The men behind the stumps
Sweltering behind the stumps as Pakistan ran up another huge total in Abu Dhabi last year, Australia’s injured wicketkeeper, Brad Haddin, mused on how the Australian team would cope without him. ‘‘I looked at Davey Warner, who would have done the job, and I thought, I can’t do this to Davey. He’ll have fun for 10 minutes but then he won’t be able to move … Everyone thinks they can wicketkeep, until they do it.’’
In his absorbing new book, The Keepers, Malcolm Knox explores the qualities that make a wicketkeeper and shows how Australia’s greatest and most durable custodians — Bert Oldfield, Wally Grout, Rod Marsh, Ian Healy, Adam Gilchrist, Haddin — have been central to the culture, spirit and even performance of the team.
Fast bowlers come and go and even the most gifted batsmen can be dropped but wicketkeepers are the game’s limpets, clinging on series after series, year after year, perfectionists driven as much by devotion to their craft as by bloodyminded determination to see off their rivals.
Since 1877 just 33 men have kept wicket for Australia (some for only a match or two). Longterm incumbents such as Marsh and Healy had to be jackhammered out of their place behind the sticks. Yet their very familiarity makes them, if not exactly invisible, then at least easily overlooked.
The wicketkeeper has always been a man apart, defined not only by the freakish physical demands of the job but also by temperament and ethics, as Knox details. ‘‘Mad Charlie’’ Brown, an English keeper from the 1850s, ‘‘was known to flick off a bail as the ball passed, tricking the batsman into thinking he had been bowled’’. On the other hand Oldfield, a vestryman at Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral when he was not wearing the gloves for Australia, ‘‘did not appeal unless he was certain a batsman was out, and umpires would often look to him, rather than the shouting slips cordon, for confirmation’’. Not all Oldfield’s successors have had such impeccable reputations. ‘‘Australian wicketkeepers have long had a name for sharp practice,’’ writes Knox, ‘‘sometimes deserved.’’ Greg Dyer and Healy were just two who had to live down accusations of having cheated to take wickets.
If some wicketkeepers were scoundrels, there is no denying they were brave scoundrels. Broken fingers, smashed faces and missing teeth were (and continue to be) part of the job. The late 19th-century boxer Jem Mace, after seeing England’s Ted Pooley lose three teeth while wicketkeeping at Lord’s, commented, ‘‘I would rather stand up to any man in England Australia, Franz was demonised as ‘‘a German’’, which was typical scaremongering against the IWW.
Amid derision from the crowd, constable Duncan charged two other local Wobblies with ‘‘obscene language’’ and ‘‘possessing firearms’’. After escorting one of them to the nearest lockup in Dandaloo, Duncan returned to Tottenham late at night, drenched and exhausted. Rather than waiting until the morning, he foolishly went to the pub, intending to arrest Roland Kennedy for indecent language and offensive behaviour, but could not find him. While writing up his report at the police station, he was shot through the window by two, possibly three persons.
The Tottenham murder trials took place in a hostile climate exacerbated by World War I. Prime minister Billy Hughes regarded the IWW as disloyal and subversive to the war effort, and declared it ‘‘must be attacked with the ferocity of a Bengal tiger’’, to which one leading Wobbly responded by calling him a ‘‘dwarfish popinjay’’. for an hour than take your place behind the stumps for five minutes.’’
Early keepers went into battle wearing thin, tight-fitting leather gloves with almost no padding. Bamboo splints and leather stalls were later added, although these didn’t stop digits being broken. England’s George Duckworth was one of those who put his faith in a well-fitting steak. ‘‘On a blazing hot afternoon at Melbourne when the steak in the keeper’s gloves had gone off … the stink was unbearable,’’ recalled the great Wally Hammond. Marsh, another improviser, started a trend by chopping the tops off his pads to make them less cumbersome. Knox has no time for statistics as a measure of the keeper’s contribution, noting that
The press was increasingly ferocious. The Sydney Morning Herald decried ‘‘the force and rapid spread of the doctrines of the IWW’’, while the Adelaide Register insisted the ‘‘only way to deal with this organisation of anarchists is to wipe it out as thoroughly as an epidemic of smallpox is wiped out’’.
