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Tearaway Test bowler was a hero under fire

ALBERT ''TIBBY'' COTTER was a brilliant and erratic fast bowler. He had a natural gift - he was perhaps the quickest in his era - but a disinclination to train it.

As a Digger, he was much the same. He could be drunk and insubordinate but was fearless under fire, until he was killed in the battle of Beersheba in 1917.

In Tibby Cotter: Fast Bowler, Larrikin, Anzac, a biography released this week, Max Bonnell and Andrew Sproul tell the story of the only Australian cricketer to perish in the First World War.

Cotter grew up in a stately family home in Glebe and, before he had left school, he was known as an intimidating tearaway. By the time he was 20, and after only three first-class games, he was selected to play against England at the SCG in 1904.

He took 89 wickets in 21 Tests, including seven five-wicket hauls, but never seemed interested in consistency.

"It never occurred to him to try and become a more sophisticated bowler," Bonnell said.


He could be erratic off the field too. A week before the 1907 Ashes, he was charged with assaulting two police officers. Only by grace of the magistrate was he given a fine and allowed to open the bowling.

He enjoyed a global celebrity unthinkable today, at a time when all the British outposts on the colonial map were avidly following English sport and media.

Bonnell says it's not clear why Cotter enlisted, but he speculates he was simply bored. Having played his last test in 1912: ''He'd [travelled] the world leading quite a glamorous and active life and now he looked like sitting in a clerical office for the next 20 years.''

Originally rejected for his poor eyesight, he was eventually posted with the Light Horse Brigade as a stretcher bearer.

He arrived in Gallipoli only a few months before the evacuation. "Within a matter of days he was severely disciplined for drunkenness," Bonnell said.

He would bring in wounded soldiers from the battlefield; a job that made him a moving target. His exceptional valour was noted in the official record and in soldiers' private correspondence.

His death, after a successful Australian cavalry charge at Beersheba, remains a mystery. Strangely for a man of his stature, the military never released an official account of his death. Theories abounded: he'd taken up arms and joined the cavalry charge himself or been hit by a stray sniper's bullet.

The book theorises that Cotter was among a small group of Australians killed by Turkish soldiers who feigned surrender but then shot Australians at close range.

''To me [he is] a microcosm of the Australian forces in World War I,'' Bonnell said. ''They were sloppy, insubordinate and messy but under fire they performed with phenomenal effectiveness.''