Alick The Rat: The Other Bannerman
In the 1880s, a picture began to emerge of the archetypal Australian as tall and bronzed, with a talent for laconic improvisation and a disdain for introspection and too much solemnity. Whatever truth it held, Alick Bannerman was its utter antithesis. Small (165cm and 65kg) and intense, he began a counter-tradition to that of the free-flowing and aggressive Australian stroke player, the prototype of which was his brother, Charles. Alick (as was the habitual contemporary transcription of the diminutive of that name), on the other hand, was the first in that line of watchful defenders such as Charlie Kelleway, Herbie Collins, Bill Woodfull and Jim Burke and is echoed in our day by the commendable Chris Rogers. His seriousness about cricket bordered on the obsessive and produced a wealth of stories, typified by George Giffen’s account of Bannerman remonstrating with one of his Australian team-mates who was singing fragments of music-hall songs between overs: “Do you know, my friend, you are playing cricket? If you want to play cricket, play it; and if you want to sing, go and sing, but for heaven’s sake, don’t sing comic songs in the slips!” The more obsessive aspect of his personality could express itself in what amounted to wilful self-absorption. At the age of 50, in 1904, for example, he scored a dilatory century for Paddington in a minor game against a Combined Juniors team, steadfastly refusing to give his wicket away in order that the sizeable crowd at the Sydney Cricket Ground might enjoy the delights of a Victor Trumper innings. For Bannerman, however, no game of cricket was ever trivial and nothing ever justified his leaving the crease without resistance. Wanderer, in The London Sportsman of October 1924, alluded to this aspect of Bannerman with a light touch: “… the little ‘stonewaller’ had such a disinclination to go that he usually had a grievance with the umpire’s decision. In fact, in my early days, it became a proverb that when a batsman’s stumps were spreadeagled it was remarked that ‘even Alick Bannerman would have been satisfied that he was out’.”
His batting was built on a foundation of unbreachable defence, combined with limitless patience and a sureness in deciding which balls actually needed the attention of his bat. In addition, he was totally oblivious to the reactions of the opposition, the crowd, or, at times, even his own team-mates, as he inched away remorselessly at the crease. In January 1890, his Test colleague Tom Horan, writing as Felix in The Australasian, penned this evocative portrait of Bannerman: “Fearless and confident, cool and collected, in adverse circumstances, he goes in, and manifesting an imperturbable patience, combined with impregnable defence, he maintains the gate, or rather the wicket, against all comers. No wayward fancy seizes him to try a foolish stroke. The lookers-on may loudly express their dissatisfaction at his stonewalling, and exclaim, as one aggrieved individual did, that ‘a team of bullocks could not drag him to see another intercolonial’, but it matters not a jot to Alick. He is playing all he knows for his side, and like a lady wedded to her own opinion, ‘you cannot shift him’.”
Twelve months later, in a text-book demonstration of Horan’s picture of his methods, Bannerman’s first three innings of the 1891-92 Test series produced 177 runs in 14 hours of encampment at the crease. The extensive research of Charles Davis, reported in Wisden Australia of 2004-05, marks Bannerman as the slowest-scoring Australian Test batsman, with a rate of 22-23 runs per hundred balls faced. By comparison, England’s Trevor Bailey crept along at 26-27 per hundred balls, while Burke, the only other Australian in the top 12, scored at 29-30. Yet, Giffen had noted that the tiny tortoise could occasionally become a batting hare, as he had the capacity to be very severe on bowlers as they searched for line and length at the beginning of a spell. Giffen, who had many opportunities to observe Bannerman from close quarters, may have had in mind his 70 at Melbourne in the Third Test of the 1881-82 series, a four-hour vigil which was punctuated by 11 fours.
