April 10, 2017

'You just can't take things too seriously'

John Watkins, 94 today, and the oldest living Test cricketer, remembers his playing days for South Africa

Ninety-four-year-old John Watkins lives in Durban © Luke Alfred

South Africa's John Watkins hardly started his Test career in awe-inspiring fashion. Playing in the first Test at Ellis Park against Lindsay Hassett's 1949-50 Australians, he took the second over after Cuan McCarthy and promptly bowled two wides.

He was a nervous young man from Natal, bowling in front of 40,000 boorish Transvaalers, and his natural awayswinger barely pitched; Johnny Waite pouched the ball in front of first slip. "Eric Rowan ran across from cover and had a word," remembers Watkins. "'They haven't scored a run off the bat, so you've nothing to worry about. Hold the ball across the seam, it'll offer you better control,' he said, "which I did. My third delivery landed and after that I was away. I'll always be thankful to Eric. As much as I respected Dudley [Nourse] as a captain and cricketer, he wasn't about to come across with a word or two of encouragement. He would let you bowl your spell and then just take you off, no questions asked."

Although Watkins took 2 for 56, bowling Hassett and Neil Harvey, the Australians blithely eased their way to 413, bowling South Africa out cheaply in both innings to win the Test by an innings and 85 runs. While South Africa acquitted themselves slightly better in the second Test, at Newlands (thanks largely in part to a second-innings century by Nourse and a breezy 75 by Hugh Tayfield) they still lost by eight wickets.

Watkins proved to be so expensive in the first Australian innings in Cape Town that he only bowled two overs in the second. Going into the third Test, at Kingsmead, Watkins' home town, the pattern for the summer appeared to be set.

Winning the toss, Nourse batted. His 66 combined with Eric Rowan's 143 to wriggle the South Africans to a just-about respectable 311. By close on the second day, the Australians were back in the hut for 75, having been skittled by Tayfield, who, like Watkins, was a Natalian making his debut in the series. Tayfield only bowled 8.4 overs in taking 7 for 23, exploiting the local conditions like only a homeboy could, and with no play on the Sunday, Nourse had 24 hours to wrestle with the wisdom of enforcing the follow-on.

"The two of us went up to the Stamford Hill airport, which is where the weather forecasts all came from," remembers Watkins. "They said it was likely to rain again late on the Monday afternoon. Dudley was naturally careful and didn't enforce the follow-on, but don't tell me they wouldn't have felt worried to have been put in again. It affects your play, doesn't it? I suppose it's easy to be the bank manager afterwards but some of us definitely wanted them to bat again come Monday morning."

As it was, the predicted rain didn't arrive and South Africa lost the Test, and the series, to one of the grand rearguard actions of the game in the era after the second World War. Harvey scored 151 not out, as Tayfield and "Tufty" Mann bowled two balls short of 100 overs between them. Watkins bowled an unremarkable and wicketless ten overs, being relegated to a walk-on role. He hated bowling to left-handers - and this included Colin McDonald - because he had to adjust his run-up. The series had been a disappointment. He was dropped for fast bowler Mick Melle for the remaining two Tests of the rubber.

The hands of a slip catcher © Luke Alfred

Approaching his 94th birthday, Watkins well remembers scoring 48 for Glenwood against traditional rivals Durban High School (DHS) on Kingsmead B as a precocious young schoolboy for a rare Glenwood win in the traditional grudge game. Whether they came from the indigenous forests of Eshowe (where Hassett's men played an early game) or the sugarcane plantations of Zululand, every cricket-playing boy in the province looked to the ground as a terminus and home. "The Kingsmead wickets were greener in my day. They used to roll it so much that it shone. That's why I always played my shots, because you knew that sooner or later you were going to get out."

Good at several ball sports, Watkins played cricket from an early age and was guided by a couple of visiting English professionals and a dedicated school cricket master or two. Life was genteel, summer endless, the natural world on the subtropical Natal coast teeming and abundant. "I played club cricket from an early age for Malvern-Hillary, the nets were very close to our house," he said. "After the nets the seniors would bowl to me. When I was a little older I played for First National Bank and they played in a strong Sunday league. It didn't do my matric results very good but it was great for my confidence."

While Watkins was good at games, his body didn't always oblige. He suffered from mild deformities of the hips and lower back from birth, which always made bowling more onerous than it should have been, and required five post-career operations. Batting and fielding, though, were easy. A good technician and a thunderous cover-driver, Watkins was also a fine first slip, sometimes alternating with Percy Mansell in the position.

He shows me his hands and his close-catching prowess suddenly makes sense because even today he has broad palms and elongated, almost prehensile thumbs, excellent equipment for a slipper. His deepest laugh of the interview, which became increasingly ribald and relaxed, is reserved for a story about dropping a catch off Tayfield at your peril. "You'd bloody well hear from him if you did," he said. "There was no holding back with Hugh."

As the world's oldest living Test cricketer, Watkins today is both robust and creaky. He wears a hearing aid, has problems with his left eye, and is often accompanied on walks down the passage in his 18th-floor apartment overlooking the Umgeni river mouth in Durban North, by at least one crutch. As if these little reminders of mortality weren't quite enough, he tells me that he's colour-blind - not hugely so, but enough to bar him from flying Spitfires off the east coast of Italy during the Second World War.

"I started as a trainee pilot and then they realised I was colour-blind, so they chucked me out. I was bloody cross," he said. "I ended up in air-traffic control and saw some terrible sights. The bombers used to fly in after their raids badly shot up. I saw them pull one tail gunner out stone dead. Shrapnel had gone through his backside straight into his brain."

Watkins wasn't able to negotiate leave for the 1951 tour of England but found himself in Jack Cheetham's famous side for the tour to Australasia in 1952-53. They sailed on the Dominion Monarch to Fremantle in Western Australia. It turned out to be a halcyon season. Watkins remembers a post-play ritual developing with his sometimes prickly mate Headley Keith, where the two of them would guzzle beers sitting naked in a corner of the South African dressing room.

The Sydney Morning Herald on South Africa's series-levelling win at the MCG, 1952-53 © Sydney Morning Herald

Keith Miller offered Watkins the use of his car once the tourists arrived in Sydney, and a fleet of taxis was always on hand to ferry the tourists between the ground and the hotel. Don Bradman kept his shrewd eye on proceedings ("He just knew the game backwards," says Watkins) and the South Africans enjoyed themselves immensely during the long days of a remarkable summer.

The tour turning point, says Watkins, came in the last warm-up game before the first Test, against Queensland at the Gabba. Batting at eight for Queensland, Don Tallon, who had been left out of the Australian side for the first Test, used the opportunity to deliver Jack Ryder, the Aussie selector present, a swaggering redbuke. He scored 133 in just over three hours as the hosts racked up 540. South Africa batted well but not well enough to avoid the follow-on, and seven second-innings wickets down, were hanging on for dear life at the close.

In their relief at staving off defeat, a lesson was learned: if South Africa could mix it with one of the best state sides, perhaps they need not suffer from such manifest inferiorities. The Aussies didn't like being bogged down, and Cheetham's men noticed there were often pockets of loud support for the visitors. While they went on to lose the first Test by 96 runs (Watkins taking six wickets for 88 in the match) they squared the series in the second Test, at the MCG, by 82.

Back at the MCG for the series-deciding fifth Test 2-1 down, Watkins was promoted up the order to give the innings an injection of dash. He chose his moment well because neither Ray Lindwall nor Miller were fit and the Australian attack was hobbled as a result. "I'd been batting at seven and Jack [Cheetham] came up to me and said that we weren't getting off to good enough starts, how about batting at three? I said fine and scored 92 as we all chipped in for 435. Funnily enough, I never hooked. I didn't like hitting the ball in the air. I was more of an off-side player and a driver, but when I was on 7, I hooked one down McDonald's throat at fine leg and he dropped me, thank goodness.

"People forget that in that game we selected ten players, and the final choice was between Roy [McLean] and Eric Norton. Roy just made the cut and he was invaluable because we needed to score nearly 300 batting last to win. He scored 80-odd in the first innings and a fast 76 in the second. We won by six wickets to square the series."

While the South Africans were treated with great generosity, the tour was not without subtle tensions. Ken Viljoen, the tour manager, was efficient to the point of caricature, and there was a feeling that some of the struggling players, like Watkins' good mate Keith, were left too much to their own devices.

"I remember that we were playing against one of the Country Districts sides somewhere," said Watkins. "I was batting with Jackie [McGlew] and we both had about 70. At one stage I said to him, 'Let's get out so we can give other chaps like Headley [Keith] and Gerald Innes and Eric [Norton] a bat, because they've had a bloody miserable tour.' Jackie just wasn't interested, so I made sure that I took a single off the last ball of the next over and I didn't let him see the strike for about an hour. Afterwards I was called in to face Ken and Jack. They asked me how I could behave in such a way, and I just had to tell them that it was Jackie who didn't budge."

It is fair to say that Watkins didn't make the impression on the cricket world that he might have. He never toured England, played precious little of his cricket against them, and led a largely obscure 15-Test existence as a good team man. Yet the memories - and the figures, which don't glow as they might - provide only a dim outline of a fuller story. Here was a cricketer of conspicuous and easy conviviality, one who had a sense of fun and an almost refined sense of natural justice. His contribution to South Africa's drawn series in Australia under Cheetham - they were written off beforehand - was immense.

He spends most of his time nowadays in his favourite easy chair, with a view out across the balcony to Durban's esplanade and, beyond that, the harbour. Every so often a ship eases beyond the breakwater. Watkins watches it all with a sense of quiet wonder, knowing that in a week or two it will have reached its destination, a place where once he might have played cricket but will now do so no more.

"Do you want to know what my secret to living as long as I have," he asks, as I smile and realise he'll tell me anyway. "It's laughter. You just can't take things too seriously, that's the real killer."

Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cricmj Makes on April 12, 2017, 13:21 GMT

    Thoroughly enjoyed insights told by a wisend player and facilitated by a decent reporter l.

  • grant on April 12, 2017, 5:06 GMT

    Thanks for a really interesting interview.

  • sundar4293684 on April 12, 2017, 3:12 GMT

    Colin McDonald was not a left-hander, but a right-hander

  • Kadathur on April 10, 2017, 13:17 GMT

    That was scintillating read about the good old days!Thank you for your advice on longevity!!

  • DAVID on April 10, 2017, 11:12 GMT

    Delightful read. Saw the 1952-53 South Africans play and spoke to most of them during the autograph hunt. Renewed acquaintance nearly 40 years later at the Centenary of Test Cricket celebrations in South Africa. They were fine men, and most had served the cause of freedom during the 1939-45 war. Shameful and mean-minded that the current administration has tried to blot out their very existence. Confirmed too that Colin McDonald, a rare survivor of that 1952-53 series, was a right-hand batsman.

  • keiths3833945 on April 10, 2017, 8:47 GMT

    re Luke Alfred's piece on John Watkins. 2 points in the interests of accuracy: 1. The wicketkeeper in JW's first test was not Johnny Waite, it was Billy Wade. 2. Colin McDonald was a right handed batsman.