Jimmy Sinclair © Getty Images
Jimmy Sinclair © Getty Images

Jimmy Sinclair, born October 16, 1876, was a massive hitter of the ball and the first great all-rounder of South Africa. Arunabha Sengupta traces the life and career of the man who scored the first three centuries of South Africa in Test cricket. 

The longest hit

Jimmy Sinclair — that explosive hitter of the cricket ball, who supposedly struck the longest six ever in the history of the game.

According to legend, when the tall and immensely powerful all-rounder struck that ball, it left his bat with a reverberating thud, soared out of the Old Wanderers stadium, sailed towards the adjoining train tracks and landed on a coal truck. It was found at the destination of the train at Port Elizabeth.

Before a fire destroyed it, the ball remained at the Club House of the Wanderers, a fitting reminder of the stature of Sinclair as a huge hitter.

But this remarkable South African was no mere slogger. He scored the first ever century registered by his country in Test cricket, and also notched up the second and then the third. Some of these knocks were spectacular, including one against a superb Australian attack that remains one of the fastest Test centuries ever. His 301 in a club game in 1897 stood for ages as the highest score in any form of cricket in South Africa.

In the Test in which he got the ground-breaking first hundred for South Africa, he sandwiched the knock between a six-wicket haul in the first innings and three more in the second. Yes, he could bowl too, and was more handy with the ball than the bat, especially in the distant green pitches of England. For the first third of his Test career he had a record comparable to any great all-rounder of the world.

However, his prodigious achievements did not end with cricket. He represented his country in a soccer match and played for the national rugby team in a Test match against the British Lions in 1903.

And unfortunately all that ended when he passed away at the cruelly young age of 36.

The rising star

Born in Swellendam, Cape Province, Sinclair was still in his teens when he burst into prominence while turning out for Johannesburg against Lord Hawke’s touring Englishmen in early 1896.

In those early days of South African cricket, the local sides struggled to match the might of the visitors —though the English sides were far from representative. In this game England played 12 men and Johannesburg 15. Sinclair, bowling fast with a high action, scalped seven wickets as the visitors were dismissed for 178. When Johannesburg batted, the young man walked in at No. 3 and blasted 75. He added 3 more scalps in the second innings as the match ended in a draw.

This pitchforked the lad into the South African team for the first Test in Port Elizabeth. He was moderately successful with the ball, capturing 3 for 68 in the second innings. However, with the bat, he and his teammates succumbed to the devastating 15-wicket haul of George Lohmann. The second innings total of 30 remains their lowest in Test cricket.

The second Test was played in an emotion-charged Wanderers. The tension between the British and the Boers ran high in the aftermath of the Jameson Raid. Luckily, the disturbances did not mar the Test match. England won again, helped by 12 Lohmann wickets, nine in the first innings. However, Sinclair opened the bowling to capture 4 for 118 and then opened the batting as well to top-score with an impressive 40 in the first innings.

The performances were not spectacular, but at last one witnessed a South African good enough to compete with the English on equal terms.

The image was enhanced when in February 1897 he struck an unbeaten 301 for the Villagers against Roodepoort. By this time he had become the exciting young star. His ability to hit the ball hard and long attracted crowds wherever he took field — be it in the Currie Cup or in the club games.

The first hundred

The resounding hurrah was finally heard in 1899, in the second Test against England at Newlands.

Till then South Africa had played Tests for 10 years, but no batsman managed to reach the three-figure mark.

In the first Test of the series at Johannesburg, the fourth of his career, Sinclair had come close. Opening the innings he had hit 86 before being run out, and for a while South Africa, with a big lead in the first innings and just 132 to win in the fourth, had looked likely to pull off their first ever victory. In the end they fell for 99, but they had graduated from mere pushovers to rather significant opponents.

At Newlands, England collapsed from 60 for 1 to 92. The main force behind this destruction was Sinclair with 6 for 26. Coming on as the second change, he bowled fast and ran through the batting, picking up Johnny Tyldesley and Plum Warner along the way.

He was soon back in the middle with the score on 27 for 2, and countered the challenge in the only way he knew, with a barrage of spectacular hitting. The side slumped to 61 for 5 and then recovered to 177. Sinclair, combining powerful drives with scorching strokes off the back foot, notched up the first ever hundred by a South African. He was last man out for 106, and that too because of a splendid catch on the ropes.

According to the England captain Lord Hawke, Sinclair “bowled really beautifully, and followed this up by a superb century. Not only was his hitting splendid all around the wicket, but the cleverness with which he managed to get all the bowling when the tail were with him was uncanny in its success. He smashed his bat in trying to hit (Albert) Trott out of the field, and then smote the next delivery miles high full-pitch into the pond, one of the biggest strokes I have ever witnessed. He was finally out to a huge on-drive, splendidly judged and held almost on the ropes by (Johnny) Tyldesley. The batsman shook the fieldsman’s hand in frank admiration, certainly reciprocated for a spectacular and admirable innings.” Only two other men got to double figures in the innings.

This was the first time in the history of Test cricket a man had taken 6 wickets and scored a century.

Sinclair, by then acknowledged as the best bat and the best player in South Africa, took 3 more wickets for 63 in the second innings. But England, helped by a Tyldesley ton, piled up a big score. Sinclair could not carry on his heroics in the fourth innings. Schofield Haigh and Albert Trott skittled the hosts out for just 35.

England made a clean sweep of the short two-Test series, but, as many acknowledged, Sinclair had put South Africa on the cricketing map.

The second and the third

The tour to England that was supposed to have followed was cancelled because of the Boer War. Sinclair spent the troubled period volunteering for the British forces.

