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Aubrey Faulkner – A Tragic End

Aubrey Faulkner - A Tragic End

When Aubrey Faulkner began his Test career England’s selectors, in those days on behalf of the MCC, did not treat South Africa, the junior of what were then just three Test playing countries, in the same way that they treated Australia. As a result, in much the same way as for George Headley a quarter of a century or so later, questions arise as to whether, given that some of his achievements were therefore recorded against inferior opposition, history regards Faulkner too highly.

The name of Headley, coming as it does so close to the top of the list of those with the highest batting averages, stands out rather more starkly than Faulkner’s given there is no single table in common usage that reflects the value of individual all-rounders on a coherent basis. We all know that the batting average of a quality all-rounder should exceed his bowling average, and that therefore the distance by which it does is a measure of something, but for reasons too numerous to need analysis here that is a much cruder measure than judging batsmen and bowlers by average alone.

In an era when much less Test cricket was played than it is now, Faulkner scored 1,754 runs at 40.79 in his 25 Tests, and took 82 wickets at 26.58. His record in both disciplines is, in terms of average alone, better than those of Ian Botham, Kapil Dev, Tony Greig, Trevor Bailey, Richie Benaud and Andrew Flintoff. His batting average is superior to that of Imran Khan, Keith Miller, Richard Hadlee and Shaun Pollock, and his bowling figure is not too far behind the 22/23 figures that their records disclose. Of the noted all-rounders only Garry Sobers and Jaques Kallis have a better batting average, and no one betters Faulkner in both batting and bowling, so he certainly demands to be mentioned in the same breath as those luminaries of the game.

It is now more than 131 years since Faulkner was born, and 82 since he took his own life in 1930 at the age of 48, yet he remains one of the more compelling cricketers to emerge from the latter part of the “Golden Age” and interest in his deeds, perhaps simply by virtue of the fact that so many of them are poorly chronicled, remains high.

Faulkner was born in Port Elizabeth. His childhood was not a particularly happy one. The prosperity the family enjoyed was offset by bouts of violence from Faulkner’s alcoholic father towards his mother. As a result Faulkner loathed the demon drink, and was a lifelong teetotaller. His antipathy towards alcohol was such that he was never prepared to countenance having a licensed bar at the famous indoor cricket school that he ran at the time of his death. To the extent that financial worries may have contributed to his demise it must be the case that had he relented on that issue he would surely have had a more profitable business.

Writings about Faulkner also sometimes mention his, on one occasion, giving his father a dose of his own medicine. I had always assumed that the young Faulkner must have had cause to leap to his mother’s defence but, having managed to track down the source of that story the truth is rather darker. The autobiography of Ian Peebles, England leg spinner and sometime secretary at the indoor school, reveals that Faulkner admitted to having lain in wait for his father in order to administer the beating, so it was a premeditated act – one suspects that the young Faulkner must have been significantly traumatised by what he had witnessed at home during his early years.

In 1901 Faulkner left Port Elizabeth and enlisted in the Imperial Light Horse, a famous old South African Regiment, for whom he fought for the final six months of the second Boer War. He did not return afterwards to his home, relocating to Cape Town 500 miles away, where he obtained a clerical job and made enough progress with his cricket to earn a First Class debut for Transvaal in the 1902/03 season. It was an inauspicious start, and Faulkner had to wait two years for another opportunity. He did well enough then to hold his place for the visit of Pelham Warner’s MCC tourists to the Transvaal at the beginning of the 1905/06 tour, and he contributed two unbeaten innings of 10 and 63, and three wickets in each England innings to a shock home victory. His place in the Tests was assured.

At this point it is necessary to step back a few years in order to put matters in context. At the turn of the century Bernard Bosanquet was already a decent all-rounder, bowling right arm fast medium. He then worked out how to bowl the delivery we now know as the googly and switched his bowling style to leg spin. In 1903 he started to enjoy considerable success with his new style and he toured Australia with Warner’s side in 1903/04. His batting proved not to be up to Test standard but he enjoyed considerable success with the ball. A South African teammate at Middlesex, Reggie Schwarz, took a careful note of what Bosanquet was doing and when he got home he introduced the delivery to Faulkner, as well as Gordon White and Ernie Vogler.

