The Big Ship, Warwick Armstrong and the Making of Modern Cricket: By Gideon Haigh

Reviewed by Barry Nicholls

Warwick Armstrong was a colossus of a man - at one stage weighing 140 kilograms bound in a six-foot frame - and his footprint on Australian cricket was correspondingly large. During a first class career that spanned almost 25 years he accumulated more than 16000 runs and 800 wickets. In fact, so prominent was Armstrong’s presence in Australian cricket that it was once proposed by English writer Sir Neville Cardus that Australian cricket was ‘incarnate in him.’

While Armstrong’s major influence has often been referred to in Australian cricket folklore - particularly his brushes with the game’s administrators and his bullyboy tactics on the field - his life story has gone largely unrecorded. Previously only Radcliffe Grace’s self published volume entitled Warwick Armstrong has sought to describe the career of one of Australia’s greatest all rounders and most successful captains.

Melbourne journalist Gideon Haigh has now helped bridge this gap in Australian cricket literature with a 440-page hardback, The Big Ship Warwick Armstrong and the Making of Modern Cricket. It is Haigh’s seventh book about cricket and follows two years after his compelling account of the life of Australian ‘mystery spinner’, Jack Iverson.

Haigh’s books about the game encompass several eras with his latest offering exploring Australian cricket from the early 1900’s through to the 1920’s. While researching The Big Ship the author has comprehensively searched the depths of archives from several decades and discovered a number of under-publicised details. In the process Haigh has also managed to debunk a few well-known cricketing myths. One of the better-known claims is that Armstrong was responsible for helping incite future England Bodyline captain Douglas Jardine’s hatred of Australians. The legend describes how a ruthless and unbending Australian captain would not allow Jardine the final overs he required to score a century against the all-conquering Australians of 1921.The reality proves quite the opposite with Armstrong in this case the apostle of virtue.

As a younger man Armstrong was also a capable Australian Rules footballer and particularly adept at the place kick - a technique no longer used in the game. While his VFL career was short-lived it included an appearance for South Melbourne in its narrow grand final loss to Fitzroy in 1899. Significantly the influence of Armstrong’s football experience also helped prepare him for future challenges on the cricket field.

As Haigh contends:

Football nonetheless probably left its mark on Armstrong, through the experience of big crowds, and big men, at close quarters. He never again remotely resembled a ‘loose jointed lad in knicker bockers’ who ‘became shy when the onlookers laughed at him;’

Like WG Grace, the patriarch of the English game, Armstrong also more often than not adopted the philosophical stance of an amateur while applying a professional approach. An obvious example of Armstrong’s use of gamesmanship was evident during the 1909 tour of England when he bowled almost 20 minutes of trial balls to try to unnerve England’s Frank Woolley, a twenty- two year-old test debutant. The ploy worked as Woolley was soon bowled by ‘Tibby’ Cotter for 8.

The incident however caused a bitter after-taste and prompted cricket’s lawmakers, the Marylebone Cricket Club to tighten Law 18 pertaining to trial balls. The unsavoury event also provided a portent of things to come.

Armstrong was in many respects a player ahead of his time.

Haigh concludes:

Armstrong was the first to cow opponents with two fast bowlers, the first to systematically dictate umpiring and playing conditions to his liking, the first even to speculate about gambling’s impact on cricket- not that anyone listened.

Haigh also breaks new ground with his detailed analysis of an attempted Australian cricket takeover by the Melbourne Cricket Club, which had thumbed its nose at the new national Board of Control. Comparisons between the actions of the MCC in 1906 and Kerry Packer in 1977 make intriguing reading.

 As Haigh writes:

In both cases, the board was pitted against a private promoter of cricket attractions, which had signed the choicest talent in the land. The salient distinction is that, when Kerry Packer’s agent went recruiting, the board was the established authority. In 1906, it was the Melbourne Cricket Club with the tradition behind it; the inchoate board the interloper.    

So significant was the ensuing struggle for power between the board and the Melbourne Cricket Club backed players that its final resolution determined the nature of player and administration interactions for more than 80 years. What has historically been considered the fulcrum upon which player and administrator relations centred - the 1912 ‘Big Six’ boycott- has now historically been superseded by the 1906 Melbourne based initiative.

