Scotland's first Australian professional - Bert Tobin

30 Sep

An Ashes summer is always special for cricket lovers across the UK, even when the Australian tourists don’t venture north of the border, like this year. Despite Australia’s cricketers not having played in Scotland since 2009, the contribution made to Scottish cricket by individual Aussie professionals over the decades has been significant, so it is an appropriate time to specifically recognise the achievements of the very first Australian to play as a club pro in Scotland: Bert Tobin. 

A plethora of Test cricketers from Down Under have enhanced the Scottish game: of recent vintage, George Bailey and Ed Cowan assisted the Saltires; Ferguslie had Mike Hussey; further back, Watsonians had the services of both a future Australian captain in Kim Hughes and an Ashes legend in Terry Alderman, while  a future vice-captain of Australia in Andrew Hilditch represented Forfarshire; Ayr and Kilmarnock had Ashley Mallett and Bob Massie respectively; Greenock had the assistance of Laurie Mayne and Trevor Laughlin, while Perth’s North Inch displayed the talents of Bruce Yardley, Adam Gilchrist and Justin Langer 

Of those who didn’t achieve the pinnacle of wearing the ‘baggy green’, Grant Stanley (Ayr, Prestwick/Ayrshire and Kilmarnock), Peter Drinnen (Forfarshire), Iain Beven (West of Scotland, Grange and West Lothian) and Paul Hoffman (Uddingston) deserve special mention for sterling and lengthy service rendered to the Scottish game. Similarly, the development work of Pete Steindl, Tony Judd and Mark Kelaher should be noted. 

Other Aussie pros who graced the Scottish cricketing scene are too numerous to recall, but have included Alan Preen (Perthshire); Steve Bernard and Richard Chee Quee (both Forfarshire); Paul Clark and Brett McKirdy (both Stirling County); Malcolm Howell, Murray Radclife and Mark Garner (all Clackmannan County); Peter Clifford (Clackmannan County and Greenock);  Ian Burrows (Poloc); Marshall Rosen and Mark Clews (both Clydesdale); Len Richardson, Ward Scarff, John Shannon, Darren Walker, Darrin Ramshaw, Dene Hills and Cameron Borgas (all Greenock), Rob Bedford, Marty Haywood and Kevin Roberts (all Ayr), Gary Goodman (Uddingston), Corey Richards and Graeme Rummans (both West of Scotland and Ayr); Kim Hagdorn and Trevor Bayliss (both West of Scotland ); Jason Arnberger (West of Scotland, Aberdeenshire, Kelso, Gala); Bryn Martin, Steve Jones and Brad Bannister (all Selkirk); Ross McQueen (Melrose); Tony O’Hara (Penicuik); Grant Parmenter (Dumfries and Hillhead); Brad Spanner (St Michael’s); Greg Maslen (Kirkcaldy); Damien Wright (Grange); Graham Errington and Brett Stephenson (both Cupar); Shane Hadley, Neil De Costa, Jim Turner, Steve Wark and Brett Hunter (all Dundee HSFP). 

The ‘First Australian’, and trailblazer for all the Antipodean professionals that were to follow, was Bertrandt Joseph ‘Bert’ Tobin back in 1938 – and none since has been able to match his winning ways, assisting as he did three different Western Union clubs to league titles, as the Glasgow Herald of 20 June 1953 noted: “All-round ability has enabled this Australian cricketer since his introduction to Scottish cricket before the war to put each of the clubs for whom he has played at the top of the Western Union championship.

“With Tobin in their side Greenock took the honour in 1938. Ferguslie, joint leaders in 1949 and champions in 1948, had Tobin as their professional...He is in his fourth season with Kelburne, who won the competition two years ago.” 

The Herald actually does him a disservice, as Greenock also shared the title in 1939, so Tobin actually won five championships with three clubs. 

Bertrandt Joseph Tobin was born in North Adelaide, South Australia on 11th November 1910 and grew up in his parents’ home at 140 Molesworth Street, North Adelaide (his father was a clerk in the Railways Department.) 

Tobin was educated at Adelaide’s Roman Catholic Rostrevor College, run by the Christian Brothers, where he learned his cricket. He opened both the batting and bowling for the 1st XI, captaining the side in 1927/28, representing South Australia in the Inter-State Colts Tournament that same season. 

