JOHN Watkins, a South African cricketer from 1949 to 1957 when he played 15 Tests, celebrated his 91st birthday on Thursday. He is the third oldest surviving South African Test cricketer behind Norman Gordon (102) and Lindsay Tuckett (95).
The Kingsmead Mynahs Club held a special lunch for Watkins at Kingsmead, where he delighted those present with his wit and wicked sense of humour.
“It’s laughter that’s got me this far and into the nineties,” he said. “Laughter is definitely the best medicine and it’s kept me going all my life.”
Watkins is the last surviving member of the 1952-53 Springbok tour to Australia where, under Jack Cheetham, a no-hope South African side drew the five-Test series 2-2 against a formidable Australian side that had the likes of Arthur Morris, Neil Harvey, Richie Benaud, Lindsay Hassett, Keith Miller, Ray Lindwall, Colin McDonald and Bill Johnston in their ranks.
Durban-born Watkins enjoyed a successful tour, scoring 352 runs at 35,20, his best effort coming in the fifth Test at Melbourne where the South Africans won by six wickets to draw the series.
After the Aussies had made 520, South Africa replied with 435, Watkins leading the way with 92, his highest Test score. Bowling the Aussies out for 209 the second time around, Cheetham’s men needed just under 300 to win and with 50 from Watkins, reached the target with only four wickets down.
In his book of the tour, Caught by the Springboks, Cheetham wrote, “Johnny, with his score at 92, played a hasty shot at the ball, miss-hitting it and dragging it on to his wicket. It was an unfortunate end to a splendid innings in which he had, after a cautious start, really got on top of the bowling.”
Later he wrote, “John Watkins had played two excellent knocks and his batting value had been of inestimable value to the team. With scores of 92 and 50, plus some magnificent catches, he had played a large part in the team’s success.”
Cheetham added that at times on the tour, when he had chided Watkins for lapses in State games, he was answered with, “I keep everything for the big stakes. A thoroughbred, that’s me.”
Born in the Depression, Watkins said, “The best decision my father ever made was to send me to Glenwood for four years. It was just sport, sport and sport. I only passed matric because they needed anyone who could walk for the war effort.”
At club level, he played for Glenwood Old Boys and represented Natal from 1946/47 to 1957/58, his highest score 169 against Free State in Durban (1950-51). He was a more than useful medium pace bowler, taking 29 Test wickets, 4-22 his best, and 96 first class wickets.
“We played cricket for the love of the game then and going on tour by ship meant we were away from home for months. If we had a job, we sometimes had to decide whether to quit work or sacrifice a tour,” said Watkins. “My biggest regret is never touring England. I was selected but couldn’t go because of work.”
Asked who the quickest bowlers he faced of his era were, Watkins singled out the South African “terror twins” Neil Adcock and Peter Heine. “I faced Frank Tyson, Brian Statham, Lindwall, Miller … I had no trouble against them. The other blokes in the team seemed to be a bit scared of them,” he laughed.
“The secret of being a great bowler was simple. Be an absolute bugger on the field and that’s what Heine and Adcock were. Great lads off the field but real sods in the middle. It worked for them.”
Watkins entertained those at his birthday lunch with some legendary tales from his playing days that remain in the annals of cricket chatter, his sense of humour a rich tonic for the soul.
“When the Mynahs Club contacted me and invited me for a birthday lunch, which is a great gesture, it dawned on me why,” he said. “They probably think I am getting so old they better do something with me before I’m not here any more. Well, I’m going to be here for a while still, perhaps reach three figures and not go out in the nineties again.”
Being in Watkins’s presence, there is never a dull moment. Everything is worth a laugh. He has a false eye and had no trouble taking it out and putting it on the table, much to to chagrin of his partner and two daughters. “It’s just for a laugh,” he said. “You should see when I put it in upside down. No one recognises me.”
Watkins lives in Durban North, in a block of flats, a few floors above his one daughter. He has enjoyed an active life, having played bowls and owned racehorses.
Perhaps the great English commentator and scribe Christopher Martin-Jenkins summed up Watkins’s approach to cricket and life best when he described him as “a right-handed batsman with a fine range of scoring strokes — his batting, like the man himself, was cavalier and joyous”.