“The delight of the pavilion critic has ever been to compare the heroes of the present with the worthies of the past, and if the critic be on the mature side of forty he is invariably found a believer in the ‘have beens.’ Two men, one of the remote past and one of the middle distance, are invariably the medium of comparison with present lights, those two being Wills and Allan.” – The Argus, 28 January 1893.1
In the pantheon of Australian cricket’s “have beens”, Frank Allan’s marble likeness bears the cruellest imprint of time. His contemporaries knew him as “the bowler of a century”. Well over a century later, his name, if it appears anywhere at all, does not come with the soaring sobriquet that ought to have granted him immortality. Rather, it is most often appended with the following: 1 match, 180 balls bowled, 4 wickets at a cost of 80 runs. One man, one Test. Given his stats, it’s understandable why today we pass over Frank’s entry in the list of Australian Test cricketers. Another Allan, surname Border, made 156 appearances in the baggy green, enough to earn any modern Australian cricketer an AO. But he made his Test debut exactly one century after Frank’s. When Test cricket arrived in the late 1870s, Frank was already past his prime. Several other contributing factors, some out of his control, others within it, helped make the bowler of a previous century a virtual unknown in this one.
When Frank arrived in England with the first Australian XI in 1878, he fell ill with a recurring complaint that plagued much of his career. He nonetheless elected to deliver the first ball of the tour to W. G. Grace at Lord’s against the strongest English side yet assembled. Frank’s opener, curving outside leg stump, concussed off the giant’s bat for four. Laughter rang out from the members’ pavilion. Grace, probably smirking through his beard, attempted the same shot next ball, but misjudged Frank’s “curly” directly into the hands of square leg. In a moment, the pillar of England had been felled by a pale, sickly looking colonial. Silence fell, Frank threw his cap skyward in celebration, and the seeds of international cricket’s greatest rivalry had been sewn. The press of Australia crowed: “[Grace] has freely stated that Allan is the best bowler he ever saw in his life.”2
Much like the first platypus specimen sent “home” from the colonies to London, Frank was looked upon by the English as an Antipodean anomaly. His spin, swerve and break formed an inscrutable anatomy, uprooting the centuries-old phylogeny of English bowling. “Allan was the first of the long line of great Australian bowlers,” said his Wisden obituary. “He was the first to develop those special qualities that made Australian bowling … the talk of the cricket world.”3 The latter claim is beyond dispute; the former, debateable, given the long list of reputable pre-Test bowlers in Australia. A list headed by Frank’s mentor, Tom Wills.
Wills’ story is the story of Australian sport, played out in an Australia yet-to-be. Born of convict blood, he grew up as a free spirit of the bush among the Djabwurrung clans of Western Victoria. He became Australia’s first cricketing god and the catalyst of its indigenous code of football. In 1861, his father Horatio – pastoralist, politician and the harbinger of Lawson’s republic – led Tom and a band of Victorians on a mission to tame the dark heart of Queensland. It resulted in the bloodiest massacre of settlers by Aborigines in Australian history. By the side of his father’s grave, Tom swore vengeance. Five years later, he led a team of Aboriginal cricketers onto the MCG. It was in his role as their captain-coach that Tom first met Frank, then raw from the bush, at the nets on Emerald Hill, where the colt had been “discovered” by, and thereon forever identified with, the South Melbourne Cricket Club. Tom’s appraisal of Frank’s high, long-limbed left-handers is characteristically evocative: “… like a big spider, all legs and wings.”4 He nurtured the budding natural in the lead-up to Victoria’s next intercolonial duel with New South Wales. When the pair opened the bowling attack on Sydney’s Domain, Frank’s wiry frame rattled with nerves. He recalled his captain: “[Tom] gave me some wise and encouraging words of advice that sank deep and greatly encouraged me. From that out I was all right, and quite revelled in my work.”5 The colony revelled in Frank. News of his match-winning performance spread via telegraph with the declaration: a new Wills has been unearthed.
Frank’s father John, like Horatio, led the land rush from New South Wales to Victoria, settling on the south-western coast near modern-day Allansford, a wild place “of Robinson Crusoe possibilities” in Rolf Boldrewood‘s mind.6 The place of Frank’s birth. At odds with Rolf’s fantasy, the native Giraiwurrung clans, known by the Aboriginal Protection Board as “Allan’s blacks”, were by all accounts peaceful; worlds apart from the Grampians northward, a wounded landscape in which Horatio entered a life and death cycle of retaliation with “distant predatory tribes”. The Giraiwurrung, however, were warm and cooperative. John gifted them blankets, flour and tobacco. They embraced his son.
