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Aubrey Faulkner: A true colossus who ruled the cricketing world

Aubrey Faulkner was an all-rounder in the true sense of the word.
Aubrey Faulkner was an all-rounder in the true sense of the word.

The legendary Aubrey Faulkner was born on December 17, 1881. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the greatest Test all-rounder, before The Wars.

It would not be blasphemous to call George Aubrey Faulkner one of the greatest all-rounders in the history of the sport. He played for South Africa, easily the weakest of the three active teams of his era; a chunk of his career was taken away by World War I; and yet, he had numbers good enough to impress any student of the history of the sport.

Faulkner was an all-rounder in the true sense of the word. As his biographer Brian Bassano wrote, “The yardstick for assessing a great all-rounder is whether or not he could play Test cricket purely as a batsman or purely as a bowler. [Aubrey] Faulkner was unquestionably one of the rare breed.”

In AA Thomson’s words, Faulkner “seemed to be able to do everything he wished and to do it serenely. Over a period of years [Faulkner] was almost in a position to toss up in any given game whether he wished to be regarded as South Africa’s most brilliant batsman or most deadly bowler.”

In his era, Faulkner was one of the most popular figures in the circuit; his ‘dark, brooding eyes’, 6-feet frame, 200 pounds worth of muscle, and attractive features earned him a lot of admirers from the fairer sex; he walked with a swagger, was a robust stroke-player, a deceptive spinner, an outstanding fielder, and later a reputed coach.

How good a player was Faulkner? Of all batsmen who had scored 1,500 Test runs, Faulkner averaged only next to Jack Hobbs: he ranked ahead of legends of The Golden Era like Clem Hill and Victor Trumper, Archie MacLaren, Tom Hayward, Joe Darling, Dave Nourse, and Syd Gregory.

Of bowlers with over 80 wickets in the same era, Faulkner ranked 12th; combined with his batting numbers this definitely makes him the greatest all-rounder before The Wars. In fact, few people across history have matched Faulkner’s numbers. It can be seen by the fact that his batting average: bowling average ratio had remained over the 1.5 mark, which only four people with the 2,000 run-100 wicket double have managed. Faulkner, due to his limited opportunities, could never reach the double.

M R Bat Ave W Bowl Ave Bat Ave / Bowl Ave
Jacques Kallis 164 13,140 55.44 288 32.61 1.7
Garry Sobers 93 8,032 57.78 235 34.03 1.7
Imran Khan 88 3,807 37.69 362 22.81 1.65
Keith Miller 55 2,958 36.97 170 22.97 1.61
All all-rounders with 2,000 runs, 100 wickets, and a batting average: bowling average ratio of 1.5 or more
Aubrey Faulkner 25 1,754 40.79 82 26.58 1.53

It was not a question of talent — definitely not given that all of Faulkner’s 25 Tests had come against the two big teams of his era. It was more of a question of opportunities, or rather, lack of it.

Bassano rightly said: “There was no doubting his stature, and in his prime he would have been an automatic choice for a World XI. Even today, seventy years after his death, there are few who have followed him who could have been his equal when at his peak.”

According to Wisden, Faulkner had “the most unorthodox and extraordinary grip”; despite that he had earned a name — especially towards the end of his career — as one of the most reliable batsmen of his era. He possessed a complete array of strokes, and yet, if he wanted to put his head down, he was almost impossible to get out — even on under-prepared wickets. “Those who saw him play remember his [Faulkner’s] calm assurance and his versatile stroke-play against all types of bowlers,” wrote Johnny Moyes.

If that was not enough, Faulkner had the rare ability to turn the ball both ways. He was a part of the famous googly quartet that so characterised South African cricket in the first decade of the 20th century. Reggie Schwarz, who had learned the art from his Middlesex colleague Bernard Bosanquet, had passed it on to Ernie Vogler, Gordon White, and —Faulkner. Of the four Faulkner’s googly was the fastest. He also had what Moyes called “a fast yorker uncommon for a slow bowler.”

Of his fielding Bassano wrote: “His [Faulkner’s] catching in the slips was superb and, in his younger days when mobility was no problem, he could field both close and in the deep with swiftness and certainty in stopping, picking up, and throwing.”

