Odd Men In - a title shamelessly borrowed from AA Thomson's fantastic book - concerns cricketers who have caught my attention over the years in different ways - personally, historically, technically, stylistically - and about whom I have never previously found a pretext to write
In the last few weeks I have exchanged a number of emails with a young Indian, eagerly immersing himself in a dissertation on Australian cricket writing and full of questions. What did I think of Ray Robinson? Jack Fingleton? Peter Roebuck? (Peter will be gratified to know that he's now seen as one of us) I answered these enquiries as best I was able, then made my own modest proposal: if he was a serious scholar in the field, he should probably acquaint himself with Tom Horan.
When answer came there none, I was not especially surprised. If Horan rings a bell at all today, it is as a name in the very first Test in 1877, and on the Australians' inaugural tour of England a year later, where he enjoyed the signal honour of the winning hit in their rout of MCC. Born in County Cork on 8 March 1855 and brought to Melbourne as a boy, Horan became a steady top order batsman, worth 4027 first-class runs at 23, and considered good enough to captain Australia at a pinch in 1884-5 when more uppity teammates decided to hold out for a few extra shillings. By then, however, he had commenced a far greater contribution to cricket's common weal: the `Cricket Chatter' columns in The Australasian, the weekly sister paper of Melbourne's Argus, which he would compose for an extraordinary thirty-seven years.
This transition was in its time highly unusual; in fact, distinguishing. Australian cricket was well supplied with competent scribes before World War One, notably JC Davis and AH Gregory in Sydney, and Donald McDonald and Harry Hedley in Melbourne. Only Horan, however, had represented his country, at home and abroad. There was no television to apparently drop the fan into the middle of the game; on the writer fell the entire responsibility for bringing the game to the fan, and no one in their time was on such intimate terms with cricket at the top level. It wasn't merely out of Hibernian loyalty that Bill O'Reilly described Horan as `the cricket writer par excellence'; it was, he explained, because Horan was `a writer who really did know what he was writing about'.
`Felix', as he was pseudonymously known, was not an adventurous stylist: he wrote, instead, with his ears and eyes, with a sense of the telling remark and the evocative detail, such as in his recollection of his first encounter with Victor Trumper in 1897: `While on the Melbourne Ground the veteran Harry Hilliard introduced me to him and I was struck by the frank, engaging facial expression of the young Sydneyite. After a few words he went away and old Harry said to me: `That lad will have to be reckoned with later on.' My word! But do you know what particularly attracted my attention when I first saw Victor fielding? You wouldn't guess in three. It was the remarkably neat way in which his shirt sleeves were folded. No loose, dangling down, and folding back again after a run for the ball, but always trim and artistic'. I have never failed since to note this detail in Beldam's famous image of Trumper jumping out to drive.
It wasn't merely out of Hibernian loyalty that Bill O'Reilly described Horan as `the cricket writer par excellence'
My own acquaintance with Horan dates from the early 1990s, thanks to Australia's grand old man of cricket bibliophilia, Brisbane's Pat Mullins. Horan was Pat's great favourite, for his other great enthusiasm was all things Irish, and he had dedicated years of effort to compiling voluminous scrapbooks of Horaniana. When he foisted these on me at our first meeting, I accepted them with some reticence: seldom have I been so completely converted.
Horan knew everyone, and reported their deeds in a prose as breezy and inviting as his personality. When he is recounting the experiences of the English team of 1884-85 on tour, for instance, it is as though you have a seat at their table: `Barnes says that at Narrabri the heat was simply awful, and immediately up in the ranges at Armidale he had to wear a top coat and sit by the fire to keep himself warm....It would do one good to hear Ulyett, little Briggs or Attewell laugh as they detail some of their Australian experiences; how Flowers was frightened of the native bears on the banks of the Broken River at Benalla; how Ulyett jumped from the steamer on a hot afternoon on his way down from Clarence; and how little Briggs came to grief on a backjumper at Armidale. Briggs to this day maintains that the horse had nothing to do with unseating him, it was simply the saddle. His comrades, however, will not believe him...Briggs gives a graphic description of a murderous raid he made one night upon the mosquitos in Gympie, and how, when that proved futile, he quenched the light and pulled his bed into another corner of the room to dodge them.'
In January 1893, The Australasian commissioned from `Felix' a regular supplementary column called `Round the Ground'. Horan's preferred vantage point at the MCG was under an elm tree near the sight board opposite the pavilion; from here he would embark on long peregrinations round the arena and through his memory, each personal encounter bringing forth a fund of reminiscences. It was during one of these ambles, in January 1902, that he committed to print perhaps his most famous passages, which concern the dying moments of the inaugural Ashes Test at the Oval in 1882 in which he had played.
Subsequently cited by HS Altham in A History of Cricket, these lines have been unconsciously paraphrased by scores of writers since: `...the strain even for the spectators was so severe, that one onlooker dropped down dead, and another with his teeth gnawed out pieces of his umbrella handle. That was the match in which for the final half-hour you could have heard a pin drop, while the celebrated batsmen, AP Lucas and Alfred Lyttelton, were together, and Spofforth and Boyle bowling at them as they never bowled before. That was the match in which the last English batsman had to screw his courage to the sticking place by the aid of champagne, when one man's lips were ashen grey and his throat so parched that he could hardly speak as he strode by me to the crease; when the scorer's hand shook so that he wrote Peate's name like "geese', and when in the wild tumult at the fall of the last wicket, the crowd in one tremendous roar cried `bravo Australia'.'
That inaugural Ashes Test had, I suspect, another impact on Horan's writing. He was not the last Australian journalist to be struck by the vehemence of the local criticisms of his English opponents: `The very papers which, in dealing with the first day's play, said, in effect, that the English cricketers were the noblest, the bravest and the best; that, like the old guard of Napoleon, they would never know they are beaten, now turn completely around, and, with very questionable taste, designate these same cricketers as a weak-kneed and pusillanimous lot, who shaped worse than eleven schoolboys.'
Even after his playing days were over, Horan remained at heart a player: `Felix' rejoiced in successes, and sympathised with failures, understanding sensitivities and susceptibilities as only one who has been there can. If he felt a point of order worth making, he did so with utmost even-handedness, the lightest touch and a peculiarly Victorian circumlocution. `All this should be enough, indeed, to make one long to be in possession of Cagliostro's famous secret, so that one might have everlasting youth to enjoy to the full and for ever the glorious life of a first-class Australian cricketer,' he wrote of the frequency of cricket tours in the 1880s. `Though, to be sure, one must not forget that the thing might pall upon the taste in the long run, for does not the sonnet tell us that `sweets grown common lose their dear delight'.' No danger of that with Horan's writing today; its sweetness is still well worth savouring.