The tour is arranged

Early cricket in South Africa was sired by the garrison troops at the end of the eighteenth century.

With Englishmen settling down in the land, the sport became popular with time as in any other British outpost. However, most of the nineteenth century saw a rather sluggish growth. It developed in the main centres of the Cape Colony, Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg, Transvaal, Western Province and elsewhere. But the rate of development was not very encouraging.

By the 1880s, however, domestic tours within the colonies had slowly started taking place. The Champions Bat tournament had been in vogue from 1875-76. Travelling teams with motley crews like the Stray Klips, in 1887, and Capetown Wanderers, in 1888, had journeyed within the southern country to contest cricket matches.

By the late 1880s, therefore, there was a general consensus among the cricketing fraternity that the time had come to pit the Springbok skills against overseas opposition.

And hence transpired the first ever trip by an English cricket team to South Africa, the brainchild of Major Robert Gardner Warton.

This military man had been on the General Staff of the Army in South Africa for five years since 1883, and had just retired. He had seen service with the 1st Battalion, 10th Foot (Lincolnshire Regiment) in the Perak Expedition in the Malay Peninsula, Japan, China, Straits Settlements and Malta. He had also played a couple of games for Essex during his time. Later, in managerial capacity, he had become a well-known figure around the cricketing fraternity of the Cape Colony, and was for a period the honorary secretary of the Western Province Club.

Moreover, Warton had the support of William Milton, a very influential diplomat who later served as parliamentary secretary to Cecil Rhodes. Milton was keen to facilitate arrangements on behalf of the Western Province Club.

The English Cricket Team that toured South Africa in 1888-89. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

The England side that Warton managed to get together to tour South Africa was hardly the strongest. It would have struggled against an average county eleven. However, there were indeed some useful cricketers, with the democratic division of six amateurs and six professionals.  On paper, the team was named RG Warton’s XI. However, the skipper was C. Aubrey Smith, the Sussex medium pacer with a curious run up that got him labelled ‘Round the Corner’ Smith. Later in life he would court fame by playing character roles in early Hollywood productions.

Sir Charles Aubrey Smith. Image Courtesy:

The other major amateur of the side were Monty Bowden of Surrey, effectively the wicketkeeper and vice-captain. The remaining gentlemen of the team were not really the cream of the First-Class talent. BAF Grieve had made it to the Harrow XI, E McMaster had turned out for Eton and Cambridge, Charles Coventry had represented Eton, J Roberts was a freshman at Cambridge whose First-Class career would include one solitary match for Middlesex in 1892. There was one RA Skinner as well, the greatest passenger a Test squad has ever carried.

However, there were some serious talents among the professionals. Johnny Briggs was a champion left-arm spinner and also a decent bat, one of the Lancashire legends, who had toured Australia earlier. Wicketkeeper Harry Wood was there as a replacement for the indisposed great George Lohmann, but was also a rather valuable addition to the team. Maurice Read of Surrey was an experienced Test batsman. Bobby Abel was on his way to becoming one of the great openers of Surrey and England, a man in whose footsteps Jack Hobbs would eventually follow. Arnold Fothergill of Somerset was past his best, but still a left-arm fast medium bowler of merit, good enough to best inexperienced batsmen. And Frank Hearne, one of the extraordinary Hearne cricketing family, had gone three weeks ahead of the rest of the team to coach the Cape cricketers, and would later play for South Africa as well.

During the tour, Roberts had to be recalled due to the death of his mother and was replaced by the aging but famous Yorkshire professional George Ulyett.

Sir Donald Currie. Image Courtesy: National Art Gallery of Scotland

Hence, on board the Garth Castle, when Sir Donald Currie proposed a toast, captain Aubrey Smith was justified in his remarks: “A day or two ago I saw in a newspaper that we are considered by no means a First-Class team. I think that is obviously an unnecessary remark and somewhat unjust to Major Warton. Doubtless, if it had been necessary, Major Warton could have got together as strong a combination as ever left the shores of England. But the fact must be borne in mind that we are a pioneer team. No English team has ever before visited South Africa. It would be a very dangerous thing to have effected a very strong combination, just as dangerous as to have a very weak one. If a very strong team goes to South Africa, the germs of cricket might be crushed out, each individual might be disappointed, and each club be made to feel itself impotent, as it were. The equal objection might be made to a very weak team. We are anxious to hold our own, and of course we are anxious to have amongst us men who can show what good cricket is, also men of the genuine type seen on county grounds at home, where professionals and amateurs are in sympathetic touch together purifying the game and showing an example to all sportsmen.”

