The history of early South African cricket is curious. And it reads curious as we pursue it through a number of decades.
There was only rudimentary progress in the first decade and a half, when motley crews of decent to nondescript English county cricketers went down to the Southern land and destroyed the teams put together to represent South Africa. It is rather strange that most of these contests have achieved Test match status because the early Springbok teams were way weaker than most of the minor counties in England.
However, during the first decade of the twentieth century, there were major advances. The battery of googly bowlers, among them the bona fide great Aubrey Faulkner, along with other stalwarts such as Jimmy Sinclair, Dave Nourse and Percy Sherwell, brought forth a period of equality. During this phase, the Springboks stood confidently as the third dimension of the serious cricketing world. They contested three series against England, in 1905-06, 1907 and 1909-10. They steamrolled the tourists 4-1 in the first, lost a close tour 0-1 in England and then triumphed 3-2 at home.
In fact, the rise of South Africa as a global cricketing power was instrumental in the conception of the Triangular Test Tournament in 1912. In 1909, in the middle of the amazing rise of the Springboks, the Imperial Cricket Council proposed the summer long contest. It was financially backed by Abe Bailey, the diamond tycoon, who first proposed the idea during his visit to England in 1907, stating: “Inter-rivalry within the Empire cannot fail to draw together in closer friendly interest all those many thousands of our kinsmen who regard cricket as our national sport, while secondly, it would probably give a direct stimulus to amateurism.”
Sadly, by the time the tournament came about the strength of South African cricket had dwindled yet again.
In Australia, playing a much-anticipated series in 1910-11, they were out-manoeuvred by Clem Hill and his men. The left handers Hill and Warren Bardsley attacked the googly bowlers from the word go at Sydney and added 254 runs in just 112 minutes. It was extraordinary batting and the confidence of the spinners was shaken. South Africa lost the series 1-4 and they never quite recovered for close to two decades.
Triangular Test Tournament Tests 3 England 3 South Africa 0
The Triangular Test Tournament was a major failure. It was one of the wettest summers in England, and the Test matches went on and on and on, till the public had lost their interest completely.
Not only were there washed out matches and big gaps which played havoc with continuity, there was lack of star appeal as well. Due to the ongoing problems between the players and the Board, six of the best Australian cricketers had not toured. Victor Trumper, Clem Hill, Tibby Cotter, Hanson Carter, Vernon Ransford and Warwick Armstrong remained at home. The second string Australian side was led by Syd Gregory. England really had no competition. However, so poor was the South African performance in those damp conditions that even this mediocre Australian side managed to beat them in two of the three Tests, the other one washed out after barely two innings were completed.
The matches between England and South Africa ended in one sided routs.
Rain delayed the start of the first Test at Lord’s till 3 pm, but after that South Africa lasted just 90 minutes against Frank Foster and Sydney Barnes. By the end of the first day, England were 122 for 1, ahead by 64. On the second day sun smiled and Reggie Spooner hit 119, Frank Woolley delighted the crowds with 73 and even as Sid Pegler captured 7 wickets the total of 337 was an imposing one given the match situation. The talented mulato Charlie Llewellyn scored 75 when the Springboks batted the second time, but Barnes picked up another 6 and England won by an innings.
At Headingley, Dave Nourse pitched in with his medium pace as England were bowled out for 242. But there were no Springbok smiles at the end of the day as they ended at 141 for 8. Barnes was still at it the following morning, finishing with 6 more wickets as the innings ended a 147. Faulkner fought hard, capturing 4 for 50 but the target required was 334 in the final innings. With Barnes still in a wicket-taking mood, there was no way that South Africa could get close. England won by 174 runs.
At The Oval, the rains followed the cricketers and then Barnes got going once again. South Africa, batting first, were bowled out for 95, five wickets to Barnes, five to Woolley. Faulkner responded with 7 wickets as England batted, and only Jack Hobbs with 68 had the class to negotiate the conditions and the spin. However, England totalled 176 and Barnes with 8 for 29 dismissed the South Africans for 93 in the second innings.
