The South African XI. Back, from left: George Shepstone, Jimmy Sinclair, William Solomon. Middle, from left: Bonnor Middleton, Vincent Tancred, Murray Bisset (captain), Howard Francis, Robert Dower. Front, from left: Buck Llewellyn, George Rowe, Robert Graham.

February 16, 1899. The Boer War would commence in less than ten months. However, on this day, Lord Hawke’s England team pulled off a near impossible win against South Africa in the Boer heartland. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the game and its politically charged backdrop.

The Greater Game

Lord Hawke did not make it to President Kruger’s residence.

Perhaps the bitter memories of his lordship’s earlier visit to these parts still rankled. Those had been the days following the Jameson Raid, in 1895-96, when militant Boers had greeted them in Transvaal with plenty of undercurrents of animosity. He still remembered the train being halted at the border of the Boer heartland, the England cricketers being asked to disembark and their baggage being put through hostile search.

Three years down the line the political situation was supposedly a lot calmer. Yet, Alfred Milner and Paul Kruger were not really bosom friends.For all the hopeful diplomacy of Jan Smuts and Kruger’s wish for bloodless peace, there were machinations of War being slowly and surely put in place, much of it the brainchild of Milner the Empire-builder. Indeed, less than eight months after the Johannesburg Test that followed, the Anglo-Boer War would commence and stretch into three years of brutal conflict.

Hawke could have been politically savvy enough to stay away from the man soon to be an enemy of the Empire.He could have been bitter as well. The first Test scheduled at Port Elizabeth from January 14, 1899, just had not taken place. Transvaal had declined to make nominations, basing their argument on the premise that the team ought to be selected by a committee of all unions, not just the hosts. Eastern Province pleaded time pressure, while Western Province had cried off with the excuse that they had been informed too late to arrange a Test match of this importance.  A substitute match against Cape Colony was organised, but it did not really delight the touring captain.

However, Frank Mitchell and Clem Wilson did call upon Kruger as the team played a Transvaal XV in Pretoria. It took two and a half hours to get to Johannesburg by the fastest train, but these two amateur cricketers were ready to be received by the President at six o’clock in the morning.

Kruger greeted them in a frowsy frock coat of extraordinary cut and colour, the effect more curious because of a tall hat, looking every bit the old unsophisticated patriarch. The President was in good humour and spoke to the cricketers cordially, albeit he addressed them in Dutch and thus communicated through an interpreter.

He asked them if they liked the country. Mitchell and Wilson replied that they did and were having a very good time. Indeed they were. Not only were they being entertained with every comfort the southern land could throw their way, the amateurs were enjoying themselves in diverse ways. As Plum Warner recollected in Cricket in Many Climes, Mitchell, Alfred Archer, Hugh Bromley-Davenport and Warner himself had gone for a walk in the veldt and had stopped for tea in a neighbouring ostrich farm, where they had met an heiress worth no less than eight head of cattle. They had taken ‘kodaks’ of her, though it had taken a long time before they had been able to persuade this dusky, and somewhat scantily clothed, beauty to submit to the operation. Yes, they were having a great time. No doubt about that. 

President Kruger
President Kruger

Kruger sounded pleased at the answer. “Englishmen as a rule try to run down the land,” he observed. When Mitchell extended Hawke’s invitation to Kruger for the forthcoming Test match, ‘Oom Paul’ Kruger replied that he knew nothing about cricket. He had a nephew, though, Tjaart Kruger, head of the Secret Police.He was a keen cricketer and had been present on all the days that Transvaal XV played against Hawke’s men.

Returning to Johannesburg from Pretoria, the amateurs of the team enjoyed a garden-party given by Percy Fitzpatrick. This Cape-born Uitlander who worked for the great mining house of Wernher-Beit would be a vital cog in the machinery of War for Milner. But on this day, the amateurs, Hawke, Mitchell, Wilson, Milligan, Bromley-Davenport, Archer and a youthful Warner, all enjoyed the hospitality of Fitzpatrick at Hohenheim, his lavish suburban villa.

More than a hundred sat to dinner, the great cricket financier Abe Bailey taking the chair, alongside him the Burgomeister of Johannesburg, the British Vice-Consul Emery Evans and JW Leonard QC. President Kruger’s health was drunk and Volksleid was sung. But the applause was far more deafening when Chairman Bailey proposed ‘Her Majesty the Queen’ and ‘God save the Queen’ was chorused. When the Burgomeister made a humorous allusion to the relative decibel levels, Vice-Consul Evans responded, “What can you expect, when over three-quarters of the people in the room are British subjects?”

The keen fight

The Test that followed at Johannesburg was a close affair.

It saw the debut of 14 of the contesting cricketers, including Johnny Tyldesley, Schofield Haigh and Warner for England and Murray Bisset and Vincent Tancred for South Africa.

While the Englishmen were a formidable side, especially with the Australian import Albert Trott turning out for them, the South Africans were boosted by the phenomenal talents of Jimmy Sinclair and Buck Llewellyn. Bisset, the skipper of the side, had to keep wickets owing to the broken finger of EA Halliwell, and did a sterling job standing up to the stumps to all kinds of bowling.

