Buck Llewellyn © Getty Images
Buck Llewellyn © Getty Images

Charles Llewellyn, born September 26, 1876, was a sterling all-rounder who is often considered the first ever non-white player to play Test cricket for South Africa. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the fascinating journey of this largely unsung cricketer across multiple hurdles on and off the field.

Odd man out

Charles ‘Buck’ Llewellyn stands as one of the most intriguing, and largely unsung, characters of cricket — especially so in the early history of the game in South Africa with its stigma of racial divide.

Was he the first non-white cricketer to play for South Africa? He played almost a century before Omar Henry, years before the migration and subsequent controversy surrounding Basil D’Oliveira. There are indications that it was indeed so.

In 1976, the birth centenary of Llewellyn, Patrick Allen penned an essay titled ‘Charles Llewellyn — An early D’Oliveira’ which was published in Cricketer. In the piece Allen wrote that the all-rounder was (then) the only coloured man to have represented South Africa in Test cricket.However, that very year, Llewellyn’s daughter sent a letter to the same publication in which she claimed that both the cricketer’s parents were of pure British stock.

In spite of the denial by the daughter, it is believed in most quarters that Llewellyn was born out of wedlock, sired by an English father and a black mother hailing from Saint Helena. His own darkish skin and black eyes gave enough reason for the speculations. Further evidence is supplied by the accounts of his growing up as an underprivileged kid in Natal. Roland Bowen, a historian of scrupulous accuracy, later revealed that during the 1910-11 tour to Australia, the unfortunate all-rounder had to lock himself up in the WC to escape the torment he was subjected to by his fellow tourists — ostensibly because of his skin colour.

Yes, indications are that he was indeed the first man of non-white roots to play for South Africa. Scholars also point out the number of times he was not considered for the South African side, decisions that bordered on nonsensical given the prodigious skills and prolific performances of the man. But, the few appearances that he did manage underline his incredible talent that made such an event possible in the days when the concept of equality of rights was unknown even in the hypothetical realm.

Plenty of seriously gifted cricketers had failed to make the national team towards the end of the nineteenth century  — the Malaya duo of Noor Hendricks and L Samoodien being the most prominent among them. Yet, Llewellyn overcame the racial hurdles and played for the side, even if he was not always accepted by other members of the team.

He was perhaps helped to a large extent by of his skin. According to Wilfred Rhodes, he looked like a rather sunburned English player. He was swarthy, but light enough to pass as a white.

Even if we ignore the controversy surrounding his roots and colour, we have to conclude that Llewellyn was a superb cricketer and one of the best and most versatile all-rounders of his day. Not only did he represent South Africa, he achieved way more in his fascinating career. He turned out for Hampshire and became one of the most valued cricketers in England, scored a double hundred against his own countrymen when playing for his county, was good enough to be included in one of the strongest English squads ever assembled against Australia, toured North America with some of the best English cricketers of the day, was recruited to play under WG Grace for London County, was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year and remained a valued professional in club cricket. Additionally, he was also known as one of the first bowlers — if not the pioneering one — to employ the Chinaman.

The young all-rounder

Born in Maritzburg, currently known as Pietermaritzburg, Llewellyn grew up in Natal in less than well-to-do environment. He caught the eye early as a ‘dusky 18-year-old’ and made his debut for Natal against Transvaal in the 1894-95 season. It was not really a striking baptism, but he proved to be useful with both his left handed batting and slow medium bowling. Additionally, he was a superb fielder.

During those days, Llewellyn worked as a clerk for his patron Dan Taylor. This Natal based businessman was the father of Herbie Taylor, who went on to become one of the greatest batsmen of South Africa.

The 1895-96 season saw Llewellyn play for the Pietermaritzburg XV against 12 men of the visiting England side led by Lord Hawke. His 4 for 49 and 3 for 101 impressed the selectors — and then there was the fact that South Africa were woefully limited in their cricketing resources in those days.So, he subsequently made his Test debut against the English side at Johannesburg as a 19-year-old swarthy complexioned bowler and lower order batsman. He did not manage a wicket, but scored a defiant 24 in the first innings, batting at No 10.

Llewellyn was dropped for the next Test match, but his career was about to take off. In the 1897 Currie Cup he played 3 matches and captured 30 wickets at 12.13 — 10 against Griqualand West, 11 against Eastern Province, and 9 more versus Western Province. The following season saw a further 20 wickets and also the first half-century, scored against Natal. He was turning out to be an all-rounder of immense promise, and was duly included in the first Test at Johannesburg when Lord Hawke’s team returned in 1899.