Before looking at Faulkner’s arrival as an international player it is worth looking at the strength of the side at Warner’s disposal in 1905/06. In the English summer just ended Stanley Jackson, who had topped both the bowling and batting averages in the Tests, had led England to a 2-0 Ashes victory. As well as himself Jackson had an enviable array of talent available to him. The names of CB Fry, JT Tyldesley, George Hirst, Wilfred Rhodes and Archie MacLaren resonate to this day, and there were other fine players too. It was not unusual in those days for the leading amateurs to miss overseas tours due to the demands of business, but Warner had only one outstanding cricketer in his party, Kent slow left arm bowler Charlie Blythe, but even he had been selected only once in 1905.

Blythe apart only Yorkshiremen Schofield Haigh (twice) and David Denton (once) had turned out against Australia, so Warner’s party was barely a second eleven. Four of the party never played a Test outside the tour and only Warner, when he captained the 1903/04 side, and Frederick Fane who travelled in a party with little amateur talent in 1907/08, ever played a full series against Australia. But on the other hand at some point or other seven of the party were picked to play home Tests against Australia, so the side was by no means weak and, as with Headley a quarter of a century later, Faulkner could do nothing about the composition of the side put out against him, other than dominate it.

The first Test of the 1905/06 series was a classic cliffhanger, the last South African pair, “Dave” Nourse and Percy Sherwell adding 48 for the last wicket to bring the home side a one wicket victory. They won three of the next four as well to run out convincing 4-1 winners. The leading South African wicket-takers were “Tip” Snooke and Jimmy Sinclair, fast-medium and medium respectively, but Schwarz, Faulkner, Vogler and White all figured, with Faulkner’s 14 wickets costing him 19.35 runs each. At this time his batting was less impressive, 129 runs at 18.42 for the series, but there were a couple of useful knocks in the final two Tests. Of his bowling Wisden said On one or two occasions Faulkner …… was more dangerous than anyone else..

The English summer of 1907 was described by writer AA Thomson as The Googly Summer and it saw the first visit of a team from South Africa to be granted a Test series. The first and third matches were spoiled by rain so the only definite result, at Headingley, decided the rubber. This game too was interrupted by rain, but England gained a measure of revenge by dint of a 53 run victory although, as Wisden pointed out They certainly had the best of the luck as regards the ground … and it was freely stated that the umpiring had told against the South Africans in the last innings.. For Faulkner despite his side’s defeat the match was a great personal success. In England’s first innings of 76 he took 6-17 and was said to have made the ball turn so much both ways that the batsmen were almost hopeless against him.

On the tour as a whole Faulkner topped the tourists’ batting averages, scoring 1163 runs at 29.82 with centuries against Essex, Lancashire and Scotland. In the bowling list he was the least successful of the famous quartet, albeit the way that they dominated the summer was such that in finishing fourth he still paid only 15.82 runs each for his 64 wickets. Unsurprisingly after his efforts at Headingley he headed his three teammates in the Test averages. In its summary of the visit Wisden said A good many batsmen thought that on his day Faulkner was the most difficult of the four bowlers.

There was very little First Class cricket played in South Africa between 1907 and the next visit by an England side in 1909/10. This side was led by “Shrimp” Leveson-Gower and the MCC had as much difficulty in attracting top class amateurs as in 1905/06. The professional ranks were however stronger, Jack Hobbs and Rhodes of the established players making the trip, as well as a young Frank Woolley. At 28 Faulkner was now in his prime. He scored 545 runs in the series, including a century and three fifties, and averaged 60.55. The best of his teammates was more than twenty runs per innings back. As a bowler much depended on Faulkner and Vogler, no other South African managing even five wickets. Faulkner’s 29 cost him 21.89 runs each. His best match of all came outside the Tests when Traansvaal defeated the tourists. He scored 44 and an unbeaten 148, and took 4-49 and 5-34. The Test series was won 3-2 by South Africa, which gives an impression of a close contest, but with the England victories coming in the third and fifth Tests the result was never in any real doubt. As an aside England’s joint leading wicket-taker, with 23 at 18.26, was George Simpson-Hayward, to date the last man to be selected for a Test team on the basis of his skills as an underarm bowler.