Faulkner’s Test records are mentioned above. Additionally, he had scored 6,366 runs at 36.58 with 13 hundreds and had taken 449 wickets with 33 five-fors and eight ten-fors from 118 First-Class matches. He had also taken 94 catches, 25 of which were in Tests.

Career

Faulkner made his First-Class debut at for Transvaal against Border at St. George’s Park at an age of 21. He remained unbeaten in each innings, scoring 16 and 17, but did not get a bowl. When England toured South Africa in 1905-06, Faulkner was selected to play for their tour match against Transvaal at Old Wanderers.

The match turned out to be a classic. After Walter Lees and Colin Blythe routed the hosts for 135, Schwarz and Faulkner struck back with their mysterious repertoires. Schwarz had four for 80 while Faulkner finished with three for 46 as Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) was restricted to a 130-run lead.

Then came the fightback: when Faulkner came out Transvaal was 158 for five, a paltry 28 runs ahead; Faulkner batted with the tail and remained unbeaten on 63 as the hosts managed to secure a 175-run lead. Schwarz (five for 34) and Faulkner (three for 62) then bowled Transvaal to a 60-run victory. After the performance, Faulkner was an obvious choice for the first Test at the same ground.

Test debut

All four of them — Faulkner, Schwarz, Vogler, and White — made their debut in the same Test, along with the all-rounder ‘Tip’ Snooke and the wicketkeeper Percy Sherwell (till date he remains the only player to captain, keep wickets, and bat at number eleven on debut).

The four googly bowlers picked up eight wickets between them (Faulkner had two for 36); England scored 184, but bowled out the hosts for 91; they seemed to be going out with the Test at 55 for one in the second innings when Faulkner struck, and kept on striking: he finished with four for 26, and South Africa were left to chase 284. They pulled off a miracle one-wicket victory after being 105 for six with Nourse adding 121 for the seventh wicket with White and 48 for the last wicket with Sherwell.

South Africa (who played an unchanged XI throughout the series) gave Pelham Warner’s England a 4-1 thrashing in the series. Faulkner had an impressive outing, finishing with 129 runs at 18.42 and 14 wickets at 19.42. Surprisingly, he still did not have that maiden First-Class hundred or maiden First-Class five-for.

Faulkner rises

Faulkner finally made it big in the Currie Cup of 1906-07 where Transvaal won all four of their matches. In eight matches that season Faulkner scored 454 runs at 37.83 and had 35 wickets at 13.77. This included his first hundred (119 against Border at King William’s Town) and his first five-for (six for 62 against Natal at Old Wanderers). In the match against Western Province at Newlands, he picked up a hat-trick (the batsmen were Stanley Snooke, Allan Reid, and Philip Hands).

He easily made it to the boat to England in 1907. He began the tour on a high, scoring a match-winning 101 not out against Essex at Leyton; after a series of ordinary performances with the ball, he finally came to his own in the Hampshire match at Southampton, where he finished with figures of 4.5-0-8-5.

Faulkner had an indifferent Lord’s Test, but came back strongly at Headingley. England batted first on the ‘sticky’ wicket and were shot out for 76 by Faulkner (11-4-17-6). This included a spell of six for eight in 41 balls. Blythe restricted the tourists to a 34-run lead, before Faulkner (three for 58) and White bowled out the hosts for 162. With a target 129 to defend, Blythe routed the South Africans for 75.

England had their revenge with a draw in the third Test at The Oval. Faulkner finished the tour with 1,163 runs at 29.82 (other than Nourse, he was the only other batsman to go past the 1,000-mark); with 64 wickets at 15.82, he came third on the wickets tally after Schwarz and Vogler. Surprisingly, though Schwarz and Vogler were named Wisden Cricketers of the Year, Faulkner was overlooked.

The revenge

Faulkner’s third series was against England as well, in the South African summer of 1909-10. By now elevated to first-down, Faulkner single-handedly pulled off a victory in the first Test at Old Johannesburg ground: he scored 78 and 123 and finished with figures of five for 120 and three for 40, winning the Test for his side by a 19-run margin. He remains one of the three cricketers (George Giffen and Bill Edrich being the other two) to have scored 200 runs and have taken eight wickets in a Test.

A single performance of that quality should have sufficed for lesser mortals, but not for Faulkner: in the second Test at Durban, Faulkner scored 47 and returned figures of two for 51 and six for 87 as South Africa went 2-0 up in the series.

