Murray Bisset, born April 14, 1876, led South Africa at 22, fought the Boer War, led the first post-War South African team to England, had an outstanding legal career that culminated as the Chief Justice of Southern Rhodesia, acted as interim Governor of Southern Rhodesia twice, and was knighted. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a man who donned many a hat, cricket being just one of them.
Had Murray Bisset not played cricket, he would still have been remembered as a renowned Cape Town lawyer in the first decade of the 20th century who later went on to assume bigger responsibilities in Southern Rhodesia.
But Bisset did play, as wicketkeeper-batsman (though he often did not keep wickets), leading South Africa at a mere 22; he remained the youngest Test captain for over half a century, and the youngest South African Test captain for over a century.
Bisset was not an outstanding cricketer. On his day he was, at best, competent. Indeed, his 40-match First-Class career fetched just 1,436 runs at 23.54, though he had 51 catches and 13 stumpings against his name. His 3 Tests amounted to 103 runs at 25.75 and 3 dismissals.
Despite having ordinary numbers (though his role as a part-time wicketkeeper almost made up for that), he was an attractive batsman. Plum Warner wrote in Cricket in Many Climes that Bisset was “a very sound and stylish bat with a good deal of wrist work, but is perhaps just a little short of punishing power.”
This defensive attitude often led to Bisset running out of partners, which we will notice later in this article. Warner also called Bisset “a capable wicketkeeper”.
It was as a leader of cricketers, and all men, however, that Bisset became renowned and respected, both in South Africa and in the Old Country. He was immensely popular, and yet ensured he got things done his way.
Michael Green, the South African journalist who toured England with South Africa in 1901, wrote: “Our captain was Murray Bisset, a member of an Old Cape family and a gentleman to his fingertips. He seemed incapable of being rude or heated, and he was courteous to the extreme. Nonetheless, he was a quiet and effective disciplinarian.”
It all started with a Scotsman called James Bisset. After becoming an engineer at London University, Bisset earned a name working on several European railway projects, the Sydenham Station being the most famous of them.
In 1858, eighteen years before Murray was born, James Bisset was sent to South Africa to work on the first railway service in the country. James earned a reputation in The Cape soon, and was commissioned to work for Cape Town tramways (then pulled by horses).
He worked on several major projects in the city, and later went on to become Mayor of Wynberg, and for a small time, Claremont. He also fought in the Boer War.
Before all this, he married Elizabeth Magdalena Christina Jarvis, daughter of Cape Town Mayor Hercules Jarvis. The couple had six sons and a daughter. Murray was the fifth son.
William Molteno ‘Bill’ Bisset, the second son, played Rugby Union for South Africa. Edgar Hamilton, the third,played for Cape Town Clubs. Arthur Vincent Crossley, the youngest, even made it to the 1901 tour to England.
To add to the list, Murray Bisset’s brother-in-law Archibald Difford also played First-Class cricket, as did Archibald’s brother Ivor.
Cricket and all that
Bisset took to cricket as a teenager. When Walter Read’s Englishmen came over in 1891-92, he played against them for a Western Province XVIII. Surprisingly, it was a left-arm spinner that he grabbed attention, taking 4 for 60 from 45 five-ball overs. His haul included Dick Pougher and Read himself.
Topical trivia: During this tour Read and manager Edwin Ash had a dispute with a James Douglas Logan, a Scottish businessman from Somerset who had settled down in South Africa. The tour had suffered a financial loss, and Read and Ash wanted Logan to take responsibilities of the tour. Logan politely mentioned that he did not think much of the idea. The tour went on, but as they were leaving for England, both Read and Ash were arrested, and their ship detained, for three hours. They were released only after they paid a security amount. We will see more of Logan later.
Bisset failed on his First-Class debut, in the 1894-95 Currie Cup final at Transvaal. In fact, he never got going till 1896-97, a season when he announced himself with 58 not out against Griqualand West.
A week later, in the Currie Cup final, he walked out to bat at 89 for 5; by the time he ran out of partners, Western Province (WP) had piled up 308, with Bisset amassing 124. The match was eventually won by George Lohmann (by then settled in South Africa), who took 10 wickets. With 231 runs at 46.20, Bisset finished third in both runs and averages.
Bisset would play another remarkable innings in the following season’s Currie Cup final: Transvaal were bowled out for 68 on a deteriorating pitch, but held WP to a 15-run lead. In the end they set 122.
Bisset, typically a middle-order batsman, was asked to open. He responded with a polished 63 not out, guiding WP to an 8-wicket victory. Thus, when Lord Hawke’s men toured South Africa that winter, Bisset was named captain.
Twenty-two years on twenty-two yards
When Bisset walked out to flip the coin with Hawke, he was a mere 22 years 306 days old. At that time he was the youngest Test captain in history, eclipsing Monty Bowden, who had led England at 23 years 144 days.
