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A Look at Louis Duffus

Louis Duffus was born in 1904, one of five children, in Melbourne. His parents took their family to England before moving on to South Africa. It is not entirely clear what Duffus Senior did for a living, but he seems to have been self-employed and, as is not unusual in that situation, the family’s financial fortunes were subject to ‘fluctuation’.

Sport and writing seem to have been ever present in the household, Duffus’ autobiography sharing memories of his having to read poetry aloud in the house. In addition to playing sport as a youngster Duffus also seems to have been able to make some money even as a teenager by his writing.

The family was struck by tragedy more than once. At 18 it was Duffus who had to identify the body of his father who, whilst outside on business, died after drinking water from a standpipe that was later found to have contained cyanide. If that were not enough Duffus and his brothers were haemophiliac, and an elder brother died after a routine operation to remove his tonsils. A younger brother almost suffered a similar fate but, the problem by then recognised, eventually pulled through. Duffus himself suffered as well, always vulnerable when his skin was broken or bruised for any reason.

The condition must surely have restricted Duffus’ development as a sportsman. He was a good high jumper and represented Transvaal at Baseball as well being a good enough cricketer to be selected five times for the province between 1923 and 1935. On debut at 19 he was chosen to keep wicket for a powerful side that contained seven Test players against Orange Free State. He was not called upon to bat in the crushing innings victory that followed, but made a catch and a stumping. Twelve years later his last match was as an opening batsman. In his only visit to the crease he made 48 and shared a century partnership with Eric Rowan. Once more seven of his teammates were internationals.

Outside of his sporting and part time writing interests Duffus trained as an accountant and, whilst doing so, completed a Bachelor of Commerce degree. He had good jobs, first with the Rand Water Board and then the local power company but he had ambitions to travel and, in 1929, decided to take a big risk. He used what savings he had to travel to England a couple of weeks ahead of the 1929 South African side. He went as a freelance reporter, hoping to get some work in Fleet Street to go with a handful of commissions he had secured from The Star in Johannesburg, the Pretoria News and an East London paper, the Daily Despatch.

The trip to England was a success for Duffus. He knew the Transvaal players well and therefore enjoyed full and free access to the dressing room and as a result easily obtained more work from the Evening News, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail. In addition having met ‘Plum’ Warner during the trip he also secured a berth with The Cricketer as their South African correspondent that was to last for many years. On his way back to South Africa at the conclusion of the tour a radio message came through aboard ship offering him a full time post with The Star.

By the end of his journalistic career Duffus had attended as many as 102 Test matches. He had accompanied the South Africans on all their overseas tours since 1929 and followed visiting sides around South Africa. He also reported on many other sports, notably golf, tennis and Rugby Union and he was also a keen follower and supporter of women’s hockey. During the years of the Second World War he was a war correspondent and spent much of the war years in the Mediterranean theatre albeit, in his own words, well behind the front lines.

Before the war Duffus’ writing was confined to newspapers and magazines and, sports publishing in South Africa never being prolific, he did not write very many books. There was however a brief hiatus just after peace returned during with three books appeared from Duffus’ pen in quick succession.

The first book from Duffus was not a cricket book, nor indeed a sports book at all. Beyond the Laager was described on its cover as an inspiring record of gallantry of which South Africa may well be proud. No doubt shaped by his experience as a war correspondent the book contains stories of, largely, individual bravery and acts of heroism. In its author’s own words I believe it contains much of the best and most interesting writing I have produced. There is a cricketing connection in that one of the chapters tells the remarkable story of how the former Test opening bowler Bob Crisp earned his Military Cross and Distinguished Service Order.

The follow up was most definitely a cricket book. In years gone by Maurice Luckin had produced the first two volumes of a history of South African cricket, covering the years 1876-1915 and then 1915-1927. Duffus’ South African Cricket 1927-1947 ran to 625 pages. Much of the content consists of scorecards and statistical tables but there is still a good deal of narrative covering both the international and domestic game over the twenty year period. Duffus concludes what amounts to an introduction with the passage:-

The period under review thus ended with South African cricket poised at an uncertain stage of its history when it might either progress or decline. The forthcoming visits of English and Australian teams were destined to determine the course its future would pursue.

