Xen Balaskas: a few pats and 9 wickets © Getty Images
Xen Balaskas: a few pats and 9 wickets © Getty Images

July 2, 1935. South African leg-spinner of Greek extraction, Xenophon ‘Xen’ Balaskas, bowled his country to their first ever Test triumph in England. There were other architects too, primarily Bruce Mitchell with his five-and-a-half hour effort in the second innings, and Jock Cameron with his sensational 90 in the first. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the landmark victory.

How the heroes geared up

As in any Test victory there were multiple heroes.

And for quite a few of these heroes, the days that led up to the Test were rather curious.

The Springboks of 1935 had marched into the English summer in an unprecedented blaze of glory. Bob Crisp and Sandy Bell had skittled Worcestershire for 90 to start the proceedings, and the batsmen had struck form early. Worcestershire had fallen by an innings and 166 runs, Leicestershire by 170 runs, Cambridge University by an innings and 40, the strong Surrey side by 190, Hampshire by 110, Middlesex by 22 in a thriller, Derbyshire by 209, Northamptonshire by an innings and 35, Staffordshire by an innings and 42. They had also had better of the draws against MCC and Glamorgan, and Lancashire had stood on the tottering brink of defeat before being saved by rain.

The team did have the worse of the exchanges when they had taken on the might of England at Trent Bridge in the first Test, but thanks to the exceptional Jock Cameron they had escaped with a draw. Their splendid tour had continued at Bramall Lane, where a Yorkshire side boasting Herbert Sutcliffe, Maurice Leyland, Hedley Verity and Bill Bowes had been overcome by 128 runs. But tragedy had struck as well, and its aim had been at one of the major architects of the Lord’s triumph. The superb Eric Rowan had attempted to pull Bowes and had been struck on the ear. He had been left behind in a nursing home as the team had travelled to Stoke-on-Trent for their next match, and his participation in the Lord’s Test had been in considerable doubt.

Another man who was to become a hero at Lord’s, the incredible Cameron, did not want to take any such chance. Approaching the Yorkshire fast bowler in the dressing room, he had said, “If you hit me, Bowes, I’ll come down and hit you over the head with this bat.” So saying, he had marched out and played one of the most scintillating innings of all time. The 103 not out had included one famous over from Verity that had gone for 4,4,4,6,6,6. Legend has it that wicketkeeper Arthur Wood had made his way to the unfortunate bowler and had offered consolation saying, “Well, Hedley, you at least have him in two minds. He doesn’t know whether to hit you for four or six.”

At Stoke-on-Trent, Crisp, Bell, Arthur Langton and Xen Balaskas had dismissed Staffordshire for 60 and 88. South Africa had scored just 190 when they batted, but that was enough for an innings win. Bruce Mitchell had been the pillar as usual, scoring 73 of those runs.

But during the second innings, under gloomy skies, a ball from Crisp had ricocheted off the gloves of wicketkeeper Bob Williams and had flown to Mitchell at first slip, striking him over the eye. He had fallen prone on the ground, and the Springboks had feared that for the first time since 1929 they would have to go into a Test match without Bruce Mitchell.

The two injuries, to the eye and the ear, had not really healed by the time the team reached London. However, both the stalwarts approached captain Herby Wade and insisted that they would play.

As they rested and recovered on the eve of the second Test, the other hero of the match had a rather different experience. Balaskas had taken 12 wickets against Yorkshire, including 8 for 99 in the second innings. This leg-spinner of Greek origin was walking aimlessly in the back alleys of Leicester Square, with journalist Louis Duffus for company.

Suddenly, Duffus pointed to a rather shady, dimly lit street and cried, “You must go up here — this will surely bring you luck.” He gestured towards the name, “Greek Street.” And it was not really the most gentile of neighbourhoods, with quick approaches, beckoning glances and feminine invitations of the form ‘Hullo boys.’

Balaskas, however, had other ideas of dipping into sources of luck. After spending some enjoyable moments in the aforementioned street, he was on his way back when he noticed a pregnant woman. It was his belief that if he patted her, there would be loads of luck to follow. And he proceeded to do so, some light banter with the girl paving the way for a few pats on the back.

