Ian Craig made his Test debut, and remains Australia’s youngest Test player at 17 years 239 days. © Getty Images

Ian Craig made his Test debut, and remains Australia’s youngest Test player at 17 years 239 days. © Getty Images

CRAIG, IAN DAVID, OAM, died on November 16, aged 79. More than 400 people gathered at the Bradman Oval in Bowral to celebrate his life. While all the speakers mentioned his cricket skills and leadership qualities, they were also united in referring to what his brother, Geoff, described as his “modesty, dignity, kindness and gentlemanliness”.

Craig made 91 on debut for New South Wales as a 16-year-old in 1951-52, leading Bill O’Reilly to assert he was “a much more fully developed batsman than Bradman was then”. But in February 1960, a headline in Sport magazine blared: “Four Innings Wonder Boy Still on Trial.” It provided a summary of Craig’s career: in the beginning there was the burdensome Bradman tag, a facile attempt to fill the void left by The Don’s retirement. His captaincy of Australia and the overcoming of serious illness were forgotten.

Born at Yass, north of Canberra, where his father was a bank manager, Craig was educated at North Sydney Boys High School, captain at rugby, and vice-captain of cricket behind another future Test player, leg-spinner Peter Philpott. Craig was so prolific for Mosman in Sydney grade cricket that he was hurried into the New South Wales side at the age of 16 years 249 days, still the youngest Sheffield Shield player. He was only 5ft 8in tall, but surprised people with his sonorous voice. Next season, against the touring South Africans, Craig hit 213 not out in a touch over six hours, so dominating the scoring that Keith Miller made 58 of their stand of 159. More than 60 years later, the historian David Frith said: “I think that is still the most remarkable innings I’ve ever watched.”

Craig made his Test debut a month later at Melbourne, and remains Australia’s youngest Test player at 17 years 239 days. He batted with aplomb for 53, supporting a rampant Neil Harvey (205) in a fourth-wicket partnership of 148, then top-scored with 47 in the second innings. Ray Robinson wrote that the crowd “saw a freckle-faced slip of a lad approach the wicket with quick, short steps, straight-backed as a pupil coming forward to receive a prize on speech night”. His selection for the 1953 Ashes tour was a formality.

In England, though, Craig had a miserable time, passing 40 only three times in 27 innings. When the Queen asked if this was his first trip to England, he replied: “Yes, Your Majesty, and unless my batting improves, it will be my last.” Back in Australia, his cricket was interrupted by national service, but he was selected for the 1956 Ashes. After a barren start, he ran into such good form that he was picked for the Old Trafford Test – where, in the second innings, he batted on each of the four days, holding fast for 259 minutes until Jim Laker wrought destruction again.

In 1956-57, New South Wales made him captain, and next season the national panel followed suit for the tour of South Africa, passing over the more experienced Harvey and Richie Benaud. Craig took charge of a fragile side, rebuilding after the retirement of Miller, Ian Johnson and Gil Langley. His batting made little impact there, but his captaincy became more astute; at 22 years 194 days, he remains Australia’s youngest male captain. He sought advice and took it judiciously, and engaged his bowlers in decision-making. Tactful, level-headed and sociable, he helped transform Australia into a purposeful combination; they dominated the series 3–0.

In 1958, Craig suffered a severe bout of hepatitis, which he attributed to a tainted oyster at a pharmacy dinner; its effects left him frail and unready for cricket. Following successive ducks at the start of the 1958-59 season, he announced he would use the rest of the summer to convalesce. Benaud was appointed to lead Australia in the Ashes, and his flair and success meant that, at 24, Craig entered the final phase of his career – senior player for NSW, and stand-in captain when Benaud was absent. Craig successfully recast himself as an opener and, in 1959-60, led an Australian side to New Zealand on a non-Test tour. In his final season of 1961-62 – still only 26 – he formed a prolific partnership with Bob Simpson, which included century stands in both innings against Victoria at Sydney. Brian Booth, a regular team-mate, said Craig was “quiet, thoughtful, widely respected and a model for any young player. His batting had an artistic touch.”

After graduating with a pharmaceutical diploma, Craig joined Boots in 1958, serving as a production executive until his appointment as managing director in 1984. On retiring to Bowral, he was active on the board of the Bradman Foundation, and in 1997 was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his services to the game.