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On May 14, 1872, Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) had lost seven wickets in half-an-hour without a single run on the board. Michael Jones looks at possibly the worst start to a First-Class innings.
A team might usually expect to reach double figures without losing a wicket, or perhaps just one if an opener falls cheaply — but some have managed to do rather worse than that. When Devon Malcolm tore into South Africa at the Oval in 1994, the visitors were left on one for three in their second innings; five years later at Johannesburg, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock returned the favour, reducing England to two for four on the first morning of the series. Chaminda Vaas’s opening burst left Bangladesh on nought for three after three balls of a World Cup match [and five for four later in the same over], but Sri Lanka were themselves sent tumbling to six for five against Bangladesh in 2009 — although they still won the match.
A little further back, a County Championship match at Chelmsford in 1983 saw Surrey reeling at eight for eight, while India’s top order struggled against Fred Trueman and Alec Bedser in the summer of 1952, falling to nought for four at Headingley and six for five at the Oval. As horror starts to an innings go, though, none of those could plumb the depths reached at Lord’s on 14th May 1872 — when the first half hour of Marylebone Cricket Club’s (MCC’s) innings against Surrey saw seven batsmen return to the pavilion, without a run on the board.
Was this a team of minnows being destroyed by a world class attack, as is often the cause of record low scores? Certainly not in the case of the first man in the order: opening the batting for MCC was none other than WG Grace, whose annus mirabilis the previous season [he scored 2,739 runs including ten centuries, when the most anyone else managed was 1,068] had established him as the dominant player of the era — although the batting ability of several of his team-mates left much to be desired.
Of the bowlers who wreaked havoc among the top order, James Southerton was one of the best in the country at the time, with a career record of 1,682 wickets at an average of 14.43; he was 44 at the time of the MCC match, but was still good enough to play in the two matches in Australia five years later which would subsequently be recognised as the first Tests. His partner William Marten, though, had a relatively modest career record, with nothing to suggest that he was likely to tear through a batting line-up.
Was the pitch to blame, then? It was certainly a poor one, even by the standards of an era when all out totals of under 100 were routine; in fact it had been necessary to prepare a new strip for the match because the usual one was unfit for play. The explanation, if there can ever be one for such mind-boggling figures as MCC’s first innings produced, appears to be a combination of a poor pitch, poor batting, and perhaps the worst decision every made at the toss of a First-Class game: the biggest collapse witnessed in a major match occurred after MCC had chosen to bat first. This was the day when the perceived wisdom — often attributed, but never sourced, to WG himself — was “If you win the toss, bat. If you have doubts, think about it and then bat. If you have very strong doubts, consult a team-mate and then bat.” If there was ever a case for an exception to be made to the rule, the pitch at Lord’s that day was surely it.
The scheduled first day of the match was washed out completely, and play was unable to begin until shortly after midday on the second. The tarpaulin which had been placed over the wicket had proved completely inadequate, and it was soaked through; MCC nonetheless decided that batting first would be preferable. Overs at the time were of four balls’ duration, and Southerton bowled the first of them to Grace. The Doctor kept the first three balls out, but was hit in front by the fourth. He was well known for his gamesmanship, and although tales of him replacing the bails and carrying on are most likely products of a wild imagination, he did dispute decisions on a regular basis and sometimes succeeded in intimidating umpires into changing their minds. On this occasion, though, the finger pointing at him belonged to Henry Royston, who had made his First-Class umpiring debut before Grace was born, was more than familiar with his tactics and was having none of it. Grace was sent on his way, and after one over, MCC were nought for one.
At the other end, John Smith — far from an outstanding batsman, but one who did at least have nine First-Class fifties to his name — faced Marten. Smith got an edge to the second ball of the over, which flew over the keeper’s head to be caught by Harry Jupp at long stop: nought for two. The batsmen had crossed while the ball was in the air, so it was the number three Charles Coote who faced the rest of the over. Coote’s First-Class record was a poor one: in 13 matches he averaged below 10, with a highest score of only 35. He survived the last two balls of Marten’s over.
Southerton bowled his second over to Charles Brune, whose main claim to fame was geographic —he is almost certainly the only First-Class cricketer to have been born in Cuba and died in France — rather than related to anything he did on the field; he was a useful round-arm bowler who had returned innings figures of eight for 31 for Cambridge University against MCC three years earlier, but wasn’t much of a batsman. He survived Southerton’s over, but failed to get the scoreboard moving.
Coote faced Marten for the fourth over of the innings; he kept the first two balls out but the third bowled him, and MCC were nought for three. Alfred Shaw came in at number five; one of the greatest bowlers of the nineteenth century, he claimed 2,027 wickets at an average of 12.13, the lowest of anyone to reach 2,000 in First-Class matches; dismissed WG Grace no fewer than 49 times; took all ten in an innings for MCC vs the North in 1874; bowled the first ball in a Test; and was chosen in the 2013 edition of Wisden as one of the five best players of the quarter century between the Almanac’s first publication and its first selection of Cricketers of the Year. None of that, however, depended on his batting, which failed to reach the same heights: he did score 12 First-Class fifties, but those came in a career of 404 matches; his batting average was only fractionally higher than his bowling average, and he was certainly not a regular in the middle order. Shaw saw off the final ball of Marten’s second over.
