June 8, 1951. Dudley Nourse battled a broken thumb to bat over nine-and-a-quarter hours and scored a magnificent double-hundred, his last major innings for South Africa. In the spectacular final two days of play, the Springboks earned their second Test victory in England. Arunabha Senguptarecalls one of the most heroic batting displays and the memorable Test at Trent Bridge.
Of runs and injuries
Tom Graveney had not played a Test for England yet. He would do so for the first time at Old Trafford, during that summer’s series against the Springboks, and his solitary knock would amount to 15. Ostensibly, that was all he would contribute during the Test series.
Yet, in retrospect, it was perhaps this fascinating young talent who won the series for England. That was during the tour match at Bristol, when the crack of his famous cover-drive pierced the air on one pleasantly warm summer day.
Till then, like any other touring team from warmer climes, the South Africans had been desperately looking for form and consistency. Rain had washed off most of their attempts at preparation. In between, at Bradford, Bob Appleyard, Johnny Wardle and a tearaway Fred Trueman had skittled 19 wickets between them for 162 runs in just 108 overs.
Things had looked brighter as the tour had proceeded to the warmer west. At Cardiff, young Jackie McGlew had at last broken through a sequence of three ducks to score 110. Following this Cuan McCarthy and Geoff Chubb had demonstrated speed and menace while off-spinner Athol Rowan had picked quick Glamorgan wickets in the second innings for the first win of the tour.
The match against Gloucestershire had seemed to be progressing with the happy turn of fortunes. McGlew had scored 90, wicketkeeper-opener John Waite got 62, while Jack Cheetham had weighed in with 90. Every batsman had shown signs of getting into the groove. McCarthy had bowled with plenty of zest again, picking six wickets as the home side had been forced to follow on.
But then Graveney unleashed his fierce cover-drive. Skipper Dudley Nourse, one of the classiest batsmen produced in South African history, had stationed himself in the covers. Perhaps not the wisest of moves, given he had crossed 40 last November. Down swooped his left hand to stop the speeding ball. The travelling blur of red ricocheted and came to a standstill. Runs were successfully stopped, but Nourse winced and wrung his left hand in agony. The X-ray revealed a fractured bone in the middle joint of the left thumb.
A Bristol orthopaedic surgeon recommended an operation. The subsequent process was to put the thumb in a plaster, but that would boil down to six weeks without cricket. Nourse wanted to play much earlier, especially with the first Test just three weeks down the line.
Hence, a pin was driven through the fractured bone, to keep it in place and give it an approximation of the usual freedom of movement. Just 16 days later Nourse was rescuing South Africa with an innings of 45 at The Oval against Surrey. And then it was time for the first Test. The first time South Africa had been given a five-day Test in the country.
What followed has gone down as one of the most heroic innings of all time, through which Nourse set the platform for a glorious win against the hosts.
However, it came at a cost. The thumb was damaged again, a third operation followed, and he was never the same batsman again during the series. England won the contest 3-1, and much of it had to do with Nourse being only a shadow of the batsman he was in the remaining Tests.
The thumb of Nourse was not the only injury problem that started at Gloucestershire. Athol Rowan had been struggling with a dodgy left knee, with torn ligaments and nerves, removed cartilages and bone fragments. He had withdrawn in the second innings to subject the joint to massage and injections. Cheetham absorbed a painful blow to the shin and McGlew injured his elbow.
In the pavilion, there had been Eric Rowan, Athol’s older brother, yet another 40-plus man in the South African side, sitting the match out because of an attack of fibrositis. Jack Crapp, captain of the Gloucestershire team, had allowed the elder Rowan to not only act as a substitute but also lead the side.
To add insult to literal injury, when MCC faced them at Lord’s, Roy Tattersall used a damp wicket to pick up 8 for 51 and Denis Compton demonstrated his famed liking for the Springbok attack by hammering yet another hundred.
By the time the first Test was played, the tourists were just about managing to function as a team while balancing all the constraints of injury and form. The outfit that waited for them was studded with players of the stature of Len Hutton and Compton, Alec Bedser and Wardle, Trevor Bailey and Tattersall. The post-War England team was still far from being the strongest, but to the struggling South Africans they were quite a formidable unit.
