Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The spinner who saved the day for 'Jim' Swanton

The adventures of two public schoolboys from generations apart are recalled as England and South Africa prepare to lock horns

W ith England's fresh Test series beginning this very morning, I found myself contemplating two wholly disparate English public schoolboys from generations wide apart but each with aptly germane connections with both Africa and cricket – namely the unlikely duo of 57-year-old Old Etonian mercenary Simon "Lucky" Mann, preparing to enjoy a Christmas at home in Hampshire after his recent pardon from a 35-year jail sentence in Equatorial Guinea, and the late EW "Jim" Swanton, emeritus sportswriter, Old Cranleighan and 10 years dead next month.

Today as Jonathan Agnew's Test Match Special gang welcome us to the series' opening overs I'll nod fond remembrance to trailblazer Swanton who, 71 Decembers ago, was the first broadcaster ever to send a live cricket commentary back to an English winter. Swanton was 31, a rather pompous penny-a-line freelancer specialising in public schools' rugby and cricket. That autumn he had persuaded a hesitant BBC to pay him £126 for 20 live broadcasts of the final half-hour's play in the South African Tests; on the strength of a further £60 promised for a string of features for the Evening Standard and the Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News, he had paid his own return fare of £82.16s on the Balmoral Castle.

The first Test began in Johannesburg on Christmas Eve 1938. Action during that first closing-overs stint was laboriously dire – England's Paul Gibb and Eddie Paynter batting for the morrow with utterly tedious circumspection. Swanton finished his commentary in a fury of despair and insecurity. Reaction from London was cruelly silent. On the second day (Boxing Day), the last half-hour began dolefully much the same, this time with South Africa's batsmen totally passive against Hedley Verity. Poor Swanton imagined English listeners by the thousands falling asleep over the yule log at his dreary descriptions. Then suddenly, 10 minutes before the close, the off-spinner Tom Goddard took a wicket – Nourse c & b – then, very next ball, another; followed at once by another, the nightwatchman. Good ol' Tom's hat-trick had woken up all England. "Gloucester's spinner had saved me," remembered Swanton – "and back in the Carlton Hotel a wire awaited me from the BBC: "Hearty congratulations. Everybody delighted. Triumphant commentaries."

The next England tour to South Africa was 10 southern summers and a whole world war later, by which time Swanton (after a harrowing war as a prisoner of the Japanese) had assumed his life's vocation as cardinal cricket eminence at the Daily Telegraph. By nice coincidence the first Test match of the 1948-49 series (to be won famously at Durban by Cliff Gladwin's last ball leg-by), like this week's, began on 16 December. Swanton later reckoned England's captain on that trip, Middlesex's Old Etonian George Mann (scion of the London brewing family) was "possibly England's best of any touring captain of my time".

Mann averaged 36 in the five Tests, scoring a century at Port Elizabeth as England won the series 2-0. It would be two years before Mrs Mann gave birth to their son and heir: they called him Simon. When England played Rhodesia at Bulawayo in January 1949 (George made a first ball duck) little could pater-to-be have foretold that almost three score years on his son would be arrested at the airport there and so, to all intents, terminate his own great overseas adventure.

George Mann was basically a lusty mid-order hitter – as was his own father Frank, Middlesex's Old Malvernian who, 27 years earlier, had also led England in South Africa. In his five Tests, Frank averaged 35 (highest score of 84) as England won the series 2-1. No Rhodesia diversions then.

Next Monday is the 121st anniversary of England's inaugural Test against South Africa, Port Elizabeth, 1888: captain, C Aubrey Smith (Charterhouse, Sussex and, later, Hollywood films). Smith was injured, so for the only other Test at Cape Town the amateur from Dulwich College, Monty Bowden, deputised. At 23, he remains England's youngest captain. He had made a duck in the first Test, now 25 in the second.

Monty stayed on at the end of the tour, dazzled by the gold rush. He went to Rhodesia with (Cecil, not Wilfred) Rhodes's Pioneer Column, then fell on hard times and was apparently smuggling liquor in February 1892 when he fell heavily from his cart and died at Umtali Hospital, a primitive first-aid station of mud huts. A friend with a revolver stood guard over the body to keep lions away before poor Monty could be buried in a coffin knocked together from whisky cases – a far stickier, and certainly more terminally conclusive, end than even Simon Mann thought he was facing well over a century later.

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