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Hassett, Arthur Lindsay (1913–1993)

by Peter McFarlane

Lindsay Hassett, 1945

Lindsay Hassett, 1945

Australian War Memorial, 044534

When Lindsay Hassett was growing up in Geelong in the years after World War I, there were two widely held ideas about Test cricket: it was no game for batsmen of small stature, and its leaders were never men of great humour.

In short, jokers and clowns were not admitted to the top rank.

By the time he retired from the game, little Lindsay Hassett had proved both ideas to be massive misconceptions. He was only 167cm from the soles of his feet to the top of his head, yet he scored 10 centuries in amassing 3073 runs at 46.56 runs an innings in 43 Tests. He had an almost uncontrollable sense of humour, an appreciation of any sense of the ridiculous, knew more jokes than he scored runs in his lifetime and was a renowned if feared practical joker. Yet he took over the captaincy of Australia after the retirement of Sir Donald Bradman in 1948 and led his side to 14 victories and only six losses in 24 Tests — a record almost comparable with that of the great man himself.

Yesterday morning, Arthur Lindsay Hassett died at the age of 79 at Batehaven. He and his wife had gone to live on the NSW South Coast after his retirement from the sporting goods business he ran in Melbourne with the former Collingwood footballer Thorold Merrett more than a decade ago. He had been ill for some time but that had not curtailed his irrepressible sense of humour or his devotion to the art of tempting bream to take his bait. Hassett was a fisherman of great dexterity who roamed far along the NSW and Victorian coastlines in search of the elusive bream. Until a few years ago, when age and ill health forced them to stop, a constant companion on these forays was the legendary leg-spinner Bill O'Reilly. In tandem they were a dangerous pair, not recommended for those who wished to stay sober or serious.

If there were many of us alive today who were born just a trifle too late to appreciate fully the genius that was Hassett the batsman, then most of today's cricket lovers at least grew up listening to his wisdom and wit on ABC radio. For more than 20 years, he worked a formidable partnership on radio with Alan McGilvray. In fact, there are those who believe Hassett made McGilvray blossom as a commentator.

But he gave up broadcasting after the 1981-82 season, citing failing health and the long drive from Batehaven as his reasons.

Privately, it was known that Hassett was growing more and more disenchanted with the boorish behaviour of some international players on the field. He was also mightily displeased that they were allowed to get away with it.

Despite his penchant for jokes and humour, he never had trouble recognising the fine line between sportsmanship and bastardry.

His peers regarded him as the finest ambassador Australian cricket has had, a reputation that has not been challenged since his retirement. As an epitaph it cannot be bettered.

Those who study such things claim that Hassett was the smallest man ever to play Test cricket for Australia. There may be room for argument there but certainly not against the assertion that, Bradman aside, he was his country's most productive batsman.

Those who watched him say his footwork was the equal of the Don and that he was an even better player on wet wickets, of which there were plenty in his day.

After honing his skills at Geelong College — where he captained the school at tennis, cricket and football — Hassett made his first-class debut in the 1935-36 season without causing the headline writers to scan their dictionaries for new superlatives. But by 1938 he was with Bradman's team in England.

It was during the first tour match against Worcestershire that his puckish humour saved his Victorian fast-bowling team-mate Era McCormick from a terrible fate.

McCormick was having dreadful trouble with his run-up. In his first over, he had sent down 12 no-balls and was nearing the point of exhaustion because of his extraordinarily long approach to the crease.

McCormick was also an avid snooker player but thoughts of that game were far from him as he attempted to get his feet right.

After the 12th mishap, Hassett, from mid-on, took the ball to the bowler as he trudged back to his mark.

"How many left to go?" gasped a breathless McCormick.

"I think, Ern, there are three reds. After you finish them, you can start on the coloureds," was Hassett's reply.

McCormick broke up laughing, finally finished the over and dined out on the story for the rest of his life.

Hassett's twinkle toes and amazingly quick eye earned him more than 16,000 first-class runs at an average of 58 which is far better than the return of a good batsman. He was close to being a champion.

It can be said from first-hand experience that he was a delight with whom to spend an hour or four.

Hassett was as devoted to his pipe as he was to his jokes, and 10 years ago was tickled to be included in the Melbourne Cricket Club side for a pipe-smoking competition organised by Rothmans at the Windsor Hotel.

Other members of the team were his close friend and successor as Australian captain, Ian Johnson, and your correspondent. We came, from memory, a creditable seventh.

Hassett's comments on radio were as incisive and unerring as his shots had been at the wicket.

There was plenty he did not like about the direction cricket took in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, and he never hesitated to explain his distaste.

But there was much more to be loved and admired about the game and he devoted most of his time to doing this with a command of the language and a subtle blend of wit that was his trademark through life.

Only the bream of his favourite fishing haunts will find life a little the easier for his passing.

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Citation details

Peter McFarlane, 'Hassett, Arthur Lindsay (1913–1993)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hassett-arthur-lindsay-29684/text37175, accessed 28 October 2021.

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