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In winning two Tests and repeating the feat by W. R. Hammond's side of going unbeaten through the tour in South Africa ten years before, the 1948-49 M.C.C. team captained by F. G. Mann raised considerable hopes at home that the road leading towards recovery in English post-war cricket had been reached. Possibly this in some measure accounted for the disappointment felt in many quarters at England's subsequent inability to defeat New Zealand, previously regarded as the weakest of her Test opponents.
It is well, therefore, to show the achievements in South Africa in their true perspective. This can be attempted without belittling any individuals or minimising the effects of splendid team spirit and concentrated determination which I saw throughout the tour. Much less than justice would have been done if England had not won the rubber. In all five Tests clearly they were the superior team. Yet the victory that was theirs in the breath-taking drama of the First Test at Durban could have gone so easily to South Africa.
More important still, the last few thrilling minutes there influenced not only the result of the rubber but the strategies adopted in the remaining games. As a result of this win, England, one up in the series, could afford to take chances when it suited their purpose, but upon Nourse, South Africa's captain, fell the onus of trying to regain lost ground.
Through a combination of factors such as England's accurate bowling and fielding, timid batting by some of his own men and repeated South African fielding errors, Nourse at no time held the initiative. So, in a sink-or-swim plunge, he gambled in the last Test. South Africa were safe from defeat until Nourse declared, and, amidst excitement nearly as great as at Durban, England scrambled to a second victory. The margin was so small that once again the result was precariously in the balance till the winning hit. With a shade more luck South Africa would have triumphed.
Thus, instead of being one or even two down in the rubber as might have been their misfortune, England finished two up. On paper also results in other matches looked satisfactory but, in fact, outside the Tests, only one victory--against Cape Province--was gained over a team which could be imagined as strong enough to hold a place in the first half of the English County Table. Keen as undoubtedly they are, few cricketers outside the three or four big centres in South Africa receive enough practice against the best opposition to enable them to reach top class. The scattered population and the tremendous distances they have to travel are distinct handicaps to advancement. One enthusiastic club cricketer, for instance, travels 200 miles each way for his weekly Saturday game.
For all the narrowness of their Test victories and the low standard of some of the opposition in other games, Mann's team deserved every congratulation. They sailed without two of England's leading amateurs, N. W. D. Yardley and W. J. Edrich, who were not available. They carried painful memories of the Australian tornado at The Oval a few weeks earlier. They conceded 386 runs, took only four wickets, and fielded poorly on the first day of the tour. That, indeed, was a discouraging start, but to their credit the side pulled themselves together immediately.
Spurred to heights of unimagined excellence by the infectious enthusiasm of the captain, every man, for the rest of the tour, fielded superbly. Thereafter, only in slip catching was there any decline from fielding as good as could be remembered for many years. Lapses in the slips largely could be excused through the eye-strain and difficulties of concentration brought about by such burning heat and intense glare as existed in nearly every match. In turn, the improved fielding affected the bowling. On few future occasions during the tour was this other than steady and accurate, and, although without a bowler of top pace capable of running through the opposition, the attack was never collared. Consistency of length, direction and bowling to the field brought deserved reward.
Stress must be laid on the fact that in no small degree the bowlers were assisted by the strokeless nature of so many South African batsmen. This was particularly so in all five Tests, when a creeping paralysis of defence seemed to settle upon some of them. Even on the perfect pitch at Johannesburg, and in the rarefied atmosphere 6,000 feet above sea level in which the new ball rarely swung, a medium-paced bowler like Gladwin was treated with remarkable respect. At times the tactics adopted by South Africa were little short of astonishing.
Twice, in the Third and Fourth Tests, they made no effort at tasks which, in view of the excellence of the conditions, the moderate quality of England's bowling and their own position in the series, they were expected to attempt, at least for a time. Yet these signs of little self-confidence were dwarfed by the first day of the Fifth Test, when, with everything in their favour, South Africa scored no more than 219 runs for three wickets. Seldom was boldness demanded more. True, South Africa usually were fighting to recover from a bad start--until the last innings of the Fifth Test their highest opening stand was 58, and five times Nourse, at number four, went in before the total reached 50--but too much of the batting lacked imagination. Nourse and Wade were gallant exceptions. More willingness by the Selectors to try younger stroke-making players of the Fullerton type, instead of more experienced but less enterprising batsmen conceivably might have produced better results. The Selectors, though, faced an unenviable problem. The absence from four matches of Melville, a vital member of the nucleus upon which they hoped to rebuild their side, the indifferent form of so many of the batsmen who should have profited from the tour to England in 1947, and the apparent reluctance of some State and Province Selectors to give youth its chance were some of their handicaps.
On the easy-paced pitches, mostly made from Umgeni soil and nearly bare of grass, upon which the majority of games were played, England's leading batsmen took their expected toll of runs.
Although not at his brilliant best in the Tests, Compton played a number of spectacular innings, particularly when making 300 in 181 minutes at Benoni. His 1,781 runs and eight centuries established records for a season of first-class cricket in South Africa and he attracted large crowds wherever he went. Well as Compton played, from the viewpoint of technical perfection he was second to Hutton, who strode from triumph to triumph until towards the end of the tour when fatigue lessened his powers. Hutton's driving aroused the greatest admiration, but all his strokes were stamped with the hallmark of class. Though England's other regular opening batsman, Washbrook, showed more lenience towards some of the weaker bowling sides, on the big occasions he was very accomplished. Record after record disappeared on the first day of the First Test, staged on the new Ellis Park ground at Johannesburg, where Hutton and Washbrook scored 359 for the opening stand. This was the highest first-wicket stand in Test cricket.
