Before live television, Synthetic Test Cricket used telegraph cables to bring the Ashes home to Australia.
Cricket is Australia’s primary summer sport. Its popularity was at its zenith between the World Wars, an era of high scoring, legendary players, and tightly fought Ashes series, between England and Australia.
Crowds in this period above 50 000 were common on most test match days.
350 000 people turned up for the third test in Melbourne, in the 1936/37 Ashes series, and 950 000 watched the five tests that summer. Both are still standing attendance records.
In this era even state cricket was well attended. Daily crowds of 25 000 or more were common for the marquee matches, as when New South Wales played Victoria.
This was also the time of Don Bradman. The game’s greatest ever player made his international debut in 1928, and was at his peak through the 1930s.
Born in Bowral, in regional NSW, Bradman honed his craft in the family backyard. His homespun technique was unorthodox, and initially confounding to cricket purists.
But Bradman’s feats on the field were undeniable. He still has the highest career average the game has ever seen – a record not likely to be broken – and this, paired with his humble background, made for a compelling narrative.
In an era where England’s team was uniformly strong, Bradman was Australia’s cricketing secret weapon. When he went out to bat, the country hung on his performance.
So there was considerable interest in the 1930 Australian tour of England.
For the 22 year old Bradman, this was his first cricket tour, and first trip outside of Australia. But his reputation preceded him; he had already scored two test centuries, and a mountain of runs in state cricket.
English fans were eager to see this young cricket wunderkind. They were also bullish about their team’s prospects; England had won the previous two Ashes series, and had a strong all-round side.
Australia would start as underdogs.
Before this time, Australian cricket fans would have had to rely on the print media to follow the team’s fortunes overseas. But new technology was about to change things.
Commercial radio broadcasts had started in Australia in 1923, with stations in Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney’s 2BL was the first to use the new medium for cricket, broadcasting 15-minute updates from the Ashes series in the 1924/25 summer.
Live broadcasts of state cricket were trialled later in 1925.
But live cricket coverage had a limitation. Overseas matches were beyond the range of early radio transmissions.
To provide radio coverage of the 1930 Ashes series, Melbourne station 3DB came up with an innovative idea.
Australia was connected to England via a series of underwater telegraph cables (built between 1854 and 1902), which could deliver a message from one country to the other within minutes.
A local reporter at the test match in England would summarise the events of each over, and telegraph this information to the studio in Melbourne. Local commentators would then recreate the events ball by ball, effectively role playing the unfolding match as if they were seeing it live.
Sound effects were added to complete the illusion. A record of crowd sounds would be played at appropriate moments, a pencil would be thumped into a rubber mat, or a coconut shell, to simulate the sound of bat on ball.
The ‘Synthetic Tests’ were born.
To match the hours of play in England, the broadcasts would run from 8.30pm to 3.30am the following morning.
As late night coverage of this kind had not been tried before, non-cricket elements were added to broaden the appeal. There would be a live studio audience for the earlier sessions, and comedy, with a studio band, to keep things lively.
3DB turned to Charlie Vaude to host the new program.
Born in London in 1882, as Charles Ridgway, Vaude had always wanted to be a performer. As a youth he haunted the music halls and vaudeville stages of the West End, imitating his favourite performers.
In 1902, Vaude and his family moved to Australia, settling in WA. Vaude worked during the day as a labourer, while he pursued his stage career after hours.
Later he moved east, and after World War I established himself as a comedian in Victoria. Touring extensively, Vaude played regional venues and often appeared as part of a double act. His stage persona was manic, lending his sketches and comedy songs a livewire energy.
3DB initially hired him to liven up their advertising, where his enthusiastic presence quickly endeared him to the audience.
To head up the cricket coverage in 1930, Vaude was paired with Renn Millar, an established radio personality who would serve as a straight man. These two would host, a panel of cricket experts would provide the commentary based on the telegrams arriving from England.
Vaude and Millar would interject periodically, and break up the cricket with jokes, banter and music. Some of Vaude’s comic ideas were unusual.
A large doll was installed in the studio. Dubbed ‘Ricketty Kate’, this was an odd looking artefact, with wild red hair and eyes that could be illuminated.
If Vaude and Millar were performing, and something dramatic occurred in the cricket, the dolls eyes would flash to alert them. They would then break into a short nonsense song, to let the listeners know something important was happening:
“Ricketty Kate! Ricketty Kate!”
The walls of the studio seemed to reverberate with the din of Charlie Vaude.
