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Cuan McCarthy – Guilty or Not Guilty?

McCarthy in academia
McCarthy in academia

The 1930s was a time when there were very few top class bowlers who possessed real speed. The shortage was particularly acute in Australia, but South Africa was little better. It was therefore no surprise when, after an explosive start to his career in 1947/48, all cricketing eyes on the Veld turned towards Natal, where a blond, loose-limbed 18 year old named Cuan McCarthy was making a name for himself. Over the course of the season he took 29 wickets at 16.10 as Natal comfortably took the Currie Cup. He was the fastest bowler seen in South Africa for two generations.

There was no Currie Cup the following season. In its place the South African cricketing public had an MCC tour to look forward to. McCarthy’s first game of the season was therefore the first Natal game against the tourists. Wisden commented; On the opening day Nourse gave a severe test to 19-year-old McCarthy,whose pace was the main reason for the early uneasiness of MCC batting. England declared at lunchtime the next day on 391-9. McCarthy had bowled 32 eight ball overs and had figures of 5-110.

Three weeks later the selectors chose McCarthy for the first Test, a match which has largely been forgotten, much to the surprise no doubt of all the participants and those who saw it, particularly its tension-filled denouement. Dudley Nourse won the toss and chose to bat but then saw his side skittled for 161 in the sort of conditions that were ideal for England’s seamers. When England went in they faced just one over from McCarthy. He almost had Hutton caught at short leg and at the end of the over Washbrook appealed against the light, and that was that.

There was rain overnight and the batsmen managed to see off the new ball. John Arlott wrote of McCarthy’s bowling on that second morning that his involuntary variations of pace and direction denied the batsmen comfort, whilst his faster ball, slung in with a low arm, left them little time for deliberation about their stroke. Not quite an accusation of wrongdoing, but clearly a hint that he had concerns. McCarthy bowled nine economical but wicketless overs in the innings. Once the dampness left the pitch the conditions were ideal for the South African spinners and Athol Rowan and Norman ‘Tufty’ Mann bowled more than 81 overs and took all ten wickets as England took a lead of 92.

England’s fourth innings target was 128 in two hours and they got there with eight wickets down with a scrambled leg bye off the last ball of the last over. They started well enough, getting to 49 for the loss of just Hutton, at which point Mann trapped Washbrook lbw before McCarthy produced a devastating spell which was to give him what would remain the best figures of his Test career, 6-43. It is true that it was dark, drizzling and England were batting against the clock, but it was still a fine performance from a young man who would not turn 20 until after the Tests were over.

McCarthy was retained for the entire series. The next three Tests were drawn before England won another one that might have gone either way, this time by three wickets. There were a total of 21 wickets for McCarthy at 26.71 and only Mann bested him in the averages, and then not by very much. Arlott’s closing words in his summary of the tour were McCarthy may well develop as a fast bowler.

In McCarthy’s obituary in Wisden he is described as having a fearsome nip-backer, although the presence of such a delivery in his armoury is not mentioned anywhere else. Most who have written about him express the view that his problem at the top level was that other than speed he had nothing to offer, and with that alone he was never going to be a top class bowler. Certainly that seems to be evidenced by his chastening experience against Australia in 1949/50.

The Invincibles no longer had Don Bradman at the helm, but Lindsay Hassett was a perfectly capable successor, and when you have a young batsman who averages 132 over a five Test series, as Neil Harvey did, even Bradman is not too sorely missed. At least Harvey took some of the attention away from McCarthy’s figures. For him there were just 5 wickets at 107.20 as Hassett’s men took the series 4-0.

Despite that McCarthy was unlucky. He was kept hidden in a private training camp before the first Test causing Keith Miller to comment No wonder that Cuan had added about three yards to his pace, besides improving his control of direction and swing, when he began to shock Australian batsmen and South African spectators early that Christmas Eve at Ellis Park. The Australian then spoke of a butter fingers burlesque before adding that McCarthy should have had the wickets of Morris, Miller and Hassett for a pittance of runs, and later Loxton as well.

Miller is clearly a man who looks for the best in fellow quicks, his lifelong endorsement of the Charlie Griffith action being testament to that, and of course batsman are happy to face anyone who pays more than a century for his wickets so it is hardly surprising that there was not a murmur of criticism. The Golden Nugget’s parting summary on McCarthy being This was definitely not his halcyon summer. But he is still very young.

The Currie Cup was back for the 1950/51 season but injuries marred that for McCarthy, although there was never any doubt about his being selected as a member of Dudley Nourse’s side for the 1951 tour of England, which is where his trouble really started. There were mutterings about McCarthy’s action in the early games of the tour culminating in his first appearance at Lord’s against the MCC just over a fortnight before the first Test. Frank Chester was one of the umpires and a man with a deserved reputation as the best there was. He studied McCarthy very hard indeed, as did his partner Frank Lee, but there was no call.

