Friday, 24 August 2012

Gay Alison Erskine

It was in the early 1950s that farmer Jack decided to build a squash-court on his Headlands property to give his five children something to do when the weather was too bad for them to go riding. But so avidly did the kids take to the new sport that father was forced to listen to the incessant thud of the ball against the walls of the court. The horses were not ridden for weeks on end.

And so, from this humble concrete-floor court on a farmstead, emerged Rhodesia's most famous squash family — the Warburtons.

David, Deirdre, Gay, Jill and Beverley were all destined to become champions and so, too, was father Jack. But when the remarkable Warburton success story is told, it is always Gay (who was to marry another squash champion, Nicol Erskine) who is given pride of place.

In the country's boom sport of the 70s, Gay Erskine is deservedly recognised as its most outstanding personality — male or female. In fact, if a poll was taken to name the most outstanding sportswoman in the nation's history, she would probably emerge top.

In cold statistics, her squash record is highly impressive. She was twelve times Rhodesian champion between 1963 and 1977; fourteen times Mashonaland champion between 1959 and 1975; South African champion three times (1965, 1966.1968) and a Springbok in five different years (1963,1968,1973,1975 and 1976), covering more than a dozen Test appearances.

At the peak of her career among the world's top ten players, Gay was honoured with the Springbok captaincy in four of her five years — only the fourth Rhodesian to lead a South African Test team in a major sport, following Margot Boileau (who led the unbeaten Springbok hockey team to the world tournament at Sydney in 1956), C. V. Irvine (hockey) and Des van Jaarsveldt (rugby).

To cap her achievements. Gay Erskine was named Rhodesia's Sportsman of the Year for 1973, receiving the handsome John Hopley Memorial Trophy on the night of 2 November at a glittering banquet in the Old Meikles dining-room at Salisbury. A distinguished gathering of over 200 people gave her a standing ovation when guest of honour, Dr. Danie Craven, the president of the South African Rugby Board, presented the trophy.

"Thank you for giving me this great moment;' stammered Gay. "I am very lucky to have been chosen from such a wealth of sporting talent."

She had been given the vote ahead of four male sportsmen — George Harvey (golf), Ian Robertson (rugby), Steve Sherren (squash) and Allan Peake (hockey) and richly deserved the accolade as the country's supreme sports star after being a finalist for the award in 1967 and 1968.

Gay Alison Erskine was born on 27 November 1943, at Rusape. She began playing squash at the age of nine in that farmstead court and was to rise to become Rhodesia's greatest player by dominating the sport for fifteen years. She attended Salisbury Convent High School and went on to become a qualified Chartered Accountant.

Deirdre (Thomson) holds the distinction of winning the Warburton family's first women's national squash title in 1959, with fifteen-year-old Gay the runner- up. There were no national tournaments from 1960-62 but Gay came to the forefront in 1963 with her first title. She was to win it for four years in succession before being beaten in the 1967 final... by her sister Jill (Ogilvie).

Even to finish runner-up that year was a remarkable feat, for Gay had given birth to her first child just two months before the final. Gay was champion again in 1968 but the next year could not enter because she was pregnant with her second child, leaving the title again to her sister Jill. Back came Gay to reclaim her rightful crown in 1970 and 1971 before the advent of her third child put her out of the 1972 championship.

The champion that year was Ann Papenfus, who thus broke a ten-year stranglehold on the coveted title by the Warburton family.

But Gay's name was not off the Frank Barbour Cup for long and she swept to victory in the next five years (1973-77) before emigrating to Australia in 1978 with her husband Nic and her three children, to give other lesser mortals a chance of the glory. It was Sue Paton, also a Springbok, who took the title in 1978 before herself leaving the country as a once-only champion.

Gay Erskine's first Springbok colours came in 1963 when South Africa lost all three Tests to England. But Southern African standards improved rapidly and after the South African championships at Port Elizabeth in July 1967, Gay was named Springbok captain for the first time in the team to tour Britain early the following year. Her colleagues were D. Holton (Northern Transvaal), E. Allnut (Eastern Province), J. Eckstein (Western Province) and C. Van Veen, with Warburton sister Jill, the reserve.

