Exactly one century ago, Australia and South Africa met at the Old Trafford, for the first Test match played in a neutral venue as also the start of the innovatively planned Triangular Test series.
Arunabha Sengupta recounts the failed experiment of multi-national Test tournament that took 86 years to be tried again.
May 27, 1912 was quite a stirring day in the history of cricket. Australia, aided by centuries from Charles Kelleway and Warren Bardsley, raced to 448 and then reduced South Africa to 16 for one. The next day, Jimmy Mathews spun his leg-breaks to take two hat-tricks in a day, one in each innings, as the Proteans folded for 265 and 95.
Strangely, all this action between two countries of the Southern Hemisphere took place far up north, in the Old Trafford cricket ground of Manchester – the first Test match to be played at a neutral venue, the start of the first Triangular Test Series.
If there ever was an idea implemented a century before its time, this was it. A brilliant spark of imagination ignited by Sir Abe Bailey of South Africa in 1909 and supported vehemently by the other cricket boards, with full backing of the newly formed Imperial Cricket Conference (forerunner of the International Cricket Council).
The three Test playing nations of the day would play a round robin league of Test matches, meeting each other thrice – nine matches in all across the five Test centres of England.
On paper it was a dream floated on rosy wings. The English and Australian teams glittered with stars, having just stepped out of an era later to be dubbed the golden age. Led by CB Fry, England boasted players like Jack Hobbs, Wilfred Rhodes, Frank Woolley, Reggie Spooner, Frank Foster, Jack Hearne and Sydney Barnes. The Australian side was supposed to include names such as Victor Trumper, Clem Hill, Warren Bardsley, Warwick Armstrong, Charley Macartney, Vernon Ransford and Tibby Cotter. And South Africa had grown from strength to strength in the last decade, with its battery of googly bowlers, Reggie Schwarz, Syd Pegler and the great Aubrey Faulkner, also the leading all-rounder of his day, and the solidity of Herbie Taylor at the top of the order.
The Times published a warning which sounds suspiciously tailor-made for the modern times, saying that the tournament would “furnish a surfeit of healthy excitement, which would defeat the purpose of wholesome cricket among those who have its best interests at heart.”
However, the cricket that was finally produced failed to get anywhere near the expectations of administrators, spectators or press.
The two visiting sides soon ran into multiple problems.
Dissent had already been brimming in the Australian camp half a year ahead of the tour, and it was splashed in public when Clem Hill ended up having a rather one sided fisticuff with selector Peter McAllister in Sydney in February 1912.
While Hill was surprisingly allowed to play the home Tests after the incident, the board refused to give in to the commercial and administrative demands of the players. As a result of the standoff, six of the biggest names – Trumper, Hill, Armstrong, Ransford, Cotter and Hanson Carter – did not tour England for the tournament.
The South Africans also ran into trouble as the wrist spinners, so effective in the matting wickets of their country, became less than lethal on the turf surfaces of England. Batsmen were also gradually mastering the art of countering the googly.
The problems of the two teams were compounded by tribulations of weather. The elements of England, the temperamental heavens, washed away most of the merriment. The spring was damp and the summer that followed was the wettest since 1766 when such record keeping began. In June, July and August, rainfall was more than twice the annual average. If this was not enough, August also broke records as the coldest, dullest and wettest month of the 20th century. The players remained fidgeting in the pavilions, and the number of spectators who turned up at the matches dwindled to a trickle through the three months.
Two matches between England and Australia were washed out, in conditions that Fry described as pure mud.
Three teams – yet one sided
The matches that could be played, if rain held up long enough, were painstakingly one sided. South Africa lost all but one of their matches by huge margins, a severe downpour at Trent Bridge allowing them to escape complete whitewash.
The final match, effectively the decider, was held at The Oval. When it was argued that an additional match might have to be played to break any potential deadlock, there was very little appetite for a tenth Test after three months of damp squibs. Rain was a major player this time as well, and a decisive one. In conditions which the press and the Australian team dubbed “more suited for water polo”, England captured eight wickets for 21 runs, thus effectively winning the tournament, as also the Ashes comprising of the three Anglo-Australian Tests that featured in the fare.
Soon after this, the Australian and South African boards communicated that they could not afford to host two Test teams and hence subsequent triangular tournaments were put on hold. Wisden noted “the experiment is not likely to be repeated for many years to come - perhaps not in this generation.”
The idea was indeed shelved once the World War intervened, and taken out only 86 years later when India and Pakistan met at the Eden Gardens for the first match of the Asian Test Championships.
(Arunabha Sengupta is trained from Indian Statistical Institute as a Statistician. He works as a Process Consultant, but purifies the soul through writing and cricket, often mixing the two into a cleansing cocktail. The author of three novels, he currently resides in the incredibly beautiful, but sadly cricket-ignorant, country of Switzerland. You can know more about him from his author site, his cricket blogs and by following him on Twitter)