An outstanding all-round sportsman, he was vice-captain of the College’s Australian Rules football team and was a scratch golfer, winning the Junior Golf Championship of South Australia in July 1928, aged 17, never having received a single lesson – picking up the finer points of the game from watching players at the North Adelaide Golf Club. 

Tobin was a surprise inclusion in the twelve selected to represent Australia against England in the Fourth Test at Brisbane of the 1932/33 ‘bodyline’ series. Although selected as a young all-rounder of promise – being a right-arm fast-medium bowler with a good action and a hard-hitting right-hand bat – he had a disappointing return of one for 119 against the MCC tourists at Adelaide in November 1932. 

Paradoxically, that Test selection was to be both his proudest moment and the greatest disappointment of his cricket career.  He did himself no favours in the eyes of the selectors with a poor performance for South Australia against New South Wales at Sydney in the Sheffield Shield match immediately preceding the Test. Scores of 8 and 1 with the bat, combined with bowling returns of none for 23 and none for 69, meant that Tobin was only entrusted with the twelfth man duties at The Gabba, before dropping out of consideration for the Fifth Test. His dream of representing Australia had been so tantalisingly close to fulfilment, yet he would never again be given the opportunity. 

The Sydney Morning Herald of 17 January 1934 offered an insight as to why he failed to regain the favour of the Test selectors: “Tobin has a great amount of natural ability. He has been a trifle disappointing from the point of view of temperament. A fine natural bowler, with swing and nip from the pitch, he has been erratic in direction and has not shown the capacity to bowl to a definitely placed field. He shows the same tendency to irresponsibility in his batting. He is a splendid natural driver, and quick on his feet, but does not make nearly as many runs as he should. If he could develop cricket intelligence in keeping with his natural skill, Tobin would almost certainly make a great all-rounder.” 

He played 26 first-class matches for South Australia between 1930/31 and 1934/35, scoring 722 runs at an average of 16.04; he reached fifty only four times in 47 innings, with a top score of 61. With the ball, he took 51 wickets at 39.03, his best return being four for 31. Aged just 24, his first-class career that promised so much was now over; league cricket in the north of England and Scotland would provide his employment over the next 18 years. 

Tobin first came to the UK for the summer of 1935, having been engaged as pro with Rishton in the Lancashire League. Just after arriving at the Blackburn Road club, however, the young Aussie was rushed into nearby Blackburn Royal Infirmary on 12 April for an emergency appendectomy, a serious procedure 80 years ago. There were genuine fears that his season would be over before it had begun. He made an astonishing recovery following two weeks’ convalescence in a Southport nursing home, and five weeks’ later he was making a delayed Rishton début on Saturday 25 May, hitting 50 (including 6 boundaries) and opening the bowling (one for 12 from 6 overs) in a 103-run home win over Enfield.

It was to be a disappointing season overall, though, for Rishton – finishing twelfth in the 14-team league. Tobin was re-engaged for 1936, and while he was individually a success it was to be another unhappy season for Rishton, again finishing twelfth, but with a significant drop in gate receipts. 

After two seasons with Rishton CC, Tobin signed for Stockport CC during December 1936 in readiness for the 1937 summer, which was to be the Cale Green club’s inaugural season in the Central Lancashire League after leaving the Manchester and District Cricket Association.  It was a relatively inauspicious first season, and Tobin could only help Stockport finish third from bottom of the 14-team league. 

His health was a cause for concern during Christmas 1937, and he spent time in a Stockport hospital. By February 1938, however, he was sufficiently recovered to commit to Greenock CC for the upcoming season.

Scottish club professionals, without exception, had been sourced from English counties until Aberdeenshire broke the mould by importing Alma Hunt from Bermuda in 1934. Forfarshire followed suit a year later when they engaged South African Gordon Hodgson (although he only relocated to Dundee from his home on Merseyside, being as he was a Liverpool footballer and Lancashire cricketer.) 

Bert Tobin became the first Australian pro with a Scottish club when he arrived at the Tail of the Bank in April 1938; unusually, despite his sustained success with three different clubs, it would be a further 20-plus years before Scottish teams started to hire Aussie pros in significant numbers. 

Tobin’s first appearance at Glenpark was in a pre-season trial match on Saturday 16th April 1938 between two sides containing a mixture of 1st and 2nd XI players. The South Australian made an immediate impact, taking five wickets and hitting 50. The following week in a Glenpark friendly against Glasgow side Cartha he made 58 and took two for 14 as Greenock won by 208 runs. 

