“At 9 o’clock we berthed and a few minutes later we were at the Cargen Hotel,” reads the diary of Ken Viljoen. “As the match was not due to start until 1.30 we took a walk into the town. Auckland certainly is a beautiful place.”
This was the first sight the South African cricketers got of New Zealand – and a happily stereotypical one at that. But while it had a warm personal touch, it had its own cricketing significance, as the arrival of New Zealand’s only non-English Test opposition until 1946.
The tour would be brief, consisting only of two three-day Tests, and a tour match against Auckland; and it would be fairly disheartening, with New Zealand receiving two heavy defeats – Herbie Taylor would call New Zealand’s best bowlers “medium class”. There have been brighter moments in New Zealand’s cricketing heritage.
One thing that did stand, though, was the spirit the series was played in: where recent New Zealand-South Africa clashes have had a few flashpoints, 1931-32 was described very differently by New Zealand Cricket Council secretary William Winsor:
“[T]he Africans prov[ed] themselves a side who played the game in a spirit of friendship and with a very high appreciation of the ideals of the game.”
It’s unlikely the NZCC were ever going to say anything else though – after the trial by uncertainty to get the South Africans over in the first place, the last thing they wanted was chase them away.
From what can be gathered, the idea for a tour began at least partially accidentally. On the 22nd of October, 1931, the New Zealand Herald tucked away a headline on page nine:
It was reporting on the comments of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, who had noted that the Australian board would need the best NSW players for the Test series against the touring South Africans; and that even a second XI tour to New Zealand would be met by opposition from Sydney clubs.
At around the same time, Wellington’s Evening Post featured a long piece by the anonymous ‘Not Out’ who believed that:
“it is a pity that the New Zealand Cricket Council did not make representations to the South African Board of Control, as well as the Australian Board of Control, to have the tour extended to include a visit to New Zealand.”
“Perhaps it is not yet too late to make representations on these lines to the controlling bodies concerned. […] A visit from overseas is needed in New Zealand this season, and if made by the South Africans it would be an exceptional attraction. Earlier action might have made the way easy for such a visit, especially as the South Africans are finishing their Australian tour in February.”
By early November, shipping schedules started changing things, with South Africa having to decide if they wanted to return home two weeks earlier or a month later than originally intended. The United Press Association suggested this was a great opportunity to encourage South Africa to come to New Zealand to fill those extra days.
When South Africa did well, beating a South Australian team featuring Clarrie Grimmett, it only encouraged the calls for them to append to their tour, as outlined in the Evening Post:
“It would be a pity, to see the South Africans travel so far without going a bit farther, especially as they are due to complete their Australian engagements long before the season ends and at a time admirably suited to New Zealand conditions and requirements.”
It was late November, on the 27th, that a cable was received from the South African board to give the team the all clear to tack New Zealand on their tour. But at this stage, it was very much only in pencil: much depended on other results, weather and whether it would be logistically possible. The fact that they were definitely coming wouldn’t be confirmed until virtually the day they left Australian shores.
And there were demands and politics to be met, too – first of which was the South African demand of a £1200 guarantee. According to the RBNZ inflation calculator, this would’ve equated to about $130,000 today, not insignificant for a tour of what ended up as nine playing days. It seems finance was a considerable concern for the South Africans – in June 1931, they’d sent an ultimatum to the Australian board after an exchange rate alteration made things more difficult.
Christmas Day showed things were warming up: William Winsor, the NZCC secretary, departed Christchurch for Australia, meeting with the South African team manager Sass Tandy to finalise arrangements for the tour. It also doubled its purpose, as Winsor met representatives of the Australian board regarding future trans-Tasman tours.
As the New Year of 1932 dawned, bilateral negotiations turned to internal bickering. Questions started to be asked about who got what – Wellington wanted a Test, Christchurch demanded inclusion, Auckland couldn’t be overlooked, and Dunedin felt they ought to be represented.
On the 12th of January, it was reported that:
“The president of the Otago Cricket Association, Mr Fraser, expressed approval of the Christchurch suggestion that the South African match should be against a South Island team instead of against Canterbury.
My Wycherley, vice-president, said that if Dunedin were not allotted a match the suggestion was a good one. There was no doubt that Otago would find several players who were entitled to rank ahead some of the ‘rank and file’ of the Canterbury team. ‘Otago has shown this year that it is entitled to far more consideration than it has been in the past,’ said Mr Wycherley, in conclusion.”
At around the same time, meanwhile, the Evening Post reported that:
“It was Wellington’s hope that the match to be played at the Basin Reserve would be a Test, and it came as a surprise to learn that the New Zealand Cricket Council was planning to have the one Test in the provisional itinerary played in Christchurch.
It has been urged in some quarters,” the Post noted, “ that, as no more than three matches are possible, each match should be made a Test, and another proposition is that the programme should be limited to two matches, each a four-day Test, whilst other suggestions include variations from the New Zealand Cricket Council’s proposed sequence of matches.”
(Philip Broad, the main administrative figure for Wellington, had only just recovered from a bout of illness when this article came out – his recovery perhaps the reason Wellington had much more of a voice in the final itinerary.)
