Undercooked South Africa's all-time low
As tours go, few have gone as badly wrong from the start as South Africa's visit to England in 1924, or started in such a dismal manner with one of cricket's most one-sided Tests setting the tone for the rest of the summer.
In the period before World War I, the South Africans had given England and Australia - at the time the only other Test-playing countries - a run for their money, and on the strength of this the English board decided to offer them a five-Test series as opposed to the three games they had played on previous visits. But it had been 17 years since they last toured and the side was much weaker than it had been. The end result was a one-sided series that the public failed to support.
One of the key problems was that most top cricket in South Africa was played on matting wickets, which were ideal for spinners. But faced with unfamiliar turf pitches, those same bowlers were found wanting. This was almost immediately apparent to Herbie Taylor, their captain, who realised that in what was wet summer he did not have bowlers capable of adapting to the conditions. One exception was Sid Pegler, a 36-year-old medium-pace legbreak bowler whose last Test had been almost 12 years earlier. Pegler was not even in the original squad but had happened to be travelling to Great Britain on the same ship as Taylor's men and was persuaded to join them.
South Africa came into the first Test at Edgbaston with only one win in their ten matches, and that against Cambridge University. Such was the concern Taylor had over his attack that a week before the Test he sent for George Parker, a right-arm fast bowler from Cape Town who had never played a first-class match and who was engaged as a professional in the Bradford League. Parker played in the final rain-blighted warm-up at Oxford, took 4 for 34 as well as having four catches dropped off him and that earned him his Test debut.
The cold and wet weather meant the pitch was always going to favour slow bowlers, and not ones used to matting. "With the frequent drenchings the ground has received in common with others throughout the country the match is likely to see the bowlers prominent," predicted the Daily Mirror. And as on wet wickets the tourists have not proved over strong, their prospects are anything but favourable."
Such was the disarray in the South African camp that they only named nine players for the match, refusing to give any indication of which of the squad was being considered for the remaining two places. Pegler, the one reliable bowler and one of the nine, was struggling to shake off an ankle strain.
Few gave them much chance and newspaper coverage indicated the public interest in the game. The Tonbridge cricket week and a "thrilling rodeo exhibition" got far more coverage on most sports pages.
Taylor won the toss and, on a drying pitch, put England in, something positively frowned on in those days. Most newspapers made clear they believed this was more through fear of his own fragile batting being exposed to the conditions than any belief that his bowlers would be able to exploit them. The Daily Express, while not agreeing with his decision, admitted: "Had Taylor chosen to take first knock the game by now might have been virtually all over." By the close England were 398 for 7, at the time the fifth highest first-day score in a Test in the country. All the batsmen bar Percy Chapman had got a start but none had gone on to a hundred.
Pegler was clearly unfit and was so handicapped by his ankle that he was not able to follow through, hugely reducing his effectiveness. Parker took five of the seven wickets to fall but nobody seemed to work out quite how. The Times sniffily called him a "novelty bowler" while the Guardian described his opening spell as "grotesquely erratic".
Given this was only Parker's second first-class match, his nerves were on edge. At one point he asked England allrounder Frank Woolley if he thought his field was set right for a left-hander. "It was a rather extraordinary thing to be asked,"Woolley replied. "So I said: 'Yes, I think it seems just right'. He said: 'Thank you very much'."
Parker ended his first day of Test cricket prematurely when he took his sweater from the umpire after bowling for three hours unchanged and walked off without a word. Taylor disappeared into the pavilion and found Parker sitting in a corner of the dressing room. He asked what the problem was. "I'm just tired, that's all," Parker replied. "I've had enough."
By then Taylor probably felt like not going back outside. He had earlier lost his best batsman, Dave Nourse, who had split the webbing on his hand taking an excellent catch at fine leg off a rank long hop from Parker.
After a rest day on the Sunday, play resumed in sunshine on the Monday. England's tail did not hang around too long and they were bowled out for 438, Parker finishing with flattering figures of 6 for 152.
Taylor took the heavy roller, knowing it would spice up the pitch for an hour but then leave it much easier to bat on. Lasting the hour was the problem.
England opened up with the Sussex pair of Arthur Gilligan, the captain, and Maurice Tate, the latter making his debut. Gilligan started with a no-ball, and then next delivery bowled Bob Catterall. It was downhill from there for South Africa.
Tate's first ball in Test cricket accounted for Fred Susskind, playing an inswinging half-volley to Roy Kilner, also making his debut, at short leg. With the final ball of his second over Gilligan removed an incapacitated Nourse, while Taylor at the non-striker's end had yet to face a delivery.
Taylor made 7 - the top score - when he was bowled by "an exceptional ball from Tate… pitching on the blind spot and coming back like lightning from the line of off stump to make the leg stump turn cartwheels. It is worth nothing Tate was quick despite only having an eight-pace run-in."
The rest came and went in a blur. "All our visitors appeared lacking in confidence and practice," wrote former England captain Archie Maclaren. At 24 for 8, Cecil Parkin, fielding in an unfamiliar position in the slips, dropped Mick Commaille off Tate, helping South Africa avoid the ignominy of the lowest Test score. Gilligan mopped up the tail.
South Africa were dismissed for 30, their last seven wickets falling for 16, in 48 minutes off 75 balls. Only 19 of the runs came off the bat. Gilligan, bowling throughout to four slips, had 6 for 7 off 6.3 overs, Tate a more modest 4 for 12 off six. It was the lowest Test score in England and equalled the record low, also set by South Africa against England in Port Elizabeth in 1895-96.
As Taylor had hoped, the pitch became docile as South Africa followed on and by the end of the day they had reached 274 for 4, but again they were helped by dropped catches as Woolley and Percy Fender spilt chances off Tate.
On the third day they continued to bat well, Catterall, batting down the order at No. 5, top scoring with 120. They finished on 390, losing by an innings and 18 runs. Again Gilligan (5 for 83) and Tate (4 for 103) were the wicket-takers and only missed out on sharing all 20 when Nummy Deane was run out.
The public voted with their feet. Organisers confidently predicted 20,000 would watch the first day alone but only around 14,000 turned up throughout the three days. Some believed the half-crown (12.5p) ticket cost had put people off as much as the poor form of the tourists.
What happened next?
- After the match Gilligan presented Tate with an engraved silver salver
- Parkin, who had been expected to share the new balls with Gilligan, only bowled 16 wicketless overs in the second innings. After the match he made some ill-judged comments to a reporter and the story of his unhappiness with his captain appeared in the papers. He wrote a letter of apology to Gilligan but was never asked to play for England again.
- George Parker played in the second Test at Lord's, where England scored 531 for 2. Parker finished with 2 for 121 and did not play first-class cricket again.
- South Africa lost the second Test by the same margin, and third Test by nine wickets. Rain spared them going four down at Old Trafford and they finished with their best showing in another rain-affected game at The Oval. Financially, the tour was not a success.
- Tate finished the series with 27 wickets at 15.70, but Gilligan only added another seven to his total, ending with 17 at 18.94. Catterall topped the batting chart with 471 runs at 67.28, but Taylor (197 at 32.83) disappointed, while Nourse, at 46 past his best, only managed 138 runs at 17.25. He did not play for his country again.
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa