Robert Maxwell Crockett umpired 32 Test matches. Apart from that, he was a pionnering figure in the manufacture of cricket bats and left a lasting impression in that domain as well. Pradip Dhole sketches the life and career of this versatile cricket person.
The Mail (Adelaide) of 6 Mar, 1937 carried an article on page 27 penned by George Alfred Hele, a noted Australian Test umpire, and one who had officiated in all 5 Test matches of the infamous Bodyline Series.
The title of the article was White-Coated Knights of Cricket. In the article, umpire Hele had stated: “Everyone, of course, is entitled to his own opinion. Judging the greatest Australian umpire of all time is naturally a matter of opinion, and you may have yours already formed. I say without hesitation that I would give my vote to Bob Crockett. Two things are needed in a successful umpire. One is ability, the other is personality. Bob Crockett had them both. I have heard great cricketers of long-past and not-so-distant days speak of Bob as the friend of all.”
The prologue of this narrative begins with one Richard Cavendish and his article entitled The Australian Gold Rush Begins, and may be said to have begun in Feb/1851 with a human colossus (in terms of physical size and personality) named Edward Hammond Hargraves, an experienced prospector from the 1849 Californian Gold rush. Hargraves had been busy prospecting for gold at Lewis Pond Creek near Bathurst, New South Wales, along with an assistant named Lister in early 1851, and had decided to trust his native instincts about scouting the local areas. His instincts had not failed him and the golden glint was soon appearing among the rubble in his prospecting pan, setting off an amazing chain of events in and around the area.
By May, a sizeable portion of the population of Sydney was on the move, powered by the lust for gold. The Kerr Nugget, an unbelievable hundredweight of gold, was discovered in July. By August, another rich vein of gold was discovered in the Buninyong range of Ballarat, Victoria. By the end of the year, eager gold-seekers began to arrive by the shipload from all corners of the globe and the local economy began to witness an unprecedented boom.
Before proceeding any further with the narrative of the man who was to adorn Australian cricket officialdom for close to 40 years, the chronicler wishes to express his heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Daniel Roberts, an independent Australian researcher, for providing much of the biographical data and media references concerning the life and times of Bob Crockett through personal correspondence. Mr. Roberts reveals that his source is Mr. Ian Bull, author of Those Flannelled Fools – Daylesford & District Cricket 150 Years on.
The Sporting Globe (Melbourne) of 25 Jan, 1941 carried an article from a series on Unforgettable Sportsmen entitled Bob Crockett One of the Incorruptibles written by HA de Lacy. It seems that when the frenzy surrounding the discovery of gold in Australia had begun to be reported worldwide, the news, coming so soon after the celebrated gold rush in North America, had precipitated an unprecedented influx of prospective gold diggers from around the world. Ships arriving at the Australian ports in the middle 1850s would be packed to the rafters with prospecting equipment and their hopeful owners, all dreaming of striking the seam that would yield copious amounts of the precious yellow metal.
As far back as could be traced, the family history of the protagonist of this story stretches back to one Robert Crockett, born in 1773 in Scotland, and his wife, Helen Kirkpatrick, also of Scotland, born in 1787. The couple had raised a large family, and the fourth son, named John, one of 12 brothers, was born at Dumfries, Scotland in 1815. On reaching man’s estate, John, like 10 of his other brothers, opted for a maritime vocation, commanding trading ships between London and Shanghai. In his line of business, he had commanded one of the ships that had brought hopeful gold prospectors to Australia, the passenger list containing, among others, a fair representation of Italian-speaking persons from The Continent.
On one of his voyages, John Crockett made the acquaintance of Ann Clarke, born in Liverpool in the year 1827, who was travelling from St. Anne’s Garrison, Barbados, to meet relatives in New Zealand. Smitten by her charms, Captain John Crockett left his ship and his job at Melbourne and travelled with her to Keilor, a suburb of Melbourne, married his paramour at the local Presbyterian Church in 1853, and decided to make Australia his home.
The initial thought in the mind of the newly married man had been to try his luck at the Victorian “diggings.” With that in mind, the newly married couple had first gone to the hills near Golden Point, just outside Castlemaine. Soon, however, disillusionment set in, and he forsook his dreams of getting rich quickly and settled for a quiet pastoral life in the surrounding fertile countryside of Australia. The couple lived for a while at Campbell’s Creek, then in Yandoit, before settling down near a Recreation Reserve at Old Racecourse Road, Hepburn. The family estate was finally and permanently established at Shepherd’s Flat, in the shire of Hepburn, not far from Melbourne.