It was a hard-fought match, ultimately won by England by 32 runs riding on an unbeaten 132 by Plum Warner in the second innings. Llewellyn captured 5 wickets in the game bowling 56 tight overs, including the scalps of Lord Hawke twice and Warner in the first innings. He also scored an invaluable 38 in the first innings before falling for a duck in the second. Yet, he was once again dropped for the second Test at Cape Town. The Star was caustic enough to observe, “Llewellyn, youngster though he is, has proved himself the best all-round player in South Africa, and his absence from the representative team is a misfortune that some of the big wigs at the Cape, one may reasonably think, would have seen to.” South Africa lost the second Test by 210 runs.

Homing in towards Hampshire

It is not clear whether Llewellyn saw discrimination in the action of the selectors, but he was clearly perturbed at not getting picked for the second Test. Additionally, there was the question of financial security. He received the much needed help from Major Robert Poore, the Dublin born Hampshire cricketer had played for South Africa when Llewellyn made his debut. Poore recommended the young South African to his home county. Hence, in the summer of 1899, Llewellyn sailed to Southampton.

He had to spend the stipulated period qualifying for the county, and Llewellyn proceeded to do so in the curious environment of CB Fry’s training ship Mercury. That was the year when Joe Darling’s Australians visited. Llewellyn took field for his adopted county and hammered 72 against a bowling attack that included Ernie Jones, Billy Howell, Monty Noble and Hugh Trumble. He followed this by sending down 40 overs of incisive left arm medium pace, mixing it with occasional turn, and captured 8 for 132. Among his scalps were Jack Worrall, Syd Gregory, Clem Hill, Joe Darling and Monty Noble.

This grand performance led another immigrant cricketer to issue Llewellyn an invitation. The great KS Ranjitsinhji welcomed him to join his band of men to tour North America. Some of the men who accompanied Llewellyn were Archie MacLaren, Andrew Stoddart, Gilbert Jessop, Sammy Woods, Bernard Bosanquet — apart from Ranji himself. The tour was not a remarkable success for Llewellyn as far as performance was concerned — he captured 7 wickets in a game against the Gentlemen of Philadelphia, but that was the only highlight in a trip where he did not play too many matches. However, travel — especially in the company of such august greats — definitely broadened the mind. Most important perhaps was the close proximity of Bosanquet, the creator of the googly. It was the beginning of the influence that later led Llewellyn to develop a lethal Chinaman in his repertoire.

During the second year of his qualification period, Llewellyn appeared for Hampshire in just one match, against the first West Indian team to tour England. He batted at No. 4 and scored 93 and opened the bowling to capture 13 wickets.

In 1901, Llewellyn finally qualified to turn out for Hampshire in the county championships. And the summer saw him get a resounding double with 1,025 runs and 134 wickets. However, the tale was more interesting than just county success.

For and against the country

That was the year when the South African side led by Murray Bisset visited the shores of the Old Country to play a series of matches against the counties and other assembled sides.The match against Hampshire on May 16 was their opening First-Class encounter. Llewellyn had something to prove. He walked out at No. 5 and hit 30 boundaries in a rip-roaring three-hour knock of 216. It remained his highest score in First-Class cricket. Having flayed the bowling, he produced sedate figures of 23-3-99-2 as the visitors were bowled out and asked to follow on. In the second innings, his figures read 6-3-6-4 as Hampshire triumphed by an innings and 51 runs.

It placed the South African tourists in a quandary. From the minutes of meeting of the South African Cricket Association it can be ascertained that it was mainly due to the insistence of star all-rounder Jimmy Sinclair that Llewellyn’s services were sought by the side. Curiously, it was later Sinclair who allegedly tormented Llewellyn the most when the two toured Australia with the South African team in 1910-11.

In any case, Hampshire was approached to release the South African for the remaining tour matches and Llewellyn was paid £250 on top of the various expenses. As a result our man played for the tourists against WG Grace’s London County side at Crystal Palace.

This match was another high point of Llewellyn’s career. He scored 88 in the second innings and captured 6 for 140 and 7 for 101 as the visitors celebrated a 61-run win. Later in another match for the South Africans, against Liverpool & District at Aigburth, he captured 6 wickets in each innings and scored 51 with the bat. He finished on top of both the batting and bowling averages for the visiting side. He ended the season for Hampshire with a 100-minute 153 against Somerset at Taunton, once again scored alongside a haul of ten wickets.

