Tuppy Owen Smith demonstrating how to rugby-tackle © Getty Images
Tuppy Owen Smith demonstrating how to rugby-tackle © Getty Images

There is a popular notion that the rudiments of rugby football had been introduced to Bishops Diocesan College, Cape Town, by the Rev. George Ogilvie when he had taken up his duties as Principal of the institution in 1861. Himself an alumnus of Winchester College in Hampshire, Canon Ogilvie had brought the essentials of the game he had learnt in his student days to South Africa. In DNA of Rugby Football: A Short History of the Origin of Rugby Football, Gerhardt Roodt says that the 34-year-old Canon Ogilvie and Deputy Principal, the Rev. H Rattle, would both often join the students at their game, thus imparting a first-hand understanding of the new game to the students.

By all accounts, Ogilvie had a remarkable personality, and following schoolboy traditions handed down from time immemorial, had soon acquired a sobriquet — Gog. The newly introduced game came to be known as Gog’s game or Gogball. The Bishops boys taught the game to their friends at South African College, and before long the game had spread to the whole of the Cape. By the late 1870s, however, the original game, hitherto played exclusively at Rugby School, found a following in South Africa, with the formation of rugby unions and clubs. Among the schools, Bishops became a strong standard-bearer the game, contesting the Grand Challenge of the Western Province Rugby Football Union, and producing many International players of highcalibre, for South Africa, as well as for other countries. One illustrious alumnus who went on to represent England  at the game was Harold Geoffrey Owen Owen-Smith, ‘Tuppy’ to friends.

Owen-Smith was born at Rondebosch, Cape Town, on February 18, 1909, into a family that included his father Gilbert and mother Harriet Maria née Fitch. Tuppy was one of four siblings, the others being sister Doris and brothers Woodford and Gilbert. As stated above, he was educated at Bishops Diocesan College from 1923 to 1927. He became proficient, both at cricket and at rugby during his school years, coming under the tutelage of several English professional cricketers who had sought employment in South Africa during the English winter. He developed into a fine all-rounder with his batting, leg-spin bowling, and electric fielding. Indeed, his fielding abilities have been compared to that of Colin Bland and Clive Lloyd in their primes.

It was the 26th English Test tour overall, as the ninth English Test playing team in South Africa arrived under the captaincy of wicketkeeper Rony Stanyforth, the Kenilworth Castle docking at Cape Town on November 7, 1927. The team was to play 16 First-Class games in South Africa, the list including 5 Tests. Given the vastness of the terrain, it was estimated that the Englishmen were destined to travel about 6,778 miles before they embarked on their return journey on February 24. The baby of the team, the 19-year-old leg-spinner Ian Peebles, was to remark later that Stanyforth had turned out to be an unexpectedly lucid and accomplished orator on the tour, eliciting high praise from General Jan Smuts with his faculty of always using anappropriate turn of phraseto suit the given circumstance.

The first match of the tour was against Western Province at Cape Town. The home team blooded Owen-Smith, then 19, who had shown some ability as a leg-spinner. The game was drawn, with only about one-and-a-half innings being possible. The debutant did not disgrace himself, claiming 4 for 53. His very first First-Class victim was Wally Hammond; he also got Ernest Tyldesley, Bob Wyatt, and Stanyforth. Then, for South African Schools against the tourists, Owen-Smith scored 55, even as ‘Tich’ Freeman ran riot with 6 for 53. The next season he had a good match at Cape Town, routing Eastern Province with 4 for 11 and 5 for 11.

In a First-Class span of 1927-28 to 1949-50, Owen-Smith played 101 matches, scoring 4,059 runs at 26.88. He had 3 centuries and 23 fifties, and held 92 catches. He claimed 319 First-Class wickets, with best figures of 7 for 153 and an average of 23.22. He had 20 five-wicket hauls and 3 ten-wicket hauls.

