Aubrey Faulkner, six wickets and a vital fifty. Setting in motion the saga of greatness    Getty Images
Aubrey Faulkner, six wickets and a vital fifty. Setting in motion the saga of greatness Getty Images

December 28, 1905. Faced with an unprecedented battery of googly bowlers on an unfamiliar matting wicket, the English side faced their first ever defeat in a First-Class match in South Africa. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day Plum Warner s men were stunned by the incredible Transvaal rally engineered by Reggie Schwarz and a young Aubrey Faulkner.

Ominous signs

It was as if fate had decreed that the MCC side was to face some terrors on the tour.

Till now, visits to South Africa had always been easy affairs, but for the political turmoil of the Boer War. The teams taken there by Major Wharton, WW Read and the two visits by Lord Hawke s men had not yet experienced a single defeat in a First Class game. The only upsets had been caused in the odds games against the XVs of Natal and Western Province in 1895-96 and light-hearted scratch matches in Matjesfontein and Cape Town in 1898-99.

The voyages were generally smooth sailing. But this time, as Plum Warner s men embarked on the first tour since the conflicts during the turn of the century, signs were ominous that they would be challenged by unexpected forces. Indeed, while at sea, huge waves swept right over the Kinfauns Castle, ramming in bulwarks, shattering the windows of the smoking-room and the cabins.

Smooth passage through the latter part of the journey notwithstanding there was more than sea legs to deal with once the ship anchored under the shadows of the Table Mountain. The matting wickets were entirely new for the English contingent bar Albert Relf.

David Denton started his net sessions by being caught and bowled off the first three balls bowled at him, and being clean bowled by the next three. Warner s middle-stump was struck again and again by a young, left-handed, unknown Malay fast bowler. The batsmen struggled to come to terms with the surface, all but Relf who had been brought up on matting. The lack of proper spikes did not help matters. The portents were not encouraging.

After all, South African cricket had progressed rapidly if the tour of 1904 was anything to go by. A strong core group of cricketers were emerging. James Sinclair and Louis Tancred were long established as excellent players, and Reggie Schwarz had been in Middlesex long enough to learn all about the googly from Bernard Bosanquet himself. There were plenty of rumours making rounds that other exponents had picked up the skills from him.

But there was some encouragement as well. Colin Blythe, Schofield Haigh and the talented teenaged all-rounder Jack Crawford turned the ball really quickly on the matting. The fielders showed great preference for the blue skies and bright sunlight while going for the catches. And the batsmen put their heads down and practiced hard.

By the time the first match was played, against Western Province at Newlands, things had fallen into place. Warner, Denton, Frederick Fane, Crawford, Relf all got runs, while Haigh and Crawford picked up plenty of wickets. The innings win was comforting, indicating that the challenges of matting had been overcome.

Diamonds, Trains and Festive Spirit

Victories followed against Worcester, in the other First-Class outing against Western Province in the Cape and the two matches against Griqualand West in Kimberley. Things seemed to have settled down nicely.

The only glaring moments of discomfort of the team had been palpably evident while visiting the De Beers diamond mines. The dirt and grime, and half-naked men bathed in perspiration hammering, shovelling, picking and keeping up a chant, was rather disturbing to all. Even Warner, who had had experience of watching black workers in Trinidad, was moved to write, All this strenuous labour, organisation and expenditure just for a few stones to deck my lady s finger!

Nevertheless, they were entertained by the display of the famous cheque of five and a half million pounds paid by the De Beers Company for the Kimberley Mines, and the exact model of the Cullinan diamond from the Premier Mine, sparkling at 3025.75 carats, or 1.37 lbs avoirdupois.

The journey to Johannesburg was rather tiresome, with the trains uncomfortably crowded during Christmas time. The dining rooms at the various stations were packed to the full, and only an addition of a dining car in the second connecting train helped the cricketers to get some easy access to food. But they reached Johannesburg in excellent spirits, to great weather and were greeted on the platform by the ex-cricketer Frank Mitchell and the secretary of the Wanderer s Club, G Allsopp.

The Christmas Eve was spent at the Victoria Hotel. The festive day was enjoyed with a merry dinner in the company of the Mayor of the City, donning party hats and other happy adornments.

Measure of the Matting

The matting wicket which greeted them at the Old Wanderers was brand new. Percy Sherwell, the wicketkeeper-captain of the Transvaal team, won the toss and elected to bat. And immediately, the ball bounced about a lot. Walter Lees, the Surrey medium pacer, took full advantage and started picking up wickets, with the great Kent left-arm spinner Blythe bowling splendidly at the other end.

With Tancred, Sinclair, William Shalders, Gordon White and Sherwell, the Transvaal batting was a strong one. Additionally, there was a young 23-year old who had played just three First-Class games so far but had shown plenty of promise with both bat and ball. This youth was called Aubrey Faulkner.

Besides, with the upcoming first Test in consideration, Crawford had been rested. The hard red sand made the ball travel quickly to the boundary. Hence, Lees and Blythe did a laudable job in restricting the local side to just 135. Only White looked somewhat comfortable, and the story of the English dominance seemed to be continuing.

It was underlined further as Denton started batting magnificently.

Tancred was put on first to make the ball bounce on the tricky matting, and accounted for Fane almost immediately. But in walked Denton and repeatedly pulled him and Sinclair with great nonchalance. On the off-side he cut firmly and pushed past the cover with plenty of poise. It was free flowing and attractive batting and the crowd cheered him as much as they celebrated the fall of the wickets at the other end.

Schwarz was by now breaking the ball a long way. A literal googly bowler, he did not bowl the traditional leg-spin. However, with balls turning sharply from off to leg, it was not an easy job to play him despite the predictability. Soon, Warner went a bit too far back to force him away and trod on his wicket. Ted Wynyard slashed him to the off-side and was smartly caught.

Faulkner, on the other hand, showed that he could turn the ball both ways. While batting he had seemed calm and unhurried as he remained unbeaten on 10. Now, with his short run to the wicket and easy action, he dismissed Ernie Hayes and Leo Moon within the space of two runs. At 110 for 5, the Transvaal side was crawling back into the game. Faulkner was also fielding brilliantly.

Yet, Denton and Relf, and then the Yorkshire combination of Denton and Haigh, produced fruitful partnerships, and by the end of the day MCC were 224 for 7; Denton, having survived an easy chance to cover-point at 65, was batting on 104. The advantage was clearly with the tourists.

The Faulkner Fightback

Valuable runs were added on the following morning before Schwarz, Faulkner and the occasional leg-break googly of White accounted for the three remaining wickets. Three googly bowlers were in operation, a sign of things to follow during the rest of the tour.

The MCC innings ended at 265, Denton remaining unbeaten with 132. The lead was 130. And when Blythe turned one past the blade of Tancred and struck his stumps, it did seem a surrender was on the cards.

Perhaps it would have been so had Shalders not been dropped at third slip off Lees. That would have made it 26 for 2, and chances of comeback really slim.

However, Shalders survived to essay a thoughtful, well-paced innings. Christopher Hathorn stayed with him for a considerable while, adding 59 before falling to Lees. The big hitting Sinclair, who had been erratic and expensive with the ball, proceeded to unleash some severe belting. He clobbered 21 runs in just 10 minutes before attempting a tremendous hit off Blythe. The skier soared into the skies before being held magnificently at long on by Denton.

It was 110 for 3, and Transvaal were still behind. White came in to produce some lovely off-drives and the lead was eclipsed. But now Blythe accounted for both Shalders and White, getting the former caught at mid-on and the latter bowled by an arm ball. The home side was just 28 ahead and five wickets had fallen. The Kent maestro, who had added class to the impromptu tour concerts by playing the violin, had taken four of the wickets.

However, after this the frail constitution of Blythe became a concern. The long railway journeys had not really helped his cause. Tiring, he went for runs as Faulkner showed incredible temperament in one so new to the game. Schwarz assisted him ably, defending well and hitting firmly, to put on 30 before being castled by Haigh.

Sherwell was calm and composed as he helped Faulkner push the score past 200. Haigh accounted for him too, getting the captain caught at the wicket, but a vital 38 runs had been added.

The wagging of a curious tail

The development of South African cricket was still in the nascent stages, and hence the Transvaal side, like most others, included some curious cricketers to make up the numbers. John Slatem and Harry Smith were two of those who came in at Nos. 9 and 10.

With the side full of excellent all-rounders, these two gentlemen were lesser batsmen who came down the order, but at the same time they were non-bowlers. Hence, perhaps we can brand them specialist batsmen, although career First-Class averages of 28 and 18 respectively do not quite justify that. In his defence, it can be added that Smith was an excellent fielder and could be a wristy stroke-player on occasions.

However, the fact remains that at No. 9 and No. 10 were two men who were in the side for batting, albeit for dubious reasons. This worked for the hosts. Faulkner and Slatem batted to close of play. Transvaal were 240 for 7, the young all-rounder on 43.

The following morning Slatem took his score along to an extremely useful 17. And then he fell, caught superbly by Relf in the second slip off Lees. 254 for 8.

A run later, a dropped catch probably cost MCC the match. Faulkner edged Lees and was put down at slip.

Smith proceeded to delight the crowd with excellent strokes. In 15 First-Class matches, he would go past fifty only once and would end with an average of 18.80. However, on this day, he played probably the most important knock of his career.

It needs to be added that Blythe was not fit enough to bowl after his exertions of the previous day. Lees, Haigh and Relf shared the bowling. Faulkner batted with consummate ease, going past his half century. His defence was sound, timing delightful and forcing strokes to the leg aplenty. When Blythe held on to a hard hit from Smith off Haigh, the score was over 300.