Although the couple had several children over the years, some of them succumbed to the scourge of Scarlet Fever. Of the surviving progeny, only Helen (born in 1855), John, also known as Jack to distinguish him from his father (born in 1860), Robert (born in 1863), David, Henry, Samuel, and George could be traced as survivors. John and Helen remained single all their lives and resided on the family estate at Shepherd’s Flat.
Early life of Bob Crockett
The central character of this story, Bob Crockett, christened Robert Maxwell, and born on an unspecified date in 1863, would make the following comments about his father later: “My father had been a captain of a ship before he decided to try his luck ashore and see if he could grab a fortune out of the diggings…. He brought the first batch of immigrants who ever came to Adelaide, and he used to be proud of having brought the first consignment of Lincoln sheep to New Zealand. He foresaw the time when that country and this would (become) great sheep countries…. Later he deserted the sea for the diggings, but found that gold was not to be had…”
Not much is documented about the early life of Bob Crockett. The Sporting Globe (Melbourne) of 25 Jan, 1941 says that: “He went to school at Daylesford… He played single wicket cricket at the school but was far from being a born cricketer…. As a youth, he took up bowling and held a place in the local side.” Local cricket with a country team followed, with Crockett’s club team barely having enough members to be able to field the bare minimum of 11 players. They used to play for the Boyle and Scott Trophy. He made the acquaintance of Sam Morris, the only Australian Test cricketer of West Indian parentage, during this phase of his life.
Crockett himself used to say that he was barely 15 years old “and just beginning to be enthusiastic about cricket” when the 1878 Australians, under the profusely bearded Dave Gregory, toured England. Crockett recalled the day that a proud MCC team led by Dr WG Grace had been dismissed twice in one day (27 May, 1878) by the bowling of Spofforth (10/20 in the match) and Boyle (9/17 in the match). In an article entitled Table Talk (Melbourne) of 27 Sep, 1928, Crockett avowed that it was Spofforth’s exploits that had inspired him to take up bowling.
Crockett and cricket
A significant event occurred in Crockett’s life in October/1887 when the Melbourne Cricket Club advertised for a club bowler. It was Sam Morris who persuaded the young man to apply for the post. After a trial, Crockett was selected out of a group of about 30 hopefuls. This resulted in the lad from the small town coming to the metropolis of Melbourne to take up his duties as a ground bowler and club steward for the prestigious Melbourne Cricket Club. This arrangement suited the 24-year old Bob Crockett well because he had been looking for an opportunity to further his education in the city.
On the first Saturday of his new appointment as a staff member of the MCC, Crockett was instructed to act as the scorer for both sides in a Second XI Cup match, corresponding to a District Game. This placed him in a very delicate position; one the one hand, he could not refuse, being employed by the MCC, on the other hand, he did not know the names of any of the players selected for either side. When the first wicket fell, young Crockett, in his desperation, ran out to the centre of the field and appealed to the captain of the fielding side, John Healey, then Under-Secretary of the MCC, explaining his difficulty and offering to act as an umpire instead. The request seemed to be reasonable and he was allowed to exchange places with one of the appointed umpires for the game.
In later years, Crockett would say: “That I didn’t continue as a ground bowler was due to the fact that a man who knew nothing about cricket gave me orders I had to obey. I was pushed blindfolded by a blind man, you might say, into my life’s career as an umpire.” There was, however, another factor in the transition from ground bowler and club steward to umpire.
“Dimboola” Jim Phillips, one of the pioneering greats of Australian cricket officialdom, and an iconic umpire of his time, was coaching the boys of the well-known Melbourne Grammar School around this time. When asked for a recommendation for a competent umpire for the school matches, Jim Phillips had immediately replied: “This young fellow Crockett can umpire.” The recommendation, coming from Mount Olympus, as it were, worked wonders for Crockett’s career and launched him into 30 years of umpiring in school matches, and into the recognition that was to result in his extraordinary Test umpiring career.
In many ways, Jim Phillips was to have a defining influence upon the young Crockett, who would always look up to him as a mentor. Inspired by the zeal with which Phillips was always in the vanguard of the crusade against unfair bowling actions, Crockett set out to model himself along the same lines. He was to make his point in no uncertain manner in a match at Sydney between NSW and Victoria in the 1900/01 season, but more of that later.
The Herald (Melbourne) of 15 Jan, 1926 brings to light a lesser known aspect of Crockett’s life. “The great cricket public does not know its Crockett, that he could stand all day in the field with the temperature at 100º F and then go to the Working Men’s College the same evening to spend three hours at furnace work. He completed his course as an assayer, being one of the four in 30 who passed in his year. He finished the course in Inorganic Chemistry also; at the back of his mind all the time being the idea of making mining his profession, for he was brought up at Daylesford.” As we have seen above, his mentor Jim Phillips had ensured that Crockett’s later vocation would always involve green cricket fields rather than dingy mines.