Six days after this, England met Australia at The Oval for what, to all intents and purposes, was the final of this tedious and poorly managed tournament. England thus became the champions of this forgettable tournament by defeating their arch rivals by 244 runs.
As far as the contests between England and South Africa were concerned, the brief period of equality was over. Once again, the cat and mouse games had started.
England in South Africa 1913-14 Tests 5 England 4 South Africa 0
The England team that arrived for the Test series in 1913-14 was by far the strongest to have visited the shores. After the reverses suffered by the teams led by Plum Warner and HDG Leveson-Gower in 1905-06 and 1909-10, the side sent with Johnny Douglas was one of the best possible.
With Hobbs, Wilfred Rhodes, Woolley, Barnes and Herbert Strudwick, alongside the skipper himself, it was a fantastic outfit. And they caught the Springboks during a lean period. Apart from Nourse, none of the stalwarts who had made South Africa such a force in the recent years was available. There was no Sinclair, no Gordon White, no Shalders, Snooke or Sherwell, and also none of the googly bowlers. Pegler, who had bowled so well on the Traingular tour, was also missing from the line-up.
Of the new generation, only Herby Taylor emerged as a genuinely good batsman, the only one to make any head or tail out of the offerings of Barnes. He led from the front, scoring 109 out of a total of 182 in the first innings of the Durban Test as Barnes started proceedings with 5 for 57.
But the England reply was too strong. Hobbs scored 82, Douglas paced his innings perfectly to hit 119. The 450 runs meant an uphill task for the hosts a second time around and they folded for 111 against Barnes (5 for 48).
By the time the tour moved to Johannesburg, Barnes had worked out how to dismiss each and every batsman. He captured 8 for 56 as South Africa were bowled out for 160, and followed it up with 9 for 103 when the hosts did slightly better in the second innings to manage 231. The 17 wickets remained a record until the Manchester Test of 1956 in which Jim Laker famously captured 19. England, riding a 152 by Wilfred Rhodes, now an established opening batsman, and 102 by Charlie Mead, did not have to bat a second time.
In the third Test, South Africa did much better. Hobbs, Mead and Douglas had ensured a target of 396 in the final innings, and Taylor and his opening partner Billy Zulch put on 153. There was indeed some nervousness in the English camp. But then Taylor was caught on the boundary off Albert Relf and the end hastened with Barnes picking up five more.
The fourth Test at Durban saw another improved performance by South Africa. Barnes picked 7 in each innings, but left-arm spinner Claude Carter struck back for the hosts and the difference between the first exchanges amounted to just 7 runs and in favour of the Springboks. After that Taylor batted with plenty of mastery and England required 313 to win in the final innings. They batted out time, reaching 154 for 5 with Hobbs playing a mastery hand of 97. It was the only draw of the series and the home team had earned it.
Barnes, with 49 wickets in 4 Tests, refused to play in the fifth when the English team management said no to his requests of getting his wife to visit him in South Africa. It was a phenomenally bold refusal for a professional cricketer in those olden times with different rules and yardsticks for different cricketing classes. But as the best bowler of the world he could take these liberties. In any case, even though he did not play the fifth Test, his tally of 49 wickets remains the highest any bowler has achieved in any series in the history of the game. One wonders where it would stand had he indeed played the fifth Test.
The absence of Barnes did not help the South Africans though. They succumbed to another 10-wicket defeat in the final Test to lose the series 4-0. Even the bowling of Douglas and Major Booth seemed too difficult for them to cope with.
The First World War started a few months after the tour and brought a halt to the cricketing exchanges between and within countries.
When the atrocities ended in 1919, cricket was resumed in both South Africa and England by the series of matches played between the local sides and the Australian Imperial Forces.
England was slowly recovering from the devastation. As was to be repeated in 1945, they lost by big margins in a couple of Ashes series to a strong and dominant Australian side.
The indomitable Australians under Warwick Armstrong visited South Africa as well in 1921 and won a 3-Test series 1-0. There were excellent rear-guards by the new generation Springboks, aided by the Grand Old Man of South African crikcet Dave Nourse. It must have sent the hopes of strong future performances soaring among the South African cricket followers.
