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Abe Bailey

'So much done, so little to do'

Gideon Haigh looks at the remarkable Abe Bailey, the man responsible for the ICC

Gideon Haigh

September 12, 2006

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Sir Abe Bailey © Cricinfo
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"So little done, so much to do." The last words of Cecil Rhodes' crowded life remain a popular injunction to action and commitment; to few can they have meant so much as his protégé, Abe Bailey.

Bailey's first action on Rhodes' death in 1902 was to buy the plutocrat's Rhodesian ranch, Rhodesdale. He consummated his devotion by naming his first born Cecil, which doesn't seem so remarkable until you realise that she was his daughter; his second born took Rhodes's second name, John. Bailey's public hankering to emulate his mentor was so pronounced that Vanity Fair, limning him as a 'Man of the Day' almost a century ago, succinctly captioned 'Spy's' portrait 'Rhodes the Second': the subject did not demur. The profile was replete with prophesies - mostly grandiose and unfulfilled, like forecasts that Rhodesia would "become the great state in South Africa", and the Karoo "the garden of South Africa". His chief legacy, it turned out, was then in the making, even if it seemed at the time one of his least accomplishments: the Imperial Cricket Conference, forerunner to the International Cricket Council.

For Bailey belongs in that long tradition of wealthy cricket patrons, beginning with the Dukes of Cumberland and Richmond, and extending from nobs like Lord Sheffield and Baron Plunkett to serious businessmen like Sir Arthur Sims and Sir Julien Cahn, with modern equivalents in Sir Ron Brierley and J. Paul Getty, who more than make up for playing deficiencies by apparently endless enthusiasm and bottomless moneybags. The stern, shrewd, acquisitive Bailey was kept busy by much besides his mining and pastoral empire: he played polo; he spent lavishly on bloodstock; he became a vigneron; he owned the Rand Daily Mail. But nothing obsessed him like cricket - he seemed to feel he owed it something, and perhaps he did.

Several versions exist of how Bailey, a merchant in Queenstown who had made and lost a fortune by the time he was twenty-one, was rescued by a cricket exploit after his business exploits turned sour. Walter Hammond, who like Sir Pelham Warner was on several occasions his guest in South Africa, retells in Cricketers' School (1948):

"He made some money, lost it, and got into rather low water. Then he heard of openings for adventurers in Australia, and bought a ticket to sail from Cape Town for the Southern Continent. That ticket took the very last of his money. Just before his ship was due to leave, Bailey agreed to play in a cricket match in Cape Town. He was the best bat in the side and knocked up a sparkling 114. An onlooker who had won a number of side bets on the result of the match was so delighted that he went round to the team's dressing room and presented young Bailey was a cheque for £100 as a reward for pulling the match out of the fire. A hundred pounds was power to Abe Bailey and he immediately cancelled his passage to Australia, invested his £100 in some land on the Rand, sold the land shortly afterwards at a big profit, and began again to amass that elusive fortune. This time he succeeded... Sir Abe Bailey never forgot that amazing turn of fortune, whereby a century scored in a chance match in Cape Town set his feet on the royal road to millionairedom."

Once his own modest playing days were ended, Bailey set himself to repaying the debt many times over. While watching the English XI under Major Warton demolish a Johannesburg XXII in January 1889, Bailey commented tersely to Bernard Tancred, the best South African batsman of the era: "We must set ourselves to beat the Englishmen on equal terms." That they did, and little over 15 years later, was due in no small part to Bailey's deep-pocketed benefaction of Transvaal cricket, from recruiting George Lohmann as coach, to his employment as personal secretary of Springbok captain Frank Mitchell. It was only Bailey's bankroll, for instance, that lured Australia to South Africa in October 1902; likewise was the national team's successful visit to England eighteen months later underwritten, at considerable expense, by a Bailey guarantee.

These indulgences were shoehorned, often improbably, into a life devoted to commerce, where he became the most daring of mining speculators, and nationalism, where he was a politician of dubious instincts, rather too susceptible to public opinion. As captain of the first touring team Bailey financed, for instance, Lord Hawke arrived in Johannesburg in January 1896 to be told: "Mr Bailey is not here. He is in jail." As indeed he was, having like the other members of the Reform Committee been taken into custody for their succour of the Jameson Raid. Bailey's work involved some improbable expenditures, for he was famed for thrift to the point of meanness. "It can be truly said that there never was a Christian who deserved to be an Israelite more than the Queenstown lad," said rival speculator Louis Cohen, "whose snub nose should have been a hooked one of alarming proportions".

