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Bert Ironmonger not only played cricket in a different era, he might almost have played it in a different country. His was the Australia of rural hardship
January 3, 2006
Tendulkar. Lara. Botham. Richards. The Waughs. This is a fortnightly column in which they, and other eminences of the game, will be studiously ignored. I mean, enough already! Stars get enough kudos and cash, not all of which they deserve. Remember the ICC Super Series? (Malcolm Speed, of course, would prefer you didn't)
Odd Men In - a title shamelessly borrowed from AA Thomson's fantastic book - concerns cricketers who have caught my attention over the years in different ways - personally, historically, technically, stylistically - and about whom I have never previously found a pretext to write. Perhaps you saw them too, or have heard or read of them; perhaps they are simply a name in a table of statistics. Whatever the case, they're cricketers who didn't fit into the Great Man Theory of Cricket History, but who to my mind are overdue a few words.
The statistics by which we mostly know Bert Ironmonger today are those of a long, hard, patient haul. He made his Sheffield Shield debut, in December 1914, in his 33rd year; he waited another fourteen years for his first Test cap; his first-class career, packing in 464 first-class wickets at 21.5 and 74 Test wickets at 18, extended more than a quarter of a century.
Yet, he not only played cricket in a different era, he might almost have played it in a different country. His was the Australia of rural hardship: Ironmonger was the youngest of ten children to a farming family who had to abandon working an uneconomic block north-west of Ipswich, whereupon at twenty-five he became a labourer on the railways. His was also the Australia of long-term labour: after arriving in Melbourne in December 1913, and working as a barman and tobacconist, he took a job as a gardener with the St Kilda City Council, tending parklands with a handmower until the age of 70, even though his wages were suspended when he was away from work playing cricket.
Ironmonger is the member of a genus of Australians almost vanished from today's land of plenty, a man of what used to be called steady habits,: he was frugal, conservative, neither smoked nor drank, and lived with his wife and children in the same unprepossessing house, with flower beds and vegetable patch, for forty years; they did not have a telephone until 1939, and never owned a car.
|As a boy, he lost half his left forefinger in a chaff-cutter on the family farm; his sister probably saved his life by plunging the copiously bleeding hand into a bag of flour.|
Ironmonger's life spanned the decline of his type. The majority of Australia's population would not be urbanised until after the Second World War, but the change was underway, embodied in Donald Bradman, the country boy who came to the smoke to pursue his dreams, swapping farmer's togs for the smart suits and shiny shoes of retail, real estate and sharebroking. Ironmonger, his very name evoking a vanishing vocation, carried on, his burly frame, broad shoulders and forearms a testament to the outdoor life, continuing to mow lawns for the elderly in his area even after retiring from work. The Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton where he is interred is thickly sewn with men of great deeds: prime ministers, governors-general, eminent jurists, distinguished writers. Ironmonger lies in a secluded corner near where the grounds keepers store their maintenance gear.
Part of Ironmonger's life, it is worth recalling, was entirely extraordinary. As a boy, he lost half his left forefinger in a chaff-cutter on the family farm; his sister probably saved his life by plunging the copiously bleeding hand into a bag of flour. No fuss, however, attended Ironmonger's career; where today he might have become a poster child for the disadvantaged or disfigured, he instead turned the extraordinary into something utterly ordinary, spinning the ball off the stump of his finger as though it was as nature intended. And in a society in which stoicism was still admired, labour remained predominantly manual, and a generation of men had been mutilated by the First World War One, this was the custom.
On 12 November 1932, the Melbourne-based weekly, The Australasian, published a lavish photographic spread headed Bowlers' Grips,: colourised images demonstrating the metacarpal configurations preferred by ten famous bowlers, from Clarrie Grimmett and Bill O'Reilly to Harold Larwood and Hedley Verity. Of course, the reader has only the paper's word for the ownership of these disembodied appendages, but one there is no mistaking. "H Ironmonger: Left-hand spin from leg", shows a hand protruding from the sleeve of an Australian sweater, gnarled, wizened, coarsened by physical labour; the ball is clasped between a strong-looking thumb, an arching middle finger and a forefinger shortened to an stub, like the butt of a big cigar. The caption, though, makes no further comment; the impressionable might even assume that surgical sacrifice is integral to left-arm slow bowling.
|No Australian bowler has been so economical, grudging runs at 1.7 an over. No Australian has been so deadly on a damp wicket, or is likely to improve on his 11-24 against South Africa at the MCG in February 1932.|
Ironmonger is today an obscure figure, largely overshadowed by his contemporaries Grimmett and O'Reilly. He might be considered ripe for rediscovery. No Australian bowler has been so economical, grudging runs at 1.7 an over. No Australian has been so deadly on a damp wicket, or is likely to improve on his 11-24 against South Africa at the MCG in February 1932. No Australian has been so excellent so old, bowling more than 400 deliveries in fifteen of the sixty-five first-class matches he played after the age of 45.
Almost everything else about Ironmonger seems, today, exceedingly quaint. He could not bat to save himself, a quarter of his first-class innings ending in ducks. He shambled in the field, and no more resembled an elite athlete than he did an eminent artist. But that is because, in Ironmonger's Australia, the athletes still resembled their countrymen, walked the same streets, inhabited the same sort of houses, might have served us in a shop or a bank, might even have mowed our lawn. Ironmonger's birthplace of Ipswich produced another fine Test match bowler, Craig McDermott, and his native Queensland is represented in the current Australian team by Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds. But they are famous, wealthy young men with big houses and expensive cars who play a game for their living. And do you know anyone who looks like them?
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