Brune successfully negotiated another over from Southerton, but after five overs of the innings, there were still no runs on the board. The second ball of Marten’s third over bowled Shaw, bringing Denzil Onslow to the crease — another useful bowler but poor batsman, who was going in at number six for reasons unknown to anyone outside the MCC. Onslow hit his first ball straight to mid-off, where Surrey captain George Strachan — no doubt by now delighted to have lost the toss — took the catch. Andrew Becher walked to the wicket on his First-Class debut, with the scoreboard displaying nought for five. Brune played out a third maiden from Southerton, Becher survived one from Marten and in reaching the end of the eighth over without being separated, they had already recorded the longest partnership of the innings, but still without a run.
In the ninth over, Southerton finally ended Brune’s resistance: he had faced fourteen balls, almost as many as the rest of the top six put together, but still made the same number of runs. Thomas Hearne, batting at number eight, had a significantly better record as a batsman — including four First-Class centuries — than several of those who had preceded him, but it made no difference: Southerton bowled him first ball. After 35 balls of the innings, MCC were nought for seven. Marten had four of the wickets, Southerton three; four had been bowled, two caught and one lbw. Totals of nought all out had already been seen at club level, but this was unprecedented: one of the best teams in the country on the verge of being dealt such a humiliation on their home ground.
Becher swung at the first ball of Marten’s fifth over and connected; the batsmen ran two, and at least the ultimate ignominy had been avoided. On the first ball of the next over, though, Southerton had Samuel Biddulph caught behind, and MCC were two for eight. With a record low total very much on the cards, Becher decided he had nothing to lose and might as well play a few shots; with Arnold Rylott at the other end, he put bat on ball enough times to take his score to eight, before going for one shot too many and giving Marten a return catch. He was the ninth batsman to be dismissed in the innings, and had scored all his team’s runs up to that point, a feat unlikely ever to be matched – and that on debut too. As George Howitt walked out to join Rylott, the scoreboard read eight for nine; the last pair had managed to double the score by the time Marten bowled Howitt. He had scored two, while Rylott finished unbeaten on six; they and Becher were the only batsmen to get off the mark. Eight ducks in a First-Class innings is a record which has been equalled on several occasions, but unsurprisingly never beaten. Becher and Rylott’s late hitting had spoiled Marten’s figures to the extent that his six wickets cost 11 runs, although they remained his career best; Southerton finished with four for five. The innings had lasted just 44 minutes.
Surrey fared slightly better in their reply, but still lost three wickets before taking the lead, and continued to lose them at regular intervals thereafter; in contrast to MCC’s innings there wasn’t a single duck [although Southerton, at number eleven, finished with nought not out], but Ted Pooley’s 12 was the only double figure score as the visitors were all out for 49. Howitt took four for six, and with Rylott picking up two wickets and three batsmen being run out (the one dismissal for which they couldn’t blame the pitch), the eight MCC batsmen who had failed to score did little to further their contribution to the match: Shaw’s dismissal of Jupp was the only wicket they took between them. Both teams’ first innings had been completed with the match still less than two-and-a-half hours old.
Onslow, after his golden duck in the first innings, was promoted to open the second with Grace. They showed a significant improvement this time round, passing the first innings score without loss and both reaching double figures before Southerton bowled them both. Smith and Coote wiped off the remainder of the deficit and had taken the score to 43 — 10 runs ahead — when Strachan, who hadn’t got a bowl in the first innings, bowled Coote, and Southerton had Hearne stumped on the same total to complete a pair. Wickets continued to fall, but not quite at the same rate as they had in the first innings; Smith managed 19, the highest score of the match, to take MCC to the relative riches of a second innings total of 71. Of the three who had saved the ultimate embarrassment in the first innings, Rylott made a duck in the second and Howitt ended with nought not out, leaving Becher as the only MCC batsman to get off the mark in both innings, with eight and five; it was to be his only First-Class match. Southerton did most of the damage this time, with seven for 38; Marten, the first innings destroyer, went wicketless.
The fourth innings commenced the same evening, with Surrey needing 39 to win — a far from trivial target in the circumstances. Howitt started with the wickets of Harry Jupp and William Palmer, leaving the visitors 10 for two. Pooley matched his first innings 12 before Howitt caught and bowled him; Shaw pitched in with the wicket of Strachan, Howitt dismissed Thomas Humphrey for a duck and Surrey were 27 for five. 12 runs away from the target and with the pitch showing no signs of improving, victory for MCC was still not out of the question, but Richard Humphrey and Leonard Howell held firm to take their team home by five wickets. Having begun at 12:10 PM on the scheduled second day, the match was over at 6:40 PM the same day.
MCC 16 (William Marten 6 for 11, James Southerton 4 for 5) and 71 (James Southerton 7 for 38) lost to Surrey 49 (George Howitt 4 for 6) and 39 for 5 (George Howitt 4 for 16) by 5 wickets.
(Michael Jones’s writing focuses on cricket history and statistics, with occasional forays into the contemporary game)
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