Bob Crockett made his first-class umpiring debut in the match between Victoria and Lord Sheffield’s XI at Melbourne from 17 Mar/1892. He was partnered by Thomas Flynn, officiating in his 9th first-class match. The first representative first-class match for which Crockett is documented as being one of the umpires was the game between Victoria and Tasmania at Melbourne from 26 Jan/1894. His umpiring partner in this game was Denis Cotter, also from Victoria.
Between Mar, 1892 and Nov, 929, Bob Crockett was to officiate in 126 first-class matches, of which 32 were Test matches, then the record for Australian umpires. The number 126 for his tally of first-class matches over a career stretching to 37 years may seem to be rather paltry when compared to the tally for most English first-class umpires over a comparable period of time. The discrepancy may be explained by the difference in the system of rostering followed in the two countries, and the fact that far fewer first-class matches were played in Australia every season compared to the number played in England.
Quoting umpire George Hele in conversation with HI Marshall, the Sporting Globe (Melbourne) of 6 Mar, 1937 reports: “Umpiring in Australia, of course, is a vastly different thing to umpiring in England. Except in seasons when we are visited by an international team, each State’s leading umpire officiates at only three first-class encounters each year. At ‘home’ it is different. The professional umpires there adjudicate throughout the cricket season almost continuously. Day after day they tread that age-old track from the wicket to square-leg, then back again, and occasionally have a run across from one side of the wicket to the other for the left-handed batsman to break the monotony. So continuous is their work that it is little wonder that these men become highly efficient at their jobs.”
During the course of his professional career, Bob Crockett earned a well-deserved reputation for his painstaking and accurate interpretation of the laws of cricket to the extent that he was popularly referred to as the “Chief Justice” of cricket. In addition, his invariable courtesy on and off the field earned him his other appellation of the “Prince of Umpires.” Throughout his career, Crockett was ruthless in upholding the spirit of the game and always strove to uphold the pristine sanctity of the laws of cricket. He did not tolerate any dubious bowling action and, with time, no bowler with a less than perfect action felt safe unless he had passed the scrutiny of Crockett. Even fellow-umpires often used Crockett’s scrutiny as a sort of benchmark and felt relieved when Crockett cleared the action of any such errant bowler.
Things came to a head in the Sheffield Shield game between NSW and VIC at Sydney in the 1st week of Feb/1901. After NSW had put up a 1st innings total of 170 all out on the first day of the match, Bob Crockett “called” Jack Marsh, the indigenous right-arm fast bowler of the home team 17 times in the VIC 1st innings. Considering that the match was being played at Sydney, Crockett, a Melburnian, had to face a barrage of adverse comment from the spectators about his harsh treatment of one of the home bowlers. The situation got so heated that NSW skipper Syd Gregory was forced to take Marsh off the attack.
It was perhaps his puckish sense of humour that prompted Gregory to replace Marsh with Tom Howard, himself no angel as far as his bowling action was concerned, being known in the contemporary cricket circuit as being a “notorious chucker.” There was an expectant buzz around the ground as they awaited Crockett’s response to the move. Unperturbed and unamused, Crockett “called” Howard’s first three deliveries until he was convinced of the legality of the bowling arm. That quietened the crowd down. In the VIC 2nd innings, Crockett “called” Marsh on 2 other occasions to make it a grand total of 19 for the match. The devastated Marsh was to play only 2 more first-class matches in his career of only 6 games.
Scyld Berry had some comments to make on this issue in his book Cricket: The Game of Life: Every Reason to Celebrate. The interesting thing about the whole Marsh episode was that Crockett had stood in the second first-class match ever played by Marsh without calling him. The other umpire in the match under discussion, Sam Jones, whose somewhat “unfair” run out by WG Grace in the Oval test of 1882 had led to incidents leading to the legend of The Ashes, had not thought it necessary to call Marsh in the match at all. It may be remembered that Sam Jones had had plenty of playing experience in his time, with 12 Tests and 151 first-class matches in his career tally, whilst Bob Crockett was never known to have played any first-class cricket at all, a rather unusual state of affairs.
An incident from a match between VIC and the touring English team of 1907/08 highlights another great attribute of umpire Crockett, his unwavering respect for the concept of fair play. Played at Melbourne in the second half of Nov/1907, the game had been heading for a draw, with Joe Hardstaff, the patriarch of a great cricketing lineage, batting at one end. At the fall of the 9th wicket in the MCC 2nd innings, MCC were still 84 runs in arrears with time closing in on the game. Joining Hardstaff at the wicket was last man Arthur Fielder as the other MCC players in the dressing-room kept hoping for a draw.
