Authors: John Miller
Tags: #Sports & Recreation/Cricket
What a memorable day it must have been at Melbourne Cricket Ground on 15 March 1877, when Australia’s Charles Bannerman took strike to the first ball in Test cricket from Englishman Alfred Shaw. Bannerman scored the first Test century, the only one he made, and the public subscribed a pound for each of his 165 runs, a gesture that put him into a state of relative affluence. The drama unfolded before play as Australia’s finest bowler Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth refused to play because the wicket-keeper he favoured, Billy Murdoch, hadn’t been chosen.
Cricket had already established itself in the two countries by the time of that first Test. By 1803 cricket was being played in Australia. Cricketers in stockinged feet had to keep an eye out for cow pats as they chased handmade leather balls. Pads and gloves were unheard of and bats were made of hard, local timbers that stung the hands. The game in England stretches back further, having developed from a village green game played in the early sixteenth century into a popular summer sport by the middle of the seventeenth century.
It was on Broadhalfpenny Down in Hampshire that the Hambledon Club made the game famous in the mid-1700s. All bowling was underarm and bowlers chose the strips of turf on which matches were played. Fielders smoked on the field and catches were sometimes spilled by those too slow in stowing away pipes. Players wore coats with velvet collars, knee breeches, stockings, shoes with big buckles that could tear fieldsmen’s fingers and Billycock hats, a form of bowler hat. When Arthur Phillip set off for Australia in May 1787 with his fleet, the Surrey, Kent and White Conduit clubs were strong enough to fully extend an All England eleven. A group of cricketers from these teams formed the Star and Garter Club, which issued a set of formal rules.
In the nineteenth century the game continued to grow in popularity through inter-club, inter-county and inter-colony matches. Several club tours took place between the nations, a group of Aboriginal cricketers toured England in 1868 and All England teams made three tours of Australia. It was not until March 1877 that Australian colonies joined forces to take on a touring England side, thus becoming the first national contest.
It was sunny and warm at 1pm on Thursday 15 March 1877 when Bannerman faced the first ball. The ground boasted a new grandstand built for £4678. It had 2000 adjustable seats which faced towards cricket in summer but reversed to face Australian Rules football in Richmond Park in winter. By the end of day one Australia was 6–166 with Bannerman 126 not out. His innings ended when a fast ball from George Ulyett split one of his fingers, causing his retirement, and Australia made 245. England replied with 196 and Billy Midwinter was Australia’s best bowler with 5–78. Australia collapsed in the second innings to be all out for 104 with Shaw snaring five wickets. England was always going to struggle after their first wicket fell for nought. A steady procession followed as left-arm fast bowler Tom Kendall took seven wickets and England was dismissed for 108. The crowd of about 3000 gave both teams a hearty reception.
They played again in Melbourne from 31 March and English pride was restored with a four-wicket win despite Spofforth’s quick bowling. Australia made 122 and England replied with 261. An opening stand of 88 by captain Dave Gregory and Nathaniel Thompson ate into the deficit but wickets then fell steadily. England began poorly in the chase for 120 with three wickets down for nine and, even at 5–76, the match was anyone’s. Ulyett (63) then hammered his side to the brink of victory.
Australia had an enviable array of bowlers who brought success at Melbourne in 1879. A morning thunderstorm failed to dissuade captain Lord Harris from batting after winning the toss, and before lunch England was 7–26 with Spofforth taking the first Test hat-trick. Harris and Charles Absolom lifted England to 113 but Australia was 3–95 at stumps. The next day Alec Bannerman (73), younger brother of Charles, led Australia to a lead of 143. In reply England only just avoided an innings defeat, making 160. Spofforth’s figures of 6–48 and 7–62 confirmed him as the world’s best.
Throughout the era a large number of women attended matches, turning them into fashion parades. Crowds of 20,000 were common for intercolonial and international matches. A new stand opened in Adelaide in 1882 was repeatedly filled by women eager to be seen in the latest fashions.
‘In affectionate remembrance of English cricket, which died at The Oval, 29th August, 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances, R.I.P.N.B. The body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia.’ This is the mock obituary penned in 1882 for England’s
newspaper by journalist Reginald Brooks and which gave birth to one of the world’s great sporting rivalries.
The August 1882 Test at the Oval was not the first between the two countries and it wasn’t Australia’s first victory. What made it significant was that it was the first victory by the ‘Colonials’ on English soil. How could these ‘uncivilised Colonials’ from the other side of the world possibly match it with the English at home, where the game had been invented?
Even before the Test the Australians showed they could worry the home side as the batsmen hammered respected bowlers while bowlers and fielders performed heroically. In the opening game in Oxford, Hugh Massie scored 100 before lunch and 200 before tea. At Brighton, captain Billy Murdoch took over as Australia’s match winner with 268 not out in 643. Joey Palmer took 8–48 and 6–62. The match at Twickenham against Orleans was more even and featured two big hitters—CI Thornton for Orleans and George ‘ the Colonial Hercules’ Bonnor for Australia. On arrival in England Bonnor won a bet he had made on the boat by throwing a ball almost 110 metres. He was out for a duck in Australia’s innings of 75 after Orleans had made 271. Following on, Australia was rescued by 107 not out from Murdoch. Thornton made some massive hits in his 25 but Bonnor the biggest of all when he hit a ball over the top of a house next to the ground. Australia was 9–240 when time ran out.
The Australians went ten weeks without defeat despite lack of form by fast bowler Fred Spofforth. Cambridge University ended their winning run as Robert Ramsay, also known as ‘Twisting Tommy’ because of his ‘curly leg breaks’, caused problems for the visitors, taking 12–179 for the match. At Nottingham it was discovered too late that the Australians were expected to bring their own lunch and eat it on the ground with the opposing professionals, who usually resorted to bread, cheese and beer. When manager James Beal remonstrated with Nottingham secretary Captain Holder, he was informed there was no agreement to provide lunch. Holder, known as ‘Hellfire Jack’, then went into a ten-minute tirade, arguing that it was sufficient honour to play at Trent Bridge without being fed. ‘Say no more about it! I will positively hear no more‚’ he added. Beal merely smiled and said, ‘But you have had all the say yourself.’ Holder ignored him and produced a cigar. ‘Will some Englishman give me a light?’ he asked. Australian George Bonnor overheard him and exploded. ‘I am such an Englishman as you are! You or any gentleman present. I can trace my family back for six generations, and I wonder if you can do the same.’
At Lord’s, the touring side turned in a fine display to defeat the Gentlemen: George Giffen took 8–47 in the first innings, and Bonnor hit the bowling to all parts of the field with three sixes in 74. At Chichester against a United Eleven Tom Horan hit form with 112 in Australia’s 501 and then made 141 out of 450 against Gloucestershire. Australia’s worst defeat was at Derby against Players. With Spofforth unavailable, Australia was well beaten and defeat by Cambridge Past and Present followed.
The Australians reached the Oval late in August 1882 for the tour’s only international, with an impressive record and concerns only over the form of Spofforth. They need not have worried as he made the victory possible, taking 7–46 in England’s first innings and 7–44 in the second.
The tension at the Oval was great among the 20,000 strong capacity crowd. Australia began badly on a pitch affected by two days’ rain when all-rounder George Ulyett uprooted Massie’s leg stump. With the score at 1–20 England sent down fourteen maidens. Murdoch then played on when thirteen, Bonnor was bowled for one, Bannerman caught at point by WG Grace, and Horan and Giffen were bowled. At 6–30 Tom Garrett and Jack Blackham put on 18 before the former was caught at long-off. The others fell cheaply and Australia was bowled out for 63 by slow left-handers Richard Barlow (5–19) and Ted Peate.
England appeared to be in the box seat but did little better, and when the score reached 15 Spofforth bowled a yorker, dismissing Grace for 4. Three runs later he had Barlow caught at point. Ulyett and Alfred ‘Bunny’ Lucas advanced to 50 before Ulyett tried to drive Spofforth and was stumped. Lucas was caught at the wicket and England was 4–59. Charles Studd was bowled without scoring and with scores level, Edward Lyttelton was caught off the glove. England managed 38 more with Maurice Read’s 19 not out cheered wildly. Spofforth bowled with fire stirred by derogatory remarks overheard in the pavilion.
On the second day in front of another 20,000, Australia adopted a plan with defensive Bannerman holding up one end and aggressive Massie hitting every thing. It worked, with Massie scoring 55 in 45 minutes, a score that helped make victory possible. He inspired Murdoch to send in Bonnor, who added 4. Bannerman made 13 but others showed little resistance, apart from Murdoch who needed all his skill to survive. At 6–99 Sam Jones joined the captain and began well, collecting six in a few deliveries. Murdoch took a single to Grace at point, Jones touched his crease to pat down a bump in the pitch. Lyttelton picked up the ball and threw it to Grace, who whipped off the bails and appealed for a run-out. Jones walked back to his crease only to see the umpire’s finger go up.
Further disaster struck at 8–122 as Murdoch was run out for 29. The innings ended at 122 with England needing 85. The Jones run-out pushed Australia to an even more determined effort. Spofforth was furious at what he saw as poor sportsmanship and asked his skipper, ‘What do you think of what happened to young Jones?’ ‘It wasn’t the most courteous piece of sportsmanship I’ve seen, Fred,’ was the response. These words incited Spofforth who said, ‘I swear to you, England will not win this.’
As players left the ground for the change of innings, spectator George Spendlove, 48, stood up to stretch after telling his friend Edwin Dyne he didn’t feel well. Spendlove had a brain haemorrhage and collapsed. Dyne called for a doctor, as did others. Dr WG Grace heard them and rushed to the stricken gentleman. After a cursory look Grace ordered that Spendlove be carried to the room above the pavilion. He examined the patient but the man could not be helped and was dead a few minutes later. Grace then had to clean up before padding up and walking out to bat. The incident resulted in the normal ten-minute break being stretched out to twenty.
At 3.45pm Grace and Hornby walked out to begin the job with the crowd concentrating on every ball. Hornby wished to make amends after batting at number ten in the first innings and being bowled by Spofforth for two. The openers scored seven singles with each applauded as if they had been hit for six. With fifteen on the board Spofforth bowled Hornby with a ball described ‘as the quickest on English soil in a decade’. His next delivery turned sharply from the off to scatter Barlow’s stumps. Grace and Ulyett took the score to 50 and with only 35 needed England seemed certain of victory. Murdoch noted a darkening sky and told Spofforth to bowl from the pavilion end as his right arm would be less easy to pick up in the poorer light. He responded, lifting his rating further, and bowled his ‘break-back’ ball, which cut into the right-hander from outside off stump, ten times in succession before delivering a straight one. This confused Ulyett who was caught by wicket-keeper Blackham low on the leg side at 51, and two runs later Grace hit an off-drive from Harry Boyle into Bannerman’s hands at mid-off to be dismissed for 32.
The crowd’s mixture of stunned silence and wild cheering helped unnerve the batsmen, and Horan observed that the incoming batsmen had ashen faces and parched lips. Lyttelton off-drove Boyle for four then he and Lucas lifted the score slowly. At 4–64, twenty short, both batsmen began a period of scoreless defence. In almost total silence, twelve maidens were bowled with Lyttelton avoiding Spofforth. The speedster had a word with Murdoch, who spoke to fielders forward of the wicket, including Bannerman. Boyle delivered a slower ball and Lyttelton drove to Bannerman, who deliberately misfielded, letting the batsmen take a single. Lyttelton was stranded at one end for four overs facing Spofforth, who finally bowled an unplayable break-back ball that crashed into his stumps, putting England 5–66. Although needing 19, the batsmen seemed to have lost the ability to get the ball past fielders.
Number seven Read ran hard as Lucas took twos, to the delight of the crowd. After an over Read had to face Spofforth, whose first ball shaved his off stump and the next sent his middle stump tumbling. He repeated the dose next ball by dismissing AG Steel. England was still in the box seat as Lucas was there and top-class professional William Barnes had joined him. Barnes hit two, Blackham allowed three byes and it was 7–75 with ten needed. Lucas played on to his stumps off Spofforth and was replaced by in-form Studd, who hit two centuries against Australia that summer but who was taking the pressure badly. Murdoch caught Barnes from the first ball of Boyle’s nineteenth over without addition. Last man Peate joined Studd and swung wildly at his first ball to score two. He swiped at the next and was almost bowled, then swung again at the last ball of Boyle’s over and was bowled, giving Australia a seven-run victory.
The crowd was voiceless for an instant and then let out a roar, many jumping the fence to congratulate the players. Some people fainted, many had chewed their nails and one gnawed away part of his umbrella handle. In the dressing room Spofforth danced, singing ‘I’m a demon! I’m a demon’. He had bowled ten maidens in his last eleven overs and taken 4–2 off seven balls. From that moment Englishmen knew Australia offered the sternest of challenges to their national eleven—and their pride.
England fought back and won the 1882–83 series in Australia 2–1. Murdoch’s team won the first Test in Melbourne against Ivo FW Bligh’s team by nine wickets. It was reversed next time in Melbourne when England scored 293 and bundled out the home side for 114 and 153 in the ‘Billy Bates match’ as the Yorkshireman made 55 and took fourteen wickets, including a hat-trick. The teams moved to Sydney for the decider. Mrs Annie Fletcher, wife of the Paddington Cricket Club secretary, offered to provide the English captain with a bag in which he could take home the Ashes. Bligh enjoyed the joke and Mrs Fletcher made the velvet bag herself. In the Test, England scored 247. Australia, with Bannerman’s 94, struggled to 218 before Spofforth took 7–44 to reduce England to 123. This left Australia 153 to win but this time it was their nerve that failed, reaching 83 with Barlow taking 7–40. Mrs Fletcher presented her embroidered bag to Bligh.
The tour finished in Melbourne with a game against Victoria. After the home side was successful a group of young Melbourne women, led by Florence Rose Morphy, presented a small urn containing burned bails to Bligh, thinking this more appropriate for the Ashes than the velvet bag. Now the Ashes existed and there was a trophy for the nations to contest. After Bligh’s death in 1927 his widow presented the urn to Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord’s and it never left there again until it toured Australia in 2006–07.