Recalling a legend

2015-02-03 00:00

DURBAN Country Club’s tranquillity was tested yesterday by a group of folk at a table laughing and sharing cricket memories.

Leading the laughs was John Watkins (91), who played 15 Tests from 1949 to 1957, but there was more to the occasion.

Among the people at the table was Di Thompson (daughter of Springbok opening batsman Eric Rowan) who had arranged to meet Watkins for a special reason.

“Rick Smith, an Australian cricket writer, contacted me a few years ago saying he was writing a book on my father and could I help,” said Thompson. “I was involved from the beginning and Rick also contacted John to write a foreword. I am here in Durban to give John a copy of the book.” Rowan and Watkins were firm friends, despite being huge rivals on the cricket field at provincial level.

“I played for Natal and Eric for Transvaal. The teams were not just rivals — we were enemies and our matches reflected that,” said Watkins. “We were not allowed to talk to the Transvaal players after play or have anything to do with them. It bugged me, particularly being a mate of Eric’s.”

Rowan died in 1993, but Watkins recalled how the two became great pals.

“My first Test match was against the Aussies, 1949/50, at the Wanderers. I opened the bowling with Cuan McCarthy, and my first two balls swung like crazy and were called wides,” said Watkins.

As he came from the rival Natal camp, the crowd voiced their disapproval with a series of boos.

“I was shattered. I didn’t know what to do, when a voice from cover said: ‘Don’t worry, the batsmen haven’t scored off you yet. Hold the ball across the seam.’ It was Eric and we were mates from that day onwards.” Another time, Watkins scored a century for Natal against Transvaal and the first man to congratulate him was Rowan. “He was tough and fearless, never shy to speak his mind. As a batsman, he never gave his wicket away, regardless of how many runs he had and the game was never over until the final ball,” said Watkins. The book on Rowan is part of a Lives in Cricket series, the criteria being an interesting personality in the sport.

“The late Brian Bassano called my dad the toughest Springbok and we went with that title for the book,” said Thompson. “Unfortunately, the book had to be published in England and bringing it to the SA market would have cost too much with the rand to pound exchange rate.

“However, I did order a batch and have copies available for sale. Proceeds go to Jeppe High School, where Dad and my uncle Athol Rowan were schooled. Much of their memorabilia is in the cricket pavilion, named the Rowan Room.”

Eric Rowan was a larger-than-life character on and off the cricket field. With him beside you in the trenches, there was always hope of winning and he remains the oldest player to score a Test double 100 — 236 against England at Leeds, July 1951, aged 42 years. He also scored 156* to save a Test at Ellis Park in 1948/49, having been told by the selectors he was dropped for the next Test.

“It’s such a privilege to have a book written on him, something that cements his status as one of South Africa’s great cricket characters,” said Thompson.

Contact Di Thompson at

Eric Rowan

Tests 26, Runs 1965, HS 236, Avg 43,66, 12x50, 3x100

Wisden Cricketer of the Year 1952

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