Way back when December 2, 2012

Sydney's forgotten hero

Reggie Duff was the first No. 10 batsman to score a century on Test debut, but the rest of his career and his life didn't quite match that glittering start

The unlikely achievement of the Bangladesh fast bowler Abul Hasan, who hit a stunning century on debut from No. 10 in the batting order against West Indies in Khulna last week, set off a landslide of enquiries. How many No. 10s had scored a century in a Test? And surely none of them could have done so on debut?

The answer is that three men had previously made Test tons from No. 10. The Surrey allrounder Walter Read was the first, with 117 against Australia at The Oval in 1884, "a superb display of hard and rapid hitting", according to Wisden. The genial South African offspinner Pat Symcox was the last, scoring 108 against Pakistan in Johannesburg in 1997-98. And in between, the New South Welshman Reggie Duff made 104 for Australia in Melbourne in the second Ashes Test of 1901-02 - on his debut.

Duff remains a mysterious figure, little written about despite this fine start. The main reason for this is his early death, in December 1911 (just as another Ashes series was about to get under way). Less than four years later, Duff's long-time opening partner Victor Trumper also died: he was widely mourned, and the crowd at his funeral stretched halfway across Sydney. Duff, however, was laid to rest rather more quietly, some of his former team-mates and colleagues from the Sydney Harbour Trust among the few in attendance.

The main reason was that, while Trumper succumbed to kidney disease, Duff's illness was self-inflicted - he was too fond of a drink. The Australian newspaper the Referee tiptoed carefully around the unmentionable in a style typical of the period: "Some few years back, he did not take that care of his health necessary for one wishing to live a normal life in years and in vigour."

Duff's Test debut was indeed sensational, although it should be stressed that he was really a batsman - he usually went in first - but found himself at No. 10 after the Australian batting order was reshuffled in a successful attempt to avoid the worst of a pitch soaked by torrential rain on New Year's Eve (the match itself started on January 1). Duff had already top-scored with 32 (from No. 7) while Australia made 112, but they had to go in again after England - hitting out wildly - were skittled for 61. In all, 25 wickets tumbled for 221 runs on that madcap first day, but conditions were much more suitable for batting on the second. Duff went in at 167 for 8, but helped add 186 more runs, including a last-wicket stand of 120 with Warwick Armstrong - another debutant, and another proper batsman. The lead stretched to 404, which proved far beyond England.

Duff's start, then, was romantic - but he had been a surprise choice for the match in the first place, after only one century in his 13 first-class matches. Gideon Haigh, in his forensic autobiography of Armstrong, unearthed an evocative account of Duff's selection, written by the former Australian captain Tom Horan, whose regular newspaper cricket column appeared under the pen name "Felix":

"Bob McLeod, Syd Gregory and Reg Duff were walking down Collins Street near the Town Hall. 'I wonder,' said Syd, 'am I in the team?' 'I'll go up to the Argus office and see,' said Bob. Up he went, got the information, and was himself staggered that Duff was in. Turning to Syd, he said: 'You're in, Syd.' Then turning to Duff: 'And so are you, Duff.' Duff looked fixedly at Bob and replied with the most forceful contradiction he could frame. But he was in."

His greatest partnerships had been for NSW and Australia with Trumper. Duff knew his place in their liaisons, once joking that "Victor is taking me out for a run again"... but he often went shot for shot with Trumper

And Duff remained in for the next three series, scoring consistently - although the only other century to go with his debut one came in what turned out to be his final Test, at The Oval in 1905, when his 146 set up a draw. "He played a great innings, his driving a marvel of power and cleanness," enthused Wisden.

But that was it. Duff never scored another century, and in fact played only eight more matches after that tour: although he was 12th man for the first Test of the 1907-08 Ashes series Down Under, he did not feature, and faded out after that season as his problems with alcohol hit home. Around this time, the future Test legspinner Arthur Mailey (then in his early twenties) spotted him in the street: "I saw one of my heroes, Reg Duff, meandering down the Chinese quarters in Haymarket, Sydney, shabbily dressed and with his hair poking through his straw hat." When Duff died, penniless, the Australian team had a whip-round to cover his funeral expenses, while the NSW cricket association paid for his headstone.

His greatest partnerships had been for NSW and Australia with Trumper, who is even now remembered (while Duff is all but forgotten) as one of the great classical batsmen. Duff knew his place in their liaisons, once joking that "Victor is taking me out for a run again" as they embarked on another Test innings. But he was being rather modest, as he often went shot for shot with Trumper.

Duff was on the short side, but a fine cutter and driver on the up. During the 1902 tour of England, the Australians posed for a series of action photographs for the Middlesex amateur George Beldam. The shots of Trumper, especially the iconic one of him jumping down the pitch to drive, have become legendary: but the Australian writer Jack Pollard suggested that the images of Duff from the same series "show a similar audacity and mastery of technique".

Other photographs reveal Duff as a man of saturnine countenance, with the obligatory moustache of the day ("turned up at the ends, Kaiser-like," according to Mailey). CB Fry described him characteristically colourfully: "Reggie Duff had a face like a good-looking brown trout, and was full of Australian sunshine." Sadly, he was also too often full of Australian liquor, which did for him in the end.

10:54:34 GMT, December 2, 2012: The subheadline originally said Duff was the first batsman to score a century on debut

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Wisden Guide to International Cricket 2012