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Great Test Matches XII : South Africa v. New Zealand, Johannesburg 1953
by Gulu Ezekiel
Nov 28, 2008
The Johannesburg Test match of December 1953 produced drama and pathos rarely equaled before or since in a sporting event. The result of the match was rarely in doubt from the second day onwards. South Africa were in the ascendant and would win the series 4-0 against New Zealand who had yet to taste victory in the Test arena after nearly 25 years of trying.

But results were inconsequential considering the emotion generated by a tragic accident back home which plunged the gallant Kiwis--and one man in particular-into grief. The first Test at Durban had been won by an innings by the home side but now after the first day's play of the second Test, hopes rose in the New Zealand camp. Their modest seam bowling attack of Bob Blair, John Reid, Guy Overton, Tony MacGibbon and Geoff Rabone had pegged back the mighty Springbok batting to leave them struggling at 259 for eight.

It was a happy Kiwi camp that celebrated Christmas on the rest day the next day. The buoyant mood was to be short-lived but not for cricketing reasons. News began filtering in of a train crash back home on Christmas Eve. The death toll was terrible-151 had perished in New Zealand's worst accident.

To make things worse for the stunned cricketers so far from home, one of the victims was the young fiancee of Blair. A shattered team with Blair left behind at the hotel to grieve his loss-it was announced that he had withdrawn from the Test-made their way back to the ground on Boxing Day to resume the match, though with heavy hearts. Flags of both teams were flying at half-mast in mourning and though a full house had turned up, the tragedy was not far from everyone's minds. For the tourists, something in the circumstances as mundane as a cricket match meant they could hardly be expected to have their minds on the match. Further, a complete list of casualties had not yet reached them and this only heightened their concerns.

Captain Rabone tried to rally his troops at a meeting, asking them to concentrate on the cricket. It would not be easy. Their top batsman Bert Sutcliffe remembered "a sort of 'what are we doing here anyway'"feeling in the ranks.

The Springbok innings was wrapped up for 271 and the Kiwi batsmen now prepared to face the swing of Dave Ironside and the ferocious pace of the young Neil Adcock who had made his debut in the first Test.

Just 22, Adcock had already acquired a fearsome reputation and the Durban wicket was ideally suited to him. No wonder it had acquired the tag of 'dcock's Alley' Ironside had Rabone out for 1 and Adcock removed Murray Chapple to have them tottering at 9 for 2 in the third over. Sutcliffe had opened at Durban but now he walked to the wicket with the innings already in crisis. Three balls later he was pole-axed by Adcock and had to be helped from the ground. Twice he fainted at the hospital and it was announced he would not bat again.

The situation was dire for the Kiwis and only got worse after stalwart John Reid (3) was sent back by Adcock-23 for 3. This after being struck five times on the body. The match was turning into a massacre and even the partisan spectators began to feel for the Kiwis."take him off!"they began to scream as Adcock hit new man Lawrie Miller on the chest, forcing him to cough blood and leave the field and head to hospital. The green pitch was turning Adcock into a demon bowler.

The score read 28 for 3 but already the seventh batsman was at the crease, the teenager John Beck on Test debut. Matt Poore had hung around for 15 before Adcock got one to hit his stumps via his ribs and New Zealand staggered into the lunch break at 41 for 4 with two men in hospital. Beck fought his way to 16 before being the fifth batsman to fall with the scorecard reading a dire 57.

Going against medical advice, Miller now returned to the wicket to join wicket-keeper Frank 'Starlight' Mooney who was showing plenty of fight. The pair added 24 precious runs before Ironside send back Miller at 81 for 6 with the follow-on target of 121 (it was a four-day match) looming large.

MacGibbon was expected to be the next man in. But instead the crowd turned to see Sutcliffe stride out, his head swathed in bandages. Maybe it was Dutch Courage that saw him return or maybe it was Scotch! Years later he would admit to having resorted to whisky to steady his nerves. The crowd rose and gave him a thundering ovation.

Sutcliffe decided there would be only one way to counter the bowling and the pitch-all out attack. It worked like a charm and the more he smote their bowlers, the louder the crowd roared their support. It was an unusual turn of events but understandable given the circumstances.

Ironside was smashed for 6, three and four in quick succession. Adcock too was dispatched to the boundary and now captain Jack Cheetham turned to his other trump card, off spinner Hugh Tayfield.

Sutcliffe though was unstoppable and another six and four flowed from his bat. In 39 minutes he had added 50 with Mooney, helping to avert the follow-on before the 'keeper'as dismissed by Ironside for a gallant 35 shortly after tea. The medium pacer also accounted for MacGibbon for a duck and now Sutcliffe was left with last man Overton for company. Tayfield was hoisted out of the ground for another six by Sutcliffe but when Ironside got his fifth wicket of the innings, the players and the umpires headed to the pavilion with the score reading 154 for 9.

Suddenly a hush descended on the ground. Those on the ground and in the stands were stunned to see Blair shakily make his way to the wicket to join the unbeaten Sutcliffe. He had been following the progress of the match back in his room and decided the team needed him.

In the pavilion his teammates wept openly; on the ground both Sutcliffe and the South African fielders were deeply moved. "I'd like to feel I can help," Blair told his stunned compatriot.

What followed was the most dramatic period of a day already packed with drama. Tayfield, renowned for his accuracy, was carted for 25 runs from one over (eight balls). Sutcliffe smashed three sixes into the crowd and then Blair did the same from the last ball.

One more followed before Blair was stumped for 6 to end the innings on 187. It had been the briefest and most courageous of innings. The pair had added 33 runs in 10 astonishing moments. Sutcliffe made 80 of the final 105 runs added with four 4s and seven 6s.

South Africa collapsed for 148 in their second innings while New Zealand could muster just 100, losing by 132 runs, Adcock picking up 5 for 43. But really, nobody could be bothered. December 26, 1953 was the day that had already gone down in cricket history and is remembered with awe even today.

 
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