen declared overnight. In another debacle Australian slipped to 31-7 before O’Reilly struck a few lusty blows to take them to 80 all out.

Allen then had a tricky decision to make. The pitch was now drying out and would soon be a decent surface on which to bat, so did he send his batsmen out again with a view to building up an impregnable total, or enforce the follow-on? If he batted and Australia got amongst his batsmen there was a risk that Australia could come back next day to a perfect wicket and a target of 450 that, with the Bradman factor, there could be no guarantee they would not get. On the other hand if the wicket did play out well then his tired bowlers might concede enough runs to give a tricky fourth innings target, particularly if the wicket got wet again. He chose the follow-on and, Australia got to the end of the day on 145-1 with Bradman unbeaten on 57. Allen picked up plenty of criticism in the English press for which he had cause to blame in particular a catch dropped by Robins when Bradman was 24. The fact that it was off Allen’s own bowling would only have added to his pain. The incident gave rise to a famous story, of which there are a few versions, but the nub of which is that when Robins approached his captain to apologise, the response was to the effect of Forget it old boy, you’ve probably cost us the Ashes, but what does that matter.. The lack of unanimity does, of course, extend to the precise form of words used, but where the real conflict lies is as to whether the comment was a humourous one, designed to ease Robins own distress at his error, or a genuine outburst of frustration and irritation. In the context of this match it mattered little however, as next day Australia were all out for 324 to lose by an innings and 22, but the incident might, as we shall see, have been the root cause of England losing the series.

After two wins, largely due to getting the best of the weather, England were hammered by 365 runs in the third Test at the MCG, but they might just have won had Allen held his nerve. This time Bradman won the toss and, despite there still being some moisture in the wicket, chose to bat. By the close Australia had limped to 181-6. Bradman was out for 13, caught by Robins after he had changed his position while Verity came into bowl. The great man was not, understandably, at all happy notwithstanding Robins’ actions clearly being motivated by a desire to get to where he believed his captain wanted him, rather than anything more sinister.

The rain overnight was very heavy indeed and there was a late start on the second day. The drying wicket quickly became a treacherous Melbourne sticky, Cardus describing the ball as ..here, there, everywhere, fizzing, darting, spitting and Australia got to 200 before Bradman declared with nine down. England lost their openers quickly before Hammond and Leyland brought their class to bear and took the score past 50 with over an hour left to play. When they both left it was clear to Bradman that Allen should declare. None of the Australian batsmen were comfortable on sticky wickets and with that length of time to go Allen could easily have established a winning position. As it was he dithered, doubtless stung by the criticism he had received in the previous Test. At the same time Bradman told his bowlers to stop bowling to take wickets, in the hope that Allen would believe the wicket to be better than it actually was. For a while the deception worked, although England still slipped to 76-9 before Allen finally accepted what he had to do and declared.

There were just 30 minutes left to play when Australia’s second innings began. Bradman reversed his batting order and instructed his bowlers to appeal against the light at every opportunity. Voce was to remove O’Reilly with the first ball of the innings, but there was only time for three overs before the umpires acceded to the frantic appeals and the day ended early. Next day the wicket rolled out beautifully, although England plugged away and at one stage Australia were 97-5, a mere 221 ahead. But then Bradman at last found his form, and he and Fingleton added a record-breaking 346 for the sixth wicket. Bradman ended up with 270 and England’s target was an impossible 689. Leyland was unbeaten at the denouement with his second century of the series, but his contribution apart only Hammond, again, and Robins in a bright and breezy knock when the end was in sight, gave Australia any problems to solve.

There was a curious postscript to the third Test when O’Reilly, Fingleton, McCabe, Leo O’Brien and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith were summoned to a meeting with the ACB. All the players were Roman Catholic and all the board members, like Bradman, freemasons. Bradman claimed to know nothing of the meeting, although the story was leaked to the press. The players were read the riot act in light of a series of alleged shortcomings, but no other action taken. The strained nature of the relationships between Bradman and the five, O’Reilly and Fingleton in particular, is well known but what is surprising is that it is clear from letters written by Allen before the third Test that Bradman had confided in him about his issues with his Catholic teammates. From all I have read of Bradman it seems a very odd thing for such a private man to discuss team issues with the opposing skipper however well they might have got on and, bearing in mind the story finding its way into the press as well, I can’t help but think there was rather more kidology involved than anything else.

Allen shuffled his pack for the fourth Test, and brought in Farnes and Wyatt for Worthington and Sims. Verity, who had generally batted at number ten up until then, was promoted to open the batting with Barnett. His two innings were only 19 and 17, but they still contributed to England’s best two opening partnerships of the series. Verity’s batting was described more than once as being reminiscent of a poor man’s Sutcliffe – his performance at Adelaide served only to underline the mistake the selectors made in leaving the real thing behind.

