JWHT Douglas: gentleman cricketer
By Tim Holland
President – East Melbourne Historical Society
With the coming of summer, a major event in the East Melbourne area is the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. This year’s match will be between Australia and South Africa.
The MCG has been an iconic venue in world sport over a long period. It is the place where Test cricket was born, the very first Test being played there in March 1877 between Australia and England.
Only last month the MCG hosted the T20 World Cup final, having previously hosted three World Cup finals in the One Day International competitions (two for the men, and one for the women). It was also the venue for the athletics competition and the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1956 Olympics.
The ground is probably best known in this country as the host of the AFL Grand Final, and as the birthplace of Australian Rules football.
The stadium is justly famous for the range of major events that have been held there over more than 150 years. In that time there have been some interesting personalities who have generated colourful stories associated with their performances at the MCG, particularly in the sphere of cricket.
One such figure is John William Henry Tyler Douglas. Douglas was born in London in 1882, only days after England lost the Test match that gave rise to the Ashes legend, and not far from the Oval, the venue of that fateful match. Born close in time and place to the origins of the Ashes, Douglas was destined not only to represent his country in Ashes Tests but also to captain it in Ashes contests either side of the First World War. After leading his country to a 4-1 series win in Australia in 1911-12 he returned in 1920-21 to face a 5-0 whitewash from the home side.
Douglas was an all-rounder, being a competent batter as well as a useful bowler. He came from a wealthy timber merchant background, and this allowed him to play as an amateur. Such players were known as “gentlemen” as distinct from “players”, that is, professionals. Being a Gentleman was a qualification that was pretty much an essential prerequisite for someone to be able to captain England until the second half of the 20th century.
Interestingly, while Douglas was technically a Gentleman, stories abound about his very combative and hard-nosed behaviour on the ground, particularly in English county cricket.
Douglas cut a dashing figure in the field and at the crease, but that belied his batting style, which has been described as “obdurate”. In fact, it was so obdurate that a barracker in the crowd at Melbourne in 1911-12 interpreted his initials JWHT as “Johnny Won’t Hit Today”. Douglas as captain was on a winning roll at the time and countered this by saying that the initials stood for “Johnny Won His Test”.
His dour batting reputation was franked at the MCG in the 1911-12 series. At that time the stands on the southern side of the ground allowed a view of the trains passing along the railway lines between Richmond Station and Flinders St. As Douglas walked out onto the ground to bat, he heard one spectator bet another that more trains would pass the ground while Douglas was at the wicket than he would make runs. The trains won by 23!
It is quite eerie looking at photographs of the crowds at the MCG in that series and seeing the panoramic images of hundreds of young men within range of the camera. Enjoying their day at the cricket these young men had no idea of the carnage that many of them would be a part of within a few short years with the coming of the First World War. Douglas himself served in the British army, reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
In an era where sports people more frequently played at the highest level in more than one sport than is the case now, Douglas was one such person. Apart from captaining England at cricket in an Ashes-winning series down under, Douglas won the gold medal in middleweight boxing at the 1908 London Olympics. In doing so he beat Snowy Baker, a celebrated Australian athlete, sports promoter and film actor.
The circumstances of Douglas’s tragic death at the age of 48 were also noteworthy. He had travelled to Finland with his father to buy timber.
On the return trip in heavy fog their ship was rammed by another ship and sank immediately. Incredibly the two ships were captained by brothers who were attempting to exchange Christmas greetings with each other and came too close to each other in the limited visibility. It was reported that Douglas died attempting to save his father from drowning, but both perished.
It was a tragic end for an English sportsman whose reputation had such a close connection to the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Image: JWHT Douglas c.1906. Wikipedia.