Immense time and energy has been spent on locating an Aboriginal agent at football’s genesis. It cannot be traced in Tom’s handwritten laws. Is it in his freakish kicking? His “eel-like” dodging? Why has no one sought it in his bowling action? Frank attributed his own abilities with the leather sphere to his formative years spent hunting with boomerangs and nulla nullas – a remarkable fact that has been completely overlooked in cricket histories. Frank’s throwing power was regarded as “almost supernatural” by the Giraiwurrung.7 They taught him eel-spearing on the Hopkins, the land’s lifeblood. Frank felt at home there. Snaking through Djabwurrung country, the river rises from Tom’s childhood sanctuary, Mount Ararat, where, it is imagined, he learnt the joys of Marngrook. In Frank’s story, something approaching this romantic notion is realised. He played football games at Framlingham, the Aboriginal reserve to which remnants of the Giraiwurrung were removed. Frank, Victoria’s premier goal-sneak,8 kicked truly as his Aboriginal teammates moved as one.9
Tom’s illusory nature has allowed histiography to become hagiography, and where only his shadow exists, a romantic light has been cast. Such a light comes from within Frank’s obituary to Wilmot, the last of the Giraiwurrung. When forced removal to Framlingham began in 1865, Wilmot resisted, and lived the remainder of his days in the Warrnambool area as a minor celebrity. Postcards show him seated solitary in his mia-mia, clay pipe in mouth, his wide eyes gripped by the dancing light of a dying campfire. Frank recalls the distant days he spent with Wilmot and other “blackboy mates”, and the “wonderful lot of bush lore they taught to an only too willing pupil”. He closes: “The virtues of the dominant race are not for the aborigines; its vices are their destruction. So be it. Let their epitaphs be: ‘Killed by civilisation.'”10
Christened “Kangaroo”11 by the larrikins in the outer, Frank’s on-field antics echoed Aboriginal dance and ceremony.12 Like Tom, he relished in the theatre of sport. Unlike Tom, he was never consumed by it. Frank’s proclivities for country life dismayed selectors and fans alike, for, in 1877, he infamously opted out of the first Test in Melbourne to attend the Warrnambool Fair. Tom, by contrast, traversed the continent in 1863 – from the blood-soaked fields of Cullin-la-Ringo to the manicured green of the MCG – to lead Victoria against an English XI. It would take divine intervention for Tom to give up the game, and according to one doggerel poet, Victoria would be bereft of its bowling talent the day “‘Tommy Wills as jined de church, an’ Allan’s bought a farm.”11 Tom’s essence evaporates in the searing heat of his competitive drive. Frank did what Tom could not: settle, raise a family, find meaning and purpose beyond the boundary. Frank’s true life’s calling, as Victoria’s Chief Inspector of Vermin Destruction, was to protect Australian fauna and flora. In 1878, suffering through the most sodden of English summers, he reached for the gum leaves he kept in his pocket, their sweet perfume offering an escape to his “own bush land under Austral skies”. There, he saw his old friends, the Giariwurrung, waiting on the banks of the Hopkins, eager to hear his stories, and share with him their own.
[As a postscript, here’s one of the many fascinating narrative threads woven through Frank’s story. In 1868, his maternal uncle, Henry O’Farrell, shot the Duke of Edinburgh in Australia’s first political assassination attempt. A Sydney shopkeeper who met O’Farrell hours prior to the incident gave testimony at the accused’s trial: “I had conversations with him; first in reference to cricket. He was complimenting my boy upon his slow bowling, and spoke of a nephew of his named Allan who was a swift bowler. He showed me the position in which he threw the ball.”12 One year later, the Prince, fully recovered, made a return visit to Australia. He planned to attend a match between Tom’s Aboriginal team and a Victorian XI featuring Frank. A “very tempestuous” storm kept the monarch away on the final day’s play. Frank and Tom bowled brilliantly.13]
1. The Argus, “Cricket and Those Who Play It”, 28 January 1893
2. Geelong Advertiser, “Town Talk”, 30 December 1873
3. Rice, Jonathan (ed.). The Wisden Collector’s Guide, Wisden, 2011. p. 115
4. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, “Reminiscences of Cricket and Other Sports”, 25 August 1883
5. Winner, “Cricket: Game in the Old Days”, 7 March 1917
6. The Australasian, “Old Melbourne Memories”, 25 November 1882
7. The Argus, “The Coming of the Allans”, 8 May 1926
8. In his debut season for South Melbourne FC (1867), Frank kicked the most goals of any player in Victoria. Pennings, Mark. Origins of Australian Football, Volume 1: Amateur Heroes and the Rise of Clubs, 1858 to 1876, Connor Court Publishing, 2012. p. 47
9. Geelong Advertiser, “Town Talk”, 3 August 1877
10. Warrnambool Standard, “Wilmot”, 2 August 1916
11. Glen Innes Examiner and General Advertiser, “Here and There”, 9 July 1907
12. South Australian Register, “Cricket in Melbourne and the Great Match”, 6 January 1877
13. Weekly Times, “Wind-up of the Cricket Season on the M.C.C. Ground”, 4 May 1872
14. The Argus, “The Attempted Murder of the Duke of Edinburgh”, 4 April 1868
15. The Ballarat Star, “Victorian Eleven v Aboriginal Eleven”, 24 February 1869