Tough rhetoric was accompanied by tough action. Wobblies found it harder to get a job. Some were blackballed when they applied. Others, including Herb Kennedy, were sacked when their IWW membership was discovered.
Roland Kennedy and Franz were charged with Duncan’s murder. Tried together, they were both convicted and sentenced to death, even though Franz had ‘‘turned king’s evidence’’ and helped the police, which should have led to a reprieve.
Herb Kennedy was also charged with murder, but tried separately. He was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Trials of Wobbly leaders known as the Sydney Twelve occurred in September 1916, almost ‘‘[t]here is no statistical measure for a gloveman’s true value … [t]o evaluate a wicketkeeper’s worth, we must look within the gloves and behind the padding’’.
Thanks to the avalanche of captain’s diaries, tour diaries and Ashes diaries, the Australian cricket team is a well-documented institution. Most of us probably know all we need to know about the day-to-day goings on both on the pitch and back in the team hotel. Insight and historical context are much rarer, and few understand the history of the game better than Knox.
In this book he argues that wicketkeepers comprise a brotherhood whose devotion to their craft and loyalty to each other can transcend international rivalries. Healy found a valuable supporter in the West Indies’ Jeff Dujon. Marsh, who made a point of never fraternising on the field with opposing batsmen, did not shy from asking England’s Alan Knott for a pair of light English-style gloves. He also modified his technique after watching Knott in 1970-71. At the age of 16, Steve Rixon, who wore the gloves for 13 tests between 1977 and 1985, was thrilled to be engaged in conversation by the amiable Knott and Bob Taylor, after playing for Southern NSW against the touring Poms.
This solidarity among wicketkeepers offers some psychological protection against what Knox suggests might be the defining characteristic of the role: its fundamental loneliness. In this country the gloveman’s isolation has tended to be intensified by the parochialism of Australian crowds, which have always been quick to dish it out to any keeper not their own. Knox writes: ‘‘Just as [Gil] Langley and [Barry] Jarman had withstood crowd abuse in Brisbane, Ian Healy would get it in Perth, Adam Gilchrist would get it in Perth and Brisbane, and Brad Haddin would get it everywhere but in Sydney, and sometimes even there.’’
Not even Marsh was immune. ‘‘As miserable and bad mannered a piece of barracking as I have heard for years’’ was how Richie Benaud described the boos that greeted Marsh, a West Australian, at the SCG during Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket.
Marsh, of course, survived and thrived, but many have not. As Knox makes clear, wicketkeeping is as much about mental strength and emotional resilience as about good hands. Few sportsmen cut a more forlorn figure than the keeper who fumbles a catch or makes a mess of an easy stumping in front of a hostile crowd.
Cricket fans will have no trouble following Knox’s masterly study of the different techniques that distinguish one keeper from another, and of the way equipment has changed over the two centuries since keepers used to take the field with a towel stuffed down the front of their flannels to protect their wedding tackle. Lay readers will take pleasure from the discovery that Rodney Marsh’s mother had ambitions for him to be a concert pianist. simultaneously with the Tottenham executions in Bathurst.
Allegations of a conspiracy against the Sydney Twelve have dominated historical examination but Day demonstrates that a close scrutiny of the murder in Tottenham illuminates the bigger picture. It was a microcosm containing all the key ingredients of philosophy, character, tactics and consequences of the IWW. Its location in rural NSW enriches our understanding of how, in a time of war, such a radical, anarchist labour movement could take root so deeply and fiercely.
Some alleged the Australian IWW was an aberration better suited to the American west. Day disagrees: ‘‘Roland Kennedy’s stoic ‘Goodbye boys’ before his execution and Ned Kelly’s ‘Such is life’ were not so different. What brought the pair to the gallows was not so different either.’’
is an author and critic.
latest book is The Luck of the
Ian Healy had a colourful career
Rod Marsh shows his hands in 1975