Alex Massie

The Keats of Cricket

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1st May 1930: Australian opening batsmen Bill Woodfull (1897 - 1965, left) and Archie Jackson (1909 - 1933) going out to bat against Worcester at Worcester. Photo: E. F. Corcoran/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

The other day Patrick Kidd wrote a nice post on cricket and the outbreak of the Second World War, but, speaking of cricketing heartbreak, Saturday was the 100th anniversary of Archie Jackson's birth.

Poor Jackson. We'll never know what might have been and, of course, it's that sense of if that lends his story its power. It's not quite right to say that Jackson's premature death was a tragedy since the rules of tragedy demand that the protagonist earns his downfall; Jackson, struck down by tuberculosis and dead at 23, was an innocent victim, dealt a rotten hand by fate.

The suggestion that he would have eclipsed Bradman had he lived must be taken with a generous helping of salt. Since no-one else has come close to matching Bradman's wieght of runs we may surmise that Jackson would not have done so either. But runs are only one measurement of greatness and all agree that they're an inadequate means of judging the impact young Archie Jackson made on all those who watched him bat.

The finest cricketer ever born in Rutherglen - and all Scotland for that matter - was an artist at the crease and, according to Bradman, "a batting genius". Some batsmen accumulate and others grind, but the elegance and grace with which Jackson danced at the crease left even his victims with little choice but to admire the style with which he put them to the sword. Harold Larwood often said that the cover drive with which Jackson, aged 19 and playing in his first test, brought up his century at Brisbane in 1928 was as good a shot as any batsman ever made against him.

That unbeaten 164 was to be Jackson's only test century. Though he made a vital 73 at the Oval in 1930 ill-health was already beginning to take its toll and he never played another first-class game fter 1931.

Larwood and Jackson were members of a mutual appreciation society and one of the great "what ifs?" is the question of how Jackson would have dealt with Bodyline. Jackson felt the fuss over England's tactics was exaggerrated, writing that "the Australian batsmen are beginning to squeal - certainly a rotten thing to say - but it's a fact and is creating a good deal of unnecessary trouble".

Confined to a Brisbane hospital, Jackson sent Larwood a telegram during the fourth test at the Gabba. "Congratulations magnificent bowling. Good luck all matches. Archie Jackson." Two days later, on the morning that England would win back the Ashes, he was dead.

David Frith's short biography of Jackson is subtitled "The Keats of Cricket" and it's no wonder. Jackson's batting was compared to Victor Trumper and so provided a link to the Golden Age and Australia's greatest, pre-Bradman, hero. His premature death, then, also broke that chain stretching back to the pre-war halcyon age, leaving us all a little bereft and greatly impoverished, imagining what might have been and contemplating the artistry that might have been preserved on film for future generations to enjoy.

Jackson's casket travelled south to Sydney aboard the same train conveying the English and Australian cricketers. Thousands lined the route for his funeral at which Woodfull, Richardson, Oldfield, McCabe, Ponsford and Bradman acted as pallbearers. His headstone said simply "He played the game". But alas, only too briefly.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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