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.
May 27, 1912.
The cricket was lukewarm, but the event was stirring.
Australia and South Africa faced off in a Test match. The two Southern cricketing powers, however, locked horns in a disconcertingly northern arena. The venue was Old Trafford, Manchester. It was the first ever Test match at a neutral venue.
It was the start of the Triangular Test series. The brainchild of Abe Bailey, the South African Randlord and cricket-fanatic. The idea was conceived in 1909 and received the support of the cricket boards and the backing of the newly minted Imperial Cricket Conference.
But the start underlined the problems with the tournament.
Australia was depleted in a manner that would be matched only during the Packer chasm 65 years down the line. Six of their biggest stars were absent, after having locked horns with the Board, the culmination of years of bickering about the control of the purse strings. Victor Trumper, Clem Hill, Warwick Armstrong, Tibby Cotter, Hanson Carter and Vernon Ransford remained in Australia.
Yet, they raced to 448 on Day One, aided by hundreds from Charles Kelleway and Warren Bardsley. This was followed by the capitulation of South Africa for 265 and 95. Jimmy Sinclair’s leg breaks got him two hat-tricks in a day. And once again only Aubrey Faulkner, the great Aubrey Faulkner, stood alone among the ruins with an unbeaten 122 in the first innings.
The tri-nation Test series was a brilliant idea. But it was scheduled in the wettest summer in England since 1766. That also not because 1766 was a very wet summer, but because that was when rainfall started to be recorded with rigour.
And if the Australians were depleted, the South Africans were ridiculously weak.
Percy Sherwell, the proven leader of the young cricketing power and a top-grade wicketkeeper, withdrew from the tour. Reggie Schwarz and Gordon White also refused to perch on the hot seat. Ultimately, it was Frank Mitchell, an employee of Bailey, who was made captain at the age of 40. Mitchell had not played serious cricket with any regularity for six years. The last time he had played Tests was in 1899 when he had represented England, against South Africa.
Besides, one of the great googly bowlers, Bertie Vogler, withdrew from the tour after a standoff about the tour fee for the 1910-11 Australian summer. The Board had withheld the fee because of issues with Vogler’s behaviour.
The googly bowlers also found it very difficult to make an impact on the soft surfaces of England.
Hence, the tournament turned out to be a one-sided affair between three countries, drawn and dragged out over a long period, and frequently interrupted by weather. In fact, two matches between England and Australia were washed out, in conditions that England captain CB Fry described as pure mud.
The only Test South Africa did not lose was at Trent Bridge, when a heavy downpour allowed them to earn a draw.
After Old Trafford, the South Africans met Australia at Lord’s. Young Herby Taylor, soon to emerge as the pillar of Springbok batting, made 93, rescuing the team from 74 for 5 to 263. But once again, Kelleway and Bardsley hit hundreds, and despite the fighting Llewellyn innings in the second essay, Australia won by 10 wickets.
At Trent Bridge, the Springboks did manage a lead of 110, but then there as a deluge, drowning any chance of a completed match.
Hence the Australia-South Africa series, encapsulated within the Triangular Tournament, ended with a 2-0 result for the Aussies.
England won the final Test at The Oval in conditions that, according to the Australian team, were ‘more suited for water polo.’ Hence, this dismal tournament came to an end.
The experiment died an early death. The Australian and South African boards decided that they could not afford to host two Test teams. Wisden noted “the experiment is not likely to be repeated for many years to come — perhaps not in this generation.”
The next time we saw a three-nation Test series was eight and a half decades later, in 1998, when India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka competed in the Asian Test Championship.
Result: Australia 2 South Africa 0