When Hardstaff drove the last ball of an over to take a single to get him to the other side, the fielder near the boundary line kicked the ball over the ropes so that Fielder would have to face the new over. Deeming this to be unfair play, umpire Crockett refused to signal the boundary, his courage in upholding Law 43, pertaining to fair and unfair play, against a home player in an important game impressed not only the visiting English team but also the home team, who later also appreciated Bob Crockett’s strict interpretation of the law.
Another story from the Finals of the Victoria Cricket Association Premiership of 1920/21 between St. Kilda and Prahran at Melbourne in Apr/1921 illustrates Crockett’s fidelity to the concept of fair play. Crockett had ruled one of the batsmen run out when a fierce straight drive had broken the wicket at the bowler’s end with both batsmen out of their respective grounds. The non-striker had made his dejected way back to the pavilion. It was as the new batsman had been walking in that Crockett had realised that the ball had, in fact, deflected off the pad of the non-striker and not the hand of the bowler as he had thought. Realising his mistake, Crockett had instructed the incoming batsman to return and to send in the batsman who had been incorrectly ruled run out.
A man with such a long career spanning the childhood, as it were, of international cricket, and one who had come into contact with some of the greats of the game, both from the Australian as well as the English teams, would naturally have something to say about the English Champion, Dr WG Grace, on his second Australia visit in 1891/91. Let us hear it from Crockett’s own lips, as quoted by the Sporting Globe (Melbourne) of Jan/1941.
“I know him and he knows I know him as the worst sportsman with which cricket was ever afflicted. ‘WG’ became a (famous) person in the minds of young Australia, and youngsters sought to emulate his strokes wherever a kerosene tin was propped up for a wicket or a paling spit for a make-up bat. But great cricketer that he was, there were chinks in his armour. Grace hated to lose, and I must say, if a man who was almost a god can be criticised, that I wasn’t carried away by his sportsmanship….”
Umpiring in Tests
Bob Crockett made his Test umpiring debut in the 1st Test between Australia and the visiting England team under Archie MacLaren, played at Sydney from 13 Dec/1901. He was partnered by Richard Callaway, bother of Australian Test cricketer Sydney Callaway. A strong Australian team under Joe Darling bit the dust in the Test, the Englishmen winning the encounter by an innings and 124 runs.
Between Dec, 1901 and Feb, 1925, the extent of Crockett’s Test umpiring career, Australia played 35 Test matches at home. It is to the credit of the man’s skills and reputation that Bob Crockett missed only 3 of these Test matches, all of them played at Sydney. During that period, however, Crockett officiated in every Test played at Melbourne and Adelaide. It seems that he was twice omitted by ballot (4th Test, Australia v England under Archie MacLaren, played at Sydney from 14 Feb/1902, and 5th Test, Australia v England under Arthur Jones at Sydney in Feb/1908). Crockett was also not appointed on the roster for the 1st Test between Australia, led by Herbie “Horseshoe” Collins and Arthur Gilligan’s 1924/25 English visitors at Sydney from 19 Dec, 1924.
Crockett’s Australian record of officiating in 32 Test matches was broken by umpire Tony Crafter, whose last Test as umpire, his 33rd, was the 5th Test between Australia, led by Allan Border, and India, led by Md. Azharuddin, played at the WACA Ground, Perth, from 1 Feb, 1992. Crockett’s record had thus lasted 67 eventful years in Australian Test history.
Among the many “incidents” that his Test umpiring career was studded with, there were two about which Crockett would always make special mention, in both of which he had initially been seen as a Mephistophelean avatar. The first of the incidents surfaced in the 1st Test between Australia, led by the celebrated Sydney dentist Monty Noble, and England, led by Plum Warner. Played at Sydney, the Test had got underway from 11 Dec, 1903.
Australia batted first and put up a total of 285 all out, powered by a masterful century (133) by skipper Noble. England replied with an overwhelming 577 all out with debutant RE “Tip” Foster scoring a magnificent 287, at the time the highest individual score in Test history, and definitely the highest by a Test debutant. Len Braund supported Foster with 102 runs of his own. When the home team began their 2nd innings, they did so under a 1st innings handicap of 292 runs.
