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The Little Ship

Ships passing by the pavilion steps

I opened my recent article about Archie Jackson by, effectively, congratulating the game of cricket on the way it sustains the memory of its former heroes. There is, if not a wealth of material about Jackson, then a very considerable volume when it is taken into account that he died as long ago as 1933, at the age of just 23, having played a total of 70 First Class matches, 8 of them Tests.

But Jackson was not the only highly promising young Australian batsman to die tragically early in that era and in my research for the piece about him I was regularly reminded about Karl Schneider, by all accounts another outstanding prospect, and one who like Jackson did not, sadly, live to see his 24th birthday.

The game remembers Jackson as well as it does because in the 1928/29 Ashes series, when he was aged just 19, he was the beneficiary of a group of Test selectors looking to change a losing habit. He went on to record what was, at the time, the third highest debut innings in Test history, and his place amongst the game’s immortals was sealed in that match and his place on the boat to England for the return series in 1930 was assured.

It was Karl Schneider’s misfortune to be born four years earlier than Jackson. He too turned 19 on the eve of an Ashes series, but in 1924/25 Australia were still much stronger than England, and rebuilding was not on the selectors agenda as the home side swept to a 4-1 victory. In any event Schneider had struggled to force his way into an immensely strong Victorian batting line-up that was led by Bill Woodfull and Bill Ponsford, and his talent had barely been glimpsed by the time the 1926 touring party was selected. All other things being equal it seems likely that Schneider would have debuted in the 1928/29 series along with Jackson and Donald Bradman. As events unfolded however a young player who had, over the previous two seasons, scored more than 1,100 runs at over 50 per innings with five centuries, had passed away by the time Percy Chapman’s MCC tourists arrived.

So how good is the game’s literature, and that it must surely be limited to given how remote the likelihood of there being a man or woman left alive with any significant memory of Schneider is, at remembering its lesser lights, the men who fail to reach the pinnacle of the Test arena? Initially I was not overly optimistic, but I persisted in my efforts and the reality is that I have been able to find out a vast amount more about Karl Schneider, a man who played just 20 First Class matches in his short career, than I anticipate would have been available about, say, a man who had played 20 First Division football matches back in the 1920s.

A striking feature about Schneider was his height, or rather lack of it. His captain in New Zealand in 1928, Vic Richardson, somewhat clumsily but entirely appropriately, described him as “probably the smallest good cricketer the world has produced”. The photograph that accompanies this feature perhaps exaggerates the position somewhat, given that Schneider was only 17 when it was taken, and that Warwick Armstrong was not nicknamed “The Big Ship” for nothing, but Schneider was only 5 feet 2 inches in height.

As his name suggests Schneider’s ancestry was German, although he was born in Melbourne on 15 August 1905. As a result of anti-Germanic sentiment in that city during the Great War (apparently his father’s butcher shop was vandalised) he spent part of his childhood in Adelaide, a city that was, presumably, rather more tolerant. At the end of the War he returned to Melbourne where, despite his lack of inches, he dominated the batting of his school, Xavier College, so much so that the runscoring records he set the best part of a century ago remain unbroken today.

Schneider’s college exploits did not completely escape the notice of the Victoria selectors, and at 17 he was selected to play against Tasmania at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in February 1923. Tasmania were nothing like as strong as Victoria, and were still more than 50 years away from joining the other states in the Sheffield Shield, but the match still had First Class status, and remains a statistical freak of a game by virtue of Victoria being the first ever side to total more than 1,000 runs for an innings in a First Class match. Victoria remain unique in that achievement although, having totalled 1,107 against a much stronger New South Wales side in 1926, the 1,059 they put up against Tasmania is now the lower of the game’s two four figure scores. In addition Bill Ponsford flayed the Tasmanian attack to the tune of 429 runs to record what was at that point the game’s highest individual score. Nonetheless Schneider played his part. He came in at the fall of the sixth wicket and contributed 55 to a stand of 164 with Ponsford, without which Ponny would undoubtedly have had to wait a further four years before taking Archie McLaren’s record.

Despite that promising start Victoria’s selectors were rather more conservative than their colleagues in New South Wales, who gave extended early exposure to Bradman and Jackson. Victoria had, as noted, an immensely powerful batting line-up led by Woodfull and Ponsford, and in addition there were Test regulars Jack Ryder and Hunter “Stork” Hendry available as well, and Schneider only had one more opportunity to play for the state of his birth, against New South Wales in January 1925. He scored just one run in his only innings, and decided to take a view, returning to Adelaide in time for the 1926/27 season in order to begin a career with South Australia. Apart from his runscoring a measure of his success was that his debut season with his new side brought them their first Shield for more than a decade, and each season since the end of the Great War they had finished behind New South Wales and Victoria.

For South Australia the tiny left-handed batsman opened the batting. His first match for his adopted state was against his former teammates from Victoria, and despite Ponsford’s first innings double century South Australia scraped home by two wickets, Schneider contributing 69 and 28. There were further half-centuries in each of the next three Shield games followed by what proved to be Schneider’s highest First Class score, 146, at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the next. By the end of the season Schneider had scored 605 runs at fractionally over 50.

In the 1927/28 domestic season Schneider began poorly against Victoria but went on to enjoy himself after that with a century against each of the other three states then in the Shield, and an average of 52. There can have been little surprise after that when he was selected as a member of the party that went to New Zealand in February and March of 1928.

New Zealand were not, in those days, yet a Test-playing nation, but were to achieve that status by the end of the decade. Australia sent a strong side including Woodfull, Ponsford, Jackson, skipper Richardson, Alan Kippax, Bert Oldfield, and Clarrie Grimmett. The tour served only to enhance Schneider’s reputation as he came back with an average in the First Class fixtures of almost 47.

