The Stan McCabe of Politics

by Bernard Whimpress

There are (or probably I should say were) few more beautiful places on Earth to muse on matters cricket, and perhaps even Life and Death, than the north-western mound of the Adelaide Oval, late afternoon, in the shade of the Moreton Bay fig trees, with a light westerly breeze curling from behind the back of the old Members’ Stands.

I was there with a group of friends for the South African Test in 1998 when the focus of the moment moved from the match in progress to a game elsewhere.

‘I cannot agree with John Howard’s claim that Don Bradman is the greatest living Australian’, I said, evoking a spirited response from my companions.

One, a friend, a retired teacher of law, a Renaissance man, and ardent follower of cricket, was most taken aback.

Surely, you can’t go past The Don’, he replied. ‘You of all people as a sports historian would surely have to choose him!’

Now the italicised ‘surely’ and ‘you’ had forced me on to the back foot. I had to bring an alternative to mind. Instead I offered a deflection, a leg glance of a reply.

‘I know which Australian whose death will move me the greatest, whom I shall probably cry for – Gough Whitlam!’

The same friend was startled.

‘You won’t cry for The Don?’

‘He was before my time, he is an old man’, I said, certain in the knowledge that his cricket career ended in the year of my birth. Gough had escaped being an old man, and would never be an old man. I didn’t say this was because he was a man of vision before the VISION THING had been invented, but because he was part of my youth. One clings to parts of one’s youth.

There is no arguing that Don Bradman is the best batsman in any Australian cricket team and he always batted at three but as Mark Waugh clipped a delivery off his toes to the mid-wicket boundary I envisaged Gough, for the first time, as a cricketer. He would be a natural number four, the symbol of greatest possibility, the Stan McCabe (or Mark Waugh) of the team.

The great West Indian political and cricket writer C.L.R. James discussed Bradman perceptively in his book, Beyond a Boundary as:

the cricketer of the age which can be called the age of J.M. Keynes … Like Keynes, Bradman systematically and scientifically used all there was, carried it to an extreme … Despite the fact that some gifted individuals continued to express their personality, cricket followed the lines that had been laid down by Bradman. The systematic refusal to take risks, and to concentrate on what could be reasonably safe dominated cricket for years.

It is unusual to think of Bradman as a safety-first cricketer, particularly when his own scoring rate was 50 runs per hour. James would certainly have brooked arguments with Whitlam’s predecessor by two as Australian Labor Party leader, H.V. Evatt, who wrote an appraisal of Bradman in the 1938 Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack and noted the phenomenal speed of his scoring.

Yet for all his brilliance there was safety about The Don. It was not until the 1930 tour of England that he hit his first six in a first-class match and that against Oxford University. He only struck the ball over the boundary six times in his 80 test match innings. His famous hook and pull shots brought the ball quickly to ground.

James points to Bradman’s admission in his autobiography, Farewell to Cricket, that it was only after he reached his 100th first-class century, against India in Sydney in 1947, that he could let himself off a leash.

The Indians had a new ball, but I set about the making of strokes in the way I would always have loved to had circumstances permitted … I was able to add another 71 runs before being dismissed. The runs were scored in 45 minutes, and I class that particular section of my innings as about the most satisfying of my career.

James wonders why a man who dominated bowlers like no-one before or since was unable to remove his inhibitions at the crease.

A player who was able to was Bradman’s contemporary, Stan McCabe. After England had made 8-658 declared in the First Test at Nottingham in 1938 McCabe saved Australia from disaster with one of the greatest innings in cricket history. McCabe made 232 out of 300 while he was at the wicket, including 72 of a last wicket partnership of 77 with Fleetwood-Smith in 28 minutes. Bradman wrote of this, ‘towards the end I could scarcely watch the play. My eyes were filled as I drank in the glory of his shots’. Bradman also summoned his team-mates onto the dressing room balcony: ‘Come and watch this. You’ll never see anything like it again.’

McCabe was able to crash through on two other occasions in Test cricket. In the First Test of the Bodyline series at Sydney in 1932-33 when his 187 not out nearly stopped the dread theory dead in its tracks; and at Johannesburg  in 1935-36 against South Africa where he made 189 not out. Elsewhere he crashed, as often as not, for small totals.

Whitlam’s career was built on crashing through and never did he play a McCabe hand as boldly as after winning government in December 1972. He immediately ended Australian involvement in the Vietnam War and set up a two-man ministry with deputy Lance Barnard to administer twenty-six portfolios for a fortnight.

The Liberal party was now in the field and an appropriate cricket image would see Whitlam on strike against a top-class attack in blinding light. Each ball is well directed at the off-stump and each is blasted past helpless cover fieldsmen for eight successive fours. Of course, a chance or a loose stroke would have to come. Even if it meant bending the laws for a dodgy decision, it would be taken.

At the change of ends Malcolm Fraser at mid-off lobbed the ball to a googly bowler. ‘Batting was never meant to be this easy’, he said.

Or words to that effect.

About Bernard Whimpress

Freelance historian (mainly sport) who has just written his 40th book. Will accept writing commissions with reasonable pay. Among his most recent books are George Giffen: A Biography, The Towns: 100 Years of Glory 1919-2018, Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man (with Graeme Ryan) and The MCC Official Ashes Treasures (5th edition).


  1. Richard Jones says

    YOU must still have been a lad, Bernard, when Fraser and Kerr combined in that infamous act of treachery in late ’75.
    At the time I was living in Port Moresby. The location didn’t matter.
    We protested for 48 hours solid outside the Australian High Commission in the Moresby suburb of Waigani. The tropical nights were balmy so shift change-overs presented no great difficulties.

    Got a mention in despatches, too, as Little Tommy Whatsisface, the Aussie High Commissioner, fired off telexes about proceedings to Canberra.

    And I’m old enough to remember Don Bradman, not to mention Geelong’s Lindsay Hassett, Ian Johnson, Don Tallon, Big Bill Johnston and a raft of other crik. greats.

    Not just remember them. Saw them in person at the G. Along with Peter May, Colin Cowdrey (in his first incarnation), Edrich, Freddy Trueman, Statham et al

  2. Tony Roberts says

    Odd that CLR James should have likened DGB to Keynes…but then, that’s an old Trotskyite for you. I would have thought Keynes far too imaginative and unorthodox (in oh, so many ways) to embody the Don. Thomas Edison seems more like it to me (and probably to Little Johnny, as well): undeniably brilliant and relentlessly productive; but cold, calculating – definitely no tearjerker upon demise.

    But Gough! Gough! Gough!, yes indeed: the master of the ‘where were you?’ moments. In Australian cricketing terms, you’re pretty much on the money with Stan McCabe. I also think of Botham at Leeds and VVS at Kolkata overturning the follow-ons, to name two more cricketing Goughs. Any other nominations?

Leave a Comment