`A unique player in every way'

HARESH PANDYA

Tall and heavily-built Ernest Raymond Herbert Toshack, who passed away on May 11, was quite a popular cricketer down under and beyond. Colleagues christened him "Black Prince" and "film star."

Toshack was quite a character, an entertainer par excellence. "A unique player in every way. I cannot remember another of the same type," said Don Bradman. But his Test career was crammed into just 29 months - from March 1946 to July 1948. Why? His early ambition was to represent Australia in rugby league! In fact, he was so proficient in rugby and boxing before he developed into a world-class cricketer that he was nicknamed "Johnson" after Jack Johnson, the world heavyweight champion between 1910 and 1915.

The Don had many potent weapons, including Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller, at his command but it was Toshack who was his blue-eyed boy in the years after the War, not least on the 1948 tour of England, where the Aussies were simply unbeatable. He was a lively, versatile left-arm medium pacer admired for his nagging accuracy, which made it very difficult to score off, even for the best of batsmen.

Toshack could also spin the ball, if necessary, from leg to off, and bowl a quicker one that went straight through. He was the most difficult bowler to play after a downpour. Bradman often employed Toshack to pin down one end with his probing accuracy while using Lindwall and Miller in measured but devastating onslaughts. Born in Cobar, New South Wales, some 350 miles north-west of Sydney, on December 15, 1914, Toshack was the son of a railway stationmaster. He was orphaned at six and brought up by relatives in the Lyndhurst district of central-western NSW. He spent his early years playing rugby and boxing and cricket, making brief appearances for NSW in both its Colts and Second XI. A protracted illness caused by a ruptured appendix and the dark days of World War II, during which he worked in a munitions factory in Lithgow, meant Toshack was 30 before he moved to Sydney and picked up a casual game of cricket with Marrickvile's third-grade side in 1944-45.

In no time - within two matches, to be precise - Toshack made it to first-grade and, at the start of the next season, he had become NSW's strike bowler. He made a spectacular debut at Wellington during the 1945-46 tour of New Zealand, taking six for 18 in 29 overs. Since this particular match was not given Test status until 1948, Toshack's international debut came against England at Brisbane in 1946-47. As it turned out, it was not less sensational as he finished with figures of nine for 99 (three for 17 & six for 82) and routed the England team by an innings and 332 runs on a sticky wicket. At Adelaide, he bowled 66 eight-ball overs in searing heat and claimed five for 135 in the Test. The Indians, boasting a competent batting line-up featuring Vinoo Mankad and Vijay Hazare, and led by Lala Amarnath, were shot out for 58 and 98 at Brisbane in December 1947. Toshack, the wrecker-chief, took five for two in 27 balls and six for 29 in 17 overs. He celebrated his 32nd birthday after the Brisbane bash. But later he was bothered by troublesome knee.

Amid speculations, he was one of the first bowlers to be picked for the 1948 England expedition. Toshack was impressive from the beginning itself, winning a long battle with Denis Compton in the match against MCC at Lord's, finishing with figures of six for 51. Bradman used him as a perfect foil to Lindwall and Miller and, irrespective of his figures (11 wickets at 33.09), Toshack was one of the star-performers before his cartilage finally gave way in the fourth Test at Leeds.

"He worried and got out all the best bats, was amazingly accurate and must have turned in fine figures had not his cartilage given way," admitted a grateful Bradman for whom Toshack always bowled to the letter, not just on this tour.

Although he played two Sheffield Shield matches in 1949-50 (taking 13 wickets in three innings) after his successful cartilage operation, his knee would not stand the rigours of first class cricket, let alone Test cricket, and he was forced to call it a day. Toshack, who took 47 wickets at 21.04, a slightly better average than Lindwall's and Miller's, in his 12 Tests, never played in a losing Australian side. In his first-class career of only 45 matches he claimed 195 wickets at 20.37. It is anybody's guess what Toshack would have achieved, if he had not been plagued by injuries. He was one of the forgotten heroes of Australian cricket and little was heard of him until 1998 when the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the awe-inspiring, all-conquering 1948 Aussies promoted as Bradman's Invincibles.