In 1902, before what would prove Reggie Schwarz’s final summer as an Englishman, Surrey’s Henry Leveson-Gower wrote a preview of the county season in which the then Middlesex player received a brief mention. “It seems that all those who appeared for the metropolitan county last year will again be available, though Mr RO Schwarz is not likely to play.” That’s because he wasn’t good enough: just about good enough to be on Middlesex’s books, Schwarz – who had already played three times for England at rugby union – was not considered good enough to actually play for them.
As it happens he did get a few games in 1902 but didn’t do much to change anyone’s opinion of him, averaging 8.12 with the bat across 18 innings, bowling only 30 overs and taking a single wicket. On 1 September his final innings ended with a duck, and six days later he boarded the Kingfauns Castle, heading for a new life in South Africa. The following March the Sportsman mentioned him in a summary of Cape cricket: “He has been singularly unlucky, and in his last few matches has been dead out of form. It may be that the change of climate has had its effect on his play.”
Just two years later he was back – and transformed. Picked to play for South Africa predominately as a batsman, he did not bowl until the second innings of their fourth match, against Oxford University, with the students already on 116 for two. Precisely 7.2 overs later he had five wickets, all clean bowled, and Oxford were all out for 167. He ended the tour as the leading wicket-taker, with 96 at 14.81.
“Mr Schwarz’s bowling has come as an unpleasant revelation in its new form to his old comrades,” wrote the Sportsman after he had “played havoc” as the tourists beat Middlesex. The Evening Standard said he “has improved beyond all knowledge as an all-round exponent of the game since he played for Middlesex a few years back”. And he hadn’t even reached his peak.
In fact he had picked up the skills that would transform his reputation while still at Middlesex, where he had played alongside Bernard Bosanquet, inventor of the googly. A fast-bowler at school and a medium-pacer by the time he emigrated, he returned a googly specialist. Some accounts suggest the key lessons actually took place during that 1904 tour, but it seems extremely unlikely not to have happened before, given the pair’s longstanding friendship – Bosanquet had, for example, invited Schwarz on a short tour of the United States he organised in the autumn of 1901.
Nicolas Bosanquet, Bernard’s brother, later wrote that Schwarz had benefited from “many hours of patient instruction from the inventor, whose only pupil he was” and if the instruction was patient, so was the subsequent improvement. “He openly boasted of his unsuccessful efforts when he first attempted to imitate Bosanquet’s style,” the Reading Observer wrote. “For weeks he persevered in the nets of the wanderers club at Johannesburg without getting a ball within yards of the wicket. Other cricketers used to assemble in order to play off their latest jokes at him. But it made no difference; Schwarz kept on and, so he says, when the ball did go inside the net he was cheered to the echo.”
In time the googly became Schwarz’s stock ball; he could manage a delivery that went straight, but never mastered the leg break. What he could do, however, is bowl his googly at previously unimagined pace. “Schwarz, in form, was many lengths ahead of any of the household names among bowlers,” the Guardian wrote in 1921. “Alone among bowlers of the highest class Schwarz could, and did, break the ball from the off to a greater width and more quickly than any other bowler ever seen.” Indeed, Schwarz could get so much turn that CB Fry suggested professors of applied mathematics should take a look at his action. “If Reggie could bowl a leg-break he would be the best bowler in the world,” said Gordon White, another member of the 1904 touring side. “Nobody would be able to stand against him. But for the life of him he cannot break from the leg side – only from the off. Still, Schwarz is our greatest man. Bowling with him is a passion.”
White was one of several South Africans to whom Schwarz passed on his skills, and when the team returned in 1907 that pair, along with fellow practitioners Aubrey Faulkner and Bert Vogler, were unplayable. Schwarz, at his zenith, led the way, taking 143 wickets at 11.5. South Africa won 10 matches and lost two, though England won the nations’ first Test series 1-0 after two draws. In 1908 Leveson-Gower, who had written Schwarz off only a few years earlier, wrote an essay on “the era of that weird and wonderful googly”. “Bosanquet is the proud owner of the patent; but though owner, he was never really a master of it,” he wrote. “It was left to the South Africans to master his theory.”
In 1909-10 England lost a five-Test series in South Africa 3-2, with Schwarz’s influence now fading and Vogler and Faulkner responsible for 65 of 88 English wickets to fall. When the first world war broke out Schwarz joined the King’s Royal Rifles. English newspapers gave sporadic updates of his progress, including an injury to his right hand inflicted by his own horse, and his promotion to deputy assistant quartermaster general (“A big promotion for the greatest of all googly bowlers,” trilled the Mirror).
South Africa’s four googly specialists nearly made it through the war. Only two weeks before it ended, however, White died in what is now Israel, during the Battle of Megiddo. Seven days after the Armistice Schwarz joined him, becoming the most famous cricketer to fall to the last great global pandemic when he was killed by Spanish flu in France.
“Personally he was a man of exceptional charm,” wrote the Times. “He had the great gift of absolute modesty and self-effacement. No one meeting him casually would ever have guessed the renown he had won in the world of sport. Quiet, almost retiring, in manner; without the least trace of side; and with a peculiarly attractive voice and way of speaking. All who knew him knew that at the first possible opportunity he would be in the field in France, quietly and unostentatiously devoting all his gifts to the service of his country.”
This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. The Spin.
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