The English fought back in the third Test at Old Wanderers, winning by a three-wicket margin. Faulkner’s golden touch continued with scores of 76 and 44 and match figures of six for 120. In the fourth Test at Newlands, Faulkner wasn’t used a lot by Snooke (though he had three for 40 in the second innings).

Then came the fourth innings of the Test match. With 175 to win the series, the hosts were reduced to 76 for three when Faulkner walked out, and were almost immediately reduced to 91 for five. With what Wisden called an ‘invaluable’ 49 not out Faulkner won the series for his side.

England won the dead rubber Test at Newlands after a 314-run lead in the first innings and getting South Africa to follow-on. Faulkner’s 99, however, ensured that England batted again. He also picked up three for 72 in the first innings of the Test. Faulkner finished the series with 545 runs (the most in the series) at 60.55 and 29 wickets (next only to Vogler’s 36) at 21.75. Faulkner remains the only player in the history of Test cricket to have scored 500 runs and have taken 25 wickets in a single series. 1907 had been avenged.

Down Under

Australia was supposed to be different. The climate was hotter and sultrier; the wickets were harder; and when it rained they often turned into gluepots and were virtually unplayable to bat on, especially for South Africans — who were not exposed to cricket of that nature. As a result, they ended up losing the series 1-4. However, the Australians were far from dominating — Faulkner.

Faulkner had a decent start to the tour. He returned to that old habit of winning matches single-handedly in the tour match against Queensland at The Gabba: he scored 54 and 73 and picked up five for 32 and five for 104. In a way, he simply warmed up for the Tests. He became the first South African to score twin fifties and take two five-fors in a single First-Class match.

South Africa were thwarted by an innings in the first Test at Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). Though Faulkner went wicket-less, he managed to score 62 and 43 against a difficult attack. After Australia scored 348 at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) Faulkner took charge, scoring a rapid 320-ball 204 and lifting his side to the safety of 506. It was the first double-hundred scored by a South African.

He also returned a match haul of three for 89, but chasing 170, the tourists submitted meekly to ‘Tibby’ Cotter and Billy Whitty and were bowled out for 80. They were simply outdone by a Trumper masterpiece: the great man had scored a 158-ball 159 out of the 237 Australia managed during his stay.

Faulkner’s form seemed inexhaustible: he scored 56 and 115 at Adelaide (South Africa won the Test), 20 and 80 at MCG, and 52 and 92 at SCG. He also picked up seven wickets from the last three Tests. He scored 732 runs (easily the highest in the series from either side) at 73.20 and had ten wickets.

The tally of 732 runs still remains a series record for South Africa; he also became the first person to score 700 in a series. From 14 matches on the tour Faulkner scored 1,534 runs at 59.00 — then a record aggregate for a touring batsman in an Australian season. Towards the end of the tour, Faulkner routed Victoria at MCG with four for 55 and seven and 26 — the second-innings tally remaining his First-Class career-best — and finished with 49 wickets at 25.59.

Back to the Blighty

Faulkner got married soon after he returned home and the newlywed couple left for England, for the man  hailed by everyone as the greatest contemporary all-rounder — had found a contract as an amateur. After settling down in Nottingham, Faulkner for some reason restricted himself only to club matches. He was still good enough to score 84 not out and claim three wickets for Gentlemen against Players at Scarborough.

Faulkner was already there when South Africa visited England for what was one of the strangest English summers. The brilliant concept of the first tri-nation tournament in cricket (with a built-in Ashes contest) turned out to be a damp squib mostly due to terrible weather.

He started the series with a match-winning 131 for MCC against Nottinghamshire at Lord’s. He joined his countrymen after that, and promptly scored 122 not out in a valiant effort at Old Trafford as Australia won by an innings (this was the Test where Jimmy Matthews famously took two hat-tricks on the same day).

He never crossed 20 again in the series, but had a few decent outings with the ball. He had two for 50 and four for 50 against England at Headingley, but topped it all with a career-best seven for 84 to rout the hosts for 176. Unfortunately, the tourists scored 95 and 93 and lost by ten wickets. South Africa drew one rain-affected Test in the series — against Australia at Trent Bridge – but lost in the other five and came last.

