Monty Bowden. Picture Courtesy: Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game (May 7, 1885)
Monty Bowden. Picture courtesy: Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game (May 7, 1885)

Montague Parker ‘Monty’ Bowden, England’s youngest Test captain, was born November 1, 1865. A competent wicketkeeper and batsman, Bowden had a decent career for Surrey before leading England against South Africa when the latter played their second Test. A part of the Gold Rush that followed, Bowden settled down in South Africa and led a curious life before his unfortunate death at a mere 26. Abhishek Mukherjee re-lives a remarkable life.

Once Jan Gerritze Bantjes discovered the Witwatersrand Reef in 1884, fortune-seekers found yet another destination to try out their luck. By 1886 there was a full-fledged city to accommodate them. They named her Johannesburg (sources vary on etymological source), and within a decade her population shot up to 100,000.

As always, the English arrived, and with them came a cricket team. The first English team to tour South Africa arrived on her shores in 1888, fortified by stalwarts such as Johnny Briggs, Bobby Abel, Frank Hearne, and George Ulyett.

It was with this side that Montague Parker ‘Monty’ Bowden toured South Africa. He played both matches against an all-South African XI, leading England in the second — and never returned.

The boy from Stockwell

Born in Stockwell, Surrey, Bowden went to Dulwich — a college whose cricket team later boasted of several future Test cricketers and a certain PG Wodehouse. Dulwich traditionally produced several prominent men in the army as well, but the force did not interest Bowden.

Jonty Winch wrote of him in England’s Youngest Captain: The Life and Times of Monty Bowden and Two South African Journalists: “He had not enjoyed the hardness, even brutality, of much of school life. He had steered clear of the rigors of the football field and the Rifle Volunteer Corps, the latter attracting a large following which included his elder brother Frank. Young Monty occupied himself in other areas, demonstrating ability in drama for which Dulwich had, by that time, gained a reputation. His love for cricket might have been regarded as an extension of his interest in acting as he was a stylish batsman and a lively showman behind the stumps.”

Bowden first rose into prominence with 50 and 93 against Surrey Club and Ground in 1883 when nobody else from Dulwich reached 20. He was picked up by Surrey later that year, and scored 38 on debut. Cricket: A Weekly Record of the Game featured EM Grace, WW Read, and Bowden.

A hard-hitting batsman and a dependable gloveman, Bowden earned a name for himself in college cricket. Unfortunately, he did not live a restrained lifestyle, and often squandered the allowances his father allocated for him.

While he donned the big gloves, he often played as a specialist batsman. In an 1886 match against Staffordshire he even claimed 5 for 51 and 2 for 12. The following year he was selected for a tour of Australia. The tour did a world of good to him: he did not exactly take the world by storm, but he returned a fitter and more capable player.

Bowden’s best

1888 saw Bowden reach his peak. He slammed 284 in 240 minutes with 43 fours against Northamptonshire. Though the match was not given First-Class status, he was selected for both matches for Gentlemen against Players — at Lord’s and The Oval. Playing as a specialist batsman at The Oval, he batted at No. 11 in each innings, and top-scored in the second innings with 18 (nobody else reached double-figures).

The big innings came in the Bank Holiday match that year, when he slammed 189 not out before George Lohmann, with 12 for 78, bowled Surrey to a mammoth victory over Sussex. He finished the season with 514 runs at 23.36 and 16 dismissals, and was selected as deputy to Henry Wood for the tour of South Africa.

Currie and the Crown

Before moving on, let us delve a bit on the background of the tour, for this was no ordinary series. Posted in South Africa, Captain Gardner Warton retained his love for the sport, and was a member of Western Province Cricket Club. Once promoted to Major, he moved back to England.

The Gold Rush, along with the cricket-starved English population in South Africa, led Major Warton to prepare a cricket tour — England’s first to South Africa. The professionals were paid £100 and expenses.

Warton’s demands were substantial: as per Winch, in addition to the guarantee amount of £1,800 he demanded 75 per cent of the gate money. Negotiations continued till November 1888, when Warton eventually agreed to forego the gate money.

The team set sail on SS Garth Castle carrying two gold cups, among other things: Sir Donald Currie, owner of Union-Castle Lines, had announced that it should go to the best team in South Africa.

Thus the two Currie Cups were conceived — one for each of the best South African teams in cricket and rugby.

The tour is usually remembered for Briggs’ freak performances, none of which matched the one against a 22-member team Cape Mounted Rifles, where the great man claimed 15 for 4 (not the other way round) and 12 for 19. Briggs finished the tour with 294 wickets from 20 matches at 5.16 (average, not economy rate).

Major Warton’s team (not all members are present). Back (from left): James Roberts, Maurice Read, Frank Hearne, Johnny Briggs. Middle (from left): Arnold Fothergill, Henry Wood, Major Warton, Aubrey Smith, Charles Coventry, Basil Grieve. Front (from left): Emile McMaster, Monty Bowden, AC Skinner, Bobby Abel. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Major Warton’s team (not all members are present). Back (from left): James Roberts, Maurice Read, Frank Hearne, Johnny Briggs. Middle (from left): Arnold Fothergill, Henry Wood, Major Warton, Aubrey Smith, Charles Coventry, Basil Grieve. Front (from left): Emile McMaster, Monty Bowden, AC Skinner, Bobby Abel.
Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

World record

RG Warton’s XI (for that was the name of the side) won the first match against an All-South African XI — albeit not by an innings. They even managed to hold back Briggs, whose 6 for 73 on matting wicket seemed commonplace, given his ridiculous achievements on the tour.

Years later, the match (and the one that followed it) was given Test status. This also meant that South Africa became the third Test nation. This also meant that six Englishmen — including C Aubrey Smith, the captain, and Bowden — made Test debuts.

With 5 for 43 and 2 for 42, Smith played a crucial role in the win with the ball (delivered with a queer action that earned him the name ‘Round the Corner Smith’). Bowden was run out for a duck the only time he batted, but kept wickets in the second innings, catching William Milton off Briggs.

When the sides met again later that month, Smith was down with enteric fever. Bowden was named captain (by default, for he was the only other amateur of the side) at 23 years 144 days — the youngest Test captain at that time (in fact, he was 148 days younger than Ivo Bligh, the existing record holder) and still the youngest England captain. Unfortunately, Bowden would not know of this till his last day.

Bowden relinquished the gloves to Wood for the Test, and smashed a 16-ball 25 with 5 fours. However, he was not the only one with a world record in the Test.

Bobby Abel (120) became the first to outscore a side in a Test (South Africa were bowled out for 47 and 43). Bernard Tancred (26 not out) became the first batsman to carry his bat in a completed innings (it is still the lowest score for anyone who has carried his bat).

The figures of Briggs (7 for 17 and 8 for 11) remain the cheapest 15-for in history; it is another matter that 14 of these 15 wickets were bowled, and one leg-before.

As the tour got over, SS Garth Castle carried the Englishmen back to their hometown. The two captains — Smith and Bowden — stayed back. They set up a stockbrokers’ firm in Johannesburg.

The two also turned up for the one-off Currie Cup match for Transvaal against Kimberley. Leading the side, Smith claimed 4 for 36 and 3 for 61; playing as opener-wicketkeeper, Bowden slammed 63 and 126 not out. He also took his gloves off in the second innings and took 2 for 7, his only First-Class wickets. Transvaal thus lifted the Currie Cup.

Bowden never played First-Class cricket again. He finished with 2,316 runs at 20.13 from 86 matches, including 3 hundreds and 7 fifties. He also pouched 73 catches and effected 14 stumpings.

Unfortunately, the Smith-Bowden partnership lasted less than a year, and the finances of the firm took a nosedive. They did not part on good terms: Smith was blatant in his opinion on Bowden, calling him ‘untrustworthy.’ However, as they parted ways, Smith left behind the Currie Cup; it remained with Bowden.

What happened to Bowden?

Completely bankrupt by April 1890, Bowden did not muster the courage to ask his father for financial help. Instead, he travelled north with Pioneer Column (a force raised by Cecil John Rhodes — the man whose name Rhodesia bore till she was named Zimbabwe — to conquer Mashonaland) less than a month after the Currie Cup contest in 1890. Of course, there was gold for the taking…

A section of the army spent some time in Kimberley, staying at the prestigious Central Hotel. Their lifestyle, unfortunately, meant that they ran into debt. As the management wanted some sort of payment, Bowden (spokesperson of the group) handed over the Currie Cup to the hotel management.  There was a reason that Murray Hedgcock referred to him as ‘shadowy.’

Bowden and co. played cricket en route to Rhodesia. Unfortunately, it was not all rosy a journey, for Frank Johnson, in charge of the squadron, was an old-fashioned disciplinarian. Bowden dared not break away during the 400-mile travel, and adhered to the rigour of the army, for the danger of the local tribes attacking them was imminent.

The man who died twice

On his way, Bowden had a bout of fever, and went into severe depression, for a military life was certainly not his comfort zone. He was reported dead on October 24, 1890; The Star carried the news. Charles Finlason wrote in Daily Independent: “Many months of sickness and debility had seen the young trooper return to Motloutsie where he died a lingering death.”

The news turned out to be false. An anguished Percy Bowden, brother of Monty, went public in disgust: “My contradiction of the death of my brother has been confirmed by letter from my father by incoming mail just to hand, wherein he writes as follows: ‘You may have seen by the papers the report of Monty’s death in Mashonaland. It is totally untrue.’ But it gave us a terrible time of it until it was contradicted; and his obituary appeared in several papers in South Africa here and there. It was simply reckless journalism.”

Unfortunately, though he was alive, Bowden’s gold quest met with a dead end. He settled down in Manicaland and earned a living by transporting goods arriving from South Africa to Umtali (currently Mutare) from M’pandas. It was almost 300 km by land, and involved extreme heat, dangerous swamps, and lions. To add to Bowden’s woes, M’pandas was on River Pungwe — notorious for her gigantic crocodiles.

He met Harry Cadwallader, reporter for Cape Times, stuck in M’pandas for lack of provision and transport. Winch wrote in Sir William Milton: a leading figure in Public School Games, Colonial Politics and Imperial Expansion, 1877-1914: “Cadwallader had met Bowden in Mozambique — where the erstwhile cricketer swept dramatically into a village at the head of a convoy of seventy naked carriers.”

Bowden had come to M’pandas for provisions for the forces back in Manicaland. He told Cadwallader that he intended to return to Durban mid-year 1892. Bowden also met Cecil Rhodes after he was down with another bout of fever near Mandigo, Mozambique. He was saved, at least for the time.

He travelled to Umtali amidst rain, and fell off a post-cart. He reached on February 12, 1892 — and turned up for a cricket match in Umtali. It was the first cricket match in Manicaland, between Chartered Company and Rest of Manicaland.

Rest of Manicaland were led by Lyndhurst Winslow, a Sussex player who had scored 124 on First-Class debut, against a Gloucestershire side that featured WG and Fred Grace. Lyndhurst’s grandson Paul later played 5 Tests for South Africa.

In a match played on an earthen road without a mat, Chartered Company were bowled out for 25 and 51, and lost by 10 wickets. Bowden batted once, scoring 1, but stumped a batsman in the first innings. He also took four wickets in the second innings, all bowled.

A day later the fever came, for one last time, triggered by an epileptic seizure. His nurse at Umtali Hospital mentioned that he ran a temperature of 107°F. He passed away four days later.

The exact reason for his death remained undiagnosed for some time. Indeed, his death certificate mentioned epilepsy, but subsequent investigations cited “the fall from the post-cart, exhaustion, alcohol and sunstroke” (Winch).

What followed was not too dignified, either. Wisden wrote in his obituary: “He died in Umtali Hospital — a glorified mud hut where his body had to be protected from marauding lions — prior to being interred — in a coffin made from whisky cases.”

This time the news was true. Bowden was a mere 26.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Chief Editor at CricketCountry and CricLife. He blogs here and can be followed on Twitter here.)