I wish I had a pound for every time I've been told, "You must know my father/uncle/grandfather - he played a lot of cricket." It usually happens after someone has mentioned my supposedly vast knowledge of the game, and it usually ends with embarrassment all round when I've never heard of the aged relative, who turns out to have played once for Sussex's Second XI in 1952. There are, after all, thousands of gifted players who are legends in local circles but never quite cracked the pages of Wisden.
But this latest instalment was different. At the quiet surroundings of a fish-and-chip supper outside Melbourne at the church where my brother is the assistant curate, I was given the usual worrying introduction as the cricket man, and out it came: "You might have heard of my father. Although it was a long time ago."
I was just preparing the usual get-out-of-jail-free answer, when my inquisitor served up the Ask Steven equivalent of a leg-side full toss: "He went on the Ashes tour in 1930. Don Bradman's first time in England."
"What's your surname?" I gasped. "Hurwood." Aha. I'd read the books, seen the cigarette cards. "Alec, then?" "Yep, that's him."
I wasn't the only one who was relieved. My father was nervous after bigging me up with the old cricket-encyclopaedia intro, and my brother was pleased as he knew something I didn't: the questioner - the Rev Phil Hurwood - was his boss.
Alec Hurwood was a bowler from then-unfashionable Queensland who sent down offbreaks and offcutters at a brisk pace from a very short run - only about four or five paces. Oddly, he probably owed his place on that Ashes tour to a bowling performance during a batting world record. On the first morning of the Sheffield Shield match in Sydney in January 1930, Hurwood dismissed Don Bradman for 3, and troubled him in the second innings too, rattling the stumps when he had 80 - but the bails stayed on, and Bradman stayed in. And in. He rolled on to 452 not out, the highest first-class score at the time. New South Wales piled up 761 for 8 - but Hurwood took six of those wickets, for 179. The Sydney Morning Herald admired his persistence: "His outswing, with the threatened offbreak which came through straight, or occasionally went a little bit away, was always disconcerting. He was able to make the ball rise sharply." Their correspondent concluded sniffily that "the other bowlers were futile".
"That a bowler able to spin the ball as he could should not have had more opportunities certainly caused a good deal of surprise. Although never scored off with any approach to freedom, he was rarely kept on for any reasonable spell"
Wisden on Hurwood
Queensland fell a bit short of the 770 they needed for victory - all out for 84 - but the Cairns Times looked on the bright side: "Hurwood must be considered by the Australian selectors." And he was duly called up for the Ashes tour that followed, although he didn't have much luck in England, and failed to make the Test side. In 20 other first-class games on tour he took just 28 wickets, although Wisden did express surprise that he wasn't used more: "Of Hurwood curiously enough not much was seen. That a bowler able to spin the ball as he could should not have had more opportunities certainly caused a good deal of surprise. Although never scored off with any approach to freedom, he was rarely kept on for any reasonable spell."
Bradman blamed three-day matches for this (in Australia at the time, Shield games were played to a finish). "On an English tour the speed with which a bowler captures wickets is terribly important," he wrote. "Alec Hurwood's lack of success in 1930 could be directly traced to such a consideration: he bowled excellently, but [captain Bill] Woodfull could not afford to keep him on. It would have meant more time in the field."
Back at home, Hurwood did get a Test cap when West Indies made their first full tour in 1930-31. He took seven wickets in the first Test, at home in Brisbane, and 4 for 22 in the concluding innings of the second match in Sydney, including the great George Headley for 2 as the Windies folded for 90. But that was that. Hurwood had trouble persuading his employers, General Motors, to give him more time off, and played no more that season. He ended his Test career with 11 wickets at 15.45: only Tom Kendall (14 in the first two Tests of all in 1877) and the offspinner Jason Krejza (13 in 2008) have taken more wickets in a two-Test career for Australia.
Early in 1932, Hurwood moved south. "I am sorry to be leaving Queensland," he said, "but I have to earn my living, and that seems to be in Sydney." It was a time of Depression, and cricket took a back seat: he never played first-class cricket again.
