Due to its overwhelming British influence, Port Elizabeth was regarded as the most English of all the towns in South Africa during the nineteenth century. Therefore it is fitting that the first official test match – of that most quintessential of English sports, cricket – should be played in Port Elizabeth between the English and South Africa.
Main picture: The South African team in the first test
Cricket’s introduction to South Africa
The English troops en route to occupy South Africa in 1795 brought cricket bats and balls along with them in their trunks as an essential part of their kit. Likewise during their second occupation in 1809, they packed their cricket bats with their martial kit. The first recorded cricket match albeit unofficial with no leagues in contention was played on the 5th January 1808. This match between the Officers of the Artillery Mess and Officers of the Colony ushered in cricket to the Colony. Nowhere is it recorded whether the English under Colonel Austen of the 60th Regiment or General Clavering won the prize of 1000 Rix Dollars, a handsome bonanza in those days.
The next recorded game occurred only after the 2nd occupation of the Cape in 1810. This match was played on the Green Point Common in Cape Town between The Ordinance Department plus the 87th Regiment and The Officers of the Other Regiments. Once again, a stake of 1000 Rix Dollars was in contention.
Stake money had been part of the game from its very early days, while betting, and the resultant bribery, was common. One wonders whether it was egregious examples of this practice, such as when two English sides never attempted to score runs in their obvious attempts to lose the match, that resulted in the introduction of the amateur codes.
English settlers followed in the footsteps of the military. Apparently one of the 1820 Settlers – perhaps apocryphally – was pictured wading onto the beach while holding his cricket bat over his head. Once the Settlers had settled and were established, they founded cricket clubs in all the main centres.
Cricket Clubs in Port Elizabeth
Over the years, numerous attempts were made to establish a Cricket Club in Port Elizabeth. All were futile. The first attempt was in December 1847, followed by September 1849 and then October 1851. In every instance, the initial enthusiasm had not lasted and swiftly waned. On 7th January 1856, a preliminary meeting was yet again held to inaugurate a Cricket Club in Port Elizabeth. Even though the 1856 club itself had to be revived in January 1859, the P.E. Cricket Club has always given the former date as it official date of its founding.
Meanwhile on the 20th November 1869, Port Elizabeth witnessed a cricket match played between the P.E. Club and the newly established Union Club, which had been launched un 1867 as the Knickerbocker Club. However due to lack of a ground, they shared the St George Park facility with that of the P.E.C.C. With the Uitenhage Club, Southern Cross, being resuscitated at the end of 1869, the game was very much alive in the Eastern Cape as a whole.
Travel between the various towns was extremely tedious prior to the arrival of the railways. When the “Stray Klips” of Kimberley challenged the Cape Town Wanderers in 1887/1888, the Inland Transport Company boasted that the trip only took eight days. In an era when most sportsmen were unpaid, the cost to the individual for a five-day test, would have been three weeks remuneration. Even the journey from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown took up to five days in a wagon.
In 1873, the Union Cricket Club requested a piece of ground from the Town Council west of the existing cricket ground for its own use as it was cumbersome having to share a cricket field with the P.E.C.C. In their request, the Union Cricket Club was successful as the Council granted this ground.
During January 1876, a highly successful cricket festival billed as the “Canterbury Week” was held in Port Elizabeth. Based upon an original proposal by John Chabaud, cricket teams from Grahamstown, King William’s Town and Cape Town met in Port Elizabeth to play against each other. This was the first time in the Colony’s history that such an event had been organised. The Champion Bat, donated by the Municipality, was won by King William’s Town in 1876 and 1880 and by Port Elizabeth in 1884. The bat, enclosed in an oak case, was constructed of a whalebone and a satinwood handle, tipped and capped with silver.
Events preceding the Test
It was an Australian born cricket enthusiast, Captain Robert Gardner Warton, a member of the Western Province Cricket Club, the WPCC, who was the instigator of the first test between England and South Africa. In 1887, on his return to England, he was determined to bring out the first cricket touring team to South Africa. The WPCC offered a guarantee of £450 and the other centres followed suit.
Cricket grounds had to be prepared to host the visitors. Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth already had suitable grounds but Johannesburg, at four years old, possessed no cricketing facilities. In Port Elizabeth, the venerable St. George’s Park would be used. In Joburg, President Kruger donated a piece of land, known as Kruger Park in Braamfontein. This was developed into a sporting club called the Wanderers.
Finally the admission charge was determined. It was set at an exorbitant three guineas for the week’s matches against the tourists.
South Africa’s foray into International Cricket would commence with a test against South Africa at St. George’s Park. Apart from two International matches, seventeen matches were played by the English against local sides.
Major Warton was in a pickle. As South African cricket was untested and unknown, the task of choosing an appropriate team was problematical at best. Warton’s solution was to select a mixed side comprising seven men who had played regularly for their counties and five amateurs of good club standing. His second conundrum was the “social acceptability” of the players. What this nebulous term implied in an era of strict class hierarchy, can only be surmised. But in all probability, it precluded the selection of lower-class players.
As captain, Warton selected Charles Aubrey Smith but Smith was only to play one match for England, the first test against South Africa. The team boarded the Gareth Castle on the 21st November 1888 and, after calling at Lisbon and Madeira, it arrived at Cape Town, three weeks later, on the 14th December 1888.
Debut local matches
The initial matches against local Cape sides “at odds” – the locals were entitled to 22 players instead of 11 – were a disaster for the tourists. Central to their predicament were the rock hard surfaces where the ball came through quicker and rose harder and sharper than in did on the grassy fields of their mother country. By the time of their arrival in Johannesburg, the tourists had mastered these fast surfaces. Instead of their usual dismal performances, the English thrashed the Joburg XXII.
The first test
Cock-a-hoop at their win, the English travelled to Port Elizabeth by train brimming with confidence for their first eleven a side match of the tour.
The South African side was the strongest one available apart from Theunissen. It was captained by OR Dunell from Port Elizabeth. For the very first time, the South African team sported olive-green caps with “SA” embroidered on the front.
On the morning of 12th March 1889, between two and three thousand spectators watched the start of play at St. George’s Park. It was an unmitigated disaster for South Africa. By the end of the second over with South Africa on no runs for two wickets, the scene had been set for a bloodbath. Soon it was 17 runs for five wickets. By now, the cricketing aficionados were all choking on their beers. Dunell and Tancred were the only local players to withstand the bowling of Briggs and Smith by reaching double figures. This duo must have been elated with their handiwork having taken all the wickets.
Left: John Briggs
After only scoring 84 all out, the English fared better at 148 but only due to a last wicket partnership of 35.
In their second innings, South Africa fared better by scoring 129 all out leaving England to win by eight wickets.
A local runner and friend, Peter Darroll, with whom I share stories during long runs on the oddities and peculiarities of life, recently shared the following anecdote with me. It related to his father feeling aggrieved that the first cricket ground at the Grey High School was not named after himself. He felt that the honour should have been bestowed upon himself for being the opening bowler. Hence it should have been called the Darroll field.
Instead that honour was accorded to the wicket keeper.
What riles him is that the wicket keeper’s performance on the day did not accord him the right to recognition through the naming of the field.
As such he disputes that it should have been christened the Pollock field.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (2004, Historical Society of Port Elizabeth, Port Elizabeth)
South Africa versus England: A Cricket Test History by Ray Knowles (1995, Sable Media, Cape Town)