Remembering Ian Collins: Scotland’s forgotten all-rounder
With the 2014 Wimbledon Championships having reached their conclusion (sadly, sans Andy Murray this year) it is an appropriate time to remember a forgotten Scottish sporting hero of the 1920s in Ian Collins. An outstanding batsman, Collins had been capped for Scotland at cricket before becoming the first Scot to reach a final at a Grand Slam tennis event and was also the first Scot to represent Great Britain at tennis in the Davis Cup.
Ian Glen Collins was born on 23 April 1903 at 8 Kensington Gate, Dowanhill, in Glasgow’s affluent west end, the second son of William Alexander Collins, chairman of the world-renowned publishers William Collins & Son, Glasgow and London.
Collins had a natural aptitude for ball games, and his mother (the former Grace Brander), together with elder brother Billy and younger siblings Kenneth and Sheena, were all skilled tennis players. The Collins children had a privileged Edwardian upbringing in the splendour of the family home, ‘Grey Gables’, at Southwood, between Troon and Monkton on the Ayrshire coast. Their father was also a notable sportsman, but his main interests were yachting and polo, together with golf and tennis and all winter sports, notably skiing and ice hockey.
Like their father, the three Collins boys were all educated at Harrow School, where Ian made his name as a batsman, being a member of the very strong Harrow XI for four consecutive years, before going up to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1922. His captain in his first two years in the XI at Harrow was big brother W A R ‘Billy’ Collins (later Sir William Collins.) Billy Collins was a right-arm opening bowler and both brothers would return to Ayrshire on holidays from school and university to play for Ayr CC at the old Dam Park ground, on the banks of the River Ayr.
Billy Collins played football at Harrow and went on to appear for Queen’s Park FC. Ian Collins had also been a noted footballer in the Harrow tradition, but a broken leg while playing association football, early in his time at Oxford, according to Wisden “…lost him an almost certain Soccer blue…” The injury also prevented him playing any cricket in his first two years at Oxford, although in 1925 he played against Middlesex and was twelfth man in the annual varsity match with Cambridge at Lord’s.
He represented the University in the annual tennis match with Cambridge and twice played for the dark blues at golf against their light blue rivals: on the losing side at Hoylake in 1924, but on the winning Oxford team the following year at Hunstanton, defeating Cambridge 9 matches to 6. (Collins beat Cambridge’s J R Matson 5 & 4 in their singles match and he was runner-up the previous month in the Oxford University President’s Medal.)
Curiously, although he played right-handed at both tennis and when batting at cricket, he played golf as a left-hander.
Ian Collins came to prominence as a cricketer in Scotland as a 23-year-old during 1926, the summer of the ‘General Strike’. He scored 117 for Ayr against Kelburne in a drawn match at Whitehaugh on 3 July 1926. Two weeks later, playing for a representative West of Scotland XI in a two-day match against the touring Australians at Hamilton Crescent, he top scored in the first innings with a knock of 34 (including four boundaries). In the second innings he made a quick 17 (three boundaries), but centuries from Bill Ponsford and Charlie Macartney had provided the base for the Aussies comfortable innings and 59 run victory.
Collins’ performance had impressed the selectors, and he was picked to play for Scotland against Australia at Raeburn Place on 21 and 22 July 1926, being joined by his fellow Ayr batsman Irvine Parker, a mathematics teacher at Ayr Academy.
The Scots decided to bat first, but were dismissed for just 94 in 52 overs, the damage inflicted by leg-spinner Clarrie Grimmett with seven for 42. Collins, batting at five, was Grimmett’s fourth victim, clean bowled for 3 runs.
Australia replied with a mammoth 563 all out, but the Scots held out for the draw on 106 for four, with Ian Collins not out on 14 (including two boundaries.)
His only other Scotland ‘cap’ came the following summer, against the Gentlemen of Ireland on Dublin’s College Park on 9, 11 and 12 July 1927. The match was drawn, with Collins contributing 14 and 34, his 2nd innings score being his highest in first-class cricket.
