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England versus Australia: The Sydney Riots and the first Test to be cancelled because of bookies

England versus Australia: The Sydney Riots and the first Test to be cancelled because of bookies

Lord Harris © Getty Images

February 8, 1879, riots broke out at the Sydney Association Ground over a decision against the home team during a match between New South Wales and the visiting Englishmen. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the sensational events that led to the cancellation of the Test match that was scheduled to follow.

George Robert Canning, the fourth Lord Harris, captain of the England cricket team to Australia In 1878-79, later Governor of Bombay and perhaps the most influential person in English cricket for half a century.

During the unfortunate tour Down Under at the helm of a very ordinary England side, this very same Lord Harris found himself plunged into the centre of tumultuous controversies. He was struck with a stick, surrounded by a rioting mob and finally became instrumental behind the cancellation of the second scheduled Test match. It has gone down in the pages of history as the first Test match to be cancelled because of problems with bookmakers. And we must remember that had it been played, it would have been only the fourth ever Test match. The history of the noble game is actually as murky as it gets.

Gathering clouds

After being humiliated in the Test match at Melbourne, the England team played a few easy tour matches, the only tough game coming against New South Wales in which they triumphed by five wickets. On February 7, they returned to Sydney to play their return match against strong New South Wales outfit led by Dave Gregory, the captain of Australia. The setting was the Association Ground, soon to be renamed and renowned as the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The match was besieged by controversy even before it started. Gregory was physically and mentally exhausted after travelling around four countries and playing cricket non-stop for over fifteen months. He had been dropped from the side during the first match against England after missing practice and failing to supply an adequate reason. When he returned, he was both tired and bitter. Additionally, after his many rather ugly confrontations with umpires around the world, he now had to face the dubious decision making of George Coulthard. This staff bowler from the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) had been travelling around Australia as an umpire engaged by England.

Harris himself was shocked when he saw the ground. He later recalled: “The turf was so rotten that special arrangements were made to avoid playing on the same wicket all through a match. A parallelogram was marked and within that each Captain would choose a new wicket.”

The match got off to an inauspicious start. First Harris was given not out by Coulthard after an obvious snick was taken behind the wicket. Even the sober papers of the day reported it as ‘admittedly a mistake.’ When Harris was finally bowled for 41, he did not really endear himself to the crowd by throwing his bat across the length of the pavilion. It does seem incredible now that this very same Lord Harris later became a leading snake oil salesman peddling the curious make-believe myths surrounding the supposed glorious spirit of the game.

England scored a respectable 267 against Fred Spofforth and Edwin Evans, thanks mainly to the start given by AN ‘Monkey’ Hornby and Bunny Lucas. Billy Murdoch responded by carrying his bat scoring 82 not out, but the home team could manage just 177 as Tom Emmett, the Yorkshire professional, bagged eight wickets. The partisan crowd sat dismayed and rather disgruntled. Much of their chagrin stemmed from the large amounts they had staked on their own cricketers. Betting was carried out openly inside the pavilion, although according to the emphatic signs planted around the ground, such practices were strictly prohibited.

The riots

According to the rules of the day the New South Welshmen had to follow on since they trailed by more than 80 runs. In the second innings, Murdoch and Charles Bannerman started solidly enough. But at 19, Murdoch, who looked like the only batsman capable of putting up a fight, was run out. The fateful finger was once again raised by Coulthard.

Emmett later recalled, “Murdoch walked away like a man.” However, the decision sparked off an unprecedented saga of incidents. The gamblers had staked heavily on Murdoch and now they demanded their pound of flesh. Coulthard the umpire was the centre of their ire. Firstly, he had given Harris not out, next he had given Murdoch out and, most importantly, he was a Victorian.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “there was a large betting element and it was from that quarter that the first shouts of ‘not out’ proceeded… the player, who had quietly accepted the obnoxious decision, was greeted with shouts of ‘go back’.” The version of George Ulyett however says that Murdoch was run out by a good two yards.

As Murdoch made his way to the dressing room, a furious Gregory came out and stood at the door, blocking his way. “Go back, you are not out,” he said, much to the consternation of the batsman.

