In 1977 Test cricket was 100 years old. My father bought me a little paperback book, published by the MCC, brim-full with Test match statistics. The centre pages of the book featured an all-time best Test XI, as voted for by the MCC members.
I was chuffed to see one of my boyhood heroes, Barry Richards, as one of the chosen eleven. I was shocked, however, to see another South African in the team I had never heard of: Aubrey Faulkner. I tried to find out more about him, but without much success. After all, it was the time before the internet.
Earlier this month these memories came back to me when I read that Faulkner had been inducted into the ICC’s Hall of Fame. Spanning 144 years of international cricket, only 103 players (men and women) have been honoured in this way. Faulkner is the fifth South African to be inducted, after Richards, Graeme Pollock, Allan Donald and Jacques Kallis.
Faulkner was in a group of ten inductees. Forget about the other 93, for a moment just ponder his fellow-inductees: Monty Noble, Learie Constantine, Stan McCabe, Vinoo Mankad, Ted Dexter, Bob Willis, Desmond Haynes, Andy Flower and Kumar Sangakkara. That is cricket royalty!
The MCC and ICC might have given Faulkner the nod but ask cricket buffs and you would be surprised how little is known about the man.
Faulkner was born in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) in 1881. He made his Test debut for South Africa against the touring English in 1906. He played a further 24 Tests in a career that was interrupted by World War I, but nevertheless lasted until July 1924 when Faulkner was 42 years old.
Faulkner earned his name in cricket’s pantheon of legends because he was the first truly, great allrounder. Batting mostly at no.6 or 7, he scored 1,754 runs at an average of 40.79. To put that into perspective, it is better than Faf du Plessis’ Test average! With his legbreaks, Faulkner took 82 wickets at an average of 26.58.
Average difference (i.e. the difference between a player’s batting and bowling average) is often used to determine all-round ability. Applying this method and taking into account only players with at least 1,000 Test runs and 50 wickets, Faulkner is the fifth best allrounder of all time – lagging only behind Garry Sobers, Kallis, Walter Hammond and Imran Khan. Illustrious company.
After World War I, Faulkner accepted an offer to play club cricket in Nottinghamshire and afterwards decided to settle down in England. (His final Test in 1924 was because the touring South Africans lured him out of retirement.) In 1925 he opened a coaching school with indoor facilities in London, a revolutionary idea for the time.
Unfortunately, Faulkner’s post-War personal life was sad. Unable to cope with life in England, his wife left him eighteen months after the war. His coaching school never had the approval of the prejudiced cricket establishment because he refused to discriminate based on class or upbringing.
In a time when there was much ignorance around mental illness, Faulkner likely suffered from bipolar disorder brought on by the trauma of war and malaria he contracted during the war. On 10 September 1930, Faulkner gassed himself at his cricket school. He was 48. His suicide note read: “Dear Mackenzie, I am off to another sphere via the small bat-drying room. Better call in a policeman to do investigating.”
The English establishment can sometimes be very cruel. Faulkner was awkward for them – an outsider, suffering from mental illness who eventually took his own life. At the time, the establishment no doubt would have been comfortable consigning him to oblivion. Faulkner’s induction into the ICC Hall of Fame is fair and just recognition. He is one of the game’s true all-time greats.