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Dave Nourse: ‘Grand Old Man of South African Cricket’

Dave Nourse © Getty Images
Dave Nourse (batting in picture) never missed a Test match during his 22-year international career for South Africa © Getty Images

Dave Nourse, born January 25, 1879, played 49 years at First-Class level and never missed a Test for South Africa during his 22-year international career. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who was known as the Grand Old Man of South African Cricket.

The elusive first win

January 1906. South Africa had been playing Test cricket for almost 17 years. The 11 Test matches so far had earned them ten defeats and one solitary draw.

The English side under the captaincy of ‘Plum’ Warner had come over to contest a series of five Test matches. Although not the best men available in the country, there was nevertheless a decent group of cricketers. Colin Blythe was a major talent in the team — especially alongside Yorkshire all-rounder Schofield Haigh and the Surrey amateur, Jack Crawford.

The first Test was played at the Old Wanderers ground in central Johannesburg. Led by wicketkeeper Percy Sherwell, South Africa were waiting for them on the matting wickets with a battery of four googly bowlers in their ranks.

The spinners found their spots and the home team managed to restrict the Englishmen to 184, but the Surrey fast bowler Walter Lees responded by blasting the South African batsmen out. Blythe was also his usual self with his deadly left-arm spin. The South Africans could manage only 91 in their first innings.

With none of the googly bowlers apart from Aubrey Faulkner managing to trouble the Englishmen in the second innings, Dave Nourse was called upon to bowl his left-arm swingers and leg-cutters. He responded with two wickets. England were bowled out for 190, leaving the hosts an imposing 284-run target.

Blythe and Lees got into the act again with quick scalps, and soon the target looked way beyond the horizon. It was 105 for six when the left-handed Dave Nourse walked out to join Gordon White. The two men resisted gamely and proceeded to 134 for six when lunch was taken.

After the break followed one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of the game. White and Dave Nourse batted on, bravely moving the score along, keeping the keen bowling at bay. Lees and Blythe were negotiated, Haigh was ill and was taken for runs in the only over he bowled. Warner changed the bowling frequently, but the batsmen held firm, resisting the urge to do anything spectacular. The score had advanced as far as 226 when the genial Albert Relf castled a tiring White for a fantastic 81.

A further 58 were still required and much depended on Dave Nourse, the man known for his impregnable defence. South Africa batted deep, but two more wickets fell within another 13 runs. At 239 for nine, captain Sherwell strode out to join the determined Dave Nourse.

The game progressed amidst electric atmosphere. Every run was cheered by the huge crowd as the two experienced men brought down the difference, scoring at a remarkably high rate. Both batted with extraordinary calm and focus, negotiating the probing deliveries, not sparing the loose ones. And there were plenty of loose balls bowled by the experienced England side. In the finishing stages, Sherwell latched on to them and managed four crucial boundaries.

After he had batted 220 minutes, Dave Nourse struck Relf for three down the leg side to level the scores. And Sherwell blocked three balls before hammering a loose half tracker to the leg-side boundary to notch up the first win for the nation.

After 17 years, and on their 12th attempt, the South Africans had finally won their first Test match. Dave Nourse, who had batted for over four hours, remained unbeaten on 93.

As the two jubilant batsmen made their way off the field and into the members pavilion, Dave Nourse led the way up to the changing rooms on the first floor. At the bottom of the stairs stood George Kempis, a veteran of the South African side that had voyaged on the first tour to England in 1894. A well-known benefactor of Springbok cricket, Kempis stopped Dave Nourse, congratulated him on his innings and placed a gold coin in his palm. The others sitting in the members pavilion followed suit, putting hands in their pockets and handing out coins to the victorious batsman. In the end, Dave Nourse carried back a small little fortune for his efforts. Another spectator bought the bat that he had used and presented it to the Wanderers Club. It is still displayed in all its magnificence at the Kent Park.

The coming of Dave

It was the highpoint of the career of Dave Nourse, a man who plodded serenely through the initial chapters of South African cricket history. He made his debut in First-Class cricket in 1897 for Natal. It was 39 years later that he made his final appearance for Western Province in 1936. In the process he played with and against son Dudley Nourse on six occasions.

Even after calling it a day from the First-Class scene, he continued to play First League club cricket in Cape Town for a couple of years, till well past the age of 60. It is not for nothing that he earned the well-deserved sobriquet of ‘The Grand Old Man of South African Cricket.’

During the course of his cricketing days, Dave Nourse made his debut for South Africa in Test cricket in 1902, and played for them till 1924. South Africa played 45 matches during that period, and Nourse did not miss a single one. There were seven more unofficial ‘Tests’ in which he took part. Till the time South Africa went into isolation from 1970, only wicketkeeper John Waite had played more Tests for the nation.

