As an incredibly exciting Ashes series comes to a close, club archivist Keith Gregson reflects on a fascinating historical link between Ashbrooke and Australian cricket.
With the advent of the 1926 Australians came Ashbrooke's finest day. The date was June 9th 1926, the Wednesday before the first test at the Oval. The weather was ideal for cricket - 'the hot rays of the sun tempered by a cool breeze'. The crowds streamed in and, unbelievably, when one considers the massive sweep of Ashbrooke, the gates had to be closed. In something of an understatement, a local reporter noted, ‘the spacious ground was crowded’. At one point on that first day, there were at least 25,000 spectators in the ground, (15,000 more than at the Oval on the following Saturday). Many more were locked out and some even stood with binoculars on top of the nearby Tunstall Hills. Durham folk, fresh from the General Strike and still enduring the early days of the miners’ strike, had turned up in droves. Why so many? Was it the cheap gate of 1/- for miners and unemployed or the cheap LNER travel tickets within eighty miles of Sunderland? Was it the fact that Durham - and specifically Durham - was the only minor county to be on the Australian itinerary? Or was it simply the cricket?
Whatever the case one wise writer presaged a cry of the 1980s in observing that 'no better proof of the support that is available for first-class cricket in Durham could be desired'. What perhaps adds a little to the surprise is the fact that this was not a great Australian side. It was certainly not the post war side, which had steamrollered England both home and away, and England was destined to win the test series 1-0 with four draws. Their star was the evergreen Macartney who scored centuries in the middle three tests. Warren Bardsley was also there and playing in Sunderland for a third time. Mailey was on his second visit while Grimmett was paying his first visit to the north east.
For Tommy Andrews, (who had toured in 1921 but did not play at Ashbrooke), this provided an opportunity to play cricket in his mother's native county.
The Durham County side, in contrast, had a very solid look to it.
Eight local sides were represented in all with Sunderland C.C. providing two players. Bertie Brooks, preparing for his third clash with the Australians, was captain and now opening for club and county with Ashbrooke's groundsman and professional, Len Weight. Over four seasons of playing as Sunderland’s professional Weight averaged 500 runs and 50 wickets. ‘His batsmanship was of high order and his watchword was patience’. West Hartlepool, (whose Park Drive ground was one of the six chosen initially chosen for first class cricket), had three players in the side while Shildon L.N.E.R. was represented by W. R. Romaines. He was the grandfather of Paul, who for a short time joined the administration of his native county after finishing his first class-career with
Gloucestershire. In Jack Carr of Chester le Street and Albert Howell of South Shields, the county also had two of the most popular pros to play in the leagues.
There was also the young Maurice Nichol, whose tragic career commands a small corner in many a cricketing history book. In 1926, Nichol was playing his league cricket in the colliery village of Eppleton. A couple of years after his appearance against the 1926 Australians, he signed up as a professional for Worcestershire. Here he became a successful middle order batsman very much
on the fringes of the England side. He topped a thousand runs on four occasions and, in 1933, ended the season with over 2,000 runs at 43.95. Many felt that 1934 was to be Nichol's season but fate decreed otherwise. He had enjoyed ill health for some time due to chest and lung complaints and had spent most of the winter in hospital in the north east. On the 21st of May 1934, while involved in a match against Essex at Chelmsford, Nichol died in his bed. He was less than 30. This proved a tragic end to a blossoming career.
The large crowd which paid to see Nichol and his compatriots perform were to be disappointed by the Durham display and the first day belonged completely to Australia. Playing without Gregory, who was injured, the visitors still managed to dismiss the home side for a mere 125.
Resistance appears to have been brief. Nicol made a bright 22 before being caught in the slips. Ferens of Durham City batted watchfully for 27 in 85 minutes and Howell and Brooks, throwing caution to the wind, put on a valuable 40 in 35 minutes for the ninth wicket.
Mailey, who had enjoyed himself at Ashbrooke on the previous tour, was the main cause of the downfall with 8-52 although his bowling failed to impress the sports reporter of the Newcastle Chronicle in the least. He considered the Durham batsmen to have been 'too suspicious of cunningly laid traps'. They had been taken in by the bowler as 'to the average onlooker there was not a lot that was really subtle in his bowling’. Mailey was obviously easy to play from the press box!
Macartney, useful as ever, had his bowling restricted to a mere nine overs. Five of these were maidens and he took the two remaining wickets for only nine runs.
The Australians batted out the rest of the day in punishing style, taking the score on to 252-2. This was quickly extended on the following morning to 322-3 declared, a lead of just under 200. Three batsmen featured largely in this score. Tommy Andrews, with something to prove, produced a magnificent 122. Although he had a reputation as a bad starter, he was renowned for his powerful
play once his eye was in and this must have been a fine innings to watch. Herbie Collins (69) and Warren Bardsley (63 not out) gave him ample support.
Left with something of a mountain to climb, the Durham batsmen fell well short. Weight and Kinch managed to get into the twenties but Macartney with 5-22 and Grimmett with 4-50 saw them off for only 116. To the casual observer, reports would seem to point to a brief and
lifeless end to a tedious game. Closer examination of Grimmett's figures reveals this not to be the case. The fifty runs scored off his bowling came from only nine overs - a number of which were bowled during a glorious 15 minutes when Big Jack Carr, batting at number eight, was at the crease.
'Big Jack's 1926 Knock' was still talked about in the collieries during the late twentieth century -
a victorious skirmish in a lost war. ‘The crowd was on its feet' as Carr left 'a trail of destruction' behind him. Seventeen runs came of four balls - 6,6,4,1. It is a wonder that the places where the first two landed have not been marked with plaques as, for years, there were old timers who could point them out! Then the trap was laid. A tempter, another skier -and the ball went 'straight down
Taylor’s throat'. Jack Carr departed with 35 runs in quarter of an hour. His partner Weight had scored a single.
Without such memories, these games might be considered meaningless.
Add to this the fact that two 'greats' in Bardsley and Macartney had appeared on the ground on three separate occasions and we have something of the magic of Ashbrooke. In his three innings (one undefeated), Bardsley had scored 166 runs at an average of 88. Macartney who, surprisingly, achieved very little with the bat, had been devastating with the ball. He was called upon in four out of five Durham innings, bowling over fifty overs with 22 of them maidens. His final haul was 12 wickets for 89 runs at an average of 7.25. Ashbrooke has good reason to remember Charlie Macartney.
Having reached 1926 on this sporting journey, one is left with the conviction, or the hope, that some of these cricketing heroes must have had a soft spot for Sunderland. Their manager, Smith, certainly had. At the end of the entire 1926 tour he singled out Sunderland and the crowd as a highlight of the tour - a 'marvellous’ experience and 'a genuine surprise’. As far as he was
concerned this minor county was 'on the map'
Sunderland’s links to the Australian cricket side link back to the Australian’s very first touring side in 1878. See Keith’s book Australia in Sunderland - the Making of a test match, (MX publishing, London, 2013) and earlier blogs for more detail.