In that 1967 South African championship, Gay — the champion in 1965 and 1966 — surrendered her title to Jill Eckstein, who won 2-9, 9-0, 9-7, 9-2. The sporting Rhodesian would make no excuses for the fact that she was not up to peak fitness for her hat-trick bid. But just four months previously she had become a mother for the first time and this, naturally, greatly disrupted her training and it was to her great credit that she managed to reach the final.

However, earlier in the week she had beaten Eckstein 3-1 when Rhodesia met Western Province in an inter-provincial match, but by the time of the South African individual final, a full week of top-class squash, with two matches a day, had drained Gay and left her too weak for a fight back in the final against a teenager with superior stamina.

The Springbok captaincy was the highpoint of her career and the team flew to Britain in January 1968 to make history in more ways than one. Not only was Gay the first Rhodesian to lead a Springbok squash team, but it was also the first South African national squash team to travel outside the country. This time the Boks were more successful, beating Wales, Scotland, Canada and America and losing to England.

That was unquestionably her golden year. In June she won the Rhodesian title for the eighth time, and the following month led Rhodesia to conclusive victory in the South African inter-provincials at Port Elizabeth. Not only did the team win the Kaplan Cup for the second successive year, but they collected maximum points for the first time in the history of the tournament.

Gay's victory over the brilliant Kathy Malan was the biggest upset of the week and an inspiration to her team, but in the South African individual championship a few days later, Malan gained her revenge in the semifinals. The week ended with a match between Rhodesia and a visiting British team and Gay was the only Rhodesian to win, upsetting the English number one, Jane Barham.

Then came the Springbok-Britain Tests, with Gay capping her momentous year by winning the Mashonaland title for the twelfth time and finally being acclaimed Sportsman of the Year.

This was the first time this award had gone to a squash player, underlining the tremendous growth in popularity and standards in the sport. From 1970-73, for instance, over 100 squash-courts were erected in Rhodesia as the sport boomed, culminating in the building at Salisbury Sports Club of the world's biggest spectator glass-backed court, capable of holding an audience of 500.

Squash, too, was one sport which was able to beat off the strangling effects of isolation caused by the country's Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, and for several years the world's best men's players were seen at the Salisbury UDC court, always headed by world champion Geoff Hunt.

Despite sanctions, Gay Erskine continued to be a Springbok, and after captaining Rhodesia to success in the Kaplan Cup at East London and winning the Champion of Champions tournament at Johannesburg, she was again named South Africa's captain for the home Tests against New Zealand in 1975, which were won 3-0.

Playing at number three, Gay and Robin Davies were locked at 2-2 in games in the first Test. The Kiwi jumped to a 7-0 lead in the final fifth game, but Gay rallied magnificently to win 9-7. In the second Test Gay beat Davis 0-9,9-0,4-9,9-6,9-0.

Gay's final selection for the Springboks was for a six-week trip to Australia in 1976 when she was again the captain and her team-mates were V. Bridgens, K. Hardy, J. Eckstein and Rhodesia's Sue Paton, the Test reserve and winner of the world plate event.

Gay Erskine was a member of the Rhodesian team which won the South African inter-provincial Kaplan Cup on its inception in 1961 and again in 1962, 1967, 1968, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 and in her last year 1978.

In May 1976 she was beaten for the first time in the final of the Mashonaland championships when Ann Papenfus became champion. Gay, who had always played in the men's first league, had been triumphant in every one of the fourteen years she had played in this tournament before losing to Papenfus and then finishing runner-up again the next year to Sue Paton.

Gay's three sisters and her brother all gained Rhodesian colours and their record is likewise impressive. Dave was Mashonaland champion twelve times between 1960 and 1975 and three times Rhodesian champion (1961, 1963, 1974), the first two occasions being when he beat Chris Andersen in the final. He has also been runner-up seven times for the national title, with Ian Dowdeswell, Steve Sherren and Tommy Tarr denying him victories.

Deirdre was women's national champion in 1959 and Jill was winner in 1967 and 1969 and runner-up on seven occasions. Beverley was Mashonaland champion in 1969 and runner-up in the Rhodesian championships in 1966 and 1969.