The following year South Africa toured Australia for the first time. Away from their own matting wickets they lost the series comfortably enough 4-1 but, having got themselves in what looked like a winning position in the second Test as well as winning the third, as a team they emerged with much credit. As for Faulkner he was the leading run scorer on either side, with 732 at 73.20. To put that in context Alistair Cook’s prodigious 2010/11 series produced just 34 runs more than that. With the ball Faulkner fell away, his 10 Test wickets costing 51.40 runs each. It was said that the wickets did not suit him, but in the other First Class matches on the tour he took 39 wickets at 18.97.

Was there another reason for Faulkner’s poor showing in the Tests? In 1948 George Brooking wrote; The cause of Faulkner’s lack of success with the ball is that he made too many runs. Anyone who knows anything about googly bowling, realises that the hand, wrist and fingers must be quite fresh to achieve success. Brooking opens his book by describing cricket as to me a religion, and he is clearly fascinated by googly bowling, but he was no great shakes as a player. Further doubt must be cast on his views by virtue of Australia batting first in four of the Tests, but it is an interesting idea nonetheless.

In June 1911 Faulkner married, and shortly afterwards set sail for England where he intended to settle. He never played a Test in South Africa again, but was available for the ill-starred Triangular Tournament that took place in the English summer of 1912. Australia, England and South Africa played three Tests against each other. Sadly the tournament was marred by the weather, the considerable decline in potency of the South Africans, and the fact that six leading Australians withdrew from their side.

Despite the poor summer there was still enough playing time for South Africa to lose five Tests heavily with one against Australia drawn. There was a fine unbeaten 122 from Faulkner against Australia at Old Trafford, and he took 7-84 against England at the Oval. Neither performance prevented a heavy defeat, but given his disappointing returns in the other games, at least gave glimpses of the man who a couple of years previously had understandably been considered to be the finest all-round cricketer in the world.

As to the style of the man it is probably the case that he was not as easy on the eye as his leading Golden Age contemporaries. His batting stance was of the “two-eyed” variety rather than the classical “side-on”, and as a result he was particularly strong on the leg side, with a leg glance that was widely praised. In the first edition of his History of Cricket Harry Altham wrote Faulkner was a magnificent batsman. Though rather cramped at the start of an innings, he was a master of footwork and one of the greatest exponents of the hook stroke. There were no particular weaknesses in his game although, when describing his innings at Old Trafford in 1912, Reuters made the observation His defence is not graceful to watch, thus echoing Altham’s observation.

With the ball Faulkner could get movement from almost any wicket, and his googly was said to often turn square. A fine top spinner completed his armoury and a common complaint of batsmen was that there was no discernable sign as to which way a Faulkner delivery was going to break. There is an interesting description of his action in a book published by Jeremy Malies in 2000; For such a natural athlete his run-up was surprisingly craggy and ungainly. It included several stutters and he would arrive at the wicket with elbows pumping madly, in the manner of Bob Willis. However the final delivery was an easy, wheeling motion that disguised subtle variations in pace.

At the conclusion of the Triangular Tournament Faulkner’s career was drawing to a close. He played four festival matches in 1913. In 1914 he played in a twelve a side game that, highly unusually, was accorded First Class status and then war broke out. The Faulkner playing career would resume after the conflict, although it was limited to just seven more First Class matches. There were to be a handful of fixtures of no great significance in 1920, one remarkable match in 1921 and then, finally, in 1924 after more than a decade away from the highest level of the game his parting shot was a Test match. But first there was the Great War, a conflict that did much to shape the rest of Faulkner’s life.

It was as early as September of 1914 that Faulkner attended the Nottingham recruitment office seeking a commission. In light of his experience with the Imperial Light Horse he got that, and after spending time in Egypt he spent the early years of the conflict in Macedonia where, with the French and the Serbs, British troops fought the Bulgarians. Although those on the Western Front were apt to be dismissive of their comrades further East, who they described as the “Gardeners of Salonika” in truth conditions were little different, and aggravated by the constant threat of malaria. Faulkner was as vulnerable to that as anyone, and spent time in hospital as a result.

In 1917 Faulkner was posted to the Middle East where Britain and Turkey were fighting over Palestine. One of Faulkner’s early actions was to take part in a successful attempt to take control of the Holy City of Jerusalem. Faulkner was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his conduct in this campaign. Through the early months of 1918 he saw little action, calls to the Western Front preventing the British Forces in the region from the final drive required to drive the Turks out of Palestine, although he did fall victim twice more to bouts of malaria. Eventually in September the strength was there, and the Battle of Armageddon drove the Turks from Palestinian soil and by the end of October they had thrown in the towel. For his efforts in the Battle of Armageddon Faulkner received the Order of the Nile to go with his DSO.