His competitive début was again at Glenpark, on Saturday 30th April 1938, contributing 85 not out to the Greenock total of 224 for five; he bowled 12 overs, taking three for 46, as Drumpellier were dismissed for 161, giving the home side a 63-run win.

The Glasgow Herald reported that: “Tobin…combined power and artistry in making 85 in 72 minutes. Twelve times he sent the ball to the boundary and once hit it out of the ground. 

“It is clear Greenock have made a great catch.”  

Tobin also displayed his ambidextrous ability with the ball when with Greenock – bowling fast-medium right-hand but occasionally switching to slow left-hand.

Greenock won the Western Union outright in 1938 and shared the 1939 title with Kelburne, and Tobin’s contribution to the success was key: he topped the batting averages in 1938 with 658 runs at an average of 38.71, being second in the bowling averages with 55 wickets at 12.29; in 1939 he led the batting (712 runs at 33.90), including 100 in a six-wicket defeat of Ayr at Cambusdoon on 12 August 1939, and with the ball took 45 wickets at 19.84. 

Tobin’s Greenock team-mate George Tough remembered him when writing in the club’s 1962 centenary publication: “A really great player and quite a character. What a delight it was to watch this man play almost every known shot in the game. It is doubtful if ever a better stroke player performed in Scotland. He was unsurpassed in the field, and a very good medium paced bowler.” 

The Rev James Aitchison, of Kilmarnock and Scotland, wrote in the same publication about his first experience of Tobin’s pace, at Kirkstyle in 1938: “Despite the fact that the ball struck the centre of my pad, there was a great lump on my leg for the next week as a tribute to the fire that Bert Tobin could produce off the pitch…” 

He was a hero to the Glenpark faithful, both on and off the field. At lunchtime on Wednesday 8 June 1938, Greenock’s 23-year-old junior professional/assistant groundsman Robert Lee, of Leyland, Lancashire, was enveloped in flames when a motor mower caught fire on the outfield and the petrol tank exploded. Tobin was in the pavilion at the time and rushed to assist his stricken colleague, ripping off Lee’s blazing clothes and extinguishing the flames. Lee was severely burned, but survived. 

Tobin also met his wife-to-be in Greenock, Christina MacAskill – a 19-year-old draughtsman’s tracer from Robertson Street – and they married at Bradford, Yorkshire in March 1940, where Tobin was working as a wool sorter in a Bradford mill. 

The Bradford League clubs still employed professionals in that first wartime summer and the newly-wed Tobin augmented his millworker wages as pro with Pudsey St Lawrence for the 1940 season. The Tofts Road club had produced two of the sport’s legendary batsmen in Herbert Sutcliffe and Len Hutton, but Tobin was more of a threat with the ball than he had been on the softer Scottish wickets of the two previous years. He took nine Queensbury wickets for just 39 runs, and had eight for 53 against Farsley, with the highlight of his season being a hat-trick in his six for 49 against Saltaire on 15 June 1940, securing a 23-run win for the home club. 

Tobin’s son, Ian Roderick Tobin, was born at Greenock’s Rankin Memorial Hospital in January 1941. Now living in a flat in the town’s Eldon Street, Tobin played as an amateur for Greenock throughout the remainder of the war. A fine example of his all-round abilities can be found in the friendly match at Glasgow’s Shawholm ground on 29 July 1944: he took six for 26 (including a hat-trick) as Poloc were dismissed for 90; he then top-scored with 25 not out to give Greenock a five-wicket win. 

Unlike his predecessor as Greenock pro, the ex-Sussex batsman Reg Hollingdale, Tobin was never asked to play for Scotland, although the selectors did consider him for inclusion against the Australian tourists at Hamilton Crescent in August 1938, but opted instead to stick with Portsmouth footballer Scot Symon following his eight-wicket haul against the Aussies at Forthill. 

Tobin, however, did play for a ‘Scotland XI’ in a drawn one-day charity match against an eleven captained by West Indian great Learie Constantine at The Tryst, Stenhousemuir on 16 June 1945. Batting at five, he contributed 44 runs to the Scots’ total of 182 for seven declared. 

He continued to assist Greenock as an amateur when Western Union cricket resumed in 1946, but did not play at all the following summer, having turned 36. His daughter, Christina Mary Tobin, was born at home in Greenock’s Eldon Street during December 1947. Tobin listed his occupation as ‘wool sorter’ on the birth certificate, but he would return to the ranks of paid sportsmen in just a few short months.    

