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The history of Wits Cricket by longtime chairman, Prof Bruce Murray

- Prof Bruce Murray

The legendary Prof Bruce Murray agreed to let us publish his fantasic speech on the History of Wits Cricket at a recent Cricket Alumni function. Enjoy.

                                       History of Wits Cricket

 When I was invited to speak at a special cricket dinner designed to bring together as many former players as possible alongside the current crop of players to celebrate the existence and achievements of Wits cricket, I decided it would be best to provide a brief review of the history of Wits cricket, highlighting the particular contributions of different eras, and placing all of you and your achievements in the wider context of the overall history of the club.  For our knowledge of the history of Wits cricket we are all deeply indebted to Jonty Winch, the first sports officer responsible for cricket, who in 1990 published his book Wits Sport: An Illustrated History of Sport at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. The book was a tour-de-force—it covered all the sports at Wits, for its material it ransacked the archives and the local and student press, and collected an amazing array of illustrations.  The section on Wits cricket is excellent.

But there is always something new to discover or realise in history, and what I woke up to in preparing this talk is the cricket club is the oldest club in the university.  Wits University was founded in 1922, but it had a number of predecessors in Johannesburg going back to 1904.  The Transvaal Technical Institute was founded in that year, and it was followed by the Transvaal University College in 1906, by the South African School of Mines and Technology in 1910, by the University College, Johannesburg, in 1920, and finally by Wits itself in 1922, with the campus moving from Plein Square in downtown Johannesburg to the current main site of Milner Park.  Although it had no fields, the Transvaal Technical Institute did make some provision for sport, setting up an Athletics Club which comprised 3 sections--football (by which was meant soccer), cricket and tennis. In the following year, 1905, football and cricket were organised as clubs under the auspices of the Athletics Committee of the newly formed Students’ Representative Council. Soccer was soon displaced by rugby, and only restored as a club in 1921, thus making cricket the oldest sports club in the University.  If we had had our act together—to be more precise, if I had been fully aware--we would have celebrated the club’s centenary in 2005, four years ahead of rugby.

The unfortunate thing is that, by comparison with rugby, the cricket club did not have much of a history prior to the foundation of Wits. From the outset, rugby participated in league competition, whereas cricket engaged in occasional social games.   The great advantage that rugby possessed was that it was given access to the fields of the Wanderers Club, adjacent to Park Railway Station, enabling it to participate in regular leagues and establish itself as the premier sport at the School of Mines.  Three teams were entered into leagues, and in 1913 the School of Mines  was admitted to the Pirates Grand Challenge.  By contrast cricket, without its own field, could only resort to occasional friendlies.  Even after the foundation of the University, and access to a dirt field and matting wicket, cricket remained something of a ‘cinderalla’ sport prior to World War II. 

As became manifest after the foundation of the University, there remained major structural disadvantages in the way of cricket—the first of them being the December/January vacation in the middle of the cricket season  The first two attempts to enter league cricket, in the 1923/4 and 1924/5 seasons, ended in ignominy, with the club having to withdraw from the league as it could not field a team over the vacation.  Even when the club did manage to field a team, it was often gravely weakened by the vacation.

A second major structural disadvantage was the university’s prohibition on Sunday sport.  The club was limited to Saturday afternoon cricket, but the strongest leagues were contested on a Sunday. The result that serious players often preferred to join outside clubs, generally the old boys clubs of their former schools, keeping Wits cricket weak.

A third major  problem was that of of facilities. During the 1920s and 1930s  several attempts were made to plant a grass outfield, and there was no ground to play on as when this first happened in the mid-1920s--the game was consequently dropped from the ‘list of sporting activities’ at Wits.   For the 1928/9 season Wits cricket resurfaced, and managed to end third in the Saturday Second League.  In the 1932/3 season Wits won the Chauncey Cup, and produced its first provincial player, the bowler Tony Gyngell, a Transvaal regular for a few seasons.  But the problem of the ground  then obtruded again—in 1935 a turf wicket was laid, but it was not until 1938 that a grass oval was ready, the lack of rain postponing its planting.  In the interim the club complained it had to ‘hire a backyard’ for its home matches.  In 1938/9, playing its first full season on grass, the club won promotion to the Lionel Phillips Reserve League A, finishing second in that league in 1939/40, when league play ceased for the remainder of World War II.  The star player was the batsman Eric Norton, who in 1952/3 toured Australia with Jack Cheetham’s Springboks. 