The English players meanwhile waited in the field with the other batsman Charles Bannerman, and the two umpires. Along with Coulthard, the other umpire for the match was Edmund Barton. Twenty-two years down the line, even as Victor Trumper would spread runs and magic around the cricket world, Burton would become Australia’s first Prime Minister.

Now, as Murdoch waited in confusion and no new batsman emerged, Harris walked purposefully to the fence and asked Gregory if he was going to send out a new man. The New South Wales captain’s answer was short and negative.

On being asked the grounds for his displeasure, Gregory cited incompetence of the umpiring in no uncertain terms. Harris later said, “I implored Gregory as a friend, and for the sake of the New South Wales Cricket Association (NSWCA), which I warned him would be the sufferer by it, not to raise the objection.” Gregory, however, refused to play ball.

And suddenly confusion and chaos cascaded around the field. Hundreds jumped over the picket fence and advanced towards the players. Harris ran towards Coulthard, the man most likely to be attacked. And now some larrikin struck the peer from behind his back with a stick. Ulyett, the second Yorkshire professional in the team, rushed to his aid and implored, “Let me have a go at him my lord,” but Harris responded, “No no, George, we are going to do nothing wrong.

However, AN ‘Monkey’ Hornby, standing close at hand, sought no such permission. He grabbed the lout and carried him to the pavilion. But an associate of the man struck Hornby on the face, and some others nearly tore the shirt off his back. Hornby, however, was made of sterner stuff. He carried the assailant to the pavilion and put him in custody of the committee members.

The version of Ulyett’s fellow Yorkshire professional however adds an interesting facet to the scene. According to him, after being struck on the head, “I saw his Lordship let go with his fist.”

For a long time Harris and his men remained surrounded by the mob. Some of them barracked the players, asking them to go back to the pavilion. Even some well-wishers in the crowd advised the same. But, Harris and his men stood firm on the ground.  The crowd on the field swelled, but the Englishmen did not budge. Harris later said, “I was determined to obey the laws of cricket.”

The English captain did not think that Gregory would forfeit the match.  Negotiations continued between the skippers, not all of it carried out with the spirit that Harris would bestow on the era later in his life. Within the next hour and a half, the police had cleared the ground of invaders — most of them rowdy young locals. At the same time, there were also some members identified among the throng of troublemakers. The youth who had struck Harris with his stick had been locked up in the committee room.

The Englishmen even discussed whether they should reinstate Murdoch at the wicket. Not many were willing, though. Emmett was particularly vehement, “Not likely. We ought to go straight home if we did and never play another match.”

Harris informed Gregory about his team’s unanimous decision. And Gregory responded exclaiming, “The game is at an end.”

Barton now stepped in, honing his diplomatic skills, informing Gregory with polite firmness that they stood the risk of forfeiting the match. It worked. Gregory’s competitive instincts were piqued. He sent out Nat Thompson. But, just as the game was about to resume, the crowd came rushing into the field once again. The batsmen rushed to the shelter of the pavilion.

After waiting for aeons after the crowd had been cleared for the second time, Harris now asked Barton if they could claim a victory. The future Prime Minister replied, “I’ll give it to you in two minutes if [the batsmen] don’t return.”

By this time, Gregory and Harris were no longer on speaking terms. They started using Barton as the messenger for communication. Barton ran to Gregory saying Harris had asked what he intended to do. Then he rushed back with the message that the Australian captain had said that the batsmen would resume. As Bannerman and Thompson walked out again, the crowd rushed in for the third time. Harris and his men remained surrounded till the stumps were drawn.

The aftermath

A fuming Harris wrote his report to Lord’s during Sunday’s rest that followed, informing the headquarters about the atrocious incident. According to his account, the riot was started by the bookmakers and accelerated by Gregory. The attitude of New South Wales Cricket Association was dismissed as ‘uncricketlike’.

