February 26, 1929. New South Wales (NSW) had already claimed the Sheffield Shield, but South Australia (SA) had their eyes on the second spot. A lower-order fightback in a topsy-turvy match helped them set Queensland 187. Then Clarrie Grimmett kept punctuating a fourth-innings chase masterminded by Roy Levy as the match kept seesawing with every passing over. Abhishek Mukherjee recalls a day of madness at Brisbane.
Though Don Bradman was yet to shift base to Adelaide, Victor Richardson’s South Australia were a strong outfit. A lot of that had to do with Clarrie Grimmett, who, even at 37, wheeled away over after over on those hot afternoons, refusing to budge an inch.
Remember, this was the 1920s, the decade of shirtfront wickets where bowlers often had to toil for hours for batsmen to make mistakes. Unless it rained, it was unusual for a bowler to go past the wide blade of a Bill Woodfull or a Bill Ponsford. Bradman would take things to another level in the 1930s, but at this stage he was still relatively new to First-Class cricket.
England had drubbed Australia 4-1 that antipodean summer. Grimmett would take 23 wickets in the series (Don Blackie would finish second among Australians, and he had 14; nobody else had 9). Unfortunately, Grimmett’s wickets would cost 44.52 apiece. Even among Englishmen, only Somerset left-arm spinner ‘Farmer’ White would get more (25).
There was also the case of Tim Wall, Australia’s most potent fast bowler of the era. Wall could be genuinely quick, but he went without a proper new-ball partner almost throughout his Test career. Of course, his Test debut was still a couple of weeks away, but the potential was evident. He was in terrific form as well, with 19 wickets from his last 3 matches.
None of that mattered, for NSW had already clinched the Sheffield Shield for the season. They sat smugly on 19 points with a match in hand. Though SA had two matches left, they were on a mere 8. Two outright wins would fetch them 10, which would take them to within a point of NSW. Queensland, playing their last match, were on 4, while Victoria had finished their season on 14.
In other words, SA had a chance of finishing at second spot (a team got 5 points for an outright win and 3 for a first-innings lead). The best Queensland could do, on the other hand, was to beat SA and hope they did not come last.
185 and 188 and 183
It had rained in Brisbane over the past few days, though the pitch seemed fine when Vic Richardson won the toss and batted first. ‘Pud’ Thurlow bowled with pace and took out two wickets while skipper Otto Nothling got one, and SA were reduced to 36 for 3.
The sky got overcast and the light deteriorated, but Gordon Harris and Colin Alexander continued to bat amidst the gloom. Harris’ 61 came in three hours, and Alexander’s 66 in two-and-a-half. They batted on grimly, over after over, adding 94 runs for the fourth wicket.
It was not exciting batting, but effective nevertheless. SA collapsed once William Rowe went past Harris’ bat. From 130 for 3 they were bundled out for 185, Ron Oxenham taking 3 for 30.
The sun shone brightly on the second day, but there was little difference in scoring rate. Wall tore in, scything through the Queensland top-order, reducing them to 15 for 4 in no time. When Rowe was shoved away by Wall’s partner Henry Whitfield 6 runs later, SA’s 185 suddenly seemed unassailable.
But Francis Thompson dug in as Nothling came to his aid. Wall bowled with hostility, getting the ball to come at batsmen at express pace, but the pair managed to see him off. Those 4 wickets at the top would remain his only ones in the innings.
John Scott used to be reasonably quick at his prime, but he was forty at the time of the match. Tim Carlton could switch between left-arm seam and spin, but he could not create an impact either.
So the onus fell on Grimmett. Thompson’s run out helped, but the fielders did not on a pitch where batsmen had ample time to wait for the ball. A catch was spilled in each of three successive overs from Grimmett.
Not that it mattered to the great man. If he had winced, the omnipresent cap covered his expression. He continued, first removing Nothling for 50, then Frank Gough. Eric Bensted shouldered the burden at 148 for 8, adding 31 crucial runs with Percy Hornibrook.
The lead came amidst tumultuous cheer as Hornibrook drove Wall through cover and the batsmen ran three. Queensland secured a 3-run lead in the end.
Richardson and Harris added 29 on the second evening before Ron Oxenham came to the party, removing Harris and wicketkeeper Alfred Hack. Richardson perished himself the morning after, as did Alexander, and the score read an abysmal 41 for 4.
Now Whitfield rose to the challenge. Douglas McKay helped him add 89, but it was really Whitfield who made the difference, dominating Hornibrook, Thurlow, and Oxenham, scoring 65 out of 113 SA managed during his stay. The SA tail caved in thereafter in an encore of the first innings: they were bowled out for 183 with Hornibrook taking 5 for 60 and Oxenham 4 for 43.
Queensland needed 181 against Grimmett; and Wall.
No levity there…
The pair of Clarence McCoombe and Leo O’Connor did not evoke memories of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe. They batted with character against Wall, taking advantage of the wayward bowling of Whitfield.
However, once Wall got an opening he took out McCoombe, O’Connor, and Thompson while Grimmett trapped Nothling leg-before. Roy Levy and Bensted saw Queensland through to stumps; the score read 80 for 4.
