Rex Sellers
Rex Sellers. Photo courtesy: eBay

Let us begin the narrative with a brief account of the family name. An English, Scottish and German surname, Sellers comes from the Latin term sellarius which refers to a saddle or seat. The Middle English terms sellen or sellan meant to sell or deliver. The spelling variations for Sellers include Sellars and Sellors. In England the Sellers family name began in Yorkshire. From there the Sellers settled in Lancashire and then further south into Lincolnshire, Essex, Hampshire, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and into the southern coastal region of Wales, and to India, one may add. In Scotland the greatest concentration of Sellers families is located in Midlothian, Renfrewshire, Lanarkshire, Stirlingshire, Aberdeenshire and Banffshire.

Scientists and historians are of the opinion, following extensive studies of DNA samples found in Australia, that there had been some influx of people of Indian origin into Australia as far back as about 4,000 years ago. It is believed that the first Indians had then come with the British at a later date. This narrative, however, is not about the ancient times, but one particular family in the mid-1900s.

Reginald Hugh Durning ‘Rex’ Sellers was born August 20, 1940 at Bulsar (now Valsad), Gujarat, India. He was the second son of William Alfred and Irene Ethel Sellers, both of mixed British and Indian origin. He grew up in a railway colony in erstwhile Bombay, his father being employed as a bridge inspector for the Railways, a fourth-generation Indian Railwayman.

The family belonged to the Anglo-Indian community that has traditionally produced wonderful field hockey players, railwaymen and members of the Police force in British-occupied India. In early childhood, the brothers, Basil (the elder) and Rex could not afford to go to school on their father’s meagre income, according to Patrick Skene in The Guardian. This seems a rather unusual statement, given what is known about the power and prestige enjoyed by white-skinned Anglo-Indian Railway officers in British occupied India, and the fact that, even to this day, the Indian Railways run many very good schools themselves for the children of railwaymen.

In the unsettled times following the Partition of India, the family held a long and serious discussion about their future prospects, with particular reference to the children’s education. They had the option of relocating to the “home country”. They, however, finally decided that it would suit them best if Ethel were to relocate to Australia (like hundreds of other Anglo-Indian families at the time) with the boys and to try and make a new life in the new land.

The trio set sail from Bombay on The Strathaird in 1947. On the way, they made the fortuitous acquaintance of a Mr CC Shinkfield, who happened to be the Headmaster of King’s College, with the result that both the boys were enrolled as boarders in the reputed seminary in Adelaide. William Alfred stayed behind in India lest the family did not find the Australian lifestyle suitable. He later resigned from his Railways job and joined the rest of the family at Adelaide in 1949.

Well, the new lifestyle seemed to have suited the family well enough, as later events were to show.

The swarthy colour of his skin was a bit of a handicap initially as Rex struggled to fit into the new order of things. However, his largely home tutored cricket skills very soon came to his aid in this respect. His schoolmates soon began to respect his sporting abilities, and whatever social barriers there may have been standing between him and his fellow students, soon began to melt away. Apart from cricket, tennis was also a big attraction and at a later stage of his life, Rex Sellers had to make the choice between the sports. He, of course, opted for cricket.

Beginning with his initiation into the Under-13 school team at the age of 8, to captaining the senior school team in later years, his rehabilitation was completed soon enough, and like many school-children in the City of Bradman, Rex may have been forgiven for dreaming about the fabled Baggy Green in his own mental projection of his future in cricket.

Sellers had the good fortune to come under the mentorship of former Test cricketer Geoff Noblet. Under his guidance Sellers played for the famous Kensington Cricket Club of Adelaide (forever associated with Bradman), playing at the Kensington Oval (not to be confused with the ground of the same name in Bridgetown), where there is now a stand named after the two Sellers brothers. He moved on to selection for South Australia (SA) Colts in 1959.

It was a proud and beaming William Alfred that sat at the Adelaide Oval to watch his younger son make his First-Class debut for SA against New South Wales (NSW), having completed his 19th year a few months back. It was a bit of a baptism by fire, considering the strength of the opposition, and the final outcome of the game.

NSW batted first and put up a score of a triple-Nelson, Brian Booth scoring 177 and Brian Quigley taking 4 for 88, but it was the only debutant of the match that dismissed the contemporary batting superstar Ian Craig (57), to register his first victim at this level of the game. Rex Sellers took 2 for 49 from his 10 overs in this innings. READ: Brian Booth: Champion at cricket and hockey

The home team were then dismissed for a mere 118 in less than 30 overs in the first innings in response. Following on, the home team managed only 157. Our hero scored 8 and 23 in a match that NSW won by an innings and 58 runs.

In a First-Class career spanning 1959-60 to 1966-67, Rex Sellers played 53 matches as a as a member of that tribe that practise the mysterious art of wrist-spin and bowl leg-spin and googlies. Rex Sellers captured 121 wickets at an ordinary 38.45, and his best bowling figures were 5 for 36. He captured 5 wickets in an innings 4 times, and took 10 wickets in a match once. He scored 1,089 runs with a highest score of 87 and averaged 18.15 with 2 fifties. He also held 41 catches.

It was his teammate Les Favell, who was to later captain SA a record 95 times, who conferred the honorific title of ‘Sahib’ on him, the term carrying the very British connotation of the perfect gentleman. READ: Les Favell: Australian buccaneer who never toured England

Sellers had his first fifty against Western Australia (WA) at Perth in 1959-60, when he had scores of 11 and 50, in a game that the hosts won by 10 wickets. Unfortunately, he picked up only 1 for 110 in the only WA innings of 402.

Sellers had his first brush against an international set of opponents when SA took on the touring West Indies team at Adelaide the following season. He scored 21 against an attack comprising the likes of Wes Hall, Alf Valentine, Lance Gibbs and Garry Sobers. He then dismissed Tom Dewdney, and three out of the top four in the West Indies order in the second innings: Conrad Hunte (caught-behind), the other opener Cammie Smith (caught and bowled), and No. Seymour Nurse, caught in the field.

‘Sahib’ was disappointed with his performance over his first three seasons in First-Class cricket and decided to take a break, opening a delicatessen at Adelaide at 21. However, under the gentle goading of mentor and former team-mate Howard Mutton, he practised his difficult art in early morning net sessions, before business hours in his deli.

By the time the next season began, his bowling had undergone a sea-change, as it were; there was a much better loop, more flight, more over-spin, and less speed of delivery. He felt that he was now ready to tackle all and sundry.

His first five-wicket haul came in his 26th game, against Victoria at Melbourne, in 1963-64. Though Bill Lawry fell for a duck, the home team scored 329 with centuries from the Ian Redpath (109) and Jack Potter (122). The innings was wrecked by Sellers (5 for 49) and Garry Sobers (4 for 86). Sellers also picked up 3 for 100 in the second innings and contributed 31 not out. The local press reported that “Sahib is back”, and comparisons were made with Richie Benaud.

All this boosted not only his morale but also his self-confidence. His bowling partnership with Sobers proved to be a winner for SA, and they lifted the Sheffield Shield proudly for the first time in 11 years. Sobers took 51 wickets and Sellers picked up 48 wickets for the team that season.

Later that season he played the touring South Africans at Adelaide, scoring 12 and picking up 2 for 78. At this stage of his career, he had two very key mentors: Bradman, a state selector then, who brought his considerable experience to the fore and encouraged the young leg-spinner in all possible ways, giving him timely and very valuable advice; and state captain Favell, who took Sellers under his wing and devised detailed plans with the bowler so that Sellers could have a decisive role to play with his bowling skills.

The 31st match of his career, at The Gabba later that season, brought the only 10-wicket haul for Sellers. He wrecked Queensland with 5 for 116 and 5 for 106. The other highlight of the match was the masterly 205 not out by Ian Chappell, his maiden First-Class double century.

Rex Sellers was one of the touring party to England for the 1964 Ashes campaign, travelling with the last Australian team to journey to England for an Ashes campaign by ship. His inclusion in the team was not without its fair share of controversy, many questioning his very eligibility for selection in the Australian team, given his Indian birth and his British passport.

He did not play in any of the Tests, being sidelined with an injury to his spinning finger that required surgery. The injury was to plague him more and more frequently in later seasons. However, he did have his moments, particularly in the game against Yorkshire at Sheffield, when he picked up his only 5-wicket haul on English soil, taking 5 but 36 in the Yorkshire first innings of 113.

When William Alfred had left India in 1949 to join his family at Perth, his friends in India had asked him when he would be back in India. He is reported to have said “I don’t know but first you will see my two sons playing cricket for Australia in India,”

The wish was partially granted when Rex made his Test debut in the land of his birth, in the third Test at Eden Gardens in October 1964. “Sahib” became the 230th recipient of the famous Baggy Green. It turned out to be a rather low-scoring draw, in a match in which the last two days were lost to rain.

India won the toss and put Australia in, and dismissed them for 174. Only Lawry (50) and skipper Bobby Simpson (67), who put up an opening stand of 97, offered any real resistance to the Indian bowling. There were four individual ducks in the innings, including the one by the only debutant of the match. Salim Durani, with his left-arm spin from a high bowling arm, took 6 for 73, and from 145 for 4 (and 165 for 5) Australia collapsed inexplicably.

When India batted, there was a first-wicket stand of 60 between Dilip Sardesai (42) and ML Jaisimha (57). Thereafter, it was Chandu Borde, with 68 not out from # 8, who pushed the score up to 235. Tom Veivers (3 for 81) and Simpson (4 for 45) had the home team in trouble. Sellers returned figures of 5-1-17-0.

In the time remaining, it was again Lawry (47 not out) and Simpson (71) who put on an opening stand of 115. This match, unfortunately, was the extent of the Test experience of Rex Sellers.

Although, prima facie, Sellers’ single foray into test cricket may seem uneventful, he set some historical landmarks with it, as follows:

– After Bransby Cooper, who was born at erstwhile Dacca in undivided India on March 15, 1844, Sellers became the second man born in India to play Test cricket for Australia.

– Sellers became the first Anglo-Indian to play Tests for Australia, followed by Stuart Clark, who made his Test debut in March 2006.

It is not often that Ian Chappell is effusive about another cricketer, but this is his opinion about two of his contemporary Australian players: “There are two players that nobody said a bad word about — Brian Taber and ‘Sahib’ Rex Sellers. Rex had his career cut short by injury but we got to see him at his best and he was a match-winner.”

‘Sahib’ Sellers had a surprise lined up for his last First-Class match, against WA at Perth in 1966-67. Although he did not take any wickets in this game, he registered his highest individual score in the SA first innings of 250. His 87 was easily the highest individual contribution of the innings. SA gave him a grand send-off by winning the match by a margin of 245 runs.

Let us now take a look at one particular Australian awards citation from the year 2013:

“It is with great pleasure that we acknowledge and congratulate our one and only Rex Sellers who has been awarded with the Medal of the Order of Australia in the 2013 Australia Day Honours, for ‘service to the sport of cricket, particularly as an administrator.’

Sellers OAM, Mr Reginald Hugh (AD2013)

  • Vice-President, South Australian Cricket Association (SACA), since 1999;
  • Life Member, since 2003; Member, since 1962;
  • Chairman, Les Favell Cricket Foundation, since 1997; Trustee, since 1988;
  • Board Member of SACA’s Ground and Finance Committee, since 1987.
  • Selector, South Australian Cricket Team, 1979-1983; playing Member, 1959-1967.
  • Coach, Adelaide Cricket Club, 1973-1975.
  • Coach, Kensington Cricket Club, 1967-1968.
  • Playing Member, Alice Springs Cricket Club, 1969-1971.
  • Playing Member, Australian Cricket Team, 1964-1965.
  • President, Woodville West Torrens Football Club Inc, 1990-1991; Board Member, since 1992; Life Member, since 2005.
  • President, West Torrens Football Club, 1989; Vice-President, 1978-1986.
  • Supporter, Renovation of Kensington Oval, 1999.
  • Awards/recognition include: Australian Sports Medal, 2000.

Please join us in congratulating Rex on this fabulous achievement.  We would also like to take this opportunity to thank Rex for his insurmountable support and work for the Woodville West Torrens Football Club where he has served on the board since inception (1991).”

Well, that says all there is to be said about this large-hearted and multi-faceted man. We can only add his humble comment to all this: “It was simply an honour to be part of.”

(Pradip Dhole is a retired medical practitioner with a life-long interest in cricket history and statistics)