David Frith, one of the most eloquent and respected chroniclers of cricket described this young man in his moving biography as “the Keats of cricket.”
During a brave innings of 73 at the Oval in 1930 on a wet and hard pitch, this young batsman was taking a severe physical beating from Harold Larwood who had already broken his first bat with a scorcher. He had been hit on the elbow, the jaw, and hip and several times on the thigh. Nonchalantly, with a smile on his face, as if enjoying the pain, he walked down the wicket and famously told Larwood: “Well Harold, it’s only a game, but what a grand one we’re having today! I hope you’re enjoying our battle as much as those spectators seem to be. You know, you’ve hit me almost as many times as I’ve hit you! I wish you’d drop one a little off line occasionally.”
It takes a special kind of person to play the game in that spirit so it is indeed hugely appropriate that the bottom of his gravestone simply states: “He played the game.”
He was Archie Jackson, and this is his story – an account of perhaps the most famous debut in the history of Australian cricket.
The 1928-29 Ashes series does not go well for Australia
When Percy Chapman’s Englishmen came to Australia in the summer of 1928-29 to play a 5-Test series, there was nothing to suggest that something momentous was about to happen. Indeed, even by the end of the series, looking at the result of the series, one could be forgiven for not believing this to be the case.
It was however destined to be the start of an era that would change cricket forever.
The first Test at Brisbane saw a young 20-year-old domestic batting sensation, Don Bradman, making his debut for Australia. A score of 18 in the first innings and looking clueless on a sticky wicket before departing for 1 in the second, during a 675-run loss for Australia, was not the start to his career young Bradman was looking for.
When he was dropped from the XI for the second Test at Sydney despite his domestic season average of 85, it did not go down too well with the precocious 20-year old. Two decades later, writing in Farewell to Cricket, he remarked: “Our selectors were not at that time particularly imbued with the gospel of youth, for in our Team they included Jack Ryder (then aged 39), [Clarrie] Grimmett (36), [Don] Blackie (46) and [Bert] Ironmonger (41).”
It was because of the unfortunate Bill Ponsford’s left arm being broken by a Harold Larwood delivery early in the match that Bradman was able to be on the field for the entire second Test despite being dropped. Australia this time lost by 8 wickets.
Bradman was brought back into the team for the third Test at Melbourne, and this time he grabbed the opportunity with both hands scoring 79 and 112. Despite these heroics, Australia again lost by 3 wickets, and by the end of this match not only had The Ashes been lost, but Australia were down 0-3.
To compound its problems with the series result thus far, Australia had a big challenge to address at the top of the order, with no apparent substitute for Ponsford to partner Woodfull.
In their desperation, Bradman was asked to open for New South Wales against South Australia between the third and fourth Tests to Test him out in the position. In a queer twist, however, it was in Bradman’s opening partner in that same Sheffield Shield match, that Australia found the other half of their new opening pair.
Archie Jackson made sure that his phenomenal talent, which had put him in some estimates above Bradman as a batting prodigy, was not ignored anymore with scores of 162 and 90 while his opening partner Don Bradman recorded 5 and 2.
The Emergence of Archie Jackson
Accounts of Archie Jackson’s talent had however been doing the rounds in Australia’s cricketing circles long before he would make his debut.
Talking about a 15-year old Jackson, who had just started playing First Grade cricket (a remarkable achievement in itself making him the youngest to do so), Arthur Mailey had written: “I am not going to compare him with the glorious Victor Trumper at this stage.”
Jackson would make his first-class debut for New South Wales at 16, and score his first century against Queensland in his second match. He was making it difficult to avoid the comparisons.
Two years later, when Jackson was 18, he would score 104 for NSW against the visiting New Zealand team, adding a hundred runs in half-an-hour with Alan Kippax. Arthur Gregory writing in The Sydney Mail would say: “There is a remarkable resemblance between the stances of the late Victor Trumper, Alan Kippax, and Archie Jackson; indeed, in style right through the batting the similarity is there. The attitude adopted to receive the ball is one of calm repose which, in the successors to the famous Victor, as it did with him, becomes a sudden flash as the ball is, say, off-driven with lightning-like rapidity to the boundary.”
The Mother of all Debuts
At Adelaide after winning the toss, England scored 334 batting first. Jack Hobbs and Sutcliffe, perhaps the greatest opening pair in the history of the game, gave the visitors a 143-run opening stand and Wally Hammond added to Australia’s misery with an unbeaten 119. Clarrie Grimmett was the only Aussie bowler to make an impression picking up 5-wicket for 102 runs sending down 52 overs.
When Australia came out to bat, it was clear that Woodfull’s woeful form was to continue. But he was not the only one. Archie Jackson, in his first Test innings, soon found himself stranded helplessly at the non-striker’s end as the scoreboard read 19 for 3 with Woodfull, Stork Hendry and Alan Kippax back in the pavilion before the first hour of batting was done.
