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.
Insult and Injury
It was a gorgeous room full of priceless treasures. But, as Ray Robinson put it, “It was like a room with the light switched off.”
With Australia perching on the top of the cricketing world, and cricket in Australia established as the most popular of games, Don Bradman called it a day.
The new avatar of the great man was as a selector. With Chappie Dwyer and Jack Ryder, he sat down to select the first ever touring side after the Bradman era. That would be the five-Test tour of South Africa in 1949-50.
And soon it was apparent that the greatest cricketer of all time might after all not possess the greatest of hearts.
Keith Miller was by far the greatest all-round talent in the world. Perhaps Vinoo Mankad was a contender, perhaps Gerry Gomez was another. But Miller led the field by lightyears.
But, perhaps his rather strained relation with The Don was given more weight than necessary. When the team selection was finalised, the iconic hero of the cricket world was not on the list. The loud whispers going around suggested that perhaps it was the result of his taking the curfew regulations too lightly during the Invincibles Tour, perhaps it was the result of bowling too many bumpers at Bradman during the latter’s testimonial match.
The same week Joseph Stalin replaced his foreign minister Viacheslav Molotov with Andrei Gromyko in the Politburo. A cartoon in Sydney Sun depicted the dialogue of two cricket lovers: “Fancy! Miller and Molotov in one week.”
A narrow 7-6 margin, following a telegraphic poll, ensured the captaincy for Lindsay Hassett ahead of Arthur Morris. And when the impish cricketer reached Durban to find his South African counterpart coming on board to greet the team, Hassett’s opening words were, “How are you, Dudley? I hope you’re not feeling too well.”
Then there was a tragic accident which curiously saw justice restored. Bill Johnston, on his way to meet a girl he had come across on the dance floor, crashed his car. Besides, Ray Lindwall was having trouble with fibrositis of the shoulder. Hence, with no other option, Miller was asked to join the team.
The start of the Test series could not have been more shocking for the visitors. At Johannesburg, they lost both the openers with not a run to show for their combined efforts. However, hundreds by Hassett and Sam Loxton, followed by a useful 66 down the order by Ian Johnson took them to 413. Following this, it was the turn of the insulted and injured. Miller captured five wickets to snap the first innings of the hosts shut at 167. And in the second innings, Johnston, having recovered from his alarming amorous adventures, ran through the South African side with 6 for 44.
The second Test at Newlands saw the genius of Neil Harvey in full bloom, and not for the last time in the series. The young man made 178 in four hours, and the demeanour was that of a pickup game of street cricket. Loxton recalled getting out because of a prolonged period at the non-striker’s end. “Never mind singles, he was taking three off the last ball of every over. When I finally got to face the bowling, I hadn’t seen one for ages, and got out.”
The total was an imposing 526. Nourse and Eric Rowan fought back, but Colin McCool spun his leg-breaks past the tentative bats of the lower order and there was another follow-on. Nourse retaliated with a classy 114, but there was yet another insult the Australians needed to address. Lindwall, who had been labelled ‘the portly ghost of a once great fast bowler’ by Sydney Sun after an insipid first Test, now had the batsmen hopping with a five-wicket haul. Only an obstinate 102-run partnership between off-spinner Hugh Tayfield and left-arm slow Tufty Mann made Australia bat again but they cruised to an eight-wicket win.
The Kingsmead Miracle
And then it rained. The team’s luggage van was marooned by floodwaters between Uniondale Road and Willowmere. But scorer and luggage-man Bill Ferguson zealously clung on to his record of never losing a bag. He hired a railway bus and the bags were rescued.
But that was not all the damage the rains would cause. The prolonged showers produced one of the most incredible matches in history at Kingsmead.
With Rowan and Nourse once again stitching together a superb partnership, South Africa had ended the first day at 240 for 2, when the skies opened up. When the game started 45 minutes after the scheduled start, a mud pudding was on offer. The final ball of the first over from Johnston took off from good length, took the edge of Nourse’s bat as the batsman took desperate evasive action, and ended up in the gloves of Ron Saggers.
Hassett immediately placed the field deep and asked Johnston and Miller to bowl straight. He was not too eager to pick up wickets and bat on that demonic pitch. The new ball on offer was ignored. A few catches were dropped on purpose. Yet seven wickets fell for 57 between lunch and tea.
So, Australia batted facing a total of 311. And soon, after Morris and Jack Moroney had put on 31 for the first wicket, young Tayfield was given a bowl on the drying wicket.
And they fell, one after the other. Hassett’s gamble of sending Ian Johnson at No 3, and Miller at No 4, did not yield results. Tayfield captured 7 for 23 and the day ended with Australia finishing their first innings for 75.
That evening former cricketer and journalist Dick Whitington met his friend Miller on the stoep of the Edward Hotel. Now, Whitington is never the most trustworthy of narrators, and whatever he says has to be taken with a pinch of salt, or several buckets. But according to him, the all-rounder stunned him saying, “I’m sorry for Dudley Nourse. He’s going to have the whole nation down on him like a ton of bricks when South Africa lose.”
Nourse, on his part, was taking every precaution. A visit to the Bureau of Meteorology assured him of more thunderstorms on Monday afternoon, and therefore he decided not to enforce follow-on. By lunch on the third day the South African second innings stood at 85 for 3, 321 runs ahead, every forecast, weather included, optimistic about their chances. However, after that, they lost 7 wickets for 14 runs to Johnson and Johnston.
Hence, the previous two innings amounted to 75 and 99. The ask of 336 was humongous under the circumstances. And when Tayfield and Mann got Mornoney, Miller and Hassett cheaply and the score read 80 for 3 at the end of the day, things looked really bright for the Springboks.
It turned bleaker for Australia when Morris went on his backfoot to Tayfield and dislodged his bail. 95 for 4, and Loxton joined Harvey.
It was time for another magical knock. Harvey started unfurling his strokes on a difficult wicket against top class spin. Mann and Tayfield slowly tired, and the southpaw kept splitting the field with crisp drives, cuts, pulls and sweeps. 135 runs were added with the steady Loxton. And with McCool unflappable at the other end, he added another 106 to carry Australia to victory by five wickets. The 151 not out was perhaps the greatest innings the left-hander ever played in his long and excellent career.
Harvey scored yet another hundred when the series returned to Johannesburg. But that was not really enough to force a win. The Morris-Moroney association added 214 for the first wicket as Australia amassed 465 in the first innings. It soon looked likely to be another defeat for the hosts as they collapsed to 148 for 6. But sturdy late order resistance took them to 352 and the result was a draw, with Moroney scoring his second hundred of the match.
At Port Elizabeth, Harvey continued his century saga. With Morris and Hassett piling big hundreds as well, Australia finished with 549 for 7. By now the fight had been beaten out of the Springboks. Their two innings together lasted less than 100 overs. The Kingsmead resistance had been an exception.
Australia thus won the series 4-0. Harvey’s tally stood at 660 runs at 132.00 with 4 hundreds.
Hassett, however, had a final moment to savour, in his own imitable way. Standing by the rails of the Athenic in Table Bay, the victorious skipper scattered a handful of rands among the excited children on the dock.
1949-50: Australia 4 South Africa 0