On Valentine’s Day 1896, George Lohmann vanquished the South Africans with figures of eight wickets for seven runs. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the most monstrous spell of this demon bowler.
The country cared for him, provided the warmth to counter the cold viciousness of tuberculosis. Yet, the fair, blue eyed and handsome young man did not return the affection on Valentine’s Day 1896.
Had he been blessed with sturdier constitution, George Lohmann could have captured far more wickets in his career than the 112 in 18 Tests matches. The tally was acquired with a monster average of 10.75 and a strike rate of 34.1. Those who faced him unanimously marked him out as the most difficult to play. He hardly topped medium-pace, but could seam both ways, pitch them with uncanny precision on the proverbial coin, and experiment with flight, pace and angle without compromising on length and accuracy. More often than not he was unplayable, as borne out by his incredible figures – the best for any bowler with 15 or more wickets in the history of Test cricket.
Fifteen of those 18 Tests were played against Australia. And after the first two in the summer of 1886, his figures stood at one measly wicket for 87 runs. The avalanche commenced with 12 wickets at The Oval and continued till the end of his career 10 years later.
Wickets and woes
By the end of the Australian summer of 1891-92, Lohmann had played 14 Tests and had captured 74 wickets at 12.83. He was just 26, and his career promised to sail past every known and unknown horizon.
And then in 1892, fate inserted a deadly spoke in the joyous wheel of his cricketing and other fortunes. That summer he contracted tuberculosis. Following the instructions of the physicians of the day, he spent his winters in South Africa. Yet, he was far from a healthy man, a mere shadow of the youth he had once been.
He did turn out for Western Province and on the matting wickets of South Africa, he proved more unplayable than ever. When a second string England side toured under Sir Tim O’Brien in 1896, he joined forces with his countrymen and tormented the South African batsmen.
The first Test was played at Port Elizabeth – a three day fixture. Lohmann, a fleet-footed batsman with a good eye, opened the batting for England but could not open his account. Only CB Fry, batting with assurance and scientific acumen, scored 43, and the total of 185 hardly looked daunting.
By the end of the first day, however, England had commenced their second innings, and also lost a wicket. Opening the attack and bowling unchanged for 15.4 five ball overs, Lohmann picked up seven for 38, including the vital wicket of Jimmy Sinclair. He used the matting wicket to diabolical effect – all his seven victims had their stumps rattled. South Africa managed just 93.
The Valentine’s Day annihilation
The following day, England lost wickets regularly, and CB Fry departed early enough to make it 72 for six. Arthur Hill and Sammy Woods got a partnership going and added 89 for the seventh wicket.
And finally, that colossal figure of English cricket, Lord Hawke, came in at number 10 and added 42 for the last wicket with Audley Miller. The total of 226 set an almost impossible target of 319, but importantly, the Englishmen batted long enough to make it almost inevitable that the match would spill into the third day.
But, Lohmann did not think so. He needed just 49 balls to skittle out eight batsmen for seven runs. Other than Robert Poore, who scored 10, no other man reached double figures. Five of the victims were bowled, and the monotony was broken with three men doing enough to get their bats to Lohmann’s deliveries to scoop catches. South Africa managed 30 in 18.4 overs, and the match ended with time to spare on the second day.
In his 16th over, Lohmann bowled Frederick Cook and Bonnor Middleton, and then had Joseph Willoughby was caught by Tom Hayward, to end the match with a hat-trick.
Fifteen wickets as cheap as they come was not enough for this young man starved of international cricket for half a decade. In the next Test at Old Wanderers, Johannesburg, brought on as first change, he took nine for 28.
Lohmann ended the series with 35 wickets at 5.80 apiece.
Yet, fate allowed him just one more Test match. After appearing for England at Lord’s against Australia three months later, his health failed him and he never played for the country again. At the end of the summer of 1896, he migrated to South Africa.
In 1901, when South Africa toured England, Lohmann was back in his homeland as manager of the visiting side. However, tuberculosis, which had plagued him for so long, claimed his life later that year. He was just 36.
(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)