Hurwood didn't actually go to Sydney: he ended up down in Melbourne. Says Phil's brother Ross: "I know he lived the life of the distinguished bachelor living in the Chevron Hotel - in St Kilda Road I think - playing golf regularly, and I would think grade cricket. He took me to a practice ground once, saying it was where the grade team practised."
And sister Jan, the eldest, recalls: "When he enlisted in the army during WW2 he played in the Middle East with an Australian Army side under Lindsay Hassett. By the end of the war he would have been 43 so didn't play much after that I guess… I remember he and Mum talking about Hassett as a good friend. They also told me that Alec Bedser came to visit us at home when I was a baby - would have been the 1946-47 series after the war. I have a MCC touring team Christmas card signed 'Eric and Alec'."
There's some more treasured memorabilia shared between the three Hurwood siblings: Jan also has a battered baggy green cap. But among Phil's most prized possessions is a framed letter from Bradman to his father, from January 1934. In it the Don sympathises with the choice Hurwood had been forced to make: "It must have been a break for you at first to give up cricket but you have adopted the best course without any doubt. Despite the position I hold in the cricket world I would give up cricket tomorrow if it stood between me and a business career. Cricket means absolutely nothing but honour and glory which is only hollow. At present I am more or less at the crossroads and may have to leave Sydney to find a position which carries some sort of promise of a career with it because my cricket lifetime will end in a very few years. Quite a shame you won't be on the next tour Alec - we'll miss you but actually you may be better off."
Bradman did soon move, taking up a position as a stockbroker in Adelaide - although his storied cricket career carried on until 1948. The tour to which he was referring was the 1934 trip to England, in which Australia recovered the Ashes lost during the acrimonious Bodyline series.
"As I think the correspondence with Bradman suggests, Dad was of the view that cricket was just a sport, not the be-all and end-all"
Phil Hurwood remembers: "My father didn't marry till the end of the war - 1945 - so by the time we came along he was not actively involved with cricket, though people remembered him. He didn't talk much about it. He certainly held Bradman in high esteem, but was not a fan of Woodfull, perhaps relating to his lack of opportunity on that 1930 tour. He basically lived in Melbourne, where we were all born, before retiring back to Queensland in 1973.
"I know he was really upset when Trevor Chappell bowled that underarm ball against New Zealand at the MCG back in 1981. My mum said he couldn't eat his tea that night. As I think the correspondence with Bradman suggests, he was of the view that cricket was just a sport, not the be-all and end-all."
And finally, did the cricket gene make it to the sons? "I'm not sure it rubbed off all that much," smiles Phil. "I played when I was growing up and to my early twenties, never at a high level, then study and work took priority, though I have always enjoyed ball sports and followed cricket a lot, especially when younger. I still have a pile of old ABC cricket books stashed away. He never drilled us or even coached us very much that I can remember. My brother headed to the outback when he was 17, so he didn't play a lot."
There's one more intriguing piece of memorabilia. Jan says: "The most interesting, I think, is a personal diary that Dad kept during the 1930 tour. It's really very comprehensive and maybe I'll transcribe it some day! Some days he writes a lot more, other days less, but seems to have written something every day of the tour.
"An example entry is: 'Friday August 1st, 1930. Played golf at Burnham Links - very hard seaside course - Ben Travers our host. Left for Swansea at 6. Arrived 10.15. Looks like raining for a week. Wish we could get a spell of fine warm days and hard wickets. Oldfield and Woodfull not playing in this game - have gone to London. Oldfield is neurotic and has to be humoured. Bradman getting a little reserved. He is wonderful the way he looks after himself.'"
Bradman's first Ashes tour in 1930 is very well documented, but the Hurwood Diaries still sound like compelling reading. All this from a chance meeting, which provided some great insight on Australian cricket in the 1930s. And some pretty good fish and chips too. I'm very glad I managed to get that first question right.