Dave Nourse was born in Croydon, Surrey, on January 25, 1879. He was christened Arthur William, and would not be called Dave until much later.

He joined the British Army as a boy drummer; the nickname Dave Nourse was minted in his regiment, the West Riding. It was with this regiment that he arrived in South Africa in 1895. By this time, the nickname had stuck for good.

He was posted in Pietermaritzburg, an area of Natal positively crazy about cricket in those days. The regiment that West Riding was replacing was on its way to India. This departing troupe had taken part in the local first league. Hence when West Riding arrived, the administrators immediately included them in the league as a replacement.

The West Riding regiment was not really blessed with much talent in the cricketing way. Dave Nourse, who had very rarely played the game before this, was drafted into the team. According to his own confessions later on, he learnt the game after coming to South Africa. And soon, he turned out to be an useful operator with both bat and ball.

At that time, the Transvaal Republican Government under President Paul Kruger had forbidden the military personnel in uniform from crossing the border. Hence, it was through secret travels under cover that Nourse made his debut for Natal in the sixth ever Currie Cup in 1897. He played Eastern Province, batted at number eight and scored 61 in the second innings.

In 1898, West Riding was posted in India. Dave Nourse bought his discharge from the army and stayed back in South Africa. Moving to Durban, he joined the local borough police. He played cricket for Natal, and also represented the state in rugby and soccer in the provincial tournaments. As if that was not enough, he also rowed for the Durban Rowing Club.

The following year saw the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. Dave Nourse joined the Durban Light Infantry and his cricket was interrupted for three years. However, when the conflicts were over and he returned to the game, it was the start of a new chapter in South African cricket.

Test match success

The great Australian team of 1902 were on their way home after their victorious exploits in England. They stopped over to play three Tests in South Africa. Nourse made his debut in the first Test at Johannesburg and scored 72 in the first innings, helping the home side post 454.

The Australian team consisting of Victor Trumper, Joe Darling, Clem Hill, Syd Gregory, Monty Noble, Reggie Duff, Warwick Armstrong, Hugh Trumble and Ernie Jones will certainly rank as one of the strongest ever fielded. Yet, they were made to suffer the ignominy of following on. The inexperienced hosts could not convert it into a win. In the second innings Hill hit a big century and the match ended in a draw. However, there was cause for celebration. This was the first time South Africa played a Test match and did not end up on the losing side.

However, three years later, Dave Nourse and the South Africans had their moment of glory as they triumphed in a Test for the first time in history. Having played that remarkable innings of 93 not out to bring the side that heart-stopping win, Dave Nourse continued in the same vein. When Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) played Natal, Dave Nourse slammed 119 and then captured five for 52 and four for 58 as the visitors squeezed to a four wicket win. In the third Test at Johannesburg, he played a leading role again, scoring 61 and 55 in yet another victory. On the familiar matting wickets, South Africa triumphed 4-1 in the series.

That season, Dave Nourse had a superb time in the Currie Cup as well, scoring six hundreds in seven innings and ending with an average of 98.16.  He also claimed 24 wickets at 11.75.

Around the world

Dave Nourse went on to tour England in 1907, then again during the failed experiment of the triangular Test series in 1912. And after the forced hiatus of the Great War, he travelled there again in 1924, at the age of 46. He never really succeeded as a batsman in Test matches on the English pitches, his 25 innings in 14 Tests getting him 485 runs at  21.08  with just two half centuries. However, he was a rather handy bowler in those conditions, with 20 wickets at 28.05.

At the same time, his batting in England got better with age and experience. In 1907, he scored 1,191 runs at 30.53 with two hundreds in all the games on the tour. He also took 15 wickets at 18.66. By the time he toured in 1912, he was a slightly more potent force to reckon with, scoring 1576 at 33.83 with his highest being an unbeaten 213 against Hampshire. He also captured 49 wickets at 24.65.

The 1924 visit was extraordinary. Past his prime for long, at cricketing old age, Dave Nourse scored 1,889 runs at 39.35 with four hundreds — including an unbeaten 147 out of 236 against Nottinghamshire. His series batting exploits were second only to captain Herbie Taylor.  By now converted into a left arm slow bowler, Dave Nourse also supplemented the batting efforts with 27 wickets.

He was of course much more at home on the harder wickets of his country. When South Africa clinched another close 19-run win in Johannesburg against England in 1910-11, Dave Nourse played two vital innings of 53 and 34. In the following Test at Durban, after both the sides had scored 199 in the first innings, the hosts found themselves reeling at 23 for three in the second. Dave Nourse combined in another match turning partnership with Gordon White, scoring 69 and adding 143, laying the foundations for a win by 95 runs.

