ON the first day of the first Test cricket match, Tom Horan was the third batsman in.
Twenty-two years after being born in Midleton, East Cork, he strode to the crease at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to do his bit for Australia against England.
It was March 15, 1877, and the rivalry that would launch the international dimension of the sport was taking baby steps.
As a player and journalist, Horan would be involved in its first four decades. His dexterity, both at the crease and with the pen, earned him the unique privilege of playing in and reporting on the legendary Test at the Kennington Oval in August 1882 that gave birth to the Ashes series.
As the two nations do battle once more this month in Australia, it’s worth revisiting Horan’s account of the initial event, a sample that offers a flavour of his style.
“The strain, even for the spectators, was so severe, that one onlooker dropped down dead, and another, with his teeth, gnawed out pieces from his umbrella handle,” he wrote.
“That was the match in which the last English batsman had to screw his courage to the sticking place by the aid of champagne, when one man’s lips were ashen grey and his throat so parched that he could hardly speak as he strode by me to the crease; when the scorer’s hand shook so that he wrote Peate’s name like Geese, and when in the wild tumult at the fall of the last wicket, the crowd in one tremendous roar cried ‘Bravo Australia! Bravo Australia!’.”
Horan didn’t have a particularly good time of it in the game that spawned the legend of the Ashes, managing just two runs each time he was in. To be fair, this was well below his average. In that inaugural Test between the countries five years earlier, he’d followed up a 12 in the first innings with a 20 that was Australia’s highest second-innings score as they hung on to win by 45 runs.
“Tom Horan was in his time the crack batsman of Victoria,” went his obituary in Wisden.
“He formed his method and earned high distinction as a batsman before enjoying the advantage of a trip to England.
He had no special grace of style, but his defence was very strong, and he excelled against fast bowling.”
Born on March 8, 1855, the son of James Horan, a building contractor, and his wife Ellen.
The family emigrated to Australia soon after Thomas’s birth, settling at 186 Fitzroy Street, Melbourne, Victoria.
The child grew up with a passion and flair for cricket that he had to fit around the need to earn a living.
“Joining the Victorian Audit Office as a clerk in 1873, rising to a senior clerkship there, Horan ensured his annual leave always coincided with intercolonial and international cricket matches, even after he retired from playing,” wrote Turlough O’Riordan in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. “With a stocky build, capped by a luxuriant moustache crowning hearty mutton chops, Horan — a vegetarian and non-smoker — was a well-known figure in cricketing.
“Nicknamed ‘Dutchy’, his stature in the Melbourne cricketing community, was based on his commitment to club and state.
“His regular attendance at practice and his coaching of younger players left an indelible mark on Victoria’s cricketing consciousness, the depth and longevity of which was amplified by his widely regarded journalism.”
The right-handed Horan played 15 Tests in all for Australia, his finest hour coming against England in a game that began on New Year’s Eve, 1881. Batting number five, he hit six fours on his way to his highest Test score of 124 before being run out.
He was capable of assisting with the ball in hand, too, managing to take 11 Test wickets in all. A round-arm, right-arm, fast-medium bowler, he snagged six for 40 in the first innings against England at Sydney Cricket Ground in February 1885.
A month later, he was bowled out for 20 in the fifth Test of that series in Melbourne. Though he soldiered on with Victoria until 1891, that was his last appearance for Australia.
That he left his mark as a player can be deduced from the fact a bust of Horan stands at “Captain’s Walk”, a looping path through a public park in Cootamundra, New South Wales honouring all those who led the country in tests.
Distinguished company indeed. He may only have led his adopted home twice in such games but then again there was his second life as an unparalleled chronicler of the fledgling decades of the sport.
“Australia’s first great cricket writer, the Irish-born immigrant Thomas Patrick Horan, journalist and Test cricketer (he captained Australia versus England in 1884), wrote about three million words on the noble game for The Australasian in an unbroken sequence covering 37 years,” wrote Brian Crowley, who co-edited an anthology of his journalism.
“According to a contemporary, the great all rounder George Giffen, Horan’s writings did much to cultivate a true, genuine interest in our beloved game.
“Bill O’Reilly (the doyen of Australian cricket writers) has called the legacy left by his Irish-born counterpart ‘a goldmine of imperishable memories’.”
Bringing to bear the perspective and contacts that only somebody who participated in the genesis of the sport possibly could, Horan’s weekly column entitled Cricket Chatter was beloved of fans.
The Australasian’s annual publication of his “Round The Ground” article was considered the closing ceremony of the season.
In his last such piece before he died in April 1916, he lamented the slim chances of an England team touring while the world was at war.
“I do not think they will be here, but if they should come, I hope you and I may be here to see,” wrote Horan, “and that I shall have the pleasure once more of going round the ground to tell you all about the goodliest company of famous cricketers, whereof the world holds record.” As succinct a description of what the Ashes entails as any.