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XI Test cricketers who played Australian Rules football at the highest level
May 28, 2007
The Australia team has a rare luxury this year: a winter off. In the professional era that means playing county cricket or having a well-earned break. A few decades ago it might have meant pulling on the football boots and changing sports for a few months. Cricinfo has rummaged through The Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers to find eleven Test cricketers (and a few reserves) who played Australian Rules football at the highest level
One of the unlikeliest-looking elite sportsmen in the modern era, Max Walker was in fact a first-class footballer before he was a first-class cricketer. When Walker arrived in Victoria from Tasmania, he was a footballer, a cricketer and an architect in training. After he took 6 for 15 in his second Test, Walker decided he couldn't keep pleasing three masters, so he quit football. He did, however, manage 85 league games for Melbourne from 1967-72. At 189 centimetres he was not overly tall but was a solid ruckman and defender. An effective fast-bowling foil for Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson, Walker played 34 Tests and although he was hardly an allrounder in cricketing terms, he was versatile off the field. He was an architect for ten years, wrote a series of bestselling anecdote-filled books, found fame and invited parody as a cricket commentator, and returned to Aussie Rules as a panellist on a Sunday football show.
Was there anything Keith Miller couldn't do? As a cricketer, he had it all - he was a fiery fast bowler and a stylish top-order batsman who would be hard-pressed to be beaten as Australia's greatest allrounder. Away from the game he was a fighter pilot during the Second World War, a charmer of the ladies and, in his younger days, an outstanding footballer who played for St Kilda from 1940-42 and again in 1946. Miller notched up 50 games and 42 goals, and it would have been more had he not moved to Sydney to pursue his cricket career. Not surprisingly, he was a versatile footballer who once kicked eight goals in a game, although he made his name as a full-back. Miller, who had first-rate kicking skills, represented Victoria at football in 1946.
In the 1940s, if a St Kilda rebound started with Keith Miller at full-back it might well have ended up with Sam Loxton at full-forward. When Miller died in 2004, Loxton said: "I was in Keith's shadow all my career ... and it was a pretty big shadow." Loxton was a useful allrounder who played 12 Tests but as a footballer he could claim to be on a level-pegging with Miller. Loxton's 41-game career lasted from 1942-46 and he booted 114 goals; like Miller, he once kicked eight goals in a match. His best year was 1944, when he topped the Saints' goalkicking with 52 and was second in the club's best and fairest.
Smart mouths and brusque personalities are hardly rare in international cricket these days but in the 1930s such brazenness was, well, just not cricket. That was unfortunate for Laurie Nash, who would have played more Test and first-class cricket but for his fiery nature. He was, however, perfectly suited to Aussie Rules and was a genuine champion for South Melbourne. When asked who was the best footballer he had ever seen, Nash replied: "I see him in the mirror every morning when I shave." He was a strong centre half-forward who played from 1933-37 and kicked a record 18 goals in a state match. Nash surprised everyone in 1938 by defecting to the less prestigious Victorian Football Association. After serving in New Guinea during the war he returned to South Melbourne in 1945 and played in the infamous "Bloodbath" grand final, finishing with 99 games and 246 goals. A dangerous fast bowler, Nash played two Tests and took ten wickets at 12.60, but amazingly was never selected for a Sheffield Shield game, competing only in tour matches and special fixtures.
The most recent player to achieve the double, Simon O'Donnell will almost certainly also be the last. The professional era in both cricket and football has made it impossible for players to continue seriously pursuing both sports and this was even the case back in 1982-83 when O'Donnell played 24 games and kicked 18 goals. He was a talented schoolboy footballer with Assumption College - an institution renowned for grooming league players - and followed in the footsteps of his father Kevin by playing for St Kilda in the VFL. However, when he made a century on his Sheffield Shield debut he was forced to choose between the sports and at 21, his football career was over.
