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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: “I shall still bear this incident in mind against Armstrong”

 By: Jack Hobbs on Warwick Armstrong, in 1924.

“‘Australianism’ means single-minded determination to win – to win within the laws but, if necessary, to the last limit within them,” John Arlott had written in 1949, a year after Don Bradman’s Invincibles had completed their unblemished conquest of England.

Though Australia have bullied every opposition at some point of time over the course of cricket history, they have reserved their best for England.

Australia’s unbeaten Ashes run from 1989 to 2002-03 provides an indication of the domination. English cricketers of the era talk the story of how deep the scars ran. Then there were the 5-0 whitewashes, of 2006-07 and 2013-14. And Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson tormented them physically in the 1974-75 Ashes.

But no Australian has exerted as much psychological pressure on Englishmen as Warwick Armstrong. So aggressive and uncompromising was Armstrong that Steve Waugh’s “mental disintegration” seems almost juvenile in nature.

The demoralising effect of Armstrong on English cricket has probably been bettered only by Bradman the batsman – but certainly not the captain.

Before talking about Armstrong the captain let me just touch upon his cricketing skills. For a country so rich in talent, Australia have produced surprisingly few world-class all-rounders, but Armstrong (2,863 runs at 38.68, 87 wickets at 33.59) was one of them. In First-Class cricket the numbers (47 with bat, 20 with ball) sound outstanding.

His methods were ugly. His leg-breaks seldom turned, and he often bowled defensively – but with nagging accuracy for long hours. His batting looked laboured, even awkward. That he achieved so much as an all-rounder despite his unattractive cricket merely added to his image.

Also read: Cricket history in quotes, part 18: “You’ve got a better chance of lifting the seams for Jack Gregory and ‘Stork’ Hendry there”

Armstrong led Australia ten times across two series, both Ashes, in 1920-21 and 1921. In the first series, Australia recorded the first 5-0 whitewash in history. In the second they won the first three Tests before drawing the other two. Their only two defeats on the 1921 tour came in their last four tour matches; neither was against a county side.

Armstrong remains the only captain to stay undefeated in a career of 10 or more Tests.

While discussing Armstrong, however, another set of numbers probably deserve to be mentioned ahead of his career statistics. At 133 kg (some say 140) he remains the heaviest person to play international cricket. His 190-cm frame seemed almost irrelevant. And his boat-like shoes (32 cm x 18 cm) matched his tent-like shirt (85 cm x 26 cm). The Big Ship, they used to call him.

Warwick Armstrong. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia
Warwick Armstrong. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

In 10 for 66 and All That, Arthur Mailey described an incident during the match against Leicestershire on the 1921 tour: “A ball, after hitting him on the top slope of his stomach, ricocheted past his nose and after fifty or sixty feet in the air, was caught by [Hanson] Carter, the wicket-keeper, who had hardly moved from his original position. Warwick opened his eyes lazily, affected a Falstaffian smile, and after muttering something about ‘wasps being bad today’, moved over to point.”

While there is an obvious exaggeration in this, one can see why Armstrong became a favourite subject of Mailey the cartoonist.

On another occasion, in 1921, a boy followed Armstrong at Southampton. Pleased by his loyalty, Armstrong asked the boy for his autograph book. who responded with “please, Sir, you are the only bit of decent shade in the place.”

Make no mistake: the bulk never hampered Armstrong’s fitness. He bowled 733 overs on his final tour, in 1921, and took exactly a hundred wickets, at 14. He also scored over a thousand runs at 42, which was also his age on the tour.

“He gets himself into rare physical condition and can bat and bowl all day, irrespective of how fierce the sun’s rays may be,” wrote Jack Worrall of him in The Australasian.

The Armstrong image would not have been possible without his bulk or unattractive cricket. But we have barely touched upon the tip of the iceberg here.

Warwick Armstrong bowling. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia
Warwick Armstrong bowling. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

He was a nuisance even over a decade before he was appointed captain. At Headingley in 1909, Jack Hobbs pulled Charles Macartney, set off for a run, slipped, and dislodged a bail in the process. Hobbs left under the impression that he was out – before realising that he had completed the stroke before he hit the wicket. He appealed to the umpire, who obviously ruled him not out.

The Australians went into a furious verbal protest. While cricket has hardly ever been a gentleman’s game, misbehaving against umpires has always been considered sacrilege. They also pointed fingers (literally) at the batsman. “The chief offender was Warwick Armstrong who got very nasty and unsportsmanlike,” Hobbs recalled.

Two balls later Macartney bowled a straight ball that Hobbs did absolutely nothing to. He “lost his grip” and was bowled middle-stump, just like that. “I did not know whether I was standing on my head or my heels,” he later admitted.

Armstrong’s gamesmanship had managed to ruffle one of the greatest and most unflappable batsmen of all time. Fifteen years later, Hobbs wrote that he had still not been able to Armstrong.

Later in that series at The Oval, debutant Frank Woolley waited to face the first ball of his Test career – off Armstrong. But Armstrong was in no mood to bowl. He bowled trial balls (these used to be legal) down the side of the pitch. And continued.

