October 27, 2007

A better batsman than Bradman?

A player who many thought was a better batsman than the greatest of them all

Archie Jackson practising at the start of the 1930 tour © Cricinfo

Don Bradman's name is almost as famous as the game itself. But, for an all-too-brief time at the start of his international career, it appeared likely that Australia would have two brilliant young batsmen from New South Wales in their ranks.

Although he was a year younger, Archie Jackson burst onto the cricket world a year before Bradman. He made his first-class bow aged 17, scoring 86 on his debut and exactly a hundred in his second outing a week later.

It was Bradman, however, who played for Australia first, 11 months after his New South Wales debut. Playing against England in 1928-29, he finished the series with 468 runs at 66.85, missing the second Test when he was dropped for the only time in his career.

Jackson debuted in the fourth Test, following weeks of public pressure for him to play. Opening the innings, Australia slid to 3 for 19 against Harold Larwood and Maurice Tate at full pace. But Jackson stroked his way to 164, the manner of his scoring as awesome as the runs themselves. And yet, by the next time England toured, the infamous Bodyline series in 1932-33, Jackson had played the last of his seven Tests.

He toured England in 1930 - the Sydney Morning Herald described him as "the greatest of present-day batsmen", even though Bradman was also on the trip. All eyes were on the NSW pair.

But while Bradman, whose career was also blighted by illness, went from strength to strength, Jackson struggled with poor health and with that his form also deserted him. Still, he showed enough touches of class to win over many seasoned observers, some who still regarded him as better than Bradman.

A hundred at Taunton - it was said the West Country sun had thawed him out - meant he was restored for the final Test at The Oval, and there he played his bravest innings. On a treacherous pitch and with Larwood at his most hostile, Jackson "took frequent shuddering blows to the body" but still was in line for the next delivery. It was while watching film of Bradman bat in the same session that Douglas Jardine later exclaimed: "I've got it ... he's yellow." The pair added 243 for the fourth wicket, Jackson's share being a courageous 73. It won the match for Australia and with it the Ashes.

But Jackson was unwell. It was nothing major - or so it seemed - but he kept being sidelined. He struggled in four Tests against West Indies, and was dropped after the Melbourne Test in March 1931. It was to be his last first-class match.

He was picked for the first NSW match of 1931-32 but was caught in a rainstorm, and collapsed in his hotel room coughing up blood shortly before the team left for the ground. He was rushed to hospital, but believing he had flu, discharged himself.

Jackson unleashes a drive while playing for New South Wales © Cricinfo

At the insistence of the Australian board he was taken to a sanatorium but proved a poor patient. Restless, he often sneaked off into Sydney to see friends. Nevertheless, he appeared to make a good recovery. In 1932 he moved north to Queensland, believing the warmer climate would help him, and he was appointed as a coach to the Queensland Cricket Association.

He resumed playing grade cricket in Brisbane for Northern Suburbs, scoring runs at a phenomenal rate. In seven innings he averaged 159.66 and attracted crowds in the thousands. But Jackson's health was in decline and he was sometimes hardly able to run between the wickets, so short of breath was he. One opponent, on the receiving end of a hundred, wrote that it was "delightful in his stroke-making ... but pathetic to witness his suffering".

Still, buoyed by newspaper reports, the public clamoured for him to be included in one of the representative sides to meet the MCC. Those close to him knew his body would never hold up to the strain.

He started writing articles for Brisbane's Daily Mail and told friends he harboured a belief that he would be fit enough to return to England on Australia's 1934 tour.

He was still playing for his club at the start of 1933, but by then he was so breathless than he had to use a runner. His last innings was on January 22. With his former NSW team-mate Cassie Andrews running for him, he made 77 in 94 minutes, telling a friend that he was "still in pretty good form".

On February 1, almost four years to the day since his Test debut, he collapsed again and was rushed to hospital. The tuberculosis had spread to both lungs, and his family, still in Sydney, was sent for. Even the Times in London carried a report that Jackson was "seriously ill".

On February 10 the fourth Test started a few miles down the road at the Gabba. A number of players visited him before and during the match but it was clear he was dying. On February 15, with Australia in deep trouble in the match, Jackson sent a telegram to Larwood. "Congratulations magnificent bowling. Good luck all matches."

That day he lapsed in and out of consciousness. Shortly after midnight he asked for the Test score and was told Australia were heading to defeat. A few minutes later he died. He was 23.

With flags flying at half-mast, the teams took to the field at the Gabba later that morning wearing black armbands. England duly wrapped up a six-wicket win and, with it, regained the Ashes.

Jackson's body returned to Sydney by train, the same one that carried the Australia and England sides back to New South Wales for the continuation of the tour. Thousands lined the streets at his funeral, and the pall-bearers were all former Test colleagues: Bradman, Bill Woodfull, Bill Ponsford, Stan McCabe, Vic Richardson and Bert Oldfield. He was buried at the Field of Mars Cemetery in Sydney. The headstone simply said: "He played the game".

The Archie Jackson Story by David Frith (David Frith, 1974)
Australian Cricket by Jack Pollard (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)
The Cricketer

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo