On his day Eric Alfred Burchell Rowan was a delight to watch. Few have been as fearless at the crease: batting against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller without gloves or the box was no joke. Off the field he was the outspoken rebel, never hesitant to give it to the authorities. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the day when Rowan combined the two features, scoring one of the most astonishing hundreds of all time, on December 30, 1948.
“Eric Rowan will always be remembered for his cocky and fiercely combative approach to every match in which he played. A highly courageous player, he was prepared to take on Lindwall and Miller at their fastest without the benefit of either gloves or box. To him the very thought of a helmet and other modern protective gear would have been anathema.” — Rick Smith.
The above quote sums up Rowan more than most. Of course, Rowan was not the first in history to doff the batting gloves; three decades before Rowan, Jack Gregory rarely wore gloves while batting. There were others, but Gregory was the most popular in the post-World War I era.
Fans across the globe tend to over-glorify the pre-helmet era for quality batsmanship; by that logic, Gregory and Rowan should have made it to the list of the greatest batsmen ever.
Rowan was a rebel in every sense of the word. He scoffed at the idea of protective gear. When slow-clapped by the Old Trafford crowd on the 1950 tour, he and John Waite would sit down on the ground, refusing to proceed unless the barracking stopped. On his way back a spectator would make a not-too-sophisticated remark on Rowan’s parentage; the response, “kiss my Royal Australian!” would cause quite a stir.
David O’Sullivan and Kevin McCallum wrote in The Extraordinary Book of SA Cricket: “A reporter on the Manchester Guardian overheard Rowan venting about the crowd behaviour, and reported his comments in full, which appeared in the next morning’s edition of the newspaper. When Rowan saw the reporter again at Old Trafford, he belted him, and found he was all over the newspaper for a second day running.”
But that was in 1951, two-and-a-half years after the match in question. It was a splendid season for Rowan (who turned 42 during the tour), who scored 1,852 runs at 50.05 with 5 hundreds. In the Tests he did even better, with 515 runs at 57.22. There was no way they not make him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
Sixteen years before the season, Rowan had made it to another trip of England, where he had 1,948 runs at 44.27. A clash with the authorities saw him miss the 1947 tour, where his brother Athol (12 years younger to Eric) went. When Eric would make it in 1951, he would be named vice-captain to Dudley Nourse, and would lead the occasional tour match.
EW Swanton called Rowan a “volatile little fellow”. In Testing Times: The Story of the Men who Made SA Cricket, Luke Alfred called Rowan “the problem boy of South African cricket”. Not many would have argued.
Playing for Transvaal, Rowan scored 97 in the first match of the season against Natal at Ellis Park. This came just over a year after him being left out of the England tour. The innings was an outstanding one, but as Alfred mentioned, one shot (no pun intended) stood out, one whose photograph came out on the front page of The Star.
It was a six, but no ordinary six, for it was caught in the stands by Pieter van der Bijl (father of Vintcent), then national selector. The message was clear.
Unfortunately, in the first Test at Kingsmead, South Africa were bowled out for 161 and 219. It turned out to be a cliff-hanger, where England, chasing 128, were reduced to 70 for 6 (and 116 for 8) before they snatched a 2-wicket win.
The second Test at Ellis Park was a featherbed. “The pitch played perfectly and in the rarefied atmosphere the ball did not swerve or swing,” wrote Wisden. The temperature, too, was unforgiving. Alfred wrote: “During the Test, local newspapers carried dire warnings about the imminent withering of the maize crop and Johannesburg householders were prohibited from watering their gardens between noon and 7 PM under threat of prosecution.”
After Frank Mann won the crucial toss, Len Hutton (158) and Cyril Washbrook (195) batted serenely, adding 359 for the first wicket in less than five hours. Denis Compton (114) joined in the fun the morning after, and at 516 for 2 England seemed set for a score in excess of 800. However, that did not happen, as wickets fell in a heap, and England were bowled out for 608.
Rowan had scored 7 and 16 at Kingsmead. Here, Alec Bedser trapped him leg-before for 8. There was a strong revival, but the leg-breaks of Roly Jenkins and Doug Wright were more than what the South Africans could handle. From 191 for 3 they were bowled out for 315.
It was a four-day Test, and Mann enforced the follow-on with a lead of 293. Owen Wynne fell to Bedser before stumps. South Africa finished Day Three on 28 for 1.
Meanwhile, there was bad news for Rowan. The selectors had decided on the team for the following Test at Newlands. Rowan, with 31 from 3 innings, did not make the cut. The news should probably have broken after the Test, but unfortunately the two Tests were separated by only two days.
V for Vendetta?
Rowan was, of course, not going to take it just like that. He walked out the morning after, no glove covering his knuckles, Bruce Mitchell in tow. And then began one of the finest efforts with one’s back against the wall.
Rowan and Mitchell — close friends since they days they were pitted against each other in school cricket — walked out amidst scorching heat. Perhaps to stretch his endurance limits, perhaps to send a message across — one will never get to know, which — Rowan did not even bother to wear a hat. It did not matter.
They batted in trying circumstances against Bedser, Jenkins, and Wright, and could not be separated till lunch. When Rowan (44) and Mitchell (37) walked back, the England shoulders had started to drop. Not only had the Englishmen been thwarted by the hatless gloveless Rowan’s defiance, but the man’s approach demoralised them. To quote Alex Bannister, Rowan “laughed and wisecracked” his way to lunch.
Decades after the innings, Wisden would write in Rowan’s obituary: “He did not bat either with dignity or precision; he regarded his cricket in most light-hearted style, but his confidence was amazing.”
Mitchell fell soon after lunch, caught Hutton off Wright for 40. Quick wickets could still have brought England back into the Test, but they had to contend with Nourse, the greatest of all South African batsmen till then, and an unfazed Rowan.
When he reached 59, Rowan gave a chance off Wright, but the ball dipped quickly in front of Mann at mid-off. Unfortunately, Mann had injured his ankle earlier in the Test, and could not reach it.
Thereafter he did not look back. South Africa went to tea two wickets down on a wicket that was still playing well. Just after tea he pulled Bedser for four to bring up his hundred (in 273 minutes, with 12 boundaries).
At this time England’s body language did not really reflect their hunger, if any was left after the toil in the heat. TD Nelson wrote in Rand Daily Mail: “When the England players took the field for the last 105 minutes of the match, their playful demeanour suggested they had abandoned all hope of forcing a victory.”
The Englishmen cheered Rowan as he got to the landmark. As for Rowan himself, the reaction was nothing short of spectacular: he showed the V-sign, apparently to represent victory, though it looked like shoving his middle-finger up a certain part of the anatomy of the selectors.
Of course, Rowan denied doing anything of the sort, and insisted that he showed them only the V. ‘That depends what part of the ground you’re sitting’,” was his response, according to Wisden.
Peter Rowan, nephew of Eric, told Alfred: “He told them [the selectors] that because they [the spectators] had been so supportive of his innings through the afternoon he had given them the V for victory sign. The selectors had seen the gesture the wrong way round because they were on the other side of the ground.”
Play continued after Rowan got to his hundred. Towards the end of the Test, a barracker cried out: “Put the selectors on, they’ll get him out.” Rowan reached 150, and eventually came back with 156 under his belt, scored over 370 minutes. Nourse, meanwhile, remained unbeaten on a gritty 56; South Africa finished on 270 for 2, drawing the Test comfortably.
And Rowan walked back, his head held high: he would play First-Class cricket for another five years.
Where have all these characters disappeared?
– South Africa drew the Newlands Test. Mitchell and Nourse scored first-innings hundreds, and chasing 229 runs in 125 minutes, the hosts finished on 142 for 4.
– Rowan was recalled for the fourth Test at Ellis Park. South Africa were set 376 in 270 minutes, but Rowan, with 86 not out, made sure they finished on 194 for 4, saving the Test.
– With the series at stake, a desperate Nourse set England 172 in 95 minutes. From 124 for 2 England suddenly became 125 for 5, and eventually scraped through by a 3-wicket margin against Mann and Athol Rowan. Eric ended the series with 319 runs at 53.16. Of South Africans, only Nourse had more runs or a better average.
England 608 (Len Hutton 158, Cyril Washbrook 195, Jack Crapp 56, Denis Compton 114; Cuan McCarthy 3 for 102, Tufty Mann 3 for 107) drew with South Africa 315 (Bruce Mitchell 86, Billy Wade 85; Roly Jenkins 3 for 88, Doug Wright 3 for 104) and 270 for 2 (Eric Rowan 156*, Bruce Mitchell 40, Dudley Nourse 56*).
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