Haigh’s analysis of this period and his record of the exchanges between players and administrators make for some heavy reading although once the major skirmishes are over the character of Armstrong comes more closely into focus as does his influence on the game. 

Armstrong’s on-going belligerent battle with cricket administrators is a central theme of this book and despite his bombastic stances toward authorities he remained well liked by the cricketing public. Armstrong’s public appeal it seems was particularly strong after the First World War and was illustrated by the crowd of 10 000 who turned out to support a ‘monster indignation meeting’ against the actions of the Victorian Cricket Association who had dropped the then Australian captain for not adhering strictly enough to protocol.

Armstrong’s popularity could also be attributed to his long service to the game .He was after all one of the few players whose test career successfully straddled the pre and post-war periods having toured England 3 times before the war and once afterwards (1902, 1905, 1909, 1921). Armstong’s loyalties to his prewar teammates are evident in his belief that the standard of play after cricket’s so-called  ‘golden age’ was inferior. His early playing history - when players had a much greater role in the running of the game - also explains his on-going reluctance to comply with the demands of the national cricket authorities.

Armstrong had a keen sense of business acumen. He benefitted financially from his long association with the game from both tour profits and the numerous contacts he established throughout his career. Due to his work as a whisky merchant he had amassed a greater fortune in real terms that any other Australian captain by the time of his death in 1947. Armstrong’s business interests are described by Haigh, a former finance writer in some detail and help expand the boundaries of this biography.

An example of Armstrong’s entrepreneurial skills was evident when he played an exhibition game in Ceylon. Along with four teammates (Cotter, Noble, Hopkins and Laver) Armstrong charged the Sinhalese Sports Club 10 pounds each for appearance money. The Australian players’ supposedly mercenary approach resulted in scathing criticism from London’s Truth newspaper.

As a discreditable piece of money gathering this match would be hard to beat. I can assure my friends in Ceylon these Australians are no more amateurs than English professional cricketers. They are out to make as much money as they can.

However by the journey’s end another issue had arisen, Armstrong’s health was struggling, for he had contracted malaria.  A disease that Haigh describes ‘as having shadowed mankind since antiquity.’ For Armstrong the recurrence of the disease provided one of the few physical obstacles he would face throughout his life.

Into his late 20’s and 30’s Armstrong grew to an enormous size.  His tent-like size shirt and massive boots (32 cm long and 18 cm wide) are on display in the Australian cricketing Hall of Fame at the Melbourne Cricket Ground Museum and provide a testament to his presence on the cricket field. Although his monolithic proportions were often referred to in the press, Armstrong was never described as fat but always as big. The cultural attitudes of the time regarding weight and its health implications are also examined by Haigh who notes  ‘Armstrong’s postwar eminence was not in spite of his bulk, but in large part based on it.’

Much has been written of late about match fixing, however it seems similar practices were prevalent even in the golden age of cricket. Haigh reveals that in 1921, Armstrong, the then Australian captain, approached the board and asked them to consider distributing Ashes tour profits more evenly. The trade off was a guarantee from the players that county games would extend beyond two days thus ensuring a larger ‘overall gate’ just as they had done in the ‘good old days.’

Although not endearing himself to all members of the team, Armstrong was extremely successful in his role as Australian captain after the war becoming the only Australian skipper to defeat England 5- 0 in an Ashes series (a record that still stands).

Finally, The Big Ship provides a close examination of Armstrong’s era and an aperture into a more leisurely age. In days gone by, part of the Australian team’s trek to England involved a tour of the continent.

One amusing vignette from one of Armstrong’s former teammates ‘Stork’ Hendry reveals the Australian captain’s antics at a French Bordello, namely.

The extraordinary sight of a tiny woman, doll like, perched stark naked upon the knees of the twenty stone captain Warwick Armstrong.

Let it never be said that Armstrong was afraid of leading from the front!

Cricket followers with an eye for detail and an interest in this period of Australian cricket history will find Haigh’s latest book a highly informative and entertaining account of both a momentous era and captain in the game’s history.

Barry Nicholls


Order This Book Online:
The Big Ship: Warwick Armstrong and the Making of Modern Cricket

The Ashes Cricket Series. Australia v England - Bodyline and Sir Don Bradman



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