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South African cricket has been full of fluctuations and paradoxes since its first Test match was played in March 1889 at Port Elizabeth against an England team captained by C. A. Smith of Sussex (later Sir C. Aubrey Smith of Hollywood).
Of all the paradoxes none has been more remarkable than that of the 1960s. The decade began with one of the least successful tours of England ever made by a South African team. In the next year South Africa left the Commonwealth and, in consequence, the Imperial Cricket Conference, as it was then. Cricket was purely an English game, introduced by the English and scarcely played by the Afrikaans-speaking population at all. Nothing seemed more likely than that in a country increasingly dominated by the Afrikaner the English game would decline, especially as the current standards in terms of international competition were not high or the cricket being played particularly inviting.
Yet within six years South Africa could claim to have as strong a side as any in the world and almost certainly the most attractive. More important still, the game had spread into Afrikaans schools. Afrikaans newspapers, which had once paid little attention to cricket, were now on occasion leading both their front and back pages with it. Wherever you went, in airports, on golf courses, in the street, you heard cricket talked about, not as sometimes in England with the carping cynicism reserved for the old and traditional, but with excitement, as if something new and stimulating had been discovered. Cricket was booming in perhaps the one place in the world where a boom had seemed least likely -- and in a country where there is no television to bring it to a new public.
How had it happened? As a minor reason one could submit that the English and Afrikaans races had been brought closer together by the launching of the Republic. As another, that this was not an era of great South African success on the Rugby field. The main reason, however, seemed to be simply that the youth of the country had been inspired by the success of their leading players and by the exhilarating way in which their heroes were playing the game. A lot is talked in coaching circles in England about the fun to be had from hitting the ball, but bad pitches and bad weather often make the fun costly and senseless. In the congenial climate and on the truer pitches of South Africa the new generation found that hitting the ball paid well enough and the dourness which had afflicted South African batting in the past was shaken off. It did not, I think, come through any revolution in coaching, for, as in the past, much of the coaching was done by English professionals whose knowledge of the game is held in high regard in schools, colleges and clubs.
As in most parts of the world where it is played, cricket was introduced to South Africa by British troops. From the early 1800s it developed steadily in the Cape and Natal and especially in Port Elizabeth were the 1820 settlers and their sons founded in 1840 the club which is one of the oldest in the world. Its ground is still used for Test matches. In the 1880s the first tour of South Africa was arranged and the first Test matches were played against an England side which included Abel, Ulyett and Briggs but was not rated much above the strength of a good county side.
The tour of 1888-89 developed cricket in South Africa in several ways. A ground was hurriedly built in Johannesburg, then barely three years old. A member of the team, F. Hearne, stayed behind to become the first of many English professional coaches; and Sir Donald Currie, chairman of the steamship line which took the English team to the Cape, presented a trophy for the first team to beat the English. This was won by Kimberley (later Griqualand West), though in the next year the Transvaal challenged successfully for the Currie Cup under the captaincy of C. A. Smith, whose road to Hollywood and film fame was then passing through Johannesburg, where for a time he settled as a stockbroker.
This scurry of activity included the formation in 1894 of the South African Cricket Association and the spreading of cricket to Rhodesia. Louis Duffus has recorded that when Lord Hawke's side visited Bulawayo in 1898-99, the Salisbury members of the Rhodesian team took ten days to reach Bulawayo. Nowadays they would do it in an hour.
There was now a frequent inter-change of tours between South Africa and England, though no Test matches were played in England where the tours were financially unsuccessful. A South African team even came to England in 1901 when the war, though in its skirmishing phase, still had a year to run.
It might have been expected that the war in South Africa would hinder the development of cricket there but, by one of the first paradoxes, within three years South Africa gained their first Test win. Australians are not often given much credit for missionary work in cricket but there is no doubt that the visit of Darling's side on their way home from England in 1902 did much to strengthen the game in the immediate post-war period. With such as Trumper, Hill, Noble, Armstrong, S. E. Gregory and Trumble, they played a higher quality of cricket than had been seen hitherto.