Freddie Brown, England’s captain, had lost seven tosses out of the last eight Tests. To balance his luck, he was presented with a coin that had won 33 tosses in a row. But, Nourse, his left thumb in bandage, called ‘heads’ and grinned as the coin landed on the Trent Bridge turf.
The pitch was less than green and the decision was to bat. Debutant Waite opened with Eric Rowan, another 41-year-old South African.
It was a quiet start with runs coming with dabs and deflections towards the third man before Brown replaced Trevor Bailey, ambled in lazily, and had Eric Rowan nicking to Evans.
McGlew had been sitting in the pavilion balcony, slotted to bat at No. 3. With the perennial butterflies doing industrious rounds in his stomach, the debutant had finally decided to get his gear. Athol Rowan, perhaps the most superstitious cricketer of all, had stopped him. “Don’t go on your own, or a wicket is sure to fall. We must go together.”
And thus Athol Rowan accompanied McGlew. As the young man sifted through his equipment, a roar informed him of the dismissal of Eric Rowan. So much for moving around the dressing-room in pairs.
For all the tension that jangled the nerves of the two lads playing their first Tests, McGlew and Waite batted with exemplary calm. The approach was mainly defensive, while the sprinting between the wickets underlined the youth of the two men in the middle. 76 were added in an hour and three quarters before Brown ambled back to the bowling crease. The ball, a leg-break sent down in the middle of cutters, pitched harmlessly outside the leg-stump. McGlew swept powerfully, the ball shot off the back of his bat, onto his body and pad and then trickled on to the off-stump.
It was 107 for 2 when Nourse arrived at the wicket to a rousing cheer. The healthiness of the score was quite a novelty for this perpetual crisis man of South African cricket. There was the usual class and élan, with which he approached the innings. And then, after a quarter of an hour he rocked back and hooked powerfully to the boundary.
As the cheers greeted the stroke, Nourse shook his left hand in pain. The innings progressed and twice that afternoon Nourse walked away from the wicket, communing with himself, muttering in obvious pain.
The progress was slow, the batsmen circumspect, the bowling negative and the fields defensive. It was after four and a half hours of diligent batting that Waite lost his wicket in the most unfortunate of manners. Nourse played Wardle to square-leg and Tattersall fielded. Waite, the heat of youth perhaps getting better of the coolness of temperament, raced down the track assuming it had passed the fielder. As Tattersall fired in his return, Waite turned and made a desperate dash for the crease. Wardle missed the stumps as he swung his arm downwards, but broke the wicket with his return swing. A morose Waite walked back for 76.
By the end of the day, Nourse and Cheetham had built on the excellent foundation laid by the young debutants to finish at 239 for 3. The runs had come slowly, but the cause of cricket had not been helped with Bailey bowling the last half-hour well outside leg-stump with a double cordon of fielders in the leg field. Nourse, dour and determined, had not been the stylish strokeplayer he was known to be, but nevertheless had progressed to 76 by the end of the day.
As play commenced on the second morning, the wicket showed no sign of deterioration. Brown, his eyes heavenwards, remarked philosophically, “Well, I suppose we can hope for three more wickets today …”
Much of the cricket that followed indeed mimicked day one. Cheetham’s was the only wicket lost before lunch, as Eric Rowan’s had been. Geoff Fullerton, curbing his attacking instincts to consolidate the score with a steady 54, was the only wicket between lunch and tea, much like McGlew had fallen on the previous day. It was left to Clive van Ryneveld, another debutant, to accelerate with some crisp drives in the afternoon.
However, the day belonged to Nourse. In the morning, he progressed steadily to his ninth Test hundred, going one ahead of the South African record held by Bruce Mitchell. The injured thumb was by now swollen and painful, but the skipper endured it all as he progressed through the sessions. Every stroke was sheer agony, with the fractured bone shifting with impact and movement. Yet there was the square cut, the perfect straight drive, and the masterly pull stroke that continued to travel like a bullet.
In the third session, he became the first South African to notch up a double hundred. It was studded by 25 boundary hits, each of which had made him wince.