Preparing for the fifth overall Test tour by South Africa (the fourth to England), the names of a squad of 16 players was announced on January 4, 1929. There were as many as eight players from Transvaal, including skipper ‘Nummy’ Deane. Owen-Smith was one of the three Western Province representatives. Herbie Taylor provided the first instance of a former skipper touring under a new captain, having been the captain of the 1924 South African team in England. The 1929 South Africans initiated the long tradition, to be followed later by other Test-playing nations, particularly Australia, of beginning an England tour with the game against Worcestershire.

There were about 10,000 spectators at Edgbaston when the first Test of the series got underway. England put up 245, Patsy Hendren scoring 70 and fast bowler Arthur Ochse taking 4 for 79. South Africa managed a 5-run lead with Bob Catterall scoring 67 and debutant Bruce Mitchell 88, and Harold Larwood taking 5 for 57. Batting at No. 8, Owen-Smith scored 25.

England declared at 308 for 4 (Herbert Sutcliffe 114, Hammond 138). In the time remaining, Catterall (98) and Mitchell (61) had their second century opening partnership of the Test. KS Duleepsinhji (12 and 1) made a quiet Test debut in this game for England. The Test was drawn as Percy Fender bade farewell to Test cricket.

England won the toss again at Lord’s before a 21,000-strong crowd. The first four wickets fell to Denijs Morkel. It is a testament to the immaculate technique and temperament of the Yorkshireman that when Sutcliffe was the fifth man dismissed, the score was 199, and 100 of those runs had come off his bat. Sutcliffe turned out to be the first of debutant ‘Sandy’ Bell’s 6 wickets of the innings, at a personal cost of 99 runs.

Owen-Smith scored 52 in the South African reply of 322. Now Maurice Leyland, another son of Yorkshire, carried the upper-order batting for England in the second innings, scoring 102. Maurice Tate, scored the only century of his Test career, 100* in a rollicking 115 minutes. England declared at 312 for 8.

The South Africans then found Walter Robins difficult to read, and the total had limped to 85 for 5 when skipper Deane had been dismissed. Wicketkeeper ‘Jock’ Cameron was knocked unconscious by Larwood before he had opened his account and had to be carried off the ground. Minutes later, the umpires, Billy Bestwick and Frank Chester, brought the match to a halt for bad light. Cameron was unable to play in the next Test, and the match ended in another draw.

At the end of the first week of July, the South African camp had serious injury and fitness problems, compounded by the fact that the third Test was barely a week away. Herbie Taylor, Cyril Vincent, and Neville Quinn were reported to be suffering from different degrees of ill-health whilst Cameron was hors de combat from the Larwood bouncer. Alarm bells began to ring in the South African management.

Jacobus Duminy had been passed over by the selection committee during the preparations for the current tour. He had subsequently travelled to Switzerland on a business trip. The think-tank, not knowing his exact whereabouts in Europe, had put in an announcement in the newspapers of July 6, appraising him of the circumstances and requesting him to report to duty forthwith for the Headingley Test. It took four days for the news to reach him, but he reported in time. In the meanwhile, Edward van der Merwe replaced Cameron behind the stumps and made his debut in the Test. Fortunately for South Africa, Vincent and Quinn were finally found to be fit enough to turn out.

For a change, Deane won the toss and South Africa batted first and were bowled out for 236. It would probably be a fair comment to state that Freeman was almost unplayable, capturing 7 for 115, bowling about a third of the total overs. England secured a 92-run lead despite Quinn’s 6 for 92.

The second day ended with South Africa reeling at 116 for 7. In a situation where his side was only 24 in front and with only 3 more wickets in hand, Owen-Smith, the not out batsman, was left holding the fort on 27. The updated Test database of Charles Davis shows that the second day of the Test had seen a phenomenal 140 overs being bowled for 338 runs and the fall of 15 wickets. On the last morning, the ninth wicket fell at 172 when van der Merwe was dismissed by Freeman. Owen-Smith was batting on 52 at this point, and was joined by last man Bell.

As always, Wisden had an apposite description of what followed: “Now Owen-Smith went for the bowling in magnificent style and was in such command that he monopolised the strike before being out for 129, having made 102 before lunch. His stand of 103 with Bell, scored in 65 minutes, has remained a record for South Africa’s tenth wicket. So loud and prolonged was the applause while the two returned to the pavilion, they might have won the match for their side.”