When the cables announce that a wicket has fallen, a button in the cable room is pressed, and the eyes of the fearsome doll light up. Then there is a yell of delight or horror, depending on who is batting.
The Ricketty Kate song is sung:
“We don’t worry, we don’t care, who’s afraid of the big brown bear?!”
Throughout the length and breadth of the continent, men and women held their breath, waiting for the announcement.
“Hammond is out!”
– ‘Listen In’, 1948
The first test of the 1930 Ashes was held between 13 – 17 June. England won a close fought match by 93 runs, despite Bradman’s second innings century.
Calling cricket by telegraph proved surprisingly expensive.
The cables from England cost 60 cents per word; as about a hundred overs were bowled per day, and each required a ball-by-ball update, costs quickly mounted.
After the first test the managers at 3DB wanted to know, was the coverage worth the investment? The second test at Lords started on June 27, during the second day’s play one of the station’s executives appealed to the public on air: how many of them were listening?
The results were dramatic.
‘Within 5 minutes, 50 trunk calls were lodged. Local calls swamped the suburban exchanges.
Many messages came from parties of 50 to 100 people. The telephoning continued until the station closed.
Next day, telegrams and letters began arriving, by their thousands.’
– ‘Listen In’
The station had a hit on its hands.
The cricket was carried as far as the local network could send it; from metropolitan Melbourne, across regional Victoria, and over state borders into South Australia and Tasmania.
A lot of people were staying up late to listen. ‘Test match parties’ had become a new social fad; groups gathered around the wireless, with food and drink, to follow the matches through the long winter nights.
Vaude and Millar’s antics endeared them to their listeners. Alongside their fan mail and congratulatory telegrams, gifts of all kinds arrived at the studio; cigars and whiskey, fresh fruit, smoked hams, homemade cakes and biscuits, even freshly caught crayfish.
Vaude celebrated these gifts on air, and greeted parties across Australia. He came up with a new song, ‘How Do You Do’, that he sang to acknowledge far flung locations, incorporating the town’s name into the lyrics of the song.
He was verbose and charming.
‘Gregarious, talkative and funny, Vaude was much loved; his name was a household word.
In returning that attachment, he showed an understanding of his public’s need for mirth and camaraderie in the hard years of the Depression.’
– Australian Dictionary of Biography
Australia fought back to win the second test of the 1930 series by 7 wickets, Bradman this time contributing 254.
The series was hard fought, but Bradman’s batting heroics proved the difference: The Don would end up scoring 974 runs in the series, still an all-time record. Australia came from behind to win 2 – 1, and regain the Ashes.
The dramatic result, Bradman’s remarkable scoring spree, and Vaude and Millar’s showmanship, made for a compelling narrative.
The following English tour to Australia, in 1932/33, was the acrimonious ‘Bodyline’ series.
England, under Douglas Jardine, deployed a battery of fast bowlers and stacked legside field placings. The tactics were designed to intimidate the batsmen, and curb Bradman’s scoring. Both were successful; England won the series 4 – 1, and Bradman averaged a more mortal 56.
But Bodyline was hugely controversial. It was considered physically dangerous, unsporting, and stirred up ill feeling both on and off the field. While the English team defended their tactics at the time, the following year Bodyline style bowling and field placings were banned.
The controversy meant the next series in England, in 1934, would be even more closely watched.
After their successful efforts four years earlier, Vaude and Millar again headed the 3DB coverage.
‘Ricketty Kate!’ would once more ring out across Australia, as countless late-night parties tuned in for the cricket and their antics. The 3DB show had established itself as a local institution, its hosts and catchphrases entrenched in popular culture.
They had also spawned imitators.
In 1934, multiple stations would also cover the cricket, using telegraph reports as the basis for their own coverage. Some took a more serious approach, using former players as expert commentators, others tried to follow 3DB’s model by including comedians and light entertainment.
The video below shows Synthetic Test Cricket in action.
2UE in Sydney, and the new Australian Broadcasting Corporation (founded in 1932), also found a large audience.
But 3DB remained the leading late night cricket station; Vaude and Millar received more than 200 000 items of mail during the series.
The last Ashes series before World War II was held in England, in 1938. This was also the last series for Synthetic Test coverage.
International cricket was suspended during the war, which also saw a dramatic increase in the power and range of short-wave radio. By the time cricket resumed in 1945, radio technology had supplanted the telegraph.
Descriptions of play could then be relayed directly to Australia.
1938 was Charlie Vaude’s last cricket series as well. He died peacefully at his home in Northcote, in October 1942.