Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fleetwood-Smith, Leslie O'Brien (1908–1971)

by W. F. Mandle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Leslie O'Brien Fleetwood-Smith (1908-1971), by unknown artist, 1934

Leslie O'Brien Fleetwood-Smith (1908-1971), by unknown artist, 1934

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24679823 [detail]

Leslie O'Brien Fleetwood-Smith (1908-1971), cricketer, was born on 30 March 1908 at Stawell, Victoria, third child of Fleetwood Smith, a newspaper manager from India, and his native-born wife Frances Alice, née Swan. Frances had edited the Pleasant Creek News and Stawell Chronicle after the death of her father, the founding editor; her elder son Walter ('Jim') edited the paper in 1931-61, making ninety-three years of family involvement with it. Leslie was educated at Stawell Primary School and in 1917-24 at Xavier College, Melbourne, where he was a successful first XI cricketer.

When he returned to Stawell to play for the local club, his bowling prowess attracted the attention of the St Kilda club, for whom he played (as Fleetwood-Smith) in 1930-33 before joining the Melbourne club. He first represented Victoria against Tasmania over Christmas 1931 and made his Sheffield Shield debut against South Australia in the following year. His first Test was against South Africa at Durban in 1935, and he went on to play ten Tests, touring South Africa once and England twice (1934 and 1938). He had also participated in a private, non first-class tour of North America in 1932, capturing 249 wickets at 8 apiece.

In Shield cricket for Victoria, Fleetwood-Smith took 246 wickets at 24.6, returning some remarkable analyses, including 15 for 226 against a strong New South Wales side in 1935, and 7 for 17 and 8 for 79 against Queensland in 1936. He took 597 wickets at 22.6 in all first-class cricket. In Test matches he took 42 at 37.4, including 10 for 239 against England at Adelaide in 1937, and, on the other side of the ledger, 1 for 298 in 87 overs at The Oval in 1938, having had (Sir) Leonard Hutton (364) missed at 40.

A left-armer who bowled off-breaks as well as his natural leg-break, he had extraordinary powers of spin, strengthening his arm and hand by squeezing a squash ball. His capacity to bowl the unplayable ball, with one of which he dismissed Walter Hammond—so often his destroyer—at Adelaide in 1937 (effectively to retain the Ashes for Australia), was unmatched in an era of great Australian spin bowlers. Unfortunately, his concentration sometimes strayed, and not only when bowling. Fielding, he would give vent to eldritch whoops and bird-call imitations, and practised golf strokes. Batting, he would often ignore his side's or his partner's needs.

Fleetwood-Smith was handsome, wore a moustache and had thick, oiled black hair; he successfully pursued (and was equally successfully pursued by) many women. At St Mary's Catholic Church, East St Kilda, on 28 February 1935 he had married Mary Gertrude, daughter of H. C. Elliott, a prosperous soft-drink manufacturer and Melbourne alderman. Cited as co-respondent in a divorce case in June 1946, Fleetwood-Smith was divorced by his wife in May 1947. On 9 July 1948 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, he married a milliner Beatrix Maie Collins (who was not involved in either case).

Having enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 28 May 1940, Fleetwood-Smith was promoted warrant officer and served briefly at the Physical and Recreational Training School, Frankston, before being discharged on medical grounds on 4 February 1941. Following a final club season in 1945-46, he retired from cricket. His cricketing occupation gone, and his position as a salesman with his father-in-law's firm lost, he began to drink more heavily, sustaining his habit by short-lived jobs, cadging, and, eventually, theft, for which he was charged—together with vagrancy—in Melbourne in March 1969. He was by then living and sleeping in the derelicts' community on the banks of the Yarra River. The charge of theft was dropped, that of vagrancy adjourned for a year. Old friends, colleagues, and admirers, among them Sir Robert Menzies and Sir Henry Bolte, aghast at his circumstances, subscribed funds for his rehabilitation. He gave up drinking, was reconciled with his wife and obtained more regular employment. But the years of dissipation had wrecked his health. He died of cancer on 16 March 1971 at Fitzroy and was cremated. His wife survived him; there were no children.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Pollard, Australian Cricket (Syd, 1982)
  • G. Growden, A Wayward Genius (Syd, 1991)
  • Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, 1972.

Citation details

W. F. Mandle, 'Fleetwood-Smith, Leslie O'Brien (1908–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fleetwood-smith-leslie-obrien-10200/text18025, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Leslie O'Brien Fleetwood-Smith (1908-1971), by unknown artist, 1934

Leslie O'Brien Fleetwood-Smith (1908-1971), by unknown artist, 1934

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24679823 [detail]