JH Piton, born April 20, 1865, is a forgotten figure in cricket but a very important one. In the second edition of the Currie Cup, in 1890-91, there was an incredible achievement by this South African lobster. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this obscure lob bowler who seldom bowled in First-Class cricket but for that splendid match.
Even before the first ball was bowled, the rain did start to fall. And by the time the first over was bowled, the water was coming down in sheets. Henry Tudhope, the Johannesburg fast bowler, who had dismissed many a batsman in the recent Inter-town Tournaments, hardly managed to get his cap back from the umpire as they raced back to the pavilion. It had started as a fine day, but heavy clouds had rolled in by the time the players had assembled. When play had started, they had almost touched the ground.
It continued to pour all day, and by early afternoon it was clear that there would be no play before the players came back on Monday, after Sunday’s rest. The Kimberley team, led by Bernard Tancred, heaved a collective sigh of relief. They had been received with gracious cheers by the public In Commissioner Street, but that had done little to wipe away the stress and strain of a terrible journey.
Besides, the practice pitch, due to the late heavy rains, had been tricky and perplexing. The matting was unusually short and the batsman found himself at the bottom of a slope. They were bowled repeatedly, Tancred included, and when they connected it seemed to go straight in the air. They could do with a couple of days of breather.
On Monday, the weather threatened, but play was able to get underway. The wicket was soft as Albert Walshe and Johannes Gyselman faced John Henry David Piton. The last-named was from Pretoria, and bowled old-fashioned lobs. And immediately Walshe was uncomfortable with the tossed-up deliveries. The two openers batted with caution and also had a slice of luck when Walshe missed one, the ball hit his leg and went on to hit the wicket — but the bails remained put.
Piton, however, carried on with all his cunning. An alumnus of the Diocesan College at Rondebosch, Cape Province, he was known to be one of the finest of lob bowlers. However, a useful batsman who could also keep wickets when required, this was the first time he was bowling in First-Class cricket. Curiously, he would bowl only 4 more overs in First-Class cricket after this match. He had also played the inaugural Currie Cup match the previous year, when these same two sides had met, but had not bowled.
Not that his lobs were not known. In early 1887, a group of Kimberley players, with the addition of J Hopgood of Orange Free State and J Vintcent of Bechuanaland, had combined to form a team called the Stray Klips. This side had visited Western Province in one of the most important early cricket tours to take place in South Africa. And Piton had played against them for Western Province, capturing 5 for 66 at Wynberg. Yes, he had been in the Cape those days, before moving to Pretoria in May, 1888. Later he would play for Natal as well.
Coming back to the Transvaal-Kimberley encounter, soon Walshe chopped at an underhand delivery that came through fast and played it on to the stumps. The first blood was drawn at 30. At the same score, Charles Rutherfoord, the wicketkeeper, tried to dispatch Piton into the country, getting under the ball and tonking it straight up in the air. The bowler hardly had to move as the ball spiralled down into his hands.
The next phase saw some exceptional batting by Tancred, the best South African batsman of the era. Strokes were made all around the ground, and every ball was hit with power. At the other end Gyselman played with exceptional patience. Piton kept bowling a tight and accurate line, but the runs were scored at the other end. Tancred seemed destined to get a hundred when, at 148, he hit Piton straight down the throat of George Allsop at a personal score of 89.
George Glover was a strokeplayer, and strode in to strike 4 boundaries in 3 overs. But at 173, a fast one from Piton got in and he pushed to the short-leg.
With Gyselman still stonewalling, and Piton having picked up all four wickets to fall, Charles Finlason tried the age-old tactic of running out and hitting the lobster out of attack. He struck it on the full, and it never rose more than six inches, but Piton caught him low; his hands grazing the pitch as he made the catch.176 for 5.
At 187, the immense patience of Gyselman gave away. This time the ball from Piton was a long-hop and the opening batsman, having laboured his way to 46, pulled it straight to the square-leg fielder.
Edward Beech and Maurice Williams got together now, getting runs very quickly, spanking the balls more with brute force than style. But now, captain Fred Smith came on to have Beech sky one high up, thus ending the chance for Piton to pick up all 10.
But the lobster did continue and claimed the last wicket. Williams, in an effort to get as many as possible with the last man in, ran out to force the pace. He missed and Sam Field behind the stumps broke the wicket. Kimberley were all out at the stroke of stumps for 255. From 73 five-ball overs, Piton had captured 7 wickets for 82.
It was a fair score. Transvaal was known for great batting strength, but the bookmakers had brought the odds down to even after beginning the day at 6-4 against Kimberley.
However, the following day Transvaal toted up 227 for 5. With Clarence Wimble getting 62 and most of the others contributing, the lead was achieved with just 6 wickets down.
Even when heavy rain on Wednesday afternoon turned the ground into a swamp, it went against Kimberley. The men were hardly able to stand, let alone field; break bowling was impossible, and running up the wicket such an ordeal that sending down a proper length and line was extremely difficult. Piton made the most of it with a well-compiled 26, and Transvaal led by 58.
When the lobster had Walshe struggling again and bowled him for 14, the visitors trailed by 33. The end seemed to be near.
But then there was Tancred. With a great flourish, the willow of this champion struck the ball to all parts of the ground once again. At 30 he was caught at the wicket, but the umpire did not hear the edge and refused to raise his finger. And thus, he kept batting and the brilliant innings amounted to 62 before Tudhope, with his first success of the match, managed to flatten his stumps. Tancred walked back to standing ovation.
Williams, so impressive in the first innings, made the cardinal mistake of trying to hit Piton out of the ground. He was caught in the outfield just before close of the day’s play. Gyselman, in the course of another stonewalling effort, was still there.
