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The Big Ship

Warwick Armstrong played Test cricket for Australia exactly fifty times. At the time of his retirement, at the end of the 1921 series in England, only the largely forgotten Syd Gregory had more caps. Armstrong by contrast is remembered to this day, usually by his well earned soubriquet, ‘The Big Ship’. He was a tall man, some six feet three inches in height and, by the end of his career, he weighed more than twenty stone.

As a cricketer Armstrong’s figures are those of a good player rather than one of the very best. He scored 2,863 runs at 38.68 with half a dozen centuries. With the ball he took 87 wickets at a cost of 33.59 runs each. There were five in an innings for Armstrong three times, and a modest strike rate of just over 92. A fine fielder, especially at slip, his bucket like hands held 44 catches in Tests and in his First Class career reached the seldom achieved mark of more than a catch per game.

A product of the ‘Golden Age’ of amateur batting and a contemporary of the legendary Victor Trumper Armstrong was, however, no stylist. Early in his career he was not at his best against quality spin bowling. That was a problem he overcame, although with the restrictions imposed on him by the bulk he acquired in his later years it was an issue that in time returned. His strength was the use of his height and reach, and although he had a ferocious square cut in his armoury the majority of his scoring shots were in front of the wicket. By the time he assumed the Australian captaincy after the Great War he was an aggressive batsman who scored his runs quickly. In his earlier days he had been rather more circumspect, and many of his best innings were in difficult circumstances.

With the ball Armstrong began as a seamer, but he soon took up the wrist spin which he bowled throughout most of his career. There was none of the extravagance associated with his contemporary Arthur Mailey about Armstrong’s bowling. He generally bowled round the wicket and speared the ball in towards the right hander on a leg stump line. He spun the ball very little in Australia, many of his wickets being taken with deliveries where batsmen played for turn that wasn’t there. By contrast on English wickets he sometimes found himself able to spin the ball quite sharply.

After the Great War as Australia’s captain Armstrong won eight out of the ten Tests in which he led them. The other two were drawn in England in 1921, Armstrong’s men having inflicted the first ever 5-0 series victory at home in 1920/21. Rightly lauded for that record Armstrong was a natural leader. He probably wasn’t the greatest of tacticians, but his abilities in that respect were never really tested, his immensely powerful team brushing the post war Englishmen aside.

The name of Armstrong continues to resonate today primarily because of his personality. In a recent book Jarrod Kimber gave his chapter on Armstrong the title The Original Aussie Bastard, and went on to describe him as ground zero for Australian arseholeness. Whether you like Kimber’s turn of phrase or not there can be little doubt about the appropriateness of his sentiments. Armstrong was acutely aware of his own worth and had no qualms about insisting on receiving it.

Gideon Haigh’s excellent biography of Armstrong cites many examples of Armstrong’s clashes with authority. At one point when the Victorian Cricket Association refused to pay his expenses as an amateur he chose to play as a professional. Restored to the amateur ranks there were further fallings out on the subject of expenses and the related issue of complimentary tickets for players. In 1907/08, on the eve of the Victoria v New South Wales fixture, the most important in the domestic calendar, he packed his bags and left when his financial demands were not met. On another occasion he refused to play for an Australian XI because he judged the fee inadequate, and had it not been for a job offer from the Melbourne Cricket Club he would have taken up a lucrative offer to play in New Zealand in early 1910. Five years previously he had angered the VCA by choosing to captain a Melbourne side in New Zealand rather than play for the state in the Sheffield Shield.

But the issues weren’t just financial. Very early in his career a 23 year old Armstrong refused to play under the established Victorian skipper Jack Worrall after Worrall had suggested firstly that Monty Noble threw, and later added the name of fellow Victorian Jack Saunders. Armstrong won that one, and Worrall resigned the captaincy. In time there would in turn be attempts to oust Armstrong from the captaincy. It wasn’t just the VCA Armstrong picked his fights with. In 1909 he refused to sign his tour contract for that summer’s tour of England, and to turn out in the five tour matches in which Peter McAlister, the vice-captain, led the side in place of Noble.

Inevitably Armstrong was involved in the ‘Big Six’ dispute which rocked the game in Australia in 1912. Given his bulk it is probably as well for McAlister that, in the best known incident in the dispute, it was Clem Hill and not Armstrong who hit him. McAlister was a member of the fledgling Australian Board, and the root cause of the problems were the wranglings about how revenues were to be divided, an issue which had not been resolved from the previous tour of England. The final flashpoint was the Board’s decision to appoint their man as manager for the 1912 visit to England for the first (and so far only) triangular series. The players had wanted former teammate Frank Iredale to be appointed, and when he wasn’t the six, Armstrong, Trumper, Hill, ‘Tibby’ Cotter, Hanson Carter and Vernon Ransford all refused to tour.