The wet summer was dominated by Faulkner’s bowling: he had 137 wickets at 16.76 with 13 five-fors and three ten-fors from 32 matches in addition to 917 runs at 21.83 with two hundreds as well as 27 catches. This time, too, the Wisden Cricketer nomination remained elusive as the jubilee issue was dedicated entirely to John Wisden.

Faulkner helped pull off a six-run victory for Gentlemen in the contest against Players next season at Scarborough with 101 and five for 68. In the last match of the season, too, he scored 70 and returned match figures of seven for 80 to win a match for HDG Leveson-Gower’s XI against Oxford University at Eastbourne. That, unfortunately, turned out to be his last match before The War.

The war, and afterwards

The ubiquitous all-rounder, Faulkner enlisted himself in the British Army during the War. He joined the Royal Field Artillery [RFA] and served on the Western Front, Macedonia, Egypt, and Palestine. He was a part of the Jerusalem-conquering battalion. An impressive tenure in the army  saw him promoted to the rank of a Major.

The war brought him a Distinguished Service Order [DSO] and the Order of the Nile. On the flip side, he was troubled by a serious bout of malaria and saw his marriage crumbling up during the war years, which eventually led to a divorce in 1920.

All seemed well when Faulkner picked up five for 55 in his first match after The War for MCC against Oxford University at Lord’s. Two matches later, he fought a lone hand for Gentlemen against Combined Services at Lord’s with figures of six for 56 and four for 81 (in addition to scoring 36 and 23).

Faulkner’s best?

Warwick Armstrong’s all-conquering side of 1921 went on steamrolling one opposition after another when before finally came up against Archie MacLaren’s England XI at Eastbourne towards the fag end of the match. Led by a 50-year old MacLaren, the team boasted of only one quality player in the form of Faulkner. It also had three Test players: Percy Chapman and George Wood, both yet to make their Test debut; and a 45-year old Walter Brearley. In other words, the hosts did not stand a chance.

Eager to finish the series as invincibles, Armstrong went all-out, and he and Ted McDonald (who bowled unchanged) took five wickets apiece to rout “Archie’s Innocents” for 43 in 20.1 overs. Faulkner (four for 50) and Michael Falcon (six for 67) then restricted the tourists to a 131-run lead.

McDonald took out another wicket before stumps, and the hosts finished on eight for one. Only one result seemed feasible. A young correspondent of The Guardian had received a message from MacLaren before the match: “I think I know how to beat Armstrong’s lot. Come and write about it.” He had gone for a scoop, and was utterly disgruntled at stumps.

The correspondent, however, had decided to stay back “for sentimental reasons.” It might be, after all, the last time he would be watching MacLaren in action. He visited the ground, and saw the clinical Australians reducing the hosts to 60 for four: they still needed 71 to make the tourists bat again.

He later wrote: “I was now definitely leaving for London. There was no need for haste; the train did not leave in an hour… As I saunteered towards the exit gate I casually glanced over my shoulder at the game. I saw the veteran South African batsman, Aubrey Faulkner, and Hubert Ashton come together and heard their quiet strokes making echoes in the deserted place. By the time I had reached the exit gate I had seen enough. I retraced my steps a little; I sat on a bench facing the pavilion.”

Ashton was a 23-year old Cambridge University student (his brothers Gilbert and Claude also played in the match). The pair the experienced and the youthful — the vigilant and the joyous  the dour and the aggressive  kept McDonald and Armstrong at bay.

It was time for Armstrong to go on the back-foot: he tried Jack Gregory, he tried Arthur Mailey, he even tried Jack Ryder all crucial cogs of his juggernaut. Nothing succeeded: the pair evaded the innings-defeat and added 154 before Armstrong trapped Ashton leg-before for a 72-minute 75.

Faulkner’s job was far from over: he added 36 with young Chapman and 51 more with Falcon; he eventually finished with a 211-minute essay of 153 with 21 boundaries. The nondescript side — almost all of them too young or too old (or, in several cases, not talented enough) to play cricket at the highest level — had managed to set a target of 196. Even then, the hosts finished with 25 for one, and all seemed to be well.

Day Three saw Clement Gibson (a Sussex player was born and died in, of all places, Argentina) take centre-stage: he bowled unchanged with figures of six for 64 to lead his team to a 28-run victory. Faulkner played his part as well, with two for 13 — and once again, as he had done throughout his career, scripted a victory.