Things looked up after the war. In 1948 the University Council finally lifted its ban on Sunday sport, and Wits cricket was able to come into its own.  In 1945/6 Wits entered the senior Lionel Phillips League, with games played over consecutive Saturday afternoons, and in 1948/9 Wits was admitted to the Transvaal League, played over a full Sunday.     

The first senior competition Wits won was the Lionel Phillips League in 1953/4.  The team included Joe Pamensky, later a President of the South African Cricet Union (1986-8) and now an honorary life president of Cricket South Africa in recognition of his life-long services to cricket administration, the rugby stars Freddie Herbst and Clive Ulyate—Ulyate was one of the finest all-round sportsmen produced by Wits, representing Transvaal at cricket and South Africa at rugby—the captain Ian Morrison, who captained SA Universities for 3 successive seasons (1954-6), and the President was the legendary Walter Milton, who we celebrate at the beginning of each season with the Walter Milton memorial game.  Four years later, 1957/8, Wits won the Transvaal Premier League for the first time, clinching the title in the last game against Jeppe Old Boys.  Wits scraped a first innings win with the last pair at the wicket, and then chased 148 for an outright to make sure of winning the league.  The game  ended in a tie in the dark.   That was enough to give Wits the title.  Fritz Koch was the captain and  John Landau the scorer. 

I would have watched the Wits teams of the early and mid fifties.  As a schoolboy I helped operate the scoreboard at the Wanderers Oval and then the Wanderers Stadium for club games, graduating to press scorer for the first Tests at the Stadium, against England in 1956/7, where I joined John Landau. John scored for the SABC and the legendary cricket commentator, Charles Fortune, while I scored for the newspaper correspondents. One of the English correspondents, as I remember, used to spend the day on the golf course gathering the gossip on the English players that would provide his headlines, and at the end of the day he would plonk himself down next to me and say: ‘Tell me my boy, what happened here today’.

The fifties were the hey day of club cricket in the Transvaal—John Arlott, the BBC commentator, reckoned the Transvaal League was the strongest in the Commonwealth.   All the top players competed, there was extensive press coverage, and people came to watch.  With no TV, no Sunday movies, no Sunday shopping, the only Sunday entertainment was cricket—or in the winter, hockey and baseball, games which many cricketers played  in order to keep their eyes in.  By the end of the fifties Wits had three teams entered in the Saturday and Sunday league competitions thanks to the acquisition of a second field.

The other major competition Wits cricket played in was the annual SA Universities Cricket Week, first staged in 1947 and first won by Wits in 1951, when the tournament was first held in Johannesburg.      

At the end of the fifties and beginning of the sixties, very much the star player at Wits was Eddie Barlow, like Ulyate a great all-round sportsman, playing rugby for Transvaal at center and cricket for South Africa, and as a cricketer he was one of the world’s greatest all-rounders, an aggressive opening batsman, a highly effective medium-paced bowler, and a brilliant slip fielder.  At Wits he began his cricketing life as a wicket-keeper, on one occasion stumping John Waite, the Springbok wicket- keeper, for a duck, but was soon opening the bowling attack.  In 1959/60 Wits ended second in the Premier League, with Barlow topping the batting averages on 29,32, and Ray White second on 25,69.  In December 1961 Barlow became the first Wits student and player to win his Springbok cricket colours when he took the field against New Zealand at the Kingsmead, the first of 40 Tests.  Ray White, for his part, later went on to play for Transvaal and later still to serve as President of the United Cricket Board of South Africa (1998-2000).

