CW Specials: My Close Encounters with Cricketing Greats – Part IV: Kersi Meher-Homji
In 1994 I was researching on India’s inaugural Test in Brisbane in November-December 1947 and was impressed by a bowler’s figures of 2.3-1-2-5 and 17-6-29-6. Wow, 11 wickets for 31 runs in 19.3 overs as India tumbled for 58 and 98.
No, this destroyer was neither Ray Lindwall nor Keith Miller but a left-arm medium-pacer / spinner named Ernie Toshack. In 1946 he had similar spell-binding figures of 19-13-12-4 and 10-5-6-2 (that is, 6 for 18 in 29 overs) against New Zealand at Wellington, rolling out the Kiwis for 42 and 54.
Although these bowling figures had taken place almost 50 years ago, I got obsessed to meet and interview this forgotten hero. I somehow managed to get his address and organised an interview at his immaculate home in Sydney. Both Ernie and his wife Kathleen welcomed me, a complete stranger, with smiles.
He was 80 then but fit as he showed his vegetable patch maintained by him despite arthritis in his fingers. After that he showed me the deluxe edition of Images of Bradman, priced then at A$ 650 but received as a gift from Don.
“After Bradman, I have the highest regards for England’s batsmen Wally Hammond, Denis Compton, Len Hutton, Cyril Washbrook and India’s superb batsman who scored centuries in both innings of the 1948 Adelaide Test [Vijay Hazare].”
He remembered the Brisbane Test against India in 1947. “India was caught on a wet and drying pitch. Bowling spin, I took the last five wickets for two runs in 15 balls” he remembered showing me the mounted ball with an inscription.
Like Shane Warne he could bowl accurately for hours; both were crowd-pleasers and match-winners. “Your opinion of Warne?” I asked.
“Warne spins the ball as I’ve never seen anyone spin before. Richie Benaud and Bill O’Reilly were also excellent spinners. Garry Sobers was a grand all-rounder and a nice chap. When we were introduced he told me that when he was a boy he was nicknamed ‘Toshack’ because he bowled left-arm fast-medium and slow.”
Toshack was born in 1914 in Cobar, a mining town in New South Wales. He was one of five children and was orphaned at six. He was brought up by aunts in different parts of NSW where he played cricket and rugby league.
When schooling in Lyndhurst, he met Kathleen who he married over 50 years ago. A perfect hostess, she kept our interview going with cups of tea and sandwiches and an occasional memory jog for Ernie.
Tall, dark and handsome when young, he came to Sydney to further his cricket career. I asked him the reason for his nickname Black Prince.
He reminisced with a chuckle, “During the tour of England in 1948, a lady looked in my direction and told her companion: ‘He looks like a prince, doesn’t he?’ Keith Miller heard her and gave me the Black Prince nickname,” he chuckled, now resembling a fair gallant knight!
I asked him as to how good Don Bradman was as a captain and person.
He replied: “I could not speak too highly of him. He was a great captain and you couldn’t find a nicer chap.”
In a personal letter, Bradman wrote to me a year later: “Ernie was always a good friend.”
In England in 1948, Ernie took 11 wickets in four Tests including 5-40 at Lord’s and surprised all by averaging 51 with the bat. Incidentally, he batted right-hand but bowled left-arm medium.
The highlight of this tour was his adding 55 runs for the last wicket with Lindwall in the Leeds Test, sadly his last. He had to be hospitalised for a cartilage operation.
“Bradman advised me to be operated on in England because it would be free of charge. By a coincidence, I got the same surgeon who had operated on Bradman for appendicitis on the previous tour,” he recalled.
Injuries at crucial stages hindered his progress to the top but his place in history as one of Bradman’s invincible is assured. A steel plate with14 screws in his left leg made a radiologist exclaim: “There is more iron in your leg than in the Sydney harbour Bridge!”
This meeting was the first of two others. We exchanged letters and Christmas – New Year cards, written mostly by his wife Kathleen.
Ernie passed away in May 2003 aged 88 and Kathleen a few years later. At their funerals their daughter Maria, granddaughters Felecia, Monique and Vanessa and great-granddaughters Violet and Lara treated me as if I was part of the family.
Till now one of the first Christmas cards I receive is from their daughter Maria and her husband Harvey.