The columnist mentioned above was rewarded for his three-day attendance at the ground to witness history: he had seen MacLaren live up to his promise against all expectations, and Faulkner perform at his best; in his autobiography he called it “the only scoop” of his career. Oh, he also went by the name of Neville Cardus.

The English sides —Test or County — had failed to beat the mighty tourists that season: MacLaren’s men had managed to pull off the miracle. With 153 and six wickets in the match, Faulkner had pulled off the last great performance of his career. The disgruntled Australians sunk deeper, losing to CI Thornton’s XI in the Scarborough match by 33 runs.

The surprise recall

After South Africa were thrashed in the first Test of the 1924 series at Edgbaston by an innings they called Faulkner as an emergency replacement. The move backfired: Faulkner scored 25 and 12, and bowled 17 wicket-less overs for 87 as England piled up 531 for two and won by an innings.

The recall did nothing but ruin his averages, and soon afterwards he hung up his boots for good. He did not play another First-Class match.

Coaching

After retirement Faulkner severed his connections with his club St Piran’s and opened The Faulkner School of Cricket in a garage at Petersham Road, Richmond. He later moved to Farm Lane, Walham Green, where he found bigger premises, and set up six matting wickets.

He went on to become an extremely successful coach, and is credited with shaping the careers of the likes of Doug Wright, Ian Peebles, Denis Tomlinson, Tom Killick, and Tom Reddick. Of Faulkner’s coaching, Peebles wrote that the man “had analysed every phase of the game and evolved a simple but comprehensive system of teaching it… Having spotted and corrected a weakness, he had the added merit of being able to bowl the appropriate ball again and again until the flaw had been eradicated.”

In 1927, KS Duleepsinhji’s health underwent a poor phase, which prompted Faulkner to write to Duleep: “I cannot tell how sad I feel at the misfortune which has overtaken you. You were playing so splendidly that I was convinced that you and [Wally] Hammond would be the two young batsmen of the year… Hurry up and get well… I particularly want you to come along to us again during the X’mas holidays as I really would like to fix your off-side shots for good and all before next season commences.”

Duleep had obliged after he recovered. The meticulous effort put in by the coach in the indoor nets helped him sort out his issues. He went back and performed well in 1928 and 1929, but then faced more health issues which ruined his confidence completely.

The Indian called Faulkner to let him know that he would be retiring from cricket. The retort was curt: “Nonsense, Duleep, get into the nets, and we will start again right from the very beginning.” The next season, Duleep scored 173 on his Ashes debut at Trent Bridge and Peebles had a six-for on an absolutely flat track at The Oval.

Along with coaching Faulkner also authored the 1926 book Cricket: Can it be Taught? He also became a broadcaster; as The Montreal Gazette wrote, “[Aubrey] Faulkner’s voice was well-known to wireless listeners for his broadcast criticisms during the Test matches and more recently for the discussions between himself and Jack Hobbs on cricketers and cricket.

Personal life

Faulkner’s childhood days were tormented by an alcoholic father —the dreadful memories of which had probably inspired him to remain a teetotaller throughout his life. Once out of his house, he enlisted himself in the Imperial Light House at 19 to fight in the Anglo-Boer War.

Divorce did not suit him well. Always a sex symbol of sorts, he remarried a much younger woman in 1928; his wife worked as his secretary and worked incessantly to get the Academy going; there were even talks to incorporate a gymnasium within the Academy.

However, income had been not been good and finances had been drying up. He had the safe, easy option to apply for a liquor shop license, but as per Bassano “his [Faulkner’s] early experiences of his father’s drinking led him to discount the idea.”

The depression had been seeping into the contented, extrovert exterior without anybody knowing. Faulkner was perhaps too proud to consult a psychiatrist. The inner scars were possibly aggravated by his bouts of malaria, and he became a victim of what Bassano called “probably manic depression.”

Finally, he could not take it anymore: on September 10, 1930 Aubrey Faulkner, the finest all-rounder of his era, closed all the doors and windows of a small room in his Academy and gassed himself. He was only 48 years 267 days, and it had been only six years after he had played his last Test.

Faulkner’s suicide note read: “Dear Mackenzie, I am off to another sphere via the small bat-drying room. Better call in a policeman to do investigating.” An almost-broke Faulkner’s widow was left with an estate worth less than £300. Such was the way life treated the great man.

He was buried in North Sheen Cemetery, Richmond.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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