"I saw him bat, I can still picture that swivel hook..."
The phone line is skittish and it is over sixty years since the events being described, but there is no mistaking the wonder in the voice. "It was in a testimonial match at North Sydney Oval round about 1957," says David Frith. "He was playing against his bosom pal, Bill O'Reilly, who would rock in and still had a high arm even though he would be 52 or 53 at the time." The man O'Reilly was bowling to in that distant Australian summer was Stan McCabe, who was then 47 years old and had played his final first-class match sixteen seasons previously. But Frith is the emeritus professor of cricket historians, so when his tough recollections are touched with such fondness, it is as well to listen hard. Then again, maybe such admiration is not so surprising: on his day McCabe was reckoned a better batsman that Bradman. Even Don thought so.
"Towards the end I could scarcely watch the play," wrote Bradman of McCabe's 232 at Trent Bridge in 1938. "My eyes were filled as I drank in the glory of his shots… Such cricket I shall never see again nor shall I ever feel competent adequately to describe this elegant display...When Stan returned to our dressing room at the conclusion of this epic performance I was so moved by the superb majesty of his innings I could scarcely speak. However, I gripped his hand, wet with perspiration. He was trembling like a thoroughbred racehorse. I can recall saying to him after expressing my congratulations, 'I would give a great deal to be able to play an innings like that.' No skipper was ever more sincere in his adulation of another's skill."
It would be easy for a cynic to comment tartly that Bradman could afford to be generous with his praise. The double-hundred at Nottingham was the sixth and last of McCabe's Test career and it was scored in his 36th match. He would play only three more times for his country, although it is instructive to note he had never been dropped since first being picked, also at Trent Bridge, in 1930. Bradman, by contrast, had scored 18 centuries in 33 games for Australia and would add 11 more in 28 innings. At which point it is probably wise to leash the stat-hounds, albeit they are ravening to make further comparisons. No one doubts that Bradman scored more heavily more frequently than any other player in the game's history. But the oft-voiced problem with such phenomenal batting is that it can overshadow the achievements of world-class cricketers like McCabe, Bill Woodfull and Arthur Morris. How exactly can they compete with a man whose Test batting average (99.94) is over 50 runs per innings greater than each of theirs? How do you rival a man whose average is so abnormal that it became a popular PIN number?
Perhaps we might begin by taking Bradman at his word. We could also note that when it came to playing cricket touched by genius, McCabe had form. At Trent Bridge it had been his demolition of the England debutant legspinner Doug Wright that took his skipper's eye. Over six years earlier his unbeaten 187 in the first Test of the Bodyline tour had offered an early and misleading suggestion that Douglas Jardine's attack could be successfully defied. Only 18 of those runs were scored in front of the wicket on the off side. Time and oft, McCabe hooked, pulled and glanced Larwood and Voce to the pickets on the leg side. There was a century stand with Vic Richardson and fifty partnerships with both Bert Oldfield and last man Tim Wall. Watched by an 11-year-old Ray Lindwall, who shrewdly kept his admiration for Larwood's run-up to himself, McCabe had given the spectators on the Hill precisely the essay in resistance they craved. It was not enough to save the match or change the course of the series but the sight of the "rosy-faced, twinkle-eyed, sparse-thatched boy" stayed with Bill O'Reilly long after he had forgotten his own eight-ball innings.
"I once asked Bill in the press box at SCG where McCabe had hit the ball during that innings," Frith recalls. "And he punched a finger at long leg, square leg and even midwicket. Leg side, whack, whack, whack…and all of it wearing only a cap. McCabe told his father to make sure his mum didn't jump the fence if he got hit."
That happened, of course, but McCabe rode the blows and responded with a few of his own making. It was an innings which became imprinted on the memory of most that saw it and there were over 40,000 at the SCG on each of the two days the century spanned. "He was quick enough now and then to drop back towards the packed on field and unleash a hectoring cover drive at the ball pig-rooting over the leg stump," recalled Denzil Batchelor, who watched that Test. McCabe "was a cricketer of inspiration and instinctive brilliance," said Peter Roebuck, one of many modern writers who have tried to reimagine that innings. "No one else had attempted to bat in his buccaneering way because no one thought it could be done."
But perhaps the most revealing comment came from McCabe, himself. Asked a short time later whether he had got a swollen head after reading the papers he replied that he hadn't seen them. "I thought there might be a lot of exaggerated praise in them that it wouldn't do me any good to read," he explained. His 187 had been scored in two minutes over four hours; there had been 25 fours, although it would have been a dull dog, indeed, who had felt any compulsion to count them.
