1854 - 1916 | Victoria | journalist
Horan was an Irish-born Australian cricketer who played in the first Ashes Test and captained Australia in two Tests. But it was his cricket writing that was his biggest contribution to the game, documenting the early years of Australian cricket for scores of historians. He wrote under the name of Felix for nearly four decades in The Australasian, a weekly published by the Argus newspaper. Horan was the first Australian cricket writer who had played the game at the highest level, paving the way for many players to enter the media. Bill O'Reilly described him as "the cricket writer par excellence".
Thomas Horan was a cricketer to be reckoned with: a top-order batsman sound enough to represent Australia in the inaugural Test match at the MCG in March 1877, and on the Australians’ first tour of England a year later, where he enjoyed the signal honour of the winning hit in their rout of the MCC. Born in County Cork and brought to Melbourne as a boy, he captained Australia at a pinch in 1884-5 when more uppity teammates decided to hold out for a few extra shillings. By then, however, he had commenced a far greater contribution to cricket’s common weal: the “Cricket Chatter” columns in e Australasian, which he would compose for an extraordinary 37 years.
This transition was in its time highly unusual; Australian cricket was well supplied with competent scribes before World War I, notably J. C. Davis and A. H. Gregory in Sydney, and Donald Macdonald and Harry Hedley in Melbourne. But only Horan had represented his country, at home and abroad. There was no television to apparently drop the fan into the middle of the game; on the writer fell the entire responsibility for bringing the game to the fan, and none in their time was intimately acquainted with cricket at the top level. It wasn’t merely out of Hibernian loyalty that Bill O’Reilly described Horan as “the cricket writer par excellence”; it was, he explained, because Horan was “a writer who really did know what he was writing about”.
'Felix', as he was pseudonymously renowned, wrote with his ears and eyes, with a sense of the telling remark and the evocative detail, such as in his recollection of his first encounter with Victor Trumper in 1897: “While on the Melbourne Ground the veteran Harry Hilliard introduced me to him and I was struck by the frank, engaging facial expression of the young Sydneyite. After a few words he went away and old Harry said to me: ‘That lad will have to be reckoned with later on.’ My word! But do you know what particularly attracted my attention when I first saw Victor fielding? You wouldn’t guess in three. It was the remarkably neat way in which his shirt sleeves were folded. No loose, dangling down, and folding back again after a run for the ball, but always trim and artistic.” I have never failed since to note this detail in George Beldam’s famous image of Trumper jumping out to drive.
Horan knew everyone, and reported their deeds in a prose as breezy and inviting as his personality. When he is recounting the experiences of the English team of 1884-85 on tour, for instance, it is as though you have a seat at their table: “Barnes says that at Narrabri the heat was simply awful, and immediately up in the ranges at Armidale he had to wear a top coat and sit by the fire to keep himself warm … It would do one good to hear Ulyett, little Briggs or Attewell laugh as they detail some of their Australian experiences; how Flowers was frightened of the native bears on the banks of the Broken River at Benalla; how Ulyett jumped from the steamer on a hot afternoon on his way down from Clarence; and how little Briggs came to grief on a backjumper at Armidale. Briggs to this day maintains that the horse had nothing to do with unseating him, it was simply the saddle. His comrades, however, will not believe him … Briggs gives a graphic description of a murderous raid he made one night upon the mosquitos in Gympie, and how, when that proved futile, he quenched the light and pulled his bed into another corner of the room to dodge them.”
In January 1893, The Australasian commissioned from 'Felix' a regular supplementary column called “Round the Ground’. Horan’s preferred vantage point at the MCG was under an elm tree near the sight board opposite the pavilion; from here he would embark on long peregrinations round the arena and through his memory, each personal encounter bringing forth a fund of reminiscences. It was during one of these ambles, in January 1902, that he committed to print perhaps his most famous passages, which concern the dying moments of the inaugural Ashes Test at the Oval in 1882 in which he had played. Subsequently cited by H. S. Altham in A History of Cricket, these lines have been unconsciously paraphrased by scores of writers since: “… the strain even for the spectators was so severe, that one onlooker dropped down dead, and another with his teeth gnawed out pieces of his umbrella handle. That was the match in which for the final half-hour you could have heard a pin drop, while the celebrated batsmen, A. P. Lucas and Alfred Lyttelton, were together, and Spofforth and Boyle bowling at them as they never bowled before. 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’.”
Even after his playing days were over, Horan remained at heart a player: 'Felix' rejoiced in successes, and sympathised with failures, understanding sensitivities and susceptibilities as only one who has been there can. If he felt a point of order worth making, he did so with utmost even-handedness, the lightest touch and a peculiarly Victorian circumlocution. “All this should be enough, indeed, to make one long to be in possession of Cagliostro’s famous secret, so that one might have everlasting youth to enjoy to the full and for ever the glorious life of a first-class Australian cricketer,” he wrote of the frequency of cricket tours in the 1880s. “Though, to be sure, one must not forget that the thing might pall upon the taste in the long run, for does not the sonnet tell us that ‘sweets grown common lose their dear delight’.” To his delightful writing, this hardly ever applied.
Gideon Haigh is one of the world’s finest cricket writers and a member of the Victorian Media Hall of Fame. He has been a journalist for 30 years,has written 30 books and contributed to more than 100 publications.
Tom Horan, Australian cricket captain of the 1870s and '80s. Photographer unknown.
Australian cricketers, Horan standing at wicket, Ane, artist, 1878. Courtesy State Library Victoria.
'Tom Horan - cricket writer par excellence', Gideon Haigh, www.espncricinfo.com/
Cradle days of Australian cricket: an anthology of the writings of Felix, T. P. Horan, Macmillan Australia, 1989.