The sixties was very much the era of John Landau as chairman of Wits cricket—he was chairman from 1961 to 1967— with its highlight being the 1963/4 season when Wits won the Premier League and were joint winners of the SA Universities tournament in 1963.  The stars were the all-rounder and captain Don Mackay-Coghill, who developed into a highly successful opening bowler for Transvaal, Tony Vorster, with a league batting average of 45,7, and Wilfred ‘Goofy’ Reich with 60 league wickets at 17,37. In the next season Wits ended up second to Wanderers, whom they had to beat outright in the final game, at Wits, to retain the league title.  Landau ordered a damp wicket, and the ground staff responded  by watering the wicket on Saturday morning, producing a swampy wicket for the next day.  The only way the Wanderers players could be persuaded to proceed with the game was by using a different, unprepared wicket, and they duly thrashed the Wits team.

In what must be a record, Peter de Vaal, Transvaal opening batsman and left-arm spinner, played as a student for Wits for twelve seasons (1964-77)—he studied accounting--and was awarded a full blue in eight successive seasons (1970-77).  In 1971 he became the second Wits student player to be selected for South Africa, but he never took the field as a Springbok as the 1971/2 South African tour of Australia was cancelled following the Vorster Government’s refusal to allow the inclusion of any black players—in the Cabinet’s decision the team had to be ‘slegs ’n blanke span’.  The 21-year long exclusion of South Africa from Test cricket had begun.   In De Vaal’s  time Wits’ main successes were at intervarsity, where they shared the title in 1966 and 1968 and won it outright in 1970 and 1974.  In 1966 Mackay-Coghill was captain, and he along with Harold Hester and Elton Chatterton played in the SAU side that defeated Transvaal outright.  In 1968 Albie During, who played for Transvaal, was selected SAU captain—he was later to become CEO of Transvaal cricket. In 1970 Pat Flanagan, Transvaal all-rounder for more than a decade, was captain, and was likewise selected as captain for the SAU XI.  In 1974 De Vaal was captain, and was also selected as SAU captain.  In league cricket Wits was generally competitive, but won only one senior competition—with De Vaal as captain they won the Transvaal League Cup in 1973/4, a competition for the top six teams of the previous season.

An unsettled period for Wits cricket followed under the captaincy and chairmanship of Neville Wright, who played for Transvaal. In 1978 he led Wits to victory at the annual intervarsity—for only the second time Wits scored 5 straight wins at the tournament—and Wright and Noel Day both played for the SAU side that beat Western Province, Wright scoring 97 on his first class debut and Day 55 as SAU chased down 500 runs in their second innings.  But in league cricket Wits generally struggled, ending last in the Premier League in both 1980/1 and 1981/2.

Two major developments helped turn the fortunes of Wits league cricket around—I emphasise league cricket as the club  never again rivalled the SAU achievements of the Wits teams of the 1970s, never again winning the tournament. The first development was the foundation of a professional Sports Administration, with John Baxter appointed as head in 1980, with a small staff of sports officers to assist clubs manage their affairs.  The sports officer responsible for cricket was Jonty Winch, who proved outstanding.  The second development  was the arrangement the Transvaal Cricket Council entered into with the English county Kent whereby a promising young professional might spend an off-season or two playing and coaching in the Transvaal.  That young professional  was allocated to Wits, the club of fellow youngsters.  The first of these Kent professionals to arrive was the all-rounder Richard Ellison, whose batting and bowling—he headed the Wits averages in both—and overall guidance helped Wits to fifth place in the 1982/3 Premier League.  He returned for a second season in 1983/4.     

It was at this lucky juncture that I joined the Wits cricket club as chairman, having been recruited by the Sports Administration intent on getting  academic staff more involved in Wits sport.  A word about myself.  I came to Wits in 1970 as senior lecturer in History, having lectured previously at Rhodes University, where I had been an undergraduate in the late fifties.  While lecturing at Rhodes I played cricket for the Grahamstown team, Albany, in the Albany league, a country districts competition. I was a specialist slip fielder and specialist No 11 batsman—it was my job to block out for a draw when all else had been lost, a task I greatly enjoyed.  The opposition would rub their hands with glee when they saw me coming into bat, only to become frustrated whenever my partner and I held out, with the bowling getting wilder and wilder as a result, so that one did not even have to block, simply letting the balls sail harmlessly by. At Wits I became organiser and captain of the staff cricket team.  It was when I retired from staff cricket that I joined the student club as chairman.

My first season as chairman, 1983/4, was a stunning success for the club, thanks not to me but to Richard Ellison.  My only contribution was during the November exam period when I managed to persuade the well-groomed Dean of Law, Louise Tager, of the immense importance of cricket to the reputation of the University and that it was essential to grant an extension in one of the exams to a couple of our players as they could not play on Sunday if they had to study for an exam on Monday.  Wits famously won the ‘double’ that season, capturing both the Sunday League (limited overs) and the Dion Premier League (played over a Saturday afternoon and a Sunday).  This was a unique achievement—no other club had won the ‘double’ before—and it was exactly twenty years after Wits had last won the Premier League.  It was a win against Zoo Lake at Zoo Lake that sealed the Premier League with a game to spare.  The game was played on matting, as the turf wicket was still wet after rain, and the Wits batsmen lived in fear and dread of facing the West Indian speedster Hartley Allayne in such conditions.  He slipped and fell when bowling his first ball and refused to continue.  After the game the scorer came up to me and said the boys had invited her to join them in the showers—I retorted she was an adult capable of making her own decisions, and with that she was off in a flash.  Ellison’s all-round contribution was huge—547 runs at an average of 68.3 and 44 wickets at an average of 10.2 in the Premier League—but more than that he inspired a new sense of self-belief in the team, resulting in some good contributions from a range of players.  Craig Benadie provided excellent captaincy, Raj Patel (tragically killed in a motor car accident the following year), Andy Rosselli and Bruce McBride all excelled with the bat, and Paul Botha and Steve Lurie with the ball.   McBride as wicket-keeper and the leg-spinner Kevin Kerr both made appearances for Transvaal. 

This was a lucky point for Wits cricket during this period.  A number of our players were knocking on the door for provincial selection for at least the Transvaal B team, but never quite made it.  I once got rapped over the knuckles for complaining that Paul Botha was being badly treated, and Ellison resented not being given a chance for Transvaal.  But the fact is that Transvaal cricket was immensely strong—this was the age of the mean machine—and the only way Wits could excel was by having our best players turn out for Wits  rather than Transvaal. 

For the next season, 1984/5, there was no Ellison, who had graduated to the England team, going on to play a central role in England winning the Ashes in 1985, and he was replaced by the Kent fast bowler Chris Penn.  The captain was Bruce McBride.  At one stage Wits was in the running to win the treble, with the introduction of the Benson and Hedges day/night limited overs competition, but in the end had to settle for a share of the Sunday League title with Wanderers A, and runners-up in both the Premier League and the Benson and Hedges.

At this juncture the Kent connection was replaced by the Warwickshire connection, with the medium-pacer Dean Hoffman serving as coach in 1985/6, succeeded by another medium-pacer Tim Munton in 1986/7. Munton followed in Ellison’s footsteps, going on to play for England, thereby enabling Wits cricket to claim a hand in producing two English internationals.  Munton claimed a hand in producing a future Proteas Test and ODI player, Steve Elworthy, who began developing his fast-bowling skills at Wits.  Steve is now Marketing Manager for the England and Wales Cricket Board.  In league cricket under the Warwickshire coaches, with Bruce McBride as captain, Wits remained highly competitive, but lacked the consistency to win any titles.  Henry Parrymore and Paul Botha impressed with the ball, and McBride with the bat. 

One of my tasks as chairman was to accompany the Wits team as manager for the annual intervarsity tournament in December.  My last was in Bloemfontein in 1986, an event which has entered the folklore of Wits cricket.  I drove so as to have a car available during the tournament.  The team travelled by overnight train, departing Sunday evening and arriving early Monday morning, just hours before their first game.  Late on the Sunday afternoon they secured an exciting outright victory over Wanderers at the stadium—they won off the second last ball of the game when a snicked ball was fumbled in the slips, with four or five Wits players thereupon falling over the ball and claiming a catch.  There was no time to shower if they were to catch the train.  They were prohibited  from carrying much by way of liquor onto the train but resorted to smuggling the stuff, mainly cheap stuff like Old Brown sherry, in Colgate shampoo bottles.  The result was chaos and not much by way of sleep.  When the train arrived in Bloemfontein early in the morning Nick Rhodes toppled off it onto the tracks rather than the platform, and had to be hauled  up.  He and two others were required to undergo a fitness test before the selection of the team to play UCT—as he could not run straight (he zig-zagged all over the place) he was failed, whereupon he burst into tears. At lunch time he was found fast asleep under a tree. Not surprisingly, Wits lost the game.      