The ground was in splendid condition and the crowd had gathered in hordes when Hawke won the toss and elected to bat. It was expected that the tourists would put on a substantial score. However, the host bowlers stuck to a splendid line and the Springboks fielded magnificently. Both Tyldesley and Trott were run out, while Bonnor Middleton, George Rowe, Robert Graham and Llewellyn captured two wickets apiece. The England innings amounted to 145.

Sinclair and Tancred replied with a fine 46-run opening partnership.By the end of the first day South Africa were in a strong position with the score reading 85 for 3. It was apparent that the country’s cricket had made significant improvement in the last few years.

The following day, as 8000 men flocked to the ground, Sinclair enjoyed a rewarding stand with Bisset. This massively built man was approaching the first ever hundred by a South African when he was caught short of his ground by a direct hit. He walked back for a memorable innings of 86, full of stirring strokes that reminded many a participating Englishman of the huge hits of the giant Australian George Bonnor.

Llewellyn, of uncertain origins, arguably the first non-white cricketer to represent South Africa, was shaky during his first few moments at the wicket, but gained enough confidence with time to stroke his way to 38. The innings ended with South Africans 106 ahead, and even the names of Trott and Haigh on the bowling card had not been enough to wrest the advantage for the visitors.

When Llewellyn ran in and got Mitchell early with his left-arm medium pace, the first ever South African Test win loomed on the cards. The Colonials were bowling impeccably and ‘fielding like cats’. Middleton kept pegging away. Tyldesley, Wilson and Willis Cuttell all settled down and then gave their wickets away to this persevering slow-medium bowler.

But Warner stood tall at one end, his bat as straight as can be, playing every ball with perfect judgement and discretion. Trott, Haigh and Milligan made their quick ventures to the wicket and back, but the Middlesex opener held fort at one end. He ended the day at 97, with England seven down for 171, just 65 in the positive.

The climax

old wanderers
Test match in progress in Old Wanderers, Johannesburg

The following morning, Llewellyn castled Hawke. It was his third wicket in the midst of a sterling all-round effort. He would soon be amply rewarded, with a contract with Hampshire and a trip to America with the men led by Prince KS Ranjitsinhji.

Yet, the Springboks made one costly error. Warner was missed at point before he had added to his score.Jack Broad, the wicketkeeper, proceeded to stay with him for long, adding 34 crucial runs. And although Middleton dismissed Broad and Bromley-Davenport in succession to end with 5 for 51, Warner’s 132 not out had stretched the innings to 237. It left the hosts 132 to win.

The pitch was still playing magnificently, with a large crowd egging on the home cricketers. The fans around the ground were already celebrating the win. But now, the professionals of England came into their element.

It was Haigh who started the collapse, dismissing the openers with 21 on the board. Tancred was splendidly caught by Broad off a fast one. Sinclair tried to force the pace and skied one down the throat of mid-off. With Sinclair and Tancred back in the hutch, the batting looked brittle. The England men were sharp in the field, and Hawke used his bowlers astutely.

Ultimately it was Trott who ran through them, but the man who made it possible was Cuttell. Over after over, he wheeled in his slow stuff, and the Springbok men could not get him off the square. He bowled 32 five-ball overs in all, 24 of them maiden, conceded just 17 runs.  And just when Howard Francis looked about to steer the hosts to a comfortable win, Cuttell struck his stumps with a faster one. The stroke had been the worst Francis had played through the innings. The match had turned with the score reading 58 for 3.

Wickets fell now. Dower was caught off Trott, Llewellyn’s bail was sent over the head of the short slip.  Cuttell, impossible to hit, played on the frustrations of the batsmen and got rid of George Shepstone and William Solomon with straight deliveries.

The England side
The England side. Back, from left: Frank Hearne (umpire), Alfred Archer, Willis Cuttell, Frank Mitchell, Clem Wilson, Archibald White (umpire). Middle, from left: Hugh Bromley-Davenport, Frank Milligan, Schofield Haigh, Lord Hawke (captain), Jack Board, Albert Trott. Front, from left: Johnny Tyldesley, Plum Warner.

At the other end Bisset held on. Middleton, his splendid effort with the ball looking likely to go in vain, put his head down. The score inched along. The match was still in balance at 97 for 7. And then Middleton had a go at Trott and Bromley-Davenport caught him splendidly on the off side.

Two overs and two runs later, Graham lashed out at Trott and Tyldesley ran at mid-off, struck his hand out, fell and rolled over as he came up with the catch.

After that it took just a couple of balls to get rid of Rowe. In an atmosphere charged with excitement, with 6,000 spectators hanging on to the edge of their seats, England had pulled off a splendid 32-run win.

Both Hawke and Warner confessed in their memoirs that it was one of the most brilliant games they had ever taken part in.

That night, Lord Hawke presented Warner with a signet ring in which was inscribed simply: “Lord Hawke’s XI vs South Africa 1899. P.F.W., 132, from H”

There was a huge gathering on the platform of the Johannesburg station the next day as the players made their way to the special coach that had been reserved for them. Just before the team left, Abe Bailey presented each of the professionals with a Kruger sovereign made up as a pendant for a watch chain.

Brief Scores:

England 145 and 237 (Plum Warner 132*; Bonnor Middleton 5 for 51) beat South Africa 251 (Jimmy Sinclair 86; Albert Trott 4 for 61) and 98 (Albert Trott 5 for 49) by 32 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)