One hundred years ago today, on 31 October 1917, outside the town of Beersheba in Palestine, Trooper Albert Cotter of the 12th Australian Light Horse was shot and killed.
And that's everything we know for certain about the death of the only Australian Test cricketer killed in action in the First World War. Within a few years, stories began to circulate about the exact circumstances in which "Tibby" Cotter died, but every one of them is marred by obvious inaccuracies. One popular tale has Cotter being shot in a trench, but there was no trench fighting at Beersheba. Most of the stories overlook the fact that Cotter wasn't an armed combatant, but a stretcher-bearer, so that he usually entered the action after the first wave of any attack.
Beersheba, of course, was not a usual attack. It was a cavalry charge, an assault on horseback, the last of its kind in modern warfare. The Light Horsemen were trained to dismount before fighting, so there was no protocol for a charge. It may be that in the confusion, Cotter joined the charge and was shot riding towards the Turkish lines. Perhaps, as one plausible account suggests, he was killed after the fighting had ended, killed by a Turkish soldier who had pretended to surrender (it's recorded that one stretcher-bearer was killed like this, and Cotter is the only identified stretcher-bearer who died at Beersheba). In the end, all we know for sure is how little we know.
"Tibby" was not a disciplined soldier. Within days of arriving at Gallipoli, he was punished for drunkenness. Later, in Cairo, he went absent without leave. But in action he was fearless. A stretcher-bearer's work was extraordinarily dangerous: he moved slowly, upright and carrying a heavy load, within the range of enemy guns. Cotter displayed incredible bravery at the Third Battle of Gaza in April 1917, rescuing several wounded men under relentless Turkish gunfire.
His cricket was a similar mixture of indiscipline and heroic physical effort. He played the game as a series of muscular bursts of energy, without a thought for technique or strategy. Naturally, he was a fast bowler, perhaps the fastest to play Test cricket anywhere before the war. His slinging action brought him 89 wickets in 21 Tests between 1903 and 1912, and he generated terrific excitement wherever he played. He was a remarkable athlete with a powerful physique, who often played First Grade Rugby Union in the winter. At the age of only twenty, after only three games for New South Wales, he was rushed into the Test team and in his second game, against England in 1903-04, captured 6-40.
Before Cotter, Test bowlers tended to be accurate trundlers who could spin the ball at some variation of medium pace. Cotter was something new - an out and out fast bowler, who moved the ball only by accident and relied on sheer speed to defeat the batsman. On tour in England in 1905, his captain Joe Darling developed the concept of a packed slip field to support this new method of attack (and to try to persuade Cotter to aim at the off stump). Another novelty was Cotter's use of the short-pitched bouncer to unsettle his opponents - a tactic that outraged the English press. One paper insisted that Cotter "is a bowler whom it is very questionable policy on the part of the Australians to play, as he is distinctly dangerous to life and limb." Cotter toured England twice. In 1909, he bowled little in the county games, as MA Noble saved him for the Tests, in which he helped Australia to a series win. In 1912, he turned down a third tour as a member of the "Big Six", who refused to travel on the terms offered by the Board of Control.
Cotter's batting was every bit as entertaining as his bowling. Swiping his way to 79 for New South Wales against Victoria in 1911-12, he reached fifty in 18 minutes, which remains (possibly - the records are vague) the fastest half-century by the clock in Australian first-class cricket. For his club, Glebe, he smashed 152 in only 85 minutes against Waverley in 1906-07. He succeeded only rarely in Test cricket, but played with uncommon restraint to guide Australia to an improbable two-wicket win over England at Sydney in 1907-08.
Cotter was lucky to be playing in that game. He had been arrested after a game in Brisbane the week before, charged with assaulting a policeman who approached him as he was making his drunken and noisy return to the team hotel late at night. In the morning, the magistrate let him off with a fine, after deciding that the prisoner would be more useful in the Test team than cluttering up a cell. Socially, he was gregarious and popular, although not all of his choices were carefully thought out. On the 1909 tour, he became engaged to a barmaid from Leeds, who disappeared to France for a suspiciously lengthy period after the relationship ended; there is speculation that she left his child in an orphanage there. But there was never any malice in Cotter, who could be charming company and was always a steadfast and loyal friend.
Cricket historians often refer to the period just before the War as the game's "golden age". Cotter was a leading figure in the game in that period: a ferocious fast bowler who changed the way international cricket is played, and a colourful, vastly entertaining character.