After the 1986/7 season I retired as chairman in order to take up a visiting fellowship at Queen’s University in Canada with Rob Sharman, production manager in the Wits theatre and a Premier League umpire, succeeding as chairman, a position he held for the next 11 years.   As chairman Rob devoted an enormous amount of his time and energy to Wits cricket, which truly enjoyed a golden age under his direction.

One of the most glorious days of his early tenure was a Friday at the end of the 1988 Stellenbosch intervarsity when Wits, captained by fast bowler Ian Benning, faced a Free State team that included the top three batsmen from the province’s Currie Cup team, among them Hansie Cronje.  Batting first Free State fell to the bowling of Richard Snell, Steven Jack and Trevor Webster, with Webster taking 5/16.  Facing a target of only 56 Wits proceeded to wrap up the game an hour before lunch.  Early in the Free State innings, with the score at 29/1, their coach, Corrie van Zyl,  had headed off to the butcher to collect the meat for the lunch-time braai, only to find no players around when he returned.  He went ballistic when he found out from Bruce McBride, the Wits coach, what had happened—it was also a nightmare for the tournament organizers, who always dreaded early finishes on the final day, the day of the tournament dinner.   The Wits squad was duly invited to join Nick Finneron, the official representative of the sponsors, NedFin Bank, for a cheese and wine lunch under the oaks at the Lanzerac Hotel.  My sources diverge at this point—Rob Sharman remembers they all went along to the Lanzerac while some players remember remaining in the change-room attached to their fines meeting for the next five hours. Both make good stories. 

In 1993/4 Wits again won the double, with James Teeger as captain and St John’s College schoolmaster, Peter Habberton, as coach—Habberton is currently Regional Director of the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa..  Rob’s chairmanship coincided with the return of South Africa to official international cricket, and four of his players proceeded to represent South Africa, a proud record for any club.  Mandy Yachad and Richard Snell were included in the first-ever South African team to visit India—this was the historic short tour in November 1991 to contest a 3 match ODI series, with Rob Sharman and myself as part of the South African support group—and Richard went on to represent South Africa at its first-ever World Cup, in Australia in 1992, and to make his Test debut in South Africa’s first ever Test against the West Indies.  Steven Jack, Richard’s partner in opening the Wits bowling in the early 1990s, and Adam Bacher, also went on to play Test match cricket for South Africa.

Another major accomplishment of Rob’s was the institution of the Walter Milton memorial game, an annual tussle between the Wits Old Boys and Wits students to commemorate the club’s president back in the fifties, who was also president of the Hockey Club for some thirty years and president of Convocation..  The Old Boys were immediately attracted to the game as a mechanism for bringing them back together again and reliving the past—not least the fines meetings--and it is remarkable how loyal the players of the eighties and nineties proved to the game—so much so that a second game had to be set up to cater for all those who wanted to play.  The thrill for the students was the opportunity to play against the stars of yester-year—some even got a kick out of Steven Jack hitting them deep into the soccer stadium. 

In the late 1990s the standard of Wits cricket fell off badly.. With Wits suddenly languishing near the bottom of the Gauteng Premier League, Rob retired (exhausted) and I took over for a second spell as chairman. My sports officer was Ebrahim  Boomgaard, who attributed the decline of Wits cricket to the onset of professionalism.   Boomgaard was engaged in recruiting from the schools, and according to him the perception prevailing among young cricketers was that they did not require a tertiary education as they could make a living from cricket.   When I last saw Graham Smith a couple of years ago I half-jocularly asked whether, now that he had retired from cricket, he regretted not having accepted the bursary we offered him  to study and play cricket at Wits once he matriculated from KES, he simply laughed. 

