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The English Cricket Captain in South Africa who became a Hollywood star

Copyright © The Author, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sir C. Aubrey Smith achieved world wide fame in Hollywood during the first half of this century, as an actor on the silver screen and in daily life in America, as the world ambassador for the English gentlemen. In South Africa, however his claim to fame is on the cricket field being the captain of the English team in the first ever test match played in this country. This was in the 1888/89 season when the English tourists under the team leadership of Major Warton visited this country for the first time.

The son of a Sussex medical doctor, he was schooled at Charterhouse and then proceeded to Cambridge University where he obtained his ‘blue’ for four consecutive years against Oxford at Lords. He was on the winning side three times. What is unusual about these four fixtures is that they ended on each occasion with the identical result, a win by seven wickets.

Sir Aubrey was a tall man being over six feet in height and strongly built. As a bowler he had a high arm action but with an unusual approach to the wicket which earned him the nickname of ‘Round the Corner’ Smith. Contemporary comment was that his sudden appearance at the wicket from behind the umpires back was rather startling and gave the impression that the wind was always in his favour. His stock ball was the inswinger and his main strength was his accuracy in long bowling spells.

Before touring South Africa he had visited Australia, captaining the English team there as well, being an experienced county captain in the U. K., having led Sussex for a number of seasons. His record as a bowler on tour in this country was outstanding, in that he took 134 wickets, in all, at an average of just 7.61 runs per wicket and played a major role in the tourists victory in the first test at Port Elizabeth. He took five wickets for nineteen runs in the first innings and two for forty two when South Africa batted again. The visitors winning margin was by an impressive eight wickets. Unfortunately for Smith, he was not able to reproduce his batting form being affected by the matting wickets which were used in this country at the time. The press reports of the day described him as a batsman with a long reach, a vigilant defence and the ability to give the ball a solid crack when needed. He was a specialist close to the wicket fielder, mainly at slip where his huge hands and telescopic arms gave him an advantage. Sir Aubrey had the misfortunate to fall seriously ill after the first test with an attack of enteric fever and was unable to take part in the second test at Cape Town or the remainder of the tour.

At the time the tour took place our cricket was still very much in its infancy but it did much to point us in the right direction and it also set the standard of hospitality which has continued throughout the years. The press reports of the day quote the level of hospitality as being ‘ripe’ and having a negative effect upon the standard of the tourists cricket in the early matches which the tourists lost. The local sides did have an advantage though in that they were allowed either fifteen, eighteen or twenty two batsmen and innings and took it in turns to make up the eleven fielders. The tour organisers were fortunate that Cecil John Rhodes stood as guarantor for the costs incurred as expenses exceeded the receipts by a substantial amount.

After the tour was over Sir Aubrey, as well as some other members of the team, remained behind in South Africa. He settled in Johannesburg, establishing a stockbroking firm with a team mate, Monty Bowden, who had taken over as captain in the second test and who was to suffer a tragic early demise on this continent. Both men joined the Wanderers club with Smith being elected to the main committee, soon after joining. He was also appointed captain of the club cricket side and was invited to lead Transvaal in the first ever provincial match against Kimberley thereby initiating the domestic Currie Cup competition which did so much for developing the game and raising the standard of cricket in this country. In this match which was played in Kimberley Sir Aubrey’s contribution with the ball was considerable in that his match bowling analysis was six for ninety seven off fifty overs. His batting though again let him down as he was dismissed for a duck in the first innings and scored only 18 runs in the second knock. Nevertheless he led his side to a six wicket victory.

Whilst living in Johannesburg, he made his first appearance on the stage appearing at the Old Wanderers club in a comedy which was the start of his more famous career, that of a film star. Leaving this country, after another bout of enteric fever coupled with pneumonia, he made his way back to England and began his acting career in earnest. He spent many years playing leading roles on the on the stage in London’s West End, including that of Professor Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Pygmalion’ when it was first produced. It is this play on which the famous musical ‘My Fair Lady’ is based.

In the early 1920’s he decided to cross the Atlantic ocean and establish himself in Hollywood which was then becoming the centre of the film making industry. Over the next twenty five years, Sir Aubrey appeared in over one hundred movies, successfully bridging the period from the silent movie to the ‘talkies’. He nearly always portrayed the role of an English gentlemen. All his life he retained his essential ‘Englishness’, refusing to believe any news until he had seen it printed in his copy of the London Times which was posted out to him arriving some three weeks later in Los Angeles. He always insisted on the daily raising and flying of the Union Jack in the garden of his Beverley Hills home. This impressed the Americans and they gave him some sort of semi-ambassadorial status.

Sir C. Aubrey Smith took with him to America his beloved cricket and became a one- man band in converting the locals to the intricacies of the game. He made the Hollywood Cricket club the home of American cricket with over twenty clubs flourishing in the immediate area of Los Angeles in the period prior to the second World War. The cricket ground he established in Los Angeles was only demolished in the early 1980’s to make way for the equestrian centre for the 1984 Olympic Games.

His local team included many of the top star celebrities of Hollywood such as Errol Flynn, David Niven, Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, not all great cricketers but who could all talk a fine game. As captain Sir Aubrey took his responsibilities seriously being very much a disciplinarian. He once sent Errol Flynn home by train from a fixture for having a hint of alcohol on his breath and for being improperly dressed. In addition, he insisted that his players went to bed at nine before a game, needless to say the likes of Errol Flynn and David Niven snuck out again after the lights went out.

There is a delightful cricket story told of Sir Aubrey which highlights his another of his eccentricities. He was getting on in years and, in one match, he was fielding in his customary position of slip when, to his horror he failed to latch onto a snick, dropping the catch. His reaction was to stop the game and summon his butler on to the pitch. ‘Fetch my glasses’ he commanded. Play remained at a standstill while the butler withdrew and returned with the glasses on a silver salver. Sir Aubrey put them on and the umpire was given to understand that the game could continue. A ball later, the batsman prodded forward, the ball caught the edge and curved away to the slips where Sir Aubrey again juggled, but could not hold it. There was a long and terrible silence before Sir Aubrey snatched up the ball and wheeled around in the direction of the departing butler ‘damm fool’ he yelled ‘you brought me my reading glasses.’

Another anecdote, recalls a match in 1936 at Santa Barbara, when a little old gentlemen in a Charterhouse tie arrived at the wicket to bat. Smith’s immediate instruction to his side was to “Spread the Field, Chaps”. His team of Hollywood stars obeyed him but the fellow could not hit a thing. On being questioned on his tactics afterwards, his only comment was “Well I was his fag at Charterhouse and he used to hit the ball out the park.” Sir Aubrey was over 73 years of age at that stage.

He named his home in Beverley Hills, ‘Round the Corner’ after his bowling action and on the roof he placed a weather vane which consisted of three cricket stumps and a bat and ball. For all his eccentricities, Sir Aubrey was held in very high esteem within the film community and in 1937 he was asked to present the Oscars, for both the best actor, Spencer Tracy, and the best actress, Louise Rainer.

Despite his success and his insistence of playing the part of an English gentlemen, Sir Aubrey, was always a great supporter of the small man. Although he had a reputation of being careful with his money, he was generous to English actors in need. He would always give them a bed and meals until they got set up. Another example, was in the early 1930’s, when the screen extra’s were both powerless and leaderless and treated by the directors and producers as little more then human cattle, Smith was amongst the first of the major stars to join the Screen Actors Guild, which forced the movie moguls to treat the bit part players as human beings.

In recognition of the role he played in developing Anglo American friendship he was knighted in 1944. Having interrupted his own career for service in the First World War, he was the driving force in Hollywood, at the outbreak of the conflict in 1939, urging those British actors working in Hollywood to return to the United Kingdom and join the armed forces. He believed that it was their moral duty to do so and he took great exception to those who failed to heed his call and stay in Hollywood.

All his life he kept up a keen interest in South African sport and was very touched when in 1939 the Wanderers club in Johannesburg sent him an honours tie to commemorate his fifty years association with the club and South Africa. He personally acknowledged the gift.

Sir Aubrey maintained his love of cricket to the end of his life and travelled to England as often as he could to watch Test matches at Lords. A honour late in life from Lords of which he was most proud was being made an honorary umpire at the home of cricket. Perhaps appropriately his last visit there was in 1947 when England were hosting the South African side under the captaincy of Alan Melville. The next year on the 20th December 1948 he passed away at his home in Beverley Hills, California at the ripe old age of eighty five. To the last ball he played the role of the English Gentleman.

His long life of success was in sharp contrast to that of Monty Bowden, his former team mate and business partner in the Johannesburg stockbroking business. Bowden to this day remains England’s youngest ever test captain, for when he led his side on to the field at Newlands on the 25th March 1889,he was just twenty three years and one hundred and forty days old. Later when playing for the Wanderers club, Monty, was selected for Transvaal to take part in the first ever provincial match in Kimberley in 1890. He played a significant role scoring an undefeated century in the second innings enabling his side to win handsomely. Earlier, as wicketkeeper, he was responsible for two stumpings before handing over the gloves to bowl three overs, taking two wickets for five runs in the process of Kimberley’s second innings.

Shortly thereafter, Monty was bitten by the pioneering bug and he set off to what became Rhodesia with the Pioneer Corps. After arrival the Corp was demobilised and Monty went into business as a trader in the Eastern districts of the country close to the Mozambique border. For three years he led a very adventurous life, travelling the route down to the coast at Beira and then returning with stocks for his trading store. Tsetse fly prevented the use of animals and it was necessary for all goods to be carried on the heads of African porters.

In February 1892, in the height of summer, while travelling down from what was then Salisbury[now Harare] towards Umtali[Mutare] Monty was thrown from his cart. Whilst he suffered no apparent injury, and was able to play cricket the following day, it was observed that ‘Monty was in bad form’. The next day he suffered a seizure and was admitted to the local hospital at Mutare, which at that stage was a primitive first aid station being little more then a mud hut. His temperature rose dramatically and at one stage reached 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Monty slipped into a coma from which sadly he did not emerge and four days later he passed away at the age of twenty seven. The cause of death was put down to the fall from his cart and to the effects of the fevers which were prevalent in the low lying country in which he spent much of his time.

During his fatal illness, the summer heat was intense, and following his death, the heat made it necessary to keep all doors and windows of the little hospital open. It required a man with a fully loaded revolver to sit all night on guard over the body in case the lions snatched it away. His burial also caused some difficulty for the local community because of the scarcity of wood in the area and it was necessary to construct his coffin out of whiskey cases to enable the service to take place. A sad end to a talented cricketer. Whilst the tragic events of Monty’s last days have been faithfully recorded, there is no record of what the mourners did with the actual whiskey. Perhaps they arranged a first class wake out in the bush?.

SOURCES: 1. More Cricket Prints. - R. C. Robertson-Glasgow. 2. Crickets Rich Heritage. - Jonty Winch. 3. South Africa in International Cricket 1889 to 1988. - Brian Bassano. 4. The Other Side of the Moon. - Sheridan Morley. 5. The Moon is a Balloon. - David Niven. 6. Inside Oscar. - Mason Wiley and Damien Bona. 7. The Complete Who’s Who of Test Cricketers. - edited by Christopher Martin- Jenkins. 8. Wisden Book of Cricketers Lives. - Edited by Benny Green. 9. The Complete History of Cricket Tours at Home and Abroad.- Edited by Benny Green. 10. Adventures in Mashonaland. - Blennerhassett and Sleeman.