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The contemplative cricketer

Odd Men In - a title shamelessly borrowed from AA Thomson's fantastic book - concerns cricketers who have caught my attention over the years in different ways - personally, historically, technically, stylistically - and about whom I have never previously found a pretext to write

Bruce Mitchell was one of the shiest cricketers ever to represent his country at cricket. It wasn't simply that he was a quiet, formal and religious man who avoided the limelight; he sometimes gave the impression that he would have preferred it had Test matches been played in private before empty stands and without the necessity for force or competition.
For Mitchell, cricket was a pleasure preferably consumed in silence and deep contemplation. He stood apart in the weak South African teams of his time by seldom seeming to commune with his team-mates, being known for his obliviousness to whom he was batting with. He stood tall at the crease tapping the ground with his bat gently - "almost apologetically" said his contemporary Dudley Nourse. To each ball, he moved only minimally; his backlift was perfunctory, his running between wickets dainty, as though in dancing pumps. After each delivery, he would stand perfectly still over the block-hole and stare impassively back down the pitch, apparently husbanding energy for a later that never came, his only concession to animation an unconscious left-hand tug at his collar on the right. "By nature, tense", decided John Arlott, and "not an easy man to know," but one "in whose brain there is careful labour".

For 20 years, nonetheless, Mitchell was the personification of South African cricket, his 3471 Test runs at 48.80 the more impressive for the pristine orthodoxy with which they were acquired, and desperate match situations that he often faced. He never mastered the limelight, becoming stiff and self-conscious when praised and blushing when crowds clapped his 50s and 100s; Nourse recalls him flushing with embarrassment after a score of 72 against England in which he had fallen short of his usual standards of solidity. "You don't need to tell me it was a bad innings," he confessed. "I know it only too well...I don't suppose I will ever live this down." But, of course, he did: in the 20 years from 1929 to 1949, Mitchell's wicket was almost as integral to South Africa as Bradman's to Australia and Headley's to the West Indies.

Louis Duffus once likened Mitchell to a boy standing up in front of classmates to recite `The Charge of the Light Brigade', and his earnestness seems to have been an abiding one. His cricket upbringing was unusual in that it was not until later with other boys. His first mentor was a devoted older sister, who bowled to him tirelessly, and gifted him with a prize Jack Hobbs bat that she had won herself in a girl's match. Mitchell treated it like a piece of the true cross: `I was always Jack Hobbs when I went in to bat.' Mitchell was then `discovered' by EA Halliwell, South Africa's captain against Lord Hawke's Englishmen, and a family friend. He took him as a pupil, bowling at him day after day on a dust-caked road to a mine in Witwatersrand, and prophesied that Mitchell would play Test match cricket in his teens - he was only five months out.

Mitchell's debut was more of a challenge than most. In common with almost all the young Springboks, Mitchell played his first big games on matting, and as a result mostly off the back foot. When he went to hook Larwood early in his first innings at Edgbaston in June 1929, the ball was on him far more quickly than he'd bargained for and dislocated his thumb, deadening his right arm and depriving him of all power. For such a retiring young man, however, Mitchell was almost preternaturally tough. He batted on in pain, his 88 compiled in seven-and-a-half hours with only his top hand, coming through like a pendulum - something he had cultivated by hours in front of a long mirror at home. He enjoyed a laugh - a private one - when a spectator asked whether he thought he was a war memorial.

Mitchell's greatest Test innings took him back to that matting fons et origo. In June 1935, the Lord's pitch was plagued by leather jackets - not the kind once coveted by Mitchell's countryman Cronje, but a grub that consumes grass at its roots. The dried-mud surface almost bare of grass turned prodigiously but reminded Mitchell of home: he hit 17 fours in a match-winning unbeaten 164, and looked nothing like the bookish student that he usually resembled. Rather, said C. B. Fry, he "batted like the schoolmaster of all the bowlers ever born".
For the most part, Mitchell was a passive resister, and could look completely immured under pressure. During the wet Australian summer of 1931-32 that regularly reduced batsmen to helplessness, Mitchell almost had observer status. He topped South Africa's averages by quiet accretion, but at one stage went runless for seventy minutes against Grimmett and Ironmonger. Mitchell even, it is said, let that impassive visage slip, at least momentarily. At Brisbane, Cyril Vincent dropped Bradman, then only 10, at second slip, and commenced a suitable chorus of effing and blinding. "You should not say things like that, Cyril," Mitchell said mildly from first slip. "Not even when you have dropped Don Bradman." Bradman was 16 when he snicked another outswinger, this time straight to Mitchell, who also put him down. Mitchell looked at the ball on the ground, shut his eyes, and said almost inaudibly: "Jesus Christ." (Bradman made 226).

Mitchell was also a poor captain, too taciturn to engage others, too sunk in concentration to seize initiative. He may be the origin of a story deeply embedded in the game's apocrypha. In his autobiography, John Waite swears by the report of a game at Linksfield where Mitchell was playing in an Old Johannians XI with the similarly lugubrious Russell Endean. The pair stood beside one another behind the wicket for the duration of a 150-run partnership without exchanging a word until Mitchell broke the silence. "Don't you think it's about time our captain tried a change in the bowling?" he asked. "You are our captain," Endean replied.

To shift him, however, was work fit for gelignite. He played late and straight, always with the swing or spin, from a grooved side-on position taught him by Herby Taylor; he looked, above all, like a man with a plan. He was once joined at the wicket by the ebullient Eric Rowan who struck some rousing fours and tried to ginger up his partner. "Come on Emma," said Rowan. "Give it a bang." Mitchell looked puzzled: "What's the hurry? We've got two days."

Arlott found him a source of endless fascination: "Mitchell is, by nature, a man who solves problems, who solves them for himself, by himself. There are few less obvious or more interesting men in cricket today." Mitchell was on the field for the fifth Test at The Oval in August 1947 for all but 15 minutes, moving like a tide toward 120 and 189 not out, which saved the game and almost won it. He batted through the final hours as if in a trance, guiding South Africa from 266 for 6 to 423 for 7, first with Tufty Mann then with Lindsay Tuckett. After they had been together half an hour, Mitchell met Tuckett in the middle of the pitch wearing a puzzled frown. "When did Tufty get out, Lindsay?" he asked. If he could not find those private places and empty stands, it seems, Mitchell was capable of fortifying them in his own mind.