When he retired from cricket, Warwick Armstrong was so corpulent it was impossible to believe he had ever been a trim, athletic footballer. He played his last Test at a staggering 140 kilograms but The Encyclopedia of AFL Footballers lists Armstrong as 191 centimetres and 84kg when he played in the VFL some 20 years earlier. He played 16 games and kicked 18 goals from 1898-1900 and was a member of South Melbourne's losing grand final side in 1899. He was renowned for his long kicking and reportedly managed place-kicks of up to 65 metres. Armstrong is the only Australian captain on the list; Clem Hill and Victor Richardson excelled in South Australia but did not play in the VFL. Richardson's football career was especially brilliant - he captained the state side and was a runner-up in the major individual award, the Magarey Medal.
Like Richardson and Hill, Gil Langley represented South Australia at football but he also played four VFL games for Essendon in 1943. As a munitions worker, he was transferred to Victoria for a year and was a reserve in Essendon's losing grand final side. He had an outstanding 12 years with Sturt in the South Australian National Football League, playing 163 games and kicking 341 goals. His Test career did not overlap with his football days though, and it was not until 1951-52 that he debuted as Australia's wicketkeeper. He was the country's first choice behind the stumps for 26 Tests, until 1956-57.
Whether it's true or not, the legend of Dr Roy Park's only Test is a classic. The story goes that his wife bent down to pick up her knitting and missed her husband's entire Test career, as he was bowled first ball in his only innings. Years later he admitted he had not been to bed the previous night because he was supervising a difficult birth. As a footballer, he was less of a failure. The 'Little Doc' stood only 165cm and weighed in at a jockey-like 56kg, making him about one-third size of his good friend Warwick Armstrong. Park darted through packs on the football field and scored 146 goals in his 57 games from 1912-15. He played for University and Melbourne, and in 1913 topped the league's goalkicking with 53. In 1915, Park quit the game in disgust after he was suspended for striking an opponent despite three witnesses saying he did not throw a punch. He was the father-in-law of Ian Johnson, who captained Australia in 17 Tests.
Like Miller and Loxton at St Kilda, Albert Hartkopf and Roy Park were footballing team-mates at University. And like Park, Hartkopf was a doctor who only played one Test for Australia. He kicked 87 goals in his 48 VFL matches from 1908-14 - the University club disbanded in 1915 and did not reform due to the high rate of casualties among its players during the war. A legspinning allrounder, Hartkopf played his only Test at the age of 35 in 1924-25. His bowling figures were unflattering - he claimed 1 for 134 for the match and his only victim was the England No. 11. However, in the first innings he made 80 batting at No. 8.
Following a short and mostly forgettable football career, Jimmy Matthews had a brief but thoroughly memorable stint as a Test cricketer. After playing 12 games and kicking 18 goals for St Kilda in 1907, Matthews went on to secure his place in sporting history against South Africa at Old Trafford during the ill-fated Triangular Tournament in 1912. Matthews, a legspinner, became the only man to take a hat-trick in each innings of a Test match - and he got them both on the same day. In the first innings, he finished off the last three batsmen and when South Africa followed on he took another three in three balls. The third man out on both occasions was Tommy Ward, who made a king pair on debut.
Matthews was not the only VFL footballer on the 1912 tour of England - there were also the former Essendon players Barlow Carkeek and Dave Smith. Smith was a champion centre half-forward who played 143 games and kicked 114 goals from 1903-14. He captained Essendon to the premiership in 1911 under the guidance of coach Jack Worrall, another retired Test cricketer. However, Smith missed the chance to win back-to-back titles when he was chosen in the Test squad after six leading players fell out with the Australian board and refused to tour. Smith reportedly enjoyed the hospitality on the trip but had little impact on the field, making 292 runs at 13.27. His two Test appearances were unremarkable and the tour spelled the end of his first-class career.
Other Test cricketers who played VFL/AFL football include:
Barlow Carkeek (6 Tests, 26 games for Essendon)
Harry Graham (6 Tests, 2 games for Melbourne)
Ted McDonald (11 Tests, 48 games for Essendon and Fitzroy)
George Tribe (3 Tests, 66 games for Footscray)
Graeme Watson (5 Tests, 18 games for Melbourne)
Brydon Coverdale is an editorial assistant on CricinfoFeeds: Brydon Coverdale
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