Did it have something to do with the 9 wickets he picked up in the match? One will never know. ALSO READ: 11 Best bowling performances at Lord’s

Mitchell, Robins and leatherjackets

The English preparations for the Test match were by no means devoid of drama. The pitch had been invaded by the curiously named leatherjacket, an insect that industriously destroyed the grass at its roots, leaving an arid desert which offered much reward to a bowler who could spin the ball sharply. Balaskas was definitely the man for South Africa. And the English selectors were of the opinion that Walter Robins was the answer for the home side.

However, skipper Bob Wyatt disagreed. Robins had bowled poorly at Trent Bridge, and by all indications the temperamental leg-spinning all-rounder was not very keen on cricket at that moment. Wyatt plumped for Tommy Mitchell of Derbyshire.

There are conflicting accounts of what took place in the discussion surrounding the team selection. According to Plum Warner, Chairman of the Selection Committee, the debate lasted for eight hours and Wyatt had single-handedly secured the inclusion of Mitchell by reducing the whole Committee to a state of physical and mental exhaustion with his arguments.

Wyatt himself disagreed. “They made no fuss about Robins being dropped and I had particularly outspoken support from Peter Perrin.”

Whatever be the case, Wyatt later regretted the change. “Mitchell bowled unintelligently, pitchingmore in line with the off stump than the leg stump. He was turning the ball a lot, but they were frequently in position to play the cut shot. Balaskas bowled his leg breaks and googlies with far more accuracy.”

The wicket was hard, but the ravages of leatherjackets meant that Nobby Clark was left out, Mitchell and Verity entrusted with the spin department, James Langridge offering balance and the third spinning option, while Wyatt and Wally Hammond would play the role of medium pacers assisting Stan Nichols. Bob Wyatt: Combative, correct and a respected captain

The Cameron Brilliance

The crowd gathered in large numbers and the press box was sparkling with luminaries like CB Fry, Jack Hobbs and Douglas Jardine when Wade and Wyatt walked out to toss. Wade called correctly, perhaps the most important toss in his captaincy career, and South Africa batted.

It was Mitchell who struck the first blow, Jack Siedle reading the googly but missing the line as he tried to force it to leg. But thereafter his bowling lacked imagination.

Bruce Mitchell, his eyebrow bandaged heavily, stuck around for an hour to score 30. Rowan, half-deaf with formidable strapping around his ear, put his head down to score a brave 40. But when Verity, bowling with a packed off-side field, beat young Dudley Nourse to bowl him and then got Rowan taken brilliantly by Bill Farrimond low on the leg side, the score read an uncertain 98 for 4.

And now Cameron got up, and caressed his bat, supposedly murmuring, “Are you going to be a good pal today?”

© Getty Images
Jock Cameron — Brilliant and short-lived © Getty Images

Verity, perhaps the memory of Bramall Lane fresh in his mind, sent down a rare full toss. This aggressive wicketkeeper batsman pulled it for six.

Good-length deliveries were tapped back with exemplary technique, while loose balls were attacked like a man possessed. The stumperhad indeed graduated into one of the best batsmen of the country.

Langridge erred by pitching up, and he was lofted into the body of the crowd. Mitchell also erred in length, pitching too short, and Cameron pulled him for four and then moved paces to the off-side and swung him over the midwicket fence.

The interruption due to the arrival of the King seemed a dampener given the extraordinary fireworks in progress. But Cameron did not lose rhythm. Wade fell, as did Eric Dalton, but Cameron’s power hitting remained unabated, while he sprinkled his innings with fine glances and delicate cuts in between. During one phase, he scored 58 out of 60 in half an hour. Even after the leatherjackets had ensured that it was a bowling pitch.

The splendid innings came to an end when Nichols ran in with the new ball and made one break back off the wicket to take his off-stump. The wicketkeeper walked back for a glorious 90 scored with 6 fours and 3 sixes in an hour and three-quarters. It is tragic to reflect in retrospect that he would succumb to enteric fever barely five months after this magical knock.

It was all Greek to the Englishmen

The end was hastened by Hammond with the new ball, and 228 seemed a modest score. But in the context of the match, it was substantial.

In walked Wyatt and the great Sutcliffe. The latter was struggling with a leg injury, while his mind was wrestling with the new experimental leg-before rule that allowed bowlers a wicket even if the ball pitched outside off. And it was to this rule that he fell, trapped by Bell for 3.

