As many as 18 wickets fell before lunch on August 31, 1888 as England got caught on a ‘sticky’ wicket. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the day when Bobby Peel and treacherous combined to claim the Ashes for England.
England had a relatively easy mission in the 1888 Ashes. They had already won the one-off Ashes Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) earlier that year (Bobby Peel and George Lohmann had picked up 18 wickets between them as Australia had crashed to 42 and 82). All they now required was to defend the urn at home.
Australia pulled off a major upset on the rain-affected pitch at Lord’s despite scoring 116 in the first innings (and 60 in the second). Peel picked up eight wickets and Lohmann six, but Charlie Turner and JJ Ferris did a better job, claiming ten and eight wickets respectively (they bowled 93 of the 97 four-ball overs Australia bowled. The Test lasted only 792 balls — thus making it the shortest Test at that time.
The Oval saw a change of fortune. After Johnny Briggs bowled out Australia for 80 fifties from Bobby Abel, Billy Barnes, and Lohmann helped England pile up 317 — the only 200-plus score in the series. Peel and Barnes then bowled Australia for 100. The teams moved to Old Trafford for the decider.
Day One: England pile on after lucky toss
It had rained heavily — as it often does in Manchester — for a few days before the Test. The pitch was already difficult to play and it was evident that it would deteriorate as the Test would go on, making the toss extremely crucial. WG Grace won the toss for the first time and elected to bat in front of 8,080 people had braved the weather to come to watch the contest.
The Test began in dramatic fashion with WG Grace on strike as Percy McDonnell gave the first over to Ferris; at the other end Turner clean bowled Abel without a run on the board, and when he got to bowl at George Ulyett he bowled him first ball as well. England were six for two.
Grace needed someone to hang around with him. He knew that a low score — even in the range of 125 — would be sufficient for Peel, Lohmann, and Briggs to lead England to a victory. He was there all right, but he needed a partner.
He found his man in Walter Read, who had led England to their Ashes victory earlier that year. Read played a few strokes, but it was Grace who impressed. Playing on a vicious track against the trio Ferris, Turner, and Sammy Woods he dominated a 52-run partnership with Read before the latter was bowled by a peach from Turner.
Grace had decided to keep the counterattack going as he played several beautiful strokes before trying to clear the long-on fence off Turner. George Bonnor, standing on the fence, seemed to have misread the trajectory with the Sun, now visible, straight into his eyes. He saw it at the last moment, stretched his right hand upwards, and plucked it out of thin air.
The Doctor’s 38 would, somewhat strangely, remain the highest score of the Test. He had hit six boundaries. It was perhaps fitting that the owner of a frame that huge (and owner of the second-most famous beard of 19th century cricket) would catch WG.
At 59 for four Australia probably still stood with a chance, but Barnes and Frank Sugg then got together and added 37 for the fifth wicket. Wickets kept falling at regular intervals, and at 135 for nine England were already on the driver’s seat. It was then that Briggs added 37 with Dick Pilling for the last wicket and took the Test virtually out of Australia’s grasp.
Turner had bowled almost unchanged, sending down 55 overs (36.4 six-ball overs) to finish with five for 86. Ferris and Woods finished with a couple apiece, and England eventually finished at a potentially match-winning 172. It would turn out to be the second-highest score of the Ashes.
England began poorly: Alec Bannerman was clean bowled by Peel for one, and play ended when Peel had McDonnell caught by Grace. Australia finished on 32 for two with Harry Trott on 14. They were still 140 runs behind. The follow-on margin at that age being 80, they still needed to score 61 more to make England bat again.
Day Two: 147 minutes of mayhem
Bonnor walked out to join Trott in front of a crowd of 14,000. Even if Australia had been able to avoid the follow-on saving the Test was next to impossible, given the extent to which the Sun had baked the wicket after the incessant rain.
Three runs into the day Trott could not keep his balance and was stumped off Peel. The Yorkshireman clean bowled Jack Edwards and Turner for ducks; Bonnor was run out; and when Briggs (who had replaced Lohmann by now) eventually claimed Woods the situation looked hopeless at 45 for seven.
Jack Blackham and Jack Lyons then came together, trying to carve out a partnership and take England to the coveted 93-run mark. Lyons, in particular, played some dazzling strokes; he eventually holed out to Lohmann off Peel for 22, the highest score of the innings. Lohmann, now back, himself picked up Blackham at the other end.
Peel then finished off things by bowling Jack Worrall; the last three wickets had all fallen on 81; Peel had bowled unchanged, picking up seven for 31 while Lohmann and Briggs managed a wicket each. Ahead by 91 Grace might have contemplated batting again, but he probably decided to put the tourists out of their misery.
So Bannerman and McDonnell walked out again at 12.40. Peel started proceedings, and had Bannerman caught by Grace at silly-point off the first ball of the innings. Trott walked out, survived the hat-trick, and played out the over.
At the other end, McDonnell tried to break the shackles and was clean bowled by Lohmann. Trott and Bonnor scampered for a leg-bye before Peel removed Bonnor in exactly the same fashion as he had removed Bannerman: caught by Grace at silly-point. Three for one.
The pressure kept mounting as Peel and Lohmann gave nothing away: Abel then ran out Trott ‘cleverly’, and still on with his wiles, Lohmann bowled Blackham and Woods off consecutive deliveries. England were now seven for six, and looked like getting bowled out for a single-digit score.
Lyons, promoted to six, got together with Turner. Both batsmen knew that they could not do anything by surviving, and decided to hit out. Lyons got a reprieve when he was on two when Read dropped an easy catch. After that they, as Wisden said, “played up with a lot of energy and determination, hitting very hard and scoring fast.”
The pair added 48 in half-an-hour before Turner was bowled by Briggs, who had now replaced Lohmann. A run later Edwards went the same caught-Grace-at-silly-point-off-Peel way as The Doctor, at an age of 40, came up with a spectacular left-handed catch.
As lunch approached Peel had Ferris caught by Abel. Briggs ran through a helpless Lyons’ defence. Lyons had followed his 22 with a 32 on this pitch against the three champions: the performance was possibly worth a couple of hundreds. Australia were bowled out for 70 with eight minutes to go for lunch. They had lost 18 wickets in a session.
Peel had bowled unchanged throughout the Test: his match figures read 11 for 68 from 42.2 overs (28.2 six-ball overs). Lohmann and Briggs picked up three and two wickets in the second innings respectively. England won by an innings and 21 runs, and the Ashes had been regained.
England had been bowled out in 69 minutes in their second innings. The Test, four balls shorter than the Lord’s Test, was now the new shortest Test in terms of balls bowled.
England retained the Ashes in 1890 (2-0) but eventually conceded it in 1891-92 when they lost the series 1-2.
The record for the shortest decided Test changed hands in 1931-32 at MCG where Australia (153) beat South Africa (36 and 45) despite Don Bradman not being able to bat in a Test that lasted 656 balls. Three years later England beat West Indies at Kensington Oval in a Test that lasted 672 balls.
The shortest Test, of course, remains the ten-ball Test at North Sound in 2008-09 between England and West Indies that had to be called off because the bowlers’ run-ups were unfit for play.
England 172 (WG Grace 38, Charlie Turner 5 for 86) beat Australia 81 (Bobby Peel 7 for 31) and 70 (John Lyons 32, Bobby Peel 4 for 37, George Lohmann 3 for 20) by an innings and 21 runs.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components — cricket and literature — though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)