Honour Those Who Dug The Well That You Are Drinking From
by Michael Fahey
Russell Crowe’s character in the movie The Water Diviner sourced and then dug wells to find water – he was the water diviner. By walking on stage with a bat at the premier, was Russell honouring cricket and cricketers or was it a cynical jump on the #putoutyourbats bandwagon? Michael Fahey answers this as he traces his dealings and near dealings with the Crowes and unravels ‘Rusty’s’ love of sports.
When Academy Award-winning actor Russell Crowe walked onto the stage in Sydney on 2 December 2014 to premier the film The Water Diviner, his first film as a director (and lead actor), he carried a cricket bat which he placed against the wall.
This act was part of a worldwide phenomenon initiated by Sydneysider Paul Taylor to pay tribute to Australian Test player Phil Hughes who died on 27 November 2014. Phil, playing for South Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground against his former state New South Wales, was hit on the back of the head by a short ball; missing his helmet, it ruptured a vein in his neck and caused a catastrophic bleed.
Paul, who grieved at the loss of Phil, placed his bat and cap outside his front door by way of tribute. He then recorded this simple tribute on twitter as #putoutyourbats. His act went ‘viral’, as is the term in the new social media, spreading around the world.
Was Russell Crowe’s action just another celebrity/politician wearing the ribbon ‘du jour’ that we constantly see on television? Indeed, he had tweeted just a few days before,
Just heard. In shock. My deep condolences to the family of Phillip Hughes.
But again … was that just more of the same platitudes that a modern media junkie
I must confess that I have not met Russell Crowe, but given some of my ‘half- dealings’ with him (set out below), I doubt that the bat and the tweet were cynical manoeuvres. In fact the journey of another bat tells much about the man.
What of Russell? Does he have a love or even an interest in sport and cricket? For those unacquainted with rugby league (a football code particularly strong in Sydney, Brisbane, Auckland and the north of England) Russell re-invigorated the once-mighty South Sydney Rabbitohs club – aka The Pride of the League, but who more recently were the perennial competition cellar-dwellers. After some eight years of struggle since the commencement of his partial ownership, this side, who had not won the NSWRL (now the National Rugby League) Premiership in 42 years, secured the title in emphatic fashion in October 2014.
Okay, I’ll grant you he has a love of rugby league and certainly puts his money
where his mouth is – but what of cricket?
As a dealer, auctioneer, museum consultant, author and valuer of sporting antiques and memorabilia, I come across many people and receive a number of interesting and strange requests.
Here the Crowe (plural) connection becomes a bit stronger; let me put this all in context with some details. In 2006, Martin Crowe, the stylish ex-New Zealand batsman and Sky TV presenter, contacted me wishing to sell his collection of match-used New Zealand cricket memorabilia, swapped Test caps and Bradman/ Crowe dual signed bats. Martin Crowe and Sir Donald Bradman are the only two players who have scored 299 in a Test match innings. (For a time they were the joint holders of the highest Test score shared by two players – this figure was surpassed in 1998 when Mark Taylor scored 334 not out and again someone joined Sir Donald Bradman as the dual record holders.)
The Test caps that Martin possessed represented all the then Test nations and some of the greatest players from the era – these caps had been worn by Shane Warne, Ian Botham, Javed Miandad, Brian McMillan, Ravi Shastri, Aravinda De Silva, Courtney Walsh and David Houghton.
Wow. What a collection, I thought.
We exchanged further emails, and agreed on the terms for me to act as his agent to sell the collection. I looked forward to meeting Martin, who was coming to Sydney a few weeks later. Once in Sydney we spoke on the phone and agreed to meet at the inner-city harbourside suburb of Woolloomooloo, where he was staying with his cousin. Some bloke called Russell.
I was slow on the uptake. “Russell …?” It was a half-question.
“Yeah, you know – Russell Crowe,” was his matter-of-fact reply.
The penny dropped. Just like Phar Lap, Split Enz and Joh Bjelke-Petersen, us Aussies had adopted another Kiwi and called him our own. Of course – Academy Award- winner Russell Crowe, born in New Zealand but raised in Australia, was cousin of the famous Black Cap cricketing Crowe brothers, Martin and Jeff.
