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Cricket news - When neither disease nor war could stop cricket

In 196 first-class matches for Hampshire, Charlie “Buck” Llewellyn [Standing Fifth from left-to-right] made 15 centuries and took 711 wickets

In 196 first-class matches for Hampshire, Charlie “Buck” Llewellyn [Standing Fifth from left-to-right] made 15 centuries and took 711 wickets

Disease stalks the land. Many die. Yet a cricket team leaves infected shores and crosses the ocean and the equator. Once on dry land in the other hemisphere, the players traverse the country on a lengthy tour, potentially spreading death as they go. It couldn't happen now, what with not a ball being bowled in anger or anything else anywhere thanks to the global crackdown on the coronavirus and covid-19, the illness it causes. But it did happen.

OK, it was a long time ago. An outbreak of bubonic plague was reported in District Six, an area of Cape Town snug in the embrace of the initial swell of Table Mountain's slopes, on February 7, 1901. Soon cases were reported in Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban and Johannesburg, which are between 665 and 1,272 kilometres away from Cape Town as the crow flies. Infections numbered 1,694, deaths 947. Yet, on May 16, Murray Bisset led a team of South Africans against Hampshire in Southampton in the first of the 28 games, none of them Tests, they would play in more than three months in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

Fifteen days after the start of that match the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed to end the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the British burnt Boer farms and systematically murdered more than 27,000 women and children in the world's first concentration camps. The British sought peace partly because their wilful destruction of much of the available food supply was impacting their own forces.

That's right: Bisset and his men left from a plague-stricken region to play cricket in a country whose government and armed forces were waging a dirty war against legions of his compatriots. The conflict was between the British and the Boer republics in the central and northern reaches of a still disunited South Africa. What was then called the Cape colony, in the south, was British territory.

The war, rather than the risk of spreading a lethal affliction, was a greater threat to the venture. In his 2015 book, "Empire, War and Cricket in South Africa: Logan of Matjiesfontein", Dean Allen writes: "As the war continued into its second year there were doubts as to the wisdom of sending a team over in 1901." Allen quotes one of the South African players, JJ Kotze, as writing subsequently: "It was suggested that the tour should be again abandoned and the English authorities were advised accordingly. The answer was that the team must come under any circumstances, or otherwise the entire county programme would be dislocated for the season."

Money mattered more than morality, not to mention life and death, even then. But not to Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, whose letter to The Spectator, published on April 20, 1901, bristled with the disgust of the rampantly wrongheaded: "It is announced that a South African cricket team is about to visit this country. The statement would be incredible were it not that the names are published, and the date of sailing fixed. It is to be earnestly hoped that such a team will meet a very cold reception in this country and that English cricketers will refuse to meet them.

When our young men are going from North to South to fight for the cause of South Africa, these South Africans are coming from South to North to play cricket. It is a stain on their manhood that they are not out with rifles in their hands driving the invader from their country. They leave this to others while they play games. There may be some question even in England whether the national game has justified itself during this crisis, and whether cricketers have shown that they understood that the only excuse for a game is that it keeps a man fit for the serious duties of life. There can be no question, however, that this South African visit would be a scandal. I trust that even now it may be averted."

The editor, John Strachey, concurred in a tub-thumping reply: "Unless there are some circumstances unknown to us which put an entirely different complexion on the proposal against which Dr. Doyle protests, we heartily endorse his protest. The British South Africans have come forward so well and done such excellent service in the [military] field that any representatives of them in the cricket field will be sure to be most heartily welcomed when the war is over. But the time for South African cricket has not come yet. The men who held Wepener [the Free State town that the Boers besieged for 17 days in April 1900] for the Empire showed us that the South African British could stand up to any team in the world in something much nobler and better than cricket."

Apparently, concerns over clear and present health hazards were not "nobler and better than cricket". Instead, they were relegated to a minor consideration, as Allen noted: "On account of plague regulations in the docks area, the players subsequently left the Cape on 17 April 1901 without even the customary send-off."

And so to England. Batting at No. 5 for Hampshire in that first match was Charlie "Buck" Llewellyn, an allrounder - slow left-arm orthodox with a penchant for a delivering a sudden zap of wrist spin - who was born in Pietermaritzburg to a white Welsh father and a black Saint Helenian mother. By 1901 he had played two Tests for South Africa but had been overlooked more often than not. His race doesn't seem to have been a factor in his omission, not least because he was just pale enough to pass as white.

Since he had already been selected by the undeniably racist establishment, they couldn't deny his blackness without undermining their own deeply flawed ideals. Armien "Krom" Hendricks, who also had a black mother from Saint Helena and a father of white Dutch extraction, was the fastest bowler in South Africa in the 1890s. But he was too dark to play for a team obsessed with whiteness.

When Llewellyn took guard against the South Africans for Hampshire, he had reached 50 only thrice in his previous 37 innings and had never scored a century. So his 216 might be considered justice for what he could have regarded as the shoddy treatment meted out to him in his home country. Then he took six wickets, including a second innings analysis of 6-3-6-4, to help the county win by an innings.

Maybe Llewellyn wasn't that unhappy with his compatriots after all: he played for them in six of their other matches on the tour, starting with the second game against London County at Crystal Palace. Llewellyn scored four and 88 - one of three half-centuries in 11 innings - and took 6/140 and 7/101. His victims included WG Grace, in both innings. Curiously, Llewellyn bowled in only one more match on tour, against Liverpool and District at Aigburth. That he took 6/51 and 6/79 in that game only deepens the mystery of why he wasn't a regular member of the attack.

Llewellyn would play 13 more Tests for South Africa, in which he scored four half-centuries and claimed four five-wicket hauls. In 196 first-class matches for Hampshire he made 15 centuries and took 711 wickets. He was named one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year in 1910. But he never came within 50 runs of another double century.

Some will see a certain symmetry in that, as others will in the fact that South Africans might have shipped the plague to Britain 119 years ago. Back to Britain, that is: it was from there that the disease first came to our country - in animal feed that the colonisers brought from other territories they stole, in South America and India, and also during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

The fodder was infested with rats that had the plague, and whose fleas spread the disease by leaping from their dying hosts. Some of the new fleabags were human, and the rest is epidemical history. Now we have a pandemic on our hands, along with a more sensible attitude to matters of mere sport at dire times like these. If the coronavirus had struck in 1901, would cricket as we know it - or anything else - even exist?

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