Their father, John H. 'Jack' Warburton, has been Rhodesian veterans champion six times, from 1964 to 1968 straight and, in 1973, and to cap this amazing family squash saga, Gay's husband, Nic, was Rhodesian champion in 1965.

Federal championships:
Winner 1961. Runner-up 1962, 1963 to Mrs. B. Boon.
Rhodesian championships: Winner - 1963. 1964, 1965.1966. 1968. 1970,1971, 1973, 1974.  1975, 1976, 1977. Runner-up - 1967. Did not play - 1969. 1972, 1978.
Mashonaland championships: Winner — 1959. 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964. 1965. 1966. 1967.  1968, 1970. 1971. 1973, 1974. 1975. Runner-up 1976, 1977. Did not play - 1969. 1972. 1978. No tournament - 1962.
South African championships: Winner - 1965, 1966, 1968. Runner-up -1967, 1974.
Springbok series — 1963 (v. Britain), 1968 (captain on tour to U.K.). 1973 (captain v. Britain), 1975  (captain v. New Zealand), 1976 (captain on tour to Australia).

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At 1 September 2012 at 08:11 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Murray (Hoffie) Hofmeyr Write:-

The very good write-up on Gay (Warburton) Erskine brought back memories of the first and thankfully, last time I played her. One evening I was summoned (probably by Peter K) from my room at Sarum single quarters to help out as the squash team was short a member. I was introduced to my opponent, an attractive young lady, but being more of a rugby and tennis enthusiast the name did not ring any warning bells ! To sum the match up, Gay did not take her tracksuit top off and I broke at least one racket. While still in the squash court equivalent of Intensive Care I was told that she was off down South to play for the Springboks the following week !

When it so happened at a later date, that I had to play her father Jack, I did at least know who he was but he did look a bit old compared to my picture of myself as a very fit young aviator. With a great deal of running I won the first game while Jack seemed to just stand somewhere near the T. It wasn't until he had very convincingly won the next 3 games that I realised that he had spent the first game sizing me up before administering the coup de grace. I won't even go into Deidre's ability to lob the ball so that it ran down the back wall and fell lifeless into the nick.

A truly remarkable sporting family.

At 9 September 2012 at 01:01 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Les Booth (RhAF 30 LAR) Writes:

Re the comments given by Murray (Hoffie) Hofmeyr on “The very good write-up on Gay (Warburton) Erskine”

I too had the honour (embarrassment?) of playing a game of squash with Jack Warburton. This is my story.

I used to play 3rd league squash and played for the New Sarum team while based there (’73 to ’75). One of our matches was against the Salisbury Sports Club and I, being the number one player, was drawn against non other than Jack Warburton. Of course, I had no idea of who he was or else I would have been better prepared (for my loss and embarrassment).

Anyway, I was a super-fit young buck (21 years old?) and ran down the stairs and onto the court waiting for my opponent to start the warm-up session. In “shuffled” (this was part of the deception!!) what appeared to me, this “old” man with knee braces on both knees and an elbow brace on his playing arm. He also had pale old looking eyes (again my mistake – they were “hawk eyes”).

So I started by hitting the ball across to Jack for the warm-up, but he just rolled the ball back to me and said, “you carry on young man, I’m too old to waste my energy on warming the ball up” (more of the deception!). So I hammered the ball up and down and practised some of my shots while Jack leaned against the wall observing me (more of his tactics).

When satisfied that the ball was warm enough, I spun my racket to determine who served first, and guess what, Jack won the toss so he served.

Well, 12 ½ minutes later at 9-1, 9-0, 9-0 to Jack, we walked off the court. There was absolutely no answer or tactic I could use against his deadly accurate shots. What an embarrassment and a true lesson in life - Never underestimate your opponent!!

At 9 September 2012 at 01:04 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Mike Daly (Air Rhod) Writes:-

I have taken the liberty of sending the newsletter on to Gay Erskine. Her husband, Nick, also a very accomplished squash player, was my biology teacher at Prince Edward. I am still in regular contact with them in Australia.

They both STILL play Veterans league.


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