And when Frank Mann brought his English team to the shores in 1922-23 they put up a rather good fight.
England in South Africa 1922-23 Tests 5 England 2 South Africa 1
However, it was hardly a great English side. Jack Hobbs was ill and did not tour. Mann, Arthur Carr and Percy Fender were exciting amateurs who fell rather short of the exacting standards of good Test players. Andy Sandham, the Surrey opening batsman, and Frank Woolley were perhaps the only players of real quality, apart from the fast bowler Arthur Gilligan.
But the Springboks won the first Test convincingly by 168 runs. That too after being bowled out for 148 in the first innings. Jimmy Blanckenberg bowled them back into the match by picking up six wickets and Herby Taylor demonstrated his greatness by compiling a brilliant 176. Left with 387 to win in the final innings, the Englishmen surrendered to the one-eyed paceman Buster Nupen.
The second Test match was a thriller. South Africa managed just 113 in their first innings, and the Englishmen, battling Blanckenberg yet again, replied with 183. Veteran Herby Taylor and Robert Catterall took South Africa to 157 for 1 in the second innings, and the match looked secure. And then the rest of the batting surrendered to Alex Kennedy and George Macaulay. Requiring 173 to win, the Englishmen stuttered to 86 for 6 against a raging Alfred Hall.
But then captain Frank Mann and experienced Vallance Jupp added 68. Hall came back to dismiss Mann and Jupp and in all the excitement wicketkeeper George Brown was run out. But Kennedy and Macaulay, who had bowled so brilliantly, knocked off the five runs required for the win and England squeezed through by one wicket.
This was followed by two rather, for those times, tall-scoring draws. Hence the fifth Test was played with the series poised at 1-1.
At Kingsmead, CAG ‘Jack’ Russell played the match of his life. In the first innings he was 9th out for 140, in a first innings of 281. In response South Africa found themselves out of steam in that long series, falling to Arthur Gilligan and Macaulay for 179. In the second knock, Russell stood alone once again, striking his way to 111. The ninth wicket fell at 149, the lead still not comprehensive enough when Gilligan joined him. And the two added 92. Faced with 344 required for a win, South Africa rode Taylor’s 102 to get to 234, but Kennedy’s 5 wickets stopped them 109 short. England won the series 2-1.
South Africa in England 1924 Tests 5 England 3 South Africa 0
But a year and a half later, when Taylor took his band of Springboks to England, the visitors were well and truly thrashed.
There were Hobbs, joined at the top by Herbert Sutcliffe, and then Woolley and Patsy Hendren, with the bowling handled by Maurice Tate, Gilligan, Dick Tyldesley and others.
From the first day of the first Test at Edgbaston the visitors were in grave trouble, a Hobbs and Sutcliffe combined in their first ever century stand. The total of 438 was imposing and rendered more so as Gilligan and Tate blew the batting away for a mere 30 runs, still the lowest score in the history of South African cricket. Extras top-scored with 11, no one else came close to double figures. The tourists did incredibly well to come within 18 runs of saving innings defeat, but Tate and Gilligan were too good for their batsmen.
At Lord’s Bob Catterall scored his second century in as many Tests, but the total of 273 was hardly imposing. Especially since Hobbs and Sutcliffe knocked off all but five of those runs. The former got 211, the latter 122. And Woolley came in to belt 134, Hendren remained not out with 50. The declaration came as more of compassion than necessity at 531 for 2. England triumphed by an innings and 18 runs, losing just 2 wickets in the process.
The openers added ‘just’ 72 at Leeds, but Hendren hammered 132 and the total amounted to 296. The visitors fell away in front of Tate for 132. They did better in the second innings, scoring 323, but the eventual loss was by 9 wickets.
The spate of defeats was stopped with a typical washout in Manchester. And the visitors recovered to achieve a tall scoring draw at the Oval. The series was thus lost 3-0
The differences between the sides were rather stark by now.
The two series before and the two after the Great War were thus once again quite disappointing for the southern land. They had made rapid progress during the beginning of the century, but by now they were back at the receiving end of successive defeats just as in their formative days.
But, a turn in the fortunes was again around the corner.