The period is full of anecdotes both hilarious and heroic as far as our man is concerned. His first regiment was Little’s Scouts stationed in Karoo. The quartermaster was apparently unable to find a uniform big enough to fit Sinclair. He allegedly scoured for such an apparel from Sterkstroom to Naauwpoort and returned empty handed.

After that Sinclair was rumoured to have been taken prisoner by the Boers. He escaped and was soon back in his troop, scarred by the experience but all set to go to England for the 1901 tour.

The visit was not universally popular. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was among the many who were quite vocal about the visitors playing cricket in England rather than fighting the Boers in South Africa. However, the tour proceeded as planned.

There was no official Test, but Sinclair found the green wickets tailor-made for his bowling. He picked up 79 wickets during the trip at 21.49, including 13 for 153 against Surrey, 11 for 187 against Yorkshire and 13 for 73 against Gloucestershire.

The performances saw him selected for WG Grace’s London County side and it was for them that he produced his best ever bowling performance, capturing 8 for 32 against Derbyshire.

The following year marked another peak of Sinclair’s career. After the classic 1902 Ashes series, the Australians returned from England via the Cape of Good Hope. On the way back they stopped in South Africa to play three Tests. This was by far the strongest side to reach the shores of the country till then.

Travel-weary, the visitors took time to find their feet at Johannesburg in the first Test and South Africa had the upper hand a draw. It was mainly due to Clem Hill’s brilliant second innings hundred that the tourists managed to save the match. Sinclair played a minor, but solid, role with 44 runs and 4 for 129.

A week later, the sides met again at the same ground. And Sinclair hit his second hundred, a spectacular 101 made in two hours with a couple of sixes against a quality bowling attack including Jack Saunders, Warwick Armstrong, Monty Noble and Bill Howell. He followed it up with 3 wickets and top-scored in the second innings as well, but this time with only 18 runs as South Africa crashed to 85 to lose by 159 runs.

The third Test at Cape Town saw one of the most spectacular innings ever played. With a duck in the first innings, and South Africa trailing by 157 after the first exchanges, Sinclair came in to bat with the score on 81 for 2 and left at 215 for 6.

Later analysts have tried to estimate the breakneck speed of the innings, and most agree that the 104 runs he scored that day came off just 79 balls. The century was scored in 80 minutes, second-fastest in Test cricket at that time after Gilbert Jessop’s 102 at The Oval that very summer. There were 6 sixes in the innings, all of them magnificently struck.

At that stage of his career, Sinclair had 589 runs in 8 Tests at 36.81 with 3 hundreds and 26 wickets at 30.80. No one else in the South African side had a batting average of 30 at that time.

The decline

What followed was a prolonged anticlimax.

By the time Sinclair played Test cricket again he was no longer the same consistent performer.

His brilliance did shine through once in a while. It did so at Wanderers in 1905-06 against England when he captured five wickets in the match and scored a superb 66. But, when the battery of googly bowlers started winning Tests for South Africa, Sinclair’s value to the side was rapidly diminished. He did capture 21 wickets at 19.90 during the team’s epic 4-1 triumph over England in 1905-06, but his batting lost its lustre and his bowling its excitement.

With each subsequent series he was called upon to bowl less and less, and his bat became increasingly unproductive.

When he captured just four wickets in the Tests of the 1907 English summer, Wisden noted, “This time he was not wanted much as a bowler, being quite overshadowed by [Reggie] Schwarz, [Ernie] Vogler, [Aubrey] Faulkner, and Gordon White.”

His accomplishments with the bat on the tour were rather ordinary, but on occasions one could still witness the magnificent hitter. Against Sussex at Brighton, South Africa fell for 49 in the first innings, but managed to pull off a thrilling win by 39 runs. In the second knock Sinclair scored 92 in just 100 minutes out of 135.

By the time the Englishmen visited in 1909-10 and then the South Africans travelled to Australia in 1910-11, Sinclair was batting lower and lower down the order. He did sparkle once in Melbourne, hitting two sixes out of the massive ground and scoring an unbeaten 58. But, with the presence of men of the calibre of Faulkner, Sinclair was no longer the all-rounder of the side.

In retrospect

Sinclair ended his Test career with 1,069 runs at 23.23 and 63 wickets at 31.65. The first 3 centuries of South African history remained his only 3 in Test cricket. That 6 for 26 which accompanied his maiden century remained his only five-wicket haul.

In First-Class cricket he amassed 4,483 runs at 21.55 and captured 491 wickets at 21.43 in 129 outings.

His final figures may not seem too impressive, but Sinclair remains a trend setting cricketer, the first among the many great all-rounders produced by South Africa.

He scored at a rate seldom seen in cricket in those or any other days. According to Charles Davis, Sinclair’s career strike rate can be estimated at 71 to 72, one of the highest of all time. The stroke-making was characterised by huge booming drives, often in the air and forcing back-foot strokes and leg hits.

As a bowler Sinclair bowled fast in his younger days and mixed his pace with a very high delivery action in his later days.

In the rugby field too, he excelled with his all-round play. According to Springbok legend Danie Craven, “he was regarded by Oubaas Markötter (Craven’s mentor) as an outstanding player. He played in the era when there was no specialisation amongst the forwards and he could play in any position in the scrum, and brilliantly too.” Rugby historian Chris Greyvenstein recorded that Sinclair ‘certainly made his mark when he dribbled the ball for a full 40 yards through a maze of defenders’.

Jimmy Sinclair passed away in Yeoville, Johannesburg, in 1913, at the age of just 36. 

(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)