His other great moment was of course at Johannesburg in late 1921. It was the first Test against the all-conquering Australians, returning from the famous tour of England. Herbie Collins had scored 203 to post a huge total of 450. Days shy of 43, Dave Nourse fought alone to top score with 64 in the first innings. Following on, the hosts put their heads down to save the Test match, Nourse scoring his only Test hundred, a patient effort of 111. For the fourth wicket he added 206 with Charlie Frank.  At 42 years and 294 days, he became the oldest South African to score a century. He was also the first left-handed batsman of the country to notch up a hundred. Curiously the second southpaw to do so was arrived four decades down the line in the form of Graeme Pollock.

Dave Nourse toured Australia only once, in 1910-11, but enjoyed his time there.  He hit 1454 runs at 60.58 on the tour, studded with five hundreds. He started the tour with an unbeaten 201 against South Australia. The week following the double hundred, a son was born to him back home.  William Ward, the second Earl of Dudley, was the presiding Governor-General in Australia at that time. The legend goes that on hearing of the double hundred and the birth, the Governor General requested Dave Nourse to name the new-born after him. Thus Dudley Nourse was born. He went on to play 34 Tests for South Africa from 1935 to 1951, scoring 2960 runs at 53.81. He remains one of the best batsmen to be produced by the country.

Nourse senior had a great time in the Tests in Australia as well, hitting 64 at Sydney and 93 at Melbourne, unbeaten knocks both. He ended with 304 runs at 38.00.

The battle of the Nourse-men

When the Great War intervened, Dave Nourse was 36. It was perhaps doubtful whether he would continue once the atrocities were over. However, when cricket restarted, Natal took on Transvaal and Dave Nourse batted six hours to amass 304 not out. The score stood as the national record for 20 years.

From the 1927-28 season, Dave Nourse switched to Western Province. In 1932, at the age of 54, he scored his last hundreds. He ended the 1931-32 season with 160 not out against Transvaal. And in the first game of the 1932-33 series, he hit an unbeaten 209 against Natal.

He played his last First-Class game when Vic Richardson’s Australians visited in 1935-36. He top scored with 55 in the first innings and followed it up with the wickets of Ben Barnett and Jack Fingleton conceding just 27 runs. In his first innings against the Australians in the Johannesburg Test of 1902 he had been dismissed by Monty Noble for 72. Now, 33 years later, he fell leg before to Bill O’Reilly for 10. It said a lot for his longevity.

According to Dudley Nourse, “Never did my father even show me how to hold a bat.” When the boy asked for a bat, supposedly the father’s response had been, “I learned to play cricket with a paling of a fence. Now you go and do the same.”

However, Dave and Dudley Nourse formed one of the most successful cricketing father-son combinations.

It was in 1931-32 that Dave Nourse saw his son bat for the first time. Dudley was playing for Natal, and Dave for Western Province. In the Currie Cup match at Kingsmead, Western Province batted first and Dave made just two before being run out. When it was Natal’s turn to bat, captain Frank Martin put Dave on immediately after Dudley had come in to bat. This was the first time in any form of cricket (including those played in the Nourse backyard) that the father had bowled to the son. Dudley carried on unperturbed and recorded his maiden century in First-Class cricket. From the slip, Dave remarked, “Son, I hope there will be many more to follow this one.” There were 40 more, nine of them in Test matches.

Dave Nourse was a batsman of infinite patience, whose innings were built on the bedrock of grit and moderation. Never a big striker of the ball, he could work the ball around and scored uniformly around the wicket. While he started out as a left-arm opening bowler who could swing the ball and also send down canny leg-cutters, with advancing years, he became an intelligent slow bowler, relying on subtle variations and guile. Blessed with big bucket hands, he was an asset in the slips.

In 228 First-Class matches, Dave Nourse scored 14,216 runs at 42.81 with 38 hundreds and captured 305 wickets at 23.36. He also held 172 catches. In 45 Test matches, he amassed 2234 runs at 29.78, scalped 41 wickets at 37.87 and snapped up 43 catches.

Outside cricket, Dave Nourse had an incredible number of professions which got him listed variously as a soldier, policeman, railway guard, billiard board marker and saloon keeper, commercial traveller and manager of a sports shop. His last cricketing days were spent coaching and playing for the University of Cape Town.

Dave Nourse passed away in July 1948, just five months before son Dudley led South Africa in the first of his 15 Tests as captain.

(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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