England in South Africa 1905-06: South Africa 4 England 1

Everything changed with the 1905-06 tour.

On the matting wickets of South Africa, the battery of googly bowlers pulverised England. Of course, as we shall see, there were the pacemen as well.

South Africa, who had till now been a pushover in world cricket, a third dimension reluctantly added to the stature of the Ashes playing rivals, suddenly made the world sit up and take notice.

South African sides had been touring England since 1894 since Herbert Casten’s young contingent had sailed to the shores. Murray Bisset had led a team in 1901 and the randlord Abe Bailey had bankrolled the visit of another team, captained by Frank Mitchell, in 1904. But none of the tours had featured a Test match against a representative England side.

After the thumping 1905-06 victory, things would be different.

Reggie Schwarz. Image Courtesy: Scoopnest.com

It was Reggie Schwarz who had kickstarted the revolution. During his sojourn in Middlesex, this splendid all-round sportsman came across Bernard Bosanquet. From close quarters he had seen this colourful amateur delivering those curious offerings, with the action of leg-breaks but balls that turned the other way. He had picked up the tricks of the trade and painstakingly perfected them.

Going back to the southern country, he had shared all his newly gathered knowledge with two other bowlers, and one batsman who was also interested in the new deceitful art. Hence the science and mystery of the googly had been learnt by the great all-rounder Aubrey Faulkner, by Bertie Vogler and the top order batsman Gordon White.

Hence, when Plum Warner’s men arrived to play a long five-Test series, the battery of googly bowlers were waiting for them. And they fell on them immediately on arrival.

The first warning came in the form of a shock defeat to Transvaal. The home side was dismissed for a small score and MCC gained a lead of 130 runs, but then Faulkner turned things around. Set 176 to win in the final innings the visitors fell away for 115. The match saw Faulkner score 63 unbeaten runs in the second innings and pick up 6 wickets. Schwarz captured 9.

It unsettled the visitors, essentially a rather second string side sent from England, expecting the normal easy South African outfits. George Hirst, Wilfred Rhodes, CB Fry, Johnny Tyldesley, Tom Howard, Stanley Jackson … none of them had come along. Among the victorious men who triumphed over Australia in the 1905 Ashes, only David Denton,  Schofield Haigh and Colin Blythe had toured.

Rumours were rife that telegrams had been sent for Hirst to join them. But they remained rumours. As the balls turned twice as much on the matting wickets as on turf, and the odd one bounced, the apprehensive group of Englishmen took on the South Africans in the first Test at the Old Wanderers.

South Africa’s first ever Test win

The peacock-blue matting provided a striking contrast to the red-brown sand of the outfield, while long hedges of green bordered two sides of the ground. A giant screen stood at the railway end over which gigantic gum trees towered in menacing splendour. Wicket-keeper and captain Percy Sherwell flipped the coin up against the brilliant blue sky and Warner called correctly. England batted in what was to become an epochal Test.

It took just eight minutes for the googly bowlers to strike. Schwarz, who gave up the leg-spinner completely, turned his balls only from the off. Faulkner turned it both ways. Wickets tumbled.

As the opening bowlers tired, Sherwell introduced Vogler. And after a while, White was put on attack. All of them were successful. England slumped to 97 for 6.

Aubrey Faulkner. Image Courtesy: Cricket Country

Young Jack Crawford and Schofeld Haigh fought back, and the score progressed to 184 before the side was bowled out. Schwarz 3 wickets, Faulkner and White 2 apiece, Vogler had bowled just 3 overs and got one. Jimmy Sinclair’s pace had accounted for 2.

Walter Lees. Image Courtesy: Getty Images

But, by the end of the day, South Africans had slumped to 71 for 8 in response. Walter Lees and the magnificent Colin Blythe found the wicket to their liking. And when on the next morning the remaining two wickets had fallen for just 20 more, the Test seemed destined for another of those many many one-sided routs witnessed in South Africa over the years.

Soon England were cruising at 55 for 1 in the second innings, with Warner and Denton batting confidently. The huge crowd had resigned themselves to yet another surrender.

And then young Faulkner ran in with his few short steps and indefatigable action. The ball pitched well outside the off-stump, went through Denton’s defences and hit the middle.