Joseph Wilson was another curious cricketer making up the numbers. A New South Welshman by birth, he had played a match for his Australian state team way back in 1891-92. Now settled in Transvaal, he bowled something left-handed which could not be classified as pace or spin. Warner, a most compassionate chronicler, wrote bluntly that he was no bat.

This was his second and last First-Class match. He had been brought on as sixth bowler in the MCC first innings and had dismissed Relf for 33. That would remain his only First-Class wicket, but he had played his role. Now, he scratched a single before hitting Relf to Hayes. Transvaal was all out for 305. Faulkner had remained unbeaten on 63. The saga of greatness had been set in motion.

The triumph of the googly

MCC needed to score 176. On paper, a simple enough task. But they had to deal with Schwarz and Faulkner, wrist-spinners of the highest calibre, on matting that gave their offerings plenty of venom. Besides, they were two men who really wanted to win.

Warner tried to hit Faulkner out of the attack and top-edged his pull stroke. It came down into the hands of Wilson. Yes, this Australian man did have a bit more to contribute in the match.

Denton had prospered on his exciting pull strokes in the first innings, but they had been played off the pace of Tancred and Sinclair. Now he tried the stroke off the googly of Schwarz. Another top edge, another skier, and once again Wilson got under the ball.

Wynyard was the next man in. A couple of singles were stolen. Now Schwarz pitched outside the off-stump, the googly broke from the off and ended right across the batsman down the leg-side. Wynyard dabbed at it, there was a touch, and Sherwell got his glove under a near-impossible leg-side catch. 18 for 3.

Hayes and Fane now produced the first partnership of the innings with both the batsmen starting to look confident. The score inched along. 20, 30, 40. Were the initial shocks overcome?

No. Faulkner now sent down a wrong un, a Bosie. And Fane did not read it. He was trapped leg-before for 17. 43 for 4.

Hayes now tried to hit his way out of trouble. For a while he succeeded, finding the boundary with some exciting counter-attack. And then he tried to pull Schwarz. The ball hastened on to the bat, the stroke came off the upper part near the handle. Faulkner got under it. 61 for 5.

Moon and Relf, perhaps the last recognised pair before the honest lower order started with Haigh.

And they did fight hard. The hugely turning googlies of Schwarz were too difficult to hit, but they did go after the inexperienced Faulkner. Some thrilling cuts found the fence, some tense moves bore fruit when they stepped down the wicket to loft the ball into the outfield. The score progressed.

At 77, less than 100 needed to be scored. Some more blows were needed. Why, even Blythe was known to play a good knock once in a while. Crawford was sorely missed.

More boundaries. The score was moving quickly through the 80s. And an astute Sherwell made his first bowling change. He opted for the experience of Sinclair. And change of pace too. The all-rounder was to bowl medium pace.

But wily that he was, Sherwell did not take off Faulkner. He was going for runs, but the two batsmen were taking risks against him. It was Schwarz who was replaced.

And almost immediately there was result. Moon rapped on the pads, and the finger went up. Relf took a single, and Haigh aimed for the heavens off Faulkner. Not quite easy, given Faulkner was quite nippy rather than slow. The catch was accepted. 90 for 7. Sinclair ran in again, and Relf tried to hit him across the line. Another thunderous appeal and immense cheer as the finger went up yet again.

90 for 8. Sinclair had got both the batsmen. Splendid move. A few bold hits from Lees, the hundred was up, and Sherwell brought back Schwarz. The big all-rounder had done his bit.

Schwarz ran in. The target was still far away. Lees stepped out and drove him hard. Runs, some spattering of applause.

The googly bowler ran in again. The late order batsman jumped out once more. This time the ball turned way more than expected. Sherwell moved agilely to the leg side, to collect it and whip off the bails. 115 for 9.

Blythe was perhaps not yet feeling up to it. He slashed at the first ball he faced. It lobbed into the waiting hands of Tancred.

Transvaal had won by 60 runs, the first time a touring England side had been overcome in a First Class match in South Africa. The googly bowlers had done it.

And England wondered what was in store for them in the Test matches. There was Bertie Vogler of Eastern Province, another fantastic exponent of the art of wrist spin, waiting in the wings to join the fray.

There were cheers and celebrations all around. And Plum Warner was gracious enough to write, It was a memorable victory for Transvaal who played an uphill game with judgement and pluck.

Brief scores:

Transvaal 135 (Walter Lees 5 for 34, Colin Blythe 3 for 41) and 305 (Bill Shalders 66, Aubrey Faulkner 63*; Colin Blythe 4 for 92, Schofield Haigh 3 for 68) beat MCC 265 (David Denton 132*; Reggie Schwarz 4 for 80, Aubrey Faulkner 3 for 46) and 115 (Reggie Schwarz 5 for 34, Aubrey Faulkner 3 for 62) by 60 runs.