While his batting statistics look modest by contemporary standards, we have to remember that Bannerman batted on uncovered pitches which remained open to the vagaries of the weather, so that a sodden muckheap where mullygrubbers were the order of the day could be followed after sun by a sticky wicket as unpredictable and surprising as an ICAC hearing. Even in good weather the standard of pitch preparation was generally low; it was not until after 1890 that more science and care went into the curating of batting surfaces. The wonder of batsmen such as Bannerman, Billy Murdoch and WG Grace is not that their averages were so modest but that they acquitted themselves so well in such an environment.
In contrast to the crabbed immobility of his batting, he was a magnificently athletic fieldsman who made the mid-off position his own with a combination of speed across the turf, sureness in catching and swift accuracy of return. In this context, he was very much part of the mainstream of Australian cricketing tradition in which fielding as an attacking weapon was an important part. Even in this context, though, stories attached themselves to Bannerman. Playing against Yorkshire at Harrogate, he became incensed at the way in which Ted Peate was taunting the field by darting in and out of his crease. Suddenly, Bannerman could contain himself no longer, and threw down the stumps with lightning accuracy and speed, venting his disgust at the departing Peate’s levity with a withering: “Play the Angora with me, will you?” It is little wonder that Billy Murdoch christened him ‘The Rat’, a double-edged tribute to both Bannerman’s ceaselessly-inquisitive and intelligent presence on the cricket field and the more abrasive aspects of his personality. This epithet also referred to a stature which was so small that a barracker at a Sydney Test match once responded to the large-brimmed hat that Bannerman was wearing as protection against the sun while fielding with: “Hey, Alick, come out from under your hat. I can see your feet.” The hat itself was, perhaps, Bannerman’s practical response to having suffered sunstroke at Melbourne, on the opening day of the Fourth Test of the 1881-82 series.
Bannerman was born in the inner-Sydney suburb of Paddington on 22 March 1854, shortly after his family arrived from England, where his father had been a lance-corporal in the Royal Sappers and Miners, later more generally known as the Royal Engineers. Alick joined the Warwick club and achieved sufficiently steady progress to make his first appearance for New South Wales against Lillywhite’s team in January 1877 at the Albert Ground, having built a reputation as a tough and dependable batsman and also having benefited from being the younger brother of Charles Bannerman. In October of that year, he made the first century on the Sydney Cricket Ground by carrying his bat for 169 in a total of 365, made in just over five hours, in a match between the Government Printing Office and the Audit Office, held as part of the Civil Service Challenge Cup.
He made the first of his six tours of England in 1878 where, despite unremarkable statistics, he showed his ability over the long course by carrying his bat for 71 against the Orleans club at Twickenham, the first of a record seven times he was to wear out the attack over a completed first-class innings. He was part of the side at Melbourne for the single Test of the 1878-79 tour and immediately set the tenor of his contributions at this level by arriving at the crease with the score at 2 for 30 and resisting for 235 minutes before being last out at 256, having made 73 with seven fours. A month later, he was batting with Murdoch when the latter was ruled to be run out by George Coulthard, a decision which provoked the crowd into invading the field, causing the remaining 90 minutes of play to be cancelled. Next morning, Bannerman took his score to 20 before Tom Emmett and George Ulyett caused such a spectacular collapse that the last six wickets fell with the score stuck fast at 49.
In the 1880 Test at the Oval, Bannerman was required to send down 50 overs of his round-arm medium-pace as a makeshift substitute for Fred Spofforth who had broken a finger while batting in an earlier match. His 3 for 111 was the first of two occasions in England when his lightly-used bowling went for more than a century in an innings, the other being his 3 for 103 against Yorkshire at Bradford in 1888.
Bannerman batted consistently in the 1881-82 series, his four-hour 70 in the Third Test at Sydney offering staunch support to Percy McDonnell (147) in a fourth-wicket stand which contributed 199 to Australia’s total of 262, and proved sufficient for the home side to win by six wickets. In the final game of the series at Melbourne, Bannerman made 37 of Australia’s first-ever Test century opening stand of 110 with Murdoch (85). By now, he was playing for the Carlton club in Sydney, for whom he recorded the first instance of a century in each innings in a Sydney club match that season, and with whom he was to remain until the advent of electorate-based cricket in 1893-94.
