As a part of the Ashes promotion, Australian television ran an advertisement featuring a character called Yabba. He was shown in the commercial, training up recruits to combat the stampede of the Barmy Army. Yabba was a real character who was an ever-present feature of the SCG between the wars
On one hot sultry day in Sydney, during the infamous Bodyline series, its chief protagonist Douglas Jardine swatted some flies away. Out boomed a voice from the Sydney Hill: "Leave those flies alone, they are your only friends here". It was not only witty and sharp but also conveyed exactly what the Australians thought about Jardine. It came from Stephen Harold Gascoigne, aka Yabba, the legendary barracker.
Standing almost six feet tall and weighing around 14 stone, Gascoigne was a rabbitoh, a rabbit hawker. In the 1920s and 30s he used to be seen with his little pony and two-wheeled cart around South Sydney and Balmain yelling, "Rabbie, wild Rabbie". Some say he was nicknamed Yabba as he used to be a bit of a talker in his young days while others believe that it was a corruption of his advertising pitch.
He was not your typical rowdy spectator though. Donning his hawker's white shirt and dark trousers he would arrive early at the ground wearing a cap, pitch his tent at his favourite spot at the SCG in front of the scoreboard, stocked with bottles of beer and ready wit. When the not-yet-famous legspinner Bill "Tiger" O'Reilly walked out to bat, Yabba roared: "The O might be in front of your name now son but have a look where it is on the way back." But most of his cutting jibes, at least the popular ones, were reserved for the stonewallers. Once when Charles Kellaway finally got off the mark after a painful vigil by stealing a single, Yabba shouted: "Whoa there! He's bolted". In 1932 when the Nawab of Pataudi batted for half an hour without scoring, he advised the umpire, a gas-meter inspector, to "put a penny in him George, he's stopped registering". The prince was at the receiving end of Yabba's wit on another occasion, "Pat O' Dea" [Pataudi] why don't you go back to Africa".
Once, when a defensive batsman was anaesthetising the crowd Yabba shouted out in his stentorian voice, "Call nurse Mitchell [a noted abortionist in those times] to get the bastard out!" Another time, when a batsman was struggling to put bat to ball, he bleated out, "Bowl the bastard a grand piano and see if he can play that instead!" A wayward bowler was pinged with "your length is lousy but you bowl a good width". While some of these comments have been repeated so often and undiscerningly that they have become boring, at the time they were fresh and funny.
But his barbs not only reeked of harmless sarcasm but were also fair-minded and at times, humane. Once, in 1934, when the rest of the mob in The Hill were patronising women cricketers Yabba refused to join in. When the orchestrated cry of "Shake it up with your powder puff in there, girls!" went around, Yabba, when asked to join, sniggered, "Why should I? The ladies are playing all right for me. This is cricket. Leave the girls alone." When a North Sydney tailender walked back dejectedly, bowled first ball, Yabba consoled him saying, "Don't worry son, it would have bowled me!"
He even penned a column in the Sunday Sun during the Bodyline series. The narrative, on a match between Jardine's men and New South Wales, was of course laced with his typical wit and humour but also tells us of his cricketing knowledge. "Fingleton? Brilliant. The way he batted, getting belted like he was, was wonderful. He's is one of my first selections for the Tests. If we don't encourage the young players, where will we get our next team for England? He's a brilliant field from any possy, as he showed us yesterday, and another innings like that from him and they will have the crowd waiting to get in."
And, of course, the humour. "Yesterday was dead. At first the mob barracked all right. They even barracked me! Yes, as I came in, the mob sung out, 'Ow's the wireless?' That got me stone mad. I am not on the wireless. I only talk on The Hill. Some of the mob counted Sutcliffe out, but as I explained, well he's a professional man. It's his living. Pataudi never looked like getting a score. The crowd were getting ready to count him out - but as I explained - he was fighting for his possy in the Test ... But he needn't have stopped there, 25 minutes for four. He's not professional like Sutcliffe - he's a Rajah, or something - cricket ain't his living."
Yabba appeared on radio, was the subject of a newsreel and went on to be included in the Australian Hall of Fame. After Yabba died of heart disease on January 8 1942, and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery, the members of the New South Wales Cricket Association observed a minute's silence at its next meeting.
But, maybe, the best tribute came from Jack Hobbs, the legendary English batsman. When Hobbs, on his last appearance in Sydney, was presented with a testimonial, he took the trouble of walking around the ground, asked for Yabba and shook hands with him. It would have made the old man proud.
Sriram Veera is editorial assistant of Cricinfo