The idea was, as Woolley admitted in King of Games, to wear a debutant down mentally: “It was rather a trying time for me, especially as it was my first Test innings.”

This farce continued for 19 minutes (no typo there). Armstrong kept on bowling, and the fielders ambled to the boundary to recover the ball.

EHD Sewell did not mince words when he said Armstrong “was trying to learn how slowly he could make a bowled ball reach the screen.”

It was annoying, but it was perfectly legal, and the objective had been achieved: Woolley scored only 8 on Test debut. They had to change the laws…

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Between 1909 and The Great War, Armstrong focused on bullying Australian administrators. He ran into an argument with Victoria Cricket Association overpayments and was forced to apologise following a hearing. He was also part of the Big Six that took on the national board and opted out of the 1912 England tour as a result.

VCA replaced Armstrong as Victoria captain with Arnold Seitz. In The Big Ship, the most definitive book on Armstrong, Gideon Haigh called Seitz “a stooge at a gerrymandered player’s vote.”

Armstrong was named stand-in captain for a match next season. He demanded a full-time appointment. VCA refused. Armstrong resigned at lunch on Day One. VCA gave in next season, and Armstrong promptly led Victoria to their first title in seven seasons.

But all that was before the War.

Now imagine yourself as an English fan of the early days of the 1920s now. Your country was still recovering from the War. You were clinging on to cricket for some joy amidst the gloom and despair. And the monster from that 1909 tour, now 140 kg, came along to lead Australia.

Armstrong was initially elected Australia captain for only the first Test at Sydney in 1920-21, that too “on the odd vote”. But his attitude as captain first came to the limelight on captaincy debut. While awaiting his turn to bat at Sydney, he was spotted – padded up – in the members’ bar sipping whisky with his friends. He then scored 158.

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When Australia came over to England, Lionel Tennyson declared the English innings closed at Old Trafford at 5.50 PM. The rain had already reduced the match to two days. According to Law 54, there was a restriction on a declaration inside the last 100 minutes of Day One of a two-day match.

Armstrong’s eyes probably lit up in glee when Carter pointed this out. Armstrong sat on the pitch, waiting for the Englishmen to resume. Even then this would have been borderline normal, but Armstrong, who had bowled the last over before the commotion, bowled the one after the break as well.

This was obviously illegal, but who cared about the laws as long as nobody stopped you?

Was the act deliberate? When confronted with the question, Armstrong merely “smiled and looked away,” wrote Haigh.

Just before the fifth Test, at The Oval, Armstrong refused to declare against Kent despite a 439-run lead. He then dismissed his teammates, who naturally wanted to entertain the paying audience: “There’s a Test coming on and I’m not overworking my bowlers for anybody.”

After the match, Lord Harris, President of Kent CCC, commented that he would be “very happy to see ten of the Australian team again.”

In The Oval Test, he refused to take the field for some time due to rain. And in the England second innings he asked his part-time bowlers to bowl whenever they wanted to. Then he retreated to the boundary, refusing to display further interest in the match.

They booed him, but that was as effective on Armstrong as, to quote Alan Gibson, “a peashooter on the Great Pyramid”. Armstrong was too seasoned. If anything, he probably thrived on barracking.

In Masters of Cricket, Jack Fingleton mentioned a Sheffield Shield incident from Armstrong’s later days to demonstrate how barrack-proof Armstrong was: “The big fellow … was raising his arm to return the ball when a spectator at his back shouted: ‘Come on Armstrong! Throw it in!’ Armstrong at once dropped his arm, walked slowly back to his position in the slips, then softly lobbed the ball back to the bowler.”

The Oval Test gave birth to the apocryphal tale involving a disinterested Armstrong strolling around the boundary. He picked up a newspaper that blew towards him and started reading. When questioned about this, the response was typical: “I wanted to see who we were playing.”

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Against Sussex, Jack Gregory was under the impression that he had edged one and “walked”. At the non-striker’s end, Armstrong asked the umpire’s opinion. When the umpire informed that there was no snick, he immediately recalled Gregory, who smashed 53.

This did not go down well with Sussex captain Arthur Gilligan, who later commented that Gregory had “played the right game”. Armstrong’s response was prompt: “the more you play this game, the more you will find out that you will be given out many times when you are out and vice versa.”

On that tour, he refused to accept at least one MCC-appointed umpire for a match. His teammates had to outvote him. “Warwick had strong dislikes and cast-iron convictions. To him reciprocity was a coward’s weapon,” wrote Mailey.

The Englishmen did not take to him too kindly. They were shaken by him, his antics. “Hard-bitten”, “grim”, and “pitiless”, they called him and his band.

But he received a hero’s welcome back home, where he was usually heckled by the crowd. Even Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes became a part of this universal adulation: “If ever there was a man singled out as a king of sport it was Mr Armstrong, who had gone out to give the people of England a chance to regain The Ashes and who had returned, like Imperial Caesar, who came, saw and conquered.”

More than anything, Australian sport accepted Armstrong as a hero, perhaps even a role model. They still believe in his principles. Haigh called him “the first modern cricketer”. That label applies more to Australia than anywhere else.

Arlott could probably have used only “Warwick Armstrong” to define Australianism.

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