Among the ones who sat during the speech were Viscount Oxenbridge, Lord George Scott and Sir Goerge Baden-Powell, the brother of Baron Baden-Powell of scouting fame. The Scottish shipowner, politician and philanthropist Sir Donald Currie made sure that the occasion would not be forgotten by offering a challenge cup in his name that was to be won by the local side that excelled most against the English side. Later, Currie Cup became the domestic tournament of South Africa.

The sea legs

The voyage started through a choppy Channel under the effects of a sou’-wester, which afflicted almost the entire team with seasickness. But the Bay of Biscay offered some respite and the band became merry as schoolboys. The team passed Cape Finisterre in brilliant sunshine and after a delay at the mouth of Tagus, the cricketers had some practice at Lisbon.

Garth Castle. Image Courtesy: Histarmar

In the ship concerts, captain Smith played the role of Charles Cashmore in the comedy Uncles Will while Major Warton, who had been a church organist, was much in demand as a solo pianist and accompanist. The cricketers also blackened their faces with soot to put up a show as the Garth Castle Minstrels, and Smith himself as Mr. Boss sang a mournful ballad titled ‘Enniscorthy’. After all this merriment, and a short stop at Madeira, the Garth Castle eventually sailed into Table Bay.

Sir Hercules Robinson. Image courtesy:

His Excellency the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, welcomed the new arrivals at Poole’s Hotel, and the gathering glittered even more due to the presence of Chief Justice Sir JH de Villiers and the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Sir David Tennant. The lavish dinner and drinks were to be a constant feature of the long, long tour.

During the course of the tour, the initial itinerary underwent a number of changes. The journeys by rail and coach were rather arduous, and the men responsible for drawing up the schedule were not very adept at taking all that into consideration. In fact, practically every aspect of the pioneering trip was a journey into the unknown, based on hope and sprinkled with expectation. The financial arrangements were, however, treated with great deliberation and more realism.

As was the custom of the times, the English team started out playing the odds matches. Their first encounter was against the XXII of Western Province. Beginning on the Friday before Christmas, the match was contested in stiflingly hot weather. The Englishmen took the field in chocolate Surrey colours, Union Jack badges and yellow ribbons, to the uproarious cheers of nearly two thousand voices. However, suffering from sea legs, they fared rather disappointingly. Read and Fothergill suffered from sunstroke and England lost the game by 17 runs.

They indeed needed a few days to acclimatise.  They just about beat the Cape Colony XV by 11 runs, in spite of the hang overs of a largely liquid Christmas dinner, and then, after another ship journey, suffered their second defeat, to Port Elizabeth XXII by 55 runs.

The endless travel was not really helping matters. When they defeated South Western Districts XXII by an innings with Briggs getting 13 wickets in the first innings, things seemed to look up. Especially so because this victory was achieved after a long and dangerous trek in rickety carts, much of it in terrifying darkness, followed by a hazardous crossing of the Oliphant’s River. But this was followed by even more travel, by coach, cart and steamer, along tracks in the process of being serviced by hardened convicts. Hence it was hardly surprising when the men were meted out back to back 10-wicket thrashings by the Kimberley XVIII and in the return match against the Cape Colony XV.

By this time the Englishmen had been citing ‘hospitality too profuse, travelling too hard, light too puzzling, odds too great and inferior grounds’ as excuses for defeats. If the pitches were not matting, they were made of clay with abundant quantities of salt sprinkled on them to absorb the moisture. The England batsmen struggled in such conditions, and the bowlers could not really make out how to get the wickets.  “What will they come up with next?” asked Charles Finsalon, a Cape Colony cricketer who was also a vitriolic columnist for the Daily Independent newspaper of Kimberley.

