Obituary

Bruce Mitchell

MITCHELL, BRUCE, who died on July 1, 1995, aged 86, appeared for South Africa in all 42 Tests they played between 1929 and 1949. He nearly always opened the innings and acquired a reputation throughout the game as a dour and boring batsman. "The sad but brutal truth," wrote E. W. Swanton in 1949, after the last of his eight Test centuries, "is that any Test in which this ultra-patient cricketer makes a hundred is almost sure to end in a draw." This was not literally true: Mitchell's most famous innings was the unbeaten 164 that gave South Africa their Test victory in England, at Lord's in 1935. But even he used to joke that he was not sure how he had time to make the runs, since the match lasted only three days.

The old-time South African wicket-keeper E. A. Halliwell is reputed to have predicted that Mitchell would play for South Africa when he coached him as a six-year-old, and he was immensely successful as a Johannesburg schoolboy. But he went into the Transvaal team as a 17-year-old for his bowling, and took five for 23 and six for 72 with his leg-breaks on his debut against Border. However, Mitchell soon worked his way up the batting order, and his bowling became more occasional. Aged 20, having played only one match on turf in his life, he was picked to tour England in 1929.

He began the tour at No. 7, but the captain, H. G. Deane, chose him to open in the First Test at Edgbaston. Mitchell batted for seven hours, scoring 88, in the first innings. Even Wisden said the cricket was uninteresting and the innings featureless. He was in for a further two hours 35 minutes in the second innings, this time making 61 not out. By then the game was already doomed to be drawn, but Mitchell had made himself as much of an immovable fixture in the team as he was at the crease. His form fell away that series, to the relief of both opposition and spectators.

But he topped the South African averages in the home series against England in 1930-31, scoring his maiden Test century in their first ever home Test on turf, at Cape Town, when he began the match with a stand of 260 with Jack Siedle that remains a South African first-wicket Test record. In Australia a year later, he was ill but still played in every Test and emerged as a brilliant slip fielder, taking six catches in the Third Test. Unfortunately, in the First Test, he put down Bradman on 15; it was supposedly the only time Mitchell had ever been heard to swear. Bradman went on to score 226.

Mitchell was the leading bowler in the 1934-35 Currie Cup, but when he came to England the following summer resumed his role as the linchpin of the batting. His great innings, which remains the highest for South Africa at Lord's, took five and a half hours and he off-drove beautifully to give his team-mate Xenophon Balaskas time to bowl England out. Mitchell was criticized in the last two Tests when South Africa successfully sat on their lead and squashed the series; he spent three and three-quarter hours over 48 -- a return to his form in Brisbane three years earlier when he went 70 minutes without scoring -- at Manchester, and scored a risk-free hundred at The Oval.

He struggled with the bat in the home series against Australia that followed too quickly after the tour of England, though he took some important wickets, and he returned to his best form before England toured in 1938-39. The Durban "Timeless" Test might have been made for him, though his second-innings 89 actually occupied less than four hours of the ten days.

Mitchell served with the Transvaal Scottish Regiment in the war, and was still South Africa's best batsman when he returned in 1947, scoring 120 and 189 not out at The Oval, batting for more than 13 hours and spending less than 15 minutes of the match off the field. He finished the 1948-49 series against England almost as strongly, with 99 and 56 in the last Test, and no one imagined that he would never play for South Africa again. But he was dropped, amid general astonishment, after failing in two preliminary matches against the 1949-50 Australians, and he retired at once.

He remains South Africa's leading Test run-scorer, with 3,471 at 48.88. Mitchell was a quiet, modest man with a self deprecating sense of humour. At his home he kept a cartoon that recalled not his triumphs but one of his rare failures: it showed a lone figure banished to a desert island and was captioned The Man Who Dropped Bradman. And he would chucklingly recall the spectator at Edgbaston in 1929 who, having watched him bat, asked him if he thought he was a war memorial.

© John Wisden & Co