I will be out of the country on Thursday, but like all Australians my thoughts will turn in some way to the sacrifices made by our servicemen in wars across more than a century in defence of our nation and the principles of freedom and democracy.
Over 136 years of Test cricket, 433 players have had the distinction of wearing the ‘baggy green’. This piece is about a very small number of these men, in fact just 16, who served their country on active overseas service during war. Some returned to, or commenced their cricketing careers, some did not play Test cricket again, and some tragically did not return home at all.
For a young and emerging nation, still very much part of the British Empire, thousands of young Australians enthusiastically enlisted for active duty in the ‘Great War’, serving with distinction in all theatres of war, from the murderous Gallipoli peninsula, to the sodden vermin-infested trenches of France and Belgium, in blazing heat and bitter frost and in everything in between.
The era saw a certain glory in war and sacrifice, although attitudes changed and became more weary as the conflict dragged inexorably on, and the news of the deaths of sons, brothers, fathers and uncles came with increasingly regularity.
As a nation Australia saw an opportunity to prove its mettle and surely few nations sacrificed as much or as willingly as this embryonic little nation, thousands of miles and many months removed from the battlegrounds, a nation of almost 5,000,000 people who somehow saw almost 10% of its entire population enlist, and half of whom were either killed in battle, wounded, gassed or taken prisoner.
Our sportsmen, and in particular our cricketers, were not immune from the conflict or the enthusiasm to participate, and nor were they immune to the horrors of it.
Albert “Tibby” Cotter was one of the finest bowlers of the ‘Golden Age’ of cricket, playing in 21 Tests between 1904 and 1912. He had stopped playing Test cricket at the time due to disputes over management and selection of the team, but he was still a fit man at the age of 31.
Taken by the patriotic fervour of the age, “Tibby”, despite his limited ability, enlisted in the 1st Australian Light Horse in April 1915 in something of a coup for recruitment spruikers who could point to the example of a famous sportsman to encourage others to make a similar commitment.
He set sail soon after and saw active duty during the latter stages of the Gallipoli campaign. Following the ‘tactical’ withdrawal, he then transferred to the 12th Light Horse where he received an official commendation for courage under fire during the second battle of Gaza.
Tragically Albert Cotter was shot dead at close range some months later when, on 31 October 1917, he was carrying out his duties as a stretcher-bearer as part of a group that had captured Beersheba. He was the only Australian Test cricketer killed in WWI and shortly before heading to the front that day it is rumoured a rolled his arm over to deliver an item to someone and with eerie premonition proclaimed that it would probably be the last ball he bowled as he had a bad feeling about what was to come.
Slightly more fortunate was Bert Oldfield, a man who famously played in 54 Tests as a wicket keeper between 1920 and 1937, a number of Tests that exceeded the number of any other Australian during that period.
However, this record very nearly did not happen as Oldfield suffered extremely serious wounds and almost died at Polygon Wood in 1918 when buried for some time under rubble following a bombardment of his mission. Oldfield recovered, with the aid of a steel plate in his head, famously struck during the Bodyline series, to enjoy a marvellous career as well as serve his nation again during active service in WWII rising to the rank of major.
For some the ‘Great War’ saw an interruption to careers that had started to blossom during the ‘Golden Age’, most notably for Charles Kelleway and Charlie Macartney.
I can find little information about the service record of Charles Kelleway who played for his country in 26 Tests between 1910 and 1928 as a sound top-order batsman. What is known is that he ended the War with the rank of captain and served in the Middle East, and that he was the captain of the Services cricket team formed immediately following the cessation of hostilities.
Macartney on the other hands was regarded as one of Australia’s finest early players and was a player much admired and watched by Bradman for his inventiveness and stroke play. He enlisted in the AIF in January 1916 and was posted to the western front, arriving in France in July 1917 where he served with the 3rd Division Artillery and where he was recognised with a Meritorious Service Medal for gallantry and reached the rank of corporal.
Macartney is unusual in that he is one of the few players to have played either side of a war to have become a better player after the hostilities. Overall he played 35 Tests between 1907 and 1926 but transformed himself from a middling all-rounder prior to the conflict, to one of the great batsmen of his age.
Herbert Collins enlisted in the 1st AIF in 1915 as part of the reinforcements for the Australian Light Horse Brigade, serving in the Sinai and Palestine campaigns before seeing action on the western front where he would cart ammunition to artillery units at the front.
After the War, “Herbie” went on to play 19 Tests between 1921 and 1926, captaining his country on 11 occasions. He was a highly regarded batsman who scored 4 centuries at an average of 45.06 as well as a highly gifted rugby league player as part of the Eastern Suburbs 1911 premiership team.
