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.
No Don but No Mercy
In 1931-32, the Springboks had come up against the phenomenon called Don Bradman. He had been injured and had not been able to bat in the fifth and final Test. But in the remaining four the genius had amassed 800-plus runs at a 200-plus average.
The expectations were that after Bill Woodfull’s sudden announcement of retirement, it would be The Don who would lead the Australians on their tour to South Africa in 1935-36.
However, fortune smiled on the hosts. Bradman, weak from prolonged illness, decided to skip the visit. And it fell upon Vic Richardson, one of the great lynch-pins of the anti-Bradman faction of the Australian side, to be the captain of the visitors.
Fate, kind to the South Africans during these preliminaries, refused to flash another smile. Jack Fingleton, Stan McCabe, Clarrie Grimmett, Bill O’Reilly … all confessed that this tour under Richardson was the happiest they had ever undertaken. Buckets of runs and wickets added to the pleasant memories. Australia galloped to a 4-0 victory in the five Tests.
It was especially personal triumphs for two individuals. Fingleton scored three consecutive hundreds, amassing 478 runs in the series. In the remaining 13 Tests of his career, he would cross three-figure just twice.
And Grimmett captured 44 wickets at 14.59, only SF Barnes and Jim Laker have managed more in a series. Curiously, Grimmett, who finished with 13 wickets in the fifth and final Test match at Durban, would never play for Australia again.
Fingleton-Grimmett show, with a blinding spark of McCabe
The Australian wrist spinners got into the act right from the word go. At Kingsmead, O’Reilly, Grimmett and Chuck Fleetwood-Smith bowled the hosts out for 248. The enormous batting strength of Australia, the absence of The Don notwithstanding, then had their say. McCabe and Arthur Chipperfield slammed hundreds to engineer a 181-run lead. And then it was a Grimmett-O’Reilly show once again. The visitors triumphed by 9 wickets.
The following Test at Old Wanderers, however, was a completely different story. And it was by far the most interesting of the Tests on the tour.
The beginning was quite predictable, with Ernie McCormick’s pace alongside the spin of Grimmett and O’Reilly knocking the home batting over for 157.
The Australians went past the score with just 2 wickets in the debt. But then the pace of Chad Langton was appended with the occasional leg-breaks of top-order batsman Bruce Mitchell. And suddenly a collapse saw the tourists hurtle to 250 all out.
And then it was the turn of the future of South African batsmanship in the form of Dudley Nourse, scoring an impeccable 231 while the rest of his teammates failed to reach 50. The runs by Nourse were scored in 11 minutes less than five hours with 36 boundaries. The stunned Australians now faced a target of 399.
The enigmatic Bob Crisp ran in now to get rid of Bill Brown. With more than a day to go, the Springboks anticipated a memorable victory. But now they were faced with McCabe in one of his incredible moods.
McCabe’s career is not extraordinary. But there have been three innings which stand out like the rarest of gems. The Brisbane classic of 1932-33 against the Bodyline attack was one of them. The Nottingham brilliance of 1938 would be another. And this knock at Johannesburg was the second of this amazing trilogy of greatness.
When opener Fingleton was out for 40, the Australian score stood at 194. Less than an hour later, with Len Darling lending support with 37, the score stood at 274 for 2, and McCabe was batting on 189. Victory had suddenly sprinted from the realm of impossibility to become visible almost as writing on the wall.
And now Herby Wade, the South African captain, appealed for bad light. The fielding side calling for bad light made history, but it was upheld. The match was drawn and McCabe walked off in distinct unhappiness.
With the series returning to Kingsmead for the third Test, Brown and Fingleton added 233 for the opening stand. Both the batsmen got hundreds, Fingleton the first of his three in the series, and what would go on to be a then-record of four in as many Tests. At 362 for 8, with the skies opening up, Richardson declared. And on a wet wicket, Grimmett’s 10 for 88 saw the hosts bowled out for 102 and 182.
The following Test at Old Wanderers followed the same lines. There was the Fingleton hundred. And then there were two low scores by South Africa with Grimmett capturing another 10 wickets.
And the story was repeated in the final Test at Kingsmead. Grimmett captured 7 for 100 in the first South African innings of 222. Fingleton got 118 in the Australian response of 455. And then Grimmett bowled the visitors to another innings win with 6 for 73.
The series was thus won 4-0.
A whole new ball-game
It was not only in cricket that the Australians triumphed. Four days after the final Test, the touring cricketers took on the Transvaal baseball side … at baseball.
Captain Vic Richardson was the catcher. Southpaw batsman Leo O’Brien took up the role of the pitcher. Fast bowler Ernie McCormick took up the position as first base. After his gamut of centuries, Fingleton played the role of the shortstop. Ben Barnett was the second base, Len Darling the third. Grimmett positioned himself in the right field, McCabe in the centre field and Brown in the left field. Bill O’Reilly and wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield were the reserves.
It was a match to raise funds for the memorial fund of wicketkeeper-batsman Jock Cameron, who had recently passed away due to enteric fever.
And the Australian cricketers surprised all by winning the game against the regular baseball side by a 12-5 scoreline.
1935-36: Australia 4 South Africa 0