‘You go right ahead; I’ll keep my end up’
Cricket statistics often come with caveats attached. According to Wisden, Don Bradman’s 95.14 is the highest batting average in first-class cricket. But, as the small print says, that is only among those who scored at least 10,000 runs. And that little asterisk hides a lot. Like this, the story of a man with a better average than Bradman, and everyone else in the history of first-class cricket, the man who would be top of that list if it were not for that caveat.
In the little town of Hay, close by the Murrumbidgee River, one thing everyone agreed on was that Norman Callaway could play. Hay was only 40 years old back then, but they had still had some fine cricketers in that time – men like the dashing all-rounder ‘Happy Jack’ Dillon and Frank Darchy, the local Justice of the Peace. Tom Callaway was a good bat too but his boy, Norman, was going to be better than the lot of them. He was only 12 the first time he turned out for Waradgery CC. They had been two men short and sent him at No7. He could hardly lay bat on ball in those early matches but everyone noticed his fielding and the local paper wrote up his “magnificent”, “splendid” catches at square-leg.
Norman swam well and sprinted fast but cricket was his thing. His father taught him to play straight, so Norman soon learned how to hold an end up. He made five not out in Waradgery’s big game in the town derby against Hay, to save the draw. Then when he was batting against boys his own age, he was something else again. When Public School played Convent in October 1910, Norman creamed 117 in the first innings and 64 in the second. The paper called him the “Trumper of the school” after Victor Trumper, who in 1910 was every boy’s hero. That same season Trumper took 159 and 214 not out off the South Africans, in back-to-back Test matches.
Before long there was not much left that Tom could teach his son. When Waradgery played Hay again that November, Tom was out for a duck, and the team were 24 for three when Norman came in. “Young Callaway,” said the local paper “proceeded to show his grandfathers – not how to suck eggs – but how to play the Hay bowling.” He made 32, the top score out of the team’s 117. He was going to be “the best Hay has ever produced”, the town’s “knickerbocker champion”.
The Callaways had a four-room house on Hatty Street, with a garden full of dahlias and a brood of leghorn chickens. Tom owned a soap factory, so they were comfortable enough. But 1912, the year Norman scored 259 runs in six innings and took 15 wickets with his leg-spin too, was the year everything changed. In May Emily Callaway gave birth to a third child, a boy called Ernest. Three days later he died of acute bronchitis. In their grief the Callaways decided to sell up and move to the city. They auctioned off the house, the factory and their furniture and in late November made the long journey to Sydney. “Callaway and his family,” said the paper, “succumbed to the attractions of ‘the big smoke’.”
City life suited Norman just fine. He joined Paddington Cricket Club and played his way into the second grade. He finished the season top of the averages, with 80 from seven innings, and caught the eye of the great Alec Bannerman, doyen of the local coaches, a man Wisden itself said “would be remembered as long as cricket is played”. Bannerman picked Callaway to train with the New South Wales Colts and made a point of talking him up in the papers. “A fair bowler and a good batsman,” was Bannerman’s verdict, “worthy of inclusion in the first XI”.
First grade was a leap for a 17-year-old. Norman made his debut against Trumper’s club, Gordon. Paddington’s skipper Monty Noble sent Callaway in at No3 and he made 41, top score in the team’s 213. “He played very neat and correct cricket,” said the Sydney Morning Herald, in an innings “well worthy of special mention”. Norman followed it with a 26 against University, top score in a draw on a tricky pitch. These performances made news back in Hay, where the Riverine Grazier ran proud “told you so” stories about the hometown boy batting in big-city cricket.
Soon the Sydneysiders cottoned on too. On 18 October Norman hit 137 against Middle Harbour and all of a sudden, everyone was talking about this country kid, only lately up from Hay. “A splendid innings,” said the Herald, “he batted brilliantly,” agreed The Sunday Times. Callaway was 5ft 7in but “a wonderfully well developed lad, of great power and splendid physique”, “strongly built for his years”. He still played straight, just like Tom had taught him, “keeping the left elbow well forward”, but now he had an “easy and confident” leg glance, a “crisp”, “strong” drive and showed a “splendid judgement” in “selecting the right ball to jump into and punish.”
Norman finished the season with an average just under 50, which earned him a call-up to the NSW Colts. At the MCG he tore into Victoria, hitting 129 in two hours of batting. “He is,” said the Sydney Sun, “one of the most promising colts seen for some time”. That winter the Callaways moved to a house on Ebley Street and Norman switched clubs. He was playing for Waverley now, where he found himself in the middle order alongside another bright young prospect, Alan Kippax. They batted side-by-side through the season, taking turns at the top of the averages.