Given these two stories were published within 24 hours of one another, it shows the level of miscommunication within cricketing circles: not only did they disagree on what should be played, they seemed to have very different understandings of what had been planned. It was announced on January 22nd that the itinerary would be, in the end, fairly simple: a three day tour game at Auckland, followed by Tests at Christchurch and Wellington. At 2pm the following day, the confirmation of the South Africans was received.
Almost immediately, Otago cried foul.
“[G]eneral dissatisfaction was expressed … It was considered that while a match at Auckland in preference to Dunedin might be justified upon financial grounds, no similar argument could be put forward in favour of a test match at Christchurch.
It was decided that Otago delegates next year should take up with the council the manner in which the claims of this province were entirely overlooked.”
It seems pretty clear that Otago were willfully ignoring the political necessity of having a Test at the headquarters of the NZCC. Auckland, however, were swinging into action: on February 2nd the Auckland Star noted that the players in contention to be selected were to train at Eden Park “on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday weekly.”
But things were still on a knife-edge: the final Test between South Africa and Australia was pushed a day earlier to give it a better chance of finishing in time, and William Winsor termed the tour “practically certain,” yet blankets were being used to dry the MCG, and the NSW board’s secretary seemed less than convinced the South Africans would make their steamer in time. (This was met by “ridicule” from the New Zealand officials.)
In the end, they made it. Leaving Melbourne at 4.30pm on Thursday, the team arrived in Sydney at 10.30 the following morning, giving them plenty of time to catch the Maunganui at 4pm. Travel moved slowly in the early ‘30s: leaving on Friday afternoon saw the team arrive in New Zealand on the Monday morning. Ken Viljoen wrote in his diary that the team played “deck games” – including “a bit of cricket with the passengers.” But arriving on land would have been a welcome relief; especially as they only had about four hours between berthing and being on-field at Eden Park.
South Africa had a near full-strength team: only Stephen Steyn and Edward van der Merwe couldn’t make it, Steyn later writing that “It has always been a regret that I was unable to go on to New Zealand”.
For Auckland, it was a chance to try and flex some muscle. Dad Weir, Jackie Mills, Cyril Alcott, Dick Rowntree, Giff Vivian, Mal Matheson and Don Cleverley all made appearances; six of them had or would earn Test caps, while Rowntree was a New Zealand representative in the 1920s.
Perhaps surprisingly, the New Zealand side for the first Test was named before the Auckland team. But it remained an important trial game: Vivian and Alcott, who were unavailable for the Christchurch Test, were playing for a slot at Wellington; while Don Cleverley was trying to justify his first Test call-up. Bill McCoy, meanwhile, had a chance to earn a cap with New Zealand facing a deep spin void in the midst of Bill Merritt’s ban.
Merritt, in fact, left New Zealand for Britain in the middle of the South African tour – “From a cricket point of view,” he commented, “I have many regrets that I shall not be playing against the South Africans next week.”
Back at Eden Park, it was Weir who won the toss and chose to bat. The South Africans, coming off a gruelling tour of Australia and only off the boat that morning, were in no real state to spend a day in the field. As Ken Viljoen conceded, “a more weary crowd of fellows you could not have found.” By the end of the day, he wrote, “We were all just about dead”.
The day had started well for South Africa – at one point Auckland sat at a very concerned 157-7. But things started to change; Mal Matheson put on a great knock from number nine, and Frederick Byerley hammered 77 at a run a minute, at one stage taking 17 from a Xen Balaskas over. To add to the brilliance of his knock, Byerley was only 21 and on First Class debut – bizarrely, he never played for Auckland again.
Come day two, come Herbie Taylor – probably South Africa’s first great batsman – and Bruce Mitchell – probably their second great batsman. Both made hundreds, with Mitchell very nearly carrying his bat. It turned the tables on Auckland, with only Cyril Alcott showing any form with the ball – his 7-75 off 38.3 overs probably booking his place in the second Test. The batsmen, though, floundered. Alcott again did well with a not-out 39, but the side collapsed for 134, setting South Africa barely a hundred to win.
“It is certainly Auckland’s lean season,” one newspaper noted. Jock Cameron, the South African captain, commented that “The game was played in a fine sporting spirit, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Viljoen’s diary, meanwhile, was less concerned with sporting results as the natural beauty of New Zealand, and travel schedules: “We were all very disappointed that we could not see more of Auckland”.
Christchurch, despite Otago’s protestations, remained a Test; but the side did include two Otago representatives, in Roger Blunt and Ted Badcock.
An interesting side note was that, for the first time, the NZCC took out insurance against rain (for the first day of play). Although fairly common elsewhere, it was newsworthy in this country – even if it does pale in significance when contrasted with the MCC’s alleged current insurance policy against the Queen passing during a Lord’s Test.
New Zealand’s captain Curly Page won the toss, electing to bat. They struggled early; it took New Zealand more than a quarter of an hour to score a run off the bat, Jack Kerr (in for an unavailable Jackie Mills) was dismissed in the opening overs, and Stewie Dempster’s score of eight took 45 minutes.
