It never rains but it pours: Australia and South Africa share an English summer
For a few days in early July, the cricket teams of Australia and South Africa will overlap, both being at play in England. With the exception of the international limited overs tournaments, it’s hard to pinpoint when this last happened. But step back exactly one hundred years, to 1912, and for four months the two teams toured England, playing matches against the counties, Tests against England and Tests against each other.
This summer is the centenary of Test cricket’s only ‘world championship’. The world’s top three teams – and only Test playing nations – competed throughout that season. Cricket followers in England were treated to: Hobbs, Woolley, Barnes, Fry, Rhodes, Faulkner, Taylor, McCartney, Gregory and Bardsley.
The conclusion of influential witnesses to this feast of top class cricket appears to have been: that it should not happen again. How had a venture of such ambition failed to engage and develop an appetite for more?
The series was the brainchild of South African magnate, Sir Abe Bailey. After the slow start that has become the norm for all countries new to Test cricket, South Africa won their first series in 1905/06 against England. Six of their first seven series were played at home, but this success spurred on the idea of a grand challenge on English soil.
One of the explanations for the Triangular Tournament’s flat reception was that the South African team was in decline and provided poor opposition in the Test matches. In eleven completed innings they topped 200 four times. They escaped defeat in only one of the tournament games – a wash-out against Australia.
Nor were Australia the draw they might have been. They were not at full strength. Personal differences amongst is elite cricketers saw players of the calibre of Victor Trumper and Clem Hill left out of the touring team.
Memorable cricket was played, however. Jack Hobbs scored a century on a wet and then drying pitch at Lord’s against Australia that he modestly noted as being, “specially pleasing to me”. Australia’s Matthews’ became the first and only bowler to take two hat-tricks in one Test match in the opening encounter against South Africa at Old Trafford. Sidney Barnes was in irresistible form for England, taking 39 wickets at an average of 10, proving deadly against South Africa at the Oval, returning 8-29 (13- 57 in the match.) But none of the matches was tight as comfortable victories or soggy draws ensued.
With England’s wettest June since records began just behind us, and a month’s rain falling in a single July day, it is pertinent, but no consolation, that the summer of 1912 suffered similarly. Rain took playing time out of more than half of the matches in the triangular tournament – played over three days. A Country Vicar (writer in The Cricketer) wrote of the day at the end of June when he and his wife had planned to travel to Lord’s to see England play Australia:
We awoke to the sound of rain – not just a passing shower, or a gentle drizzle, but a steady, relentless, persistent deluge. It was hopelessly wet.
We remained at home – a bitter disappointment!
Many of the matches were contested on pitches exposed to the weather. In a tactic that seems very distant, batting sides wanted to get out to the middle soon after a rain delay, while the pitch was dulled by the wet and before its spite was awakened by the drying sun. Scoring was further depressed by slow, sodden outfields.
The quantity of Test cricket played has multiplied in recent decades. Yet the record for the number of Tests played in a single English season – nine – continues to be held by this summer one-hundred years ago. Each side played the other teams three times. And this, for some, was another reason for wanting the Triangular Tournament set aside as an experiment. Jack Hobbs wrote:
the enlarged programme interfered very seriously with county cricket and anything that has that effect cannot be good for the game. . Nine test matches in one season cut too much into the county cricket programme – the backbone of the game.
International cricket spoken of as international football is now and not as the commercial underpinning of the sport that it has become. Hobbs had nine innings in the series, and another 51 that summer, the vast majority for Surrey. That puts his complaints of international ‘over-kill’ into some perspective, particularly when stood alongside his modern day county confrere, Kevin Pietersen, who despite his own stand against the bloated international schedule, won’t bat ten times this season for Surrey.
The commercial side of the tournament features prominently in Wisden’s overview. It reports total receipts of £12, 463 4s.2d (£1.2m in today’s money). The MCC and each county received a little under £160 (£16,000). In 2007, the ECB distributed £1.75m to each first class county. The cause of these disappointing figures, exacerbated by the weather, was the lukewarm interest in the matches between South Africa and Australia at Nottingham and Manchester, despite their scheduling for Bank Holiday weekends. It’s the ‘attendance’ risk faced by any multinational sporting event: the quality must be exceptional to overcome the absence of partisanship.
Amongst modern cricket fans keen to see Test cricket retain its primacy, there is support for a World Test Championship. The Triangular Tournament was exactly that and similar challenges to those faced in 1912 would have to be overcome if a modern equivalent were to be successful. There would be less dependence on ticket-sales as television rights and sponsorship would be the competition’s commercial engines. But the competition would remain prey to poor weather, drawn matches and host nation indifference towards many of the contests. My view is that Test cricket’s formula for success continues to be pairs of well-matched sides meeting each other infrequently, but over concentrated series of matches.
Australia will leave England very shortly, their number one ODI ranking narrowly retained despite defeat. South Africa begin their warm-up for a Test series that could see them supplanting the hosts as the top ranked Test match team. These rankings, overrated statistical constructs, are nonetheless transparent and official tables of merit. They allow every international fixture to fit into a wider framework. To me, one of the charming features of the Triangular Tournament of 1912 was that the method of determining the winner had not been agreed before the contests began. In fact, it remained obscure until the eve of the ninth and final match between England and Australia. Both were unbeaten (although England had more victories) and so this match was declared as ‘winner takes all’, and six days made available to reach a positive result. England triumphed at the Oval on day four, 22 August 1912, completing four victories to Australia’s two.
Note: a comprehensive history of the tournament, its planning and aftermath is found in Patrick Ferriday’s ‘Before the Lights Went Out’.