A word about Levy, one of the earliest prominent Jewish cricketers to play First-Class cricket in Australia, will not be out of place here. Little of build and deft of footwork, Levy was a proficient driver and cutter of the ball. He was playing his second match. Earlier that month he had become the second Queenslander to score a hundred on debut. He would later lead Queensland and play baseball for Australia in 1936, but masterminding a fourth-innings chase against Grimmett was as challenging a task as any of these.
Benstead went early next morning, trying to nudge Grimmett but only playing it to Carlton at short-leg. Queensland needed another 85, and almost certainly Levy had to do the bulk of the scoring.
Thankfully, he had the Oxenham for company. Not only was Oxenham good enough to be branded as a bowling all-rounder, he was also vastly experienced. On the New Zealand tour season before, Oxenham had scored 169 against North Otago.
He decided to hold one end up as Levy carried on. This was uncharacteristic of Oxenham’s natural style. The over-defensive mode almost got the better of Oxenham when he bottom-edged one from Carlton, only for ball to roll between his legs and the stumps. Scott bothered him too, even hitting him on his chest, but Oxenham stayed put.
Little Levy carried on patiently, a handkerchief tied around his throat to soak the perspiration. He waited for the loose delivery: if they pitched up, he drove forcefully past mid-off, and he cut hard to anything pitched short. His fifty came up in 103 minutes, and even then he showed no signs of lapse of concentration.
Somewhat out of desperation, Richardson took Grimmett off but brought him back 15 runs later, in the last over before lunch, with Queensland requiring a mere 21 with 5 wickets in hand. With Levy going strong at one end and Oxenham looking firm, surely it was Queensland’s match to lose?
That sly old fox
It was now or never for Grimmett. He had been there before. Sure, he did not get the wickets, but he hated going for runs. He always had. He would certainly make sure those Queenslanders had to battle for every single of those 21 runs.
At this stage, Grimmett was bowling to a leg-trap consisting of five men. There was a solitary slip, and given his metronomic precision, he did not need more. However, while it kept the runs in check, the line did not buy him wickets.
The third ball of Grimmett’s over skidded through; it brushed Oxenham’s pad and landed into the big gloves of Hack. The appeal was upheld, and for some time they debated over the method of dismissal. Then they realised that a solitary bail had come off.
This is how The Brisbane Courier described the incident: “A curious thing happened. A bail fell from the top of the stumps, and following an appeal, Oxenham walked towards the pavilion. There was much speculation as to what happened, it being stated, variously, that he had been bowled, stumped, and caught. Oxenham had been bowled, but nobody was more surprised than himself. The ball struck him between the legs, its progress was impeded, and, as he staggered back over his wickets, the ball dropped towards the ground, and caused the bail to topple off.”
The next ball was a googly, something Rowe clearly did not anticipate. The ball hit Rowe on the pad. The umpire raised his finger, took the bails off, and walked for lunch. The hat-trick would have to wait, but Grimmett had suddenly breathed life into the SA effort: 21 was certainly gettable with 5 wickets in hand, but it did not look that easy at this stage.
History is not eloquent on exactly what the Queenslanders had for lunch that day, but for some reason Gough stepped out “several feet out of his crease” and had a wild heave at the first ball he faced after lunch. Grimmett beat Gough comprehensively the first ball after lunch, and Hack whipped the bails away.
Not only did Grimmett complete the only hat-trick of his career, not only did he take a five-for, but he also pushed SA back into the game almost single-handedly.
Amidst much trepidation, Hornibrook saw off the rest of the over.
The focus shifted to Wall and Levy, two men who had been outstanding in the match before that wily fox became the centre of attention with his hat-trick.
Runs and a wicket and some more runs
There was an audible sigh around the ground when Levy took a run off Wall’s first ball. The first three balls zoomed past Hornibrook without disturbing him, his bat, or the stumps.
Then Wall bowled a no-ball, and they got their single; and Levy drove Wall back, this time for three. The over had fetched 5. Queensland needed 16 as Grimmett took the ball again. Surely Levy would want to play out the over? This was, after all, Grimmett…
Not quite. They ran a single amidst a collective gasp. The target came down by a run, but was it wise of Levy to expose a tail-ender against the greatest contemporary spinner in the world?
But Hornibrook kept out the second ball of the over; then the third; and the fourth; and fifth; and sixth; and seventh. Grimmett did not hesitate to take risks against a rank tail-ender: he tossed it up more and more, but Hornibrook kept meeting everything with a dead bat. The 300-strong crowd, nervous after Levy ran that single, cheered him on as the over went on.
And then he found the eighth ball of the over in the slot and drove it past mid-on, against the turn. The boundary brought the target down to 10.
Wall went flat out in search of a wicket, but Levy and Hornibrook survived. Levy got two singles, both through the cordon, while Hornibrook managed to get one through the leg-trap. They now needed 7.
And then, inexplicably, Richardson took Grimmett off — 11 balls after he had turned the match on its head with a hat-trick. Why would anyone do that?
