Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….
Quote: “You’ve been asking for a punch all night and I’ll give you one.”
By: Clem Hill to Peter McAlister, February 3, 1912.
In this piece we will again make an attempt – futile, perhaps – to establish that money has always played a major role in cricket, and that it was seldom a sport played by a group of well-mannered gentlemen and governed by another.
The incident dates back to 1912, months before Australia toured England for a unique tour. They would be part of the first-ever Triangular Test tournament (that also involved South Africa). The three teams would play each other thrice, and the three Anglo-Australian Tests would also constitute an Ashes.
But there was a problem brewing for several years. In those days the Australian Board of Control used to adopt a stance too authoritarian (even tyrannical, perhaps) for the comfort of the cricketers. Australian cricketers were often treated with the same disdain professionals were handled in England.
Worse, the revenue share was abysmal. The players still held rights to select their manager of choice for overseas tours, but the board had decided to strip them of the rights as well.
Despite that, the cricketers had exercised restraint for some time, but a storm started brewing Australia hosted England in 1911-12, a series Australia lost 1-4.
Six Australian star cricketers (referred to as The Big Six) – captain Clem Hill, vice-captain Warwick Armstrong, Victor Trumper, Vernon Ransford, Hanson Carter, and ‘Tibby’ Cotter – signed a petition that they would opt out of the England tour unless Frank Laver was appointed the manager.
As captain Hill was also part of the selection committee alongside Peter McAlister and Frank Iredale. Hill requested the inclusion of Charlie Macartney for the fourth Test as a replacement for Roy Minnett. Having won the first Test, Australia had lost the next two to trail 1-2 in the series.
There was merit in this, as Minnett had scored 181 runs from 3 Tests in the series at 30.17 till then. In his last Test till that point, Macartney had been in poor form in domestic cricket but one must remember here that his career as a world-class batsman was still work in progress.
Macartney had come under the influence of Trumper about a year before the incident. The focus had shifted to batting from left-arm spin. In his previous Test, against South Africa the summer before, he had scored 137 and 53. Just over two years ago he had taken 11 for 85 to win a Test at The Oval.
Macartney had been left out of the first three Tests. Shortly after the third Test got over, Hill wired to McAlister, requesting Macartney’s inclusion. McAlister opposed this vehemently. Before Iredale voiced his opinion, McAlister wired back to Hill: “… opposed to Macartney’s inclusion. If Iredale agrees with you as to Macartney’s inclusion, I favour yourself standing down not Minnett.”
This was as ridiculous a statement as possible. Hill drop himself? At that point, Hill was the leading run-scorer in the world. He would hold that record for another twelve years. He was also in a decent form: in his previous innings, at Adelaide, he had top-scored with 98. In the first Test, he had scored 46 and 65.
What kind of a person was McAlister? He was an ordinary cricketer, but that is probably irrelevant here. What is worth a mention is that at forty and well past his prime, McAlister had appointed himself vice-captain and treasurer for the 1909 Ashes.
Shortly afterwards, the board announced that the players would not have a say in the appointment of managers. They appointed George Crouch for the England tour.
The selection committee met at Sydney six days before the fourth Test. This brought Hill and McAlister face to face. Neither party bothered to act civil.
McAlister had a go at Hill’s leadership abilities over the past two Tests. Hill responded that McAlister was “no judge of cricket”, adding “did you ever win anything except second-rate games?”
At this stage, McAlister had perhaps lost all sense of reason. He came up with a ridiculous response: “I am a better captain than Trumper, Armstrong, and yourself put together. You are the worst captain I have ever seen.”
This was too much for Hill. “You’ve been asking for a punch all night and I’ll give you one,” he uttered and went on to do exactly that.
Iredale and secretary Sydney Smith Jr were the only others in the room. Several historians have tried to put together exactly what followed, of which the most complete version is in Gideon Haigh’s Next Man In.
What followed is almost certainly without an equal in any selection committee meeting. The captain of a Test side and a national selector got engaged in a bloody duel for about twenty minutes with a third selector and the board secretary trying to separate them.
Accounts vary, but almost certainly Hill had to be physically restrained from throwing McAlister out of the third-storey window. Then Hill resigned as a selector and stormed out of the room with McAlister yelling “come back and fight, you coward.”
Perhaps we should refer to Iredale’s official version, as published by the contemporary press: “They went at it hammer and tongs. Very few blows were struck. It was more like a wrestling match. Mr Smith and I did our best to part them, but they were all over the place, and when the big table was upset I was pinned in a corner. I strained my side, and still feel the effects.
“It lasted about twenty minutes. Hill, who was using his weight, would bore in on McAlister, who was bleeding profusely. It all occurred as quickly as lightning. They were both game and determined.”
The meeting still went on. Macartney was not recalled but for some reason, Hill was retained as captain. The public, who sided with The Big Six almost unanimously, gave Hill a standing ovation. Unfortunately, Hill scored only 22 and 11 as Australia lost by an innings and 225 runs (this was the Test where Jack Hobbs and Wilfred Rhodes famously added 323 for the first wicket).
He failed in the last Test as well (20 and 8). Australia lost again, but something of note happened: recalled for the Test, Macartney scored 26 and 27 and got a wicket. He would travel to England later that year.
All six cricketers withdrew from the tour as the board persisted with Crouch. Led by Syd Gregory, Australia had a poor tour in one of the century’s wettest summers in England. They won two of their six Tests (both against South Africa) and conceded The Ashes to England.
The cricketers did not warm up to Crouch. Wisden reported that he, “on getting back to Australia, lodged a scathing complaint with the Board of Control, stating that some of the players had conducted themselves so badly in England as to lead to the team being socially ostracised. He urged that in the selection of future teams something more than the ability to play cricket should be taken into consideration. It may be added here that some of the players were not at all satisfied with Mr. Crouch as manager.”
Hill, Ransford, Trumper, and Cotter never played another Test. The last two passed away before The Great War ended – Cotter in combat, Trumper of Bright’s Disease. Carter had a reasonable career after the War.
Armstrong, however, continued to torment both the board and Englishmen for some time.