On the Nose
The rise of cricket’s faceless men
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A century ago, in an office overlooking Martin Place in Sydney, the Australian cricket captain leant across the table to his fellow selector and said: “You have been asking for a punch on the jaw all night, and I’ll give you one.”
Clement Hill’s deeds as a batsman rivalled those of his friend Victor Trumper, but his place in history was sealed by that punch. Hill said it was no more than “a gentle slap”; one of the two witnesses, the cricket bureaucrat Sydney Smith, called it “a violent blow to the side of the face”. The man across the table, Peter McAlister, got off a train at Spencer Street station two days later and exclaimed: “Look at my nose!” The Argus said McAlister’s nose “was cut and there was a bruise under the left eye and numerous scratches disfigured his face”.
In the folklore of Australian cricket, Hill’s blow – followed by a prolonged wrestle during which McAlister was nearly thrown out the window – was a direct expression of how most Test captains have felt towards selectors and administrators. Ian Chappell grimaces approvingly at Hill’s name, not because they share a hometown (Adelaide) and school (Prince Alfred College), not because they were both champion batsmen, but because Chappell sees Hill as his spiritual ancestor.
The fight between Hill and McAlister had several causes, but ultimately it was over money. It was the same money fight that erupted in the World Series Cricket breakaway of 1977, again in the 1997 players’ revolt and, since an averted strike last year, continues to simmer between Australian cricketers and Cricket Australia. It revolved around the fundamental questions that hang between all professional sportspeople and their employers, now as in 1912. How is income to be fairly divided between the stars who attract it and the bodies that tend to the game on suburban Saturday afternoons? How to balance the fleeting earning years of an elite performer against the more abstract but longer-term needs of a whole sport? Are professional sports self-contained entertainments, or do they owe a debt to a broader culture of national health and fitness? These questions lie beneath this year’s lockout of the National Hockey League in the US and the face-offs between Australian sporting codes and players’ representatives over the split of broadcast rights revenue. In 1912 as now, the bigger the money pile, the bigger the fight.
Hill’s punch-up with McAlister was not the trigger for a modern era of poor behaviour by sportsmen. It was rather the end of such an era, and the beginning of 65 years of relative docility among cricketers who would be ruthlessly dominated by their bosses.
From 1878, when the first representative Australian team toured England, until 1912, cricketers enjoyed greater income and independence than they have at any time since. Members of the first team, led by ‘Handsome’ Dave Gregory, a government auditor who would become paymaster of the NSW Treasury, gambled 50 pounds apiece to form a joint-stock company and fund the trip. After 15 months touring Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the US, they came home to fireworks on Sydney Harbour, a parade up George Street, parties of unprecedented extravagance, and with full pockets. Their shareholdings had been turned into enough profit for each player to buy two houses in good Sydney suburbs. Just as importantly, Gregory’s private troupe of entertainers was acknowledged as the ‘Australian Eleven’, symbolic representatives of a nation that still yearned to exist.
The next 11 tours to England would yield more bounty and legitimacy for the players. The two factions of English cricket – ‘gentlemen’ who ran the game and occupied the plum batting positions while often receiving under-the-table largesse from promoters, and ‘professionals’ who worked full-time for their clubs for meagre wages – took turns in condemning the ‘commercial spirit’ of Australian teams. The Australians were trying to combine two new ideas, those of ‘national’ representation and of capitalist entertainment. They were caught up in boycotts, protests, fistfights, reported outbreaks of drunkenness and syphilis, and even the kidnapping of one of their players, but ultimately they had the best of both worlds, being received as gentlemen and paid better than professionals. They did not always make fabulous profits, but in their best years of 1884 and 1905 they earnt 900 pounds a man, more in nominal terms than any Australian cricketers until the 1970s and more in purchasing power than any national team ever. Only the Indian Premier League has brought cricketers similar booty.
The ‘Australian Eleven’ that toured England every two or three years was a self-owned enterprise. Their heroes, such as the bowlers Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth and Charles ‘The Terror’ Turner, the ‘Prince of Wicket-keepers’ Jack Blackham, the peerless all-rounders George Giffen and Monty Noble, and the great batsmen Billy Murdoch, Trumper, Hill and Joe Darling, were international celebrities. Now they are names on grandstands, but in their day they were superstars. Train stations would be packed with folk screaming for a glimpse of Spofforth as the Australians pulled in. In an age of mass communications but scant photography, there was a spate of impersonations on both sides of the world, in which young villains would break girls’ hearts or separate men from their cash by claiming to be Trumper or Noble and in need of a favour.