This was the first 100-run tenth wicket stand for South Africa, and a new record, going past the 94-run liaison between Percy Sherwell and Bert Vogler against England at Cape Town in 1905-06. It is still the record for the tenth wicket for South Africa against England in Test cricket. According to the research of Davis, the 103-run partnership had come in 60 minutes off 143 balls. For the record, Owen-Smith’s 129, his only Test century, came off 205 balls and included 15 fours and 2 sixes. Bell remained unconquered on 28. England won by 5 wickets, the elegant Frank Woolley putting in another magnificent effort worth 95*. At this stage of the 5-Test series, England were 1-0 up with two matches to go.

Woolley stamped his authority on the series in the fourth Test at Old Trafford in no uncertain terms after Arthur Carr, the new England captain, won the toss and took first strike. Woolley scored 154 in 190 balls and added 245 with Wyatt in 165 minutes, while Wyatt himself got 113. The first day of the Test produced 427 runs for 7 wickets from 128 overs. The estimated 20,000-strong would have gone home satisfied with a good day’s cricket.

England declared at their overnight score and bowled out South Africa for 130 and 265. England won the Test by an innings and 32 runs to go 2-0 up in the series. Owen-Smith then had a successful outing against Warwickshire at Edgbaston, scoring 34 and 126.

Deane put England in at The Oval, perhaps influenced to some extent by uncertain overhead conditions. This Test was to be the swansong for three men: Carr and Freeman of England, and Owen-Smith of South Africa.

Hubert Preston, writing about this Test in Wisden at The Oval, says: “Apart from that of Sutcliffe and Woolley, the England batting in the first innings left a good deal to be desired. These two men added 71 for the third partnership, but the honours were carried off by Sutcliffe, who, when rain stopped play for the second time for the day at ten minutes to five, had obtained 84 out of a total of 166 for four wickets.” England were bowled out for 258, Sutcliffe’s 104 being the standout performance. Vincent’s left-arm spin turned out to be the trump card for the visitors as he took 5 for 105.

South Africa then produced a powerful batting display, declaring at 492 for 8. Taylor scored the sixth Test century and laid the foundation of the total through a fourth-wicket stand of 214 runs with Deane (93) after the first 3 wickets had gone down for only 20. As if inspired by the spirit shown by these two, the later batsmen displayed great character, as shown in their performances: Cameron (62), Morkel (81), Owen-Smith (26), McMillan (50*), and Vincent (24*). Sadly, the great Freeman bowled 49 overs in his last Test for 169, but could not capture any wicket.

In the time remaining in the Test, Hobbs (52) and Sutcliffe had a first-wicket stand of 77 runs in 75 minutes before Sutcliffe (109*) and Hammond (101*) both scored centuries in a drawn game. This was the second instance of Sutcliffe scoring centuries in both innings of a Test, the first man to achieve this particular record. England thus wrapped up the series 2-0 with 3 draws.

For Owen-Smith, this was the extent of his Test career, with 252 runs from his 5 Tests, a highest of 129, his only century, and a respectable average of 42. His overall performance on the tour was commendable, with 1,158 runs from 21 matches, a highest of 129, and an average of 36.18. He had 2 centuries and 8 fifties. He also captured 29 wickets at 25.20, with best figures of 6 for 38, his only five-wicket haul. These figures allowed him to be selected as one of the Five Cricketers of the Year by Wisden in 1930.

The citation read, in part: “It is scarcely saying too much to venture the opinion that the 1929 South African tour in England will seldom be spoken of without reference to Owen-Smith. Quite early in the season, he stood out by himself for his magnificent fielding, in which department of the game his versatility became exemplified by his speed and accuracy whether at cover-point or in the outfield. Clean picking-up and a splendid return, allied to unbounded energy, were the attributes which gained for him a well-deserved prominence among his colleagues.”

The citation ended with: “It would possibly be an exaggeration to say that he is a really great batsman — his methods are, perhaps, a little too daring — but as to his courage and refusal to be daunted by the odds against him no two opinions can be held. He drives, cuts and hits to leg very well indeed and is clearly a cricketer for whom the future holds unbounded possibilities.”