So often did Hutton, Washbrook and Compton break the back of the bowling that some of the other batsmen were not tested fully, but whenever a crisis occurred one at least of the remainder stepped into the breach. Crapp, Simpson, Mann, Jenkins and Watkins all played notable rescue innings, but it could not be said that any of the batsmen apart from the big three returned home with established right to a regular place in the England side. Against fast and medium-fast, but not always against spin bowling, Simpson was completely at ease and showed most promise; Crapp possessed the virtue of consistency and solidarity; but Watkins, in spite of his two big Test innings, was not reliable. Still, he gave hopes of a bright future. His fielding alone made him worthy of his Test selections. Fortune did not favour Palmer. He was out of form and out of luck at the start of the tour, and when he did begin to show his proper worth the Test batting was too well established to allow any changes.
For Mann's fighting century which pulled England out of danger in the Fifth Test no praise could be too high. Granting that, and allowing also the number of times he threw away his wicket in the chase for runs, he did not stand out as the middle batsman for whom England were looking to make big scores consistently in Test cricket. As a captain he was ideal, zealous to a degree, and considerate in all things at all times.
Chief cause for satisfaction was to be found in the rapid advance of Jenkins as a leg-break and googly bowler. Always ready to take advice and learn from the experience of himself and of others, Jenkins quickly found the weakness of many South African batsmen against high-flighted and varied spin bowling. He owned much to the intelligent captaincy designed specially to give him the confidence he needed at the start of the tour and to the tactics which, following his repeated success in minor games, kept him away from South Africa's leading batsmen till the First Test. Jenkins came back to England a fifty per cent better bowler than when he was called upon as a last-minute substitute for Hollies. Live-wire fielding and dogged batting made him a very valuable all-rounder.
In gaining so many swift inroads into the opposition batting, England were indebted largely to Alec Bedser, who always was the most likely bowler to dismiss the best batsmen. All but five of his wickets in first-class matches were those of men in the upper half of the order. That the majority of the chances missed in the slips were off him must have been galling, and certainly the tour analyses gave no indication of his worth.
With the ball losing its shine after two or three overs and green pitches a rarity, Gladwin, like Bedser, seldom found conditions to suit his medium-paced bowling, but he performed yeoman work as a stock bowler and developed a leg-cutter which increased his effectiveness. After early periods of uncertain length, brought about no doubt by the limited amount of bowling he was given, Young dropped into his length, but throughout the tour Tremlett and Wright struggled to find their form. Tremlett's lack of direction and Wright's fight against an increasing tendency to bowl no-balls were problems affecting both themselves and their captain. In a country where opportunities for practice other than in matches were almost negligible, the two men were denied the opportunity of long spells of net bowling which might have enable them to work out their own solutions. Tremlett did better as a batsman than as a bowler. England felt the need of a good off-spin bowler like A. Rowan, who, with the 19-year-old fast bowler McCarthy and the immaculate length left-arm slows of N. Mann, made South Africa the stronger bowling side in the Tests.
In preferring Griffith, the vice-captain, to Evans in the last two Tests, the team selectors ended a record sequence of twenty-two consecutive appearances for a wicket-keeper. Griffith deserved his opportunity after steady but unspectacular work in all matches, and he kept very well in his two Tests.
Wherever they went on their 10,000 miles tour from the Cape to Victoria Falls and back, M.C.C. attracted unprecedented crowds for cricket in South Africa. Receipts reached over £90,000. Off the field they were as much a team as on it. For that they were helped in no small way by the understanding management of Brigadier M. A. Green, the Worcestershire secretary, who spared nothing for their welfare.
Matches--Played 23, Won 11, Lost 0, Drawn 12
Matches--Played 5, Won 2, Drawn 3
Match reports for
Western Province v Marylebone Cricket Club at Cape Town, Oct 29-Nov 1, 1948
Cape Province v Marylebone Cricket Club at Cape Town, Nov 6-9, 1948
Griqualand West v Marylebone Cricket Club at Kimberley, Nov 13-16, 1948
Orange Free State v Marylebone Cricket Club at Bloemfontein, Nov 19-22, 1948
Natal v Marylebone Cricket Club at Durban, Nov 26-29, 1948
North Eastern Transvaal v Marylebone Cricket Club at Benoni, Dec 3-4, 1948
Transvaal v Marylebone Cricket Club at Johannesburg, Dec 10-13, 1948
Eastern Province v Marylebone Cricket Club at Port Elizabeth, Jan 8-11, 1949
Border v Marylebone Cricket Club at East London, Jan 15-18, 1949
Transvaal v Marylebone Cricket Club at Johannesburg, Jan 21-24, 1949
Rhodesia v Marylebone Cricket Club at Bulawayo, Jan 29-Feb 1, 1949
Rhodesia v Marylebone Cricket Club at Harare, Feb 4-7, 1949
Natal XI v Marylebone Cricket Club at Pietermaritzburg, Feb 19-22, 1949
Natal v Marylebone Cricket Club at Durban, Feb 25-28, 1949
South African Universities v Marylebone Cricket Club at Cape Town, Mar 12-15, 1949