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When stumps were drawn in the first match ever played by a South African team in England fifty-seven years ago, irate cab-drivers, armed with picks and shovels, blocked the exit from the ground with their vehicles.
Incensed at being prohibited from entering Lord Sheffield's estate, they pelted the cricketers with miscellaneous missiles from their horse-and-buggy barricade. By causing the team to miss their train to Brighton they meant to solicit custom by force.
It was a rich, invigorating adventure with which to launch a first tour of England, and the hardy pioneers from the Veld embraced it with relish. Amid neighs, cheers and jingling bells they engaged in a sharp skirmish, broke through the enemy's laager, and, tearing headlong to the station by barouche, kept the timetable of an historic tour.
Yet down the seasons that followed the superstitious sensed that a cabbie's curse had been cast over South African cricket. It was forty-one years later before players sailing from the Cape won their first and only Test victory in England. By that time (1935) the bare handful of hansoms plying for hire in Britain were not strong enough to perpetuate the spell disbursed in Sussex.
The charm, however, was still potent in the dreary wet summer of triangular Tests in 1912, and surely it was double proof at Birmingham in 1924 when South Africa were put out for 30 by Arthur Gilligan and Maurice Tate. It was another woefully damp season, but in this match the conditions were good. The South Africans made 390 in their second innings, but by then the game was lost. At the time none would believe the old man who said he heard raucous laughter during the collapse and looked up to see a covey of cabbies passing over the field on broomsticks.
Operation Curse has no doubt spent itself. Even the imaginative must seek elsewhere to explain the post-war decline in South African cricket, for deterioration in the international standard has not been confined to performances in England or merely against England. The last Test match won abroad was by Herbert Wade's eleven at Lord's in 1935, and not since 1930, when an off-spin bowler of Norwegian stock--Eiulf Peter Nupen--who possessed one eye, excelled himself on a matting wicket, has victory been achieved at home.
Mere winning may not be the acme of cricket, but a little success now and then no doubt has stimulating advantages. If South Africans are considered graceful losers, their reputation is largely the outcome of long practice in dissembling defeat.
Perhaps the modest record of the past twenty years magnifies the stature of those who played in a more successful age. The vintage summers between 1905-10 are incomparably the most productive in the country's cricket. The feats and efficiency of Percy Sherwell, Aubrey Faulkner, Jimmy Sinclair, Dave Nourse, Ernie Vogler, R. O. Schwarz, S. J. Snooke, G. C. White and their contemporaries have crystallised into a paregoric of which, like some stimulant set on a shelf, South Africans avail themselves whenever their cricket feels run down. Alas! it is habit-forming.
They were the voortrekkers of a new international sport for their adopted homeland, and they will remain its dominating figures until posterity raises a more fruitful harvest of the game in the Union. It was they who roused exaltation, more universal than the reaction of a rich gold strike, in the mining town of Johannesburg when they gained South Africa's first Test win by a wicket and made immortal the names of Nourse and Sherwell. When Sherwell, who was last man, went to the wicket 45 runs were needed for victory. With pandemonium, and 93 not out by Nourse, England's total was passed. What a challenging position from which to achieve a first Test match victory!
England batsmen accomplished an equally thrilling success at Cape Town in 1923, when the last man, MacAulay, joined Kennedy and they scored the five runs required to win the game.
In the summer of 1905-6 South Africa won four of the five games against Sir Pelham Warner's team. The same eleven played throughout the series. The cricketers of this decade achieved seven of the twelve victories (out of seventy-four) scored by South Africa against England--and the only one against Australia.
Perhaps they were hardier men than their successors. Conditions in the young country at the start of the century bred self-reliance and initiative. Life was full of risks. The bold flourished. The impersonal publicity given to cricket did not provoke the sensitiveness which came in later years. Most significant of all they were skilful, versatile cricketers.
Schwarz, Vogler, Faulkner and White developed from the example of Bosanquet a standard and ingenuity of spin bowling that has proved one of South Africa's chief distinctions in international cricket. And Percy Sherwell, who is often considered the most gifted captain from his land, extended a regime of brilliant wicket-keeping started by E. A. Halliwell and prolonged by H. B. Cameron.
Like a spring, South Africa's cricket talent bubbled up in that period before the era of world-wide wars. It flowed into succeeding generations through the medium of a few enduring players like Dave Nourse, the rugged left-hander, so that there are active cricketers wearing the Springbok cap to-day with personal and painful memories of the ball disappearing into the void of his capacious hands at first slip.
With Nourse's decline there rose other great players--Herby Taylor, perhaps the most masterful batsman of them all, whose magnificent duels against Barnes are legendary; Nupen, the terror on matting wickets; the daring captain Nummy Deane; the bulwark of consistent defence Bruce Mitchell; the audacious attackers, Dudley Nourse and Cameron; the graceful Melville, and many more. They were conspicuous as individuals. Some of them, it almost could be said, won Test matches. The crop, however, was never luxurious enough to supply a team mustering the all-round qualities of the sides led by Sherwell.
Destiny, and hence public opinion, has, some feel, recently been hard on South African cricket. Four times since the war Test teams have suffered near misses which shattered imminent success into shortcomings. In the first game of the 1947 series at Trent Bridge, Alan Melville's side scored 533 runs and dismissed England for 208. Once in a blue moon have South Africa stood in such a position in England. A catch dropped by one of the safest fielders in the side led to a draw and the missing of a priceless chance to grab a moral whip-hand for the remainder of the Tests.
At The Oval, where they again drew some weeks later, they failed by 28 runs through a slow tempo of scoring that is a conspicuous characteristic of their modern batsmanship.
In that never-to-be-forgotten drama in Durban--again the first Test of the series--in 1948, when Gladwin, with a grin as wide as the big hole of Kimberley, obtained a leg-bye off the last ball and gave England victory by two wickets, the South Africans had several clear opportunities to win the game.
The Australians came to the same eventful ground last year, were put out for 75 against South Africa's 311, and yet won handsomely.
This is not fate, you will say, but rank inefficiency. And indeed it was. But lapses in the field could well occur at less fateful moments than they did in these matches which unduly magnified South Africa's inferiority. Uncertain catching is a national weakness which comes oddly from teams who invariably excel in ground work and periodically raise superlative fielders of the calibre of Bob Catterall and Tuppy Owen-Smith.
Although there are those who wonder how a country of two and a half million white inhabitants, of whom a majority are of Afrikaans descent and only now acquiring a love of cricket, is able to hold a place in international competition. Obviously the answer does not rest on numbers, else England would be perennially supreme. South Africans have the same advantages as the Australians and West Indians in sunshine, crystal clear light, and facilities for playing cricket. By and large they are not as intense as their neighbours of the East and West. Their application and concentration is less developed, but their raw material, like the country's precious ore, is richer than it was forty-five years ago.
An age is passing with the closing of the careers of Mitchell, who has scored more runs than any other South African in his admirable run of forty-two consecutive Test matches, and of Dudley Nourse. This summer of 1951 starts a fresh chapter in the story of cricket on the Veld, and if tom-tom service were available at Lord's it would tap the news home through St. John's Wood and the jungle--so South Africans like to think--of new characters, immune to cabbie hoodoos, winning back prestige in the time of taxis.