From March, Australia and South Africa will face each other in one of the most eagerly awaited contests of this year. The two superpowers of world cricket will play a four-match Test series which is expected to be a thrilling encounter. Arunabha Sengupta writes about the past encounters between these two cricketing giants. 

The first ever Australian tour to South Africa

In a fascinating series, that saw two nail-biting, knuckle-cracking Tests at Old Trafford and The Oval, Joe Darling’s Australians had conquered England. The 1902 Ashes series is indeed considered as one of the greatest ever contested.

The first ever Test series between South Africa and Australia was almost a footnote to that landmark showdown. That’s how cricket was in those days. True, the South Africans were acknowledged as a Test playing nation, but only the England-Australia Tests were considered the real thing. That would continue until years later.

So Darling and his men halted in South Africa on their way back from England to kick off the cricketing contests between these two southern nations.

Abe Bailey. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Australia had been scheduled to visit in 1899, but the fixtures could not take place because of the roaring guns of the Boer War. To make matters murkier, the Australian troops fought alongside the British, not really making the country the most popular among the South Africans.

But now all that was in the past. The 1902-03 tour was viewed as a goodwill tour, a diplomatic endeavour to fraternise the two dominions as the dust of conflict settled.

Yet, diplomacy can only promote tours, not carry them financially. The heavy-duty funding was carried out by the cricket-mad mining Randlord Abe Bailey. This man, who would be the head and heart behind the triangular Test tournament ten years down the line, guaranteed £2000 to cover the 18-day tour.

The visit created great enthusiasm in the country, especially given that quality players were seldom seen in the land. The English teams that had visited thus far, and would continue to visit for quite some time after that, were motley groups of assorted county cricketers, hardly ever even half the strength of a full representative side. Thus, names like Victor Trumper, Clem Hill, Syd Gregory, Monty Noble and the others were huge draws for the crowd.

But the first Australian team, the immensely strong one that had just defeated England, suffered from that one deficiency that still dogs touring sides. Their ship had hardly moored in Cape Town when they journeyed to Johannesburg to play the first Test. No preparation, no acclimatisation. All sea legs.

The First Test

The bowlers specifically were in no shape to run in once South African captain Henry Taberer had won the toss. And the hosts were no pushovers either. Louis Tancred was a gutsy batsman from a reputed cricketing family. Charlie Llewellyn, arguably the first coloured cricketer to play for the Springboks, a hugely experienced campaigner. Dave Nourse was making his debut and would be a pillar of the side for years to come. And the Transvaal ace Jimmy Sinclair was the first great all-rounder in a country that would produce such cricketers like an assembly line.

Charlie Llewellyn. Image Courtesy: ESPNCricinfo

Thus, the second wicket did not fall till South Africa were 204, with Tancred and Llewellyn both posting 90s, dismissed oddly by Trumper’s occasional medium pace. Nourse plodded to 72, Sinclair got 44 and wicketkeeper Baberton Halliwell notched up 57. The score at the end of the first day was an intimidating 428 for 7. South Africa, who had lost all the Tests they had played so far, was going strong.

Monty Noble and Ernie Jones dismissed the tail the following morning, and it looked as if a run-feast was on the cards with Trumper, Hill and Reggie Duff stroking the ball well. However, the all-round quality of Llewellyn and Sinclair now became apparent as the vaunted Australians collapsed from 196 for 3 to 296 all out. Llewellyn finished with 6 for 92 with his left-arm slow medium. Was there some chinaman in the mix? We will perhaps never know. Sinclair claimed 4 for 129 with his pace.

The great Australian side, who had been received with such fanfare, was now made to follow on.

By the end of Day Two, they had lost Trumper and Duff for 76.

Llewellyn and Sinclair ran in the following day with their hearts set on the first ever win of South Africa. However, they had a mountain to climb. Actually a Hill. The great left-hander held the innings together with a superb 142, in the process hitting the only recorded six of his career. Armstrong and Noble hit half-centuries as well, and Darling could breathe easy and declare at 372 for 7. It was left to the South Africans to bat out time.

The hosts did not quite manage to win, but it was the first draw they managed in 13 years of Test cricket.

The Second Test

Jack Saunders. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

For a while, it seemed that it would not take them long to achieve their first win. The Australians struggled in the side match against Transvaal, conceding over 400 runs and a first-innings lead. And they continued to struggle in the second Test, played once again at Johannesburg.

Llewellyn wrecked the Australian batting with 5 for 43 to dismiss the visitors for 175. In response, Sinclair blasted his way to 101 in just two hours, including two massive sixes, and the South African first innings amounted to 240. Trumper, enjoying his role as a bowler, captured 3 wickets in 12 expensive overs that cost him 60.

But once again, South Africa had a mountain to climb. A man-mountain this time. Darling astutely sent Armstrong to open the innings, and the gigantic all-rounder, not quite approaching his post-War dimensions but a huge man already, carried his bat with an unbeaten 159. Llewellyn toiled for 5 for 73, but the Australian second innings registered 309, leaving South Africa 245 to get.

By now the hosts were out of steam and experience and the visitors had become used to the conditions. Jack Saunders ripped the heart and soul out of the home batting with 7 for 34, and the Springboks collapsed to 85 all out.

The final Test

Jimmy Sinclair. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

When the third Test was played at Newlands, the contest had boiled down to Llewellyn and Sinclair against Australia. The left-arm slow medium bowler dismissed Trumper, Armstrong, Darling, and Gregory in the process of 6 for 97, but Hill’s 91 took Australia to 252. Billy Howell and Saunders, exploiting the now known conditions and weaknesses, dismissed South Africa for 85 once again.

When the hosts followed on, Sinclair walloped 6 sixes in a magnificent counter-attacking 104. It was his third hundred in Test cricket, the only ones scored by South Africa at the highest level. At one stage the home team seemed to be coasting at 116 for 2.

But the golden arm of Trumper worked wonders, as Charlie Smith hit one back to the ace batsman. Howell and Saunders tore through the batting again, and when Sinclair had his woodwork disturbed by Howell off the last ball of the day, the score 216 for 6 offered little hope to the local supporters.

The following morning Howell and Saunders wiped out the rest of the batting for just 9 additional runs and the trusted duo of Trumper and Duff hit the required runs without being separated.

The Australians thus took the series 2-0.

The other notable fact about this inaugural series was that Frank Hearne stood as umpire in all three Tests. Hearne, who represented England in the first two Tests played by South Africa, and then played four more for his adopted country, belonged to one of the most famous and sprawling cricketing families.


After the tour Louis Tancred wrote: “Certain is it that stimulus has been received from the Antipodeans … and will remain for all time as an incentive to South Africa to retain its place in the Commonwealth of Cricket.”

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