Chuck Fleetwood-Smith: The Wayward Genius


Extraordinary gift hand in hand with eccentricities galore.

It started right from boyhood. As a kid, Leslie O'Brien Fleetwood-Smith would use his incredible ability to produce animal sounds to herd goats from the hills with his brother and assemble them in the classrooms of the unsuspecting local school. By the time the school kids were back from their break, the goats would have gone through their bags and lunch boxes, leaving the place in a chaotic mess and the teachers tearing their hair. The brothers woud be splitting their sides laughing on the top of the hill.

When he played for St Kilda, 'Chuck' Fleetwood-Smith often outdid veteran slow bowlers Don Blackie and Bert Ironmonger with his ingeneous ability to turn the ball to magical degrees both ways. However, when he was making his way into the Melbourne side by taking truckloads of wickets for his local team in every match, sometimes he did not get to the ground in time or at all. The long distance train would stop at Stawell, and the chinaman bowler would be one of the many to peep in through the windows. Others would hanker after the momentary glimpse of a celebrity. Fleetwood-Smith would look for a vacant seat next to any pretty young lady. Getting on the train without a ticket, he would often disappear on romantic interludes, coming back later to regale his teammates with the tales of his conquests. With his Clark Gable looks, there were often success stories to savour.

On the field, he would get bored when not experimenting with his prodigious spin. At mid-off he would blow smoke rings with havana cigars, throwing it away only if the ball was hit towards him. Approaching slip, he would make magpie noises, making the batsman start and sometimes dash for cover. Often he would cheer his football team: "Up Port Melbourne. Go Port Melbourne." If he saw someone he knew in the crowd, he would wave enthusiastically and cry, "Wooop Woop Woop, Gee up there, Lord Hawke. Doodle Doodle Doodle." Sometimes he would break into a song, "I'm in the mood for love." And while he was entertaining the crowd by projecting his behind in odd angles and practicing golf swings, sometimes the ball would be skied towards him. If by chance the bowler saw him distracted and ran frantically to finish with a dive and make the desperate catch, Fleetwood-Smith would turn and say, "Well done, I didn't think you were going to get here in time."

By the end of the first hour, his teammates and opponents, and even the serious-faced umpires, would be sick with laughter.

He could also spin the ball more than anyone else. Don Bradman said he could turn in on glass. Arthur Mailey saw his spirit of huge spin and endless fun being seamlessly transferred into this left-arm bowler. When Chuck toured North America in 1932 under the captaincy of Vic Richardson and the managership of Mailey, old wicketkeeper Hanson Carter predicted that he would some day win a Test for Australia.

That he did. In 1936-37, he clinched the crucial Adelaide Test against England, with 10 wickets in the match and a peach of a delivery to dismiss the great Wally Hammond.

However, the focus on unbridled fun backfired down the line. His collection of 42 Test wickets did not quite do justice to the enormous talent. The average in the late 30s certainly did not.

Fleetwood-Smith became something no Test player is supposed to become - a bum. He spent several of his last years as a homeless vagrant on the streets of Melbourne. He was known to sleep a few hundred metres from the stadium which had seen him perform several of his renowned feats.

There was a story that he was a right-hander who developed the left-arm chinaman style while recovering after breaking his right arm. That, like many other tales about him, is false. He was just ambidextrous, one of his many gifts. The man himself allowed the tale to spread unchecked because of the romanticism it carried.

That was not the only falsehood about himself that he encouraged.

Chuck Fleetwood-Smith claimed he was born on March 29, 1910. That was a lie designed to make him appear younger. His birth certificate says he saw the light of the day two years earlier.