Anyway, back to the memorabilia collection … Russell was flying Martin to North Queensland to watch a South Sydney rugby league match on the Saturday night and we were to meet on Sunday when he was back in Sydney. Unfortunately for me, that meeting never took place.
Martin did contact me on the Sunday but advised that Russell, upon hearing about his cousin’s plans to sell his memorabilia through Sports Memorabilia Australia, had bought the collection, lock, stock and barrel.
Much of this memorabilia, along with other sporting items, and a huge cache of film props and memorabilia, were later put on display at the Museum of Curious Things in Nymboida, which was built in 2010 by Russell. Nymboida is a very small town (in the 2006 Census there were 427 persons) inland of NSW regional city Coffs Harbour. Russell has a large property at Nana Glen (also near Coffs Harbour) and does much to support the local town and sports teams there. This museum, with much of his personal memorabilia (and cousin Martin’s wonderful collection), is on display to the general public.
I visited the museum in 2012 and imagined what might have been. Subsequently, Russell’s attention to cricket details was further made evident.
In late 2013 the props master used by Russell to find, make and devise props for films, and in this case, The Water Diviner, contacted me.
I discovered that he was based at Fox Studios Australia, which is built in the grounds of the old Sydney Showgrounds. Officially known as the Royal Agricultural Society’s Showground this oval coincidentally also has a rich sporting history in Sydney. It was the venue for the first match of rugby league in Australia in 1907 and the first rugby league Test in 1908. Rugby league had been frozen out of the adjoining Sydney Cricket Ground, which was the city’s main sporting ground. Ironically, by the 1920s the situation was reversed and some rugby union Tests were played at the RAS ground while rugby league enjoyed the SCG. Fast-forward to the 1970s and Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket troupe also used the ground (for the same reason) for the cricket ‘Super’ test.
The props master said he had an unusual question. After more than 20 years of searching, delving and exploring sports memorabilia and history, however, I doubted anything would seem too strange to me anymore. “What brand of bat did MA Noble use in 1905?” he asked.
For the record, Montague Alfred Noble (or Mary-Anne to team jokers) played 42 cricket Tests (1889-1909) for Australia and represented New South Wales in 248 first-class matches from 1893-1919. He’s held in such high esteem that one of the stands at the SCG is named after him along with those honouring cricketers Victor Trumper, Donald Bradman and Bill O’Reilly, and rugby league players Clive Churchill (from the Souths club to boot) and Easts’ Dally Messenger. In the company of greats, is MA Noble at the SCG.
Russell wished to make a bat for the movie that was exactly the same as that used by MA Noble 10 years before the Gallipoli debacle. The movie The Water Diviner tells the story of an Australian father travelling to Turkey post-World War I to find his lost or dead sons.
Attempting to be the consummate professional, I advised that while unusual it was not beyond the possible. In putting the phone down, reality and a slight feeling of panic set in.
Given reports of Russell’s major bust-up in a London restaurant, I imagined the bearded ‘Gladiator’ wielding the possibly-wrong bat like a gladius Hispaniensis, aka a Spanish sword, through my premises. I had better get this right.
Luckily, the longer you pursue a career the more likely that some previous research will prove useful. A few months before, I had valued material for Museum Victoria. They had a Wisden Crawford Exceller bat used by a former Test cricketer. The question then was, when was it used?
Conveniently another client, The National Sports Museum (also in Melbourne), has a vast collection of bats. As expected, they have a number of Wisden Exceller bats which had been used by contemporary Australian players such as Armstrong, Darling, Trott, Duff, Hill and Macartney, all of whom played Test cricket at some point in the years that Noble did.
A further online search for ‘Wisden’s Crawford Exceller bat’ unearthed a 1901 advertisement by John Wisden which exclaimed:
The 1890-93-96-99 AUSTRALIAN ELEVENS have all used CRAWFORD’S PATENT “EXCELLER” BATS.
Maybe the 1905 Australian team as a whole used the Wisden Crawford Exceller, including team member Monty? However, remembering Rusty’s wrath, I needed specific images or some primary source material from Monty.
A closer inspection of the 1901 advertisement showed reproduced handwritten testimonials on each of the bats. Bat number two contained a note which was written by MA Noble:
I have very great pleasure in forwarding you one of your Crawford Exceller Bats which I have had in constant use during the past season[.] I have compiled something like 2000 runs with it & [it] has been perhaps the very finest of many Excellent Bats which I have had the pleasure of selecting from your large stock. I might say that in sending it to you[,] I feel as though I am parting from a very old friend.