It is unfortunate that Duffus, who had seen each of his country’s Tests since 1929 and who was to watch all of those over the next twenty years as well, did not extend the series. As it was it took until 1996 for Brian Bassano to produce a fourth volume in the series, but that only took the story as far as 1960 and I am not aware of any plans to extend the history further despite the ambitious plans for the future contained in Bassano’s introduction.

Last of the three post war publications, but by no means least, is Cricketers of the Veld, published in London by Sampson Low. It is a delightful book and my copy is illuminated by a previous owner having slipped in to the dust jacket a contemporary review, which sums the book up as well as I can:-

For the author, as for many of the players, the English and Australian journeys were romantic pilgrimages as well as cricket tours, and this is the perspective for their telling. The tours are seen through the eyes of the tourists. There is no detailed analysis of matches. The memorable ones only are recalled in their fullness, a great innings, or a fine piece of bowling. These are set against the passing show of new places, new people, new dialects and new cricket grounds. It is discursive writing and necessarily sketchy, but it gives much of the South Africans’ approach to the game in contrast with those of Australia and England.

At this point I shall provide a couple of examples of the writing of a man whose Wisden obituary described his style as conscientious, generous and very fair, with a delightful manner and a nice turn of phrase. Both examples come from the famous match at Lord’s in 1935 when, successful in a Test in England for the first time the South Africans eventually held on to take the series. The first deals with Bruce Mitchell’s stunning unbeaten 164 (out of 278 for 7 declared) in the South African second innings despite the batsman suffering from the after effects of being struck over the eye:-

The sacred atmosphere of the home of cricket, the lavish appreciation of the discerning crowd and the fact that he was carrying the team to its first Test match victory in England, endowed the innings with a rich quality of genius.Once he drove successive boundaries through the covers off the bowling off Wyatt. Hammond turned to the Warwickshire amateur and with dry humour remarked, “Well, you can thank goodness he hasn’t got two eyes to play with”.

And the second from the denouement of the match as Xen Balaskas spun England to defeat:-

South Africa was winning with a grand rally in the last glorious crowded hour. The closing scenes are everlasting. The crowd sat in tense silence. The players strained forward in eagerness. Then, like a flash, Cameron stumped Mitchell and flung his arms around bails, ball and stumps – first in the frantic struggle for souvenirs. He was lucky enough to hold tight to a stump for himself and one for Siedle who was away in the outfield and who had commissioned Cameron at all costs to snatch him a relic of the historic match

After Cricketers of the Veld some eight years were to elapse before Duffus’ next book and, perhaps surprisingly, only tour account of one of the ten he went on. Springbok Glory told the story of the 1955 visit to England when the South Africans went 2-0 behind in a five Test series before pulling back to square things up at 2-2 going into the final Test at the Oval where, after making an excellent start, they succumbed to the joint efforts of Peter May, Jim Laker and Tony Lock all of whom, of course, playing on their home turf.

There were to be just two more books from Duffus (as well as a 52 page collection of his writings in The Star on the home victory over Australia in 1966/67) and those two were a privately published history of South Africa in tennis’ Davis Cup, and an excellent autobiography, Play Abandoned, which appeared 1968 and 1969 respectively the latter disclosing that, of all things, Duffus was an expert in the cultivation of Brussels sprouts!

Play Abandoned coincided with Duffus’ retirement and contains an interesting if somewhat unpalatable take on the ‘D’Oliveira Affair’. Ultimately Duffus’ attitude seems to be that sport should not be used by one nation to interfere in the politics of another rather than an inherent hostility on his part to the non-white population of South Africa, but the relevant chapter makes for uncomfortable reading nonetheless.

In 1970 Duffus was in the news again, travelling to Oxfordshire for hip surgery, a very risky procedure given his haemophilia, but the expertise of specialist surgeons saw him through and Duffus lived on in South Africa until 1984 when, a couple of months after his eightieth birthday, he died. Given that, to the best of my knowledge, no anthology of Duffus’ writings has ever been put together surely, the best part of forty years after his passing, one is long overdue?

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