Grace, England and the Australians

The next season saw Llewellyn wooed by Grace’s London County side and he turned out for them, taking 80 wickets in 10 matches. The season saw him slightly less successful with the bat — 832 runs with one solitary century — but he did capture as many as 170 wickets.

Indeed, he was impressive enough to be included in the England squad of 14 men for the first Test against Australia at Edgbaston in what turned out to be a historic series. He did not make the final XI, but it was one of the strongest sides ever fielded by England. A line up of Archie MacLaren, CB Fry, Ranjitsinhji, Stanley Jackson, Johnny Tyldesley, Dick Lilley, George Hirst, Gilbert Jessop, Len Braund, Bill Lockwood and Wilfred Rhodes meant Llewellyn lost out his opportunity to join the select group of cricketers to have played for two countries. However, sitting out with him was another great name in the form of Tom Hayward. The team was that strong.

But, he did get his chance against the Australians when thy played London County. Llewellyn did not score too many, but got 5 wickets in the first innings and 3 in the second.

During the South African summer that followed, he returned to his native land. And the selectors could not afford to overlook him again. The Australians, on their way back from England, played 3 Tests in the country. Llewellyn appeared in each of them.

In the first Test at Johannesburg, his third at the same venue, the now seasoned all-rounder batted at No 3 and scored 90 in a score of 454. When Australia batted, he captured 6 wickets against the travel-weary visitors to force them to follow-on. He followed it up with 3 second-innings wickets as well, but Clem Hill played out of his skin to score 142 and ensure a draw.

In the remaining Tests, he bowled in 3 completed innings and picked up 5 for 43, 5 for 73 and 6 for 97, but hit a rough patch with the bat. South Africa lost the series 2-0.

The county days

From 1903 to 1910, Llewellyn represented Hampshire — not always managing to recreate the magic of his first season, but doing enough to remain a valuable all-round cricketer. He was used as a useful batsman but more importantly as the spearhead of the weakish bowling attack.

During the next few yearsLlewellyn received instructions in wrist spin from his fellow South African, the googly bowler Reggie Schwarz. He became one of the first in English cricket to bowl the Chinaman. It took him several years to become proficient, but one can argue that he preceded Ellis Achong in bowling the delivery. Yet, it is Achong who is credited with being the creator and lent the term Chinaman to the cricketing dictionary.

It is curious that both Achong and Llewellyn rose from unconventional roots. In retrospectit does seem that in those days outsiders had to do something remarkable to break into the playing elevens. Perhaps it was for a reason that left arm wrist spin had indigenous origins.

During the years that the Chinaman was being perfected, Llewellyn’s bowling suffered from lack of penetration. Yet, once again, when South Africa toured in 1904, he was recruited by the visiting side and excelled with both bat and ball.

In 1905, Llewellyn managed to obtain the consistency which had so far refused to accompany the occasional brilliance of his bat. Against Derbyshire he hit two centuries in the same match and followed it up with a spectacular 186 for the Players of the South against the Gentlemen of the South. His bowling, however, did not really match the deeds with the willow. From the next season, however, the elusive penetration was regained and he was back among wickets.

In 1907, South Africa returned to England and played a 3-Test series with their battery of googly bowlers. This time, Llewellyn’s services were not sought — although the all-rounder was in fine mettle and scored 61 against the tourists for Hampshire.

His benefit year, 1908, yielded a handsome collection of over £500. That season he excelled in the field as well, achieving the double yet again. The year 1909 saw him score 4 hundreds and get 1,212 runs at an average of over 35 while his 55 wickets came at 26 apiece. The exploits included 130 and an unbeaten 101 against Sussex.

If he had bowled less than usual in 1909, he made up for it the following year. There were 152 wickets at just 19.27 apiece, including 4 ten-wicket hauls. In all, Hampshire skittled out 422 batsmen, and Llewellyn and Jack Newman collaborated to bring about the downfall of 299 of them. This included a phase of 9 innings in which the two bowlers captured all the wickets of the opposition bar one.

All these were on top of another 1,232 runs with 2 hundreds. Wisden named him one of the five cricketers of the year, and proceeded to observe: “Llewellyn is in the fullest sense of the words an all-round cricketer, his fielding being every bit as good as his batting and bowling. As a batsman he is one of the most punishing left-handers now before the public, his driving power being tremendous. Never has he given a more brilliant display than in the match against Kent at Dover in August, when he scored in an hour 91 runs out of 135, making half-a-dozen drives over the ring for six — five of them from Blythe’s bowling. This was one of the most dazzling innings of the year.”