Yours faithfully MA Noble.
I was getting close. I now knew that Noble had used a Wisden Crawford’s patent Exceller bat in 1900-01 – but what was he using in 1905?
Celebrated Sydney-based cricket collector Peter Schofield (the author of the recent excellent book From Lord’s to the Letterbox) advised he had numerous postcards of Noble taken on the 1905 tour. Some of these showed him holding his bat. Tantalisingly close – but frustratingly, the resolution on a small postcard was not high enough to determine the actual make of the bat.
Further research by Peter unearthed an advertisement in the 1906 Wisden Almanack for the FH Ayers ‘International’ cricket bat. Vitally, it carried another endorsement by MA Noble:
I can safely say [that] I have never [used] a bat which has given me such thorough pleasure and satisfaction.
We had confirmation that he had used an Ayers bat sometime between 1901 and 1905. It was more likely the later. Satisfied with the research that had been uncovered, the props master took the images, advising after the premier of the film – which almost coincided with Phil’s passing:
Yes, I did make an Ayres bat for the film thanks to your research. It was used in the trenches and as a prop by Russell and other actors.
I was intrigued as to the role of the bat in the film – not having been to the premier I did some further digging myself. An extract from the book helped to establish the context of the bat in the narrative.
When Crowe’s character Connor reached Gallipoli to find his missing sons – or look for their graves – he engaged in discussion with a Turkish soldier who was helping locate bodies.
“I found this wood in trench at Canakkale, the same day your Australians ran away. All day, I watch them use it on the beach. Through bomb and bullets. They never stop. I keep it – to remember me of that victory day.” He holds it in both hands, spinning it over. “You tell me. It is a game or weapon?”
Connor holds out his hands, smiling. “Both, in the right hands. Here, give it to me.”
The Water Diviner by Andrew Anastasios and Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios
The bat does play a further role and some reviewers found the scene, where it literally is used as a weapon, a little fanciful (but I’m not here to pass judgement on the movie). One reviewer’s comment struck a chord with me, however. Charles Waterstreet, in reviewing the movie for The Sydney Morning Herald of 7 December 2014, described the moment at the premier:
The most touching historic gestures come from the heart, without rehearsal, without planning by publicist. When Crowe came onto the stage at that extraordinary showcase, the State Theatre, he ambled in with gravity, carrying not a gladiator sword, but a single wooden cricket bat which he placed on the right side of the stage without saying a word, acknowledging that nothing needs to or could be said, capturing the mood of the nation, of the audience, in a single tribute. The blade sat there through the entire movie, a solitary sentiment, without batting an eyelid but moistening all.
I later learnt via Russell’s assistant that the bat Russell put against the wall à la #putoutyourbats at the premier was indeed one from his own personal collection.
For a man making his directorial debut, and also being the lead actor, I can only wonder at the thousands of decisions required for travel, plot and cast, let alone the costuming and propping; yet the minute details of researching and making a 1905 MA Noble bat replica were attended to.
Neither the make of the bat nor the homage to MA Noble was mentioned in the film – maybe they were originally and ended up on the fabled cutting-room floor. Possibly, but neither of those things needed to be explained, as I suspect Russell knew the bat was right (or as right as we could determine) and that was all that mattered.
Russell had honoured those who dug the cricket well and so too at his premier he honoured one of the modern exponents of the game who drank so richly from it.
Some of you with a more mercenary bent may wonder what was, and/or how, the fee could be tabulated to fully reimburse the knowledge, experience and more importantly, the contacts who produced the bat evidence which was found.
In fact a bottle of wine was offered as remuneration and was gratefully accepted. With Australian shiraz my latest favourite, I asked for that varietal and a good drop it was too, supplied by the props master, though I must confess that on first spying the wrapped bottle I secretly hoped it might continue our cricket theme. Could it be a Brokenwood Cricket Pitch, for instance?
Sadly, no. (Upon reflection, perhaps I’m the only tragic who collects and catalogues wine with cricket labels?)
Of course, cricket is a well easy to honour when you are also drinking from it.