Published in Thirteen, 2005
Ashes Series 1948/9
Great Britain v Australia
Len Smith axed as Aussies are whitewashed
THE omission of Australia’s captain-coach Len Smith from the 1948/49 Kangaroo tour remains one of the most baffling decisions in Australian sporting history.
The 30-year-old centre was the captain of Newtown and New South Wales and had led Australia to a 13-4 win in Brisbane against the Kiwis that had ensured a drawn series. He was the New South Wales player of the year and, seemingly, a certain selection for the tour.
Whether the omission was a glaring error or based upon jealousy or even, as it has been suggested, religious grounds (Smith was a Catholic whilst the selectors were mainly Masons), the decision totally overshadowed the beginning of the tour. The players couldn’t come to terms with the bombshell and, even more bemusingly, the captaincy was awarded to a player recently dropped from Wests and NSW, Col Maxwell, who wasn’t even sure he’d make the party. That they started the tour going down 22-3 against Huddersfield was little surprise.
They went on to win six tour games in a row and entered the first test at Headingley on the back of fine form. They went on to play their part in one of the great Test matches as the two sides shared 12 tries with Great Britain edging a 23-21 win in front of a packed crowd of 36,529.
After the Test, the form of the tourists deserted them. They lost games to Cumberland, St Helens, Hull KR and Warrington before losing the second test – and The Ashes – 17-6 at Swinton. Before the game, the tourists even paid homage at the corner of the ground where Chimpy Busch had been denied in 1930’s controversy but Station Road, once more, saw another British Ashes triumph as it had done after that infamous 0-0 draw in 1930.
From then, their form picked up slightly despite defeats in a morning kick-off at Workington and to Lancashire and Yorkshire before the third test, a 23-9 win for the hosts at Bradford, which resulted in only the second whitewash in Ashes history, the first being England’s in 1933.
For years to come however, the focus of all discussions in Australia had been the omission of Len Smith, who finished his commitments at Newtown and retired straight after. The Kangaroos had missed him badly.