The men be­hind the stumps

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling Ba­bette Smith’s

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.’’


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