By then, the England bowlers had tasted some success. Bedser had bested van Rynefeld and Athol Rowan. Soon Tufty Mann was snared by Wardle. And with the score on 482, a tiring Nourse dashed across for a single to be caught short of the ground as Brown scored a direct hit from cover. Nine and a quarter hours of batting had brought him 208 splendid runs. The only opportunity had been offered at 165, when a back-cut off Bailey had gone into Bedser’s hand at second slip and out it had popped again.
He made his way to the pavilion slowly, and perhaps it was during his backward trudge that McCarthy scored a single. Almost as soon as the captain reached the dressing room, he declared. South Africa had scored 483 for 9, and there were five minutes left for England to bat.
A wicket in haste
The two men at the crease, McCarthy and Chubb, rushed back to peel off their pads and charge in with the new ball. Nourse remained in the pavilion, as he would be there during the rest of the match. His role in the game was over, but what a role it had been.
Eric Rowan took on the role of captain. McCarthy sent down the first over in tearing hurry, Hutton hitting a two and a one while Jack Ikin nudged a single. The over ended with the England openers thinking that they were done for the day.
But acting captain Rowan consulted umpire Frank Chester. One minute remained, and the fielders sprinted to wherever they could station themselves to resemble a legitimate fielding position.
Hence, McCarthy, on the way to his sanctuary of fine leg, stopped in his stride and crouched at leg slip. Chubb ran in to bowl his first over in Test cricket, at 40 years 56 days the oldest debutant for South Africa till Omar Henry went past him in 1992.
Ikin glanced the second ball. It came quick and low, McCarthy swooped forward and his grateful hands wrapped around it. The day ended in this bright note with England on 4 for 1, and Eric Rowan rushed joyfully up the pavilion steps to tell Nourse all about it.
Seems to be a stalemate
Yet, as a large Saturday crowd of 29,000 gathered to watch England bat, the blow of the previous evening seemed a minor hiccup. Reg Simpson, captain of Nottinghamshire, knew every blade of grass at Trent Bridge. And Hutton was, after all, Hutton, with his off-side strokes eloquent in class and timing. Runs flowed in style and substance during the morning session.
There were a few streaky runs through the slips, but most of them came through delectable off-drives from both ends. Athol Rowan, turning his off-spinners just about enough, troubled the batsmen with two short legs perching close to the bat. But Simpson twice struck him hard and high to deep midwicket to remove one of the lurking fielders. Lunch was taken at 128 for 1.
It was a quarter of an hour after the break that Hutton played for the turn off a straight ball from Athol Rowan, and a delighted Waite pouched his first catch in Test cricket. The partnership had yielded 144, and there was the looming sight of Compton making his way to the wicket.
An hour’s play was lost due to rain, the spectators, many without umbrellas due to the sunny morning, rushed for cover in scarce corners.
After the interruption, Simpson continued to bat fluently, but the flashing blade of Compton seemed temporarily bereft of the splendour. The knight of English cricket seemed to have traded his shining armour for a dull, rusty one. Chubb worried him, almost taking his bails with one and having him play through the slips and off the inside edge-to fine leg. After one had gone off the edge past leg-stump, Chubb walked up to Compton and asked him whether he was carrying a Chinese mascot. There was a snick too, which Waite dropped in the midst of some fascinating glovework. However, Compton cut one off the stumps to the boundary and informed Chubb that he had intended it to go exactly there.
Late in the day, McCarthy got one to leave Simpson and Waite took his second catch. The local hero walked back for a delightful 137, and every bit of the ovation was deserved. The day ended with England on 251 for 3, every wager heavily favouring a draw.
The day after rest only proceeded to enhance the signs and symptoms of a stalemate. Compton started slowly, before he started middling them. A difficult stumping chance off Athol Rowan went awry, and an uppish hit off the same bowler was spilled by Mann after a valiant effort, but there was a lot more confidence in his approach.
At the other end was the left-handed debutant Willie Watson. After a triumphant football tour of Rio, this all-round talent had become a double-international after showing some sterling form for Yorkshire. With impeccable temperament, this late entrant into top-grade cricket dug in, and on occasions unfurled a vicious pull.
