Bruce Mitchell, born January 8, 1909, was a pillar of South African batting from 1929 to 1949. Like a true pillar, he was often sedentary and immovable, with glacial rate of scoring and incredibly difficult to dismiss. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man who held the record for the highest South African aggregate runs for half a century.
Ever present and glacial
His career lasted 20 years – with six of the best scooped out by the madness of the Second World War. During this period between 1929 and 1949, South Africa played 42 Test matches. Bruce Mitchell played all of them, mostly as an opening batsman.
He was a fascinating character – with a difference.
When he retired, he had the highest collection of Test runs in the history of South African cricket and shared the record for the number of hundreds with Dudley Nourse. Yet, for the two long decades that he served the country on the cricket field, he never once managed to shrug off the discomfort of appearing in front of a crowd.
The leading South African cricket writer Louis Duffus once observed that Mitchell perennially remained like a boy standing up in front of classmates to recite ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. According to Gideon Haigh, “It wasn’t simply that he was a quiet, formal and religious man who avoided the limelight; he sometimes gave the impression that he would have preferred it had Test matches been played in private before empty stands and without the necessity for force or competition.”
He stood tall at the crease, almost immovable, scrupulously correct and risk free. Indeed, he scored runs at a strike rate that can be estimated to be between 30 and 31, and was the fourth most difficult batsman to dismiss in the history of the game. Statistician Charles Davies estimated that Mitchell on an average spent 152 balls between dismissals. That places him immediately after Sid Barnes (153) with the field headed by Don Bradman and Herbert Sutcliffe (164 each).
Mitchell did not move unless it was absolutely necessary, and often did so with the most negligible of back lift. He stood rooted to his position slightly on the on-side of the wicket, and seldom hit against the break or movement of the ball. If he did have to run, he did so in a manner that has been described as ‘dainty’. Haigh later said that he ran ‘as though in dancing pumps’.
In between balls, he tapped the ground with his bat – ‘almost apologetically’ according to teammate Nourse. Else he stood motionless, looming over the spot where his dead defensive bat had killed all the life of the earlier delivery. It often seemed that he was hoarding his energy for a spectacular release. But, the moment of breaking free never came in all those 20 years.
The overbearing EW Swanton was rather uncharitable when he said, “The sad but brutal truth is that any Test in which this ultra-patient cricketer makes a hundred is almost sure to end in a draw.” It was not quite true. Mitchell scored eight hundreds and just five of those were in stalemates. Two were won and one lost.
A pertinent line of argument was that his manner of batting was chiselled by the precarious positions in which South Africa always found themselves during that phase. What led to his chronic discomfort in limelight, though, continues to be a mystery.
Swanton’s colleague John Arlott, however, found Mitchell fascinating. According to him, “By nature tense, not an easy man to know, but in whose brain there is careful labour. Mitchell is … a man who solves problems, who solves them for himself, by himself. There are few less obvious or more interesting men in cricket today.”
Mitchell’s initiation to the game was equally curious. He was mentored by his devoted older sister. It was she who bowled to him, ball after ball, and Mitchell faced her with a coveted Jack Hobbs bat. The bat had also been won by his sister in a girls’ match, and selflessly presented to the younger brother. To Mitchell, the willow had near religious significance. Naturally, every time he walked in, in his own mind he remained Hobbs.
A close friend of the family was Barberton Halliwell, the former South African captain and the first of the nation’s great wicketkeepers. This man, who had played against Lord Hawke’s team and had kept standing up to the fastest bowlers, was also the first stumper to protect his hands with raw steak. He took the young Mitchell under his wings. There was a road, filmed with dust, leading to one of the mines of Witwatersrand that had lured many with promise of underlying gold back in the 1880s. It was on this road that Halliwell bowled to the six year old Mitchell, tirelessly. When his ward was six, the former captain prophesised that Mitchell would play for South Africa in his teens. He was wrong by only six months.
At school in Johannesburg, Mitchell was hugely successful, but handicapped by the lack of a regular coach. However, periodically Herbie Taylor and Edward McDonald did come along showering wisdom and guidance. In his penultimate year at St. John’s, the lad scored over a thousand runs. And in his final year, he scored 648 runs at 49 and took 67 wickets at 16 apiece.
It was as a bowler that he was chosen for Transvaal, capturing 11 for 95 on his debut against Border with looping leg-breaks. But, his batting soon proved useful – even if it did not literally catch the eye. Three years later, in 1929, he was chosen to tour England with the team of Hubert ‘Nummy’ Deane.
One handed debut
Perhaps he was excited, there was no way of knowing it from his demeanour. The only expression he permitted himself on the field was a tug of his left collar with his right hand. However, there were quite a few problems to sort out. Mitchell had played only once on a turf wicket, in Durban. Besides, his role in the team was uncertain. He still bowled leg-breaks and batted at seven.
However, Deane asked him to open in the first Test at Edgbaston. Having played on matting most of his young life, Mitchell was keen to get on the backfoot and play square of the wicket. He tried to hook Harold Larwood early in his very first innings and the ball climbed on him too quickly, leaving a dislocated thumb. There remained no sensation in his right arm for the rest of the innings.
But he carried on, playing with his top hand, the bat moving like a pendulum in his grip. It was not too difficult for him to play, he had practised one handed strokes with his top hand for hours in front of a mirror at home. But, those strokes had been thoroughly defensive.Hence, the innings inched along.
Ultimately he fell for 88, scored in seven-and-a-half hours. A spectator asked whether he thought he was a war memorial. Mitchell chuckled to himself. He always chuckled when he retold the story down the years. In the second innings he scored quicker, getting 61 not out in two hours and 35 minutes. Even Wisden commented that the cricket was uninteresting and the innings featureless. But, Mitchell became a permanent, if somewhat static, fixture in the team. And he did not bowl much after that.
Later in the tour, his form fell away, much to the relief of the bowlers, and of-course the spectators. But, he did top the First-Class averages.
By the time England visited in 1930-31, he had perfected his near impregnability. At Cape Town, in his first home Test, he scored his first century, adding 260 with Jack Siedle. He got 455 runs in the series, at 50.55.
In Australia the following year his health failed him. Yet, he was important enough to the South Africans to play every Test.He did not set the Australian grounds on fire, but in any case scored three half centuries and ended up heading the averages. On wet wickets, he resisted, motionless yet stubborn. At Brisbane, against Bert Ironmonger and Clarrie Grimmett, he spent 70 minutes without scoring a run. Besides, he excelled in the slips. In the third Test at Melbourne he held six catches. However, it was a rare lapse in the field that has gone down as an immortal anecdote.
At Brisbane, teammate Cyril Vincent dropped Bradman at second slip when the great man was on 10. The language that poured forth cannot be repeated here without a flurry of special characters. The deeply religious Mitchell was aghast. “You should not say things like that, Cyril,” he rebuked mildly from first slip. Vincent was incredulous: “Not even when you have dropped Don Bradman?” he cried.
Bradman had scored six more when he snicked another out-swinger, this time straight to Mitchell. The ball slipped through his hands and landed on the grass. Mitchell whispered: “Jesus Christ.” That has been recorded as the only time that he swore on the cricket ground. He had good reason to. Bradman went on to make 226.
However, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Mitchell’s wicket was as coveted by teams playing against South Africa as Bradman’s was for those playing Australia or George Headley’s for the ones locking horns with West Indies.
A spark of brightness
He was always dour and his batting infamously drab. Mitchell was once joined at the wicket by the swashbuckling, Eric Rowan. After striking a few exciting boundaries, Rowan tried to pep his partner. “Come on ‘Emma’, give it a bang.” Mitchell was genuinely puzzled: “What’s the hurry?” he asked. “We’ve got two days.”
Once he flushed with embarrassment as he returned after a 72 scored against England, which had not exactly been glacial by his standards. Nourse recalled him confessing, “You don’t need to tell me it was a bad innings. I know it only too well…I don’t suppose I will ever live this down.”
But there were a few moments of ecstasy as well. His most famous knock came on a Lord’s pitch of 1935 that was affected by leather jackets – a larva that consumes grass at its roots.The barren surface turned square, making it nightmarish for batsmen. Somehow, Mitchell enjoyed the conditions that reminded him of his homeland. He struck beautiful off-drives, compiling a flawless 164 in five and a half hours with 17 fours. It left enough time for Xenophon Balaskas to bowl England out. Swanton was wrong – Mitchell did play an innings that forced a win. CB Fry remarked, “He batted like a schoolmaster of all the bowlers ever born.” Even Mitchell himself used to joke that that he was not sure how he had time to make the runs, since the match lasted only three days.
However, as South Africa held on to their lead in the series, Mitchell was back to his usual self. At Manchester, he spent three and a three-quarter hours over 48. And at The Oval, there was another risk eschewing, no frills hundred.
The famous timeless Test of Durban in 1938-39 seemed to have been tailor-made for showcasing his talent. However, Mitchell took only four hours for his second-innings 89.
When the War broke out, Mitchell served with the Transvaal Scottish Regiment. And when the country returned to Test cricket, he was still the best batsman in the land.
In the final Test at The Oval in 1947, Mitchell spent all but 15 minutes of the match on the field. He moved as sedately as ever to 120 in the first innings, before saving the match – almost winning it – with 189 in the second. He guided the side from 266 for six to 423 for seven, ending 28 runs short of victory. So focussed was he on his batting that he lost contact with whatever else was happening around him. The said period had seen him partner Tufty Mann and then Lindsay Tuckett. After about half an hour of their partnership, Tuckett saw Mitchell approaching him with a puzzled look on his face. “When did Tufty get out, Lindsay?” he asked. Haigh writes: “If he could not find those private places and empty stands, it seems, Mitchell was capable of fortifying them in his own mind.”
It was not the only example of his total absorption. It stopped him from being a good captain. It is rumoured that there was a game in Linksfield where Mitchell was playing in an Old Johannians XI alongside Russell Endean. The two stood in the slips during a 150-run partnership before Mitchell turned to Endean and said, “Don’t you think it’s about time our captain tried a change in the bowling?” A puzzled Endean answered, “You are our captain.”
Mitchell scored 475 runs in his last series, the 1948-49 encounter with the visiting Englishmen. He finished strongly with 99 and 56 in his final Test. However, after failing in two preliminary matches against the Australians of 1949-50, he was dropped. It did not take him long to retire after that.
Mitchell finished with 3471 runs at 48.88, a record for South Africa that stood till 1999 before Gary Kirsten went past him. He was the leading wicket taker in the Currie Cup of 1934-35, but did not really bowl that much in Test cricket. His leg-breaks earned him 27 wickets at 51 apiece, although he did claim five for 87 against Australia in 1935-36 in Durban.
He remained a modest man till the end of his days, with an ability to laugh at himself. He kept a cartoon at his home, which showed him banished to a desert island with the caption ‘The Man who Dropped Bradman’.
Mitchell passed away on July 1, 1995.