Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….

Quote: “That slow full pitch was the one blot on a superb day’s cricket. It was so tame and flat after all the strenuous exertion.”

By: ‘Plum’ Warner in The MCC in South Africa, on the last ball of the day at Old Wanderers, Johannesburg, January 4, 1906.

South Africa’s foray into Test cricket was far from flattering, and that is being polite. Even if one discounts their maiden series (in 1888-89), their record over the first 11 Tests read 10 defeats and a draw, many of them against England sides that did not include several frontline cricketers. Four of these were innings defeats, three by margins in excess of 150 runs, and two more by 8 and 10 wickets.

The draw, at Old Wanderers in 1902-03, was a credible one. South Africa actually got a strong Australia to follow on. And then, chasing 215, they were 101/4 when time had run out. The Test was dominated by ‘Buck’ Llewellyn (90, 6 for 92, 3 for 124) – the first coloured cricketer to play for South Africa, though that claim remains contested.

But that one Test was more of an aberration. Despite Test cricket being nearly three decades old, the fact remained that the contest essentially was a two-team one. South Africa were never in the reckoning.

Cricket needed a third power. And with only three teams playing Test cricket, the onus was on South Africa to provide the challenge.

But while South Africa were getting thrashed in Test cricket, domestic cricket had grown significantly in the country. The Boer War had taken its toll, but cricket grew steadily in the nation – though it was still evident that they needed something significant to beat England or Australia.

Also read: Cricket history in quotes, part 12: “How the devil can you play a ball that comes at you like a hard throw-in from cover point?”

That “something” was imported by a batsman called Reggie Schwarz, who watched Bernard Bosanquet bowl his googlies in 1904. Schwarz, who played alongside Bosanquet for Middlesex, mastered the art by the time he left for South Africa.

And there he taught the art generously. One of his students was Aubrey Faulkner, who would go on to become probably the greatest Test cricketer before the Wars. There was also Bertie Vogler.

The Englishmen were caught off guard against Transvaal, where Schwarz took 9/114 and Faulkner 6/108. They lost by 60 runs. All that has been discussed earlier on these pages.

Then came the first Test, at Old Wanderers.

It was obvious that South Africa would field all three of Faulkner (who would have walked into a World XI in a few years’ time), Schwarz, and Vogler. In fact, their team included eight members of the Transvaal side that had felled the tourists.

Additionally, Gordon White, a specialist batsman who could also bowl googlies, was included as well. All six made their debuts, as did ‘Tip’ Snooke and wicketkeeper-captain Percy Sherwell.

Reggie Schwarz. Image Courtesy: Scoopnest.com
Reggie Schwarz. Image Courtesy: Scoopnest.com

Sherwell opened with Schwarz and Faulkner straight away.  Between them, they bowled 43 of the 63 overs, Schwarz taking 3 for 72 and Faulkner 2 for 35. Vogler chipped in with a wicket and White got two. England recovered (of sorts), first from 15 for 3 and then 97 for 6, to reach 184.

But the South African batsmen let their bowlers down. On the same wicket where googly bowlers had run through earlier in the Test, Walter Lees bowled his accurate fast-medium pace with variations in pace. He bowled unchanged, took 5/34, and South Africa were shot out for 91.

Now Warner (51) himself took charge, adding 52 with David Denton and 40 with Jack Crawford, who would follow his 44 and 2 for 14 with 43. Crawford then added another 53 with Albert Relf. This time Faulkner (4 for 26) led the rout and Vogler got 2 for 24, but despite all that, South Africa needed 284.

While their googly bowlers had done the job well, their batsmen had failed to rise to the challenge. And things certainly did not look good at 22 for 2.

White walked out at this stage to join William Shalders. White did bowl googlies and had picked up two wickets in the Test, but he was essentially a batsman – and a very good one at that. Shalders, on the other hand, was not quite the greatest batsman in the world, but on this occasion, he rose to the challenge.

