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Bernard Tancred: Best batsman of the first South African side

Bernard Tancred (standing second from left) Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia commons
Bernard Tancred (standing second from left) holds the record for the lowest score while carrying his bat in a Test innings  Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Bernard Tancred, born August 20, 1865, was a dour batsman who opened the innings in South Africa’s first Test match and was the best batsman of the country for nearly a decade. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who still holds the world record for the lowest score while carrying his bat in Test cricket.

The 26 not out

It was their second ever Test match, but the South Africans did not know it. Neither did Monty Bowden know that he was leading England in a Test match. Tragically, he never got to know, as he died two years later in a mud hut in Umtali.

The England side had been put together  by Captain Gardner Warton and the party was led by Charles Aubrey Smith, that famed Sussex medium-pacer who gained fame later in life as a character actor in Hollywood. The motley group were hardly more than average county strength. In the match at Port Elizabeth, which later went down as the first ever Test played by South Africa, the visitors scored just 148 in the first innings and yet managed to win by eight wickets.

By the time of the second Test at Cape Town, Aubrey Smith was down with enteric fever. Monty Bowden led the side, Bobby Abel scored a hundred to help England put on 292  and Johnny Briggs started spinning the ball like a top on day two. One after the other, the home batsmen walked to the wicket and back. Four did not open their accounts, no one got beyond seven. No one, that is, bar their opener. Augustus Bernard Tancred stood alone, for an hour and a half, facing 91 balls and hitting four boundaries as he remained unconquered on 26. The South Africans folded for 47 and Briggs picked up seven for 17 (six bowled, one leg-before), but neither he nor Arnold Forthergill could breach the defence of Tancred. He became the first batsman to carry his bat in a completed Test innings, and still owns the record for the lowest score while achieving this feat in a Test match.

In the second innings Briggs bowled him. All the ten wickets were obtained by hitting timber, Briggs did it on eight occasions, giving away just 11 (it remained the best bowling figures by a left-hander till Rangana Herath did a notch better in 2014; the match figures of 15 for 28 still remain the best for a left-hander). Tancred could manage only three, but batted as dourly as ever for 24 minutes. South Africa were bowled out for 43 and lost by an innings. However, Tancred had top-scored in both innings of the First Test as well with identical scores of 29. He finished with 87 runs at 29.00 in the series, more than twice anyone else had got. It was not for nothing that he was acknowledged as the best batsman of the country. Some even referred to him as the WG Grace of South Africa.

Studying with dignitaries, practicing law and playing cricket

Tancred was born in Port Elizabeth on August 20, 1865. Schooled at St Aidan’s College, Grahamstown, he found himself in distinguished company. A chum at school was James Percy Fitzpatrick, who later gained fame as a politician, mining financier and pioneer of the fruit industry — and also found time to pen the classic children’s book, Jock of the Bushveld. Another friend in school was Charles Coghlan, who went on to become the first Premier of Southern Rhodesia. It is unclear how meritorious Tancred was in his academic pursuits, but he did show a lot of penchant for cricket.

On graduation, Tancred practiced law in Pretoria, Kimberley and Johannesburg, and also travelled to other parts of the land on the demands of his profession. He grew into a respected member of the Uitlanders. At the same time, he gained considerable fame as a prominent club cricketer, a batsman with impregnable defence and a livewire at point. It was generally agreed that Tancred was the best batsman of the country, and remained one for a decade.

After the visit of Aubrey Smith’s men, it was the time for the first Currie Cup in April 1890. Tancred scored 106 for Kimberley against Transvaal on his first appearance.

Having established his reputation as the best batsman of South Africa he also founded the Transvaal Cricket Union in 1891, assuming the position of the chairman. However, marriage, three daughters and increasing work commitments prevented him from touring England in 1894.

Club cricket, however, continued and so did Tancred’s success with the bat. In 1896-97 he achieved his other famed feat, scores of 132 and 103 not out in the same match for Eclectic against Union at Pretoria. By this time, tensions had increased between the Boers and Uitlanders. Tancred was one of the members of the community guarding the  main road between Pretoria and Johannesburg.

Tancred did make it to England in 1897, but it was not as a cricketer. The purpose was to attend a House of Commons inquiry into the Jameson raid — the failed attack on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic by a British colonial statesman named Leander Starr Jameson and his Company mercenaries. However, Tancred was pleasantly surprised to find that his fame as a great cricketer had reached the shores of England.

He was made an honorary member of the MCC and Surrey County Cricket Club. He turned out for MCC against Derbyshire in a solitary match at Lord’s, opening the innings with England batsman Charles Wright and adding 53 before being run out. His contribution was 19. In the second innings of the very close match, he fell for only four as MCC squeezed home by a couple of wickets by virtue of some all-round heroics of Albert Trott and Walter Mead.

The Tale of Three Brothers

A year and a half later, Tancred played his final First-Class match, leading Transvaal against Lord Hawke’s Englishmen. Run out for one in the first innings, he was caught and bowled by his erstwhile teammate Albert Trott for 13 in the second. He opened the bowling as well and dismissed Plum Warner. However, while he was still one of the leading batsmen of the nation, business commitments kept him from representing South Africa in the Test matches. His brother Vincent Tancred opened the innings in the first Test match.

Soon after this the Boer War broke out and Tancred did not play First-Class cricket again. During the conflicts he worked for the British intelligence. Later he took up a position as the Legal Adviser to the Military Governor in Bloemfontein.  The responsibilities of this job kept him away from the 1901 South African tour of  England, although he was strongly backed to be the captain.

After the end of the War, Tancred moved to Salisbury. There he joined his former school friend Coghlan as partner in a law firm.  He was no longer playing the game when Australia visited in 1902. Another brother Louis Tancred opened the innings for the hosts at Old Wanderers in the first Test. This is an unique instance of three brothers all opening the innings for the country.

The last days

Tancred was still in Salisbury in 1911 when he became seriously ill.Brought to Cape Town to receive specialist treatment, his condition continued to deteriorate, and even an emergency surgery in Cape Town did not help. He died even as the ship that was to take him to England for treatment stood docked in the harbour, waiting for departure later in the day.

Wisden wrote of him as “undoubtedly the finest batsman in South Africa”.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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