By the time the 3rd wicket fell at 191, the home team were still 101 runs in arrears. That brought Clem Hill and Victor Trumper together. The pair proceeded cautiously and things had begun to look slightly more comfortable for the home supporters, when Hill, going for a fifth run, was adjudged run out on 51 by umpire Crockett. Rather taken aback, Hill had indicated a momentary dissatisfaction at being ruled run out. That was enough for the Sydney crowd to erupt in anger. Bottles and missiles were thrown onto the playing area and on to the cycle track from the famous Sydney Hill, and play was held up while the crowd, giving vent to their disappointment and pent-up frustration at how the Test had been going for the home team, began to chant: “Crock! Crock! Crock!”
The bewildered players squatted on the field and the enraged English skipper Warner threatened to take his team off, later hinting that the unruly behaviour had started “from the Members Pavilion, from which point, it was impossible to see.” The venerable Wisden had this to say about the incident: “There was a very regrettable and indeed disgraceful demonstration on the part of a large section of the crowd when Hill was given run out, a storm of hooting and booing going on for a long time.”
In his book Stiff Upper Lips & Baggy Green Caps: A Sledger’s History of The Ashes, Simon Briggs mentions that comments like: “Have you got your coffin ready, Crockett?” and “Which gate are you leaving by, Crockett?” did nothing to defuse the situation. Skippers Monty Noble and Plum Warner even sat around on the pitch for a while waiting for the uproar to abate. In his book, The Ashes, Ken Piesse reports one man shouting: “How much did you pay Crockett, Warner?” It seems that even experienced English players like Hirst and Rhodes had been quite unnerved by the crowd reaction to a decision that they felt had been quite correctly given.
The sequence of events had been something like this: batting with Trumper, Clem Hill had run well past the stumps at the bowler’s end in completing a 4th run when a poor return from the field gave the Australians an opportunity to go for a 5th run off the overthrow. Hill, however, had to first recover his ground at the bowler’s end and to then run the entire length of the pitch. At this point, Albert Relf at mid-on picked up the ball and threw it in to wicketkeeper Dick Lilley, who whipped off the bails and appealed for a run out. After considering the situation, Crockett had declared Hill out. The discontent of the spectators had continued simmering throughout the day and Crockett had to be given a Police escort while leaving the ground at the end of the day.
An election was about to take place in New South Wales soon, and energetic political campaigning and histrionic rhetoric had been the order of the day at the time of the incident. Bob Crockett, who had been absolutely certain that Hill’s bat had been short of the crease, had not been at all impressed with the batsman’s remonstrations at being given out. He is reported to have told Hill that instead of playing cricket, “he ought to stand for the Senate.”
Crockett remembers the second memorable event as the ‘Whitty Incident’ of the 1911/12 MCC tour of Australia under Plum Warner, on Warner’s second tour of Australia. The incident referred to occurred in the 2nd Test played at Melbourne from 30 Dec/1911, and is quoted by HA de Lacy in his article One of the Incorruptibles directly from the diary of Bob Crockett. Clem Hill was leading the home team whilst Johnny Douglas was leading the Englishmen in the absence, through illness, of Plum Warner.
It seems that Crockett had been standing at square-leg when the 9th Australian wicket had fallen in the Australian 1st innings, bringing the # 11 man, left-arm fast-medium bowler Bill Whitty, to the crease. The Australian total at that point had been 140/9. Soon after arrival to the crease, Whitty had begun to trudge suddenly and quite inexplicably back to the pavilion under the impression that he had been bowled. Crockett comments: “but I could see from square-leg that the ball had come back into the wicket off wicketkeeper (‘Tiger”) Smith’s pads.”
The players had begun to leave the field when Crockett had accosted Smith with the comment: “that did not bowl him.” Looking nonplussed, Smith had replied: “No.” Crockett had then immediately conferred with David Elder, the other umpire, and asked Elder whether he had given Whitty out. When Elder had replied in the negative, Crockett had narrated the entire circumstances of the incident to him. English skipper, Douglas, who happened to overhear the consultation between the umpires, had wanted to know why Whitty was not out.
When appraised of the situation, Douglas had enquired of his ‘keeper whether Whitty had really been bowled. When the ‘keeper had replied with a sheepish: “No sir”, skipper Douglas, to his credit, had then immediately clapped his hands and called the players back to continue with the game, to the bewilderment of the crowd, who may have had the impression that a no-ball must have been bowled. The last pair of “Ranji” Hordern (49*) and Whitty (24) had then put on 44 runs for the last wicket.
Crockett had been pilloried by the British Press for his involvement in the Whitty incident even as England had won the Test by 8 wickets. Crockett’s own recollection of the incident was: “I maintained that while it might not be the prerogative of an umpire to call a batsman back to the crease, an umpire is the judge of fair and unfair play, and it was definitely unfair to credit the Englishmen with a wicket they did not obtain…..The press finally added that as my desire was in the best interests of the game, my action was the only fair one in the circumstances.”
