South Africa's great heritage of hospitality

Graeme Wright recalls past tours as England's cricketers prepare for next week's historic journey
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The Independent Online
Strange the way the mind works, that the recent volcanic eruptions in New Zealand should have me thinking of a Test match in South Africa over 40 years ago. It was Boxing Day 1953, and those two countries were due to resume a match interrupted by Christmas Day when news reached Johannesburg that 151 people had perished in New Zealand in a rail disaster. A lake in a volcanic crater had flooded into the little Tangiwai river and the ensuing torrent had swept away part of the rail bridge that crossed it.

Among the dead was the fiancee of the New Zealand fast bowler, Bob Blair, and when play commenced it was thought he would take no further part in the game. So it came as a surprise when, on the fall of New Zealand's ninth wicket, and the players began to leave the field, the forlorn figure of Blair emerged from the players' tunnel at Ellis Park. For a moment the crowd, some 25,000, were stunned, then as one they rose, first in silence and then applauding Blair on his long, slow walk to the wicket.

As well as the pathos, what remains with me of that incident is the decency, the fundamental humanity, of those South Africans. And maybe, ironically, that same simplicity, what we in a world-weary Britain might call naivety, contributed to South African cricket's exile a quarter of a century ago. The cricket community, essentially liberal, could not see that politics and sport had become inextricably linked, could not believe their friends outside would show them the cold shoulder. But now the barriers are down, and next week the first official England cricket team since MJK Smith's MCC side of 1964/65 will arrive in South Africa.

It will be a different South Africa from that visited by their 14 predecessors since 1888/89. Some things however, will not have changed, particularly the hospitality of their South African hosts. Frank Mann, who captained MCC to South Africa in 1922/23, advised his son George, who took the 1948/49 side there, never to accept private dinner invitations but always to dine in the hotel with his team. Mike Atherton might feel more inclined towards the older Mann's other word of advice. Steer clear of the press.

England's first tour of South Africa fascinates more for the fates of England's two Test captains than the cricket. Aubrey Smith, captain of the touring party, went on to win fame in Hollywood as an actor and gain a knighthood. But poor Monty Bowden, who captained England in the second Test when Smith had fever, fared less happily. Something of an adventurer, he died three years later in Umtali, South Africa, after falling from his cart. While his coffin was knocked together from whisky boxes, his body was protected from marauding lions by an armed guard.

Before the pause for hostilities occasioned by the recalcitrance of non- cricketing Boers, there were three more visits by English sides, two of them under that formidable Yorkshireman, Lord Hawke. With the return of peace, however, MCC took over the running of the tours and in 1905/06 sent "Plum" Warner as their captain. From a South African viewpoint this was a great success. Not only did they savour their first Test victory, they also won the series 4-1 and ushered in the era of their four great googly bowlers: Vogler, Schwarz, White and Faulkner. Four years later South Africa won 3-2, but they had to wait until 1930/31 for their next series win.

The 1930/31 series, with Percy Chapman captaining England, was the last in which matting pitches were used in South Africa. Indeed, three of the five Tests were played on grass. But it was on matting at the Old Wanderers ground in Johannesburg that Eiulf Peter Nupen, a one-eyed medium-fast bowler of Norwegian parents, avenged some of the indignity wrought on South Africa by S F Barnes on the mat back in 1913/14. In that series, virtually unplayable, Barnes had taken 49 wickets in four Tests. At Johannesburg, "Buster" Nupen took 11 wickets and captained South Africa to a 28-run win. Next match, the first Test played on grass in South Africa, Nupen was passed over as captain and took only one wicket.

This time there will be no "timeless" Test as there was at Durban in 1938/39, when the match reached its 10th day before England called a halt in order to catch the train taking them to Cape Town and their ship home. Nor, one hopes, will there be the slow scoring and attritional cricket that blighted the last MCC tours of 1956/57 and 1964/65. On the other hand, England supporters would gladly settle for the last-ball win off a leg-bye that set up the 1948/49 series. "Cometh the hour, cometh the man," said Cliff Gladwin when he joined Alec Bedser with 12 runs needed in the last 10 minutes and eight wickets down. Perhaps Angus Fraser might rehearse those very words as England fly south on Wednesday.