Frail and epileptic, Colin Blythe won the match single-handedly against four googly bowlers © Getty Images
Frail and epileptic, Colin Blythe won the match single-handedly against four googly bowlers © Getty Images

July 31, 1907. With a splendid exhibition of spin bowling, Colin Blythe bowled England to a spectacular victory at Headingley, single-handedly outdoing the deeds of the four googly bowlers of South Africa. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the memorable Test match that England won after being bowled out for 76 in the first innings.

A first-class power in the cricket world

“We were beaten fairly and squarely on our merits, and South Africa now take rank with Australia among the first-class powers in the cricket world.” Thus wrote Plum Warner in his tour book after his team had been crushed 4-1 by the battery of googly bowlers in the southern land in 1905-07. England had managed that one win through some exceptional bowling of Colin Blythe and Walter Lees, but the humiliation had been complete.

It did have some epochal outcomes. South African sides had been touring England since 1894 since Herbert Casten’s young side had sailed to the shores. Murray Bisset had led a team in 1901 and the randlord Abe Bailey had bankrolled the visit of another team, captained by Frank Mitchell, in 1904. But none of the tours had featured a Test match against a representative England side. All the Tests between the two countries thus far had been contested in South Africa.

But now that the Springboks had earned their first ever win against the Englishmen, and that too by a thumping margin, the old country could not continue to treat the touring teams with customary disdain. When Percy Sherwell’s side reached England in the summer of 1907, three Tests were arranged, to be played at Lord’s, Headingley and The Oval. READ: South Africa beat England in a thriller to achieve their maiden Test win

There were a few who did not look favourably at this new special status granted to the men from the southern land. It was courting disaster to play England in England, they warned. After all, Warner’s men had not been the strongest England side. Reggie Spooner, Henry Martyn, Jack Mason and Bernard Bosanquet, four excellent cricketing amateurs, had all been invited to tour, and had all been unable to. The absence of the last named was significant, because it was from him that Reggie Schwarz had picked up the secret of the googly and had passed it on to men like Aubrey Faulkner, Bertie Vogler and Gordon White.

The arrival of the tourists was an opportunity for the English cricketers to avenge the massive defeat, but their task was cut out. The visitors showed impeccable form as they started out.

Schwarz and Vogler started the tour by routing the Leicestershire side. Jimmy Sinclair and Faulkner joined the party during the innings win against Essex. Vogler ran through a strong MCC side to clinch a close win. After rain ruined draws against the University sides, Schwarz showed supreme form against Northamptonshire and Middlesex, and convincing victories were earned.

Victories followed against Warwickshire and Derbyshire, and then came a scintillating showdown against Kent at Catford Bridge. The four googly bowlers of one side, with Blythe trying his utmost to return the favours in kind, a precursor to the thrilling Test match that was to follow. The epileptic violinist captured five wickets to dismiss the visitors for 95, gaining a 178 run lead for the hosts. He took five more as the Springboks followed on. The target set was 104, the South Africans recovering from the threshold of innings defeat through some resilient batting by Faulkner, SJ Snooke and Sinclair. And then Schwarz, Vogler and White skittled them out for 101 to clinch a magnificent 2-run victory.

The visitors were winning everything in sight and all the googly bowlers were in sparkling spinning form. It was with some misgiving that Reggie Foster, appointed captain of England, took the field at Lord’s.

The big occasion perhaps proved the undoing of the side that had put up such excellent shows thus far. Len Braund stroked his way to a century and Gilbert Jessop pulverised the bowling to plunder 93 in just an hour and a quarter. Forced to follow on, the visitors survived through a gritty century by their captain and rain that washed out the final day.

But the three matches that followed were once again splendid testimony of their enormous strength. The strong Sussex side dismissed them for 49 in the first innings, and yet they managed to win the match by 39 runs, every bowler chipping in. At Bradford, Schwarz, Faulkner and White got better of the celebrated trio of Wilfred Rhodes, George Hirst and Schofield Haigh; and the great Yorkshire side was overcome. They lost a hard fought encounter with Surrey, their first defeat on the tour in their 14th match, but even in that game their resilience and fighting mettle were admirably demonstrated.

So, as the second Test got underway at Headingley, the spirits were soaring and the googly bowlers were raring to go.

Gloomy start

The only defeat on the South Africans had been inflicted by Surrey, and that due to a splendid bowling performance by the nippy pace bowler Neville Knox. This fast man, who once opened the Dulwich bowling alongside PG Wodehouse, had so impressed the selectors that they preferred his serious pace ahead of Jack Crawford’s spin at Leeds. Hence, on a wicket soft before start and refreshed by constant showers through the match, England went in with only Blythe’s left-arm spin as the slow bowling option.

