Rhodesia's remarkable allrounder March 23, 2005

The remarkable Mr Brooks

Jonty Winch



The remarkable Freddie Brooks © Cricinfo
The white pillars leading into the cricket ground at Harare Sports Club bear the name `FG Brooks'. Today, few people will have heard of the man who is arguably the most outstanding allround sportsman to have represented the former British colony. Fewer still will associate his name with Zimbabwe's inaugural first-class cricket match which began on March 16, 1905. It occurred when the country was known as Rhodesia and controlled by the British South Africa Company. Its administrator was William Milton, who had played rugby for England and captained South Africa at cricket. He promoted sport within the country's white population which had grown slowly but steadily to about 10,000 at that stage.

In January 1905 the mining magnate and leading cricket administrator, Abe Bailey, visited Bulawayo. His arrival coincided with a week in which cricket was in full swing, involving teams from Queens, BAC, Raylton, BSAP, Matopos, King's, Banks and the Civil Service. Impressed by what he saw, Bailey told the Rhodesians that they should be playing in the Currie Cup. It was subsequently arranged for them to enter the competition at the semi-final stage.

It appeared a wonderful opportunity but the odds were stacked against the side. Their opponents - the mighty Transvaal - included leading Test players Jimmy Sinclair, Ernest "Barberton" Halliwell, Maitland Hathorn, Louis Tancred and Reggie Schwarz. In contrast, Rhodesia had only once before fielded a cricket team and that was against Lord Hawke's English XI in March, 1899. The Rhodesians had used 15 men on that occasion but were still defeated by an innings and 65 runs.

Harry Taberer, the Rhodesian and later South African captain, claimed 5 for 62 against Hawke's team and was rated by Plum Warner as the fastest bowler the tourists had faced. But he had since taken up employment in Pretoria and was no longer available. Prominent amongst those still in Rhodesia were Leo Robinson who had played for Natal, Sonny Taberer and Colin Duff, although the latter two were better known for their rugby prowess.

The most exciting prospect was undoubtedly the youthful Freddie Brooks, a recent arrival from England. At Bedford Grammar School he had been regarded as probably the finest schoolboy sportsman in the land. He was a dashing cricket captain (whose unbeaten scores of 162 and 196 were the highest made for the school) and a brilliant rugby three-quarter, thought then to be `the fastest man playing football' in England. He was also the Public Schools' athletic champion in the 100 yards, the hurdles, long jump and high jump.

Fellow pupils at Bedford, Cecil and Jumbo Milton, told their father - the administrator of Rhodesia - about the brilliant young sportsman. He was promptly offered a position in the Rhodesian civil service and arrived in time for the start of the 1902-03 season. The talented 19-year-old made an immediate impression. His first innings in his adopted country resulted in a swiftly accumulated 121 for Causeway in their derby encounter against Kopje. A week later he struck another century, this time for the All-Comers - Brooks was born in Bombay, India - against Home-born.

An interested observer was Herbert Castens who had captained the first South African team to tour England in 1894. He had since become Milton's chief secretary and a member of the Rhodesian Legislative Assembly. He was enthralled by the audacious batting of the youngster and told the cricket correspondent of Johannesburg's Rand Daily Mail that Brooks "was good enough to play for South Africa".

Against the Transvaal, Brooks would be fully tested, not least because he had little time for preparation. Salisbury was slow to resume cricket after the Christmas break as its sportsmen were competing in a series of tennis championships and athletic meetings. Brooks won the first of his Rhodesian tennis singles and athletic sprint titles, whilst also setting a national record for the high jump.

The Matabeleland Cricket Union handled arrangements for the trip. There were few gripes about the team chosen but in all other matters - raising funds, organising transport and general communication - the MCU was alarmingly inefficient. The players discovered their passages had not been booked and there were insufficient beds on the train. "The condition of the men after the journey can be imagined," commented the Bulawayo Chronicle. "At the best it looks like a very uphill task for Rhodesia."

Ironically, the Rhodesians found the worst part of their journey came after Mafeking when they travelled by coach to Potchefstroom. There was no connecting link by train and heavy rains had resulted in muddy roads and swollen rivers. Travelling was hazardous but the team could not afford to be delayed. Urged on by the players, the drivers of the mules took some frightening risks. Even in the day-time when one of the players, Albert Tummell, perched precariously on top of the coach in the pelting rain and tried to give some guidance to the driver, there was always the chance the coach might go into a washed-out hole and be capsized. In crossing rivers there was also the possibility that the swimming mules might lose their direction and allow the vehicle to float downstream.

At night those dangers were increased. Time and again, the cricketers had to sit with water swirling around their feet and sleep was impossible. For twenty-six hours the coach battled against the elements before, wet and exhausted, the team boarded the train at Potchefstroom.

Heavy rain in Johannesburg continued until 8.30 on the morning of the match. When it cleared sufficiently to permit play at 11.15am, "a cold bleak wind made elements anything but pleasant for cricket." Leo Robinson won the toss and put Transvaal into bat on a wicket which the rain had rendered, if anything, easy. Yet by bundling out five of the top-order Transvaal batsmen for 123, the visitors appeared to have justified their captain's decision. Dropped catches allowed John Slatem to compile 154 at a rapid rate and Transvaal was let off the hook. The home side put together a healthy 340, despite the efforts of left-arm George Anderson who bowled admirably to take 7 for 91.

