Sledgehammer Sam speaks
Not long after a freshly showered Sam Loxton introduces himself his talking clock interrupts. "11 o'clock, am," it says in a mechanical American voice. It sits on the kitchen bench of Loxton's resort-style Gold Coast townhouse and assists him in navigating the day. At 87, Loxton's eyesight is cloudy, leaving him to wear a yellow visually-impaired-person badge when he attends functions and to rely on a reading machine whenever he wants to revisit a treasure in his cluttered and comprehensive cricket library.
A combination of a television and overhead projector, Smartview magnifies the words and Loxton scrolls back and forth like scanning microfilm in a library. It's a tiring, sometimes frustrating, exercise. To avoid this taxing version of reading he has memorised many of his favourite passages. The last two paragraphs of Don Bradman's Farewell to Cricket are tattoos in his mind, along with the most convincing arguments in his letters from Bradman, tales from England in 1948, and mid-pitch conversations with Neil Harvey.
A friend and strong ally of Bradman, Loxton is desperate to remember and dissect Percy Fender's critique of The Don after his debut series in 1928-29. The lines, including "Bradman was one of the most curious mixtures of good and bad batting I have ever seen", stay out of reach, but Fender's mediocre statistics come out. "Thirteen Tests, 380 runs at 19," Loxton says with bemusement. Eight decades later and Loxton still wonders what was wrong with Fender, and why he wasn't instantly mesmerised by the magic of "Braddles".
Loxton experienced the aura of his childhood idol in two series and will never allow himself to forget it. Sixty years ago this month the most famous tour of England concluded and 17 men, who were led by Bradman, were on the way to becoming Invincibles for their undefeated post-war parade. In a crammed life that included being a state member of Victorian parliament for 24 years, an Australian selector, team manager and board member, Loxton's on-field highlight was the Headingley Test of 1948, particularly his partnership with the 19-year-old Harvey.
A strong batsman, feisty bowler and then bank teller, Loxton was in his second match against England when, after taking 3 for 55 as the home side made 496 in the first innings, he joined Harvey with Australia 189 for 4. "We were in bags of bother and Harvs came out to greet to me," he says. "Slocks," Harvey says, "they can't bowl." Loxton giggles throatily, something he does regularly, at the exchange. "That somehow gave me a bit of confidence and it developed into a decent sort of partnership."
Harvey, a boy dominating England's best, raised his first Test century and Loxton was so excited he almost got himself run out in the rush to shake his partner's hand. Loxton missed three-figured recognition by seven when, trying to blast a sixth six as he chased quick runs for the team, he was bowled by Norman Yardley.
"I had a lot of fun, it was a great Test match for me," he says of the contest, which concluded with Australia's world-record chase of 404 for 3 on the final day. "Just as well they didn't have Player of the Match in those days. There'd had been some calculations: Morris, Bradman, Harvey, Edrich, Washbrook." He doesn't mention his own contribution.
Bradman called Loxton "the very essence of belligerence" and described one of his shots at Leeds, which went 20 rows back off Ken Cranston, as the "most glorious six I ever saw hit". "His whole attitude suggests defiance and when he hits the ball it is the music of a sledgehammer," Bradman wrote in Farewell to Cricket.
For Australia the victory was the peak of the tour, and after the rubber was sealed 4-0 at The Oval the trip wound down with festival games and a visit to Scotland. In the final first-class match at Scarborough Loxton broke his nose sweeping, retiring hurt on 12, and finished 27 short of 1000 runs for the visit.
In South Africa a year later he reached a century for the only time in his dozen Tests, picking up 101 in Johannesburg, and two games later he combined with Harvey to seal an absorbing victory in Durban. Australia, having been dismissed for 99 in the first innings on a wet surface, chased 336; Loxton took 54 next to Harvey's unbeaten, unbelievable 151.
The pair first met when Harvey, 17, was on his first tour with Victoria. At the railway station the captain, Lindsay Hassett, looked around to Loxton, a senior player, and said: "Look after the kid. He's yours."
"And I've still got him! That's over 60 years ago," Loxton says. "It's been a wonderful friendship."
In the lounge room there is a photo of Loxton and Harvey drinking Guinness in a pub near Galway in Ireland. They see each other at the regular cricket functions and chat on the phone, often repeating how the game has changed.
|Loxton can be fun and cheeky but, like Harvey, he carries long-standing gripes. Belligerence was not limited to batting or bowling, and his opinions remain undiluted|
Loxton can be fun and cheeky but, like Harvey, he carries long-standing gripes. Belligerence was not limited to batting or bowling, and his opinions remain undiluted. The arguments are made more convincing as his slow, cautious voice increases in volume until he reaches his point, thundering like a fast man in delivery stride.