A blunder. Knox, on his debut, bowled only three overs in the game. Ted Arnold, George Hirst and the rookie Knox formed various varieties of pace options, and none of that was to be effective.

Hence, it was Blythe against the four googly bowlers. Before this series, he had played just one Test at home, against Australia at Headingley in 1905, and that too because Rhodes had a damaged finger. He had claimed wickets in South Africa, but there were reservations. The whispers that went around the cricketing circles of Kent and England repeated ominously that this splendid spinner with frail constitution was a great county bowler, especially on helpful wickets, but did not enjoy Test matches at all.

Indeed, the pressure really got to him whenever international cricket was played. The main reason why he was chosen for this series was that the bowling of Rhodes had declined remarkably in recent times as his ability with the willow had gone from strength to strength. And now Blythe found himself as the sole potent weapon against a team with several diverse arms and ammunitions.

Foster won the toss and chose to bat, more out of tradition than any decent advantage the doubtful wicket would hold. By lunch, England had made steady progress to 34 for 1 in the 40 minutes of play, with CB Fry the only man on the debit side — bowled off a full toss from Vogler. Tom Hayward and Johnny Tyldesley were at the crease and the two excellent batsmen were handling the vagaries of the break of the South African bowlers admirably.

Yet, things changed drastically immediately after the break. Apart from Hayward and Tyldesley, only Hirst made it into the double figures. Faulkner, that great, great all-rounder, disguised his break with what Wisden termed ‘utmost skill’, and turned the ball both ways. He bowled Tyldesley, got Hayward stumped, trapped Braund leg before and dismissed Jessop caught at the wicket, thus scooping out the cream of English batting. Ultimately his figures read a miraculous 6 for 17 from 11 overs. England collapsed to 76 all out. Hayward, whose 24 was an innings of a quality that went far beyond the bottom line, was the top scorer, having shown remarkable application to stop a vicious break from Vogler. The ball was turning, and the hosts had just one real spinning option.

Blythe strikes back

The defence of this flimsy score was now left to the Kent spinner.

There were ominous signs of Test match nerves that had plagued him all his career. His normally impeccable length was frequently lost, especially towards the end of his spell. He was guilty of over-pitching.

Yet, his gifts were so marvellous that on that wicket none of his errors seemed to matter. Four catches went down, two off Blythe’s bowling. Even then, after an hour and a half of batting, South Africa were reduced to 59 for 7, six of the wickets falling to Blythe. Louis Tancred, Percy Sherwell, Dave Nourse, White, Sinclair and Faulkner, all had fallen to his guile and skill.

There was some resistance down the order, but Knox made his only major contribution of the match by dismissing Snooke. Blythe, expensive towards the latter part of his spell with some deliveries looping further than intended, got rid of Vogler and William Shalders. There was still plenty of time left in the first day’s play when South Africa finished their first innings at 110, the clock pointing to ten minutes before six. Blythe ended with his career best figures of 8 for 59.

The light was hardly satisfactory, but in the 25 minutes of play that remained, England proceeded to knock 25 runs off the deficit. Fry and Hayward, sent in after much deliberation about the alternative ploy of reversing the batting order, batted with admirable skill. There was a stroke of luck, though. Faulkner spun one sharply past the defences of Fry, and the middle stump was hit. The leg bail was disturbed, it dangled tantalisingly in the air, and perched again on the woodwork.

The second day saw recurrent interruptions due to incessant rain. The players had to dart in as many as four times. And as the elements continued to lend their contributions to the game, Fry played one of the best innings of his Test career.

The stoppages did not deter him, nor did the loss of Hayward. Vogler, Schwarz and Faulkner, with their own variety of googlies, tried their utmost. Schwarz, with his reliance on the googly, had almost given up leg-breaks altogether. Vogler and Faulkner slipped in their wrong ’uns judiciously within a smattering of leg-breaks. White was also called into action, and this splendid bat now proceeded to send down his own versions of leg-breaks and googlies. But Fry stood firm. At the other end, Tyldesley was not as confident, but stuck around.