Inspired by this early success, the South Africans fielded with plenty of zest, and it resulted in some rather wild throws from the outfield. Wyatt and Leyland batted comfortably enough for the next hour before the latter heaved at a long hop from Balaskas to lose his stumps. With the incomparable Hammond joining Wyatt, England finished the day at 75 for 2, perhaps in a more advantageous position.

The touring side spent the Sunday visiting the King and Queen at the Buckingham Palace, having their afternoon tea in the Palace gardens.

Pepped perhaps by the beverages touched by royal hands — or perhaps the pregnant girl on Greek Street was the one responsible — Balaskas bowled like a changed man on Monday. Changing over to the Pavilion end, he stuck at it for two-and-a-quarter hours, picking up Les Ames (playing as a batsman), Errol Holmes, Langridge and Farrimond.

The seldom-used leg-breaks of Dalton had accounted for both Wyatt and Hammond, the former falling to a catch on the boundary by Nourse just under Father Time. But after that it was all Balaskas. There was the bend of his little body, twist of the wrist and the fingers, and the propelled ball — and the vagaries of the wicket.

He would have had Langridge earlier, had umpire Fanny Walden been a little taller. The question was asked, the batsman seemed plumb, but Walden said he had been unsighted by the bowler. Balaskas was short, but Walden even shorter.

In the end, Langridge scored 27 useful runs. England finished at 198, 30 runs behind. The fielding on the second day was superb, led by Wade at silly mid-off.

The Mitchell masterclass

The Springboks were in no mood to relinquish the initiative. Nichols went for 11 in the first over. Mitchell and Siedle rollicked to 26 in just 15 minutes. Tom Mitchell got Siedle again, caught at the wicket. But Rowan, with bandaged ear, and Bruce Mitchell, bandaged just above the eye, got together in a heroic partnership.

There were over 30,000 spectators who had come to the ground that Monday, perhaps to watch Hammond. Instead they witnessed one of the bravest stands in the history of the game. Mitchell and Rowan remained together for 120 minutes, and added 104. As they walked back for tea, it was clear that both were feeling the strain of injuries. Indeed, on reaching the dressing room, Rowan collapsed on the couch for a quick, exhausted nap.

Rowan’s runs came through dabs and chops through the slips, and he had progressed to 44 before Nichols trapped him lbw. With 40 in the first innings, he had played a most important role in the match.

© Getty Images
Bruce Mitchell : Classy and correct © Getty Images

With Rowan out of the way, Verity quickly removed Nourse. Destined to become one of the greatest batsmen of South Africa, the young man was still struggling to come to terms with quality left-arm spin.

Adrenaline surging from his first innings classic, Cameron walked in to a hero’s welcome. The cheering continued as soon Mitchell completed his splendid century, full of delectable drives and perfectly executed square cuts. It was as if in celebration of the feat Cameron tried to hit a ball from Tom Mitchell out of the ground. The ball hung in the air interminably before coming down into the grasp of Ames at deep extra-cover.

The great Verity now spun his guile, and in quick succession Wade and Dalton walked out and back. From 158 for 2, it was 177 for 6 and England were back in the game.

Chud Langton had bowled better than anyone else on the tour. However, he kept reminding everyone that he was also a batsman of ability. Now he walked out with the team in some sort of crisis. He remained there till the end of the second day, helped by Mitchell’s masterly farming of strike. South Africa ended on 208 for 6, Mitchell 129, Langton 11. To quote Duffus, “We left the ground that evening with the match trembling in balance.”

That night there was rain. Bruce Mitchell heard it as he got into his bed. Rowan did not, the fatigue of batting through the injuries had flipped him into the zone of unconsciousness.

However, few knew what effect the rain was going to have on the wicket already ravaged by leatherjackets.

The downpour had long stopped by the time the players got to the ground. The rain seemed to have had a beneficial effect on the wicket, with the ball coming at a nice slow pace. There were the occasional ones that popped up, but batting was a distinctly easier task. Mitchell languidly continued his innings, and Langton punctuated some powerful drives with strange manoeuvres that somehow landed the balls between two or three converging fielders.