The England team had lost four of their first six matches. Since they were ostensibly on a mission to educate the rustic South African cricketers in matters cricketing, the criticism was warranted, if severe. The side was facing great problems. Travel, hospitality and cricket had been overdosed. They were sleep deprived, losing appetite and morale. Roberts had gone home, Ulyett had not arrived. And Skinner was being dubbed the ‘greatest cricketer of England’ because of his absence from the fields and presence in the parties.

The turnaround

The weary band reached Johannesburg, the centre of the South African gold fields, in an American built Buffalo Bill-style stagecoach, three on a seat, shin bones and seats in contact, 6000 lbs of luggage on top, drawn by twelve horses at a gallop over rough roads on a piping hot day. They had journeyed three hundred miles with seven hours’ sleep in three days.

Hence, on arrival at the recently excavated and levelled pitch of Wanderers, the Englishmen seemed already resigned to defeat. They conceded at 78-run first innings lead to the Johannesburg XXII, after being all out for 60.

But there was one man who refused to yield.

Johnny Briggs. Image Courtesy:

Johnny Briggs had captured 12 of the 21 Johannesburg wickets in the first innings. In the second he finished with figures of 24-15-19-9. Aubrey Smith took cue and captured 10 for 25, 8 of them clean bowled. And then the two professionals, Abel and Hearne,  hit the 137 runs to win.

Not only did the cricketing fortunes of the Englishmen change with this win. There was more change of fortunes in the literary sense. A few shrewdly advised investments on the gold market had enabled the team to capitalise on the fluctuations of that volatile mining industry. They had made money, many of them, plenty of it. With speculations rife about newly discovered gold mines every hour, it was a period of excitement. It not only galvanised the team as only gold can. It also made Smith, Bowden, Coventry and Grieve decide to stay back in South Africa after the tour, to speculate on the precious metal.

And soon the team was winning.

Transvaal XV were routed by an innings, likewise for Maritzburg XXII. With Ulyett having arrived, the team celebrated by winning by an innings against Natal XV. The match with Durban XVIII ended in a keenly contested draw, with the local side 30 runs away from a target of 129 with 3 wickets standing.

By this time the captain was relaxed, buoyant, taking loads of wickets and making impromptu speeches on the verandahs of the pavilions, even singing self-composed songs and parodies. And the newspapers were commenting about how fine a fellow Mr Smith was, how good a companion and how awful favourite with the ladies.

The team proceeded on the tour, with a tug Fox getting them to Sir Donald Currie’s Drummond Castle on their voyage to East London. A rather precarious rope ladder climb was needed to get to the bigger vessel. Major Warton lost his hat and Bobby Abel, after a dozen heart thumping attempts, preferred to be hoisted in a basket along with Read and Ulyett.

But these adventures now hardly affected their performance. The Cape Mounted Rifles XXII were beaten by an innings in both the back to back encounters, Briggs capturing 39 wickets in the four innings. Among the spectators were a great many black people who cheered vociferously for the tourists. The town had a talented black team and Aubrey Smith, in the post-match speech, underlined the importance of promoting cricket among all races.

At Grahamstown, they played a local XXII at the pretentiously named but rather beautiful City Lord’s. Smith bagged 15 wickets and Briggs 22. The visitors won by an innings. Another innings win followed against a Midlands District XXII at GraaffReinet, following which the guests were treated to a banquet that outdid the hospitality of every other city they had been to till then. That was saying a lot.

Returning to Port Elizabeth, the tourists overcame the Eastern Province XV by 8 wickets.

The Test matches

Advertisement for the first Test between South Africa and England, 1888-89. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

And now it was time for the game against a South African XI which would go down as the first ever Test match between the two sides.

The Test match status was some years down the line, but it did not prevent the match from becoming a festive affair. Tourists flocked into Port Elizabeth for the match between the Englishmen and the best eleven from the southern land.

However, it was never much of a contest. Before the home team had scored, Briggs had sent back two men. By the time the score reached 16, he had four wickets. When Aubrey Smith dismissed Bernard Tancred, the best batsman for South Africa, for 29, the challenge was as good as over. Smith, in what was to remain his only Test match, ran through the tail. The South Africans were all out for 84.

England did not bat too well, but Abel’s 46 from No 1 and Fothergill’s 32 from No 11 saw them to 148. A lead of 64 was huge in a low scoring match like this one. Tancred got another 29, and the other men showed some fight, but the South Africans could manage no more than 129 in the second innings. England easily knocked off the required runs with 8 wickets standing.