For much of the time, the English batsmen were helped by the wetness of the ground, which made the ball slippery and compromised the line and length of the exceptional googly bowlers — albeit only very slightly. Fry eschewed risks, choosing the occasional loose balls to drive hard and well. Finally it was a White googly that trapped him in front. The versatile English amateur’s countenance, which according to many resembled that of a Greek god, showed distinct displeasure at the decision. But it had been an invaluable innings of 54. Some ranked it even higher than his 144 against Australia two years earlier.

That made it 100 for 2, and within a few minutes, Schwarz had dismissed Tyldesley for 30 and White had got Braund for a duck.

At 110 for 4, the weather turned so poor that no further play was possible. At half past two the umpires announced that action could not be resumed till very late in the day. And when a storm hit the ground, stumps had to be drawn. By six the ground was waterlogged, and play was deemed impossible till late on the third and final day.

The pulsating last day

Yet, the night was unusually fine, and the next morning dawned bright, sunny and windy. It was a pleasant surprise when the match was resumed at 11. A couple of showers did interrupt the proceedings, but the game was poised for a finish.

The wicket had been rendered extremely difficult for batting. Only captain Foster batted exceptionally against the hugely turning ball, scoring a valuable 22 in an arduous hour and a quarter. Faulkner (3 for 58) and White (4 for 47) ran through the rest of the batting, and a total of 162 left the visitors 129 to win.

The wicket was difficult, especially with Blythe in such ominous form. But, the total was very gettable. However, the South Africans did themselves no favour by picking on Jessop in the field. Sherwell, in spite of all his immense experience, struck the ball to the left of this great cover-point and called Tancred for a quick run. The Croucher swooped down on the ball and broke the wicket with Tancred well out of his ground.

Sherwell, perhaps disconcerted by this, hit a seemingly slow half volley from Blythe into Foster’s hands. Rain stopped play just before lunch and South Africa were 10 for 2. It could have been three down had Braund not missed Maitland Hathorn at slip.

It was five to three when play was resumed after an extended break. And almost immediately Nourse played back to a well pitched-up ball from Blythe, missed the line and was out leg before.

Hathorn could not capitalise on his pre-lunch luck. He drove at a ball from Arnold, straight on to his pads, and it rebounded on to his stumps. In the following over, Blythe floated one up slow in the air, and White drove at it. The ball travelled off the edge and Arnold took the catch at shortish third-man. It was 18 for 5 and defeat was staring at the tourists.

Sinclair decided that the only remaining measure was to attack. He charged down at Blythe and hit him for 12 in an over. But the Kent man kept his head, maintained his perfect length and changed the pace of the ball ever so slightly while his action remained the same as ever. The ball that came through was faster through the air. The deceived Sinclair chopped it straight into Braund’s hands at slip.

Faulkner and Snooke resisted with heads down even as their backs were to the wall. The match could probably still be saved, even if the runs were quite out of reach. The wicket seemed to have got easier, and the defence of the two men admirable. Every now and then Blythe made a ball get up awkwardly, but the batsmen, especially Faulkner, negotiated him with great skill.

But after restraining himself for an hour, Faulkner was tempted. Blythe flighted the ball and the big drive was edged. Foster caught him at point. 56 for 7.

Shalders was never quite comfortable, and Hirst swung one in to him rather late to trap him leg before. Vogler hit out, and was successful twice. And then, with Blythe tempting him once again, he had another go. Tyldesley ran fast from long-off, flung himself at the ball, fell over, but managed to hold on. The batsmen crossed and with the very next ball, Blythe had Snooke caught in the off-side by Hirst. It was all over.

England had won, by 53 runs, and Blythe’s 7 for 40 gave him match figures of 15 for 99. One of the greatest bowling performances ever.

The frail man with tendency to have epileptic fits had won the match single-handedly against four googly bowlers of great repute and form. Apart from one over he had bowled unchanged all through the match. Wisden thought he had bowled himself to a standstill, and that was a euphemism. Fry wrote that he was “completely knocked up”. In a situation where a slight loss of length would have left England no option, Blythe had stuck to his task and delivered.

Blythe’s biographer Christopher Scoble speculates that this Headingley match was actually witness to one of Blythe’s epileptic fits, although the contemporary reports are silent in that regard. Given the strain he was under, it would hardly be a surprise.

The Test was played in conditions and wicket far from ideal, but produced one of the rip-roaring contests that make the game so special. This was the only result in the three Test series.

Brief Scores:

England 76 (Aubrey Faulkner 6 for 17) and 162 (CB Fry 54; Gordon White 4 for 47) beat South Africa 110 (Colin Blythe 8 for 59) and 75 (Colin Blythe 7 for 40) by 53 runs.