To help restore Wits cricket to its former glory I took two fundamental steps on resuming as chairman.  The first--with the crucial assistance of Joe Pamensky--was to negotiate in 1999 a generous sponsorship deal with the stationers Croxley providing for bursaries, playing kit and scoreboards.  Croxley remained our sponsors until the end of last season.

The second step was to persuade the former Springbok and then TV cricket commentator, Lee Irvine, to coach the senior players at Wits, which he did for the next five seasons.  Lee, who played for South Africa as wicketkeeper/batsman in the famous 1970 series against Australia, the last before isolation, was convinced the talent was available to revive Wits cricket.  There were the likes of wicketkeeper/batsman Matthew Street, who had captained the South African Under 19 team at the 1998 World Cup, Ryan Sierra, an aggressive batsman who had played for South African Schools, and Gareth Flusk, a left-arm seamer who represented Gauteng B.  Next season Street, the all rounder John Buxton-Forman, and Proteas fast bowler David Terbrugge all represented the Highveld Strikers.   Terbrugge, who enrolled at the Wits Business School, played two Tests for South Africa while at Wits.

Under Lee, who offered his charges excellent technical advice.and who was also a great motivator, Wits certainly became competitive again, qualifying for the semi-final of the Premier League, which had been divided into two sections, losing at that stage to Rand Afrikaans University.  Lee’s ambition of winning the Premier League continued to prove elusive.  He had particularly high hopes for the 2003/4 season but it was not to be, in part because Wits players were regularly called up for provincial duty.  Matthew Street, Matthew Harris, Siraj Conrad, Patrick Thompson, and Blake Snijman all caught the eye of the selectors, and Garnett Kruger, the Proteas fast bowler who joined the club and who is now its coach, only played a couple of games for Wits due to provincial and international commitments followed by injury.  ‘I believe having five provincial players and an international at one time is a real achievement for the WCC’, Lee commented, but added “This success ultimately proved to be something of a double-edged sword.’

In a game of musical chairs Rob Sharman took over as chairman for two seasons again following my retirement from Wits in 2001—I was elevated to club president—and Lee was succeeded by his son, Nick, as player-coach, followed by Chris Tomsek in 2006/7.  That season Wits finally won another senior title, defeating Old Edwardians in the final of the one-day competition

After the one-day triumph of 2006/7 it was all bad news for Wits cricket with Wits  being relegated a season later, mistakenly I believe, to the B section of the Premier League because of its consistently poor performance in that league. Policy up until now was that university teams should not be relegated—they were too valuable as ‘nurseries’ and were particularly vulnerable to swings of fortune given their ever-changing composition—but the new priority was to secure the place of teams of colour in the A section.  That Wits fielded a mixed race team, that it was in the process of internal transformation, counted not at all; it was simply deemed a historically white or privileged club.  Ironically, for a number of seasons Wits provided the Highveld Lions with their only home-bred African players in Eddie Leie and Pumi Matshekwe.

On the question of transformation it must be confessed the club’s record was patchy.

Since my joining the club as chairman in 1983 the university had undergone a massive transformation—in 1983 the student body was overwhelmingly white and middle class, today it is overwhelmingly black.  The cricket club was slow to reflect this transformation.  In the 1980s there were occasional players of colour such as Raj Patel (not a Wits student) and Danny Dada.  By the time I became chairman for a second time there were three or four players of colour in the !st XI set-up, but there was no major recruiting programme to swell that number.     There has been a major change since—with Cricket South Africa and University Sport South Africa laying  down the criteria for transformation at intervarsities. 

  Ever since being relegated Wits has languished in the B section, finding it difficult to recruit talented players.  There have been some notable exceptions, such as Nono Pongolo.and Farhaan Sayanvala, but recruiting has been difficult.  Recent student protests have also helped make life difficult, disrupting the cricket season.  Last season the 1st XI won the Gauteng T20 competition—hearty congratulations on that—but were a disappointing 7th in the Premier League B.  We cannot continue like this.   So far Adrian Carter and his team have done an excellent job in reviving the fortunes of a number of Wits sports, notably rugby, and it is time for cricket to be added to the list, with  Garnett Kruger as coach.

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