John Bannon: A Man for All Seasons

Daniel Brettig, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, 16 December 2015, where the title isThe multifaceted life of John Bannon”

Bannon 1 Bannon would often surprise and delight with self-deprecating references to his former career as a politician © Getty Images

A friend tells a story about a conversation with John Bannon, in which the topic turned to running. This friend had endured a few Sydney “City2Surf” fun runs and was relating his struggles to cover the 14km distance. After listening patiently to these lamentations, Bannon said simply, “Yes, I used to do a bit of running myself.” Try 28 Adelaide Marathons, 11 in which he completed the journey in less than three hours, most of these while he was also occupied by the all-consuming job as premier and treasurer of South Australia. In building a new and meaningful life after politics, Bannon would often surprise and delight with self-deprecating references to his former career. As Mark Kenny has written: “Bannon was actually a giant in Australian politics… It’s just he never said so

Cricket had always been a major passion of Bannon’s, and his leg-breaks are remembered fondly by fellow members of the St Peter’s Old Collegians cricket club in the Adelaide Turf Competition. But it was in his later years – even after a cancer diagnosis in 2007 – that Bannon made his greatest mark on the game. All those years in politics, and the traumatic experiences of his final term as premier amid the collapse of the State Bank, were brought to the service of Australian cricket via the boards of Cricket Australia and the South Australian Cricket Association. Bannon knew a thing or two, and while he would never impose his opinions, he added greatly to the knowledge and expertise of other administrators around him.

Bannon also served as Master of St Mark’s residential college, where young students and older dinner guests alike discovered his gifts as an orator, comedian and mimic

One such lesson was about the importance of personal relationships in making and keeping deals for major events. Bannon was the man who brought the Formula One Grand Prix to Australia when he reacted most favourably to the entreaties of the F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone in the early 1980s. Labor premiers John Cain in Victoria and Nevill Wran in New South Wales had hesitated, and it was the young first-termer Bannon who built a rapport with Ecclestone that intertwined the race’s status with his premiership.

Ecclestone met Bannon at the Star Pub in Chessington, Surrey, where they mapped out a deal. Back then, Adelaide was a major beneficiary, being opened up to the world without paying anything like the race fees F1 now demands of host cities. Ecclestone, at the time recently installed as F1 chief after having worked as the team principal for Brabham, was grateful to form the alliance in a part of the world new to the sport.

“John Bannon saw the advantage of advertising Adelaide to the rest of the world and took advantage of it,” Ron Walker, the former Australian Grand Prix chairman told Fairfax Media earlier this year. “They had it for ten good years. But Bernie had always said to him, ‘You can have this race for as long as you stay in office. The moment you lose an election or you retire, the race goes somewhere else.'”

So it was that a change in government brought a change in the race venue, from Adelaide to Melbourne. Ecclestone tried to have Bannon sign a new contract for the race to extend its South Australian tenure, but by then Bannon was occupied by the weightier and messier business of the State Bank.

This throws up another Bannon learning that SACA and CA board directors benefited from – the importance of personal responsibility and accountability.

Bannon (far right) with former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke (far left) and fellow state premiers in 1989 © Getty Images

Bannon paid a heavy price, taking the blame for the failure of the bank upon himself at a time when many others in positions of more direct import to the bank’s fortunes chose to sidestep the brickbats. In a heated moment on ABC radio in Adelaide during the worst of the fallout, Bannon’s former university colleague Keith Conlon exclaimed, “Some bastard’s got to wear this.” Bannon replied, “I am the bastard… and I am wearing it!” His departure from politics was unhappy but also honourable.

Later, in an interview with the Adelaide University magazine On Dit, a publication he had once edited himself, he thought aloud about what was next: “Just how I fit in. I don’t know at this stage. I’ve just got to let that work through.” During his period of reflection, Bannon took in the 1994 Australian Test tour of South Africa, the first visit of the national team to that part of the world since the end of apartheid. In addition to never missing the Adelaide Test, he was a frequent attendee at overseas matches.

Bannon chose to pivot into academia, penning a biography of former South Australia premier Sir John Downer, called Supreme Federalist, and devoting much of his time to the service of history. He also served as Master of St Mark’s residential college in North Adelaide, where young students and older dinner guests alike discovered his gifts as an orator, comedian and even a mimic: Churchill and Hitler were two particularly memorable turns.