It also entailed some improbable commitments, such as Bailey's advocacy of the inclusion of the coloured fast bowler Krom Hendriks for South Africa's first tour of England, and his promotion of the coloured all-rounder Buck Llewellyn as coach at the Wanderers Club. These stances were particularly unlikely, given that Bailey was otherwise the basest of racists, crudely derogatory of blacks ("I am for the white race being on top of the black"), Indians and Chinese ("The Asiatics were the white ants of South Africa, destroying the foundations of our institutions and the roots of the livelihood of the white race").

But for Bailey, promotion of South African cricket was a cause with its own rules and parameters, and the excuse for a gaiety rather absent from the rest of his life. "He would always discuss cricket with the most delightful glee," recalled Hammond of his quondam host, "and with almost professional knowledge. I believe he studied reports of every ball that was bowled and every stroke that was made in Tests in which South Africa was involved, and he had amazing memory."

The impetus for the ICC was South Africa's unexpected 4-1 home triumph against MCC just over a century ago, masterminded by its googly quartet - two of whom, Reggie Schwarz and Ernie Vogler, were actually on Bailey's personal payroll. Bailey seized on the breakthrough to begin agitating for a tri-cornered summer of cricket in England involving the hosts, Australia and South Africa. When Australia proved disinclined to share the limelight and the gate, he urged the South African Cricket Association's meeting of March 1908 to "press for the creation of the Imperial Board of Control as soon as possible": the association's English envoy Ted Wynyard, also employed at Bailey's expense, was duly instructed "to urge the formation" of an Imperial Board "by all means within his power". And when it finally met for the first time , on June 15, 1909, with a further meeting on July 20, 1909, the upshot was a long-term commitment to a Triangular Tournament three years hence.

In the interim, however, time did not deal kindly with the effective team South Africa had assembled. Routed 1-4 in Australia in 1910-11, they were a fading force by the time 1912 rolled around. Bailey contributed a gushy chapter to the lavish panorama Imperial Cricket (1912) that Plum Warner edited to mark the tournament, but otherwise kept his own counsel as South Africa lost five of its six Tests in a dank summer barely worth the name. The Australian Board of Control indulged in some gratuitous I-told-you-so-ing in its annual report: "The Triangular scheme proved, as was anticipated, a failure, and as it cannot possibly be carried out in Australia or Africa, will doubtless not be heard of again for many years to come". But if triangular cricket was off the agenda until rediscovered by another plutocrat of less philanthropic bent, Kerry Packer, the ICC endured, even if it is fair to say that it never again made the mistake of being too ahead of its time.

From 1912, Bailey was increasingly resident in England, either at his rural seat in Surrey, or a city mansion in Bryanston Avenue, where Winston Churchill was a frequent visitor: one of Bailey's sons later married one of Churchill's daughters. He was newly a KCMG, and recently remarried, almost a decade after the death of his first wife, to Mary Westerna, 20-year-old daughter of the notorious Anglo-Irish rake Baron Rossmore. Their union yielded five children but Sir Abe was a distant, distracted husband, and Lady Bailey after the war took flying lessons in secret to obtain licence and to "get away from prams". In March 1928 she informed Sir Abe that "I have felt the need for a change of scene and interest lately" and promptly flew solo from Croydon to Cape Town, then back. When her record for the journey was broken, she retrieved it, her husband indulging her with equal generosity, if somewhat greater bemusement, than South African cricket.

By the 1930s, Lady Bailey's fame probably eclipsed her husband's: she was an aviatrix to rank with Amy Johnson, Louise Thaden and Lorres Bonny. At Sir Abe's death in August 1940, aged 75, the world was very different from that in his mentor's day; a newly-formed political force, the Herenigde National Party, would within 20 years have severed South Africa's imperial ties altogether. The old man had not, in fact, become Rhodes the Second. Though rich beyond the dreams of Avarice, he had left no mark on politics, little on society, little on the culture. Bailey's own last words might well have been: "So much done, so little to do." His sixth child and third son James Richard Abe, born in October 1919, would be more relevant to South Africa's future, returning from a career as a wartime pilot to the scarcely less hazardous role of founding proprietor of Drum, the first South African magazine of significance to give a voice to black journalists. At least in cricket, though, Sir Abe Bailey's ambitions had fructified: from this little, much more would flow.

Note
For assistance with this article, I am indebted to Professor Bruce Murray of the University of Witwatersrand, who shared with me his chapter on Bailey in a forthcoming collection on cricket and imperialism, to be edited by Jonty Winch. I can also heartily recommend Bruce's collaboration with Christopher Merritt, Caught Behind: Race and Politics in Springbok Cricket (2004).

This is the last Odd Men In, at least for the time being, as I'm taking the phone off the hook in order to attend to a book. See you at the Ashes.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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Gideon Haigh Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.
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