England cricket tours to South Africa didn’t used to be extended sleepovers

<span>Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

A philosophical question: does England’s one-day international series in South Africa really count as an overseas tour? The first match takes place on Friday, the last on the following Wednesday. Two of the games are at the same ground in Bloemfontein and the other within day-tripping distance – you can get to Kimberley in less than two hours on the bus. It will be the briefest, slightest cricketing incursion an England team has made to the country. Perhaps, in a modern age of peripatetic players and bite-size schedules, any tour less than a week in length could be reclassified as an “intervention”, or possibly an “extended sleepover”.

Such a drive-by affair would have been a sci-fi fantasy to the first England team to make the journey, in the 19th century. When Major Robert Gardner Warton set sail from Dartmouth to Cape Town in 1888, with a party of seven amateurs and seven professionals, it was practically a pioneering expedition. The potential folly of the endeavour is perfectly captured by Richard Parry and André Odendaal in their overarching history of England’s tours to South Africa, Swallows and Hawke, which was published last year.

Even at the height of an era “characterised by overconfidence, arrogance, ignorance and a relish for risk”, the first cricket tour to southern Africa was a particularly ludicrous idea, say Parry and Odendaal. On the field, the hosts may not have been expected to present too much of a challenge – most of the matches were played against odds for that very reason – but the climate, distances, transport and overall logistics certainly did.

Fixtures were interspersed with journeys of enormous length and discomfort. A 13,000-mile round trip by steamer, with ample food and entertainment, was luxury compared to the travel required between games. With the development of the railways within the Transvaal Republic embargoed under President Kruger, the England team were required to cover nearly 800 miles of their tour by horse-drawn coach or cart.

Charles Aubrey Smith, who captained the side and displayed a flair for the theatrical long before he became a Hollywood actor, wrote a vivid report of the tour for the Sportsman magazine; it included an account of a 60-hour coach journey between Kimberley and Johannesburg, each player wedged tightly against the next. “How we hated our neighbours whose elbows were continually finding our ribs,” he wrote. “How we abused those behind for grinding our backs with their knees.”

Even that stretch wasn’t as painful as the leg to Pietermaritzburg, whose roads, according to Warton, were “strewn with large boulders over which we bumped mercilessly, until our heads and every joint of our bodies ached”.

Either through optimism, poor planning or foolhardy courage, the team also attempted the treacherous mountain passes of the Outeniquas in the dark – until they nearly lost their top batter Bobby Abel over the side and Smith agreed to call a halt til dawn. On another occasion, a group of players were forced to steer a 10-horse coach in an overnight storm after realising the drivers were incapacitated through alcohol and fatigue.

Warton’s tour was a financial flop, but at least it didn’t end with its captain arrested for non-payment of debt as the following one did. If the first tour seemed reckless, the management of the second, led by Walter Read two years later, appears almost delusional. By the time the players landed on the Cape in December 1891, the kitty was already missing the £750 they owed for their ship’s passage.

Captain Read and the tour manager, Edwin Ash, sought emergency funding from a Scottish entrepreneur, James Logan, who had identified cricket as a tool for marketing his business and increasing his social cachet in his adopted country. It was left ambiguous whether Logan’s advance of £750 was a loan or investment; either way, after 14 weeks of Read’s unappealing, risk-averse brand of cricket, the crowds had ceased to show and Logan’s money was gone.

In Empire, War & Cricket in South Africa, Dean Allen recounts how Logan “fearing that he would not be repaid” had Read and Ash detained on their way to the boat that was to take them home to England. They spent three hours under arrest before their ship was finally allowed to depart. In the year to come, Logan would win his legal case against them in Cape Town’s supreme court and a judge ordered them to repay the original loan plus £107 in costs.

As Allen’s book demonstrates, this “moral victory” proved as effective a PR boost for Logan’s reputation as his initial sponsorship of the tour and he went on to shape the early development of cricket in South Africa.

What’s unavoidable in the freshly told histories of these early tours is the sense that a lot of people were on the make. Logan’s contributions to cricket covered over some seriously sharp business practice and one of the reasons Read and Ash’s tour went bust was because they were paying themselves more, as amateurs, than they offered the professionals.

Aubrey Smith, meanwhile, used his tour to network with mining moguls, and stayed on when the rest travelled home to set up an unsuccessful stockbroking business with his teammate Monty Bowden.

Perhaps it’s helpful to know, in the calendar-driven angst about the future of the game, that even cricket’s so-called golden age was as beholden to commercial interests as any other.