by Peter Roebuck
Sammy Woods, Photographed by George Beldam, c1905.
Credit: George Beldam [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Who is the only man to have played Test cricket for Australia without ever playing a first-class game here? Another clue? He played Rugby for England 15 times and was once asked to play an Ashes Test here but caught a cold in a Turkish bath the night before and had to withdraw.
Samuel James Moses Woods was his name. Sportsman, fisherman and a hunter who said he’d shot hounds and keepers in his time – he was probably joking – Woods was a mixture of English rural gentry and Australian pugnacity.
Woods was born in Ashfield, Sydney, and attended Royston College on the North Shore. His father, a businessman and grazier, had a large family, 14 or so Sam reckoned, though he wasn’t particular about numbers. The boys played cricket and boxed with the local Aboriginal champion, who knelt to fight them.
At 13 young Sam was sent to England to become a proper gentleman, a distinction he resisted gamely. He played soccer as a goalkeeper for Brighton College but settled in Bridgwater, Somerset, with a chum of his father’s and played skittles, billiards, rugby, soccer and cricket for the county besides being the life and soul of things.
Being a gentleman, Woods duly applied to go to Oxford. Now Sam had many qualities; he could sing Cockney songs in a light baritone, he could turn a lady’s eye and he could drink rough cider with the best. But he was not blessed with grey matter. For a start his spelling was atrocious. Oriel College rejected him. Later, when Sam was running riot in university contests with Oxford’s deadly enemies, Oriel protested that no-one had told them this Woods fellow played cricket. They scoured the city for someone to stand up to him but eventually gave a scholarship to the son of a local hairdresser, whose spelling was no more accurate than Sam’s.
Cambridge took him. Just. Latin was required. At his interview Sam was asked if he’d heard of Julius Caesar. Yes, sir. Know anything about him? No sir. What did he do?… Wrote books, sir. What about?… Some place called Gaul. What happened in Gaul?… They fought battles, sir. So what was Caesar?… A soldier, sir.
It was enough. Passing exams was another matter. When Sam approached his examinations the whole university went with him. A giant figure with a shock of thick hair and wearing a tatty gown, Woods was morose on these occasions. Few fancied his chances. Inside the Corn Exchange rooms he’d bite his pen and write precious little. After a few minutes he’d wander out crestfallen.
It is said that on one paper he wrote only S. M. J. Woods, Jesus College, and that one word had been misspelt. From this slender evidence the examiners detected sufficient learning to allow Woods his full term, a widely popular judgement.
Finally Woods returned to Bridgwater to live in a local pub and to play outstanding cricket as an amateur. To most amateurs cricket was about art not sweat. They were batsmen. Woods would have none of this nonsense. Life was too short for such pomposity. He did both. As a batsman he hit booming drives and called loudly for perilous singles his partners did not always complete.
Bowling was his strength. As a fast bowler he mixed them up because to him a cove wasn’t bowling merely if he let go of the ball,
Woods had a deadly slower one, unflagging imagination and enough skill to play regularly for the Gentlemen versus Players.
Pretty soon Woods was a giant in the county, winning Rugby caps and hunting Stags. In 1888 he played three Tests for the Australian tourists, replacing S. P. Jones who’d contracted smallpox.
In his time he captained Somerset, a task he carried out with the requisite humour. Upon being asked once why one fellow was playing, he replied: “He ain’t much of a bat, and he ain’t much of a bowler but he’s a hell of good footballer.”
For years he carried the side upon his mountainous back, playing heroically and never losing heart. Great-heart was one of his nicknames. Preparing to bat on a bad pitch once he sat enjoying a double whisky and soda and a Burmese cheroot. A wicket fell. “This must stop,” he bellowed and promptly smote his first three balls over midwicket. He hit 70.
Another time, encountering a dishonest umpire, he told him: “In 20 years it won’t matter who won the game to anyone except you.”
Often he used to walk to games, tramping along miles of country roads, stopping to talk to the farmers. When in company he would sometimes dart behind a tree and produce a bottle of beer which he had hidden for just such an emergency. A noted raconteur and after-dinner speaker, Woods could recite from the memory the long verses locals wrote to celebrate the county’s rare victories.
Sammy never did get to take life seriously. He did try, once, to learn a trade, giving a surveyor £50 to instruct him in the mysteries of rods and perches. After one lesson the fellow went home and shot himself. Woods used to say, “It wouldn’t be expedient for anyone to pay me for measuring a plot of ground”. A bachelor, he was reputed to have a bit of fluff in town but generally spent his time playing snooker in the clubs.
He returned once to Australia. Twenty years he’d been away. His family met hm on the dock. With his walloping stride Woods disembarked. It was a moment of high emotion. Woods gazed around, saw his family and moved towards them. Then he stopped, pulled out his pipe, walked up to his father and said, “Hello Guv’nor, got a light?”
Crippled by arthritis, Woods finally stopped playing and took to administering, at which he was hopeless. He stayed in Somerset, his voice bellowing across grounds until he went the way of all flesh. He died practically unknown in Australia but all Somerset attended his funeral.