Bob Crockett had graced Test cricket in the white coat for the last time in the 5th Test between Australia, led by Herbie Collins, and England, led by Arthur Gilligan at Sydney in February-March/1925. He had been partnered by Dave Elder in the match. Australia won the Test by 307 runs. This was also to be his penultimate first-class match as umpire. The archives tell us that the last first-class match umpired by Bob Crockett had been the game between Victoria and the visiting Englishmen, led by Harold Gilligan, on the 1920/30 tour of Australia and New Zealand. Played at Melbourne, the match had begun on 15 Nov/1929. Around this time, Crockett had begun to feel that his eyesight had been failing gradually and were not keen enough for international cricket. He was about 66 years of age at this time.
Jack Pollard, in The Complete Illustrated History of Australian Cricket, mentions an incident of 1926 related to Bob Crockett that typifies the nature of the man. It seems that during the tea interval of a cricket match being played at Melbourne, some local admirers had sought Crockett out and had made him a present of a cheque amounting to £1043, a fairly handsome amount for the times. Having accepted it with his customary grace, Crockett had “looked at his watch, and announced that it was time to resume; precise, unemotional, and lacking in sentiment, after 38 years of umpiring.”
On a personal front, Robert Maxwell Crockett married Janet Allison, 4 years his junior in age, and they raised a family of 3 children; Janet Vera (known popularly as Vera), Helen Niola (known as Lola), and John Robert Maxwell (known as Jim and/or Max, born 14/Jan/1905). His son John was to play in the Victoria Premier Cricket League from 1926/27 to 1934/35.
As a tribute to his contribution to Australian cricket officialdom, the Melbourne Cricket Club thought it fit to launch an appeal for a testimonial for the long-serving Bob Crockett. From funds collected in the drive, it was decided to send umpire Crockett and his wife Janet to England to witness the England tour of Australia of 1926 under Herbie Collins. Crockett was to acknowledge later that this generosity on the part of the MCC in arranging for this trip for the two of them had been one of the greatest tributes he had ever received from his fellow Victorians.
The Register (Adelaide) of 29 Apr/1926 reported: “Travelling to London by the P & O Cape Service liner Borda is Mr. “Bob” Crockett, the famous Victorian cricket umpire, who is accompanied by his wife…. Mr. Crockett’s visit to England to view the Test matches between the Australian and the English teams was made possible in consequence of an appeal recently launched in Victoria.”
On the tour, another signal honour was to be bestowed on Crockett, the jewel in the crown of his umpiring career, as it were. In recognition of Crockett’s stature and his contribution to the cricket played between the two great cricketing rivals, the Marylebone Cricket Club invited Bob Crockett to stand as a “guest umpire” in the 2-day match between a 15-member team composed of players chosen from the principal Public Schools and the touring Australians, played at Lord’s from 11 Aug/1926. The two Bills, Ponsford (97) and Woodfull (84) displayed their batting talent in the drawn encounter.
Robert Maxwell Crockett passed away at his residence of 138, Charles Street, Seddon, on 11 Dec/1935, aged about 72 years, of heart failure consequent upon an extensive lung infection. The Argus (Melbourne) of 13 Dec/1935 had this to say: “Among those who paid tributes to Mr. Crockett yesterday was the President of the Victoria Cricket Association, Canon ES Hughes, who said that his death would be mourned not only by Australians, but by cricketers all over the world. Mr. Hugh Trumble said that Mr. Crockett was a wonderful umpire, a lovable man, and a splendid worker for the Melbourne Cricket Club….”
The Daily Telegraph was of the opinion that Jim Phillips was his only equal as an umpire in Australia. Jack Hobbs was of the opinion that Crockett was in the Frank Chester class as an umpire. Plum Warner, who had had the privilege of a long association with Crockett, used to say that he “was the best umpire he (Warner) had seen.” Bob Crockett was interred at the Williamstown Cemetery, and was survived by his widow Janet and his three grown-up children.
In his book Silent Revolutions: Writings on Cricket History, Gideon Haigh unveils another fascinating chapter in the life and times of this ‘Prince of Umpires.” The story begins with the 2nd (Timeless) Test that had begun on New Year’s Day of 1902 at the MCG between Australia, led by Joe Darling, and the touring MCC team led by the Lancashire stalwart Archie MacLaren, the first man to breach the milestone of 400 runs in an individual first-class innings (424 v Somerset in 1895). During a gap in play caused by the fall of a wicket, and before the next batsman could make his way to the crease, two old friends, MacLaren and umpire Bob Crockett, officiating in his second Test, had flopped down on the grass on a swelteringly hot day, about parallel to the middle of the pitch, and had engaged themselves in a short conversation.