The following morning Glover was foxed by the underhand bowler, playing down the wrong line. Piton was all over them once again, but at 11.30, Finlason joined Gyselman at the wicket and a fantastic stand was made. Business-like progress, without risks, with the occasional forcing cut stroke yielding a boundary or two. By the time Smith ended Gyselman’s mammoth vigil for 87, the Kimberley score read 216.
And after that it was a great battle between Piton the lobster and the Kimberley batsmen spearheaded by Finlason.
Beech managed a few good hits before sending the ball to square-leg on the full. Rutherfoord stuck around for a while, and 300 glistened on the telegraph board when he was caught off Piton on the leg-side.
Tom Edington demonstrated style that was more the hallmark of a champion batsman. Piton had a role in his dismissal as well, but a most unusual one. For a brief while, he deputised as the stumper and effected a low and controversial take off Smith.
D Lloyd struck a couple of twos, ran a hard three, and struck a boundary. And then he hit one straight back to Piton.
All the while Finlason progressed smoothly, ending on an unbeaten 154 when the last man was out. But before giving his wicket away, Alfred Cooper had scored 41 and negotiated Piton with a degree of caution and sense that was lacking in the top-order. 95 were added for the final wicket, and the score stood at a huge 475. Piton walked back with sterling figures of 6 for 122 from 88 overs, 13 for 204 in the match.
The 805 balls he bowled in the game stood as a record in First-Class cricket for three-and-a-half decades before Clarrie Grimmett sent down 848 for South Australia versus New South Wales at Sydney 1924-25. It still stands as record for any Transvaal bowler by a substantial margin.
His role in the match was, however, still not over. Transvaal set out on their quest of 418 runs with every bit of zeal. 105 were put on for the second wicket, 80 for the third, 51 for the sixth. It was 300 for 7 when Piton walked in.
He proceeded to send two long-hops from the leg-spinner Lloyd screaming to the boundary. And when Glover tossed up his off-breaks, he rushed out and hit him on the full.
As wickets fell at the other end, he waged a lone battle with the tail. The crowd soon became too excited to sit still. Some were wringing their hands, other walking up and down, and according to the Minning Argus, some were even crying with excitement.
The last man, in the form of Tudhope was in, and more than 70 remained to be scored. The fast bowler deflected Tancred to the leg boundary for four. And then Piton ran out to the wily Finlason, and pulled an off-ball to square-leg for four more.
The next ball was another slow one, outside off, and Piton rushed out with another mighty swipe. Alas, it was a mishit and the ball dropped into the hands of Beech at cover.
So the gallant innings came to an end at 359, the Kimberley men had won by 58 runs. Piton walked back distraught, his effort amounting to a desperate 37.
It had been a remarkable match, with 1,402 runs in the five full days, an over on the first and an hour on the seventh. In the spate of tall scores, it had been only Piton, the immaculate lobster, who had managed to shine with the ball. And shine he did, with 13 wickets.
Sadly, that was the only major deed of his lob-bowling career.
An important figure
The world does not quite know of the man, but Piton was an important figure in the early days of South African cricket.
He was a crucial member of the Western Province side after graduating from the cricket stables of the Diocesan College. It was the same college that had produced men like Charlie and Joseph Vintcent, Arthur Osche, PH de Villiers and other cricketers of calibre and repute.
It was for Western Province that he took that 5 for 66 against Stray Klips. Later, in April 1888, he was a part of the Cape Town Wanderers, another early South African touring side that visited Kimberley. Curiously, he played as a specialist batsman in the team.
It was the following month that he migrated to Pretoria, and turned out for the Transvaal XV when they played Major Warton’s Englishmen in early 1889. Again, it is unclear why he did not bowl in that match. Bobby Abel got 114, batting over 5 hours and hitting just 2 boundaries, and Transvaal used as many as eight bowlers. However, Piton played as a specialist batsman.
A year later, in 1890, he became part of the Transvaal unit in their inaugural Currie Cup conquest. The side was much stronger than the one that had turned out against the England side. This was mainly because it was led by C Aubrey Smith and had Monty Bowden as wicketkeeper — two Englishmen, who had captained England in their two inaugural Test matches in South Africa, had famously stayed back after the epochal tour and had now joined forces with Transvaal. And Piton was considered an integral member of this First-Class side, although he again batted low down the order and did not bowl. Curious, given that in the second innings of the match against Kimberley even Bowden took off his pads and had a bowl.
When WW Read’s men came to visit South Africa in 1891-92, Piton played a couple of matches against them for Transvaal. None of these were deemed First-Class, with there being 15 Transvaal men on one team and 18 in the other. In the second of the matches, at Old Wanderers, he hit 33 unbeaten runs, top-scoring for a side that included Tancred and Jimmy Sinclair. In each of these matches he sent down four ineffectual and expensive overs of lobs.
The next few matches of Piton’s career came in the Currie Cup of 1893-94, and by now he was playing for Natal.
After this Piton gravitated to club cricket, becoming a pivotal figure in the Wanderers Club. It was at Johannesburg that he settled, and by the end of the century was acting as manager of the club tours as well. It was in Johannesburg that he played his final major match.
When the Johannesburg XV met the visiting England cricketers led by Lord Hawke, Yorkshire fast bowler Frank Milligan ran through the local side taking 10 wickets while Schofield Haigh captured 4. Piton, dismissed by Milligan for 8, bowled a long spell when the Englishmen batted through their innings of 309. His lobs were hammered, for 76 runs in 25 five-ball overs, but he did get Plum Warner stumped off his bowling.
In the early days of the 1900s, Piton acted as manager of the Transvaal side. Down the years, he remained associated with the Wanderers Club, serving as the Vice-Chairman in 1927.
Piton passed away in Johannesburg in 1942, the sole lob-bowler of repute to hail from South Africa.