Back in England for the 1882 tour, he played a typical role in the drama of the Oval Test. With his side trailing by 38 on the first innings, he helped to provide a little breathing space by sealing up an end while Hugh Massie tore into the English bowling in making 55 of an opening stand of 66 in 45 hectic minutes, Bannerman eventually being third out with his score at 13. He also played a crucial role in the home side’s second innings by catching WG Grace off Harry Boyle to leave England at 4 for 53 and already on the descent into dramatic defeat by seven runs. Towards the end of the tour, against I Zingari at Scarborough, he rescued his side with a second innings of 120 not out which occupied seven hours and culminated in an unfinished seventh-wicket stand of 167 with George Bonnor who was at his Herculean best with 122 in only 105 minutes.
The Australian season of 1882-83 saw Bannerman at the top of the national aggregates and averages. Against Victoria at Melbourne, his innings of 78 and 101 not out occupied a total of nearly 10 hours and included two century partnerships with Murdoch, which sealed a seven-wicket victory after the visitors scored 3 for 273 in the fourth innings of the match. In the Third Test at Sydney, he made his highest Test score of 94 (245 minutes, 13 fours), a grafting innings played over three days in stygian gloom and punctuated with continual weather interruptions. Three weeks later, on the same ground, Bannerman’s second innings 63 (175 minutes, one five, five fours) gave stability to the run chase of 198 which Jack Blackham’s second fifty of the match eventually sealed by four wickets.
His third tour of England, in 1884, as had been his 1880 visit, was on the financial basis of fixed terms, rather than his receiving a share of its profits. With the bat, he made his usual steady progress, recording just on 1000 runs for the tour; he failed, however, to make much impression in the Tests, his four innings producing only 49 runs. Next season, he was part of the Australian team which resigned en masse after the First Test in an argument over the distribution of gate takings. Typically, though, commotion off the field did not affect his form with the bat. Against Victoria at Sydney, on a pitch showing the effects of wear and rain, he made an unusually spritely 96 not out (175 minutes, nine fours) as his team reached 211 to win by three wickets. Three weeks later, in the Fourth Test on the same ground, and batting at number six, he hit eight fours on his way to 51, which was followed by George Bonnor’s ferocious 128 in under two hours.
The 1885-86 season was marked by his dispute with the New South Wales Cricket Association over terms and conditions which led to his missing all first-class cricket, and the subsequent tour of England. Bannerman then had two lean seasons, where his best effort in 27 innings was 45. This lack of success continued when he toured England again in 1888, both his aggregate and average showing a decline from those of 1884. Again, he had another miserable time in the Tests, only managing 19 runs from six innings, so that after 14 Test innings in that country in eight years he had scored only 160 runs.
After this dry period, his batting once again took root and prospered. In 1888-89, he was back to his prolonged best with an innings of 134 for an Australian XI against a Combined New South Wales-Victorian XI at Sydney. Last out after 390 minutes in an innings total of 377, he had taken part in a remarkable opening stand of 144 with Charlie Turner, whose 102 came in only 105 minutes after the century partnership had been posted in 65 minutes. In 1888-89, Bannerman made his third and final first-class century in Australia, when he batted for 355 minutes in scoring 117 (nine fours), his solo effort forcing the Victorians to bat again to win the match by eight wickets. In February 1890, however, he announced that he would not be available for the forthcoming tour of England for undisclosed “personal reasons”.
