It was an Australian team in turmoil.
They were a brilliant lot. Led by Monty Noble, they had phenomenal names in their midst. Victor Trumper, Charlie Macartney, Warwick Armstrong, Syd Gregory, Tibby Cotter …. these were just a few of them. With such a talent spread, they could not help but win. But, they were an unhappy lot even as they retained the Ashes by clinching the series 2-1.
Yet, they were also an unhappy lot. There was an ongoing feud between the Board of Control and the cricketers.
The presence of Peter McAlister, the supposed opening batsman who was nothing more than a spy for Billy McElhone, was a constant source of irritation. McElhone was the Lord Mayor of Sydney and the supremo of the Australian Cricket Board.
Neither was it overly comforting that ‘observer’ Colonel Justin Foxton accompanied the team.
The roots of the problem boiled down to one cardinal bone of contention. Who was in charge of the purse strings? Who would be getting the greatest share and control of the money? Board or cricketers.
Pristine times with gentleman cricketers playing for the love of the game… all that oft-repeated cock-and-bull rot existed only in storybooks.
And then there were the English press and public. Even as the English selection policies bordered on the weird, with as many as 25 cricketers tried out in the five Tests, the seasoned Australian pros took full advantage of such ridiculous measures to gain the upper hand.
But the hard way that they played their cricket, and the open abhorrence at the very thought of giving the opponent an inch, led the local followers of the game to dub the visitors ‘boorish mercenaries’. The ongoing problems about the finances only lent further spice to such allegations.
One of the foremost offenders was Warwick Armstrong, on his way to becoming the Big Ship, both in physical and cricketing stature.
No one could fault his game. At Lord’s, his 6 for 35 in the second innings had clinched the issue. He had been dubbed as the first Australian to send down a googly on English soil. And his batting was more than robust.
However, his behaviour got under the skin of everyone. And that included two of the most adored English names of the era.
At Headingley, Jack Hobbs pulled Macartney through mid-wicket. One of the trademark Hobbs strokes which made watching him such a delight. Only the post-script was different. The Surrey professional slipped while taking off for a run and his heel struck the base of the stumps. A bail was dislodged. An appeal, a justified one, was made and Hobbs was on the verge of walking back. This was when his batting partner, Johnny Tyldesley, asked him to wait. And since he had not quite seen the entire act of the foot dislodging the bails, umpire William West gave the batsman not out.
Hobbs resumed his innings, but was met with intense reactions on the part of the Australians. As he recalled in My Cricket Memories: “The Australians made a rare fuss. They gathered together in the field and confabulated. The chief offender was Warwick Armstrong, who got very nasty and unsportsmanlike, refusing to accept the umpire’s decision. This upset me. I did not know whether I was standing on my head or my heel, with the consequence that two balls later I let one go, never attempting to play it, and it bowled me. I still bear this incident in mind against Armstrong.” It was unusual for Hobbs to hold a grudge, but apparently, Armstrong had gone far enough.
During the final Test at The Oval, Armstrong went way further.
It was the debut of a 22-year-old Frank Woolley. And with the English score on 187 for 4 on the second afternoon, this most graceful of batsmen walked out to bat for the first time in a Test match. He would become one of the most loved English cricketers ever, perhaps a prototype of David Gower.
But, grace was as far from the Australian minds as possible.
With Frank Laver having limped off with a strained thigh, the visitors were in a slightly disadvantageous position. And so Armstrong decided to play hardball. In fact, he decided to play trial ball.
With Woolley waiting to face his first ball in Tests, his erect left handed form ready for the contest, the Australian all-rounder sent down ball after ball down the side of the pitch. It was the beginning of a spell, and therefore trial balls were permitted according to the rules of the game that were in vogue. And there was no limit to the number of trial balls. Armstrong was aware of that.
Woolley waited and waited. Armstrong kept bowling trial balls. The match was held up. According to EHD Sewell: “Believe it or not, but before Woolley squared up to play his first ball, 19 minutes had elapsed. This unofficial interval was brought about almost entirely by Armstrong bowling several trial balls from the pavilion end, somewhat sketchy attempts being made to stop them at the other … the ball in consequence trickling down to the Vauxhall end screen , there to be fielded by urchins and handed over reverently to the bobby on duty, for him to risk his dignity and his helmet to fling back so that we might get on with the match which these ‘Colonial chaps’ had come so many thousands of miles to play and who did not … appear, after all, to be consumed with fervour to finish.”
In The Big Ship, the magnificent bipography of Armstrong, Gideon Haigh says that Armstrong took “the quest for psychological advantage over a newcomer to an unexampled extreme. It was 40 years before Stephen Potter’s classic essay in sporting whimsy, The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, found a name for ‘the art of winning without actually cheating.’”
In his autobiography King of Games, Woolley himself recalled the period of farce, although he stopped short of naming Armstrong: “I remember that, owing chiefly to the bowling of trial balls, over a quarter hour elapsed between the fall of Rhodes’ wicket … and the bowling of the first ball to me. It was rather a trying time for me, especially as it was my first Test innings… After the long wait it is perhaps not surprising that ‘Tibs’ Cotter bowled me for eight.”
Sewell observed with open disgust that Armstrong was “trying to learn how slowly he could make a bowled ball reach the screen.” He went on to add that the marching orders of the Australian team ran: ‘win — at any price’.
The match ended in a draw and Australia emerged triumphant in the series while distinctly less popular than when they had arrived.
As a result of Armstrong’s questionable tactics, the counties tightened the law around trial balls and MCC followed suit.