The partnership yielded 141, before Watson was leg before to McCarthy for a well-compiled 57. But Compton had reached his fourth century in Trent Bridge in as many Tests and was looking his old debonair self. He was walking down the pitch to pace bowlers to convert their perfectly good offerings to half-volleys, or adjusting his stroke to cut them at the last moment.
But, he did it once too often. McCarthy bowled short and Compton’s quick adjustment for a hook saw him produce a faint touch on the way to Waite. But at 382 for 5, the match was all but dead.
Yet, as captain Brown walked in, he could sense some growing menace in the wicket. The sun had been hot and had worked hard on the pitch. Brown made his intentions clear, trying to make as many runs as long as the wicket was good. Eric Rowan countered this by bowling only McCarthy and Chubb.
The ploy worked. The aging but supremely fit Chubb got Evans and Wardle, and McCarthy dismissed Bailey. When Brown was caught off Chubb, he waved his men off at 419 for 9. They were 64 runs behind, but the wicket was beginning to show its queer side.
A saga of collapses
There were two hours and ten minutes to bat on the fourth afternoon, and soon Bedser was getting the ball to lift. Eric Rowan was caught at short leg, fending with the feet well back and bat thrust forward.
At the other end, Bailey soon made way for Tattersall and the ball turned enormously. Waite was given out caught off the glove.
The characteristically dour McGlew decided that the time was ripe for hitting his way out of trouble. He swung at Bedser, making no contact, and the ball travelled past his bat down the leg-side. Evans, standing up, moved like lightning, collected the ball and had the bails off in a flash. One of the greatest stumping dismissals ever witnessed.
Fullerton struck Tattersall for six, but fell while trying another forceful stroke. The batting was panicky, with four wickets down for 52 in an hour.
Cheetham and van Ryneveld were the first in the line-up to put their heads down and bat sensibly. On a good day, they would have seen the side through to stumps. But Bedser was bowling in a different zone. A leg-cutter pitched outside the leg stump. Cheetham shaped to glide the harmless ball to fine leg, and it moved mysteriously to strike his leg stump.
In the pavilion, Nourse was forcibly restrained from walking out with a plastered thumb and it was Athol Rowan who entered the fray. The light was lousy and the batsmen survived more by luck than design.
Frank Chester fumbles
It was now that the great umpire Chester made a bloomer.
The pre-series agreement had stated that the decision on light would be taken by the umpires, and the batsmen would not appeal under any circumstance. Hence, Athol Rowan waited and waited for the umpire to call it a day before politely suggesting, “The light is pretty bad.”
Chester’s response was, “Why don’t you appeal?”
The batsman was puzzled. “I don’t think I am allowed to.”
“Well, if you don’t I can’t send the players off.”
So, finally Rowan asked the question, “What about the light, Mr Umpire?” and the decision was made to stop play for the day with South Africa on a precarious 95 for 5.
The final act
And then it rained.
It splashed across Nottingham through the night. The morning dawned with a dicey wicket and the match hanging on a knife’s edge. The once dead match was more alive than ever.
It took just 40 minutes for Bedser and Tattersall to pick up the remaining four wickets — Nourse was in no condition to bat.
Immediately after start, Bedser struck removing van Ryneveld. After that he kept striking. His morning figures read 5.3-3-7-3, overall 22.4-8-37-6. It was all over for 121. England had to make 186 to win in 5 hours 10 minutes.
It has been stated that the home side erred in their approach before lunch. Not only the critics, even skipper Brown wrote as much in his autobiography.
The pace bowlers bowled a steady line, and Hutton and Ikin started comfortably enough but with extreme caution. In the way of enterprise the 80 minutes till lunch produced just two well struck off-drives for three apiece by Ikin. And when Hutton hit one from Athol Rowan back to the bowler, it was 23 for 1. Lunch was taken at 25 for 1. Some urgency on the part of the openers might have taken the initiative away and made all the difference.
After the break it was all Athol Rowan and Mann. With the wicket becoming devilish by the minute, the spinners made the ball bite and turn.
Simpson, for all his deeds in the first innings, was groping helplessly. 16 runs had been added after lunch, almost all by Ikin, before the Nottinghamshire man followed in almost an identical fashion to Hutton, hitting one back to Athol Rowan.