Against England in 1891-92, he reached the summit of his defensive capabilities. At Melbourne, in the First Test, he scored 45 (195 minutes) and 41 (230 minutes), marathons of self-denial which played their unspectacular part in Australia’s 54-run win. While innings such as these lent point to Johnny Moyes’ observation that he was “as wearisome to the flesh as fleas in a warm bed”, he did contribute to stands of 87 for the fourth wicket in the first innings with Billy Bruce (57) and an opening gambit of 66 with Jack Lyons (66) in the second. In the next Test, at Sydney, Australia began its second innings trailing by 163 runs at which Bannerman embarked on a policy of absolute adhesion. Lyons (134) dominated a second-wicket partnership of 174, while Giffen and Bruce dominated proceedings in their respective stands. When Bannerman finally succumbed with the score at 4 for 347, he had been batting for 421 minutes and faced, according the calculations of Davis, 620 balls, from which he squeezed just three fours. The England medium-pacer William Attewell bowled 276 balls in the innings from which he took 1 for 43; 204 of these were to Bannerman who scored from five of them. Giffen wrote that one spectator claimed that the English fieldsmen crowded around Bannerman reminded him of the Danish-born artist, Albert Schenk’s painting Anguish, in which a bevy of crows cluster around a dead lamb while the mother watches helplessly. Grace spent much of the seven hours so close to the bat that one barracker yelled: “Look out, Alick, or WG will have his hand in your pocket.” Despite the tail collapsing, England lost by 56 runs, Australia had won the series and Bannerman shared a public subscription of £100 raised for his joint efforts with Lyons. Time, however, had not taken the edge off his waspishness at being required to leave the crease. English manager Alfred Shaw took over umpiring duties when the locals objected to the alleged incompetence of the original appointee, Denis Cotter, but Shaw still received the tart edge of Bannerman’s tongue when the former gave him out stumped.
Bannerman played in the inaugural Sheffield Shield season of 1892-93, captaining New South Wales in its third and fourth matches for a win and a loss. The ensuing tour of England was his most productive at Test level, as he averaged 32.20 over the three Tests and reached 55 at the Oval and 60 at Old Trafford. After two games in 1893-94, he was dropped from the state side, but he finished his career as he had started it, and in his last match, against Victoria at Melbourne, his 6 runs in the first innings occupied 85 minutes. His 46 matches for New South Wales produced 1942 runs at 24.89.
He continued on in Grade cricket with Paddington until 1905-06, by which time he was 51, compiling 1973 runs at 34.01, with 1896-97 his best season, yielding him 407 runs at 67.83. He was an early captain of the club and MA Noble remembered him as a hard taskmaster who demanded absolute intensity from his charges. He admonished one fieldsman who spoke amicably to an obviously-nervous incoming batsman, reminding him that he had frittered an opportunity to sap the batsman’s confidence by ignoring him. His devotion to the proprieties of appearance is reflected in his oft-repeated dictum: “Even if you’re not a cricketer, at least look like one.”
Bannerman’s working life had been spent in the New South Wales Government Printing Office, but a leg injury forced his retirement in 1909, whereupon JC Davis, the influential editor of The Referee, led a successful campaign to have him appointed as state coach. Bannerman held the position for three seasons from 1909-10, the side winning the Sheffield Shield in the latter two of these. His appointment was then abruptly terminated, the feeling being that, while he had both devotion to the game and cricket shrewdness, he was too defensive to have much to offer a team composed of the likes of Victor Trumper and Charlie Macartney. He continued to haunt the nets at the Sydney Cricket Ground however, which were only a cricket ball’s throw from his home in Albion Street, Paddington, offering batting advice at will, all of which was free and much of which was gratuitous. He died at home on 19 September 1924, and in March 1925 a memorial tablet was unveiled in St James’ Anglican Church in King Street, Sydney, where he and his wife, Elizabeth, born Dick, had worshipped for many years. The text from Romans xii 17 is “Take thought for things honourable in the sight of all men.” The tablet makes no mention of his cricketing history.
Not Out, in his delicately-phrased obituary for Bannerman in The Referee, summarised his qualities thus: “He was one of the most thorough cricketers Australia has ever known, and the most accurate judge of a cricketer – budding or developed – I have ever known. A straight man, a very serious cricketer, and a most excellent citizen, Alick Bannerman leaves a fine name among those who really knew and understood him.”