The match was held up again the next day after heavy overnight rain. When play resumed, Freddie Brooks was in fine form. Striking the ball fluently he moved smoothly to a half-century that was punctuated with nine 4s and a 6. Wickets fell at the other end and at lunch the Rhodesians were 109 for 5 with Brooks on 59.

The Rand Daily Mail cricket correspondent recalled Castens' advice of `a year or two ago that Brooks was good enough to play for South Africa, adding, "and from what I saw I am inclined to agree with him. Brooks played all round the wicket like a finished cricketer and was quite at home." He took a while to work out the googly deliveries of Reggie Schwarz but relished the medium-pace bowling of Sinclair and struck a mighty six off him into the adjacent baseball ground.

Unfortunately for Rhodesia, Brooks was out shortly after the break for 61, having batted for one hour and 40 minutes. The next four wickets were unable to make a contribution and the innings crumbled to 115 all out.

Following-on, the Rhodesians suffered an immediate set-back when Brooks was bowled off Richard Norden's first delivery. Not recovering from this shock, they were bundled out for an inept 55 to give Transvaal a huge victory. Norden returned figures of 8 for 12 and was later presented with the ball suitably mounted, a piece of memorabilia that now appears in the Gauteng Cricket Museum.

It was to be Rhodesia's last cricket venture in South Africa for a quarter of a century. But Brooks returned to Johannesburg the following year to play in the rugby Currie Cup. He was to be Rhodesia's inspiration, his great pace on attack and courage in defence attracting favourable comment. The Rand Daily Mail described him as "the best wing three-quarter who has taken part in the tournament" and The Star added that he "must surely be selected to go to England" with the South African team.

Brooks was not selected for a tour partly designed to help unite the two white races in the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War. A ruling was introduced that players had to have served a five-year residential qualification and it found Brooks missing out by a matter of a few months. There was suspicion that the rule had been set up to keep him out as he had played for a country not strictly part of the unification process and he was also known to have maintained links with English rugby during his leave periods.

Paddy Carolin, vice-captain of the Springboks, was furious and set about trying to draft Brooks into the side. The two men met at Southampton and Carolin revealed his plan. A telegram was subsequently sent to the South African Rugby Board asking permission for Brooks to join the touring team because of injuries to two players. To Carolin's dismay, the request was rejected - a replacement would be sent from South Africa.

Brooks in the mean time had started playing. He was in tremendous form, scoring nine tries in four matches for Bedford. He was chosen to play for the South against the North in an English trial at Blackheath and was the outstanding player on the field, scoring four tries.

Selection for England followed against South Africa at Crystal Palace on a soft and greasy ground with play being hampered by showers of rain. It was for good reason that the South Africans feared the Rhodesian speedster who was quite at home in such conditions. And concern swept through their ranks when he became the first player to stir the partisan 40 000 crowd. According to the Morning Post, "he put everyone on the tip-toe of expectancy in the first few minutes by a dashing run."

The Springboks led 3-0 at half-time and displayed dogged determination in conditions that deteriorated to the extent that the match was described as `mud-larking'. One notable scribe, CB Fry, thought that "only play of the most brilliant order saved the game under such conditions from bathos."

The English scored the only points in a desperate second-half struggle. It was Brooks who dribbled the ball into the South African half. A ruck developed. At the right moment, recalled the Morning Post, the ball was quickly heeled: "Jago gave an excellent pass to Stoop; the latter gently kicked over the defensive wall and the speedy Brooks, waiting for something to turn up went for the leather like a shot from a gun. He was there first; a storm proclaimed his try. Yes his deed was done; the scores were equal. But the general excitement proved too much for the English captain, VHO Cartwright, and he failed to add the extra points."

Paul Roos, the Springbok captain, thought the drawn match "had shown them all as equals" and that the tour had united the South African [white] nation. "From Cape Agulhas to the Zambesi," he said, "South Africa was one and all differences have been forgotten."

There was irony in the fact that the only player from the area immediately south of the Zambesi had played for England. And, not long afterwards, Brooks was on his way back to Africa where, it was said, he had an appointment with a young lady who was to become his wife. He turned down the opportunity to play rugby for England against Wales and France. It had all been a wonderful adventure, although Carolin continued to bemoan the fact that Brooks "should have been playing for us, as he was a Rhodesian on holiday in England."

Rhodesia played two other first-class cricket matches before the First World War, both against HDG Leveson-Gower's touring side in 1909-10. Brooks was unavailable for the first of the matches at Bulawayo which was lost by an innings and 120 runs, but played in the second at Salisbury. It was a match the Rhodesians might have won if time had not run out. Brooks scored a second-innings 51 but was over-shadowed by Herbert Keigwin (Cambridge University and London County) who made the colony's first century (111) and Leo Robinson who struck 95 and 57.

Brooks was for a number of year's Rhodesia's leading cricketer, athlete, football, rugby and tennis player. He was also one of the country's most respected personalities, serving as Master of the High Court and then Chairman of the Public Service before his death in 1947. He was awarded the OBE.

Jonty Winch is the author of Cricket's Rich Heritage: a history of Rhodesian and Zimbabwean Cricket 1890-1982; Cricket in Southern Africa: two hundred years of achievements and records and England's Youngest Captain: the life and times of Monty Bowden