January 13, 2016

Remembering the 1906 Wanderers thriller

Nearly 110 years ago, South Africa held their nerve in a one-wicket nail-biter against England to secure their first ever Test win

Dave Nourse finished with an unbeaten 93 to see South Africa through when all seemed lost © PA Photos

It was almost exactly 12 years after the first ever Test that South Africa played their first Test. Their geographical location was a main reason for their inclusion as the official third international team - the shipping route from England and Australia made it logical for touring parties to stop over in South Africa to practise. As a result, South Africa ended up playing their first 16 Tests at home, an advantage no other Test nation has even come close to matching.

It was not until 1906 that South Africa managed their first Test victory, an exciting one-wicket win over England in Johannesburg, and this close result was a major catalyst for the home team to win the series. While there can always be arguments made about whether early English sides were composed of the best possible players, the 1905-06 English touring team did have some genuinely good cricketers. Captain Pelham "Plum" Warner was a fine batsman, on top of his recognised diplomatic skills, and the bowling attack was led by the left-arm spinner Colin Blythe. Nonetheless, the side bore no resemblance to the team for the Ashes summer, with players of the ilk of Archie MacLaren, Ernest Tyldesley, CB Fry, Stanley Jackson, George Hirst and Wilfred Rhodes all missing. In fact, not one member of the side from the fifth Test against Australia at The Oval remained.

Still, England initially thought they had little to fear. They had dominated the previous eight Tests between the two nations, beating South Africa by an innings in four matches and well over 200 runs in another two. The early signs were not good for the tourists, though. They lost one of their warm-up matches against Transvaal by 60 runs.

It is commonplace now to associate South African bowling attacks with fearsome pace. From the days of Heine and Adcock in the 1950s, through Peter Pollock and Procter in the '70s, and more recently Donald, Steyn, Ntini and Shaun Pollock, South Africa have unearthed a large number of wonderful fast bowlers. However, great spinners have not been as common in the past 60 years. Hugh Tayfield, who played his last Test in 1960, remains the most potent of South Africa's post-war spinners.

In 1905-06, though, South Africa had an exceptionally strong four-man spin-bowling line-up, and all of them were legspinners. It was two of these leggies, Reggie Schwarz and Aubrey Faulkner, who starred for Transvaal against England, taking nine and six wickets respectively in the match with a bewildering mix of legspin and "boseys".

The bosey (or googly or wrong'un) was still relatively new. The man credited with its invention, Bernard Bosanquet, had only started bowling it in first-class cricket in 1900, and it wasn't until 1903 that the potential of the delivery had started to come to wide attention. Schwarz, who emigrated to South Africa in late 1901, had played with Bosanquet for Middlesex. Eligibility criteria were somewhat easier in those days, and in 1904 Schwarz was quickly chosen to represent his adopted nation when on a tour of his old homeland, in matches that weren't awarded Test status. Schwarz renewed his friendship with Bosanquet, and started to experiment with bowling a combination of normal legspin with this new mystery ball to great effect.

Pelham Warner returned to England with his side thumped 4-1 © PA Photos

Schwarz finished the 1904 tour as South Africa's leading slow bowler, with 65 wickets at 18.26, and upon his return immediately set about teaching his team-mates Faulkner, Ernie Vogler and Gordon White how to bowl the bosey. All four very quickly incorporated this new skill into their bowling, and the South Africa selectors subsequently picked all of them to debut in the first Test in Johannesburg in January 1906. In the early days of Test cricket, six debutants in a match for South Africa was not unusual. However, it was surprising to see that this number included the captain, Percy Sherwell, a specialist wicketkeeper who opted to bat at No. 11 in both innings.

It was a "matting" pitch and not the standard turf that was commonplace in England and Australia. While matting pitches are often hard to bat on and tend to favour spinners and cutters, they do remain consistent across the entire game.

Warner won the toss for the tourists and chose to bat first. Sherwell chose to open the bowling with the dual legspin attack of Schwarz and Faulkner. This approach was immediately successful, as England slumped to 15 for 3. A brief middle-order recovery followed, thanks to Teddy Wynard (29), Ernie Hayes (20) and Jack Crawford (44) but England were dismissed well inside the first day for 184. Eight of the 10 wickets fell to the legspin attack of Schwarz, Faulkner, Vogler and White; medium-pacer Jimmy Sinclair took the other two.

While the score of 184 appeared to be well below par, the perception quickly changed as South Africa finished the first day at 71 for 8. Walter Lees took 5 for 34 for England, while Dave Nourse's undefeated 18 off 75 balls in the total of 91 showed his determination to battle it out in tough conditions.

The pitch was not conducive to high scores on day two either, with the tourists only managing 190 in their second innings. The legspin of Faulkner (4 for 26) and Vogler (2 for 24) was again to the fore, but this time they were supported by the medium-pace of allrounders Nourse and Tip Snooke, who took two wickets each.

This left South Africa with the tall order of scoring 284 to win, a total nearly 100 more than England had managed in either attempt, and nearly 200 more than South Africa had achieved in their own first innings.

It looked a long way off at 22 for 2, and later 105 for 6, but they kept fighting. The key partnership was between White and the backbone of South Africa's first innings, Nourse. They added 121, taking the score through to 226 before White finally fell for a wonderful 81. South Africa still needed another 58, with only three wickets left. The target looked virtually impossible when the next two wickets followed quickly, and Sherwell joined Nourse at 239 for 9. The final pair still needed 45. To put this into context, only one of South Africa's previous 19 partnerships had passed 50.

Nourse continued his dogged occupation of the crease, and in front of an excited crowd, they calmly inched towards the target. A three from Nourse off medium-pacer Albert Relf took his own score to 93 and brought the scores level. Sherwell then finished the match a few balls later by hitting Relf for a boundary.

While this partnership has since been trumped by Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mushtaq Ahmed when they put on 57 against Australia in 1994, it set the record for the highest tenth-wicket partnership to win a Test.

South Africa had not just secured a highly unlikely victory, they had done so under difficult circumstances and had overcome any doubts about their ability to defeat England. South Africa built upon this confidence by quickly winning the second and third Tests as well. They narrowly lost the fourth, before winning the final Test by an innings and 16 runs.

They had won their first Test, their first series, and the emergence of their four-pronged legspin attack helped them compete with England and Australia for the first time.

Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow

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