With the recent retirement of Jacques Kallis, there has been renewed discussion about South Africa's greatest Test batsman. Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock are often nominated as Kallis' main claimants to the crown as South Africa's "best-ever", but there is another player who has genuine claims who seems to be rarely mentioned. Dudley Nourse was the son of Dave Nourse, who himself played 45 consecutive Tests for South Africa from 1902 until 1924. Nourse Sr set numerous batting records; however, the son's Test record was soon to eclipse that of the father.
Dudley was born on November 12, 1910. He grew up in Durban, playing cricket and soccer at a high level. The decision of which sport to focus on was not straightforward and Dudley missed an entire season of cricket at 17, to concentrate on football. However, he returned to cricket the next year, joining the Umbilo Cricket Club in Durban. It is interesting to note that he received no formal coaching from his family. His father reportedly told him: "I learned to play cricket with a paling from a fence. Now you go and do the same."
In 1930, Dudley was selected as 12th man for Natal in a game against the touring MCC side. While being named as 12th man would not appear overly significant, he commented afterwards that the experience "was sufficient to prove a turning point in my outlook on the game. I no longer had an attitude of indifference." Cricket had now taken over as Dudley's main sporting focus.
His batting talent for Natal got him selected to tour England with the South African team in 1935. His fine first-class form, including a century in each innings against Surrey, led to his debut in the first Test at Trent Bridge. Batting at No. 4, Dudley fell to the left-arm spinner Hedley Verity for 4 in his only innings in the rain-affected draw. In the second Test, at Lord's, South Africa recorded a historic victory, but Dudley failed with scores of 3 and 2. He was dropped for the third Test, before returning for the final two Tests, in which he scored 29, 53 not out, 32 and 34.
The 1935-36 tour by Australia was to prove pivotal for his Test career. In the first Test, at his home ground in Durban, Nourse rewarded the selectors' faith, scoring 30 and 91. The second Test, in Johannesburg, proved to be one of the most exciting games ever played. South Africa were dismissed for a paltry 157. Ernie McCormick bowled at express pace throughout the innings and got rid of Nourse for a duck. Australia's batsmen also struggled, but they gained a lead of almost 100. Australia's spin- dominant attack of Clarrie Grimmett, Bill O'Reilly and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith were quickly into their stride on a pitch that was now proving receptive to the slower bowlers. Nourse started off his second innings slowly, and didn't get off the mark for 25 minutes. The Australian captain Victor Richardson had been in a dilemma over which bowlers to use against Nourse. Richardson had wanted to immediately bring McCormick back into the attack, but since the spinners were bowling so well, he persisted with them. Nourse had been in for over an hour and had reached 14 by the time McCormick was reintroduced. In his first over, an edge flew untouched through the slips cordon to the boundary.
"For courage and determination, possibly that display by Dudley has never been surpassed on the cricket field. Few in the crowd realised just how much he suffered"Denis Compton on Nourse's 208 at Trent Bridge in 1951
After this near miss, Nourse was in total control. He finally fell to the part-timer Stan McCabe for the then record South African individual score of 231. The fact that McCabe dismissed him proved an omen, as Nourse's great innings was matched by McCabe, who thrashed the South Africa bowlers in an amazing, unbeaten 189. The match ended in a controversial manner, with the South Africa captain Herby Wade successfully appealing against the light. This was the first time that a fielding captain had ever made such an appeal, with Wade claiming that McCabe's batting was putting the fielders in physical danger. In any event, it soon began raining and Australia would not have had the opportunity to score the remaining runs anyway.
Jack Fingleton, who played in this Test and became a noted journalist, wrote that Nourse's innings was one of the greatest ever. He commented that "he swept past all South African records, and, on this worn pitch against some of the greatest spinners ever, he humbled us well and truly".
At one stage, looking for any ideas, Richardson asked Fleetwood-Smith if he had a solution. "Yeah," replied Fleetwood-Smith sardonically, "Shoot him!" Nourse established himself with this one innings, and he quickly became recognised as the best batsman in the South African team. He topped the team's Test batting averages for five successive series prior to the Second World War.
The outbreak of war meant that there was an eight-year delay until Nourse played his next Test after the one against England in Durban in 1939. He scored 621 runs in five Tests in England in 1947 at an average of 69. He was then appointed captain for the home series against England in 1948-49, and he again dominated as a batsman, scoring 536 runs at an average of 76.57. Australia's 1949-50 tour saw Nourse again finish as South Africa's leading batsman with 405 runs at an average of 45.
He finished his Test career when he captained South Africa in England in 1951. At 39, he was starting to struggle with the bat, but he did manage one last great performance. He broke his left thumb while fielding in a game prior to the first Test. A surgeon offered him two options. The first was to plaster the thumb. That would involve missing potentially two months of cricket. The second choice was to pin the fractured bone. This would enable him to possibly play in the first Test, but it would be very painful. Nourse chose the second option and was subsequently able to play at Trent Bridge albeit in agony.
He came to the wicket with the score at 107 for 2. Another wicket could have spelt disaster for a young South Africa team. However, Nourse stood firm. After almost every ball, he was seen to wring his hand in discomfort. He finished the day 76 not out, but his thumb swelled so dramatically that he could barely get his glove back on the following day. He bravely batted on, finally being dismissed for 208. His thumb was so bad that he was unable to field for the entire game or bat in the second innings, as South Africa collapsed for 121. However, they rallied to bowl England out for 114 and win by 71 runs. Denis Compton noted after the match: "For courage and determination, possibly that display by Dudley has never been surpassed on the cricket field. Few in the crowd realised just how much he suffered."
Sadly, this victory was only the second in Nourse's 34-Test career, and his only victory as captain in 15 matches. The period of time that he was involved in Test cricket remains one of the most unsuccessful sequences for any international team. From the time of his debut, the victory at Lord's in 1935 remained South Africa's only Test win until they finally triumphed against England in Trent Bridge in 1951. While Nourse could hardly be blamed for this lack of success, it does indicate a possible reason why, unfairly, he is not now as well remembered as his performances deserve.
Stuart Wark works at the University of New England as a research fellow