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What do we know about the first Test cricketer?

Bannerman is remembered during the 1977 Centenary Test The Sun Herald

Charles Bannerman is known today by a feat and an image. The feat, of course, is that of having faced Test cricket's first ball and scored its first run and peeling off its maiden century, a match-winning 165 from an Australian all-out score of 245 at the MCG in March 1877. The image is a widely published photograph taken nearly 53 years later of an elderly Bannerman, in hat and coat, laying a gently approving hand on the shoulder of Donald Bradman at the SCG, when the 21-year-old was about to commence his near-vertical ascent through cricket's hierarchy of records.

The time lapse between feat and image is perhaps just as evocative. Bannerman's cricket peak was brief and lonely: you can almost argue that it was confined to that innings, when he took toll of an English bowling attack still queasy from a stormy crossing of the Tasman, for it was almost exactly twice his next best first-class score, and he played only two further Test matches. But a record is one thing, a first another. A record can be broken; a first can never be busted to second. Bannerman's feat afforded him such imperishable status that he could, as it were, induct Bradman in an Australian batting lineage, with the additional prophecy: "This boy will clip all the records."

The big gap is also an enigma, both enticing and off-putting to a potential biographer. Bannerman has probably waited as long as any cricketer for a historian to go searching for him, and Alf James, a studious classicist, reveals the pressure of the years in Australia's Premier Batsman.

The traces are scant, limited and ambiguous. There are no photographs of Bannerman in action. The written accounts of his batting are disappointingly short of detail. James deems him a pioneer of "forward play", but a mental image of his batting is hard to summon. Likewise a personal image. When James quotes a fond 1923 memoir of Bannerman from the journalist Jack Worrall - "May he long remain with us, with his big blue eyes and his lisp" - the intimacy of the observation is powerful because it is so exceptional. Otherwise James has been left to recite a lot of scores, including some lengthy threadbare sequences, which seem a little redundant seeing that they are recapitulated in statistical appendices.

Yet there is something here, and if the writing is mainly serviceable, with the occasional Latinate flourish, an intriguing story is at least hinted at.

Born in Woolwich, Bannerman was two years old when his family arrived in Sydney, his mother heavily pregnant with his brother Alick, himself destined to play 28 Tests. Their father worked at Sydney's mint, whose deputy master was an accomplished round-arm bowler. The boys walked in, then, on an evolving game.

It was also the unruly game of an unruly people, and Charles Bannerman was no exception. James reveals that 19-year-old Bannerman lost his own mint job for "insolence to his superior officer and general insubordination", and went through a period in his early twenties when he alienated many contemporaries by his cocky club- and colony-hopping. "The colt was considered a bright particular star while he lasted," said a censorious columnist in the Sydney Mail in March 1874, "but a good many people have come to the conclusion that for some time he has been on the wane, and that if common sense does not come to his aid he will be snuffed out forever."

David Warner, then, has a distinguished antecedent. Although not even Warner had three children with his first wife and two children with a mistress ten years his junior.

Bannerman's crowded hour of glorious batting life came when he was 25. After the subsequent Australian tour of England, he dropped away precipitously, in a way strangely foretold. And although James has been unable to establish any satisfactory explanation, writers seemed uncannily aware that the process was irreversible. By 1879, the Sydney Morning Herald was calling him "only the ghost of himself", Australian Town and Country Journal "only the ghost of the player we used to know", and the Sydney Mail was asserting that there was "no prospect of improvement".

Whatever they meant, they were right. For the next five years, Bannerman averaged less than 15 in first-class cricket. "Drink and gambling, it is reputed, was his downfall," wrote a contemporary many years later, although James shies from this "far-fetched conclusion on the slight evidence available".

James being a reluctant interpreter, the reader is left in a way to build their own story. My own was this. Bannerman was unusual in his Australian era in playing openly as a "professional". After losing his mint job, he seems to have had only fragmentary employment outside the game. Instead he relied on playing, touring, coaching and umpiring. His only other fallback, bookmaking, was a constraint. Not only did it eat into his Saturdays, but the England team of 1882-83 refused to accept him as an umpire - not surprising, really, given the betting-related cricket riot at the SCG four years earlier.

Bannerman was a "professional", in other words, long before there was anything like a professional cricket structure. And for it he, and others, paid a price. Probably the most moving passages in James' book are from a news story in Sydney's Evening News, May 27, 1891, headlined "A Cricketer in Low Circumstances": Bannerman had been arraigned to answer charges of desertion of his wife, and failure to provide for her. An exchange is recorded:

Judge: Your family is in destitute circumstances. How do you get your living?
Bannerman: By cricketing, your Worship.
Judge: But it's the off season now, and there's not much doing in that line.
Bannerman: I've nothing to say against my wife, your worship, at all. If you will give me a week to try and get the money, I might get some of it.
By cricketing, your Worship: four desperate words to encapsulate the precariousness of the professional cricket life, for the player and for their financial dependents. Blessedly it was not to be the end. Cricket biography reserves a special place for the tragic figure. Bannerman ends up being a rarer figure in biography - a subject who flirted with tragedy and survived. When his wife died in 1895, he was able to marry his mistress, and he benefited by testimonial matches in 1899 and 1922; his prudent brother, meanwhile, grew wealthy.

In that 1930 photograph with bashful Bradman, Bannerman strikes a pose of solemn dignity befitting the prestige of his achievement - with maybe just a hint of the character he had been in his playing days. For is that a cigarette in his hand?

Charles Bannerman: Australia's Premier Batsman
By Alf James
The Cricket Publishing Company
146pages, $41.80