Memories of South Africa in Test cricket, 1994

Before the interruption

When I first saw a South African team in action, the one brought by H. G. Deane in 1929, their predecessors had been playing Test cricket of a sort forty years. I put it this way because the nine English teams which had visited what became the Union of South Africa were well short of full Test strength. The very first visitors, led by C. Aubrey Smith (subsequently a star of stage and screen), thought they were engaged in a purely missionary exercise, and were amused that two of their games were posthumously rated as Tests and they accordingly as Test cricketers.

Before 1929 there had been three South African Test tours to England (one the Triangular Tournament of 1912) wherein seven out of the 11 games had ended in home victories, all but one by large margins. One batsman of world class had emerged, H. W. Taylor. South Africa's principal disadvantage was that they were strangers to turf pitches. On their own matting it was a different story, as the first MCC side of 1905-06, led by Pelham Warner, learned to their cost.

South Africa were always very much the juniors on the international scene but they had in that 1905-06 series made a substantial contribution to the evolution of cricket with the development of wrist-spin. Although an Englishman, Bosanquet, is credited with discovering the art, it was four South Africans, Schwarz, Faulkner, Vogler and White, who illustrated its effectiveness both in England and Australia.

Deane, nicknamed Nummy, led a young and popular side which was superb in the field and contained cricketers of notable achievement in the years prior to the Second World War: Mitchell and Siedle as batsmen; Morkel, Owen- Smith and Dalton as all-rounders; Vincent as a left-arm spinner, Bell, fastish, and, far from least, Cameron behind the stumps. Ten of them made hundreds, and although England won two Tests South Africa were ahead on first innings in the other three.

The most glamorous happening was the turnaround in the Headingley Test wherein the match was seemingly so nearly over after two days that Neville Cardus left the scene to pursue (so he subsequently reported) an affair of the heart somewhere out of London. Discovering from the evening papers that Tuppy Owen-Smith had made a hundred before lunch (the only South African ever to do so in a Test) and that it needed a characteristically brilliant effort by Frank Woolley to rescue England and finally bring them home, Cardus made haste to the National Liberal Club, composed what he described as one of his best reports and delivered it to the Fleet Street office of the Manchester Guardian as though hotfoot from the Leeds train. The great wordsmith was never inhibited by prosaic detail.

The MCC visit to South Africa in 1930-31 was notable in that something not too for removed from the best side that could have been sent was the third to be defeated (in the only completed Test); it was a foretaste of what was to come. On this tour the Cape Town Test was played on grass. By the next visit matting had everywhere given place to turf.

The 1935 South African side to England was a more sophisticated edition of that of 1929, yet still with an average age of only 27. They achieved at last the first Test victory on English soil, and at Lord's. It was the year when the square was infested with root-devouring leatherjackets. There were bare patches from which Xenophon Balaskas, the wrist-spinning Greek chemist, had the time of his life (nine for 103), and Cameron and Mitchell played innings of the strongest contrast but comparable value: 90 in one and threequarter hours in the first instance, a chanceless 164 not out in five and a half hours in the second. Patience personified, technique immaculate, Bruce Mitchell still heads the list of South African Test run-scorers; Jock Cameron, hugely popular, brilliant keeper and dangerous hitter, was dead of enteric fever before this year ended. I have a small memory which epitomised the attitude of this most likeable side: at Southend, match over, his side defeated, team bus waiting, deciding Fifth Test starting next day, Herby Wade signing, signing, until the last of a seemingly interminable line of autograph hunters had been satisfied.

The first of my four visits to South Africa took place in 1938-39 when for the first time MCC sent, under Walter Hammond, the strongest side available. They won by an innings the only Test decided, and were much too strong for most of the provinces. At first hand one could see the handicaps under which South African cricket laboured. Their recruiting grounds were confined to the small number of English-speaking schools. The Afrikaners had little liking for cricket, though as the series progressed I was joined for brief spells in the broadcasting box by an Afrikaans commentator. The Currie Cup, the provincial competition, did not function in seasons when overseas tourists were present. In six years in the 1930s South Africa had taken part in only two Test Series, the one in England and-a poor arrangement-one at home directly following against Australia wherein a tired side, depressed by the loss of Cameron, were overwhelmed by Grimmett and O'Reilly.

For the 1938-39 series Alan Melville, who had proceeded from Michaelhouse, Natal to Oxford and captained in turn the University and Sussex, succeeded Wade in the captaincy. South Africa were strengthened also by the return from Oxford of the opening bat, Pieter van der Bijl. The broadcasting of cricket was a new thing in South Africa, and in the circumstances it gave the performer a perfect missionary opportunity. At first the SABC wanted to take only my BBC pieces, 30 minutes on Saturdays and holidays, 15 minutes in mid-week. We got off to a lucky start, for on Boxing Day 1938 Tom Goddard of Gloucestershire revived a somnolent session by doing the hat-trick-a commentator's dream and a rarity, for there have been only eight Test hat-tricks since. By the Third Test the time on the South African air had expanded to two hours.