When Major Aubrey Faulkner returned to civilian life he was rising 37. He had survived the conflict that had taken the lives of so many of his comrades, but there were deep scars left, quite how deep was probably never fully appreciated. The Faulkner who joined up in 1914 had been blessed with a finely honed, athletic physique and matinee idol good looks. Four years later the bouts of malaria, and far too long on a diet of bully beef and biscuits and he looked much more than four years older, and like many struggled psychologically with what he had been through.

Faulkner’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1920. That year he stepped out on the path that would occupy the rest of his days when he was appointed games master at a Preparatory school, St Piran’s in Maidenhead. He was a great success one of his charges, Freddie Brown, going on to captain England. In his autobiography Brown said of Faulkner Nothing was too much trouble to him: he had unlimited patience and was always very kind.

In 1921 Faulkner played in his penultimate First Class match, at the famous old Saffrons ground in Eastbourne, a game I have written about in detail here , and which remains one of the most remarkable in the annals of the game. England had lost 5-0 in Australia the previous winter, and had gone 3-0 down in the return series to an opposition that was strongly led by Warwick Armstrong, who had at his disposal the first great pair of speed merchants, Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald. A new look England under Lionel Tennyson had avoided defeat in the final two Tests, but Armstrong was looking to go through the tour unbeaten when his men lined up against a team selected and skippered by the 49 year old Archie MacLaren. History records that MacLaren’s side, as he promised they would, defeated the Australians. Faulkner’s was the starring role. He scored 153 in the scratch side’s second innings revival and took 4-50 and 2-13, coming on towards the end to dismiss Armstrong and Tommy Andrews, just as it looked like the Australians would scrape home after all.

Returning from the dreamland of the Saffrons to reality Faulkner remained at St Piran’s where the school’s sporting standards continued on an upward curve and, three seasons later he ended his First Class career. The 1924 South Africans were not a strong combination, and were heavily defeated in the first Test, Maurice Tate and Arthur Gilligan routing them for just 30 in their first innings. A side that had already called up George Parker from the leagues to open their bowling due to injuries persuaded Faulkner to play in the second Test. Sadly for South Africa the game ended in exactly the same way as the first Test, defeat by an innings and 18 runs. From Faulkner there were a few trademark leg glances in the first innings before he misjudged a Percy Fender top spinner and was bowled for 25. In the second innings he was run out for 12. With the ball he bowled 17 wicketless overs for 87 in England’s mammoth 531-2. Like all the bowlers he lacked penetration, but had a stumping opportunity early on in Hobbs’ 211 been taken then perhaps the story may have been different. As it was while Faulkner had not disgraced himself he had seen enough to depart the First Class game for good.

The old enemy alcohol caused a career change for Faulkner in 1925. Entering into a partnership with the Principal of St Piran’s had been mooted, but he then started to have issues with alcohol which, not unnaturally given Faulkner’s aversion to licquor, put a stop to that idea for the great South African. He left the school and in March of 1925 opened his and the game’s first permanent indoor school in Richmond. The premises were only large enough to contain two nets, and had a number of drawbacks, but the school was enormously popular so much so that for 1926 Faulkner was able to take a lease on much larger premises near Fulham. Here there were six nets with matting wickets, all with slightly different qualities.

The greater number of nets allowed Faulkner to substantially increase pupil numbers, and there was no shortage of willing customers, be they ordinary club players, talented youngsters or seasoned professionals looking for help with specific problems. To Faulkner they all came alike, and all received the full benefit of his talent and enthusiasm for his calling.

When not coaching Faulkner was a man of contradictions. He could be a gregarious and convivial companion, but at the same time he had a tendency to become introverted and taciturn. Depression was never too far from the surface and he certainly seems to have suffered from what we would now call bipolar disorder. The physical and psychological troubles associated with his wartime experiences, which in the manner of the times he always kept bottled up, no doubt contributed to his general malaise.