Carlton did not disappoint, and bowled a maiden to Levy amidst much tension. He did not get a wicket, but he made sure Wall could have a go at Hornibrook.
Wall resumed. Once again the ball pierced the slip cordon — this time off Hornibrook’s blade. And when Wall deviated in line, Levy flicked him calmly for three. Then Hornibrook ran another single, bringing the target to 3.
Surely Grimmett would return?
But Richardson persisted with Carlton. Perhaps the idea was to make one of the two men take risks off him, for nobody would ever dream of chancing his arm against Grimmett.
Richardson gave Carlton an army of fielders around the bat. He stood at silly mid-off himself. And after successfully running singles to bring the target down at a consistent pace, Hornibrook — for reasons best known to him — decided to finish things off with a boundary. He went for big hits and mostly missed, and was bowled by Carlton off the sixth ball of the over.
Thurlow walked out. Three seasons later he would get run out for a duck, leaving Bradman stranded on 299. He would not play another Test. He would finish with a First-Class average of 5.31 and a highest score of 23.
In other words, he was the quintessential No. 11.
Had this been Grimmett, no one would have given Thurlow a semblance of a chance. However, Carlton was not as relentless, and Thurlow lived to tell the tale.
Wall opted for a line outside off, teasing Levy to no avail.
“Bowl on the wicket,” roared the crowd, and Wall obliged. The single brought down the target to 2; and Thurlow survived the rest of the over.
Even at this stage Richardson continued with Carlton as Grimmett looked on.
Almost predictably, Levy drove the second ball to mid-on and stole a run. The scores were levelled. SA could not win the match anymore, but they could still tie it.
Unfortunately, despite the probing line and length of Carlton, Hornibrook survived the over, playing out 6 balls on the trot. “The crowd could only gasp as the ball either banged into Thurlow’s bat or flew over the top of the stumps,” reported The Brisbane Courier.
And even at this stage, Richardson opted for Wall, not Grimmett.
There was little doubt that Grimmett was the greatest cricketer on the ground that day. His supreme career records were built around his relentless accuracy, insatiable stamina, and able to control the amount and direction of turn without visible change in action.
He never lost control of line and length, even as the batsmen chanced their arms. He was as calm a man you wanted at this situation. Richardson might have had his reasons to keep Grimmett away from the attack, but nine decades after the match the decision seems counterintuitive.
But let us get back to the match.
Once again Wall bowled wide of off-stump with an umbrella of fielders protecting that side of the pitch. In fact, barring McKay, every single man was summoned to the off-side ring. Levy, despite his front-foot brilliance, refused to get sucked into expansive drives. The crowd almost demanded a wide every time he let one go.
Then, as Wall bowled his fourth consecutive ball outside off, Levy could not hold back any longer. He had an almighty swish, connected it well — only to hit it straight to Grimmett at cover-point and almost began to walk back.
And — horror, horror — Grimmett, the man with no nerves, the man impossible to outdo in a mental tussle, grassed the chance.
What was the chance like? In Fifty Incredible Cricket Matches, Patrick Murphy described it as “a simple catch”.
The Sydney Morning Herald, on the other hand, reported it thus: “The ball travelled straight into the hands of Grimmett. It was, however, a severe shot, and just off the ground, with the result that Grimmett failed to hold it.”
Launceston Examiner wrote that Levy “drove the ball forcibly a few feet above the ground to Grimmett, who touched it with the end of his fingers, dropping a very difficult catch.”
The Brisbane Courier echoed the opinion: “The ball, only a foot above the ground, and travelling at a tremendous rate, struck the tips of the fieldsman’s fingers and rolled to the ground … it was too hot to hold.”
It seems it was not the easiest of chances, after all.
And amidst the confusion, Thurlow called and set off for the winning run.
Grimmett was obviously not in the best of moods after being taken off the attack in a crunch situation. The dropped catch turned out to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
He did not concentrate on getting it right; nor did he wait for Wall — or anyone — to run up to the stumps; the throw, wide and wild, evaded every fielder, and the run was completed.
They never let Levy walk back to the pavilion, for he (as well as Thurlow) was chaired off by the small but enthusiastic group of spectators present at the ground.
Queensland spoiled SA’s party by securing 5 points. They moved to third spot. SA had a chance to rise up the ladder in their final match, but Bradman floored them with a second-innings 175.
Set 446, SA put up a spirited chase, reaching 207 for 2 at one stage. Even at 360 for 7 there was a chance, but two run outs put the match beyond their scope. SA finished last, with 8 points.
South Australia 185 (Gordon Harris 61, Colin Alexander 66; Ron Oxenham 3 for 30) and 183 (Henry Whitfield 65, Douglas McKay 40; Percy Hornibrook 5 for 60, Ron Oxenham 4 for 43) lost to Queensland 188 (Otto Nothling 50, Eric Bensted 40; Tim Wall 4 for 57, Henry Whitfield 3 for 31) and 181 for 9 (Roy Levy 85*; Tim Wall 3 for 57, Clarrie Grimmett 5 for 49) by 1 wicket.