Wooed by the patrician Ian McLachlan to join the SACA board in 2001, Bannon was soon adding his intellect to cricket board discussion. Perhaps because he found himself playing a central role in so much of it, he was enduringly committed to ensuring the lessons of history were not allowed to fade away. During the CA governance debate, Bannon’s position was staunchly federalist but not without room to manoeuvre. He related later that he had always been in favour of the board’s reduction from 14 directors to nine, and that SA’s “undue” representation was fair game to be cut back.

Cricket had always been a major passion of Bannon’s, and his legbreaks are remembered fondly by fellow members of the St Peter’s Old Collegians cricket club in the Adelaide Turf Competition

But he baulked at the total separation of board members from states, out of the well-founded fear that it would cause the interests of the largest centres to be heard most frequently to the exclusion of others, and out of scepticism that the board would become a tool of CA management, not the other way around. He was gratified when a compromise was brokered to ensure the board had to include at least one director from each state: proudly, he was South Australia’s.

The former chairman Wally Edwards said of Bannon: “He was a great contributor to the board. He had a sense of history and a great love of cricket. He kept us fellow board directors honest to the traditions of the game and the administration of the game.”

I first met Bannon at the ITC Gardenia Hotel in Bangalore during Australia’s 2010 Test tour. His expression broadened into a grin when I mentioned my South Australian heritage, though it became a little wrier when I added that I had started my journalism career at the Advertiser. We crossed paths regularly over the next few years; it was a happy coincidence that a first invitation to the LBW Trust chairman Darshak Mehta’s SCG Test dinner coincided with his delivery of its keynote address. His passion that night was palpable.

Partly due to his words about the importance of history at that gathering, I contacted him directly with a problem I had heard about, to do with CA’s archives. Following the publication in 2007 of the board history Inside Story, written by Gideon Haigh and David Frith, requests by others to peruse certain records had been declined on the basis they could not be located. Further investigations suggested that, after the book’s publication, many had been marked “D” for destroyed.

Bannon was instrumental in bringing the Formula One Grand Prix to Australia. It kicked off in the 1980s in Adelaide, before moving to Melbourne © Getty Images

To Bannon, such a loss of history was anathema, and after we discussed it over coffee at the Art Gallery of South Australia in January last year, he promised to do all he could. The result was a board paper put together by Bannon and the former head of public affairs Peter Young that raised the issue and suggested means by which the collective memory of CA and the states might be organised and preserved.

Later in the year he travelled to Scotland as a constitutional historian to observe and write about the independence referendum. At the same time he was also working on the SACA’s collection of artefacts and plans for a museum.

“The aim is for the creation of a dedicated building or space for the SACA museum, perhaps combined with a cricket library or clubroom,” he said earlier this year. “It’s a big project and involves a lot of work, but it is very important it is done correctly. It must be located where members and the public can have easy access to it, and have enough space to do justice to our ever-growing collection. It is something I want to devote more time and energy to in my remaining term on the board.”

We stayed in touch, and when I had the misfortune of being mugged in Dominica, he was prompt in writing an email to convey his hope that I was on the mend, adding: “There IS action on the archives matters we discussed – I haven’t stopped prodding…” As a result of the said prodding, a search of Melbourne located the CA archival material at several off-site locations dotted around the city, and they are now the subject of work by Young and Haigh that will ensure they are not allowed to fall into obscurity, disrepair and destruction.

At that stage Bannon was still hopeful of making the trip to England for an Ashes Test or two. When I asked a few weeks later about his movements, I got a typically understated indication of the health issues that had been his near constant companions since 2007: he would be unable to make the trip. He did, however, offer a prescient observation ahead of Edgbaston. “Third Test will be the indicator of what are the actual strengths of the teams; forget about ‘doctored’ wickets, each side plays on the same strip and should be able to adapt.”

That would turn out to be the story of the 2015 Ashes in a nutshell.

Without fanfare, Bannon had offered his wisdom freely and well in advance of events, an experience shared by many whose lives he enriched.

Australian cricket is immeasurably poorer for his loss, and it is up to those who knew him to ensure his many learnings about history, cricket and life are not forgotten.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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One response to “John Bannon: A Man for All Seasons

  1. A Comment from Wilf Prest, Professor Emeritus in History and Law, Uni-Adelaide: ….Thanks very much Michael. He really was a great man – the sort of person you come across maybe once in a lifetime, if you are lucky. I feel very grateful to have known him.


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