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George Aubrey Faulkner’s 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. Faulkner was unquestionably one of the rare breed.” Born December 17, 1881, Faulkner was a South African cricketer, who can arguably be referred to as the best all-rounder in the pre-war era. On his birth anniversary, Suvajit Mustafi looks at 18 facts about the exceptional cricketer who fought in the war and also was recognised as a cricketing sex symbol.

1. An all-rounder even beyond the boundaries

Faulkner was an elegant stroke-maker, a wily leg-break googly bowler and an outstanding fielder, who later became a reputed coach. Apart from that he was incredibly dashing. Tall, muscular with dark brooding eyes, he had a massive female fan following. He also successfully served the army.

2. Difficult childhood

Born in Port Elizabeth, Faulkner remained a teetotaller throughout his life. He had strong reasons for that. He had dreadful memories of childhood thanks to the violence he endured from his alcoholic father. The family enjoyed prosperity but his father’s bouts of violence towards his mother made things worse.

3. Out from home and Anglo-Boer War

When he got out of his home, he enlisted himself in Imperial Light Horse, a famous old South African Regiment, for whom he fought for the final six months of the Anglo Boer War in 1900. He did not return home and relocated to Cape Town where he worked as a clerk and pursued a cricket career.

4. First-Class debut and getting recognised

He was 21 when he was selected for the Transvaal side in a Currie Cup match against Border. It was an easy win for Transvaal with Faulkner remaining not out on 16 and 17 in both innings. He didn’t get to bowl in that match. Faulkner made an impact as a 24-year-old against the touring England side. Playing for Transvaal against the Plum Warner-led MCC at Old Wanderers, Faulkner played a key role in his side’s win. He remained not out on 10 and 63 in both the innings and picked match figures of 6 for 108. He also caught three catches. A week later, he found himself playing against the same side at the very venue — but for South Africa.

5. Shining on Test debut

The match saw six Test debutants from South Africa. Faulkner was joined by Reggie Schwarz, Gordon White, Percy Sherwell, Tip Snooke and Ernie Vogler. Faulkner just managed 10 with the bat in the match but made up with his bowling. Opening bowling in the first innings, he claimed 2 for 35 and in the second innings he triggered the English collapse with 4 for 26. It was a thriller of a contest that South Africa won by a wicket.

6. An envious start

Few Test cricketers have got off to such a brilliant start to their cricket career as Faulkner. He finished with 129 runs at 18.42 and 14 wickets at 19.42, but they all came at team’s cause as South Africa thrashed England 4-1.

7. Two hundred runs and 8 wickets in a Test

In January 1910, against England at Old Wanderers, Faulkner scored 201 in the Test and picked 8 wickets. He remains one of three cricketers to score 200 runs and take 8 wickets in a Test. The others are George Giffen and Bill Edrich.

8. Five hundred runs and 25 wickets in a series

Faulkner ended England’s tour of South Africa with 545 runs at 60.55 and 29 wickets at 21.89. South Africa won the series 3-2. Till date, he remains the only player in the game’s history of Test cricket to have scored 500 runs and have taken 25 wickets in a single series.

9. First double hundred and a First-Class record

Later in 1910-11, South Africa toured Australia and lost the series 1-4. However Faulkner continued his dominance. In a First-Class game against Queensland at The Gabba, Faulkner notched up two fifties and five-wicket hauls in both innings of the match. He was the first South African to achieve this feat in First-Class cricket. Just over a month later, Faulkner greeted the New Year of 1911 with a double ton. He scored 204 — the first double-hundred by a South African. It was a pity that South Africa couldn’t chase down 170 to win the game.

10. The tour remembered for his batting

He ended the 1910-11 Down Under tour with 732 runs in 5 Tests at 73.20 but only 10 wickets at 51.40. The tally of 732 runs remains a series record for South Africa. He also became the first man in Test cricket to surpass the 700-run mark in a series.

11. The military man

He joined British Army during the First World War. He served on the Western Front, Macedonia, Egypt and Palestine, and was a part of the battalion that conquered Jerusalem. He was also promoted to the rank of Major. Everything wasn’t as positive though. He had trouble with malaria. He got married in 1911 and in 1920, but his second marriage ended due his enforced absence during the war.

12. Sex symbol

Blessed with the looks of a Greek God, Faulkner garnered attention from the fairer sex and married one of them. He remarried in 1928 to a significantly younger woman. His wife worked as his secretary when he started his academy.

13. Retirement, return and retirement, finally

Like many of his contemporaries, Faulkner missed out on international cricket due to the First World War. He retired in 1921, but too many injuries in the South African camp earned him a recall in 1924. He didn’t have a great outing and called it a day for the final time.

14. Coach

Faulkner started a cricket academy in London and it was first of its type. He shaped up careers of Test cricketers like Doug Wright, Ian Peebles and Denis Tomlinson.

15. Relationship with KS Duleepsinhji

When KS Duleep was suffering from a poor health, Faulkner wrote to him, “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 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.”

When Duleep recovered, Faulkner helped him with his technique in the indoor nets. Duleep certainly benefitted but in the late 1920s, his health further deteriorated and let Faulkner know that he would be retiring from the game. An upset Faulkner replied, “Nonsense, Duleep, get into the nets, and we will start again right from the very beginning.” In the very next season, Duleep scored 173 on his Ashes debut.

16. Financial problems and depression

Faulkner suffered from depression but that wasn’t known to all. His struggled with his finances and the cricket school didn’t generate enough money. His biographer Bassano wrote that he had a safe option to apply for a liquor license and get it incorporated in his cricket school but his experiences with his alcoholic father made him reject the idea.

His condition was described as “manic depression” by Bassano. It is believed by many that his condition of depression was compounded due to his bouts with malaria, experiences during war, an incredibly troublesome childhood and financial problems.

17. Suicide

September 10, 1930 saw one of the saddest days in cricket. Faulkner, the finest all-rounder of his generation, probably felt that he had it enough. Closing all doors and windows in a small store room in his cricket school, Faulkner gassed himself to death. The 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.”

He was only 48 and Bassano put it aptly, “Faulkner’s death at the comparatively early age of 48 robbed the world of an exceptional cricket brain, which still had much to offer.” And the widow of one of the greatest cricketers was left with an estate worth less than £300.

18. Incredible numbers

Faulkner was a great professional success that ended with an undeserving personal tragedy. He had it all. A reliable batsman, great bowler, fine fielder and an astute brain, he scored 1754 runs at 40.79 and claimed 82 wickets at 26.58. He was absolutely lethal with the ball in First-Class cricket. He averaged 17.42 with the ball adding to an average of 36.58 with the willow.

Inputs from Abhishek Mukherjee

(Suvajit Mustafi consumes cricket for lunch, fiction for dinner and munches numerous other snacks throughout the day. Yes, a jack of several trades, all Suvajit dreamt of was being India’s World Cup winning skipper but ended up being a sports writer, author, screenwriter, director, copywriter, graphic designer, sports marketer, strategist, entrepreneur,  philosopher and traveller. Donning so many hats, it’s cricket which gives him the ultimate high and where he finds solace. He can be followed at @RibsGully [Twitter] and rivu7 [Facebook].)