After 184 days away from South Africa, the tourists returned to Cape Town on September 29 and were treated to a welcome home dinner at Kelvin Grove the day after. Sadly, after all disbursement had been made, the tour made a profit of only £40.

Back in South Africa, Owen-Smith had immediate success as a bowler by picking up 10-wicket hauls in two consecutive matches — 4 for 26 and 6 for 60 against Border (he also scored 50) and 6 for 61 and 5 for 124 against Natal.

Owen-Smith was back in England in 1930 on a Rhodes scholarship to study Medicine at Oxford, attending Magdalen College, and winning his Blue in all three years, 1931 to 1933. An excellent all-round athlete, Owen-Smith also won Blues in rugby and boxing, apart from being a champion athlete. During his University days he played 24 matches for Oxford, scoring 872 runs at 23.56. His highest for his university was 78 against Cambridge in 1931. The game was famous for sterling batting performances, Alan Ratcliffe scoring 201, the first double-century for Cambridge against Oxford. In reply, the Nawab of Pataudi Sr scored 238*, the first double-century for Oxford against Cambridge. Among this welter of runs, Owen-Smith bowled 71 overs, taking 5 for 200.

Owen-Smith later trained for his medical profession at St Mary’s hospital from 1935 to 1937. He acquired the reputation of being one of the best all-round sportsmen ever produced by St Mary’s, playing cricket for Middlesex and rugby for England. Writing in the British Medical Journal about Owen-Smith’s cricketing exploits, HM Sinclair says: “Dr ‘Tuppy’ Owen-Smith is one of the best players the medical profession has produced.”

He played 10 rugby Tests for England as an attacking full-back, captaining them in 3 Tests in 1937. According to John Griffiths, St Mary’s Hospital RFC was founded in 1864 and took part from an early stage in the Hospitals’ Cup tournament, rugby’s oldest annual cup competition (dating from 1875). The club’s golden era was in the 1930s and 1940s when they won the Cup seven successive times, between 1934 and 1945, punctuated by World War II.

About Owen-Smith, Griffiths says: “A brilliant attacking fullback, he played regularly for England between 1934 and 1937, featuring in two Triple Crown wins and the famous 13-0 defeat of the All Blacks in 1936.Viv Jenkins, his opponent in a couple of Wales-England clashes, rated him the best fullback he saw.” It seems that Owen-Smith had been selected for the England rugby team purely for his outstanding performances as a member of the St Mary’s Rugby Football Club.

Ironically, Owen-Smith made his Middlesex debut against the visiting South Africans at Lord’s in 1935. Although the visitors won the game, he scored 41 and 11 and took 4 for 55 and 3 for 54. He played 28 games in all for Middlesex between 1935 and 1937, scoring 993 runs at 24.82, with a highest of 77. During his time with the county, he came in close contact with several legendary cricketers like Hendren, Robins, Peebles, Denis Compton, Bill Edrich, and the like.

Hammond, who had begun his career as a professional for Gloucestershire, and who had always aspired to captain England in Test cricket, turned amateur in the English winter of 1937-38. Duly appointed to the leadership role against Don Bradman’s 1938 Australians, Hammond was to be at the helm of England cricket for 20 Tests in all, till the first post-World War II tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1946-47.

The 15-member England team to South Africa under Hammond sailed on the Athlone Castle and berthed at Cape Town on November 4, 1938. Of the original selection, two key batsmen had withdrawn their names rather late, Compton and Arthur Fagg. The team played 17 First-Class games, 5 Tests included. Surprisingly, Owen-Smith did not figure in any of the matches against the Englishmen on the tour. Media reports about this unusual situation were mixed. There was one opinion that he had announced his availability but had been overlooked. Another group harboured the belief that he had been offered the captaincy of South Africa for the last Test at Durban but had declined.

