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‘Jock’ Cameron’s Story

Born in Port Elizabeth in 1905 Horace Brackenridge Cameron started to take an interest in cricket at the age of ten. His early keenness was rewarded with having to act as longstop, but the young man who was almost always known simply as ‘Jock’, soon started to move closer to the stumps and it was not long before he was keeping wicket.

As a wicketkeeper Cameron was of the neat and unobtrusive sort, generally eschewing the spectacular in favour of efficiency. Few were as swift at removing the bails and of the 224 First Class dismissals that he shared in almost a third were stumpings. In contrast as a batsman he was renowned for the power of his hitting and brought an aggression to the wicket that no South African batsman had done since the days of Jimmy Sinclair, some two decades previously. It is important to make the point however that Cameron’s shots all came from the text book, but were hit with exceptional power. When he, posthumously, was named as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year in the 1936 edition the accompanying essay stressed; In no sense could he be described as a ‘slogger’. He combined fine technique with calculated hitting. 

The first time Cameron played First Class cricket was for Transvaal, as an opening batsman, against a side taken to South Africa in 1924/25 under the captaincy of Lionel Tennyson and styled SB Joel’s XI. Joel was an Anglo South African businessman who underwrote the costs of the visit. Tennyson was probably the best known of the tourists, but they were a strong combination and at some point in their careers all but three of the fourteen members of the party were capped by England and the series of five fixtures against the full South African side were drawn 2-2. It was an inauspicious start for the young opener however, as he scored just 2 and 13.

In the following two Currie Cup seasons Cameron was a constant presence behind the stumps for Transvaal, and he improved year on year with the bat. In his first season there were a couple of fifties and an average of 28, a figure which went up to almost 40 the following year when he also recorded his first century, 132 against Eastern Province.

In 1927/28 an MCC team led by Captain Rony Stanyforth visited South Africa for a five Test series. The MCC side was some way short of the full strength of England, but was certainly much stronger than the Joel combination. Amongst the batsmen Herbert Sutcliffe and Walter Hammond were both selected, and although Maurice Tate and Harold Larwood were not in the party there were a strong contingent of leg spinners in ‘Tich’ Freeman, Ian Peebles and Greville Stevens.

England won the first two Tests comfortably enough, Cameron scoring 20,5,19 and 19. With 21 and 9 Cameron continued his habit of getting in without establishing himself in third Test but, Geary having broken down in the second Test to leave England with a pace attack led by reluctant seamer Hammond, the South Africans comfortably drew that one before taking the fourth and fifth Tests to square the series.

There was an important contribution from Cameron in the fourth Test. England were dismissed for a relatively modest 265 and South Africa were 152-4 when Cameron came to the crease, a total which had advanced only to 170 when the next wicket fell and Cameron was joined by his skipper, ‘Nummy’ Deane. An innings which was in danger of being becalmed was then boosted by a partnership of 89 in just 47 minutes. Cameron scored 64. The initiative switched from England to South Africa who did not lose it again, running out winners by four wickets. Cameron was dismissed second time round for 18 with victory just five runs away.

The pattern in the final Test was much the same. England scored 282 and South Africa slipped to 95-4 before again Cameron changed the tempo. This time his partner was Bob Catterall and the partnership 136 in 90 minutes. For once Cameron was outscored as he contributed only 53, but that did include three fours and a six from consecutive deliveries from Freeman.

In 1929 the South Africans came to England with a young team keen to erase the memories of the hugely disappointing visit of 1924. In the first Test the visitors fielded four debutants and four more men who had not previously played in England. Only Deane, Catterall and Herb Taylor remained from five years previously. The first Test was drawn and Cameron contributed only five, but with century opening partnerships in both innings Catterall and new cap Bruce Mitchell ensured South Africa never looked like losing.

At Lord’s the visitors drew the second Test as well, Cameron contributing 32 to a first innings total of 322 which produced a lead of 20. In the fourth innings South Africa were five down for 90 when the game ended, but it was a disappointing conclusion, particularly for Cameron. He had kept wicket sufficiently well for The Cricketer to make the observation that he was without an equal today as a wicketkeeper, but his match ended in distressing circumstances. The Cricketer’s correspondent wrote the sound of the terrible blow on the left side of his head which Cameron received from a very fast and short ball from Larwood will always remain a horrible memory. The whole ground was profoundly moved, and everyone was glad when a few minutes later bad light stopped further play. Cameron had shaped to hook the Notts Express and had to be carried from the field after the incident which left Larwood seriously concerned for the welfare of his opponent.

