Perhaps there is a historical exaggeration in the claim that Archie Jackson could have rivaled the runmaking of Sir Donald Bradman had he lived long enough. Bradman was a colossus, a batsman whose eternal innings haunted bowlers and left fans in disbelief each time he raised his bat, but he was never an artist like Jackson was - his silky, free-flowing drives enthralling the memories of those lucky enough to have witnessed them. One concerned himself with numbers, the other with beauty and freedom - a scientist next to a painter.
Not only did Jackson’s tragic death from tuberculosis rob the world of a batting genius, it also took an honest, charming and humble young man. His relationship with bodyline villain Harold Larwood best embodied the idealistic English-Australian relationship that is almost non-existent now. The respect he showed to everyone he met endeared him to his teammates, opponents and the public, something that cannot be said of our current batch of cricketers.
Described by England and Surrey skipper Percy Fender as “the finest at his age [he had] ever seen”, Jackson burst onto the test scene by becoming the youngest ever Ashes centurion. His innings of 164 at the age of 19 is one of cricket’s enduring legends – writer Denzil Batchelor described “ cover drives like shouts of triumph, [in Jackson] there glowed already the bloom of fine craftsmanship in its prime”.
Although being peppered with short-pitched deliveries by the express threat of Larwood, with back against wall Jackson drove through the covers to notch this fabled century. So hard did he hit the ball that it was unsighted to the boundary. The spearhead himself declared that very delivery the fastest he had bowled to that day, yet Jackson’s gracious timing made it appear harmless. “It’s only a game,” Jackson chimed up some time later, “but what a grand one we are having today! You’ve hit me almost as many times as I’ve hit you!”.
Disease took its toll on his thin body. Forebodingly, he was unable to field after the first two English sessions following his innings due to exhaustion, his fragile frame being sapped of life by his ailment. Not that sickness dampened his love for the game - “Never did he flinch or complain,” marveled Larwood. He never did make another century at test level, English opponents remarking that it was not the same Archie Jackson they knew in the following series. He did not shy away from friendly banter in the middle, always quick to comment on his opponent’s standard of bowling, but also the first to congratulate the bowler and fieldsman on taking his wicket. In times gone by, a handshake was in order – a far cry from the gleeful fist-pumping of today.
Legend tells of the firmly working-class Jackson borrowing a towel from teammate Alec Marks and failing to return it. Jackson returned to Marks the next day with a new towel as a replacement. Marks’ mother was appalled at the loss of what was her finest linen, now exchanged for one of far inferior quality. She scolded her son and wondered what had happened to Jackson, who had always seemed a lovely boy to her. Jackson lay dying in hospital three years later and was paid a visit by his old friend. Clearly embarrassed by the matter, Jackson explained that he had known of his affliction and made a point of not sharing towels, but had forgotten that day. “The man at the counter said it was the best towel in the shop,” he said. “I hope your mum liked it.” Marks declared his mother had loved the gift and spent the night weeping into it after digging it out of the cupboard.
The 1932/33 “Bodyline” series tore divisions through the cricketing world. So tense was the situation that the friendly relations between the two competing countries were no longer a guarantee. Bradman never reconciled with Larwood afterwards, grudgingly acknowledging his presence but never able to move on from past hostilities. On the final day of the fourth test in which England reclaimed the Ashes, news of Jackson’s death filtered through the ground. Two days earlier, Jackson had telegrammed Larwood from his deathbed: “Congratulations magnificent bowling good luck all matches”. Even inches from death, Jackson recognized the unparalleled achievements of his friend – taming the Don. There were no hard feelings, for he understood Larwood was just doing what he was told. Such was the nature of the man.
The era of professionalism has seen the world forget what it was that made cricket so. The current Ashes series has been marred by controversy, players exchanging exchange blows at nightclubs rather than well wishes and even allegedly attempting to cheat technology. Perhaps now would be a good time for a reminder that the sport is steeped in traditions of sportsmanship, good behavior and respect – something a man like Archie Jackson personified, for he played the game both on and off the field.