Yet, this glorious season turned out to be the last he played for Hampshire. Llewellyn left the county after some altercation about the terms and conditions of his contract. It brought to an end a fantastic stint for the southern county side, with 196 matches producing 8,772 runs at 27.58 with 15 hundreds alongside 711 wickets at 24.66 with 55 five-wicket hauls and 11 ten-fors. There were also 136 catches.

The last few Tests

Returning to South Africa for the 1910-11 summer, Llewellyn was included in the side to tour Australia under Percy Sherwell. With a battery of googly bowlers already in the team, Llewellyn added his exciting variety of slow left-arm medium and Chinaman. However, the tour was not very happy for him.

This was the trip about which Bowden made the observations about Llewellyn being ostracised because of his racial background. Whether the incidents in the dressing room had a bearing on his on-field performance or not is a matter of conjecture, but Llewellyn did not really shine in the Tests. He did score 43 and 80 in the only Test win in a series that the visitors lost 4-1, but those proved to be the only highpoints with his bat. His 14 wickets were obtained at an expensive 39.92 apiece and like most of the bowlers on the tour he suffered against the blades of Victor Trumper, Warren Bardsley, Clem Hill and Warwick Armstrong.

The following summer he returned to England and joined Accrington as a professional. Even in this event, he was a pioneer — the first Test cricketer to be employed by a club in the Lancashire League.

The notoriously wet summer of 1912 witnessed the failed experiment of the Triangular Test tournament. Once again Llewellyn was plucked out of his summer engagements, this time from the the Lancashire League, and asked to play for South Africa. He scored a couple of half centuries — against England and Australia, both at Lord’s — but the net results were negative. He scored at 18.75 and there were just 4 wickets to show for 60 overs of bowling. When Sydney Barnes dismissed him for a duck at the  Oval Test, thus gifting him a pair, he walked out of First-Class cricket for the final time.

Llewellyn ended his Test career with 544 runs at 20.14 with 4 half-centuries and 48 wickets at 29.60 with 4 five-wicket hauls. His figures might have been far better if he had turned up against England in 1905-06, 1907 and 1909-10. However, he missed the three series when he was hovering near at his best form and what could have been a major Test career had to be limited to a handful of matches.

In 267 First-Class matches, Llewellyn scored 11,425 runs at 26.75 with 18 hundreds and captured 1,013 wickets at 23.41. His figures include 82 five-wicket hauls and 20 ten-fors.

His cricketing days were far from over. Having bid adieu to First-Class cricket, he proceeded to light up the 1913 Lancashire League with 188 not out for Accrington against Bacup. It remained the highest score in the League until Learie Constantine eclipsed it with 192 not out for Nelson in 1939.

Llewellyn later moved to the Bradford League and played for Undercliffe, topping the bowling averages even at the age of 55. He finally retired in 1938, when he was 62.

Final analysis

Llewellyn’s batting was characterised by fierce drives and cuts and the general ability to hit the ball hard. He did not really grace his craftsmanship with the artistry associated with the southpaws, but was always a handy and dangerous man with the willow. His bowling switched between left-arm slow medium with a high arm action, to orthodox left-arm spin. Additionally, he developed the Chinaman and used it sporadically in his offerings. A poor man’s Garry Sobers? Perhaps one can say that.  He was also a brilliant outfielder.

Llewellyn had shown his marked preference for England quite early in his life and settled in the country from the day he landed in 1898. It lends weight to the theory that he did suffer from discrimination back home, and seldom had the inclination to return.

In 1960, the 84-year-old Llewellyn fractured his femur and, as is normal in advanced years, never quite recovered from the injury. For the remaining years, his movements were restricted. He died in June, 1964, in Chertsey, Surrey. Fittingly, it was a place closely associated with cricket history because of a match in 1771 which led to the law stipulating the constraints on the width of the bat.

It is perhaps controversial to say that Llewellyn has gone down as the first non-white South African Test cricketer. But, he was a source of inspiration and example for many during the apartheid era. It was 97 years after his Test debut that Omar Henry was selected to play against India at Durban. Perhaps if Llewellyn had been born a century later, his magnificent talent could have reaped far richer rewards.

(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)