As a result of his injury Cameron was laid low for a month and missed the third Test. He continued to suffer from headaches for a good deal longer but after his teammates were beaten in his absence he was back for the fourth Test at Old Trafford. This time the South Africans were beaten by an innings, but they were unlucky. England batted first in perfect conditions before rain came and turned the wicket into an excellent surface for Freeman who proceeded to take 12-171. Cameron managed just 13 as the South Africans were shot out for 130 in their first innings, but he top scored with 83 in the second innings.

At the Oval in the final Test the South Africans got themselves in a strong position, building a first innings lead of 234 with 62 from Cameron, but England lost just a single wicket in clearing the arrears, and the match petered tamely out into a draw. In the England first innings there was a dismissal by Cameron that cemented his reputation as a wicketkeeper when he stumped Hammond from the bowling of left arm spinner Cyril Vincent for 17. The ball turned in from the off and passed over Hammond’s leg stump. His foot left the ground for only a fraction of a second, but long enough for Cameron to complete the dismissal.

The next Test series for Cameron was at home in 1930/31. The MCC side that toured that winter was a strong one, albeit there was no Sutcliffe, Larwood or Frank Woolley. The tourists had problems and at one stage they were so badly affected by injuries that it was eventually necessary to call on the services of the Middlesex opening batsman Harry Lee, who was on a coaching assignment. At the end of the day however the South Africans could only play what was in front of them, and in winning the first Test and drawing the other four, albeit with a little help from the weather, they succeeded in taking the series.

Before the series began Deane had retired, so it was all-rounder Buster Nupen who led the South Africans to victory in the first Test. The winning margin was only 28 runs, so Cameron’s second innings 51 was crucial, as were his two catches and two stumpings, the second of which was Hammond, again from Vincent, after he top scored in England’s unsuccessful run chase. The England second innings was notable also for the fact that Cameron did not concede a single bye.

Despite Nupen’s success as captain, and he had taken 11 wickets as well, there was a clamour for Deane to return for the second Test and he acceded to those requesting him to reverse the decision to end his career. He therefore led South Africa in the second and third Tests before withdrawing again. Why he did so is not entirely clear, but the eminent writer Louis Duffus, in his definitive history of South African cricket over the period, referred to disagreements behind the scenes, and commented that Deane finally withdrew from the game in a manner singularly incompatible with his distinguished service. Whatever the cause it was Cameron rather than Nupen who was appointed to lead the South Africans in the fourth and fifth Tests. In those four draws Cameron’s contributions were 26, 41,8, 2, 69*, 4, 41*. The unbeaten 69 in the second innings of his first Test as captain undoubtedly saved the game and might, had an extra hour been available, have enabled his side to win.

In 1931/32 South Africa visited Australia for only the second time ever, and the first in more than twenty years. Cameron remained in command of a young team, only the 42 year old Herb Taylor being over 30. It never looked like being an easy trip, and proved not to be. The Australians star studded lineup made no concessions and won the series 5-0. Three of the matches were won by an innings, one by ten wickets and the closest of the five by 169 runs. Occasionally one or two of the South Africans would put in a decent personal performance, but overall they were simply blown away. They didn’t have much luck either, caught on a sticky wicket in the final Test and being bowled out for 36 and 45. Cameron made just a single half century, 52, in the fourth Test.

In the manner of the times before returning home the South Africans crossed the Tasman to play a couple of Tests in New Zealand. As they won the first by an innings and the second by eight wickets the gulf between them and New Zealand wasn’t far short of that between themselves and Australia. Cameron’s personal contributions were 47, 44 and 22*, so there was a return to some semblance of batting form for him personally as well.

The demands of business meant that Cameron only played one First Class match in each of the 1932/33 and 1933/34 seasons, but he managed a century in each. The following season, used to select the side to tour England in 1935, was different and he played six times. The first two saw him score further centuries, to make it four in four matches. Inevitably he could not keep that up but, clearly now in his prime, there was never any doubt that as long as he was available he would be selected.

The combined burdens of captaincy, wicketkeeping and being a leading batsman had not really suited Cameron in Australia and he was happy to step back in 1935 and take the vice-captaincy and support his old college teammate Herby Wade. Although he was not a top class batsman Wade had been captain of Natal for some years and had a good season in 1934/35 and, of course, the events that followed demonstrated he was undoubtedly a sound choice.

