Wisden Cricketer / Features

The Wisden Cricketer - September 2007

The gentleman fighter

David Frith on Bert Oldfield, a great Australian survivor

David Frith

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They say Oldfield sent his victims on their way almost with an apology. © Getty Images
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Bert Oldfield's sports shop in Sydney was an Aladdin's cave for a starry-eyed boy in the 1950s. There in the Hunter Street shop window was the lifesize cutout of Hammond's cover-drive (Oldfield low, behind the stumps). Near the door was another, Tibby Cotter full-length, the speed terror from Mr Oldfield's own club, Glebe. Tibby perished at Beersheba in 1917. Bert Oldfield came close that same year when a shell-burst killed the other three stretcher-bearers and their wounded soldier during the fierce fighting at Polygon Wood. He was dug from the thick mud and gore, convalesced in Gloucester, and was in love with England thereafter.

He once indicated where the metal plate had been inserted into his skull, the same smiling head that a Larwood bouncer clanged during the Bodyline Tests of 1932-33. Bert Oldfield was a survivor. He was also a gentle, fastidious, courteous man, qualities not uncommon in Australians of earlier generations. Always immaculately dressed, he favoured a waistcoat and starched shirt collar. His voice was crisp, diction precise. Renowned as a gentleman wicketkeeper, he played in 38 Ashes Tests between the wars and once held the Test dismissals record: 130 including 52 stumpings. They say he sent his victims on their way almost with an apology.

I bought my first bat from him for £2 and he added a free tin of bat oil. On another momentous occasion he gave me his 1930 Australian Test blazer and a ball from the Trent Bridge Test of that summer, igniting my mania for cricketana. In 1954 he raised a team to play against the Pakistan High Commissioner's XI. At 60 he still moved with ease behind the stumps, an elegance that stopped just short of showiness.

One day I scratched a lift with him to the SCG. He spoke with pride at having scored a century in every country he had toured - and that included Ethiopia. With painful reluctance I had to exit the car at the members' gate. Still, I could always go back to the shop and lap up further musings covering the halcyon days of England v Australia Test cricket. He spoke fondly of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, of Maurice Tate and Arthur Gilligan, and of the hospitality he had enjoyed all over the British Isles during the 1919 Australian Imperial Forces tour, four Ashes tours, and several more visits as a commentator.

Clem was the senior assistant in the shop and it was he who, in 1926, had raced some proper equipment out to the SCG for the ill-clad youngster who had just come up from the bush for trials: DG Bradman. Don never liked that tale and denied it

Clem was the senior assistant in the shop and it was he who, in 1926, had raced some proper equipment out to the SCG for the ill-clad youngster who had just come up from the bush for trials: DG Bradman. Don never liked that tale and denied it. Furthermore, Bertie had run him out as he was leading Australia's victory surge in the Adelaide Test in 1928-29 (England won by 12 runs). The impression was that they were never bosom pals.

There was a lapse of 10 years before I saw Bert Oldfield again on my return to Sydney in 1971. We visited him at his home in Killara - the cricket oval there now bears his name. He gave my sons a signed bat. Later I was entertained to lunch in town at the Imperial Services Club: another magic carpet ride with a catalogue of visions from another age and its fascinating cricketers. As we left mid-afternoon, Mr Oldfield linked his arm through mine as we crossed George Street. Chaps used to do this unabashed in the 1920s and 1930s.

Cars are driven even more madly in Sydney than in London and suddenly a Holden was roaring straight at us. I leapt for the kerb, dragging the little wicketkeeper with me. What the Kaiser's army and Jardine's bouncer brigade failed to do, no lousy driver was going to succeed in doing.

This precious little gentleman was to live a further five years. As with all these veterans, the wish is that they could have lived forever.

This article was first published in the September issue of The Wisden Cricketer
Click here for further details.

David Frith, author and historian, was the founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly

© The Wisden Cricketer

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