December 22, 2012

Fergie's wagon wheel

Those familiar diagrams date back to a hundred years ago, when an Australian clerk turned scorer created the first of them

They called him Mr Cricket more than 60 years before Mike Hussey was born. On umpteen cricket tours from 1905 to 1954, scorer and baggage master Bill Ferguson, affectionately known as "Fergie", carted luggage for such flannelled gods as Victor Trumper, Don Bradman, Bill O'Reilly, Wally Hammond and Jack Cheetham.

His greatest claim to fame, though, was that of having created cricket's wagon wheel. During lulls in play, as a creative aside to his main function of recording the score, Fergie produced the first official wagon wheel a hundred years ago.

His wagon wheels were drawn in pencil, or in ink, using an ancient dipped nib with meticulous, loving care, neat as a pin - or as Bill Lawry would say, "clean as a whistle."

In May 1912, Fergie charted Jack Hobbs' shots in his 81 for Surrey versus Australia at Kennington Oval. Hobbs hit one six, 13 fours, two threes, three twos and 11 singles.

Over the years Fergie recorded many great and famous innings, including Bradman's 334 for Australia against England in Leeds in 1934 (46 fours, six threes, 26 twos and 80 singles), Wally Hammond's 336 in 318 minutes for England against New Zealand in Auckland in April, 1933, and injured New Zealander Bert Sutcliffe's unconquered 80 against South Africa in Johannesburg in December 1953.

Today on television we see all manner of worms and shapes to indicate the ebbs and flows of the game. But it is the wagon wheel that captures our eye: Fergie's Wheel. They reveal where a batsman scores the bulk of his runs, his run-scoring strengths, and where he can be contained.

Opposing bowlers and captains used to try to commandeer Fergie's charts but he fiercely stood his ground: they were his private property. Once, before the Kaiser ruined cricket for four years, a journalist tried to patent Fergie's charts, and their inventor contemplated legal action.

Ferguson hailed from Sydney. At the age of 24 this slim, frail man worked for the Sydney Directory, filing names of householders, streets and districts - an occupation he called the "most monotonous task known to man".

The lunch break was his dream time. He would stroll down to the waterfront and gaze longingly at the ships from many nations. He fantasised about distant exotic places but was tied to the dreaded card index drill. How could he realise his dream to travel?

In the early summer of 1904 the answer came swiftly, like a Tibby Cotter yorker. The Australians were due to sail for England in January, 1905, the Ashes tour. They would need a scorer.

Fergie reasoned that a formal application might be lost among the many such a plum job evoked. Even if it reached the desk of tour manager Frank Laver, Fergie's chances were zero. He had never been a scorer in his life.

No, his only opportunity to win a tour spot was to endure lots of pain for long-term gain. He decided to put his future in the hands of the future Test captain Monty Noble, a leading Sydney dentist, by expressing his willingness to have every tooth in his head filled, capped, polished or extracted if it meant the chance to talk to Noble about the Ashes tour job.

No extractions were necessary, but Fergie bought enough gold fillings to last a lifetime. The pair struck up a friendship. Fergie was subtle in his approach to the subject of cricket and then the tour. Noble was impressed with his patient's passion and earmarked the little clerk for great things.

Fergie was introduced to two of the game's heroes, Trumper and Laver. He sensed a real chance of an England trip, but when the team duly left Australia, alas, he missed the boat.

Then a letter arrived from Laver. Dated February 3, 1905, Laver wrote that it was his honour to inform Fergie that he had been appointed to the job at a salary of "£2 a week and to pay your train fare to the various grounds upon which we play".

Fergie paid his own fare to England: £17 one way. For a while he had been hoarding half-crowns, shillings and sixpences, and by the time the chance presented itself, he had amassed a monumental £25 - he wasn't quite a millionaire, but he felt like one. He immediately set off for the offices of the White Star shipping company in Sydney and booked a one-way ticket to England on the good ship Suevic.

In his book, Mr Cricket, Fergie notes that "England was a very sedate country in those days. Manners, etiquette and breeding were the paramount virtues, and, wanting to be taken for a gentleman of distinction, our manager, Mr Frank Laver, followed the English fashion of the day by appearing frequently in top hat and frock coat.

"The players, and I, had no liking for the universally popular bowler hat, so we all wore straw hats - the players sporting green and yellow bands bearing the Australian coat of arms, the baggage master an undistinguished plain band."

Victor Trumper, the greatest of all batsmen before Don Bradman, was Fergie's favourite player. He said of him: "Probably the neatest and most elegant bat in the world at that time, Vic was anything but neat when in the dressing room, or at a hotel. He was the despair of his charming wife, and the not-so-charming baggage master, because he simply refused to worry about the condition of his clothes or equipment. Any old bat would do for him, whether there was rubber on the handle or not, and I can still see him now, after slaughtering the best bowling in England, taking off his flannels in the dressing room, rolling them in a ball and cramming them into an already overloaded cricket bag - there to remain until they were worn again the next day."

Don Bradman once confided in Fergie, telling him that "plenty of batsmen watch the bowler's fingers, hoping to detect what sort of ball he's going to deliver, but that's no good to me. Let me see the ball coming, and then I'll decide the best place to hit it."

Fergie's first scoring duty was at Crystal Palace, London, where he penned the "demise" of WG Grace, out for 5. This was seven years before that first wagon wheel. His last tour was with New Zealand to South Africa in 1953-54. In 1957 he was awarded the British Empire medal for his services to the Commonwealth, receiving his award from the Australian prime minister, RG Menzies at Australia House in London.

All the greats of yesteryear, the players Fergie knew so well, have gone to the great wicket in the sky, and so too has Fergie. He carted baggage and scored for Australia in England, South Africa and at home; England in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand; New Zealand in South Africa and at home; South Africa in England; India in England and Australia; and for the West Indies in England, making the job a far-reaching, fascinating career.

Despite the interruption of two World Wars, he made 41 tours with international teams and scored a total of 204 Test matches. His travels took him 614,000 miles at an estimate.

After World War Two, Fergie said the South Africans and the MCC were the most generous of employers, both of whom granted him a £25 bonus at the end of the tour. As for the Australians, "they sent me a letter of thanks".

As long as the game of cricket is played, Fergie's wagon wheel, which he created 100 years ago, will be his lasting legacy.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

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