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Before the Lights Went Out : The 1912 Triangular Tournament

Before the Lights Went Out : The 1912 Triangular Tournament

Late January 2011 saw the release of the first book about the 1912 Triangular Tournament for almost a century. Both South Africa and Australia toured England that year and played three Tests against the home side. They also played three Tests against each other. The Tournament was not a great success for a variety of reasons. The background to the decision to organise it at all, why it came to take place in 1912, the nine Test matches themselves and just why it was a disappointment are all fully dealt with in the course of this meticulously researched account. More information about the book is available on its website, and you can read our review here. One factor in the scheduling of the Tournament was the rapid improvement there had been in the standard of South African cricket over the previous decade and author Patrick Ferriday and his publishers, Von Krumm Publishing, have kindly agreed to allow us to reproduce the section of the book that explains the history of those few years and how, over the Edwardian era, South Africa’s cricketers first earned their place at the game’s top table.

England v South Africa

South Africa could be said to have arrived at the Test table by defeating the MCC tourists 4-1 in 1905-06 but English apologists had any number of excuses to draw on. A team lacking Fry, Jackson, Tyldesley, Rhodes and Hirst could hardly be considered fully representative even if this was, by some margin, the best set of players to visit the Cape. Warner’s men had scarcely contemplated defeat as they were buffeted about the stormy Atlantic but they were to find South African cricket considerably more muscular and mature than it had been 18 months earlier.

The tourists started in fine fettle winning their first five games in quick succession before the game against Transvaal provided a stark revelation that was to have a lasting impact. The English were faced with Reggie Schwarz?s googlies on a matting wicket and they also came face-to-face with the first South African “great”, Aubrey Faulkner. When it came to the first Test it was these two that were called on to open the bowling by new captain and wicket-keeper Percy Sherwell in a game that was evenly balanced until the closing stages. South Africa were set 284 to win, a not impossible target, and this time the batsmen held their nerve in the last innings. First Gordon White and Dave Nourse (another English ex-soldier) guided them close to victory but, with wickets falling regularly, 45 were still needed when last man Sherwell joined Nourse at the crease. With the Wanderers? ground packed, the deficit was slowly eroded until finally the release came as Sherwell gratefully banged a full-toss to the boundary. Within seconds the rolled red gravel outfield was covered with celebrating spectators and Nourse and Sherwell were chaired to the pavilion.

If the English tourists had been guilty of underestimating the opposition, no such excuses could be offered in the next two Tests as MCC were increasingly comfortably beaten by a talented side that batted down to 11 and boasted four of the best wrist spinners in the world. The final two Tests were played on the matting over grass pitches at Cape Town which favoured the visitors who had struggled with the pace of the matting laid on baked ant-hill soil of Johannesburg. Colin Blythe immediately came into his own as MCC won the fourth game before losing the last by an innings as the fatigue of extensive travelling, culminating in four Tests in a month, began to tell. For the 10,000 spectators in Cape Town this 4-1 series victory (using just 11 players) was the final proof that South African cricket could now be ranked with the best in the world and in Aubrey Faulkner they had an all-rounder to rival Stanley Jackson or Monty Noble. Pelham Warner’s account of this trip gives a fascinating insight into the Edwardian amateur’s genuine pleasure in watching the birth of a cricketing nation. After being defeated in the first Test, he wrote:

“…defeat in such a struggle was glorious, for the first test match will be talked of in South Africa as long as cricket is played there.”

Despite this South African victory in their own country, the Springboks were given little chance of success in 1907 on English turf pitches. They were offered a full tour complete with three Test matches although the financially nervous MCC insisted that the costs should still fall on the shoulders of the South African Cricket Association. Cricket had now voted to follow its rugby counterparts of the previous winter by adopting the Springbok emblem and the green and gold colours thus furthering the sense of a national identity in the years leading up to the final consolidation and creation of a united South Africa. Financial considerations then jeopardised the entire undertaking as it became clear that the majority of the team required a guaranteed allowance which, after some soul-searching, was provided by Abe Bailey to the tune of GBP80 per player. This led, not for the first or last time, to some justifiable questioning of the amateur status of the team from some quarters. Another point of controversy was the possible inclusion of Jim Mackay, lately immigrated from Australia, who was eventually excluded because he “would destroy the South African character of the team”.