As reported by a “Special Correspondent” of the times, the brief conversation between the two of them may have been something along these lines:
MacLaren: “One thing that surprises me, Bob, is that the bat willow is not grown in Australia. It's a very ornamental willow, but, though I've seen a score of suitable localities, I haven't seen a single tree growing here."
Crockett: “Why not send some cuttings? We'll try to grow some ourselves."
The conversation may have ended with a promise from MacLaren that he would try to send some cuttings of English willow for Crockett to try and utilise in Australia.
There may have been an element of serendipity, or the machination of a benevolent Celestial cricket aficionado in the fact that the above sentiments just happened to have cropped up in the course of a random discussion at a time when the Australian cricketing fraternity had been struggling with the vexation: “Why should Australia flog an English-made cricket ball with an English-made bat?” The above conversation, factual or apocryphal, was about to set in motion a series of events that would lead to the setting up of an indigenous bat-making industry in Australia.
According to an article appearing in the Sporting Globe (Melbourne) of 16 Jan/1926 entitled Prince of Umpires – R Crockett’s Career, Bob Crockett decided to expand the family estate at Shepherd’s Flat, 6 miles from Daylesford. While he was able to make arrangements for the willow saplings to be procured from England, he “had the greatest difficulty in getting anyone to take care of them on the voyage, as they required constant care.”
Finally, it was the father of Vernon Ransford, the left-handed batsman from Victoria, who took the responsibility of bringing the cuttings from the Kew Gardens, London, back during a return trip from England. The first batch had contained 6 saplings brought over in a stainless-steel container. Only one had survived the long and hot voyage, and even that had been in a forlorn and almost moribund condition.
The care of the precious surviving sapling was entrusted to one of Crockett’s brothers who happened to be a qualified horticulturist. In later years, Crockett arranged to have other lots of saplings to be sent out to Australia in sealed tubes. These later efforts at procuring the English saplings, however, ran into an unexpected problem. The changes in climatic conditions during the voyage caused the majority of the fledgling willows to “sprout and to exhaust themselves.”
The horticulturist brother managed to salvage the lone sapling from the first batch, and “grafted the half-dead shoot to an ordinary river willow. The cutting received a sap transfusion and survived.” Rejuvenated, the graft grew about 6 inches in the first year, and was then removed from the stock and transplanted to a flower-pot to allow the roots to grow. When the timing was deemed to be appropriate, the graft was planted out of the pot.
Crockett’s property at Shepherd’s Flat soon boasted a plantation of about 5,000 willows along the Jim Crow Creek, and the tradition of growing willow trees at Shepherd’s Flat, once initiated, was to continue for more than 100 years. These trees of the genus Salix alba var. caerulea would soon be used to manufacture the first batch of indigenous cricket bats in Australia, and would subsequently spawn the flourishing local bat-manufacturing industry that would use the advertising blurb: “It just isn’t cricket without a Crockett.”
The bats made by RM Crockett & Son, managed by Bob Crockett himself and his son John, were all individually hand-crafted by master craftsman Harry Preston. The actual process of making the bat has come down from some 200 years in history and the details of the technique applied have remained largely unchanged from antiquity. The wood would be sourced from female willow trees when the sap activity would be at its lowest, and the tree would be about 18 inches in diameter. The tree would then be cut close to the ground before being sawn into 27-inch long billets, which would be left on the plantation for about 4 weeks as a first step of the seasoning process for the wood. The ends of the billets would be painted with hot lime to prevent cracking.
The next part of the process was carried out in the facility at the Melbourne suburb of Seddon, just south of Footscray. The billets would then be left in a well-ventilated area, shielded from the sunshine, for an indefinite period, about a year, often longer, for the wood to become dry and light and ready to be fashioned into clefts. The billets would then be quartered into 3” by 5” clefts, the outermost sap-wood layer would be discarded because of its lack of durability and the danger of insect pests. The innermost core would also be discarded because of the shortness of the grain. The next part of the bat-making process would be accomplished very meticulously by hand.
Using knives, the bat-maker would hew the wood into the rough shape of a bat, shaving the striking surface to make it smooth. The whole billet would then be put through a heavy roller to exert a pressure of up to 1 ½ tons to compress the wood. After this, the billet would be ready for the shaping of the shoulder of the bat and the fitting in of the handle.