Rain poured through Sunday night — perhaps heaven’s way of dealing with the red-hot situation. New South Wales had to resume their innings on an atrocious sticky on the Monday morning. Nat Thomson fell without another run being added. The side was bundled out, losing the last six wickets with the score unwaveringly fixed on 49. Five batsmen fell for ducks.

Emmett was vocal about the divine justice. According to him, the riot had saved England from likely defeat. If New South Wales had batted through the last part of Saturday and set England a target of 80 or so, “… eleven Graces could not have got them on that wicket … it was another instance of an unruly mob doing harm to the side they desire should succeed.” Ulyett and Emmett, the two professional bowlers in the side, had significantly more reasons to be happy. They had put £20 at 2-1 on an England win, placing their bet with the very same bookmakers in the pavilion so vehemently criticised by Harris.

However, another incident followed after the match was over. A couple of hundred miscreants stormed in to ambush Coulthard. The umpire asked the Englishmen to stand behind him as he prepared to fight the best man in the crowd. An old fashioned bare knuckle duel was about to commence. It was at this juncture that the Sydney Commodore’s men, placed in the crowd in groups of twenties as a precautionary measure, poured out in a coordinated wave and fell upon the hoodlums. The trouble-makers were beaten out of the ground with fists that carried the weight of relish and authority. There was no further trouble for the umpire or the players.

The Sydney Morning Herald called the incident on Saturday ‘a national humiliation.’ The front pages of the papers were full of condemnation of the rioters. The Herald continued to say that a large majority of the public were deeply humiliated by what had happened, especially because it had originated among the members.

Steps were taken against the bookmakers. Betting was banned at the ground. Two men, one of them a bookie from Victoria, were charged and banned from the venue. What made the situation particularly murky was the allegation that Gregory had egged the rioters on because of some association with the bookmakers himself. According to a Sydney Mail reporter: “I believed Gregory was coerced by certain persons in the pavilion not to send another man in when Murdoch was given out.” The same was alleged by Charles Abolsom, the Kent and England all-rounder.

The NSWCA was in a placating mood. Referring repeatedly to the kindly hospitality showered on the Australian cricketers in England, they expressed deep regret that Lord Harris and his team should have suffered such a traumatic experience. A NSWCA delegation was sent to apologise to Harris, but the captain refused to be mollified. He was adamant that England would not play the scheduled second Test. The match was cancelled — the first ever Test to fall victim to perennial problems surrounding bookmakers. Through the remaining tour, Harris remained petulant, refusing to play after 6 PM against Victoria, citing bad light as the rather flimsy reason.

Later many Australians did venture opinions that Harris had overreacted. The target of the mob had always been the umpire and never the English players. They had cried, “Let an Englishman stand umpire … we won’t have a Victorian.”

Fred ‘Demon’ Spofforth, who later became a close friend of Harris, observed that he doubted, “if Englishmen would ever understand the spirit of rivalry that runs high between the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales. The spirit is not limited to the field, it extends to politics, to society, to every side of life, indeed, in which the two are brought into contact with one another.”

However, Emmett was one Englishman who seemed to comprehend the curious dynamics between the two colonies. “If it were a game of marbles they would fight over it almost to the death,” he said.

There were also allegations that the crowd had been provoked by offensive remarks from some members of the English eleven. The taunts had predictably run: “sons of b**** convicts.”The report sent by Harris, which was later published and made available, had branded the NSWCA authorities as irresponsible. This was not appreciated by the committee members who had taken every step to smooth things over with the English peer.

The refusal to play a second Test match was seen as unsporting and rather unnecessary. The report of Harris was widely adjudged to be a document that could prevent the resumption of international matches for a long time.

Fortunately, Harris played the Australians when they toured in 1880, and with this gesture Test cricket managed to overcome this early stumble.

Brief scores:

Lord Harris’s XI 267 (AN Hornby 67, Bunny Lucas 51, George Ullyett 55, Lord Harris 41; Fred Spofforth 5 for 93, Edwin Evans 5 for 62) beat New South Wales 177 (Billy Murdoch 82*; Tom Emmett 8 for47) and 49 (Tom Emmett 5 for 21, George Ullyett 4 for 13) by an innings and 41 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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