With Schwarz not effective in this innings, Vogler was summoned early. And he fooled Teddy Wynyard as the ball struck his stumps. 56 for 3. There was still fight left in the hosts.

The youthful Crawford batted delightfully yet again, carting 43. But Faulkner’s four wickets restricted England to 190.

284 to win. South Africa had never won a Test match before this.

In walked the South African openers. But in spite of the massive cheer that went up as the batsmen appeared, the start was quite disastrous. Bernard Tancred was caught off Blythe. Maitland Hathorn snicked to second slip off Lees. The score was 22 for 2. Inevitable defeat writ large on the wall.

Gordon White. Image Courtesy: Cricinfo

Gordon White is often clubbed with the googly bowlers of that famous South African era. However, one tends to forget that he was a superb batsman with a delectable sense of timing. On this day, he essayed a classic. He was helped by Haigh feeling sick and not bowling through the rest of the day, but against whatever else the Englishmen tossed up he drove superbly and defended with perfect technique. At the end of the second day South Africa stood at 68 for 2. The spectators dared to hope, although the rosy dreams were sprinkled with plenty of misgivings.

Plenty of them assembled the following morning to watch the Springbok chase, among them the High Commissioner and the great South African cricket financier Abe Bailey.

And immediately on resumption, tragedy struck. William Shalders went for an unnecessary single and was run out without adding to the score.

Haigh, still under the weather, did not turn up for the day, but Lees and Blythe bowled admirably and well. Wickets fell, the dangerous Jimmy Sinclair was dismissed cheaply, Faulkner run out in a case of nervous exertions. The score stood at 105 for 6.

105 for 6. The target was far, far away, almost invisible to naked eye. It looked hopeless. Dave Nourse was the new man in. Two men at the crease with impregnable defensive qualities.

And suddenly they were making runs as well. Patiently, without risks, but the runs were coming slowly and surely.

Nourse drove at Lees and got an edge. The chance flew to Albert Relf at second slip. It would have been a spectacular catch if it had come off. A hand did reach the ball, but it did not stick.

White did not look like getting out at all. The philosophy of his innings was to be there at the wicket and wait for the runs to come. It was proving successful. By lunch time the game was still heavily loaded in favour of England, but the hosts had made up a lot of ground.

After lunch, the breakthrough refused to come. White was past his fifty and progressing slowly and surely. Once in a while, the brilliantly timed drive was executed. But mostly it was superb accumulation, patience and judgement. The bowling was worn down bit by bit.

121 had been added in two-and-a-quarter hours before Relf brought one back to hit White’s stumps. A great innings of 81 came to an end, essayed over four hours and ten minutes. 226 for 7. Victory was still 58 runs away.

Ernie Hayes was given an extended bowl, perhaps because of the spectacular success of the wrist spinners in the South African attack. And it did pay off. Vogler was bowled at 230.  Two wickets to go. 54 runs to make. The left-handed Nourse was still battling at one end.

Nine tense runs were added and then it was time for a welcome tea break. The score read 239 for 8. None of the spectators dared to leave the ground.

Immediately after the break a ball from Relf kicked up, and Schwarz could only hit it back to the bowler. 239 for 9. Still 45 to get.

Surely England could not lose from here? But according to Warner, “The odds would have been almost anything on MCC had the last man on the South African side been of the calibre of the usual eleventh man. But Sherwell is an extremely good bat.”

Indeed, he was. More than a good one.  In 1907, he would open the batting at Lord’s and save the Test with a century. Quite a handy batsman to have as a No. 11.

The first ball he faced from Relf was struck for four. At the other end, Nourse was resolute, determined to stick to the very end. Sherwell, in contrast, remained a tad aggressive. Perfect foil for each other.  The score started moving along too fast for comfort for Warner’s men.

Dave Nourse. Image Courtesy: Cricket Country

Relf and Hayes were replaced, Lees and Crawford brought on. The batsmen played them with ease. Boundaries were struck. The score moved through the 240s, faster through the 250s.

A tiring Lees was taken off again, and Relf came back. Nourse drove firmly and freely, essaying his trademark half-cut half-drive often during this phase. Sherwell negotiated the bowling with aplomb, calm and cool to the very end.

