CW Special: My close encounters with cricketing greats – Part III: Kersi Meher-Homji
A few days ago I shared with you my close encounters with Harold Larwood. In that encounter, Larwood spoke fondly of his long friendship with one time rival, Australia’s former wicket-keeper Bert Oldfield. In this piece, I recall my encounter with this Australian legend.
My uncle Kharshed Meher-Homji played one Test for India against England at Manchester in 1936, and my brother Behram played much later in the Surat Pentangular, both as wicket-keepers. I guess this explains my fascination for the men behind the stumps!
As I was walking along Pitt Street in Sydney in 1976, I read a sign: Bert Oldfield Sports Shop. Could it be run by the great Australian wicket-keeper who holds the record for most stumping in Test history? His record of 52 stumpings in 54 Tests is still a Test record. Next best is England’s Godfrey Evans, 46 stumpings in 91 Tests.
On an impulse I entered the shop and the first thing I noticed was a big photograph at the entrance. It was of the famous English batsman Wally Hammond cover-driving, everything in place – even the handkerchief in his left pocket. And behind the stumps was Bert Oldfield with cat-like anticipation, matching Hammond in grace and poise.
So the Store was owned by THE Bert Oldfield. Was it 1976 or had I travelled in a time-machine to 1920s and 30s? Inspired and nervous, I rang him the next morning to fix an interview. When I said that I was from India, he sounded delighted. “Oh yes, India – the land of Ranji and Duleep,” he exclaimed in his soft voice. “Ranji was before my time but I played against Duleep. He was a stylish batsman with a charming personality. I think you are charming too, to ring me up.”
I was greeted at his Sports Shop by the jockey-like figure of Bert Oldfield, 82, standing straight, his blue eyes smiling as he welcomed Duleep’s countryman. He invited me to a nearby café. It was an unforgettable experience. The hand that had caught 78 batsmen and stumped 52 in 54 Tests (victims including Jack Hobbs, Hammond, Herbert Sutcliffe, ‘Patsy’ Hendren, Frank Woolley…) was putting sugar in my coffee cup!
We discussed the 1975-76 Australia -West Indies Test series. What did he think of Rod Marsh as a ’keeper?
“I wouldn’t call Marsh a wicket-keeper. He jumps about too much for my liking. Taber was a better wicket-keeper.”
I wondered how Bert would have coped with the menacing pace and bounce of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee. He read my mind and said, “Ted McDonald and Jack Gregory were just as fast as the current fast bowlers. To ’keep to Jack Gregory was extremely difficult.”
His face softened. “In a match at Nottingham, I noticed that Jack Gunn had the habit of standing outside the crease when playing. He had only to miss a ball and I would stump him. But he was so well-set that he did not miss a ball. “I arranged with Gregory that he should pitch the third ball of his next over outside the leg stump. But he forgot all about our little plan and the fast ball on the off-side resulted in four byes!”
“I consider Jack Hobbs as the greatest batsman of all time. He was a true gentleman. His wife was seldom in good health and he was always with her in her hours of need.”
What about Don Bradman?
“He was extraordinarily good even at a young age. When he was brought to Sydney he had no cricket gear or shoes. I received an SOS to lend him my clothes. The only clothes that fitted him were mine!”
When World War I broke out, Oldfield enlisted and sailed to Egypt. In France in 1917 he was blown up by a German shell. Then a Bosche shell burst near their stretcher killing his three mates while he was buried and remained unconscious. “For six months I suffered from shell-shock and was invalidated to England.”
At that time the Australian Imperial Force was playing cricket in England. One of Gregory’s express deliveries gashed wicket-keeper Ted Long’s face. Another ’keeper had to be located pronto and thus was pitch-forked little Bert Oldfield into the strong AIF XI of 1919 as a stumper. The rest is history.
I reminded him of the Brisbane Test on Exhibition Ground in December 1928 when England amassed 863 runs (521 and 8 declared for 342) during which he did not concede a bye.
“You know your history, young man,” he said with a smile.
We kept chatting over two cups of coffee and he insisted to pay in advance. But after half an hour he looked at me blankly as if I was a stranger. I felt miserable as I thought I had offended him. He was not quite there.
I held his hand as we crossed the road. Looking at his blank expression, his assistant said, “Time for your pills, Mr. Oldfield.”
Next time I went to see my new hero Bert he remembered me very well and talked freely and affectionately. On an impulse I shook the hands described by experts as the safest from 1919 to 1936. And just as well I did.
He died a few months after our get together. His beautiful wife Ruth was very appreciative of the sentiments expressed in my article published in Sportsweek (India). “I found your interview on Bert so beautifully written that it made the information read as a fascinating human story. You are certainly a gifted writer and I’ll treasure your article”, she wrote.
That’s one letter I’ll always cherish.