Our final player to have served in the ‘Great War’ is Dr Roy Park who served as a medic and captain from July 1917 with the Australian Army Medical Corps. Prior to the War, Park was a very fine VFL footballer with University, Footscray and Melbourne, who switched his focus to cricket upon his return. He only played the one Test for his country, unfortunately recording a first ball duck and a solitary over of spin to show for it, but interestingly was the father-in-law of Ian Johnson who went on to captain Australia.
Like his father-in-law, Johnson also served during war, enlisting in the RAAF in March 1941 and seeing action as a Flight Lieutenant in the Pacific with the No 22 Squadron .
Following his return home, Johnson went on to play 45 Tests for his county as an off-spin bowler and took 109 wickets. He enjoyed the great honour of captaining his country between 1953 and 1956, before retiring after leading his side to consecutive Ashes defeats.
The man he replaced, Lindsay Hassett, also saw active service with the 2nd AIF in the Middle East and New Guinea. Prior to the war he had just commenced his international career and, as its only capped player, he was given the honour of leading the Australian Services team in the Victory Tests, a series that heralded the arrival of a very special talent in the form of Keith Miller.
Hassett went on to play 43 Tests in which he scored 10 centuries at a very fine average of 46.46. He captained Australia for 4 years until forfeiting the Ashes in 1953 for the first time since 1934, as well as famously being vice captain of Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles, one of the finest teams ever assembled.
Many of that team had seen active service during WWII and for Bill Brown it marked the end of his career in reality. Brown was one of our more loved Test players in his 22 Tests and was a formidable opening batsman prior to the outbreak of hostilities averaging just under 50. However, after serving with the RAAF in New Guinea and the Philippines, he returned a shadow of his former self, and lost his spot to the pairing of Sid Barnes and Arthur Morris.
Morris had also served in the Pacific from 1943 as a private in the AIF, primarily in the transport corps in New Guinea and he went on to be named as a member of the Australian Team of the Century as he compiled 3,533 runs at 46.48 across 46 Tests between 1946 and 1955, including 12 centuries and famously outscoring Bradman in the Tests of the Invincibles tour.
Doug Ring and Colin McCool played only a small role in the overall triumph of the Invincibles – in fact McCool only played in the tour matches, however both were talented players who might have played more often in a different era.
Both served with distinction during WWII, with McCool stationed for 4 years in New Guinea with No 33 RAAF Squadron and rising to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, and Ring also seeing action in New Guinea with an anti-aircraft regiment.
The Invincibles tour also brought together one of Australia’s finest ever opening bowling combinations in Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, two men who will always be a part of the discussions on our greatest team, and two men who had survived the horrors of war.
Lindwall was a prodigious talent, equally adept at rugby league where he played for the famous St George club and was the competition’s leading scorer, who showed remarkable determination to serve. Initially rejected from enlisting in the RAAF due to an exemption for employees of the company he worked for, Lindwall quit his job and joined the army where he served in an anti-aircraft and fortress unit based at Port Moresby, came under fire while arriving, and contracted malaria.
All that aside, Lindwall also famously used his down time to perfect his run-up between two palm trees. He obviously managed this well, taking 228 wickets at 23.03 in 61 Tests to become one of our greats.
His partner in crime was the handsome, dashing Keith Miller who announced himself on the Victory Tour of England.
Miller, who was also a very fine VFL footballer for St Kilda, served with the RAAF in Europe where he flew bombing missions over enemy lines, before debuting as a Test player. Miller bowled with extreme pace and was a hard-hitting batsman who compiled a tremendous record over 55 Tests to become Australia’s greatest all-rounder, and one of the greatest of all time.
Surely his experiences in battle, held aloft in a potential tin coffin, tempered his approach to the game and to life itself – a rebellious, carousing, entertaining approach that placed the love of the contest as the primary reason to play rather than victory itself, after all as he famously said “pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, cricket is not”.
It is a point worth remembering either as a player or member of the crowd, especially considering the sacrifices of “Tibby” Cotter and Ross Gregory, a prodigiously talented young man who debuted for Victoria prior to leaving school and played 2 Tests at the age of 21, who was sadly killed in action in his aircraft over what is now Bangladesh.
I apologise for anyone that I may not have mentioned – it would be a genuine oversight and please let me know about them.
But finally, whether you are at the dawn service, watching the march, playing two-up at the pub or RSL, or doing something else, please take a moment to think about and acknowledge our servicemen and women – you may know or be related to some personally, and you certainly know of a few more now and a contribution they made that is far broader than cricket.
So when Anzac Day rolls around on Thursday raise a glass and give them a toast. I know I will be, and until next time …. that is stumps.