McCabe demolished the English attack with aristocratic politeness, good taste and reserve. His boundaries were jewels and trinkets which he accepted as though dangling them in his hands
Just over three years later there would be two more runs and four more boundaries in the second of McCabe's three great innings, although again it couldn't win the Test for Australia. The visitors had begun the Johannesburg match already one up in the series, their victory at Durban being partly explained by McCabe's 149 and even more so by O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett's 13 wickets in the match. But Australia had begun the final morning at the Wanderers one down for 85 and still needing another 314 on a dusty pitch offering turn and extravagant variation of bounce. Only around 5000 spectators saw McCabe begin the day on 59 not out but that number had more than doubled as he took the attack to the inexperienced South African spinners. He reached his century in 91 minutes, watched at the other end by his second-wicket partner, Jack Fingleton. "At times Stan's batting bordered on the miraculous," Fingleton would write later.
As at Sydney and Trent Bridge, McCabe responded to difficulty with an innings which mocked circumstance. Early in the afternoon session, with thunder and lightning threatening and Australia seeming well on course for victory, Herbie Wade, the South African captain, appealed against the light, suggesting that McCabe's cuts and drives were endangering his fielders in the murk. When a storm finally ended the match, the visitors needed another 125 to win and McCabe had made 189 not out in 197 minutes.
So to Trent Bridge in 1938 and the first match in what became a tightly-contested four-Test series. A quartet of England batsmen, including the 20-year-old Denis Compton, made centuries as the home side took advantage of a flat pitch to make 658 for 8 declared. McCabe came in with his side two down for 111 - Bradman c Ames b Sinfield 51 - and Australia had declined to 194 for 6 when he was joined by the wicketkeeper, Ben Barnett. What happened next had Neville Cardus searching for a fitting comparison; he decided that a French highwayman from the Restoration period would do the job very well.
"Today McCabe honoured the First Test with a great and noble innings…The dear valiance of his play won our hearts. McCabe demolished the English attack with aristocratic politeness, good taste and reserve. Claude Duval never took possession of a stage coach with more charm of manner than this; his boundaries were jewels and trinkets which he accepted as though dangling them in his hands.
"In half an hour after lunch he scored nearly 50, unhurried but trenchant… One of the greatest innings ever seen anywhere in any period of the game's history. Moving cricket which swelled the heart. He is in the line of Trumper and no other batsman today but McCabe has inherited Trumper's sword and cloak."
Cardus often thought statistics polluted achievement and debased cricket's essential aesthetic. But even he might have thought it worth noting, as Steven Lynch has, that McCabe made his second hundred in 84 minutes, the last 50 of it in just 24. He also contributed 72 to the 77-run last-wicket partnership he shared with "Chuck" Fleetwood-Smith. Even Bradman, whose love of figures was somewhat greater than Cardus', had use for a simile. "Australians who saw that innings [Sydney 1932] rate it as a masterpiece. So it was, and yet compared with his Nottingham effort it was as a sapphire to a diamond."
It is, though, another comparison that stays in the mind. The possibility that McCabe's quick-footed drives could rival those of Victor Trumper beguiles anyone who has found himself pondering George Beldam's photograph for a moment only to find that an half an hour has passed without him noticing. The stat-hounds are pawing at the door again; they point out that Bradman scored as many Test hundreds (29) as McCabe managed in his first-class career.
There are two responses to that valid point. The first is to read some lines from Alan Ross's poem, "Cricket at Oxford":
All day we would marvel at technique
Exercised, it seemed, for its own sake,
The extending of a tradition, as might
Language be refined: an innings
By McCabe packed with epigrams,
Bradman ruthless as if sacking a city
The second is to return to Frith's reminiscences of conservative Sydney in the 1950s, when McCabe, Oldfield and Alan Kippax all owned sports shops in the city.
"I went into McCabe's sports shop in George St, Sydney, up near the Circular Quay, and that did pretty well. Bert Oldfield's shop was round the corner in Hunter St. and if you went a bit further up there was Alan Kippax's shop in Martin Place. I got to know Kippax very well and he was a lovely man, a true gentleman. But so was McCabe and so was Oldfield. They were lovely people. Stan didn't talk too much but he was a quiet, modest man and to win Bill O'Reilly's affection was something special. But it was nice to get his signature. Oldfield gave me his 1930 blazer and a ball from the Trent Bridge Test that year. He also sold me my first bat; it cost £2 and I got a free tin of bat oil to go with it.
"Those three innings of McCabe's were absolute classics and after a hundred years of Test cricket they were judged to be among the top ten that had ever been played. Don topped all the tables but when it came to sheer beauty, awesome beauty, McCabe was on his own. It was a bit like Archie Jackson or Victor Trumper; it was the way they moved that enchanted people."
Stan McCabe fell to his accidental death from Beauty Point in Mosman in 1968. He was 58 and his death occurred in the middle of the final Ashes Test at The Oval. The Australian commentator, Alan McGilvray, recalled that when the news was announced to the crowd there was a deep silence and some people even took off their hats. Ray Robinson wrote as follows, "In McCabe the cricketer, you saw McCabe the man - urbane, sociable, unpretentious, straightforward, incapable of anything mean-spirited." Nowhere in any of the obituaries was there a criticism heavily veiled by euphemism. Rather, most of them mentioned three innings which were as good as anything the game has seen. Some 50 years later there is wonder still.