Between the fourth and fifth Tests the 1935 South Africans were beaten by Gloucestershire and Essex, but those were their only two defeats on a long and arduous tour. The most important result was that in the second Test which the South Africans won. They were able to draw all of the four matches, thus taking the series. All told they won 22 of their 39 fixtures, and by the time the tour was over all England were familiar with the South Africans, and Cameron and Mitchell in particular.

To underline the difference between tours of the 1930s and today the first Test was the sixteenth match of the tour. England were perhaps unlucky as they did enough to make South Africa follow on, but the loss of the third and final day ruled out any possibility of a result. For Cameron there had been an innings of 52 and, with Mitchell still at the crease when the rains came there can have been no certainty that England would have won even if they had had the final day.

Between the first and second Tests came a famous match at Sheffield. Eight of the Yorkshire side who faced the South Africans were or would become England players, but they still lost by 128 runs. The game lives on in the literature of the game because of the punishment meted out by Cameron to the greatest of all left arm spinners, Hedley Verity. In a second innings century one Verity over went for 4,4,4,6,6,6. At the end of the over it is said that the Yorkshire wicketkeeper, Arthur Wood, sought to console his bowler with the observation that at least he had Cameron in two minds. A quizzical look from the bowler elicited the elaboration that Cameron did not know whether to hit him for four or six.

The second Test was the famous leatherjacket match at Lord’s, so called because a plague of the cranefly larvae had left the wicket looking like a desert. At least it was the same for both sides and they could select their sides accordingly. England picked three spinners; Verity, Jim Langridge of Sussex, another left armer, and Derbyshire leg spinner Tommy Mitchell. With only Mitchell a genuine tailender it was a strong batting lineup, with Verity at ten. The South Africans on the other hand declined to tinker and selected just one specialist spinner, leggie Xen Balaskas, whose four previous Tests had brought him just four wickets.

On the basis that the wicket could only get worse Wade had no difficulty in choosing to bat on winning the toss. Conditions were not easy but in the middle of the innings Cameron made his highest Test score, 90, to lift the final total to a respectable but hardly match winning 228. There was enough time left in the day for England to get to 75-2.

On the second day the South Africans stuck to their task and, with Balaskas taking 5-49, they dismissed England for 198. That set the stage for one of the great Test match innings. The South African opener Mitchell was still at the crease when, just before lunch the next day, the declaration came at 278-7. He was on 164 and the only issue left was whether England could bat out time and save the match. With Balaskas taking 4-54 and medium pacer Chud Langton 4-31 they couldn’t, and were all out for 151.

England now paid the price for limiting the Tests to three days. They were in with a chance in the third Test at Headingley as they gained a big lead and made inroads into the South African second innings before being foiled by Cameron. For once in stonewall mode Cameron presented a dead bat to everything bowled at him until, the draw safe, he smashed a delivery from leg spinner Jim Sims for six and then, in the last over, presented Yorkshire Wilf Barber with a Test wicket when he charged down the wicket at him, missed and was easily stumped by Les Ames for 49.

The fourth Test was similar, although this time it was rather more comfortable for South Africa, so much so that in making his 53 in the first innings Cameron was able to play his natural game, and he wasn’t required to bat in the second innings as Mitchell and Dudley Nourse comfortably saw off the England attack.

The England captain, Bob Wyatt, was criticised in the final Test for his decision to invite the South Africans to bat, but his reasoning was sound enough in a three day match and, had it not taken the best part of five hours to get rid of Mitchell, the gamble might have come off. As it was the South African first innings, to which Cameron contributed a mere eight, took up far too much time so, when Cameron got to the crease again for what was to prove his final Test match innings, he was able to treat the Oval crowd to a typically breezy 42. Again the match was comfortably drawn and, for the first time, South Africa had won a series in England.

The tour had been more successful than the South Africans had dared hope and they must have been in high spirits when they set off for home after stopping off for a two day game in The Hague. All was well until the ship pulled in at Madeira on the way home. Like many of his teammates Cameron disembarked briefly. He felt unwell on his return, something initially put down to the release of tension after a long and tiring trip. There was no improvement however and by the time the party got back to South Africa Cameron was gravely ill with enteric fever. He died on 2nd November 1935, still only 30.

A fund to support his Cameron’s wife, who had been with him in England, was started and by the time it closed had raised, in today’s terms, more than £400,000. This was more than sufficient to cover the purpose of the fund, which was to create an income to provide for Cameron’s widow during her lifetime, and thereafter to establish a benevolent fund for South African cricketers generally. One of the events staged was a baseball match against the 1935/36 Australian tourists, and an image of the programme for that event accompanies this feature.

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