Compton strode out full of zest, but the wicket was not amenable to heroism. Rowan the off-spinner twice shaved the stumps of Ikin and once Compton just managed to withdraw his bat at the last minute to avoid the edge.
The score had inched to 57 when Mann bowled full and Ikin drove over it to hear the cruel rattle.
At the other end, Compton became more and more circumspect. He played the ball at the last moment, retreating deeper and deeper in his crease. Athol Rowan made one hasten through straight and caught him plumb. 63 for 4.
Watson was trapped by Mann in a mirror-image of the Compton dismissal. 67 for 5.
The fielders crept closer and closer, and Brown countered this with a mighty blow. Eric Rowan almost lost his head at silly mid-off. The ball thudded into his neck, and there were moments of agonizing pain.
As his brother recovered, Athol Rowan bowled. Brown stabbed forward again. The ball flew at catchable height to Eric Rowan. And perhaps thinking that the acting captain had not recovered from the stinging blow to take the catch, McCarthy flew from close in the off-side to pluck the catch left-handed from the clutches of Eric Rowan.
In the second innings, McCarthy had suddenly been forced to field close to the wicket. And he suddenly discovered that he liked it. The score read 80 for 6.
Plenty of useful batsmen were to follow, but the pitch was dreadful. Evans tried to turn Mann to the leg. The sharply turning ball veered off the wrong end of the bat. Van Ryneveld, fielding precariously close to the bat at second slip, clutched it low and rolled over before coming up with a wide grin on his face. 83 for 7.
A run later, Bailey, the stonewaller, tried to shred the fetters with a gigantic hit off Mann. The ball went far, but only along the vertical plane. Waite hardly had to move as it came down safely into his gloves. 84 for 8.
Yet, there was hope for England. Wardle, a gallant striker of the ball, struck Athol Rowan for three boundaries off consecutive deliveries. Every hit was swung to the leg-side country. And the following over from Mann saw one struck straight over the sight screen for six. The next ball was hit with the same vigour, and dropped just short of the boundary at long on. In 11 balls, Wardle had struck 24 and the 100 was reached. Besides, clouds loomed dark and threatening. If the elements intervened, it could still be a stalemate.
At the other end, Bedser was blocking with purpose. Eric Rowan now asked McCarthy to come away from silly mid-off and run in with the ball in hand. The paceman did so, and Bedser had his stumps flattened. 110 for 9.
And now, with the clock showing eight minutes past four, Wardle lashed at Athol Rowan. Roy McLean, 21 years old and substituting for Nourse, stood at long on. The ball soared high and McLean waited, thousands of pairs of eyes on him. And then down came the gigantic hit, and the youngster’s hands closed around it. South Africa had won by 71 runs. Athol Rowan had captured 5 for 68. Mann, his figures reading 20-14-11-3 before Wardle had got stuck into him, finished with 24-16-24-4.
It was the country’s first victory in 16 years. In the pavilion, Nourse clutched ‘Bokkie’, the Springbok mascot. When he spoke, he was full of praise for Eric Rowan’s sterling captaincy. And for his part, the stand-in captain was full of gracious words for Nourse’s epic effort in the first innings.
Dudley Nourse refused to give in.
He batted in all the remaining Tests, after yet another operation. But his scores read 20, 3, 29, 20, 13, 4 and 4. The double-hundred had boosted his career runs to 2,867 in 30 Tests, at an astronomical 59.72 per innings. He ended his career after the England tour, and the seven unproductive innings had pulled it down to 53.81. A splendid career with a rather disappointing end.
The end-result was 3-1 in favour of England. However, had Nourse not broken his thumb, and damaged it further down the line, it could easily have read 3-1 to South Africa’s advantage.
South Africa 483 for 9 decl. (John Waite 76, Jackie McGlew 40, Dudley Nourse 208, George Fullerton 54) and 121 (Alec Bedser 6 for 36) beat England 419 for 9 decl. (Len Hutton 63, Reggie Simpson 137, Denis Compton 112; Cuan McCarthy 4 for 104, Geoff Chubb 4 for 146) and 114 (Athol Rowan 5 for 68, Tufty Mann 4 for 24) by 71 runs.
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