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The ignorant internationals

A look back to a Test series where some of those taking part never knew they had become international cricketers

Martin Williamson

November 28, 2009

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The first MCC side to tour South Africa under the management of Major Wharton  1888-89. Standing: BAF Grieve, AC Skinner, AJ Fothergill, JM Read, R Abel. Sitting: CA Smith, Major Warton, The Hon. CJ Coventry, JEP McMaster, MP Bowden. Front:  JH Roberts, H Wood. Insets: J. Briggs, G Ulyett, F Hearne.
The first MCC side to tour South Africa under the management of Major Warton 1888-89. Standing: BAF Grieve, AC Skinner, AJ Fothergill, JM Read, R Abel. Sitting: CA Smith, Major Warton, The Hon. CJ Coventry, JEP McMaster, MP Bowden. Front: JH Roberts, H Wood. Insets: J. Briggs, G Ulyett, F Hearne. © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The seeds of cricket were sown across the world in the 19th century as the British Empire expanded, with settlers, civil servants and the military taking the game abroad with them and gradually, often reluctantly, allowing the native population to join in.

In southern Africa the first reference to the game was in 1808, and by the middle of the century it had spread from its early base in the Cape and had even permeated areas traditionally associated with Afrikaners, not naturally a cricket-playing people.

One army officer who was based in the Cape was Captain Gardner Warton. He joined the general staff in 1883 and became a member of the established Western Province Cricket Club, which was captained by William Milton.

In 1888, Warton, by then a major, returned to England. Before he left Africa he hatched a plan to raise an English team to tour the Cape. After a summer of activity, Warton announced he had a side, and his squad set sail on the SS Garth Castle on November 21.

The side was judged to be of about average county strength, although for three amateurs - the Hon Charles Coventry, Basil Grieve and Emile McMaster - their Test appearances on the tour constituted their entire first-class career and only seven of the others could be considered county regulars. The captain was Charles Aubrey Smith, a decent medium-pacer from Sussex.

They brought with them a cup donated by Sir Donald Currie, the ship's owner, to be presented to the side "which excels the most against the visitors". That turned out to be Kimberley, who in turn decided the trophy should be played for by other teams. The Currie Cup was to become South Africa's major domestic trophy.

Aubrey Smith's party arrived to a warm reception in Cape Town on December 14, and a week later took the field for their first match against XXII of Western Province. It was customary in those days for a touring XI to take on teams made up of up to twice as many players, such was the perceived gap in abilities and experience. But to general surprise, Western Province won by 17 runs.

That set the tone, and the early games caught the English on the hop with four defeats in six outings. They found matting pitches took time and when they headed away from the Cape they encountered pitches with no grass, simply clay sprinkled with salt to absorb moisture. Even Wisden suggested the early poor performances were as much to do with lavish hospitality as any on-field factors and they had a point - one banquet in Kimberley went on so long that none of the players managed to get to bed before heading to the ground. As the local press started complaining the tourists were too weak, the side's fortunes turned and after four defeats in the first six matches it was one-way traffic.

There was also concern at reports of the money being earned by the tourists, many of whom were supposedly amateur. Coventry, certainly an amateur, received £70 for the highest score by an amateur against XV of Transvaal. Bobby Abel reaped the biggest single reward, £200 for one innings in Johannesburg, but at least he was openly a professional.

Officially, the tour lost money, but most of those involved did well. However, the shrewd organisers had secured the guarantee of Cecil Rhodes to make good any losses.

By February, there was a demand for an even-side game, and it was duly arranged at St George's Park in Port Elizabeth starting on March 12. It was generally agreed that the side picked by the locals was about as good as was available. While this is now accepted as the first Test played by South Africa, at the time it was not considered anything more than another tour match, and was marketed as such. Posters advertising the contest highlighted it as Major Warton's XI v South Africa XI. It was only years later that it was accorded Test status. Even Wisden pointed out "it was never intended, or considered necessary, to take out a representative English team for a first trip to the Cape".

A bill poster advertising what was to become South Africa's first Test, March 12, 1889
The pre-match publicity for what was to become South Africa's first Test Peter Heeger / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Played on a green matting pitch in front of a crowd of around 3000, South Africa's captain Owen Dunell won the toss and chose to bat. Johnny Briggs (4 for 39) strangled the top order and Aubrey Smith (5 for 19) then weighed in as the home side were bowled out for 84. England found things equally hard after a good start, slipping from 65 for 2 to 103 for 9 before a last-wicket stand between Arthur Fothergill and Grieve helped them to 148 by the close. On the second day the South Africans again failed to settle, and set 66 to win, England eased home by eight wickets at 3.30pm.

After a drawn three-day match in Kimberley, the teams reassembled in Cape Town for the second "Test". England made one change. Aubrey Smith, who had gone down with enteric fever in Johannesburg, was unable to play and was replaced by Monty Bowden.

The match was hopelessly one sided. England made 292, anchored around 120 from Abel, and then skittled South Africa out on the second day for 47 and 43. Briggs was devastating, taking 7 for 17 and 8 for 11, all but one of his 15 wickets were bowled.

Most of the squad then returned home on the SS Garth Castle, arriving back in England on April 16, but England's two captains, Aubrey Smith and Bowden, remained to set up a stockbrokers in Johannesburg. Aubrey Smith made his first stage appearance while in the city, eventually heading to America via England where he established himself as a leading Hollywood actor.

Bowden, however, was an altogether sadder story. At 23 years 144 days, he was and remains England's youngest captain, but he never even knew he had represented his country, or even saw his homeland again. In 1891 he headed north with Rhodes where he was incorrectly reported to have been killed. Not long after he was found to be alive, he did die, in a remote a mud hut in Umtali. The final indignity was that his body had to be protected from marauding lions - prior to being interred - in a coffin made from whisky cases.

While modern statisticians are happy to regard Warton's tour as the dawn of Test cricket in South Africa, Bowden's Wisden obituary gives the best indication of how it was regarded at the time. It never even mentioned he had captained the touring side, let alone gave the slightest indication he might have been deemed to have played for England.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email with your comments and suggestions.

England On Tour by Peter Wynne Thomas (Hamlyn, 1982)

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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