“Sunny Jim Mackay, Best Batsman in the World” is a new exhibition that was opened by Malcolm Knox, a well-known Sydney journalist, in 2021 and tells the amazing and tragic story of this Uralla resident and it is astonishing!
The below excerpt is from Malcolm’s brilliant speech as it describes the illuminating story of this amazing Australian sportsman.
Sunny Jim Mackay is near the top of my list of cricketers I would like to have seen. There is a double mystique about him. All cricketers of his era are, for those of us born into the age of television, the ones that got away. Sunny Jim was also the one that got away from Australian cricket, long spoken of as the best batsman we ever produced who never played a Test match.
Unable to see him, we are left to embroider around the known facts. We know he was tall and wiry, and according to the historian Max Bonnell ‘his batting was based on strong driving, his signature stroke being a powerful on-drive’. But what did Sunny Jim’s on-drive really look like, as compared to, say, Ricky Ponting’s? We can only imagine, and words and statistics can only help so much. We crave the faculty of sight. I imagine also playing that game in reverse. For the people of the past, the future is the one that gets away. We might wonder how Sunny Jim looks to our eyes, but how we would look to his?
His cricket career was cruelly cut short by an injury to that very organ, his eyesight damaged so badly when he was just 26 years old, that he played little more recorded cricket. Still, he lived for another 46 years to 1953 and saw the world develop. He had some sense of the future. But what could he have guessed about the cricket world today, 140 years after his birth? So, let’s speculate about then and now. (Malcolm then spoke about Mackay’s sensational early batting at Uralla, then for the Burwood club in Sydney, and for NSW.) forward to our time, perhaps the best comparison would be Phillip Hughes, another teenage prodigy who came from the regions.
Had he been born in Hughes’s time, Sunny Jim would have been on the ‘pathway’ from his mid-teens. Sunny Jim, at 23, ‘electrified Sydney cricket lovers with the forcefulness and rugged power of his batsmanship,’ said his club teammate George Garnsey. ‘Six feet in height with a well- proportioned frame that was all wire and whipcord, he was a teetotaller and non-smoker like most country-bred boys, and very observant.
He also had the great asset of visual memory and it was a standing joke among cricketers that there was no need to consult averages, statistics or phone numbers when Jim was around. This visual gift enabled him to learn quickly by watching the great players and give his batting polish and versatility to gowith his sound defence and great hitting power.
He seemed to gain greater ease and fluidity with each succeeding innings.’ And then there was his demeanour. The Sydney Referee newspaper said ‘He had the mind of a man with whom it is impossible to quarrel, a charming disposition, and was as wide-visioned and tolerant as any man his years I ever met. Sunny Jim was the admirable appellation given him by his mates of the club and field. And it fitted him perfectly.’ You can see where, today, this would lead him. Sunny Jim would by now be accelerated into the Australian one-day and Twenty20 teams.
He would be the face of cricket, wholesome and happy, a sweetheart. He is a magnet for young women, but being a teetotaller, and naturally shy, he isn’t up to the rigours of being led astray; in conversation he drifts off, dreaming of batting, and the girls give up, to seek more action elsewhere. But this doesn’t hurt Jim’s economic value. He needs an agent and a manager to siphon out the best of the commercial offers. He has a podcast, a blog, and maybe already a line of illustrated children’s books. The young Sunny Jim is marketing gold. But not yet a Test cricketer. How would his omission from the Australian side be seen today? Implausible, for a start, that youth wouldn’t be given its chance. An organisation like Cricket Australia would waste no time in elevating a talent and a personality like Sunny Jim. He became very much a member of the ‘club’ – but alas, at just the wrong time.
The player-power movement was deeply split from the State associations and the newly-formed Board of Control for Australian cricket, and during the 1906 winter, the players, combining with the Melbourne Cricket Club, tried to invite an England team to Australia under their own auspices. The Board called the players and asked them to recant on their contracts. Sunny Jim was the first called in, and they thought he would be easy to sway. Instead, he refused to betray his mates. NSW banned ten of the eleven players, including Sunny Jim. Who could have guessed that this bright star had played his last first-class game in Australia?
Sunny Jim accepted an offer to go to South Africa – not to play in a Twenty20 competition but to work for Sir Abe Bailey, the mining millionaire and benefactor of South African cricket. In 1907, after making several good scores for Transvaal, Sunny Jim was in line to tour England as a member of the South African team until that country’s cricket administration blocked his selection over eligibility. At this point, we can imagine a Sunny Jim of today as one of those itinerant T20 contract stars,following the cash around the world.
Without the security of a place in his national team, he is a freelancer of the entertainment industry, making a fine living but leaving a shadow question: What is it all worth? Just as Sunny Jim’s short career left so many questions unanswered, we can of course not know how he would see the cricket world today. There are parallels with Phillip Hughes, but at least Sunny Jim’s accident allowed him to live a long life outside cricket. He remained a shadow of Victor Trumper, just as Hughes is a shadow of Steve Smith. Then and now, as a cricketer, he was the rare case of the talent that did not reach its potential. We can ponder what this meant to him, but every indication is that the sorrow was held much more painfully by cricket lovers than by himself. He led the life that fate decreed, and his legacy for us is in the unknown, the fantasies about what might have been. A bright star like Trumper, an idol who fell sick and died young? A solid cricket citizen like Noble? But the path Sunny Jim followed was back here, to occupy a unique place in our imagination. One tantalising wish remains. Whether it was for Burwood, for NSW, for Transvaal, or for his club in this district, I would love very, very much to have seen him play.
Written by Malcolm Knox, 2021.