The following week he made 103 for Colonel T C Dunlop’s XI against Oxford University Authentics, in a two-day match at Ayr’s Dam Park, on 18 and 19 July 1927.
He scored a second Western Union century on 5 May 1928, making 101 in Ayr’s 241 for six against Greenock at the Dam Park. (Greenock were in turn dismissed for just 72, with Scotland bowler ‘Rossie’ Drinnan taking four for 14.)
Unfortunately, from a cricketing perspective, more and more of Collins’ leisure time was now dominated by lawn tennis, and he would only play in five matches for Ayr CC in 1928, thereafter devoting his summers exclusively to tennis, having made his Wimbledon debut in 1927.
He would appear in every Wimbledon Championships until 1939, with the exception of 1933, which he missed due to another broken leg, this time sustained in a horse-racing accident at Irvine’s Bogside Racecourse in April 1933. He was riding his own horse, Pearl’s Hope, which fell at a jump and rolled over Collins.
The lasting damage caused by his football injury at Oxford in 1922 impacted on his tennis style, as noted by the Sunday Times of Western Australia in September 1929:
“His performance is the more remarkable since he suffers from a permanent disablement of one leg…contorting him as he threw up the service ball, into the fantastic appearance of a monkey mounting a pole.”
Best known as a doubles player, he nevertheless reached the fourth round of the Wimbledon singles in 1931, and also competed in the singles of the US, French and Australian Grand Slam tournaments.
Collins had a particularly successful doubles partnership with Yorkshireman Dr Colin Gregory, reaching the semi-final of the Australian Championships and the Wimbledon final in 1929. Collins and Gregory lost to the local pairing of Jack Cummings and Edgar Moon in the Australian semi-final at Adelaide in January 1929. They narrowly lost the Wimbledon final, in five sets, to the Americans Wilmer Allison and John Van Ryn, 6–4, 5–7, 6–3, 10–12, 6–4 in July 1929.
Ian Collins also reached the Wimbledon mixed-doubles final in 1929, partnering Miss Joan Fry. Unfortunately, this match immediately followed the men’s final, and an obviously tired Collins and his partner went down 1-6, 4-6 to American pairing Helen Wills and Frank Hunter.
Collins also reached the Wimbledon Mixed Doubles Final in 1931, this time partnering Joan Ridley, but they lost in three sets to the Americans Anna Harper and George Lott.
As a singles player, Collins’ best performance was in 1931 when he reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, before being eliminated by fellow Brit ‘Bunny’ Austin. The following year he had the outstanding win of his career, when he defeated the number one seed, Frenchman Henri Cochet, in the second round of the 1932 Wimbledon Championship, 6-2, 8-6, 0-6, 6-3, before going out to Japan’s Jiri Sato in the next round.
Collins first played for Great Britain in the Davis Cup Quarter-Final win over South Africa at Bournemouth in June 1929. In all, he and Colin Gregory were undefeated in six Davis Cup matches for GB in 1929 and 1930.
In tennis north of the border, Ian Collins was Scottish Men’s Doubles Champion eight times. He and his brother Billy were doubles partners for Scotland against England at Edinburgh in July 1928 and also in the Scotland team that played South Africa at Pollokshields, Glasgow in July 1931.
As a skilled horseman, Ian Collins was successful in point-to-point and National Hunt racing, as well as riding with various hunts, although most regularly with the Ayrshire-based Eglinton Hunt.
Ian Collins had a distinguished career during the Second World War, firstly as an officer in the Coldstream Guards and then with the Airborne Corps of the Special Air Service, being awarded the OBE, Legion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre, and the Belgian Croix Militaire.
Following the death of their father in 1945, Billy became chairman, with Ian vice-chairman, of the family publishing business. Ian enjoyed country living for many years at his home, the grade B-listed Crossburn House, Loans, near Troon in Ayrshire. He passed away after a long illness on 20 March 1975, aged 71. His funeral service was at Glasgow Cathedral on 24 March 1975, followed by a private family burial service at Glasgow Necropolis. He was survived by his widow Shona.