What sort of a batsman was Schneider? Not surprisingly in view of his height he was not a powerful man, and his 146 against New South Wales included only three boundaries. If Richardson is correct one of the centuries that he scored in New Zealand (it is not clear whether the patriarch of the Chappell line was referring to the 138 that he scored against Canterbury in a First Class encounter) contained no boundary hit at all. Although that is not to say that Schneider was not an attractive stroke player. Of an innings against Wellington, which subsided to 375 all out after he was dismissed, Terence Reese wrote in his History of New Zealand Cricket that Schneider went on 360, having made 73 very stylishly, and of his century against Canterbury, scored after Australia had slumped to 135-6, Reese was a little more pointed describing his technique as using his feet cleverly ……… exploiting the late cut and square cut to advantage.

As is only to be expected of an opening batsman Schneider was also watchful whilst at the crease, and he seldom scored quickly. In his second season for South Australia he scored 108 against New South Wales. He took more than five hours to make the runs, but the innings was worth all of the concentration that went into it as, despite three men (including Bradman on debut) recording centuries for New South Wales, South Australia ran out winners by that narrowest of margins, one wicket. That said Schneider was clearly capable of scoring quickly, he and Kippax adding as many as 300 in little more than an hour in an exhibition match in New Zealand. It seems reasonable to assume that had he lived his strength would have increased, and that in years to come he would have added more power to the skill he had.

There is, or at least at one stage was, some uncertainty over the cause of Schneider’s death. What does seem clear however is that there were no real concerns about his health until after the cricket committments of the 1928 touring party had ended. At that point, according to skipper Vic Richardson, the team spent a few days at a chalet close by New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook. Some of the players decided to embark on a long walk from the chalet to a cabin called Ball Hut, and Schneider became ill and needed to be assisted over the last mile of the trek.

Some more detail emerges from another of the tourists, New Zealand born leg spinner Grimmett who, in a letter quoted by his biographer, former Australian off-spinner Ashley Mallett, described not only Schneider collapsing in the snow on the way Ball Hut, but also Jackson being hurled into the freezing and murky waters in a cave near Mount Cook. Grimmett goes on to say the length of the walk was twelve miles altogether. It seems from Mallett’s writing, although it is not entirely clear from anything I have read, that these misfortunes, if they were more or less contemporaneous as alleged, were both on the way to the hut, in which case the return journey on foot, whatever assistance might have been available, must surely have been just about the worst thing that could have happened to either casualty. The potential for vehicular access to Ball Hut in the 21st century seems to be extremely limited, and would surely, other than on horseback, have been all but impossible in 1928.

Did Schneider rally after his travails on the mountain? I have not been able to find the answer to that anywhere but my suspicion is that his health must have gone on a downward spiral from then on. I make that observation because at some point prior to the 1928/29 series former Australian skipper Monty Noble authored a booklet entitled “Test Match Certainties and Possibilities for 1928/29”. There is no mention of Schneider anywhere. That said two of the “Possibilities” he looks at are John Scaife and Colin Alexander, neither of whom ever did play a Test, and neither of whose claims for selection, on paper, were remotely as strong as Schneider’s. It is just possible that the booklet was not completed until after Schneider’s death, but in that case surely there would have been some mention of and tribute to him? It must be likely therefore that the booklet was written while Schneider was still alive, but that at that time it was already clear that his cricket career was over.

And the cause of death? According to Schneider’s obituary in Wisden it was heart failure, but I have never seen that suggestion anywhere else. Mallett gave tuberculosis as the cause of death, and went on to say, understandably if that had been the case, that Jackson’s family believed that it was Schneider, and that walk to Ball Hut, that had passed the disease to Archie.

In 1982 Jack Pollard, in his weighty tome “Australian Cricket – The Game and the Players”, also set out the tuberculosis story, although on his account Schneider did not collapse while walking in the snow but instead began to haemorrhage while horse-riding. Both Mallett and Pollard seem largely to have simply followed the account given by David Frith in his 1974 biography of Jackson, although Frith gave a different explanation for Jackson’s watery discomfort, which indicates that it took place on a different occasion and is rather less sinister than Grimmett’s quoted use of the word “hurled” suggests. Ironically Grimmett seems to be a source of both versions of the story!

Each of Mallett, the editors of “The Oxford Companion to Australian Cricket”, which was first published in 1996 and Marc Fiddian, who included an essay about Scheider in his 2002 collection “So Near, So Far”, faithfully follow the tuberculosis story. The second edition of Frith’s book, published in 1987, confirmed it once again but, following the publication of that revised edition, he heard from Schneider’s surviving brother who corrected him and explained that his brother had died from leukaemia. I cannot imagine for one moment that Schneider’s brother would be anything other than frank about the cause of Karl’s death, and I am a man without any knowledge of medical matters, but the manner of Karl Schneider’s passing does seem to me to be much more akin to the leukaemia that claimed Sir Frank Worrell, than the tuberculosis that claimed Archie Jackson.


A pleasure to read, as ever.

I’m very much of a dilettante where it comes to cricket’s history, admittedly, but I’d truthfully never even heard of the unfortunate Schneider before.

Kid wouldn’t have blown over in the wind tho, would he? His feet look as big as Warwick’s in the photo!

Comment by BoyBrumby | 12:00am BST 8 October 2012

I have a copy of the death certificate of Karl Schneider which conclusively shows that he died of Leukaemia

Comment by Mike Batty | 5:11am GMT 13 March 2017

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