In his book on the tour, Noursemen in England, South African journalist Cyril Medworth concluded The test for McCarthy was safely passed and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Frank Chester might not have been wholly satisfied, but he gave McCarthy the benefit of the doubt and other umpires did likewise thereafter. Medworth was a Natal man himself, so had seen plenty of McCarthy, so his own views are interesting; Every now and again, perhaps once in five overs, when he really lets one fly that falls a shade short, I fancy the elbow is not absolutely straight. It is more discernible when he is tired and is trying to keep a fiery pace, far less noticeable otherwise. If you watch him for long enough you will begin to doubt whether there really is anything wrong with his action at all. It grows on you.

In fact Medworth was wrong and Chester was less than happy with McCarthy. He told the South Africans then that he intended to call McCarthy and took some persuading not to. Quite what happened is unclear, and there are at least three versions. The first is that Eric Rowan, standing in as skipper for an injured Nourse, challenged Chester that if he did so he would stop the game and call Pelham Warner out on to the field and ask him to define a throw. A slightly less combative account is that Rowan proffered some friendly advice, pointing out that Chester himself as well as other umpires had not previously called McCarthy, and that perhaps he should think twice before risking a furore. The third version is that a discussion with Warner did take place and that ‘Plum’ the appeaser begged Chester not to rock the boat.

Whichever way the MCC match incident happened Chester had another look at McCarthy in the first Test at Trent Bridge. At the first interval after seeing him bowl he approached the MCC and told them that he proposed to call McCarthy and asked whther he would have their support. He was told that he would not, and that if he did call him he would probably be off the Test panel. Chester understandably chose to continue his employment. The MCC view, and this was unchanged more than a decade later when Charlie Griffith’s bouncer and yorker caused such consternation, was that they were the hosts and their priority was a harmonious tour.

In the first Test McCarthy, for the only time in his fifteen Test career, ended up on the winning side, and he contributed five wickets to his side’s victory at Trent Bridge. After that however he only took five more and was heavily criticised in the third Test for, as England set off in pursuit of 139 for victory on a treachorous pitch, bowling bouncers persistently at the openers in circumstances where pitching the ball up might well have put the home side in trouble. The ten Test scalps that McCarthy had cost him 41.30 apiece, but his overall tour figures were much better as he took 59 wickets at 23.96, including what was to prove the best return of his career, 8-23 against Sussex including a hat trick as the south coast side slumped from 174-1 to 213 all out.

McCarthy, already a graduate of Pietermaritzberg University, took up the offer of a place at Cambridge University for 1952 and proved a useful acquisition for a strong Light Blues side taking 51 wickets at 21.50. Shorn of his ‘diplomatic immunity’ he was however finally no-balled for throwing by Paddy Corrall at Worcester on five separate occasions. A couple of weeks earlier there had been an unpleasant incident at Hove when he had struck the 46 year old veteran all rounder Jim Langridge on the head. When Langridge died fourteen years later his teammate that day, Robin Marlar, was in no doubt that the blow on the head from McCarthy was responsible.

The South Africans were due to tour Australia in 1952/53 under Jack Cheetham, and a fine series it turned out to be but McCarthy was not with the side, omitted for ‘non-cricketing’ reasons. In fact a couple of festival games at the close of the 1952 summer proved to be his last in First Class cricket – he was only 23. From cricket McCarthy moved into agriculture a career in which, initially in England before returning to South Africa, he spent the rest of his working life. He reappeared briefly in 1958 and 1959 for Dorset in the Minor Counties Championship, but despite still being a young man he enjoyed little real success in the games in which he played. He died in South Africa in 2000 at the age of 71.

Did Cuan McCarthy throw? What cannot be doubted is that he had an unusual action that the finest umpire of his time was not satisfied with, but that is as far as it goes. Of those he played with and against Alec Bedser talked of misgivings about his action, and Len Hutton of a bent arm. Trevor Bailey, Willie Watson and Godfrey Evans make no complaint in books they wrote in the early 1950s. As to fellow South Africans Nourse didn’t mention the issue, although to be fair to him his autobiography was published before the 1951 tour. Of the others only Jackie McGlew and Clive Van Ryneveld have gone into print.

McGlew’s book deals at some length with the then current throwing controversy involving Geoff Griffin in 1960, but other than blandly recording the fact of Corrall’s calling McCarthy in his introduction to the subject he says nothing more. Equally surprising is that to anyone who reads Van Ryneveld’s 2011 autobiography there is no indication that there was any dispute over McCarthy’s action.

McCarthy’s basic action was of the classic side-on variety from which it is difficult to achieve a throw. There were none of the danger signs of the open-chested delivery or splayed feet which characterise the chucker. McCarthy was double jointed and, with the benefit of 60 years hindsight, seems almost certainly to have been a case of hyper-extension, and therefore a man with a perfectly fair action.






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