Bisset remained the youngest Test captain till 1957-58, when Ian Craig broke his record. His South African record was eclipsed by Graeme Smith as late as in 2003. The following table lists captains who have led their sides below the age of 23:
South Africa surprised the Englishmen in the first Test at Old Wanderers. England were bowled out for 145, and Jimmy Sinclair responded with 86. Batting at five Bisset counterattacked with a crucial 35, helping Sinclair add 55. South Africa led by 106.
The English second innings was a duel between Bonnor Middleton and Warner. While Middleton claimed 5 for 51, Warner carried his bat with 132. No other English batsman went past 21. That excellent innings from the worthy man turned the match on its head.
On another note, after catching Hawke in the first innings, Bisset stumped Frank Milligan in the second, both off Buck Llewellyn.
South Africa needed to chase a mere 132, and at 58 for 2, a victory looked almost certain. Then Willis Cuttell took out Robert Dower, triggering a collapse: Bisset alone stood firm as South Africa collapsed for 99 against Albert Trott, Schofield Haigh, and Cuttell. Bisset was left high and dry, on 21.
The innings, however insubstantial in terms of runs, could have been a crucial one. From 78 for 7 Bisset and Middleton had taken the score to 97. Then they caved in: Hugh Bromley-Davenport and Johnny Tyldesley took two excellent catches to dismiss Middleton and Robert Graham — both off Trott — in quick succession, and it was over soon.
South Africa hit England hard again at Newlands, with Middleton and Sinclair bowling them out for 92. Then Sinclair responded with the willow, outscoring them single-handedly with 106. South Africa led by 85. Batting at three, Bisset got 15; he was one of three men to get to double-figures.
This time it was Johnny Tyldesley’s turn to give it back. None of his teammates reached fifty, but Tyldesley carved out a magnificent 112, and England eventually reached 330. Then came the humiliation, when Haigh and Trott bowled out South Africa for a mere 35.
Less than ten months after the Tests, the Second Boer War broke out.
Cricket in the time of War
Bissetwas posted as a sergeant ina Cape Town guard. Of course, he could not stay away from cricket for long. The excellent organiser that he was, he got several sportsmen together to form a team that became colloquially known as Cricketers Corps.
With The War approaching an end, Logan (remember him?), the man whose role in South African cricket at the turn of the century was matched by few, organised a cricket tour to England. Managed by Lohmann, the team was led by Bisset, the face of the team both on and off the field.
Note: The squad also included James Douglas Logan, the namesake son of the organiser. He scored 100 runs at 12.50. These were his only First-Class matches.
Make no mistake: Logan was no ordinary man. He was the one who converted the tribal farm of Matjesfontein into a proper settlement. Matjesfontein also boasted of an excellent cricket team, consisting of both Lohmann and Bisset.When the tour took place, Logan was a member of the Legislative Council.
It was the same Logan to whom the contract for railways catering was issued by James Sivewright, his friend in the Parliament; when the scam was exposed, one thing led to other, eventually resulting in the fall of Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes.
But let us not digress. This was 1901. The tour was originally planned for 1899 and later, for 1900, but had to be postponed because of the Boer War, engaging the cricketers in business beyond the boundary. It was not until December 1, 1900, that Hawke ‘officially announced the tour’ in The Times.
No Test was planned for the tour, but would the matches be given First-Class status? Though the side consisted of Bisset, Halliwell, and Sinclair, the team was not the best South Africa could field. In fact, ‘The South Africans’ was not even the unanimous name given to them by the British media: some referred to them as The Colonials, while some others referred to them as merely ‘Logan’s Team’.
The County Clubs met in Lord’s ten days after Hawke’s announcement. They decided that all matches against First-Class teams would be given First-Class status, a decision Wisden accepted somewhat reluctantly. It is to be noted here that none of the matches of South Africa’s 1894 tour of England were given First-Class status.
The 1901 tour served its purpose — that of establishing goodwill between the nations. As for Bisset himself, he scored 653 from 15 matches at 24.18, in addition to taking 22 catches and effecting 7 stumpings. He finished third on batting charts. In all matches he did slightly better, with 1,080 runs at 27. Along with Louis Tancred and William Shadders, Bisset was the only one to better a thousand runs on the tour.
This included a run of 55 (second innings against MCC), 184 (only innings, Derbyshire), and 59 (only innings, Cambridge); his other 24 innings yielded 355 runs at 14.79.
The Derbyshire innings remained Bisset’s career-best, and it included a 58-run stand with his brother Arthur.Against Cambridge the tourists put up 692, then the highest score by any South African side in England.
Though some cricketers of the South African squad had played in England before, not all had, and Bisset was one of the ones who had not. Most of them struggled, having played domestic cricket on matting wickets. The captain said in an interview: “It was a very funny experience to play on turf wickets. Most of us could not get near the ball for some time, and I think that some of us began to doubt whether we would ever become accustomed to them. Of course, we liked them immensely once we understood their possibilities.”
They won twice in the first leg of the tour in England, a 61-run victory against WG Grace’s London County, and the 9-wicket thrashing of Derbyshire; then the party made detours of Ireland and Scotland, returning to England in between.
The highlight of the tour, of course, was the tie against Worcestershire: the hosts needed 37 with 5 wickets in hand, but Graham ran through them with 8 for 90.