The handles were made from Rattan cane imported from Borneo. There would be a bunch of 16 thin strips of rattan glued with layers of rubber between the strips. The whole thing would then be compressed to make the handle more compact, and it would then be left to dry for about 24 hours. The next step would be the turning on a lathe before one end would be fashioned in the shape of a V so as to fit into the slot on top of the blade of the bat. The final step for the handle would be the meticulous binding with tough string before the rubber sleeve would be put into place. It is reported that in their boom years, RM Crockett & Sons produced about 5000 indigenously crafted bats per year at their factory at 138, Charles Street in Melbourne.
According to Bob Crockett, “In choosing a bat, one should hold it face up and look down the handle to the bottom of the back. If a straight line is found it should be a good bat. Many batsmen also look for eight straight grains down the face, and some discard bats with even slight discolouration or blemishes on the face. Others prefer a bat that is light yellow on one side and brown on the other; an indication that it was cut where the new year's growth started. The wood is said to be stronger at that point.”
Several well-known Australian cricketers became regular users of Crockett bats, the list including Lindsay Hassett, Norman O’Neil, Peter Burge, and Warwick Armstrong. It is believed that skipper Warwick Armstrong’s 158 in the 2nd innings of the 1st Test against the MCC team led by Johnny Douglas, played in Sydney towards the end of December 1920, was the first Test century ever scored with a Crockett bat. Armstrong’s friend, opening batsman Edgar Mayne, making his Sheffield Shield debut for Victoria in the match against old rivals New South Wales at Melbourne on Boxing day of 1919, scored 131 in Victoria’s 1st innings total of 464 all out; this century by Mayne is believed to be the first in the history of Sheffield Shield cricket to be made with a Crockett bat.
Warwick Armstrong is reported to have used Crockett bats exclusively on his 1921 tour of England and one of Crockett’s bats is said to have been displayed at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Park od 1924/1925, where it had won the plaudits of many cricket followers.
The two World Wars had been instrumental in boosting the bat-manufacturing business of the Crockett family, as the factories had struggled to produce enough bats for Australian service personnel at home and abroad. Gideon Haigh quotes a figure of 10,000 bats produced during the World War II years alone, almost exhausting the number of willows on the estate.
In his very informative book Bush Aussies, author Allan Nixon traces the further course of the bat factory set up by the Crocketts. It appears that after the demise of Bob Crockett, the factory was being managed by his son John. Following an economic downturn, the factory was taken over Slazenger, a subsidiary of the Dunlop Group in 1967. Most of the imposing willows at Shepherd’s Flat were also felled. After John Crockett passed away on 6 May/1977, his ashes were scattered over the family plantation at Shepherd’s Flat in accordance to his wish.
A young Italian called Aquilino Tinetti, had come over to Australia in 1856 in search of gold as a 25-year old, and had settled, with many other Italian speaking immigrants, in and around Hepburn, the surrounding countryside reminding them of their native Biasca. He had later returned to Biasca to marry his sweetheart Maria Capriroli before coming back to Australia and settling at Shepherd’s Flat. The couple had then raised a large family of 13 children, and had farmed at Shepherd’s Flat, close to the Crockett estate.
Members of the Tinetti family were to be instrumental in taking the indigenous Australian bat-manufacturing industry into the 20th century and beyond, in collaboration with Mr. Lachlan Fisher, a noted bat-maker from Melbourne. The original Crockett estate was taken over by the Tinetti family and converted into a museum depicting the history of the Crockett family and their bat-making endeavour. Renamed as Cricket Willow, the estate has now seen 5 generations of Tinettis involved in the process.
Mention of the Tinetti family brings the chronicler back to his expression of gratitude to Mr. Daniel Roberts. Trish Tinetti, wife of Ian, the son of Aquilino Junior, and grandson of the original Aquilino mentioned in the narrative, has very kindly supplied the chronicler the contact details of Mr. Daniel Roberts, enabling the narrator to obtain a vast amount of information from that source.
The story of RM Crockett does not, however, end with his demise, nor with the transfer of the ownership of his bat-manufacturing facility. There is a wonderful epilogue to the narrative. A brochure of the Victoria Umpires and Scorers Association, under the auspices of the Victoria Cricket Association, reveals some details of a cricket competition named the RM Crockett Shield, that is still played, as follows: “the RM Crockett Shield is the prize for the victor of the biennial VCAUSA vs SACUSA cricket match since its inception in 1947. The Shield is in honour of the legendary Cricket Umpire, Robert Maxwell Crockett.”
The contest is held every alternate year between teams representing the Victoria Umpires and Scorers Association and the South Australian Umpires ad Scorers Association, and the game is usually played over the Easter week. This tournament perpetuates the memory of Bob Crockett, who had umpired both at Melbourne and at Adelaide in his long and illustrious career. The ornate trophy resides permanently at the old Crockett estate at Shepherd’s Flat, now known as Cricket Willow.