Armstrong’s Test career lasted almost twenty years. He made his debut on New Year’s Day in 1902. An England side led by Archie MacLaren had won the first Test by an innings and Armstrong was one of two changes for the second Test. It was a bad start for Australia who were bowled out for 112 on a wet pitch. Armstrong, batting at nine, was unbeaten on four at the end. England replied with just 61 and in Australia’s second innings, the batting order effectively reversed, Armstrong was last man. He ended up unbeaten on 45 having added 120 with Reggie Duff. It was the first last wicket century stand in Test cricket and put Australia out of sight. They won the next three Tests as well to record a 4-1 victory. Armstrong held his place. He barely bowled and scored only 159 runs, but he was unbeaten in four of his seven innings so still averaged more than 50.

A certain selection for the 1902 tour of England Armstrong played in all five Tests, but in one of the most famous and dramatic series of them all he achieved very little. On the way home he had a measure of consolation when the tourists played three Tests in South Africa. In the second he was promoted to open the batting, and carried his bat for 159.

It was in 1903/04 that Armstrong, struggling against the left arm spin of Wilfred Rhodes and the new-fangled googly of Bernard Bosanquet, was dropped for the only time. In 1905 he was back however and he completed the double in all the tour matches. In the Tests Australia generally were disappointing, and Armstrong was no exception. He was second in the Test batting, but his average was just 31.50. He did however come of age as a Test bowler, snaring 16 victims at 33.62.

The Australians were back on top in the Ashes at home in 1907/08. Like six years earlier the margin was the convincing one of 4-1. Armstrong had his best pre-war series with the bat scoring 410 runs at 45.55 including his first century against England, an unbeaten 133 in the fourth Test. It was an innings which, like his second innings on debut, made sure that his country were able to force home an advantage which, when he arrived at the crease, it had looked like they might squander.

With their strongest side available once more in 1909 England began the summer with high hopes of repeating their success of 1905. They won the first Test by ten wickets to raise expectations, but then lost the next two before the last two were drawn. Armstrong played a major role in both victories. In the second Test he took what were to remain his best figures of 6-35 in England’s second innings to help set up a nine wicket victory. Wisden wrote that he varied his leg breaks by making the ball turn a little the other way, and his length was a marvel of accuracy. In a low scoring match at Headingley he then contributed 21 to Australia’s first innings 188 and in the second he top scored with 45, making sure that his side had ample runs with which to control the game. Australia’s winning margin was 126 runs.

There were also flashes of the awkward Armstrong personality during the series. In the fifth Test at the Oval Frank Woolley made his debut. In those days bowlers were allowed to bowl trial balls between overs. Woolley had to wait almost fifteen minutes after arriving at the crease to face his first delivery. The ‘culprit’ was Armstrong, who bowled a series of trial deliveries which ran all the way to the sight screen. To exacerbate the delay no Australian went to retrieve the ball, that job having to be done either by spectators or the police officer patrolling the area. In his autobiography Woolley wrote after my long wait it is perhaps not surprising that Cotter bowled me for eight. Trial balls were outlawed the following season.

Earlier in that 1909 series Jack Hobbs had made his Test debut. There can never, in any field of human endeavour, have been a more modest or self-effacing individual than Hobbs reach the top. ‘The Master’ was never critical, and generally found good things to say about everyone. Hobbs wrote an end of career autobiography. It is not a particularly interesting read, and he praises many opponents. He can’t have much liked Armstrong though. He only mentions him once, in a story about an incident in the third Test of that 1909 series. Hobbs dislodged a bail with his boot as he set off for a run. The Australians thought he was out, but the umpires accepted Hobbs’ assertion that, having completed his stroke, he was not out. There was a big argument and in a comment as close to being criticism as I have read from him Hobbs wrote, Armstrong had the most to say and he was, in my opinion, unduly argumentative.

There were two series left for Armstrong before the outbreak of war, both at home. In 1910/11 South Africa visited Australia for the first time and lost 4-1 despite a magnificent performance from Aubrey Faulkner. Armstrong averaged more than fifty with the bat, although his eleven wickets were expensive, costing more than 46 runs each. The following year, with the ‘Big Six’ issue already looming, an England side led by Johnny Douglas and spearheaded by the new ball partnership of Sydney Barnes and Frank Foster won 4-1 after losing the first Test. There was a half century in each of the first two Tests for Armstrong, but that apart little he would have looked back on with any pleasure.

Australia were due to visit South Africa in 1914/15, a tour ultimately cancelled because of the war. A side was picked however, and Armstrong named captain so, although he had never previously captained in a Test he was still, when peace returned, the incumbent. Armstrong did not answer the call to arms, and remained in Australia throughout the hostilities. In the circumstances it was no surprise when Armstrong was appointed captain for the 1920/21 Ashes series although in light of his past clashes with authority there must have been some concerns, best illustrated by the fact that the initial appointment was just for the first Test, despite his early season performances indicating that the 41 year old was in the form of his life.

In the first Test Armstrong won the toss and chose to bat, but after that he scored just twelve and bowled a single wicketless over as Australia took a first innings lead of 77. He came to the crease in his side’s second innings with Australia already well ahead, but his 158 in a shade under three and a half hours put them out of sight. He took the wicket of Hobbs as Australia triumphed by 337 runs.

