Rain-ruined Tournament remembered

As the 1912 Triangular Tournament squelched to its damp and dismal end (even for an England side that finished as champions and Ashes winners), the reaction from the press and cricket supporters was as lukewarm as the weather.

The Daily Telegraph observed, “Nine Tests provide a surfeit of cricket, and contests between Australia and South Africa are not a great attraction to the British public”

Wisden agreed: “…the experiment is not likely to be repeated for many years to come – perhaps not in this generation.”

All this was so different from the hopes and ambitions; Arunabha Sengupta wrote, “On paper it was a dream floated on rosy wings. The English and Australian teams glittered with stars…and South Africa had grown from strength to strength in the last decade, with its battery of googly bowlers.”

Things didn’t quite work out like that – and not just because of the weather.  For all their stars, the Australian camp was not a happy one; captain Clem Hill had a dispute with fellow selector Peter McAllister that ended in a fist-fight, even before the squad could be chosen.

Hill was – rather surprisingly – allowed to continue as skipper in the remainder of the home season but he was one of a half-dozen players that did not make the trip to England.  The Australian Board would not concede to the players’ commercial and administrative demands and six of those ‘glittering stars’ – Clem Hill, Victor Trumper, Warwick Armstrong, ‘Tibby’ Cotter, Hanson Carter and Vernon Ransford – refused to join the tour party. Depleted of these stars, the Australian team never quite got going and it was only the decline in the other touring side that enabled the Aussies to win some games and contest the final.

The South Africans ran into trouble when their wrist spinners, so effective in the matting wickets of their country, struggled to have the hoped-for impact on the grassy (and wet) pitches of England – compounded by the fact that opposition batters were mastering the art of countering the googly. Indeed, the draw against Notts at Trent Bridge  – in which they were arguably the better-placed side when the decisive rains fell – was the only completed game in which they avoided heavy defeat.

All the more ironic, then, that it was in South Africa that the idea for the Triangular Tournament was conceived and promoted. The driving force was a wealthy businessman and politician, Sir Abe Bailey whose enthusiasms outside work and politics were horse racing and cricket.

Bailey was an anglophile and a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist who, just five years after the end of the second Boer War, campaigned for the idea that the three test-playing nations should combine for a triangular tournament, to be staged in Britain. For all his passion for cricket – he had bank-rolled South African tours to England and Australia and financed the Aussies stopping over in South Africa on their way home from an Ashes tour – his was a practical venture from both a business and a political standpoint.

Cementing relationships fractured by the Boer Wars would both restore and re-invigorate the Empire and ensure that the lucrative markets of Britain and its colonies were open to his business enterprises.

In 1907, his idea was that such a tournament could be staged in 1909 when the Australians were due to be in England for an Ashes campaign. 

W E Denison, a past President of Notts CCC, co-sponsored a motion to a meeting of the First-Class counties and the MCC which said that the counties “…are prepared, subject to the consideration of a detailed scheme, to assist the MCC if the MCC see fit to invite an eleven from Australia and from South Africa in 1909 for the purposes of an Imperial cricket contest”.

Wrangling continued through 1908 and not everyone was impressed by Denison and his backers; The Observer wrote: “These counties in their perfunctory dabbling with a great question endangered a great cricket friendship by coquetry with a whim of a millionaire” (shades of Allen Stanford?).

Despite some high-level support – C B Fry and Lord Harris among them – this piggy-backing on an existing tour found little favour and was rejected by the Australian Board.

Thus thwarted, Abe Bailey’s next proposal was that both England and Australia should go to South Africa at the end of the 1909 Ashes series and the tournament be staged there, presumably on matting wickets. Very quickly, this petered out with even the South African Cricket Association (SACA) being ‘quite content to wait a year or two.’

One of his objectives was, though, met with the first meeting of the Imperial Cricket Conference, a body which lasted until 1965 (outliving the Empire) when it became the International Cricket Conference; only in 1987 did the governing body for what was by then a truly global sport become the International Cricket Council (ICC).

The inaugural meeting of the Imperial Cricket Conference agreed that “…an effort should be made to have the first Triangular Cricket Contest in England in 1912 subject to South Africa waiving its claim to come alone that year…”

After a bit of subtle and not-so-subtle lobbying for other grounds (Edgbaston probably had the most reason to feel slighted), the ICC allocated the nine tests to Lord’s and The Oval, Old Trafford, Headingley, and – naturally – to Trent Bridge. 

Patrick Ferriday’s book, Before the Lights Went Out, details the cultural, political and cricketing contexts for the series and reviews all the matches played. He reports Aubrey Faulkner as saying of the Trent Bridge Test, “We certainly had the better of the draw but this was scant consolation for the two very severe defeats we suffered in the two previous encounters.” What might he have said if he’d known that more losses were to follow?

Once the Tournament had dripped and drizzled its way to a conclusion, the post-mortems and reviews were (as we’ve seen) largely unanimous in their verdicts.  It might have been conceived as both a cricketing treat and a sporting validation of the Empire but in the end, whatever Sir Abe Bailey’s ambitions, the British weather and the British crowds gave their own verdict.

As well as hosting the seventh Test, Nottingham’s involvement in the tournament included John Moss from Clifton. He had limited experience as a player at the highest level – he played just one First-Class game (for Notts v MCC) – but was one of the best-known umpires in First-Class cricket, standing in 666 First-Class fixtures between 1894 and 1932. He also stood in three of the nine matches in the Triangular Tournament of 1912 – but not at his home ground of Trent Bridge – and eight other Tests. In the final, timeless, 1912 decider between England and Australia at The Oval, Moss gave Warren Bardsley run out by Jack Hobbs, a decision hotly disputed by the Australian team and some of the few souls that had braved the weather. John Moss

Despite the unequal nature of most of the matches and the overall gloom, the Tournament did throw up some milestones.

In the opening game at Old Trafford, Australia’s spinner Jimmy Matthews took a hat-trick in each South Africa innings – all on the same day – a feat still unequalled in all Tests.

When the weather-worn roadshow reached Lord’s, King George V was one of the hardy souls to brave the cold and damp to watch Australia again beat the South Africans – the first time that a reigning monarch had attended a Test.

Tarnished by rain and some unequal contests, the 1912 Triangular Tournament cast a cloud over any future multi-nation competitions until the World Cups of the 1970s and, eventually, the Asian Test Championship (of which only two have been staged) and the 2010 meetings in England of Australia and Pakistan.

More than a century later, South Africa are back in the UK to face the home country; Trent Bridge is not one of the host grounds – Lord’s, The Oval and Old Trafford have that honour – but we can look back 110 years to their first appearance here and hope that they enjoy better weather, and better fortune, than they did in 1912.

August 2022

A copy of Before the Lights Went Out – The 1912 Triangular Tournament, by Patrick Ferriday, is in the Trent Bridge Library.