The pair batted with caution against Lees and Charlie Blythe. Then Schofield Haigh, the third of the great Yorkshire all-rounders of the era, was indisposed after sending down a solitary over.

South Africa reached 68 for 2 at stumps but lost Shalders before another run was scored on the third day. Then the formidable trio of Snooke, Jimmy Sinclair, and Faulkner followed Shalders in quick succession to the pavilion. They were left reeling at 105 for 6. The win seemed improbable.

But White was still there, and England still had Dave Nourse to contend with. Over years Nourse would emerge as the fulcrum of the first generation of champion South African cricketers, but that was still some time away. He had shown glimpses of what was in store, but this would turn out to be the innings that would define his career.

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Nourse knew South Africa could not survive the Test. He played his shots as White wore the depleted English attack down. The target came down under 150, then 100, then 75… but the pair seemed inseparable.

Then, with the score on 226, Relf bowled White. White’s 81 had taken him four hours. He had tried to hold the top order together, and since Nourse’s arrival, had refused to be dismissed. He had bowled only nine overs in the Test, but now his main suit had helped South Africa claw their way back into the match.

Ernie Hayes of Surrey was known chiefly for his batting, but he was England’s sole wrist-spinner in the Test. Perhaps the success of the South African spinners had prompted Warner to try him. It worked: Vogler was bowled after only four were added. And almost immediately after tea Schwarz hit one back to Relf. South Africa needed another 45.

Things looked grim, but Sherwell was too good a batsman to bat at No. 11. He would finish with a Test average 23.72 (including a hundred at Lord’s) in an era when wicketkeepers were seldom expected to score big. More than anything, he was reputed for his composure under pressure.

Warner shuffled his bowlers around in desperate search of the last wicket, but Sherwell was immovable. He also got the runs, as did Nourse, and the target came down rapidly. Sherwell got a lucky break when he edged Crawford – only for the ball to fly through the slips.

With four to win, Nourse pushed the first ball of an over from Relf and acquired three. South Africa could not lose the Test, but England were still in it.

The fielders now formed a ring around Sherwell as Relf stood at his bowling mark. The seasoned Sussex professional had fought many a battle. He knew exactly what to do.

The next ball was straight, and Sherwell blocked. The one after that, he could only push to a fielder. Now Relf tossed one outside off, but Sherwell (“apparently the coolest man on the ground,” to quote Warner) was unlikely to be lured: he let it go.

Relf’s next ball was slower than usual. That was fine, but it turned out to be a full-toss. Even worse, it dropped on leg-stump. Sherwell’s eyes lit up: all caution forgotten, whacked it to square-leg for four.

The 10,000-strong crowd erupted, then rushed to congratulate their heroes as the English heads sunk in despair and Relf stood in disbelief. “Men were shrieking hysterically, some even were crying, and hats and sticks were flying everywhere,” recollected Warner in The MCC in South Africa.

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Nourse ambled through the ecstatic crowd towards the changing room. He was greeted en route by George Kempis, who had toured England in 1894. Kempis gifted Nourse a gold coin – a token of thanks for his 220-minute 93 not out, one of the greatest fourth-innings performances in history.

The South Africans received more lavish gifts as the tour proceeded. They won the next two Tests by 9 wickets and 243 runs to turn the tables. England managed a four-wicket victory in the fourth Test before being crushed by an innings in the fifth. Playing with an unchanged XI, South Africa clinched the series 4-1.

Faulkner finished the series with 14 wickets, Schwarz 18, and Vogler 9. White bowled only 11 overs in the series for his 2/30, but he headed the batting charts with 437 runs at 54.62. Nourse came second, his 289 coming at 48.16.

South Africa had become the third force of cricket. They would lose 0-1 in England in 1907, but would defeat them again, at home in 1910-11, this time by a 3-2 margin.

They would be hit by The Great War but would recover. By 1930 they would be back to winning series again. But that is another story.

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