When a slot opened up in the NSW team, it was Callaway who got it, not Kippax. This was for the inter-state game against Queensland at the SCG, the last first-class match of the season. It started on Friday, 19 February 1915, a beautiful, sunny day in Sydney.
Queensland won the toss, and chose to bat. Which was a mistake. They collapsed to 137 all out, routed by New South Wales’ two quicks, Lyall Wall and Will Cullen. But Queensland had four fine fast bowlers of their own. John McLaren, who had already played Test cricket, Charles Barstow and Sidney Redgrave, who had both represented Australia XIs in tour games, and John McAndrew, who would do in the future. And McAndrew, a tall, left-arm quick, was running red-hot. He clean-bowled three men in his first spell, for just nine runs, and NSW were 17 for three.
Around 4pm, then, Norman Callaway walked out into the SCG, an 18-year-old on his first-class debut. And he started to do the one thing everyone in Hay had always said he could. “From the first ball,” said the Herald, “he swung the bat with great power and precision at anything within striking distance.” Norman made 20 in his first 10 minutes at the crease. Soon his partner, Frank Farrar, was caught behind, and the score was 58 for four. In came NSW’s captain, the ‘Governor-General’ himself, Charlie Macartney. Macartney was dropped at slip, first ball. It was, the Herald said, “the turning point of the game”. NSW scored another 178 runs by stumps, without losing another wicket.
“And the strange part of the story is that the biffing and banging were not done by the little man of might,” said The Referee, “but by the colt making his first appearance in first-class cricket.” Callaway cut hard past point, came down the pitch to hit “whizzing off-drives past mid-off and over cover”. Soon “the ball hummed to all parts of the field at an extraordinary pace”. Macartney, the great attacking bat, told the boy “You go right ahead; I’ll keep my end up.” Callaway made his first 50 runs in 67 minutes, then went from 50 to 100 in another half-hour. He brought up his ton with “a magnificent straight drive that landed on the pickets at the far end”.
At stumps “Hay’s knickerbocker champion” was 125 not out. Macartney had 57. “Callaway’s display was one of the finest ever seen from a colt”, said the Herald. They compared him to great names from old days, Massie, McLaren and Noble. “He should develop into one of the best players in Australia,” agreed The Referee. On Saturday Macartney was out for 103 but Callaway eased past 150 and on towards 200. He was dropped once at deep point, then again at mid-off, survived a missed stumping too. Just before lunch he brought up his double hundred. He finally fell soon after, caught at slip for 207, in three and a half hours of batting.
And then, just like that, the season ended. Queensland were bowled out for 100, so NSW did not get to bat again. And while Norman played a few more games for Waverley, the first-class cricket was over – not just for that season but the four that followed, suspended during the first world war.
Trumper died that June. If Australia, and Sydney, had lost one great batsman, some were sure they had found another. “Though he has nothing like the range of strokes of Trumper, his long, free-swinging drive with the beautiful follow-through is a reminder of the Nonpareil’s methods,”, said ‘Nyren’ in The Referee. “He is like the late Victor Trumper in that he invariably attacks the bowling,” agreed The Mirror, “and like that late, great cricketer, he has also a beautiful ‘swing’, the bat generally describing three parts of a circle and finishing well over the left shoulder.”
Now Norman Callaway was 20, and had found his calling. Only it was not as a cricketer or in his day job as a clerk. On Tuesday 27 June, 1916, he enlisted in the army. A friend remembered that Norman had wanted to join the artillery but they had more recruits than they could take. “Oh well,” Norman said, “I’ll go in the footsloggers. I can’t hang around for a few weeks doing nothing.” He even lied about his age, added a year on to it so he wouldn’t need his parents’ permission to enlist. On 7 October 1916 Private Norman Callaway, 5794, embarked on the SS Ceramic and sailed to England.
Norman Callaway went over the top on 3 May 1917, 100 years ago this month, at Bullecourt, during the Battle of Arras. He never came back. No one knows exactly what happened but Private Alec Matthews said that Callaway had the top of his head blown off by a shell soon after they started over. “He fell across me. I was so shocked that at the time I never thought of taking his disc or paybook or any proof of identity.” Norman was 21. His body was never found. He was reported missing in June, confirmed dead in November.
They have had a lot of good cricketers in Hay, before the first world war and since. For a long time, whenever a local boy started scoring runs, the papers would compare him to another, one who had played like Trumper for the Public School, scored hundreds in Sydney first grade and who, over two sunny days at the SCG, made a glorious double century in the only three hours of first class batting life allowed him. But none of the others lived up to it. There never was, never would or will be, another quite like Norman Callaway. That kid could really play. It was the one thing everyone in Hay agreed on.
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