An electrical storm was about to hit Sydney. The clouds were swirling, darkening. Last Sunday afternoon, many did not venture outside. They had obviously looked out to the west, seen what was coming from over the Blue Mountains, and thought it best to stay under cover.

Maybe that's why the Field of Mars Cemetery in Ryde was near-deserted. Two women, walking a Jack Russell that was clearly irritated to be on a lead, were having a brief sit-down, leaning up against a palm tree. Two or three cricket pitches away, in the Methodist Section, was the only other person in the cemetery grounds. He was slowly running his fingers along the front of a red granite gravestone, getting emotional when they went over four special words.


Eighty-one years earlier, this spot was the scene of overwhelming grief. Thousands had arrived at the cemetery to mourn the tragic end of a precocious sporting talent. People had walked for hours to this out-of-the-way spot to pay their respects.

As with today, when a nation struggles to comprehend the sudden loss of a special cricketer, in February 1933, Australia found it difficult to comprehend why such a mighty athlete, "our Archie Jackson", had been taken. He was only 23.

As police cordoned off the crowd at Field of Mars, six distraught Australian Test cricket team-mates took on the duty of pallbearers, picked up the casket and walked it through the cemetery grounds.

At the front were Victor Richardson and Bill Woodfull. Behind them were Bill Ponsford, Don Bradman, Bert Oldfield and Stan McCabe. When they eventually arrived at the gravesite, Alan Kippax replaced McCabe, who had suddenly been taken ill.

As the body was lowered, Reverend Sam McKibbin, who, due to the dying wishes of Archie, had travelled from Singleton for the burial address, said: "All over the British Empire there will be a sense of disappointment and loss today, as we lay beneath the sod the body, whose short but brilliant career started in such a blaze of glory and now ends in this sudden way. Words are but poor instruments to express the things we feel."

In the Referee newspaper that weekend, editor JC Davis wrote: "It is sad to realise that such a beautiful flower of the cricket field should pass almost just as it became a full bloom. And what a wonder bloom!"

Bradman described Jackson as "tall and slim, rather lethargic and graceful in his movements"

It had been the most trying of summers. Just a month earlier, the Bodyline series had become venomous. Woodfull and Oldfield had been hit during the Adelaide Test. The crowd had threatened to jump the fence. Now those who had been battered by Larwood and Co had lost their dear colleague to tuberculosis. Some found it hard to cope.

Archie was not just loved by his fellow cricketers. He was admired by all who had met him in day-to-day life, or observed him when he had on the cricketing crèmes. A quiet, self-effacing character who grew up in the tough working-class waterside suburb of Balmain, he was humble, forever thinking of his fellow man.

Like the rest of his impoverished family, he had it tough for considerable stretches of his short life. Alan Kippax and HV (Bert) Evatt, later to become leader of the Federal Parliament Labor Party, helped him when funds were short, always ensuring that his Balmain club membership was paid for and he had the required cricketing equipment.

On the field, Jackson was a poet. He played cricket with a flourish. Daring. The word most commonly used to describe his batting was "elegant". Bradman described him as "tall and slim, rather lethargic and graceful in his movements".

In his celebrated biography, David Frith described Archie as "the Keats of cricket". Another delicate, romantic talent who, at 25, departed far too early, also from tuberculosis.

Earlier on February 18, 1933, the Australian XI team had formed a guard of honour at Central Railway Station when the coffin arrived on the Brisbane Express. The Sydney Morning Herald described it as "a pathetic scene".

Then on to his parents' house in Drummoyne, where the funeral procession began for Field of Mars - a brisk four-mile, hour-and-a-half walk away. The coffin went along Victoria Road and Lyons Road, with the crowd three or four deep virtually all the way.

The SMH reported: "Long before the hour appointed for the cortege to leave the house, crowds began to pour into Drummoyne from neighbouring suburbs. The funeral passed through densely packed streets. As it went by Gladesville Park, a number of young lads were playing Jackson's favourite game. As soon as the cortege was sighted, play ceased, and was not resumed for a time."

Jackson was, after all, one of them. He had begun his first-grade career with the Balmain club when just 15 years and one month old. His biggest problem at that young age was not how to handle his mature cricketing opponents, all wanting to put this upstart in his spot, but his dangerous habit of sleepwalking. So concerned was his father that Archie would walk off the balcony of their original Balmain terrace, his bedroom door handle had to be tied up.

