South Africa – referred to the third umpire!

One of the original motivations for building this site was to create a reference point for people interested in buying online. To help them differentiate between the genuine bargain and the occasional item advertised online that wasn’t the original piece it claimed to be.

When I first saw a South Africa team for sale on eBay I assumed that it fell into this latter category.

But a recent article in The Hobby Magazine discussing Subbuteo’s Special Painting Service made wonder if there was another explanation.

From time to time various South Africa sets have come up for sale on eBay. Often labelled “rare”. Sometimes with a high price tag. Characterised by having darker green caps than the common Australia team, they stand apart from the TC-A sets because they were never part of the published Subbuteo product range.

From the introduction of the TC-A fielding team sets in 1966/67 to the discontinuation of the range in the mid-80s, price lists and brochures always only list five variants – Standard Blue, Standard Red, England, Australia and the West Indies. The Test Match Edition box set also only ever features two of the latter three teams.

So had Subbuteo also produced some South Africa sets at some stage?

The first “third” umpire I contacted was Peter Upton, whose website is the reference for all things Subbuteo.

Peter told me that he first saw a South African badged set for sale via the Subbuteo World website as far back as 2001-03. This was in the early days of online collecting before “rare” claims, he felt, had really started. The labelling suggested to him it could be from the late 1960s or early 70s. The cap colour matched another set that he’s seen subsequently from another collector.

However, Peter added: “I don’t doubt that most (if not all!) the ones on eBay are fake. Subbuteo is very easy to fake – especially with a few vintage paints….. From my experience, most of the rarer Subbuteo footie teams are much scarcer than eBay would have you believe.”

I have seen a few examples of Australian TC-A sets that were painted with a darker green than usual caps, presumably when stock was needed and the usual shade not available. You can find these occasionally – there’s a picture of one on the Australia page.

It may be that sets of these that didn’t have labels still attached were mistaken for South Africa sets? Or even subsequently labelled South Africa by retailers or owners.

However, I have also read on one blog that a small run of sets could have been produced by Subbuteo for a specific retailer who had demand for them. So the next “third umpire” I contacted was Subbuteo historian Paul Lloyd, who contributed to the Hobby article.

I asked Paul if Subbuteo had ever extended the Special Painting Service from football to cricket as well?

Paul told me: “As far as I know I have never heard of any. Back in the day, there were abnormalities on all products, mainly due to the painters doing things wrong across all the products, and SSG would just send them out regardless.

“So if a painter used the wrong shade on caps it would go out, and so on. Also to be considered is the fact that some stockists customised football, rugby and cricket teams to represent their local sides. These can get back on the market and cause confusion.

There could have been specials, but considering the game itself wasn’t a huge seller, who knows?”

For my part I think I’ve over-turned my original decision. Or at least given the SA batsman the benefit of the doubt!

I do think it’s clear that South Africa were never part of the official Subbuteo range, but you can’t rule out that some sets could have been produced as a special order. And that, just occasionally, one might come up for sale.

Like Peter my guess is that most (if not all) of the sets offered for sale purporting to be TC-A South Africa are not genuine Subbuteo pieces. At best they are the Australian sets that were painted with a darker green. Most probably they are re-paints by players wanting a full set of test nations – and why not?

I bought my set assuming that’s exactly what it is, but having no way of telling for sure.

But if I wanted a South Africa set today, I think I’d commission one of the excellent painters around to produce one rather than pay a premium on eBay for a fake “genuine rare” set. Or, better still, buy one of Hoggard 3D Designs great newly designed sets!

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