It was Hammond who broke the partnership when he held on to a return catch from the all-rounder. Wade immediately declared the innings, leaving England four and three quarter hours to get 309. In his heart he knew this was the best chance to defeat England at home, something South Africa had not managed in their 28 years of touring the Old Country. Bruce Mitchell: Pillar of South African batting who did not miss a single Test

The elusive victory

They were soon on their way. Wyatt played back to Balaskas, hitting it firmly, right into his left heel. The ball ricocheted off the rubber soles into the stumps. The first wicket was down at 24.

As Leyland settled, Wade shrewdly brought back Crisp. The fast bowler sent down a scorching delivery that sent the left-hander’s stumps flying. 45 for 2.

But there was Sutcliffe, the old warrior, battling hard at one end, braving his leg injury. George Hart of Middlesex, the twelfth man, was running for him. He was joined by Hammond. Two of the greatest batsmen ever seen in cricket.

There was a groan in the South African dressing-room. Sutcliffe had popped a catch to short-leg, and Rowan, moving forward to pouch the simple offering, had been let down by his old hockey injury. The knee caved in under him and down went the ball.

Sutcliffe and Hammond batted on. 44 runs were added. At 89 for 2 it looked relatively safe for England. The Gloucestershire great was stroking the ball with great confidence. The Yorkshire veteran was bringing his phenomenal store of experience into the fray.

Sandy Langton — valuable knock and crucial blows © Getty Images
Chud Langton — valuable knock and crucial blows © Getty Images

And then Langton ran in and somehow enticed an edge off the broad Hammond blade. Cameron caught it and leapt in the air.

A run later, Sutcliffe the magnificent was struck on the pads by a Langton delivery. Once again, it had pitched outside off and was coming in to hit the stumps. The finger went up. The veteran batsman hobbled back. His leg injury would prevent him from playing any more Tests that series. In fact, by the time England would tour Australia, Gubby Allen and the selectors would vote for fresher blood.

Yes, this was Herbert Sutcliffe’s final Test match. He never played for England again.

It was an inspired spell by Langton. At 102, he pegged back the stumps of Holmes. And 9 runs later, Ames, also suffering from strain and using Hart as runner, fell to the lbw rule. The excitement in the South African enclosure bubbled and buzzed.

Farrimond and Langridge fought back, adding 18 runs, sticking around. Once again, Wade turned to his fast bowler. The incredible Crisp, who had supposedly heard about his selection for the England tour while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, had the wicketkeeper’s stumps spread-eagled.

And finally it was Balaskas once again. Langridge failed to read his googly. Verity skied one to Langton.

The crowd sat in tense silence as poor Tommy Mitchell pushed and prodded. And then he stepped out. The ball from Balaskas spun across the face of the bat. Cameron collected and had the stumps broken in a flash. Soon, he had ball, bails and stumps in his grasp, invaluable souvenirs. One stump for himself, and one that Siedle, deep in the outfield, had commissioned him to collect as a relic of the historic match.

South Africa had won in England after trying for 28 years. The Daily Sketchwrote, “There was never a Test match so well and truly won.”

A delighted Duffus wrote: “As the shadows lengthened, old Father Time from high above the score box looked down with a sage, unstirred philosophy, reminding us in the heat of jubilation that this, after all, was only another incident in the life of Lord’s. Yes, but to us what a rich, memorable incident.”

What followed?

South Africa went through the tour winning 17 and losing just 2 of their 31 First-Class matches. It was well into August when they tumbled against Gloucestershire and Essex.

They held on to the lead in the Tests to win the five-Test series 1-0.

Both Mitchell and Rowan recovered from their injuries. In late July, the side played Surrey at The Oval and beat them by an innings and 205 runs. Having bowled them out for 183, Mitchell and Rowan opened the innings and raced to 272 without loss by the end of the first day. On the second morning they extended their partnership to 330.

During the innings a loud pistol report was heard from outside the Oval. The batsmen looked quizzically at one another and asked the fielders what it was all about. Ted Brooks, the Surrey wicketkeeper, remarked, “The No. 3’s just shot himself.”

Brief scores:

South Africa 228 (Eric Rowan 40, Jock Cameron 90) and 278 for 7 decl. (Bruce Mitchell 164, Eric Rowan 44, Chud Langton 44) beat England 198 (Bob Wyatt 53, Xen Balaskas 5 for 49) and 151 (Chud Langton 4 for 31, Xen Balaskas 5 for 54) by 157 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.)