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.

The three captains: F Mitchell, CB Fry, SE Gregory

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’.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

7 responses to “It never rains but it pours: Australia and South Africa share an English summer”

  1. backwatersman says :

    Fascinating stuff – and with many contemporary resonances. One thing that does strike me is when you mention “well-matched sides meeting each other infrequently”. I do hope that the forthcoming series against SA is reasonably evenly matched, because I sometimes have a nasty suspicion that we are gradually reverting to a situation where England have only one or two sides to play Test cricket against, having gradually advanced to the point (in the ’70s-’90s) where there were 7 or 8 sides who were able to compete with each other on reasonably even terms. Obviously I’d like England to win – but I think another 3-0 would be cause for unease.

  2. Russ says :

    backwatersman, methinks there is an element of “able to beat England” with your definition of “compete on even terms”. That is not surprising, it was the original meaning of the “test” in test cricket. But the spread of abilities amongst the top-7-9 nations is no higher now than it has been at any time in the past 20 years. Certainly there were a few years when it narrowed, but the late-80s and early-00s were much worse; and in the former period it was England doing the lagging.

    This speaks to the deeper problem with organising cricket in the way we do. I agree completely with Chris that “well-matched side meeting each other infrequently” ought to be the aim. But predicting who that will be is hard; it changes; some teams are consistently good or great (rarely poor), others are consistently poor, rarely good. Competition is relative anyway, and teams need to play teams on their level, while still having access to some of the financial benefits of playing the well resourced “stars”.

    The benefits of a test championship are many: context, particularly for unequal matches, or smaller nations; the ability to expand the number of test teams while maintaining competitive fixtures; and joint revenue sharing from the profits. But it needn’t and shouldn’t be on neutral territory. There are many ways to run this sort of competition, and a single tournaments has none of the benefits of a “Davis Cup” type of non-neutral competition.

    Which is why, when I wrote about this at length, I chose a different model. In short, a model where traditional fixtures have their place – two years in four – and the rest of the four year cycle is played over a staged cup structure, home and away, in mostly three test series. Which is the sort of context building structure that ranking have failed to provide, and which permits the gradual expansion of test cricket, without too many mismatches. As long as cricket keeps coming back to narrowly constructed competition models unsuited to test cricket, it will continue to (rightly) reject them.

    • backwatersman says :

      Russ – yes, you’re quite right – I am writing from a parochial point of view and I do mean ‘able to beat England’. And I probably am thinking of the time when my interest in international cricket was at its most intense (the ‘seventies and early ‘eighties). I don’t take much interest in internationals between other countries, I’m afraid. What I meant was that we’ve moved from a situation where there was only one side who could beat England (Australia) to 2 or 3 (by the ‘fifties) to any side being able to beat us (‘seventies) to most sides being more than likely to beat us (‘nineties) to whitewashing India, Australia, West Indies … and perhaps heading backwards to the beginning.

      I think it depends whether you think this is cyclical, or is a sign that other countries are losing interest in Test Cricket. Apart from the fact that uncompetitive series are simply boring, it particularly worries me (as someone who is principally interested in county cricket) because the whole of the English domestic game has become geared to (and is financially dependant on) producing a successful Test side. To put it another way, we’ve been steadily diminishing our domestic cricket to become number one in the world in a form of the game that fewer and fewer countries really care about, and I feel we’re living in a bit of a fools’ paradise at the moment in England.

      • chrisps says :

        Backwatersman, thank you for your contributions, which seem heartfelt and make uncomfortable reading (e.g. our fools’ paradise). I can’t think of a word of consolation for you as a dedicated follower of county cricket.

        The case I make for test cricket played as infrequent series between well-matched sides feels weaker one week on from writing it. Last week, Mahela Jayawardene used the opportunity to win a series as an excuse for closing down a game rather than pursuing it to a potentially exciting conclusion. Much more of that degree of risk aversion in Test cricket will leave fewer and fewer people in fewer and fewer countries caring about it.

    • chrisps says :

      Russ, I have come late to your manifesto and am very impressed by how you have assembled such a comprehensive alternative to the current way of running top level cricket. One gets used to reform proposals which fail to follow through their own logic. Yours, by contrast, is as thorough as it is radical. I gather you haven’t had a fair hearing of your ideas from the ICC. May I suggest you cut out the middlemen and go straight to the media organisations. Discussion over the structure of international cricket continues and looks set to well up again soon. Your ideas, starting from a clear set of principles, rather than the usual batch of compromises, deserve a good airing. Looking forward to following the debate and your involvement therein. Thanks for your reflections on Declaration Game.

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