Bradman describes the innings and what happened thereafter from his vantage point at the other end, in Farewell to Cricket: “Undaunted by this setback, Jackson proceeded to play an innings which from the point of view of stroke execution, elegance and sheer artistry held the spectators as few innings in history have done.”
With his captain Jack Ryder, Jackson took the score to 145 before Ryder departed for a well compiled 63. Bradman then joined Jackson and the two youngsters stayed together as the scoreboard ticked on to 227. Jackson was playing an innings his countrymen had rarely seen from someone so young, let alone a debutant.
Bradman again: “I was Jackson’s partner when we resumed after an interval. If my memory is correct Archie’s score was 96 or 97, and being so much older than him (just about a year to be precise) I had the temerity to offer him some advice. Jackson was to take strike against Larwood who had a new ball, so I suggested to him that there was no hurry. ‘Take your time’, I said, ‘and the century will come’.”
He then describes with awe what happened next: “Those who saw his next stroke will agree with me that no more glorious square drive could be played. He didn’t care about [Harold] Larwood or the new ball which travelled like a bullet to the pickets in front of the Member’ Stand.”
Even if one were to dismiss Bradman’s admiration for his colleague’s innings as biased in his praise, there is Harold Larwood’s account that leaves one in no doubt about the quality of the innings. “It hit me just about as hard as Archie did that day at Adelaide in 1929 when, in his first Test innings for Australia, with 97 runs against his name and having had his back to the wall, he cover-drove me to bring up his hundred. That ball was delivered as fast as any I had ever bowled previously. That glorious stroke has lived in my memory to this day for its ease and perfect timing. I am sure that few among the many thousands present sighted the ball as it raced to the boundary.”
The young prodigy had fulfilled his initial promise and went on to record 164 runs becoming not only the youngest centurion on debut since Test cricket started, at the age of 19 years 149 days, but also recording the highest score which has not been surpassed almost 90 years later, with Javed Miandad coming the closest with his 163.
Australia again lost the Test narrowly by 12 runs, but with Bradman and Jackson in full flow, victory finally came in the final Test at Melbourne by 5 wickets. England took the Ashes-winning the series 4-1, but the seeds of Australia’s cricketing dominance had been sown that Australian summer and would continue to bear fruit for the next two decades.
What about Archie Jackson?
The 1930 tour of England was to be Archie Jackson’s coming of age after his magnificent debut. He was the star attraction at the nets. The News compared him to Jack Hobbs. Cecil Parkin called him “a better bat than Bradman”.
Unfortunately, what neither Jackson nor the world knew was that his health was already failing and the perennially wet English weather did not help matters. Perhaps the ill health did not also let him mentally adjust to the moisture-laden slower pitches. It took him nine matches to make his first fifty. Bradman in the meantime had completed 1000 runs. It was still the month of May and the summer had not set in.
Archie Jackson was not picked for the first two Tests. He scored 1 when he was eventually selected for the third Test at Headingley and was promptly dropped again. He was then brought back for the decider after a century against Somerset.
At the Oval is where Jackson scored the 73 against some brutal bowling by Larwood. The scoreboard shows that Ponsford scored 110 and Bradman 232 while Jackson scored only 73. But that 73 was scored under the worst conditions of the pitch after it rained. Abhishek Mukherjee writing in Cricket Country described the partnership thus: “Larwood hit Bradman on the chest, leaving him gasping for air. Bradman somehow coped and survived Larwood’s spell, but he could really not dominate the bowling, which Jackson could.”
The two bright hopes for Australia’s cricket future would have a partnership of 243 but their lives would go in different directions from this point. Don Bradman would go on to become the greatest batsman the world has ever known. 99.94 would become the most famous number in the history of the sport. Archie Jackson would end up playing only 8 Tests over a 2-year period with an average of 47.40.
But the romance of Archie Jackson has always been not so much in what he achieved, but rather in what he would have, had he lived.
Jackson suffered from the scourge of tuberculosis, an unconquered disease at the time, which had claimed many a sporting life, and it did not spare this young man. It ate him away inside for years but he shied away from treatment, as David Frith rationalized, “perhaps in disbelief, perhaps in valiant optimism.”
In Farewell to Cricket, talking about Jackson’s debut Test, Bradman recalled with infinite sadness: “To think that four years later I should be called upon to act as one of the pall-bearers when this glorious young player’s remains were carried to rest, a victim of that dread scourge, tuberculosis.”
But before the maker could claim him, Archie Jackson would do enough to leave cricket forever lamenting his absence. Writers would forever wax eloquent about his delicate leg-glances, wristy flicks, beautiful late cuts and exquisite footwork. In an age and a sport that would forever be dominated by statistics rather than imagery, effectiveness rather than artistry, cricket’s very own Keats wielded his bat with a grace that was sublime and destined to be turned into lyrics by the game’s bards in the decades to come.
Having sent the last telegram to Harold Larwood congratulating him on his bowling performance at Brisbane during the Bodyline series of 1933, Archie Jackson would sign off from this earth on Feb 16th, 1933, the day England regained the Ashes.