"I have felt beastly bad this week[.] I do not know what I am standing on - & when anyone speaks to me I cannot for the life of me make out what they are talking about - everything seems so curious." Thus puzzled the 22-year-old Tom Wills in a halting and dissociated letter to his beloved sister in September 1857 - and "curious" his life would prove. The first Australian cricketer of significance and pioneer of his country's indigenous football code was a colonial man of action but has remained a deeply mysterious figure. His father was a grazier slaughtered by aborigines, yet he himself championed their cricket; he was a beau ideal sportsman educated at Rugby in England and destined to die in squalor at his own deranged hand.
Greg de Moore's Tom Wills comes as a relief after so much conjecture and sentimental myth-making. The author is a consultant psychiatrist at Sydney's Westmead Hospital who started on Wills' trail by seeking admission papers of his last visit to hospital, and in a decade collecting material for a doctorate, uncovered an astonishing wealth of material, from annotated schoolbooks to family correspondence. The latter provides de Moore with a sense of "a mind full of energy and histrionic ideas without a centre"; the veerings of Wills' allegiances and the frequency of his quarrels steadily suggest something similar.
For the most part de Moore writes with studious restraint - so much so that it jars when occasionally he does otherwise. "When he played cricket, it was not merely a game amongst mortals - Tom Wills bowled with the Gods," comes out of nowhere. So does: "The script is physically contorted, in sympathy with the pain of the writer." Physically? In sympathy? Nor has the generally attentive editor remedied a confusion of "disinterested" and "uninterested". Otherwise there is much to admire here, and also to haunt, occasionally simply because the survival of some of de Moore's sources feels so miraculous, on other occasions because the unknowable stubbornly refuses to yield. Even more enigmatic than Wills proves his "wife", Sarah Theresa Barbor - of whom no image survives - who was resilient, defiant and embarrassing to a respectable family.
De Moore is circumspect in his conclusions. Although he theorises that Wills suffered a species of post-traumatic stress after the slaying of family and friends on Cullin-La-Ringo station in Queensland in October 1861, he reads little into the cricketer's involvement in an aboriginal cricket tour six years later: "Beyond a paying job and an ill- fated attempt at entrepreneurship he never gave the impression through word or deed that he considered the broader social or political context of the tour." He likewise sidesteps the abiding controversy about aboriginal influence on the origins of Australian football. Here again Tom Wills is unusual: a biography that, at a time when it is hard work getting through the blurbs of most Australian cricket books, actually leaves you wanting more.
Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall
by Greg de Moore
Allen & Unwin A$32.95
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer. This article was first published in the March 2009 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here