Urban populations, increasingly prosperous in the Edwardian age, craved entertainment, created celebrity and filled the cricketers’ coffers. Until 1912, there the money remained. The players owned the profits from their tours and had no intention of giving them up.
The ground shifted in 1905 with the formation of a ‘Board of Control’ led by the Sydney solicitor and future lord mayor Billy McElhone and the Melbourne paper-shuffler Ernie Bean. Following on from earlier, failed attempts by state-based administrators to rein the players in, McElhone and Bean also came armed with a modern idea: the right of a national governing body to receive and dispense income as it saw fit for the greater communal good. McElhone and Bean would be cast as the Sheriffs of Nottingham of cricket history, outfoxing and bullying the people’s heroes, even banning Noble and Trumper from playing at all in 1906. But who, really, were the ‘people’ the Board was claiming to represent?
The faceless men would turn out to be on the right side of history. Their argument was that a sporting team carrying the banner of a community ‘belonged’ to that community. The entertainers themselves would be due a portion of the public’s money, but the greater share must go to seeding the clubs and grounds and schools that kept the sport going week after week. The administrators would use that argument to subjugate players and pay them appallingly until the uprising of 1977. But even since World Series Cricket, though top cricketers are better rewarded, they do not own the game as they did before 1912. The Australian team is now closer in spirit to the pre-1912 Australian Elevens than at any time since, being a professionalised elite class rather than a collection of the best Saturday-afternoon players selectors can find, but they do not own the means of production, as it were. They work for bosses to whom they must apply, every three years, for a new collective deal, and they must wait each season to see who will gain a 12-month retainer. While well rewarded, it is tenuous. And the public by and large accepts that major sports are national cultural institutions, a way of life even, not just an enterprise for the top players.
Peter McAlister, the man on the wrong end of Clem Hill’s fist, was pivotal to the change. A middling East Melbourne opening bat, McAlister bore a grudge against the ‘closed shop’ of the Australian Eleven after being overlooked for the 1905 tour of England. His clubmate Frank Laver, who managed and played on that tour, wrote a lovely book about jolly times and fraternising with royalty. An embittered McAlister offered himself to McElhone and Bean’s project of diverting the gate money from the players. In 1909, McAlister went on the tour as the Board’s spy, as vice-captain and ‘treasurer’. He failed in every capacity, and the players kept their profits. But in 1912 his controllers had their revenge. In a dramatic few weeks, the faceless men orchestrated a ruthless campaign to destroy the players’ power. First McAlister provoked Hill by suggesting he drop himself from a Test match in Adelaide. Then the Board said it would appoint its own manager and take over the financial collections on the upcoming tour to England. Hill and five other ‘certainties’ – Trumper, Warwick Armstrong, Tibby Cotter, Hanson Carter and Vernon Ransford – said they would boycott the tour unless they could manage their own finances. In the next selection meeting, Hill traded insults with McAlister, and finally punched him. McAlister might have been asking for it all night, but someone had been asking for it for years.
Force majeure in such circumstances always seems romantic, especially from a distance, but the result was that the Board brazened out the subsequent uproar. ‘The Big Six’ were not selected for the 1912 tour, which went ahead under the leadership of discharged bankrupt Syd Gregory, nephew of Handsome Dave. Syd’s inexperienced men, known as ‘the McElhone Eleven’, were so often drunk and uncouth that they were thrown out of bars and locked up on ships; McElhone himself suggested they abandon their doomed tour early. The first wage-earning Australian team to England, they were also by some margin the worst we have ever sent.
McAlister’s nose would recover, and he would serve Victoria as a selector and administrator until his death in 1938. The balance of power by then had shifted to the national Board, where it would remain. Clem Hill would hold the Australian record for Test runs until Don Bradman, whose batting career he saw almost to the end. Bradman believed only in the power of one player – himself – and spent his career negotiating personal endorsements and deals outside cricket. He did not believe in collective bargaining and did his best to stamp out any hints of player power in his 30-odd years as a cricket administrator. Even the uprising of 1977, which set the course for the current era, saw the players trade one master for another (albeit a better-paying one). Captains such as the Chappell brothers, Richie Benaud and Steve Waugh have been forthright shop stewards for their men, but the last captain who enjoyed real power – the power of ownership and control – was Clement Hill, who, after retiring from cricket, worked as a steward and handicapper for the Victorian Amateur Turf Club, and died not long after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from injuries suffered when he fell out of a Melbourne tram.