The front-foot no-ball rule is one of the worst ever introduced ("It led to dreadful decisions and all sorts of problems"), he grumbles about the third umpire being used to judge catches ("There is only one bloke that knows, and that's the fellow himself"), and remains irritated by an MCC law change in 2000 that allowed bowlers more freedom to run over the pitch outside the danger area, providing rough for the spinners. He picks out the old and new regulations from his files, along with a picture of him bowling in Leeds in 1948. Except for a few marks where the bowlers' feet land between the popping and return creases, the pitch looks pristine.
"People get a bit worried about me," he says. "Shane Warne's been a fine bowler, no doubt about it, he's done some wonderful things. But Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett, who have better strike-rates per match than Warne and never played against a 2nd XI - they only played against the best - had no rough to bowl at. I never had to bat to a legspinner who bowled into the rough outside my leg stump. And I played for a long time."
In the Depression, Loxton's father, an electrical contractor, was forced to move his family from the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy to a new house a few suburbs to the south. It was 100 yards from the Prahran Cricket Ground. "I haunted the club from then on," Loxton says. "The rest is history. I was in the right place at the right time."
Despite his aging eyes, Loxton says he still watches cricket - by Braille. Whenever he is at the local Runaway Bay Oval named after him he sits with a friend either side, listening and asking questions. "Is the batsman's first movement forward?" he asks. The reply is yes.
This aspect of modern-day technique is another of his contemporary bugbears. Going slightly back and across at delivery, the method of Bradman, is the one Loxton used - and promotes. A mouth-painter captured Loxton late-cutting Jim Laker at Headingley, with his right foot so far back it's almost nudging the stumps. "That's what I call using the crease," he says. He thinks Ricky Ponting, a front-foot committer, would be even better if he waited a fraction longer to decide whether to push forward or back.
A local shopping centre worker who doubles as a Runaway Bay left-hander told Loxton he was falling lbw to full balls on leg stump. "That's easy fixed," Loxton says. "Go to practice, wait for the bloke to bowl the ball, if it's pitched to your front pad, get the pad out of the road and hit the ball past mid-on. Don't hit round the pad. Or play the ball short of mid-on, there's a single there." A few weeks later the batsman scores 48. "You're right," he tells Loxton, "I did exactly what you said." Loxton wishes he had a few more listeners.
Working an audience has been a large part of Loxton's life. He spent a lot of time on the speaking circuit and a caricature of him with a microphone hangs in his living room. While his national deeds, and those of his team-mates, are the most repeated stories, he also had a significant part in changing the game in Pakistan.
Picked as the manager of the tour of India and Pakistan in 1959-60, he was told by the Australian Board of Control there were two definite rules. No game would start unless he had been given a receipt of a telegraph transfer made payable to the Australian board, and under no circumstances would he, or anyone else, indicate that Pakistan would be welcome in Australia.
Although Pakistan promised the games would be held on turf, the first and third Tests were on matting, which the Australians played on as children. Shortly before the final contest Loxton was requested to attend a meeting with Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the military ruler of Pakistan. He asked Loxton when they could anticipate an invitation to Australia. "Mate, you've got no bloody hope," I said. "I beg your pardon," the Field Marshal replied. "You've got no hope in the world of ever being invited to Australia until you stop playing on matting." Turf pitches have been used in Pakistan ever since, and in 1964-65 they got a Test in Melbourne.
Whatever else Loxton achieved, nothing in cricket could supersede his role as an Invincible. Only four members remain - Harvey, Arthur Morris and Ron Hamence - and at a memorial service for Bill Brown in March Loxton spoke light-heartedly about his fears of joining the departed. "One starts to think about mortality, but I'm now No. 2 and I hear Hamence isn't doing too well. The interesting thing about it all is I'm 87 on Saturday. Usually for cricketers you can get off the mark next ball, I've got 365 days to get through."
By August he was doing well. His furrowed face and ashen hair give away his age, but considering his sight problems, he remains cheerily mobile and continues to organise his own meals. He enjoys his home and waits for his son to pick him up on weekends.
It's a shame he can no longer enjoy the view from his living room. In the canal out the back there are boats moored, from small river vessels to craft large enough to conquer the nearby Gold Coast Seaway on its heavier days. Loxton doesn't fish off the jetties and there is no swimming in his clear pool, which is so inviting it could entice visitors in mid-winter.
The water was part of his darkest day: December 13, 2000. It's where the neighbours found his wife Jo after she suffered a heart attack. Loxton was at a speaking engagement with Harvey and Sid Barnes junior and when she wasn't there to pick him up at the Gold Coast airport he called home, eventually getting a police constable. Later that day his son Peter took him aside to say Michael, his other boy, had been killed by a shark in Fiji. "That was a double whammy. All on the same day. That's how it goes."
Loxton has grown used to living alone and is helped by friends and family. He says cricket keeps him alert. As an Invincible it would be hard to escape the attention even if he wanted to. Like Brown was, Loxton is happy telling his stories. Soon the talking clock speaks again and it's time for him to stop.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo