Dave Nourse scored 93 not out to take South Africa to their maiden Test victory Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Dave Nourse scored 93 not out to take South Africa to their maiden Test victory Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

January 4, 1906. South Africa achieved their first ever win in Test cricket by beating England in a heart-stopping thriller at Johannesburg. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the way, riding on a battery of googly bowlers, the nation was recognised as a significant cricketing force.

The elusive first win

They had been playing Test cricket for almost 17 years. The 11 Test matches so far had earned them 10 defeats and one solitary draw. It may feel strange now, but it is South Africa that we are talking about.

The returns were embarrassing for a nation that already stood on almost a century of cricketing history.

The first documented cricket match in the country took place as far back as in 1808, when two teams of English officers engaged in a recreational game.

With the years it attracted more and more young men. From 1862, the annual fixture between the “Mother Country” and “Colonial Born” started being played in Cape Town.

Fourteen years later, in 1876, the winner of the competition between the South African towns was presented with the “Champion Bat”.

In March 1889, a visiting England team played against a representative South African side at St George’s Park Cricket Ground, Port Elizabeth. The tourists, led by the future Hollywood character actor C Aubrey Smith, were nowhere near a full strength unit. However, they had few problems in winning the game easily. There was another match that followed at Cape Town, in which Lancashire leg-spinner Johnny Briggs picked up 15 for 28.

These two games are now recorded as the first Test matches played by South Africa, and curiously, also the first ever First-Class matches to be played in the country.

From the end of 1889, the domestic competitions began as the Currie Cup.

In the years that followed, several English teams visited — for one solitary Test in 1892, three in 1896 and two more in 1898. Hardly any of the visiting sides were of decent strength, but South Africa ended up losing all the Tests.

After the turn of the century, for a change, a remarkably strong Australian side visited the land in late 1902.The great side was on the way back from their famous Ashes triumph in the summer. And in the first Test at Johannesburg, Charlie Llewellyn’s astounding all-round performance almost snatched a victory for the hosts.  A team consisting of Victor Trumper, Joe Darling, Clem Hill, Syd Gregory, Monty Noble, Reggie Duff, Warwick Armstrong, Hugh Trumble and Ernie Jones will certainly rank as one of the strongest ever fielded. They were made to suffer the ignominy of following on.

Hill saved the day with a brilliant second innings century and the match ended in a draw. But, South Africa rejoiced. This was the first time they had completed a Test match without losing it. However, the two remaining Tests against Australia ended in huge defeats.

Looking back now, do we find our attitude towards Bangladesh and Zimbabwe a little too intolerant?

The googly revolution

But, even as the century was changing, transformation was in the air. And the seeds of the turnaround were sown in distant London.

Reggie Schwarz spent his youthful days in the city, studying at St Paul’s. A handsome, modest man with a particularly pleasing voice, Schwarz had won three caps as a half back for the England XV and played a while for Middlesex as a modest batting all-rounder. In those days, he bowled medium pace.

At Middlesex, there was another man who batted high in the order and had taken to bowling whimsical wrist-spin that sometimes did the impossible of turning from off to leg. Schwarz was intrigued by Bernard Bosanquet’s curious deliveries. He studied him closely for a while before taking up the position as secretary to the Transvaal financier Sir Abe Bailey and returning to South Africa.

In 1904, the South African cricket team was invited to play a series of First-Class games in England, but the side was not deemed important enough to merit a Test match. Playing for MCC at Lord’s, Bosanquet ran through the visitors with nine for 107. Watching him closely once again was his old friend Schwarz, who had come along as a part of the touring party. In fact, he was one of the four Springboks to be stumped off Bosanquet.

In the match against Oxford University, Schwarz tried his version of googlies. He ended up capturing 5 for 27.

Bosanquet came across the South Africans once again while playing for Middlesex. He hit 110 in 85 minutes in the first innings, scored 44 in the second. Schwarz picked up 5 for 48 in the second innings and the match ended in a thrilling tie. More importantly, the googly had found another established practitioner.

Three weeks after the match against Middlesex, Schwarz was back at Lord’s, bowling only googlies and top-spinners against an England XI. He took four wickets in each innings, including KS Ranjitsinhji leg before and stumped, and Gilbert Jessop bowled. South Africa won the match by 189 runs. Sadly, it was not granted Test status.

The art of the googly had been passed on and the flame would remain burning brightly.

Returning to South Africa, Schwarz diligently taught the secrets to the young all-rounder Aubrey Faulkner, medium pacer Bertie Vogler and the front-line batsman Gordon White.

The first win

In spite of the good showing of the South Africans in the 1904 tour, the MCC side that visited them in 1905-06 was once again far from the best available band of cricketers. Led by Plum Warner, left-arm spinner Colin Blythe was the only major cricketer in the team, perhaps alongside Yorkshire all-rounder Schofield Haigh and the Surrey amateur Jack Crawford. Led by wicketkeeper Percy Sherwell, South Africa were waiting for them on the matting wickets with four googly bowlers in their ranks.

The Johannesburg Test saw the debut of six Springbok cricketers, and that included all four googly bowlers.

Schwarz led the way, getting Warner for just six. Immediately after that, he had Lucky Denton caught close in. He almost never bowled a leg-break on purpose, basing his bowling on the googly, slipping in a top spinner once in a while for variation. Most often he operated to a packed leg side field.

With his high delivery position and strong wrist action, Faulkner made them bounce and turn in multiple ways off the mat after the rather ungainly run up. He got among the wickets as well.

Vogler mixed up leg-breaks and googlies perfectly. The wickets were shared almost evenly and only Jack Crawford batted comfortably to reach 44. England were bowled out for 184.

The optimism in the South African ranks did not quite last long. Walter Lees, the Surrey fast bowler, started blasting the home batsmen out. Blythe was his usual self with his deadly left-arm spin. The wickets fell one by one and at the end of the day the hosts were 72 for 8.

The first South African innings ended at 91 the following morning.  Boosted by a 93-run lead in spite of their ordinary score, the Englishmen looked to consolidate. Warner played steadily for 51, Crawford carried on with his good nick with 43.

For South Africa, Faulkner bowled like a champion, troubling every batsman and capturing four wickets. Vogler got two. However, Schwarz could not really break through this time.

However, the South Africans were aided by their traditional all-round strength. With White and Vogler proving unproductive, Tip Snooke and Dave Nourse were called upon to roll their arms over and picked up two wickets each with their medium pace. England were bowled out for 190. It left the hosts an imposing 284-run target.

Blythe and Lees got into the act again with quick wickets, but some solid resistance from William Shalders and Gordon White enabled South Africa to end the day at a decent 68 for 2. However, the destination seemed far away.

Early next morning, it soon looked way beyond the horizon. Shalders misjudged a run and fell at his overnight score. Lees removed Snooke and Sinclair cheaply. The nervous Faulkner was the second batsman to be run out. It was 105 for 6 when Dave Nourse, the grand old man of South African cricket, walked out to join White. The two men resisted gamely and proceeded to 134 for 6 when lunch was taken.

After the break followed, one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of the game. White and Nourse batted on, bravely moving the score along, keeping the keen bowling at bay. Lees and Blythe were negotiated, Haigh suffered an injury and was taken for runs in the only over he bowled.

Warner changed the bowling frequently, but the batsmen held firm, resisting the urge to do anything spectacular. The score had advanced as far as 226 when the genial Albert Relf castled a tiring White for a fantastic 81.

A further 58 were still required and much depended on Nourse. South Africa batted deep, but Volger and Schwarz, both very useful batsmen, were dismissed within another 13 runs. At 239 for 9, captain Sherwell strode out to join the determined Nourse.The game progressed amidst electric atmosphere. Every run was cheered by the huge crowd as the two experienced men methodically brought down the difference.

Both batted with extraordinary calm and focus, negotiating the probing deliveries, not sparing the loose ones. And there were plenty of loose balls bowled by the experienced England side. In the finishing stages, Sherwell latched on to them and managed four crucial boundaries.

After he had batted 220 minutes, Nourse struck Relf for the winning boundary and held his arms joyously aloft. He finished unbeaten on 93. A visibly excited Sherwell ran back with a valiant unbeaten 22. The last pair had added 48.

After 17 years, and on their 12th attempt, the Springboks had finally won their first Test match.

What followed?

The first win had taken a while to come but it was immediately followed by two more. South Africa won the second and third Tests, both played at Johannesburg. After a reversal in the fourth at Cape Town, they triumphed in the fifth played at the same venue to emerge victors in the series with a commanding 4-1 scoreline.

Schwarz picked up 18 in the series at 17.22, Faulkner 14 at 19.42. Vogler was not so successful with 9 wickets at 22.33. However, he hammered an unbeaten 62 at Cape Town after coming in at No 11. It remains one of the only three instances in Test cricket where the last man had ended a Test innings as the highest scorer. Gordon White, the other man to have mastered the googly, bowled just 11 overs and took 2 wickets. However, he topped the batting averages in the series with 437 runs at 54.62.

As a result of the resounding triumph, at last South Africa were taken seriously by the other two cricketing nations. In the summer of 1907, the side was invited to England to play Test cricket for the very first time.

Brief scores:

England 184 (Jack Crawford 44) and 190 (Plum Warner 51, Jack Crawford 43; Aubrey Faulkner 4 for 26) lost to South Africa 91 (Walter Lees 5 for 34) and  287 for 9 (Gordon White 81, Dave Nourse 93*) by 1 wicket.

(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)