Thus P. F. Warner's side of 1905-06 were beaten four-one and in 1907 South Africa played their first Test in England against the full strength of England captained by R. E. Foster. They lost, but not by much, for the newest Test country had made itself singularly proficient in one of the game's newest techniques. R. O. Schwarz had learnt the googly on a previous visit. A. E. E. Vogler, G. C. White and the great Aubrey Faulkner followed him and these four took no less than 421 wickets in England in 1907.
England were defeated again in South Africa in 1909-10, but what had seemed likely to become a golden era fizzled out. The googly was not effective in the Triangular tournament of 1912 and though there was a talented successor to J. H. Sinclair as the country's leading batsman in H. W. Taylor, he could not stop the last pre-war series being a triumph for England and Sydney Barnes.
It was a long time after the First World War before South African cricket rose again and it had some hard times, as in the first post-war Test in England when South Africa were bowled out for 30 at Edgbaston by Arthur Gilligan and Maurice Tate. It is less often remembered that they made 390 in the second innings.
There were signs of a revival when H. G. Deane's side won the last two Tests to square the series with England in 1927-28 and three years later A. P. F. Chapman's team was beaten in the only match of five finished. But a year later Australia and Don Bradman devoured much the same South African side led by H. B. Cameron, winning all five Tests in Australia, three by an innings and one by ten wickets.
There had been one important advance. The 1924 defeat in England had led to agitation for turf pitches to replace the mat and gradually over the next ten years these were introduced. The 1929 side to England had developed promising young players such as Owen-Smith, Bruce Mitchell and E. L. Dalton and won a reputation for fine fielding. In 1935 the harvest was reaped. England were beaten at Lord's by 157 runs in the only finished match and an overseas series was won for the first time. Mitchell made 164 not out in the second innings and Xenophon Balaskas, for ever to be referred to as the Greek chemist, took nine for 103 with his leg-spin. Herbie Taylor had gone but once again with startling suddenness South African cricket had risen from the depths, only three and a half years after the disaster in Australia. Under the captaincy of H. F. Wade, Mitchell, Siedle, the young Eric Rowan, Dudley Nourse, Cameron, Dalton, Balaskas, Langton, Crisp and Bell made a strong side.
The South Africans returned home triumphant and were promptly routed again by Australia in a season saddened by the death of Cameron. The vice-captain in England a few months before, he was one of the great wicket-keeper batsmen with whom South African cricket has been blessed. Until the war standards were pretty high, as Alan Melville returned from Oxford and Sussex to make hundreds of elegant runs.
During the war years the memory of the last post-war Test in South Africa, the famous timeless Durban Test of March 1939 remained clear in the minds of cricketers the world over. When it was given up after ten days to allow England to catch the ship home, they had made 654 for five on a pitch repeatedly rolling out true after rain and needed only 42 runs to win. Standing on the square on the day before another Test match twenty-five years later, I listened fascinated as the two captains of 1939, Walter Hammond and Alan Melville, reflected on what might have happened if the match had gone on. As I remember it, each was absolutely confident that he would have won!
The most successful South African sides have usually been those young enough to perform miracles in the field. The Second World War dried up the sources of young cricketers and it was a fairly venerable side which Alan Melville took to England in 1947 for some severe punishment from Denis Compton and Bill Edrich. Yet the summer was superb and the tour helped to restart the game in South Africa, though it was some years before the young players began to take over from such as Bruce Mitchell and Dudley Nourse. Mitchell, superbly equipped in defence, was often the bulwark of the batting, but South Africa's capacity for winning matches was slim.
Dudley Nourse played a heroic innings of 208 with a broken thumb to win the first Test of 1951 at Trent Bridge but he retired after a series which South Africa lost three-one. N. B. F. Mann, the left-arm spinner, died suddenly, Athol Rowan retired through injury and though many young players such as McGlew, McLean, Waite, Endean and Tayfield had shown promise, the prospect of a tour of Australia only a year ahead was a daunting one. The giants of Don Bradman's great side of 1948 were mostly still much in evidence there and in some quarters there were suggestions that it was not worth sending a side. These were treated with a proper contempt and J. E. Cheetham set off with young men who exceeded the wildest hopes of them. The bowling had looked pitifully thin but one of the young men, Hugh Tayfiled, proved to be a great off-spin bowler on hard pitches and the others caught almost everything which left the bat above the ground. Incredibly, the series was drawn two-two.
