Text & Photographs by Chris Marais
Just before everyone around here checks out for their Christmas holidays and heads down to the bright lights and vast beaches of Port Alfred, Kenton and Bushman’s River on the Sunshine Coast, there’s a final pressing matter to wrap up.
Who will own the right this year to hoist The Midland Bat, a large, lovely and very old cricketing trophy that has been fought over with great passion on the field of play since 1891?
Will it be the venerable Standard Club of Cradock or the Bedford XI?
The 2015 Game
As a Cradock-based cricket fan, I drove over to Bedford last year to catch the spirit of this famous match which was to be played at Spring Grove, an amazing farm tucked into the folds of the Winterberg Mountains on the Adelaide road.
In a former urban life, I have sat in the bleachers at The Wanderers Bullring in Johannesburg watching any number of Tests long and short. In later years I have faithfully attended many phenomenal cricket matches on farms throughout the Karoo.
One time, silly me, I nearly moved to Australia because of a glancing love affair with the Adelaide Cricket Oval and the terraced dining spots around it.
The Mill Cricket Ground
But now I can say this with confidence: nothing compares to the Mill Cricket Ground (MCG) at Spring Grove Farm.
The old mill now serves as a pop-up pub and dining area. It was built in 1840 and milled grain for the surrounding community for more than 140 years. In 1983 the miller, one Totoi Mdliva, was crushed in the mill machinery and killed. The mill was closed down, the millstones were removed and a water feature was built as a memorial to the unfortunate miller.
The cricket field is right next to it. All about is a thick cluster of ancient oak trees, providing excellent shade for spectators. Across from the field are the densely-foliated foothills of thicket, sweet-thorn and kudu, loads of kudu, lurking within.
It all looks and feels like an English country cricket scene – with a decidedly special African twist.
I arrived and the game was already on the go. As I set up my rather tedious amateur cricket photo gear, complete with tripod, I was struck by the rather pleasant buzz of young farming families chatting on picnic blankets, children darting here and there and a row of batsmen fidgeting on a log in the background, waiting their turn at the crease.
Lochart Ainslie of Spring Grove
The Laird of Spring Grove, Lochart Ainslie, rode up to me on his farm motorbike. Lochart is one of the colourful characters of Bedford, representing six generations of Ainslies to have settled here in the Cowie Valley. His son Hugh, playing primarily as a medium-fast bowler in the Bedford team, works the day-to-day farming operation at Spring Grove.
“These days,” said Lochart, “I plan, I ride my horse, I consult, I do office work and the tasks my son sets me.”
It was a mild day, great to be outdoors. Swallows swooped low over the outfield. Cows mooed in the background and there were sheep in a neighbouring field, their noses deep into the grazing.
Under the Oaks
We stood talking in the cool green shade of the massive oaks that grew from acorns brought over by the first Ainslie ancestors back in 1834.
“The children played with them on the ship on the way over from Scotland,” said Lochart.
I complimented him and the groundsman on the condition of the pitch which, especially for a farm cricket field, was near-perfection.
“We’ve played at some rougher venues in the district,” said Lochart. “I remember one match near Grahamstown where I had to evict a puffadder from Fine Leg and kick out a thorn tree sapling from Third Man.”
He said the field had been top-dressed with crushed anthills and tons of manure – easily obtainable from local sources.
The MCG at Spring Grove is a lot younger than the oaks that surround it. The pitch was only set up in 1998. Apart from The Midland Bat event, held in the first week of December every year, the highlight for the MCG was when the chaps from Bangladesh came to play a hand-picked provincial team.
Old Families at Play
We watched Bedford at bat. The spirit between the two teams was, as ever, tense but friendly. Down here in the Eastern Cape Midlands it pays to be civil. You never know when you might be buying a young bull or a stud ram from the bloke you just bowled a bodyline beamer at.
Those playing here remember seeing their fathers competing against one another, who in turn watched their fathers. The Bedford fellows usually come with Settler surnames like Pringle, Trollip, Hartley and Pitman. Cradock is a bit more of a mixed bag, with families like Copeman, Collett, Van Heerden and Du Toit in the team.
Every now and again the eighth generation at Spring Grove, in the form of two-year-old Blake Lochart Ainslie, attempted a pitch invasion to give his dad a helping hand in the field. He had to be scooped away at Silly Mid-On by his mother Marcelle.
The Cradock side also has a very pleasant home ground near the Great Fish River. Standard Club itself was founded back in 1864. I tried to dig into club records, only to find that most of the good historical stuff had been lost in the floods of 1974.
Old Boy Michael Antrobus
I spoke to Michael Antrobus, whose name is also etched on one of the winners’ plaques on the side of the trophy along with those of his father, uncle and brother.
“Getting together eleven good men who could wield a bat wasn’t always easy,” he said.
From time to time, Michael’s dad (Philip Antrobus) would end up going ‘round to all the local hotels to see if there were any able and willing staff and guests to make up the numbers.
“And then, of course, in hindsight, it was really good that we didn’t win The Midland Bat in 1973, because it would have been lost in the floods that hit us in the following year.”
You can trust an Eastern Cape farmer to find the wry humour in just about any situation.
The Legendary Midland Bat
I wandered off in search of the trophy. I was directed to the bar counter, where it stood. The only time The Midland Bat was not contested (and over the decades other district teams were also involved) was during the Anglo-Boer (South African) War, when matters between Boer and Brit were a little volatile around here.
After the lunch break, Standard went out to bat, having been set a target of 150 runs. I thought it would be easy-peasy (Standard has some stellar strikers), but Hugh Ainslie put paid to those ambitions with some early wickets and The Midland Bat remained, for 2016, in the deep and shady recesses of The Mill Pub.
But next month beckons, and by all accounts it will be a tough match. Look out, Bedford. The boys from over the Fish are on their way again…
Update: Standard won! The 2017 Midland Bat will be contested in Cradock.