Greenock’s Renfrewshire rivals Ferguslie had been without paid assistance since 1939, and obtained the signature of the 37-year-old Tobin as their part-time professional for the 1948 season. Still resident in Greenock, the relatively short journey to Paisley suited the Aussie all-rounder. His début for the Meikleriggs club was in a 70-run home win over Stenhousemuir in a pre-season friendly on 24 April 1948, with the Paisley Daily Express reporting that: “B.J. Tobin, the Ferguslie professional, had a serviceable day. He collected 5 runs with the bat, captured 2 wickets for 6 runs, and took a catch.” 

He spearheaded the club to their first league title since 1937, second in the Western Union batting averages – 457 runs at an average of 50.78; top score of 91 not out v Uddingston – combined with 22 wickets at 12.86. 

Ferguslie retained their title in 1949, albeit shared with Kilmarnock, and Tobin contributed 300 runs (average 30.00). Tobin had obtained an MCC coaching qualification and was a great believer in the early development of cricketers and undertook coaching visits to a number of Renfrewshire primary schools during his seasons in Paisley. 

The Meikleriggs club decided that they would engage a full-time pro for the 1950 season, and they and Tobin parted on the best of terms. Their great rivals from the east end of Paisley, Kelburne, had also been without the services of a professional since 1939 and made their move, as the Paisley Daily Express of 16 September 1949 reported:  “…Tobin became open for engagement. As Kelburne were in the market, they got in touch with B.J. and terms have been arranged. 

“At Whitehaugh, it is felt that the lithe and vigorous Australian will be helpful to them in their effort to rise above their lean 1949 season and assist in the coaching of their several hundred keen junior and juvenile members.” 

Tobin crossed the great Paisley cricketing divide and had a winning début in a one-wicket home win over Drumpellier on 29 April 1950. He took one wicket for 36 runs from 15 overs as the visitors were dismissed for 160; with the bat he made 19 in Kelburne’s reply of 162 for nine. 

Kelburne climbed the table to finish a respectable third, with Tobin amassing 506 runs (average 31.6) with the bat and taking 33 wickets at 19.1. 

The following year Kelburne won the Western Union title, and also were the first winners of the new midweek West League Cup competition. Ably captained by Willie Nichol, the Paisley Daily Express noted that: “Bert Tobin, their professional, whose experience had been very telling when some of the games were in the balance and whose guidance to youths in the team had been invaluable.” 

1952 was a disappointing anti-climax for Tobin and Kelburne; only 11 league matches were completed, with four of them won, sufficient to edge out rivals Ferguslie for fourth place. 

Tobin’s final season was 1953. Kelburne again finished fourth, but had improved on the previous year’s performance, winning seven of the 12 completed matches…and they also captured the West League Cup. Tobin’s final match in Western Union cricket was at Hamilton Crescent on 12 September 1953; he top-scored with 46 out of Kelburne’s 120 all out, but his one wicket for 17 runs from 8 overs was not enough, and West of Scotland secured the win on 121 for nine.    

Bert Tobin left the UK for the last time when he sailed from Southampton for Melbourne on 29 January 1954. On the ship’s passenger list his occupation was listed as ‘Cricketer’ and his last residence in the UK was ‘2 Eldon Street, Greenock.’ His wife and children did not travel with him and remained in Greenock. 

He was to continue his cricket coaching back in his native Australia, as Melbourne’s Age of 29 September 1954 reported on a change at the local Essendon Cricket Club: “Bert Tobin, twelfth man for Australia in a number of test matches some years ago, has been appointed coach of the club and captain of the third eleven.” 

Bert Tobin, Scottish cricket’s ‘First Australian’ died suddenly following a heart attack on 19 October 1969 in Adelaide. He had been living at Largs Bay, South Australia and was aged 58. He was buried at Cheltenham Cemetery, South Australia. 

His old Greenock team-mate Tom Riddell penned his obituary in the Greenock Telegraph of 28 October 1969: “It is generally agreed that he was the greatest stylist of any player, professional or amateur, who graced Scottish cricket fields over a considerable period of years…He had every shot. He was like Hammond, equally strong off the front foot or the back foot. He could hook and cut and glide – he had in fact every shot that any of the best ever played…Many of us will miss this lovable, brilliant and erratic character.” 

The Greenock Telegraph headline read simply: “Death of Bert Tobin – the stylish batsman.”  

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