As to the match itself there would have been moments when Allen harboured hopes of victory, particularly at the end of the second day, at which point England were 174-2 in response to Australia’s 288 all out. They did get a first innings lead, but in the end it was only 42, and Bradman then hit another double century. Allen was reduced to setting defensive fields to try and contain his opposite number, but such tactics never troubled the Don, his patient innings of 212 containing as many as 99 singles. In England’s second innings all the batsman made a start, but none got more than the 50 Wyatt contributed, and Fleetwood-Smith troubled all the batsmen with his chinamen in taking the 6-110 that were to remain his best figures in Test cricket.

The final Test, once more at the MCG, was therefore a decider, but the momentum was all with Australia and after Bradman won the toss and batted the result was never in doubt. England did remove the opening pair with 54 on the board, and Bradman’s contribution was a mere 169, but McCabe also recorded a century, as did the 22 year old Charles Badcock, and another youngster, 20 year old Ross Gregory, who was to be the only Australian Test player to die in action in World War Two, scored 80. Australia were all out shortly after the start of the third day for 604. They won by an innings and 200 as England capitulated meekly and their hosts became the first side to win a five Test series after being two down.

Percy Fender chose the title Kissing the Rod for his book on the 1934 Ashes series. Sadly no English newspaper or publisher saw fit to send him out with the 1936/37 party. The man who was almost certainly the best captain never to lead his country might have been a source of some sound advice for Allen, and after McCormick’s bowling on the first morning he would undoubtedly have been tempted to call his book of the tour Still Kissing the Rod, but was the appeasement really necessary? Could England have played harder with their selection, attitude and tactics? The answer must surely be yes. Australia and Australians might have detested Jardine, and possibly their disdain for him might even have matched his for them, but both sides of that particular stand-off thoroughly enjoyed the situation. Unlike Fender Cardus was in Australia, for the first time, and he ended his book on the series with a short chapter entitled A Digression on Larwood. It should have been obvious from the reception that Larwood was given at the MCG in the final Test in 32/33 when, as nightwatchman, he was dismissed just two short of his century, how much the hostility aimed at him earlier in the series was tempered with admiration and respect. But if there was any doubt in Cardus’ mind it was dispelled rapidly as he accompanied the tourists through Australia, the sentiment everywhere being the same, that the Australian supporters to a man wished that Larwood had been there to test their batsman again. If he had been, and Sutcliffe, Paynter, Hutton and Compton too, then it must be highly likely that the Ashes would have come home 17 years before they eventually did.


’tis true that Sutcliffe would’ve been 42 by the time the first Test begun, but he had three excellent seasons for Yorkshire still to come, and he couldn’t have been less effective than Fagg, Fishlock and Worthington

Comment by fredfertang | 12:00am GMT 12 March 2013

I think Sutcliffe was past it and Hutton and Compton too young. I forget who (Wellings I think) called the non selection of Bowes and Paynter one of the worst bits of selectorship he’d seen. Add Larwood to those 2 and England may very well have won the series without bodyline. Most of all though the player they didn’t need was Bradman. Australia’s batting was vulnerable in this series and Eng may well have swept the series – but for the Don.

Comment by the big bambino | 12:00am GMT 12 March 2013

True enough. He was a champion. I have a feeling that Bowes didn’t make the tour bcos he and Allen had a strong dislike of each other. Saw the animosity btwn the 2 on a documentary about bodyline.

Copson was an interesting selection and on figures deserved his spot but a bout of injuries kept him from playing tests though he topped the fc averages. I’ve read newspaper accounts of the tour and they mentioned his ability to get lift and “fizz” from the wickets. An article from a friend, Easterbrook credited him with getting life even out of flat wickets so I think he could have handled Australian pitches. But you’d have to say an impartial selection process would have had Larwood and Bowes ahead of him. Even then Gover and Stephenson were unlucky. I’m a fan of the latter who seemed a real character.

Overall the batting let Eng down though you can imagine a line up of Wyatt, Barnett, Hardstaff, Hammond, Leyland and Paynter with a sigh of what could have been.

EDIT: Not to mention Sutcliffe 🙂

Comment by the big bambino | 12:00am GMT 12 March 2013

Yep, a great batsman Sutcliffe. I remember reading somewhere that his batting average never fell below 50 thoughout his Test career. It’s a pity he started playing Tests so late (30ish).

Comment by complan | 12:00am GMT 12 March 2013

Never fell below 60 let alone 50. He finished his career with his least batting average.

Comment by L Trumper | 12:00am GMT 13 March 2013

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