CHEETHAM, JOHN (JACK) ERSKINE, who died in hospital in Johannesburg on August 21, 1980, aged 60, served South African cricket with great distinction, both as player and administrator. In fifteen of his 24 Test matches he captained them with a firm yet understanding touch, and after his retirement he was, from 1969 to 1972, an outstanding President of the South African Cricket Association. He was an Honorary Life President of the Transvaal Cricket Union.
Cheetham was 28 when he first played for South Africa, against F. G. Mann's side in the last Test match of the 1948-49 MCC tour, and 32 when he first led them on the 1952-53 tour of Australia. It was in Australia that he made his reputation as a captain. South Africa were given no chance of holding an Australian side which was led by Hassett and included Harvey, Lindwall, Morris, Miller and Johnston. In the event the Test series was drawn, at two matches all, South Africa winning the final Test at Melbourne after Australia had scored 520 in their first innings.
Much of the credit for a notable South African achievement on this tour belonged to Cheetham, not because of the runs he made (he was a batsman pure and simple) but because of the way, with the help of the manager, Ken Viljoen, himself a former Test cricketer, he welded the players into a team. There were those at the time who thought the Cheetham-Viljoen regime too authoritarian; in fact, though, it was a sign of things to come. In his attention to the fitness and fielding of his players Cheetham was the forerunner of the modern captain.
Having led South Africa to victory over New Zealand in South Africa in 1953-54, he brought them to England in 1955 for what was one of the best and most closely fought series since the war. Ironically, in the third and fourth Test matches, which South Africa won, Cheetham was prevented by injury from playing, McGlew leading the side. With the series standing at two-all Cheetham returned for the final Test at The Oval, where England clinched the series thanks to the bowling of Laker and Lock on a wearing pitch and the batting of May, who, early in his innings, survived a memorably close call for leg before wicket against Tayfield.
Cheetham was a dour batsman but a decidedly better one than a top score of 89 from 43 Test innings would suggest. He had the respect of his players and also of the opposition, knowing what he wanted and quietly setting about obtaining it. His 271 not out against Orange Free State at Bloemfontein in 1950-51 remains the highest score ever made for Western Province in the Currie Cup. In his first-class career, which lasted from 1939 to 1955, he scored 5,697 runs at an average of 42.50.
In retirement Cheetham continued to give much of his time to cricket, working hard in the interests of non-white cricketers and feeling South Africa's exclusion from the Test scene as acutely as anyone. He was a devout churchman, a determined yet patient administrator, a dutiful host and a conscientious senior executive in a firm of construction engineers. Two of his sons, John and Robert, have both played first-class cricket.