The score progressed through the 260s, inched along 270s. Eight more were needed now. Crawford had opted for medium-pace rather than spin, with Relf and Hayes in the slips. The ball moved away outside off. Sherwell played at it. It took the edge and flew the two men to the fine boundary. Groans all around the ground from English fielders.

280 for 9. Nourse was on 90, Sherwell 18. Four more required.

Relf started a new over to Nourse. It was on the leg stump and the left-hander drove hard through the mid-wicket. It beat the ring of fielders and travelled along the quick outfield. The batsmen sprinted, turned, sprinted again, and as the ball was retrieved and thrown, ran back for the third. The scores were level. South Africa could not lose. The crowd was ecstatic.

Sherwell was on strike. Warner signalled his men to come in, forming a protective ring around the batsmen. Relf was a seasoned pro, he surely knew how to keep it tight.

Three dot balls followed, perfectly pitched, admirably negotiated.

And now Relf bowled that infamous ball. Slowest and easiest of full pitches ever bowled, that too on the leg-side. Warner wrote, “Relf! Relf! What were you about that at the crisis you should have presented Sherwell with (that). You who had up till then bowled with so much determination and life and with such accuracy of length?”

Sherwell heaved it to the square-leg boundary. South Africa had won, for the first time in their history of Test cricket.

Men were shrieking hysterically, some were even crying, and hats and sticks were flying everywhere. When the winning hit had been made the crowd simply flung themselves at Nourse and Sherwell and carried them into the pavilion, while, for half an hour after it was all over, thousands lingered on, and the whole of the South African Eleven had to come forward on to the balcony of the committee room.

After a while the great financier Abe Bailey came into the English dressing room and asked Warner to say a few words to the crowd. And the gracious captain said that he had never seen a side fight a getter rear-guard action.

“Defeat in such a struggle was glorious, for the first Test match will be talked of in South Africa as long as cricket is played there,” Warner concluded.

The rest of the series

It did not stop there.

Buoyed by this incredible win, the first in their history, the South African juggernaut rolled on.

Ernest Vogler. Image Courtesy: Cricinfo

In the second Test, Faulkner picked up 3, Schwarz 6, Vogler 2, while the pace dup of Sinclair and Snooke accounted for 9 between them. It was not all googly. But few English batsmen had the inclination for a prolonged fight. They were dismissed for 148, conceded a lead of 129, and managed just 160 in the second innings. The margin of defeat was 9 wickets.

In the third, South Africa rode a Hathorn century to pile up 385. FL Fane responded with a hundred of his own, but the varied attack of the South Africans saw England falling for 295. Now Gordon White came in and struck a majestic 147, enabling the South Africans to declare at 349 for 5, setting a target of 440. And while the googly bowlers are credited for the victory, it was actually the fast medium of Tip Snooke that captured 8 second innings wickets as England managed just 196.

It seemed like a dam had opened up. After waiting 17 years for their first ever Test victory, the South Africans had won three in a row. The series was theirs.

It was left to the genius of Colin Blythe to stem the rot. As the tour moved from Johannesburg to Cape Town, he ran through the South Africans with 6 in the first innings and 5 in the second. But the Englishmen still conceded the first innings lead. They required 159 to win and got there due to some excellent batting by Fane. Yet, they just squeezed through by 4 wickets.

The final Test was yet another mismatch. Almost every South African bowler tried ended up among the wickets and England were dismissed for 187. And this was followed with South African batsmen pulling their weight right down the order, Vogler getting 62 from No 11. By the time England batted again, they had lost the stomach for fight. After three big defeats in the first three Tests, now they succumbed to innings defeat.

The series was thus won 4-1. It is remembered, a trifle wrongly, as the triumph of the googly bowlers. They did play their part. But Snooke with 24 wickets and Sinclair with 21 were the most successful bowlers. The four googly bowlers together actually captured 43 wickets, two less than the pacemen.

Now that the Springboks had earned their first ever win against the Englishmen, and that too by a thumping margin, the old country could not continue to treat the touring teams with customary disdain.


When Percy Sherwell’s side reached England in the summer of 1907, three Tests were arranged, to be played at Lord’s, Headingley and The Oval.

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