The second Test was another resounding success for Australia, by an innings and 91 runs. Armstrong the batsman scored just 39, but with the ball he took 2-50 and 4-26, the second innings performance being his best figures in a Test in Australia.

Australia clinched the series in the third Test, but had it not been for Armstrong England might have got back into the series. The visitors took a first innings lead of 93, and when Armstrong came in to bat in the second innings at 71-3 England were well on top. When Armstrong was fourth out at 285 after scoring 121 in 206 minutes the tide had turned. He added a third century in the fourth Test and whilst he contributed little on a personal level to the fifth Test victories by eight and nine wickets emphasised Australia’s superiority.

In the course of the whitewash Ted MacDonald made his debut and began to forge his famous new ball pairing with Jack Gregory. In fact his contributions were modest, six wickets at 65.33. It was in the following series in England that MacDonald made his name as Australia carried on and charged into a 3-0 lead. A much changed England side managed the better of a draw in the fourth Test and the weather was the only winner at the Oval in the final match.

Over the tour as a whole Armstrong was third in the batting averages with 1,405 runs at 43.90. He topped the bowling averages with 106 wickets at just 14.56. In the Tests however his form was less impressive. There was just one half century and eight wickets all told. There were however a couple of incidents in the two drawn games that add substantially to the Armstrong legend.

In the fourth match at Old Trafford the first day was lost to rain. England captain Lionel Tennyson then tried to declare at 341-4 not realising that the laws did not allow a declaration at that stage of what was now a two day match. Armstrong did realise though, and when he made his point to the umpires England had to go out again. When they did Armstrong, no doubt much to his own amusement, bowled the first over, having also bowled the last before the ‘declaration’.

In the final Test at the Oval, affected by the weather, Armstrong made his views known about the futility of playing Test cricket over three days. As the match drifted towards a draw on the final afternoon he gave MacDonald, Gregory and Mailey a rest and gave his batsmen 31 overs. He stopped taking an interest in field placings and himself wandered from his familiar position at slip to the outfield where he picked up a newspaper and started to read it, supposedly accompanied by the comment that he wanted to know who he was playing against.

There were three Tests against South Africa on the way home for Australia. Armstrong had intended to play but the combination of a bout of malaria and a leg injury meant he had to sit the cricket out and watch ‘Horseshoe’ Collins lead the side. South Africa held on to draw the first two Tests, but their resistance was finally brushed aside in the third as Australia won that one by ten wickets.

After retirement Armstrong worked in the whisky trade. He certainly wasn’t the first or last international cricketer to do so, but he was rather more successful than most. Initially he worked in Melbourne and continued to play some cricket at grade level. In 1935 he was promoted to be the Australasian manager of the distiller James Buchanan and Co Ltd. He moved to Sydney where he remained for the rest of his life, living in the prosperous Darling Point suburb of the city.

In the days when pictures and film travelled slowly between Australia and England the written word was the main way in which the events of Test matches on the other side of the world were portrayed to distant supporters. In a wave of publicity the London Evening News signed Armstrong to cover the 1928/29 series for them. He was not impressed by England’s 4-1 victory, criticising the slow scoring and, presciently, taking Harold Larwood to task over bowling leg theory. It was only an experiment for Larwood, and there was no sign of the Bodyline field of four years later, but Armstrong made it clear that Australians considered such a line of attack to be contrary to the spirit of the game.

Back in post in 1932/33 the trenchant criticism of Jardine’s tactics from Armstrong came as no surprise. Nor did the riposte of those who supported the Iron Duke, who were very quick to allege hypocrisy on the part of the man who unleashed Gregory and MacDonald on an unsuspecting world a decade before. In truth Armstrong was not showing bias, but instead simply the same forthright opinions that he had never shirked from. In addition to his criticism of England’s tactics his strongly held view was that the Australian Board should not have sent the cables that they did openly calling into question England’s sportsmanship, and he also made it clear that he was unimpressed by Australia’s batting. In particular he had no qualms about declaring that Donald Bradman was scared of Larwood.

Towards the end of his life the Big Ship shrunk considerably and by the time of his death, from a pulmonary embolism in July 1947, he had lost about a third of his bodyweight. To what extent the weight loss was caused by ill health or represented a positive attempt to lose weight I do not know, but there is a photograph of a slim and smiling Armstrong meeting Wally Hammond and his 1946/47 tourists in which he looks to be in rude health. His death within a few months suggests he wasn’t, but it is a heart warming image. A wealthy man when he died Armstrong’s Estate amounted to more than £100,000, a vast sum in 1947.

In his biography of Armstrong Gideon Haigh entirely accurately makes the observation that Armstrong’s chief legacy was in his uncompromising conduct. He was a winner at all costs – even to his reputation. Haigh goes on to opine that that may be the explanation for what he describes as Armstrong’s relative obscurity today. When The Big Ship was published in 2001, that was certainly a fair observation. The fact that it probably isn’t now is doubtless in large part by virtue of the impact of Haigh’s book, one of the very best cricketing biographies there is.



The players wanted Frank Laver not Frank Iredale as manager /treasurer

Comment by Dennis Coon | 2:47am GMT 17 February 2017

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