It might have helped had Faulkner continued to play the game he so clearly loved, but the draining effect of so many hours coaching and the associated lack of free time militated against that. That he could have still graced the game was amply demonstrated in 1928 when, after not playing in a match for more than two years, a 46 year old Faulkner was persuaded to turn out for an invitational side who were to play Essex in a match to mark the opening of the Chelmsford county ground. The old man took seven Essex wickets. Dudley Pope, a fine batsman whose career and life were to be tragically curtailed by a car accident six years later when he was just 27, said to Faulkner as he passed him on the way back to the pavilion; I don’t know who you are Sir, but my word you bowl a bloody fine wrong ‘un

The school’s finances were always in something of a parlous state, despite all of Faulkner’s hard work and that of the pretty young bride he married in 1928 who helped him with the administration work. He had big plans to add other facilities to the school, including a gymnasium, and a failed promise of investment is believed to have contributed to his final depression. He also had a few failures in business, one of which was the purchase of a large number of blades which he planned to inject with latex with the idea of improving the bat’s driving power. That project was the reason for the presence of a bat drying room at the school.

Despite his health being troublesome, a legacy of wartime privations, as the end of the 1930 cricket season arrived Faulkner seemed, for once, to be in excellent spirits, and had even agreed to take a short holiday in France with his wife. She would not therefore have been unduly worried when he did not return home on the evening of 9 September 1930. The following morning however his body was found by the secretary of the school, slumped over a gas tap in the bat drying room at the school. He had left a short note saying where his body was to be found, but giving little or no real indication as to his motivation for taking his own life.

A week before his death Faulkner had conducted a radio interview with Jack Hobbs at the Oval, to mark the retirement of “The Master” from Test cricket. Towards the end he said to his old opponent These young fellows today don’t know how marvellous it is to be young enough to get on with things. Hobbs response was I can’t complain I’ve had a good innings. I will have a fine time to look back on. With hindsight there was perhaps a clue to Faulkner’s mental state in his next observation; You’re lucky. The majority of us aren’t so fortunate. What a pity we can’t stay young.

As far as the question I posed in my first paragraph is concerned my own view is that Faulkner richly deserves all of the accolades that come his way. The fact that he might have played against an English second string in 1905/06 and 1909/10 does not, it seems to me, detract in any way from the overall impact of his achievements. To go to Australia for the first time in 1910/11 and score 732 runs against the full strength of the home side, when he was used to batting on matting rather than turf, is little short of miraculous. To my mind even more stunning was his performance for MacLaren in 1921. The fact that the match was a festival game towards the end of a long tour does not trouble me. Australian sides have never lain down easily, least of all one led by Warwick Armstrong and looking to go through a tour of England unbeaten. As a man amongst boys Faulkner’s dominance of that game with bat and ball, all but a decade since he last played a major match, is the greatest measure of his quality. Had he played today, in a side as consistently strong as South Africa have been in recent years, then I would fancy him to have a record superior in all respects to that of Jacques Kallis, his only real rival for the title of South Africa’s finest ever all-round cricketer.


A great piece, fred. One of your best, in my humble estimation, which puts it up against some stiff competition.

Comment by BoyBrumby | 12:00am BST 21 September 2013

Another Masterpiece Martin. Magical.

Comment by Quaggas | 12:00am BST 21 September 2013

Loved it mate. Absolutely loved it. Answered many questions I have had about Faulkner ever since I heard about him.

Comment by bagapath | 12:00am BST 21 September 2013

lovely piece

Comment by smalishah84 | 12:00am BST 22 September 2013

Great story, I found out a bit more about a player I knew very little about.

Comment by MartinB | 12:00am BST 22 September 2013

You, and those others who have commented, are very kind and your encouragement much appreciated.

Comment by Martin Chandler | 12:00am BST 22 September 2013

but Sean Pollock not withstanding it was a lovely piece of writing. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it

Comment by smalishah84 | 12:00am BST 22 September 2013

Good stuff fredders, obviously Clive Rice was better, but otherwise spiffing.

Comment by grecian | 12:00am BST 22 September 2013

Enjoyed this thoroughly Martin. Great part of cricketing history is his story.

Although tough to write-off some of Barlow, Goddard, Procter, Rice, Mc Millan, S.Pollock & Klusener contending with Kallis and Faulkner.

Ali Bacher (The Doc) recently did a cricket book with a cricket writer called Kallis and 12 other all-rounders highlighting our history and strength of producing all-rounders. Included others like Jimmy Sinclair and English converts D’Oliveira & Greig as well as the above. Would love to get it.

Comment by SeamUp | 12:00am BST 23 September 2013

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