When the teenager established himself as one of the mightiest of Sydney batting talents, his sleep patterns improved. Eventually Mr Jackson was able to untie the bedroom door.

Representative cricket soon followed, and before he was 20, Archie was in the Australian team. There was no quiet initiation period.

After his first Test innings, in February 1929, cricket writers were describing Archie as a "national hero". Not surprising considering that it was a near-faultless innings of 164 against England at the Adelaide Oval. Even when advised by his batting partner, Bradman, to be careful in compiling his century, Jackson opted against inhibition. He instead hit the next ball from Larwood to the point boundary. The Members Stand stood as one. They stood again when he passed three figures.

It again involved Larwood, who later wrote: "He cover-drove me to bring up his hundred… That ball was delivered as fast as any I had ever bowled previously. That glorious stroke has lived in my memory to this day for its ease and perfect timing. I am sure that few among the many thousands present sighted the ball as it raced to the boundary."

There was a darker side. When his innings was finally finished, Jackson was near exhaustion. Team-mate Stork Hendry said that Archie was limp when he returned to the rooms. "We had to mop him with cold towels," Stork said. "Poor little devil."

From then on, ill-health blighted his career. He suffered badly after an operation to remove his tonsils, losing more than 6kg. He often had to withdraw from matches due to various issues, which included a bout of influenza brought about by being caught in a storm when crossing the Hawkesbury River once.

"Well Harold, it's only a game, but what a grand one we're having today! You know, you've hit me almost as many times as I've hit you! I wish you'd drop one a little off line occasionally"

Then before the NSW-Queensland match in Brisbane at the start of the 1931-32 season, Jackson collapsed and was rushed to hospital after coughing up blood in the dressing room.

Jackson thought he had influenza, was discharged within a week, and returned to Sydney with the NSW team. The Australian Board of Control, concerned by the collapse, installed him at Bodington, a Red Cross sanatorium in the Blue Mountains, in the hope the problem could be traced.

Then seeking treatment for psoriasis, Jackson went to the Calvary Hospital, Adelaide, in July 1932. A short time later an Adelaide physician sent a confidential report to the New South Wales Cricket Association that confirmed that Jackson had "pneumonary tuberculosis with fairly extensive involvement of the lungs".

The following year, Jackson collapsed again. This prompted him and his girlfriend, Phyllis Thomas, to announce their engagement. He also moved to Brisbane in the hope that warmer weather would improve his condition. It didn't.

At 12.15am on February 16, 1933 - a short time after Ponsford, Woodfull, Arthur Mailey, Len Darling, George Duckworth and England manger Plum Warner had visited him at the Ingarfield Private Hospital in Brisbane - Archibald Jackson died.

Even those from opposing teams struggled to believe that such a talent had departed so early, and after just eight Test appearances, which involved 474 runs at 47.4.

Larwood was one of many to admire Jackson's mixture of beauty and bravado. He recalled in the foreword to Frith's biography Jackson's innings of 73 during the fifth Test of the 1930 series, at The Oval.

"He was taking quite a physical beating. As he came down the wicket to level a high spot or two, he said: "Well Harold, it's only a game, but what a grand one we're having today! I hope you're enjoying our battle as much as those spectators seem to be. You know, you've hit me almost as many times as I've hit you! I wish you'd drop one a little off line occasionally."

Larwood also appreciated Jackson's sportsmanship. "One of my most cherished possessions to this day is a personal telegram sent to me by Archie while undoubtedly a very sick boy in Brisbane; it congratulated me on my bowling in that controversial Test of 1933. At the time he must have been very close to meeting his Maker, but he was still conscious enough to remember an old friend."

Two years after his death when the NSW players arrived at the dressing room at the Brisbane Cricket Ground for their match against Queensland, they discovered a photograph of Archie on the dining room table, alongside a bowl of roses. It had been left there by his fiancée to mark the second anniversary of their engagement. The players, some in tears, bowed their heads in memory of a distinguished team-mate they never forgot.


On John Keats' grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome are the words: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

On the other side of the world, the electrical storm had passed. The two women and their Jack Russell had long fled. The couch grass that covers the top of Archie's grave was damp. Several weeds in the corners of an otherwise manicured grave drooped with droplets of rain.

The only part of the gravestone, designed by former Test cricketer Tommy Andrews, that was dry, was right at the bottom.

Where it says: "He played the game."

Greg Growden wrote on cricket and rugby at the Sydney Morning Herald for more than 30 years, and has written biographies of Chuck Fleetwood-Smith and Jack Fingleton