Blunt pushed his way to 23, while Dad Weir and Alby Roberts scored 46 and 54 respectively, and New Zealand started to pull their way to respectability. Viljoen noted that Dempster, Blunt, Roberts and Badcock were “class batsmen”. The end total of 293 seemed at least respectable.
A rest day spent at the Valley of Peace seemed to rejuvenate the tourists, and when South Africa lost their first wicket at 196, it would be fair to say the New Zealanders would’ve lost a fair slice of hope. Jim Christy made a ton, as did the on-song Bruce Mitchell, and middle order contributions from Jock Cameron, Eric Dalton and Denys Morkel took them to 451. Dropped catches didn’t help. Dad Weir made a gritty 74 not-out, but the New Zealanders collapsed to 146 on day three, leaving South Africa victors by an innings and 12.
Some years later, Weir wrote that:
“I can remember that we lost wickets so regularly that I had to farm the bowling as much as possible, and when we had only a few wickets to fall I hit out in an attempt to give South Africa at least some sort of total to get, but I failed to succeed.”
South African captain Jock Cameron quickly snaffled himself a couple of stumps, passing one to Denys Morkel, his deputy.
The South Africans went their different ways to spend the rest of the day, with the game having finished at 2.45pm, and Ken Viljoen wrote that his day finished with fish and chips in his captain’s room.
It was the final Test match for Herbie Taylor, and his score of nine was a quiet way to go out. Although he followed the team to Wellington, he didn’t play, and wouldn’t take a Test field again.
Before the second Test, the South Africans also met Lord Bledisloe, the New Zealand Governor General, but “caught the Governor unawares” when they arrived ahead of schedule.
After the second day’s play at the Basin Reserve, a Town Hall function was held by the Wellington College Old Boys cricket club. Herbie Taylor announced his retirement, but nonetheless gave the “lecturette” he had agreed to (discussing the six strokes required of a master batsman), followed by talks by his captain Jock Cameron, and several New Zealanders including Curly Page and Stewie Dempster.
Before the night was out, the South Africans presented Taylor with a clock; as well as presenting signed gifts to their captain and manager. Taylor would soon head off by motorcar, heading to Auckland via some sightseeing in Rotorua, and leaving for the United Kingdom.
While the Wellington Test saw a better first innings show from New Zealand – Giff Vivian making a century, Dempster 64, and Ian Cromb 51 – the team again was heavily beaten, with Vivan’s 73 repeating Weir as the only contribution in a second innings collapse. As an Auckland Star headline put it, South Africa were “Definitely superior”. The only upside was the excellent £862 gate taking for the three days.
Vivian and Viljoen swapped caps; Cyril Alcott swapped his with Xen Balaskas, and his tie with Neville Quinn. Don Cleverley, meanwhile, earned a friendship:
“I was the colt of the New Zealand team and Ken [Viljoen] was the South African colt. After that we corresponded at Christmas for many years, and I was very sad at his passing.”
So the South Africans departed, with Herbie Taylor commenting in the press that New Zealand’s fielding was substandard, their bowling average, and batting needing improvement.
“If the bowling and fielding are improved I do not see any reason why New Zealand should not take her place in international class with the other cricketing countries of the world,” observed Mr Taylor. “Until this improvement takes place, however, I don’t see how she can.”
For the rest of the South African team, the journey back to Australia was filled with deck cricket and attempts to learn the Maori language. Viljoen writes of a rather one-sided affair on the cricket front:
“After lunch we received a challenge from passengers and officers to play a cricket match. They only succeeded in getting Archie Frew [a journalist covering the tour] out, while we had to retire with individual scores of 21. We won by an innings and 100 runs, and then invited all the ladies to have a knock. Every time they hit a ball it counted five, but after 15 of them had been in we still won by 10 runs.”
For the New Zealanders, there was no last tour game in Perth, and life returned to normal. Giff Vivian had the honour of having a bat of his choosing presented to him by Governor General Lord Bledisloe, but little else was made of the series once it had finished.
A handful of players – Roger Blunt, Cyril Alcott, George Dickinson, and Ian Cromb – wouldn’t play Test cricket again, but a number kept in touch with their newly made South African friends, and some would even run into each other again in administrative roles in the future.
“We have had a most wonderful trip, and we are all sorry to leave,” commented the South African manager, Sass Tandy. “There is no doubt that the New Zealanders play the right type of cricket, but they are lacking a little in big match cricket, as was the case with the South Africans a few years ago. There is no need for New Zealand’s cricketers to be disheartened.
I think your crowds very, very fine,” Tandy said. “They were certainly much larger than we were led to expect, but I was rather surprised that there were not more women at the matches. Those are the people you want to get educated up to the game.”
Despite Tandy’s belief that there was a desire for future tours, the two teams wouldn’t play each other again until 1952-53, when South Africa again toured for two Tests; winning one, and drawing the other.
But despite New Zealand’s failings, and the brevity of the tour, Cyril Alcott sums it all up best: “a great bunch of chaps”.