Besides, Bisset did an impressive job outside the ground, turning out to be an excellent ambassador for his country. His Wisden obituary called him “extremely popular both on and off the field.”
For example, he led the tourists to an easy win in a Second-Class match against Glamorgan (contributing with 26 and 67*). But it was after the match that he won hearts with his speech: “The thing which struck us more than anything else was the solid, businesslike way in which everybody settles down to make runs. There are very few men who have a regular dash when they first come in…Another thing with which we have been greatly struck in England is the excellence of the umpiring. In South Africa we so often have to pick up any enthusiast who happens to be at the ground.”
It was a tour made to restore goodwill between the teams during The War. Few could have done a job better than Bisset on that tour. More than anything, he had to conquer the sentiments of the British, for the British had sent their sons to the Boer War, and here were the South Africans, playing cricket while The War had not yet come to an end.
Logan lost over £2,000 on that tour (the spectators were not very keen on watching the South Africans in action), but he gained more than that in reputation and goodwill.
Back and comeback
Bisset, by now captain of WP, made only occasional appearances thereafter. He devoted more time to his legal practice (he had already been admitted to the Cape Bar in 1899), emerging as one of the most eminent lawyers in Cape Town.
Despite the sporadic appearances, there were some performances worth mentioning. Against Transvaal in 1906-07, for example, WP were reeling at 70 for 5; Sinclair, Reggie Schwarz, and Aubrey Faulkner were a formidable trio; but Bisset continued, and — not for the first time — was left unbeaten on 40 as WP were bowled out for 141. Against Natal there was a similar performance, when he appeared at 83 for 7, scored 45, and took WP to 158.
Then came the surprise. Shrimp Leveson-Gower’s team visited South Africa in 1909-10. Tip Snooke’s men claimed the series 3-1 by the fourth Test, and South Africa made changes for the dead-rubber fifth Test at Newlands.
The curious inclusion was Bisset’s. He had played only one First-Class match that season, but that was against MCC, a match in which WP were routed for 67 and 151. Bisset, leading and keeping wickets, scored 14 not out (again, left high and dry) and 22, but top-scored in each innings.
South Africa were never in the Test after Jack Hobbs (187) and Wilfred Rhodes (77) added 221 for the opening stand. They got 417 before Colin Blythe, with 7 for 46, skittled out the hosts for 103 (Bisset got 4).
When Bisset joined Faulkner, South Africa still needed another 115 to make England bat again. When Faulkner fell for 99 an innings defeat seemed inevitable; Bert Vogler followed almost immediately; but Schwarz took the attack to the English camp, thrashing 44 in a stand of 67.
When Schwarz became Hobbs’ only Test wicket, South Africa needed another 18. With 7 runs left, Blythe removed Pompey Norton. But Bisset was determined: he added 20 with No. 11 Sivert Samuelson, and England had to bat again.
Once again, Bisset remained unconquered; this, however, was the last time.
But Bisset had one final role to play: Vogler bowled first over, found Morice Bird’s edge, and Bisset’s big gloves enveloped the ball. England won by 9 wickets.
Bisset never played another First-Class match.
Bisset acted as Secretary of Western Province before moving on to bigger things. He was elected to House of Assembly as a South African Party representative in 1914, and held the post till 1924, when he retired from politics.
The highlight of his tenure was a Private Members Bill in 1921, according to which a woman was legally eligible to marry her deceased husband’s brother.
He moved to Southern Rhodesia, where he was appointed Senior Judge when Clarkson Tredgold retired, in 1925. He became Chief Justice in 1927, and held the post till his death.
Heritage of Zimbabwe, Volume 12, spoke highly of his days as Chief Justice: “It has been said that the judges have a great deal to do with the moulding of practitioners who appear in the courts, and that, in a marked degree, was true of the Late Sir Murray Bisset.”
In 1928 he was appointed Acting Governor of Southern Rhodesia when the then Governor John Robert Chancellor was appointed High Commissioner of the British Mandate of Palestine.
Bisset was knighted the same year, for services to the Commonwealth. In 1931, when Chancellor’s successor, the controversial Cecil Hunter-Rodwell, was on a tour to England, Bisset was appointed Acting Governor yet again.
Off-topic trivia: Hunter-Rodwell is usually remembered for his general disdain towards South Africa’s black population. When a Jesuit missionary approached him to fund a hospital, his infamous response was “Why do you worry about a hospital? After all, there are too many natives in the country already.” It did not go down too well with the black population. In particular, it infuriated a young Rhodesian, who never forgot or forgave the response. Robert Mugabe indeed had his revenge.
Bisset had married the charming Gladys Violet Difford on April 29, 1905. Born in East London, Gladys had been to Rustenburg Girls’ High School, Rondebosch; she later became Chairman of the Salisbury Branch of the Women’s Institute, among other things. The couple had a son, Archibald Hamilton Murray.
It was during his second tenure as Acting Governor that Sir Murray Bisset passed away, in Salisbury. He was 55, and was survived by Gladys and Archibald.