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Allrounder Feature

Master of the spin-swerve

The first Monty to be a crowd favourite, M.A. Noble was the most complete player of the late 1800s and early 1900s

Peter English
Peter English

Monty Noble walks out to bat at The Oval as captain in 1909 © Wisden
The first Monty to be a crowd favourite, M.A. Noble was the most complete player of the late 1800s and early 1900s. A medium pacer and batsman who appeared everywhere from opener to No. 9, Noble was capable of holding his place with either discipline and was a crucial member for Australia over 11 years and 42 Tests.
With the ball Noble employed break-backs, although when the wicket was not offering assistance he preferred "spin-swerve", and Ranjitsinhji rated him in his best six medium pacers. "He reached 1000 runs and 100 wickets in 27 Tests - five fewer than Benaud, six fewer than Miller, seven fewer than Davidson," Ray Robinson wrote in On Top Down Under. "He averaged a victim every 59 balls, a ball sooner than Lindwall's striking rate".
Noble scored one Test century, 133 at Sydney in 1903-04 during his first Test as captain, and finished with 1997 career runs at 30.25 to go alongside 121 wickets at 25.00. "A wonderfully good medium pace bowler; an extremely solid batsman and at point, a most brilliant field," wrote the Victoria representative J. Elliott Monfries in Not Test Cricket.
Known as Monty or Alf, he was jokingly referred to as "Mary Ann" by his SCG home crowd while his team-mates plumped for "Boots" after his impressively-sized feet. A Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1900, he was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame in 2006. "During his long career, Noble showed exceptional ability in every detail of the game," Wisden said in Noble's obituary, "and by many people was regarded as the greatest all-round cricketer produced by Australia."
Noble's Test debut came in Melbourne in 1897-98 and by the end of his second game he had 15 wickets. His batting came along too and he held the record for the best average in an Australian season four times, a mark that was ultimately beaten by Don Bradman. Hove was a favourite ground and he posted double centuries there on two trips to England, including 284 against Sussex in 1902, when he combined with Warwick Armstrong for 428, which was then a world record for the sixth wicket. Made captain for the Ashes of 1903-04, he lost 3-2, but won the 1907-08 campaign 4-1 and the 1909 series 2-1. In 1909 he became the first captain to send England in at Lord's and won all five tosses during the summer. A stand was later named after him at the SCG.
What made him special
Picking up a new grip from baseball, he was able to apply swerve to trick the batsmen. "Instead of pressing two or three fingers on the ball's seam, like a spinner, Noble held it between his thumb and his strong corn-studded forefinger," Robinson wrote. "On the truest of tracks all he needed was some sort of headwind for this spin-swerve to be difficult."
Noble's usual fielding position was as a brilliant point and his arm was so strong he once struck with an apple an Arab making "objectionable gestures" on the shore as they passed through the Suez Canal. Monfries wrote: "He brought forth a spontaneous burst of applause from thousands of spectators, when, after we saw the flash of a bat, the next sight of the ball was from the hands of Monty at point, and on its way back to the bowler." As a captain he helped pioneer the tactic of leaving gaps at cover so the batsmen would hit catches towards the gully region.

Monty Noble scored one Test century, a 133 in his first match as captain © Wisden
Finest hour
It should probably be finest hours. Scoring 60 not out at Manchester in 1899, he then opened the batting as Australia followed-on, crawling to 89. "He withstood the England bowling for eight and a half hours," Wisden said. "Noble did not get a run during three-quarters of an hour in his second innings, which lasted five hours twenty minutes, his prolonged effort contributing largely towards Australia avoiding defeat." He later apologised for his slow play.
"His most notable bowling performance for Australia against England was at Melbourne in January 1902," Wisden reported. "In the first innings of the very strong team captained by A.C. MacLaren he dismissed seven men for only 17 runs, and six in the second innings at 10 runs apiece - 13 wickets in the match at the very small cost of 77 runs." Twenty-five wickets fell that New Year's Day and Noble finished the series with 32 victims.
Achilles' heel
He got a pair at Leeds in 1899 and was part of a J.T. Hearne hat-trick in the second innings, walking off the wrong way. "It was the only time team-mates saw his self-control fail," Robinson wrote. He was presented with a small silver duck and kept it in his pocket during the next match, which was his successful one at Old Trafford.
How history views him
Robinson, the great Australian cricket writer, said Noble was "the most accomplished cricketer Australia produced as bowler, batsman, captain and fieldsmen, at least in the pre-1954 era of all-weather wickets". Wisden's obituary said Noble's figures proved there had not been a superior all-round Test player.
Life after cricket
He ended his career in banking when picked on the 1899 tour of England and began to study dentistry. Working as a dentist, he was visited by Bill Ferguson, who had arranged the trip to help him get the job of team scorer and bagman, which he did for half a century. "I bought enough gold fillings to last a lifetime," Ferguson wrote in Mr Cricket. Touring life made running a dental practice difficult - strangely, he put sugar cubes into his whisky to prevent hangovers - and he became an agent for a manufacturer and also a writer. One of his clothing ideas was to have air holes under the arms of playing shirts. In 1940 he had a heart attack when playing a social match and died a week later aged 67.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo