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.

Military Training

“South Africa may become the cock of the cricketing walk,” was the astute analysis of Jack Fingleton after the riveting 1952-53 series.

It was a major transformation from the days preceding the series. It was to be the third tour of the South Africans to the other great southern land, the first since 1931-32. And the Australian authorities, perennially snooty, turned the clock back by 40 years.

As they had done prior to the 1910-11 series, the Australian Board asked South African Cricket Association to cover all the costs of the tour. The reasoning was that the Springboks had won just one of their previous 33 Tests. Hence, they would not draw crowds to the ground.

Besides, Dudley Nourse was not available for the tour … and he was their greatest name by a distance. Some other big guns of South Africa, Eric and Athol Rowan, along with Tufty Mann, also decided not to travel. And the depleted side would be up against the Australians, who had walked away with the 1950-51 Ashes and then hammered the formidable West Indians. It was predicted to be a non-contest.

Jack Cheetham. Image Courtesy: Cricket Country

Former army officer Jack Cheetham, who earned his living as an engineer and had a commendable record in the Second World War, was made the captain of this motley crew of South Africans. But even at home, no one gave his team much of a chance.

However, Cheetham was just the visionary the Springboks needed.

A keen student of the game, his experience on the battlefield helped him to hit upon the importance of fitness, and fielding. The fielding skills, Cheetham realised, was not ancillary to successful cricket, but fundamental. And then he had all his regimental discipline to fall back on.

Alongside manager Ken Viljoen, Cheetham scheduled a training regimen that was way ahead of his times.

The voyage to Australia saw the players gather for team meetings at quarter to eight. After breakfast, physical training sessions were conducted, designed by South African rugby coach Danie Craven. This routine actually started a few days prior to the trip and was carried on during the long journey. And the very day the ship anchored at Fremantle, Cheetham organised the first fielding drill at the Western Australia Cricket Association ground.

Besides, the captain astutely mixed rigid army discipline with light-hearted implementation for the benefit of the side. There was a ‘bounce committee’ which levied fines for certain misdemeanours — 2/6 for being late for a shipboard function, 1/- for being unshaven, 1/6 for missing church, 2/6 for making a move on the girlfriend of a colleague. Curfew was at 11 pm.

He was also strict about the ban on golf before the first Test. He argued that whacking a stationary ball might upset the preparations for playing a moving one.

Besides, the available technology was used. John Watkins and Headley Keith even had cine shots taken of their batting and bowling at the nets to study and work on the faults. McGlew and Roy McLean batted on concrete wickets, arranging for the fastest bowlers of the locality to hurl down short-pitched balls in order to perfect their hook shots.

During late evenings, Cheetham and Vijloen spent their time studying the scoring charts prepared by Bill Ferguson.

Harvey at it again

Hence, the side was fighting fit as they took on Australia in the opening Test at Brisbane. Michael Melle and Watkins bowled consistent length and were frequently hostile as they burrowed their way around yet another Neil Harvey hundred to stop the hosts at 280.

But as the heat dogged the cricket relentlessly, Doug Ring’s leg breaks were difficult to counter and the tourists struck gold.

All this preparation bore fruit. At Brisbane, Watkins and Michael Melle produced consistent length and hostility to restrict the home side to 280 in spite of yet another hundred by Harvey. But, in the tormenting heat, Doug Ring turned his leg-breaks alarmingly and stopped the visitors for 221.

Harvey got going again in the second innings, compiling a nifty half-century. Arthur Morris scored a fifty as well. And the efforts of Hugh Tayfield notwithstanding, the score at the end was 277, resulting in a target of 337. Against the pace of Ray Lindwall on a dicey wicket, it proved beyond the Springboks, in spite of a spirited and patient 69 by young opening batsman Jackie McGlew.

The visitors had lost, but the fight they had put up dispelled concerns about the interest about the tour.

The Tayfield Test

And at Melbourne, they stunned everyone by snatching a scintillating win.

It was not an auspicious start. Lindwall and Keith Miller had them struggling at 27 for 3 and later 127 for 7. However, Anton Murray, too good a batsman to come in at No 9, rallied with 51, adding 51 for the 9th wicket with Tayfield. The total was 227.

When on the second morning Australia reached 84 without loss, it seemed the series was progressing to another one-sided rout. But then all the fielding drills kicked in.

First Morris drove Tayfield to the on side, and Cheetham at short mid-on leapt to parry the ball high above his head. As the ball started to drop behind him, Tayfield threw himself to the left to pluck the catch inches from the ground.

Hugh Tayfield. Image Courtesy: Cricket Country

With inroads made, Tayfield got into his groove. It is not customary for finger spinners to be successful on hard Australian tracks, but he was in a different league. Wickets tumbled, and a fascinating duel transpired between a counter-attacking Miller and the off-spinner.

The score was 243 for 8, Miller just having completed his half-century, when he stepped out and lofted Tayfield over his head. As the spectators behind the bowler’s arm ducked out of the way, Russel Endean, circling the boundary, leapt high, hyper-extended his right arm, and plucked it out of the air. “Good God, he’s caught the bloody thing,” Miller exploded as he walked off. Tayfield ended with 6 for 84 and the lead was limited to 16.

And after this stellar catch, it was Endean’s turn to perform with the bat. He did so for seven and a half hours, mostly with runs behind the wicket with glances, steers and glides. Lindwall and Miller were made to look less than threatening, Johnston, Ring and Benaud ordinary. Coming in at 23 for 1, Endean was still unbeaten when the innings ended at 388. He walked back for a priceless 162 not out.

With a steep target of 373 to defend, Tayfield was unstoppable. Among his 7 wickets were Miller, Hassett, Harvey, Gil Langley and Graeme Hole. It was his match figures of 13 for 165 that saw South Africa to their first victory over Australia in 42 years.

The team had surprised everyone.

Back to Harvey

Neil Harvey. Image Courtesy: Cricket Country

However, at Sydney, Australia hit back. Lindwall and Miller charged into skittle the tourists for 173. And then it was Neil Harvey yet again, the scourge of the Springboks. His 190 drove the final nail in their coffin. Endean and Roy McLean fought hard in the second essay, but the defeat was heavy, by an innings and 38 runs.

And when at Adelaide the hosts reached 277 for the loss of one wicket, the reversal was already seen as a fluke. Young opening batsman Colin McDonald and captain Lindsay Hassett were in a mammoth stand. And later Harvey unleashed yet another vintage innings of 84, and Australia finished with 530.

But, the South Africans were trained following the principles of warfare. They saw their chance and snatched it. Miller and Lindwall were both struggling with injuries, and managed just 15.1 overs between them. Every Springbok batsman pulled his weight. Endean, Ken Funston, wicketkeeper John Waite, Watkins. The total in response was 387. A day and a session remained in the game.

To force a result and series win, Australia needed quick runs. Who else to get them but Harvey. In walked the left-hander at No 3 and stroked his way to 116 in just over a couple of hours. Hassett declared at 233 for 3, perhaps carrying the innings on a bit too long. 376 was much more of a lead than they could have done with.

McGlew and Waite put on 81 for the first wicket. Some nervy moments were encountered when a flurry of wickets fell in between, with McLean, Endean and Funston all falling for 17 apiece. But the visitors held on for a draw, ending with 177 for 6.

The Melbourne Miracle, in spite of Harvey

And then it was time for the miracle.

With the series not decided yet, the final Test at Melbourne was played over six days.

Hassett won the toss, and Australia proceeded in their attempt to bat the South Africans out of the game. Morris got 99, and the first day saw the hosts sitting pretty on 243 for 2.

The second witnessed Harvey take his relish for the Springbok attack to another level with a supreme 205. The 17-year-old debutant Ian Craig timed the ball with ethereal brilliance to hit 53. The Australian innings finally came to a stop at 520.

The report of South Africa’s series-levelling win at Sydney Morning Herald. Image Courtesy: ESPNcricinfo

However, the South Africans were in no mood to surrender. With both Lindwall and Miller missing the match due to injury, Waite hit 64, Watkins, promoted to No 3, struck 92. McLean got 81, Cheetam hit 66 and Mansell 52. In the end Johnston’s 6 for 152 stopped the visitors 85 short of the Australian total, but it was clear that the match was far from over.

If we look back in the annals of South African cricket history, Eddie Fuller does not stand out as the greatest of names. But this fast-medium bowler from Cape Province, playing in just his second Test, now ran in to claim five wickets in the second innings. That included the sensational rattle of the stumps of Neil Harvey for 7.

At the other end, Tayfield wheeled in, probing as ever, picking up three wickets, all top order batsmen. Young Craig top scored with 47, and the Australian second essay ended at 209. By the end of the fifth day, Endean had raced to 57 and South Africa had knocked 94 runs off the target of 295 for the loss of one wicket.

On the final day, every batsman pulled his weight once again. Endean hit 70, Watkins 50, Funston 35. And when Benaud turned a leg-break to bowl the last named, McLean walked out with a bruised eye and struck 14 boundaries in a run-a-minute knock of unbeaten 76.

The unthinkable had taken place. South Africa, the unfancied underdogs, had won by 6 wickets and squared the series. The side that had come to the country with one win in their previous 33 Tests, had won 2 of the next 5.

It was just the beginning. Within a decade and a half, the Springboks would become one of the greatest sides of the world


1952-53: Australia 2 South Africa 2

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