Much the same team went to England in 1955 and was beaten three-two in probably the best post-war series there. England won the first two Tests, South Africa the next two and South African eyes still have a wistful look when they wonder what would have happened in the last at The Oval if one memorable l. b. w. decision had gone against Peter May.
More brilliant fielding, plus Tayfield and the two formidable fast bowlers, Adcock and Heine, enabled South Africa to come from behind and draw the 1956-57 series two-two but, true to form, they were well beaten by Ian Craig's Australians a year later. It was the custom until 1965-66 to drop the Currie Cup competition in years when touring sides were in the country. This was no help to players and still less to selectors. Sometimes it seemed that it was not until the fourth Test that South Africa succeeded in getting the right team in the field.
Abroad there were not the same problems and the failure in England in 1960 was a bitter disappointment. An unusually wet summer was all against the young players taken and the calling of one of them, G. M. Griffin, for throwing was an added upset. England, even without Peter May who was ill, won easily and South Africa were down in the depths again, once more with a tour of Australia looming ahead.
In 1963-64 history repeated itself. Another young team was taken and it proved to include a genius in the 19-year-old Graeme Pollock, a genuinely fast bowler in his brother Peter, and a belligerent opening batsmen in E. J. Barlow, who averaged 75 in the series. The captain, Trevor Goddard, was not in the more dashing mould, but most of his players improved as the tour progressed and the series was halved again. Many Australians believed that with only a little more positive direction in the last Test South Africa must have won.
The series at home against England a year later was disappointing. Some strange South African selections and a crumbling pitch gave England the first Test and though South Africa latterly looked the better side, England, depleted by injury, hung on to their lead. This did not make for a spectacular series and South Africa, for their part, had not yet absorbed the lessons of aggressive thinking and realised their capacity for attack. They still played A. J. Pithey, a very fine defensive player but not one who would win matches. The fielding was again approaching great heights, which it reached in England in 1965 when Colin Bland was at his peak in the covers. In an exciting series of three closely fought matches South Africa won by virtue of their victory at Trent Bridge. I have heard Graeme Pollock's 125 there in two hours twenty minutes referred to as flashy and lucky but played in typically difficult humid English conditions it seemed to me one of the great Test innings and it won the match.
Peter van der Merwe's captaincy had made South African cricket very conscious of the value of leadership and team spirit and he led an almost identical team at home in 1966-67 against Australia in what was probably South Africa's greatest triumph. The Australians had never before lost a match of any sort in South Africa but they were beaten by the Transvaal and lost the series three-one. They were not a great side and all the spectacular cricket came from the South Africans but the Australians had their moments as when they passed the South African first-innings score of 199 in the magnificent first Test with only one wicket down.
Three times, however, when South Africa were in a delicate position, the wicket-keeper, Denis Lindsay, came in and made what would have been the hundred of a lifetime for most mortals. The last of them in difficult conditions in Johannesburg in the fourth Test occupied only one hundred and five minutes and then as before he let loose a flood of thrilling strokes without ever seeming to use other than the middle of the bat. In the series he made 606 runs at an average of 86.57 and yet in subsequent seasons in the Currie Cup he scarcely made a run. Though Graeme Pollock played some superb innings, the other match-winner was Trevor Goddard, who at the age of 35 bowled better than ever before and took 26 wickets. If he had come to England in 1965, South Africa must surely have made a clean sweep.
After this victory over Australia, South Africa with many talented young players such as Richards and Procter still on the way up, seemed capable at last of staying on the crest of the wave for some time, even if they lacked spinners of the class of Athol Rowan and Tayfield. But other influences were at work by now and at a time when the heart of cricket cried out for gaiety, talent and adventure, the young men who could supply these qualities were seen but seldom in the Test arena.