South Africa found a strong fast-medium bowler in Gordon and a high-class medium-pacer in Langton, but England were never short of runs and were one up going into the Fifth Test at Durban, due to be played to a finish. As is now well-worn history, the game was washed out on the tenth afternoon with England at 654 for five, needing only 42 more for victory. The train taking them to the Cape to catch the Union Castle liner home left that evening and so that was that. The key to the highest-scoring Test match ever was a playing condition giving the groundsman liberty to roll twice between each day's play. On the third and seventh nights heavy rain was followed by dawn rollings, which under hot sun made a perfect fresh surface by the time play was resumed. ( MCC, by the way, had banned air travel, which would have made an 11th day possible. The wisdom of this was illustrated to the captain and me- Hammond having abrogated the decree so far as he was concerned-when our aircraft had to make a forced landing at Mossel Bay.)

The South African tour to England of 1947 is recalled chiefly for the phenomenal scoring of Compton and Edrich in a summer of almost perpetual sunshine. Melville's side, average age 30 but containing only three others with Test experience, the evergreen Mitchell, Nourse and Viljoen, had to fulfil a programme of 34 matches on English rations-unfamiliarity with which proved their hardest trial. Melville, most elegant of batsmen, left for home a stone or two lighter and with a record that still stands: his 103 in the unfinished Test at Durban was followed eight years later by innings of 189 and 104 not out at Trent Bridge and 117 at Lord's. No one else has made four successive Test hundreds against England.

Having lost a golden chance of winning the First Test after leading on first innings by 325 runs, South Africa were beaten heavily thrice in succession. Wisden records that the tourists gave half their gates against Surrey and Lancashire to help restoration after war damage, yet took home a profit of £10,000.

A year later MCC, under F. G. Mann, took part in another conspicuously friendly and successful tour of South Africa. Whereas there was no English bowler fast enough to cause Godfrey Evans to stand back, for South Africa Cuan McCarthy's speed brought him 21 wickets in a well-fought series which England won by adventurous batting and superlative fielding. Although a recent election had put the Nationalists in power for the first time the only indication of a divided country was that the black sections of the crowds were palpably on England's side.

They were equally forthright when Australia visited South Africa in 1949-50. This series saw the advent of Hugh Tayfield, the off-spinner who was due to take many more Test wickets (170) than any other South African. In the Third Test at Durban he took seven for 23, Australia being bowled out on a turning wicket for 75. Although 236 runs ahead, Dudley Nourse, after a weekend's thought, decided against enforcing the follow-on. Thus reprieved, Australia bowled out South Africa in their second innings for 99 and, set 336 to win, reached the target thanks to an epic 151 not out by the 21-year-old left-hander, Neil Harvey.

This result typified a fatal lack of self-confidence, as had the way they allowed England to wriggle out of their grasp at Trent Bridge in 1947. The inferiority complex at the heart of their cricket was not completely dissolved until the 1960s.

When, after the interval of 21 years, South Africa were again due on Australian soil in 1952-53, Louis Duffus, their foremost cricket-writer and historian, led the proposal that the tour should be called off because no good would be served by a further sequence of heavy defeats. Happily, this view did not prevail. South Africa found a determined leader in Jack Cheetham and, to the astonishment of all, won the Fifth Test by team effort rather than individual heroics, and so halved the rubber at 2-2. The fielding of the young South African side, which assisted Tayfield to a bag of 30 Test wickets, was said to be the finest seen in Australia.

In 1951 South Africa had won their second Test in England, and the combination of Cheetham and Viljoen as captain and manager respectively which had worked so well in Australia was repeated in 1955. They lost the first two Tests against an England side which had just brought home the Ashes but showed the moral strength to win the next two before losing at The Oval, which at this time was too conducive to spin.

The victory at Old Trafford, by three wickets with a few minutes to spare, had all the ingredients of a great match, including the moment when Paul Winslow, scorning safety in the last over before tea, reached his hundred with a six that pitched yards over the Stretford End sightscreen.

In the mid-1950s South Africa's stock stood high. At home in 1956-57 they again came from behind to square the rubber with England after being two down. But it was far from being a tour to make converts to cricket: it was conducted, almost without exception, slowly, solemnly, with little effort at enterprise by either side.

If that was a disappointment the tour to England in 1960 was a disaster. The political situation was beginning to come to a head and on the field South Africa contributed to their own destruction by sending a young bowler, Geoffrey Griffin, who had been no-balled for throwing at home, and was chosen for the Lord's Test despite having been called 17 times before on the tour. One way and another South African morale disintegrated. The first three Tests were lost, the crowds stayed away and the tour failed to make a profit.

After another battle of batting attrition in South Africa in 1964-65, South Africa came to England for the second half of the following summer. A new generation of players, headed by the tall, left-handed Graeme Pollock, gave their cricket a more enterprising and attractive face than it had ever shown before. In the only Test of three brought to a conclusion, at Trent Bridge, Pollock's 125, made out of 160 in just two and a quarter hours on a seaming, swingy day, invited comparisons with Frank Woolley; in other words it was in the highest possible class.

In their last conclusive gesture before the curtain came down South Africa won seven Tests and lost one in two successive visits by Australia. They now had two further cricketers of world class, in Barry Richards and Mike Procter. The exploits of these two for Hampshire and Gloucestershire respectively in the years ahead were constant reminders of high talent unfulfilled.

E. W. Swanton was on the staff of the Evening Standard from 1927 to 1938 and began broadcasting in 1934. He was cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph from 1946 to 1975.

© John Wisden & Co