Thus, what was later to become the first ever Test played by South Africa, ended in two days.

With hordes of spectators having come into the town for three days of cricket, arrangements were quickly made for a game between the Married and the Single cricketers from the two sides. This, much like the debate for and against tying the knot, remained inconclusive.

It was after this match that Smith went down with fever. Bowden, just 23 years old, stepped into his shoes as captain and led the team to a draw against a Kimberley XVIII.

Smith had recovered when the second match was played between the representative South African XI and England, but it was too late to make the journey. It was Bowden who led the side at Newlands, Cape Town. He still remains the youngest ever to captain England in a Test match.

This game was rendered an absolute mismatch by Abel, who scored 120, and Briggs, who captured 7 for 17 and 8 for 11.  Bernard Tancred’s 26 in the first innings was the only score over double figures for the hosts. The rest was a blur of outgoing and incoming batsmen. South Africa rolled over for 47 and 43. By now Briggs had mastered the art of bowling on matting.

Down the years many have taken more wickets in a match. Muttiah Muralitharan, Bob Massie and Narendra Hirwani have captured 16, Sydney Barnes 17 and Jim Laker 19. But, never has anyone taken as much for such paltry a total of runs. Seven years later, Surrey champion George Lohmann captured 15 wickets against the same opponents at Port Elizabeth. But he gave away 45 runs. Briggs’ feat remains unmatched.

The Lancashire left-armer thus ended the series with 294 wickets at a ridiculous average of 5.14. The closest anyone came to matching him was Smith with 134 at 7.19. With the bat, Abel hit 1075 runs at 48.86, more than twice than the nearest rival.

Thus, the tour came to an end, England having won 13 lost 4 and drawn 2 of their 19 matches. The Test series, as it would be known, later on, was won 2-0.

What followed

After the expected farewell luncheon, dinner, presentations and speeches, Smith and Bowden waved goodbye to the team from the steam yacht Dalton as it sailed alongside Garth Castle.

The captain and vice-captain returned to the shore and set up business at 26, Royal Chambers at Marshall’s Township. They became Randt shareholders, as did Basil Grieves. Following this, Smith and Bowden opened their own partnership, named Smith and Bowden, on the Johannesburg Stock Exchanges. Grieve started out as a broker. Hon Charles Coventry joined the Bechuanaland Police.

Smith appeared on stage for the first time here, with the part of the Captain Hawksley in Still Waters Run Deep, a show JA Rosier put on at Theatre Royal. He also played football for Wanderers and eventually captained them.

Bowden and Smith both represented Transvaal in domestic cricket. In the first Currie Cup match, Bowden scored 63 and 126 not out against Kimberley, playing as a wicketkeeper-batsman. Aubrey Smith led the Transvaal side in the game and picked up 7 wickets.

Their business was, unfortunately not a success. There were the initial success, but it was followed by shady dealings, bankruptcy, severe sickness to both the partners and general chaos. In The Gentleman Digger, a novel based in Johannesburg of that era penned by Anna Dunphy Comtesse De Bremont, two cricketing speculators appear as characters, who can be instantly recognised as Smith and Bowden.

A few days after the Currie Cup match, Bowden travelled north to Rhodesia and settled there. He died in February 1892, at the Umtali Hospital — an establishment little more than a glorified mud hut. His body had to be protected from marauding lions before it was buried in a coffin made from whisky cases. He never got to know that he had become the youngest Englishman to captain his country in Tests.

Smith also had a brush with death. In fact, he was also reported to be dead. The Sussex man contracted typhoid from the contaminated water supply; it was aided and abetted by pleurisy and pneumonia. He lay sick, in frenzied fits of hallucinations. And in the Graaf-Reiner Advertiser, the following morose news item was published:

“Information has been received that Mr Aubrey Smith, who captained the English team during the Cricket Tournament, has succumbed to that fell disease, inflammation of the lungs.”

Thankfully, the obituary was 59 years, 2 months and 3 days premature. Smith returned to bowl for Sussex with a fair bit of success, and then crossed the ocean to make a name for himself in Hollywood.

England in South Africa 1888-89


Result England 2 South Africa 0

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