December 1911. On the fourth day of the first Ashes Test at Sydney, Jack Hobbs was on 22 when he tried to cut Tibby Cotter. When he was not playing for club, state and country, Hanson Carter earned his living as an undertaker and often drove to the ground in his hearse. It was Carter who caught the snick behind the wicket, sending back the Surrey and England great.
A roar made its way from somewhere in the infamous hill, somehow making itself heard over the clapping and cheers: “You can take the body away now, Hanson.”
That was one of the early remarks of Yabba. One of the many by the legendary barracker that have found their ways into cricketing immortality.
17 years later, in December 1928, the 46-year-old Hobbs played his final Test at Sydney. The patrons on the Hill took up a collection and purchased for him an ornate boomerang with a gold shield. Hobbs was obviously delighted. During an interval, the great England opener walked around the ground, applause following him. On reaching the Hill, he asked for Yabba. The master batsman then proceeded to shake hands with the great barracker.
Even the legends of the game acknowledged the wit, humour and creativity of Stephen Harold Gascoigne (Yabba).
Another such cricketing great was the inimitable Arthur Mailey. Having taken a lot of stick that day, the leg-spinner was about to take off his cap for yet another over when the famed voice boomed through, “Oh for a strong arm and a walking stick.”
Later, Mailey wrote often about Yabba, and his pen sketched the barracker frequently with remarkable relish.
Gascoigne’s wit justified his self-promotion as the ‘one and only Yabba’. His comments were also dipped into extensive knowledge of the game and a crisp sense of timing.
By 1932-33, Sydney Sun even commissioned him to write articles on the Ashes Tests. Yabba, a rabbit hawker from one of the poorest quarters of Glebe, a Boer-War veteran … he took to the new journalistic demands with aplomb. However, his yells from the Hill remained unabated.
Umpire George Borthwick, whose day job was as a reader of gas meters, was standing in the Sydney Test while Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi took ages to crawl through the 80s on his debut. Yabba’s stentorian voice was heard, “Put a penny in the meter George, he’s stopped registering.”
That series eventually evolved into the infamous Bodyline contests. And Yabba did express his opinion about public enemy number one, Douglas Jardine. The England captain, bothered by flies while batting, was trying to swat them away when the great barracker advised, “"Leave our flies alone, Jardine. They're the only friends you've got here.”
Down the years there were a lot more that he said, and had plenty of other quotes that were eventually attributed to him.
When a batsman played and missed more than an infuriating number of times, Yabba suggested: “Send him a piano, see if he can play that.”
Often when a slow batsman finally managed to take a single, Yabba informed one and all, “Whoa there, he’s bolted!”
When a stubborn batsman refused to be dismissed, Yabba remembered a well known abortionist, “I think you boys had better call Nurse Mitchell to get the bastard out” Abortions were illegal in New South Wales during those days.
On seeing a batsman adjusting his box between overs, he is also supposed to have split the air with the rather graphic: “Those are the only balls you’ve touched all day.” However, that, like some other quotes attributed to him, is perhaps apocryphal.
With his fleshy face and close cropped hair covered by a felt hat or cloth cap, Yabba was a regular feature in the Hill for decades. He attended every major match, and also frequented grade cricket.
His coarse and penetrating voice rose above the ‘nondescript yells’ of the lesser lights. He could even be heard over the radio commentary. As Ray Robinson put it, between the Wars, “he stepped forward from the ranks of the chorus.”
When he passed away, the New South Wales Cricket Association stood in a minute’s silence before its next meeting.
Yabba was born on March 19, 1878.
Text: Arunabha Sengupta