One Englishmen who was having a very poor run in the Test series was 22-year-old Edrich. Before the last Test of the series, to be played as a timeless game, was about to get underway, Edrich had scored only 88 from 11 Test innings. Against the 1938 Australians he had averaged 11 from 4 Tests. On the current tour, his last 4 Tests had brought him only 21 at a despairing average of only 4.02. Yet Hammond had reposed his faith in the doughty Middlesex professional, preferring him for the last Test ahead of promising batsmen Bartlett and Norman Yardley.

The affinity between the two vastly different personalities was, in itself, an enigma; on the one hand was the carefree joie de vivre of Edrich, having already been warned by the Lord’s authorities after his return from the previous MCC tour to India to “in future be more restraining in your reported bohemian jollities.” On the other hand was Hammond, on his first overseas tour as England captain, an introverted and uncommunicative leader, who drank a fair amount, usually alone, and who was a noted womaniser. His forceful 150 against Natal in the match just prior to the last Test, may have just turned the scales in favour of Edrich.

South Africa batted through the first 2 days and the best part of the third day of the timeless game to put up a total of 530.In reply, England managed a total of 316, Edrich scoring only 1, making his tally for the series a meagre 22. On the sixth day, South Africa completed their second innings at 481, setting England a highly improbable 696-run target.

In Mail & Guardian (of South Africa), a Staff Reporter wrote: “At the King’s Hotel, Edrich was cheered to receive a cable — “Go for it, chum”, or words to that effect — from Compton, his Middlesex soulmate, at home playing for Arsenal. Edrich had uncharacteristically, but understandably, planned an early night.” Buoyed up by his Middlesex twin’s message, however, Edrich changed his plans and took a rickshaw to “the opulent champagne braaivleis thrown by another erstwhile Middlesex adventurer, Dr Owen-Smith. He had primed the waiters and they were obliging.

According to Edrich’s diligent biographer Alan Hill, “He drank freely. It lasted until the early hours; it was a champagne tonic for Edrich’s flagging spirits. They had to put Bill to bed that morning, but he was smiling when they shook him awake to play the innings to save his career.” From all contemporary accounts, Edrich had risen the next morning like a giant refreshed. When the first wicket had fallen in the England innings at 78 with the departure of Len Hutton (55), skipper Hammond, riding a hunch, had gestured to Paynter, the scheduled next man in, to stay where he was, and had turned to a slightly nervous Edrich with the words: “Bill, go in! Go and save your skin — and ours.”

It is now a part of the lore of Test cricket how Edrich had then played the defining innings that had brought England to within an agonising 42 runs short of the seemingly preposterous target of 696 when rain had come down to terminate the Test after ten days of cricket action, the match ending in a draw as the players had to avail the 8.05 PM overnight train to take them to Cape Town to avail the Athlone Castle that had been held back for the journey home for the English players. Edrich had scored 219.

In their 1940 edition, Wisden would comment: “Hammond revealed a masterly stroke of leadership in suddenly promoting Edrich. The young Middlesex batsman lost no time in seizing this opportunity to silence his critics and, hitting cleanly, he claimed eight fours in his first 50.” Edrich had reached his century with 12 fours, and his feat had produced “a remarkable scene not because the crowd gave him an ovation, but because from high up on the balcony shouts of triumph came from his England comrades”.

Graduating as a doctor, Owen-Smith returned to Rondebosch and set up a general practice. He played his last First-Class game against the visiting Australians of 1949-50 at Cape Town, scoring 8 and going wicketless.

The suave cricketer and hard-tackling rugby player of the 1930s passed away on February 28, 1990, at Rosebank, Cape Town, aged 81. In their obituary, Wisden had this to say about Owen-Smith: “Quite apart from the exhilarating nature of his play, it was the young man himself who had such a wide appeal. Cricket in England in the 1920s had largely been dominated by the older generation; the flower of the nation’s young manhood had been cut down in Flanders, and Owen-Smith’s play and his debonair attitude seemed to fill the gap. A famous writer on the game likened him to Denis Compton more than anyone else he could think of. Like Compton, Owen-Smith was just as likely to make runs with a borrowed bat as with his own; like Compton he communicated his enjoyment of cricket to thousands.”