Once again the precaution of an early arrival allowed the visitors to adjust to the climate and pace of wickets and form was quick to arrive. Lesser counties such as Leicestershire and Warwickshire were brushed aside before the stronger teams Middlesex and reigning champions Kent were also defeated, and when the South Africans arrived at Lord’s for the first Test their reputation had preceded them. No less than 50,000 people paid for entry over the three days, a figure unimaginable only three years earlier. Led by CB Fry, the England team could boast the very best of Edwardian cricket in Blythe and Hirst, Jessop and Tyldesley, and RE Foster and Hayward. Against this wealth of talent, the bowling of Vogler, a valiant captain?s innings by Sherwell and the rain enabled South Africa to emerge undefeated. Sherwell’s contribution was remarkable and unique; batting at 11 in the first innings, he decided to keep his pads on when the follow-on was enforced and proceeded to hit 115 in 90 minutes. At Leeds the pitch rolled out soft and receptive to the mesmeric skills of Colin Blythe who collected 15 wickets in a 53-run victory. Most experts considered that the pitch had been the difference between the teams as the pace of Kotze was nullified and the bounce of the quartet of googly bowlers severely restricted. Unfortunately the conditions at the Oval for the final Test were similar to those at Leeds. Fry with the bat and Blythe with the ball proved irresistible. Nonetheless South Africa made a valiant attempt to knock off a fourth-innings target of 255 in 160 minutes, abandoning it only when potential match-winners Faulkner and Sinclair were dismissed, a draw being a fair result. The public were quick to appreciate the attractive and aggressive style of the tourists and Wisden proclaimed them men “who treated cricket as a game, not a business” in a thinly-veiled attack on Australian “priorities”.

This was praise indeed and many now felt that the South African’s had their feet firmly under the big table. What might have happened on hard wickets which would have suited the pace of Kotze and the googly quartet? Seemingly there was now precious little to choose between the two nations.

Given the level of performance shown by the South Africans in 1907, it was a huge disappointment that such a patchy party was sent south by MCC two years later under the captaincy of Henry Leveson Gower. True, any team containing players such as Rhodes, Blythe, Hobbs and Woolley could scarcely be described as weak but at least five members of the touring group would, under normal circumstances, never have come near to the national side. Quite simply patriotism was not enough. Amateurs such as Fry and Jackson were perennial no-shows when it came to touring while for the professionals playing for England was not always the most financially gainful way of spending the winter. Declining an invitation to tour was, however, no bar to instant resurrection as shown by Stanley Jackson who, having rejected a tour of Australia in 1903-04, was promptly appointed captain for the 1905 Ashes series over the head of Pelham Warner who might justifiably have asked if MCC understood the concept of loyalty. He didn’t, of course.

Despite the absences, the two teams disputed a fine series which was just shaded by the hosts whose Ernie Vogler could now justifiably lay claim to being the finest bowler in the world (no doubt Syd Barnes would have disagreed). Vogler had overtaken Schwarz by virtue of his variety; essentially a leg-break bowler with googlies and top spinners, he was far less predictable than the accurate Schwarz who bowled only googlies. Aubrey Faulkner had now moved ahead of Monty Noble as the world’s leading all-rounder and shining light of the side. In spite of the brilliance of Jack Hobbs, it was a series of disappointments for MCC. Colin Blythe was only included on his favoured Cape Town matting where he proceeded to bowl England to victory in the fifth Test, his last for England. Denton, Rhodes and Woolley were all found wanting and only the underarm lob bowling of George Simpson-Hayward consistently troubled the home batsmen. The Referee extracted a gloomy picture of the future:

“It is to the new talents that we must look to uphold our reputation when the Australians and South Africans swoop down upon us….Our cricket authorities, however, are the last people in the world to look ahead…..We are sadly in want of amateur batsmen.”

That word “amateur” again. Albert Knight of Leicestershire put forth his interpretation of current form in his own inimitable fashion:

“None the less, skilled critics, anticipating the Triangular contests of 1912….have placed South Africa first, Australia second, and our own decadent isle third. So insoluble is the mystery of players’ “form” that prophecy of this kind is utterly futile. One recalls it only to demonstrate the faith in South African cricket so strongly held.”

Even though the South Africans had triumphed and attracted widespread praise, they had concerns. Jimmy Sinclair was no longer the whirlwind of old while two of the googly quartet, White and Schwarz had regressed and even the ever-reliable Dave Nourse appeared to be past his best. Most worrying of all was the lack of new young talent. Much had been expected of men such as Zulch and Stricker but they did little to enhance their reputations. Quite simply Vogler and Faulkner had driven the hosts to victory, they took 65 wickets between them and Faulkner was also the highest run scorer in the series, outgunning even Jack Hobbs. The victory was duly celebrated but to those that cared to look deeper, with an eye to future meetings, the picture was not so healthy. Leveson Gower and Sydney Pardon were both convinced that South Africa would have little chance of seriously challenging Australia on their own wickets the following year. Essentially an ageing team had been carried by the brilliance of two men in beating a disappointing team that still had youth on its side and would only improve over the next few years. The next time the two sides would meet would be in England in 1912.

Before the Lights Went Out costs GBP20 and is available from specialist book dealers Roger Page (rpcricketbooks@unite.com.au) or JW McKenzie (info@mckenzie-cricket.co.uk) as well as all good bookshops, both virtual and “bricks and mortar”

Before the Lights Went Out : The 1912 Triangular Tournament

The three captains, South Africa’s Frank Mitchell, CB Fry of England and Australia’s Syd Gregory.
We are grateful to author Patrick Ferriday for permission to reproduce this image, which is part of the Roger Mann Collection


Please note that R.E. Foster captained England in the 1907 series, not C.B. Fry.

Comment by Jim Blair | 12:00am BST 18 November 2012

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