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Melbourne Cricket Ground hosts first-ever Test match on March 15, 1877

March 15, 1877: MCG hosts the first-ever Test match

Alfred Shaw (above) bowled the first ball in Test cricket to Bannerman at MCG © Getty Images

March 15, 1877. A team of English professional cricketers faced a combined eleven comprising of Victoria and New South Wales cricketers at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It has gone down as the first ever Test match. Arunabha Sengupta relates the story of the birth of Test cricket.

It was not the first tour to Australia undertaken by an English side.

The pioneering visit had been arranged as a curious substitute in 1861-62. Felix William Spiers and Christopher Pond were the partners of Spiers and Pond — a company that ran Café de Paris in Melbourne. The entrepreneurs had tried to interest Charles Dickens to come and lecture in Australia. The great English novelist, who had just completed writing A Tale of Two Cities had been less than interested.

Hence, as a replacement feature, a team of English cricketers captained by HH Stephenson of Surrey had sailed from Liverpool on The Great Britain and docked in Melbourne on October 20, 1861. The team had played a number of matches against local sides, and divided themselves into two to play The World versus Surrey XI at Melbourne, awarded First-Class status later on.

George Parr, the six-hitting Nottinghamshire  man, had taken the next team to the land of the Antipodes in 1863-64. This touring side had played fourteen matches of which one was recognised as a First-class fixture.

In 1873-74 arrived the great team of five amateurs and seven professionals, skippered by none other than WG Grace. The captain, brother Fred Grace, Harry Jupp, James Lillywhite, James Southerton and others made an interesting combination that led to great cricket and a lot of sparks.

The most important match on the tour was played against a combined XV of New South Wales and Victoria. The Englishmen won, but the amateurs and professionals clashed often enough. The former group, led by WG, often made much more from the games than the professional cricketers who lived off the game. This led to not a little discontent. Lillywhite’s Cricketers Companion firmly noted that it was unlikely that there would be any further attempt to mix the amateurs and professionals again.

The first Test tour

Hence, in 1876, there were two initiatives to tour Australia. Fred Grace pushed for a team of amateurs while James Lillywhite arranged one for the professionals. The preparations proceeded at a similar beat before Grace’s endeavours fell through. Lilywhite’s team went on a solo tour. It was the first team to visit Australia on a business venture.

The professional side was well equipped with bowlers. Alfred Shaw had picked up 191 wickets that summer, heading the First-Class bowling list. Allen Hill had scalped 115, James Southerland 108 and Lillywhite himself 89.

However, in the batting department, the cream of the English willow had been left behind with the professionals. WG Grace, Ephraim Lockwood, Richard Daft, AN ‘Monkey’ Hornby and other great batsmen were missing, and only Harry Jupp and to some extent George Ulyett and John Selby lending some class to the line-up.That summer, only four of the top 26 batting averages were notched by professionals.

The Australian teams were generally considered too weak to meet the English sides on equal terms. Hence, opposing sides often fielded as many as 22 players. Alfred Shaw scalped 19 for 50 against XXII of Newcastle.

With time, the limited number of professionals meant an exhausted English side. The state sides of New South Wales and Victoria, both playing with eleven men, offered stiff challenge.

Lillywhite’s men first went over to play a few matches in New Zealand in the middle of the tour. It was here they lost the services of their wicketkeeper, Ted Pooley, jailed on charges of assault after a fall out over cricket-linked gambling dues. Yes, betting on the game is not a modern feature by any means.

By the time they were back in Australia, there were eleven core members who had to play every game. Barely 24 hours after crossing back across the Tasman Sea, they had to take on a combined Australia XI, a combination of Victorian and New South Wales cricketers at Melbourne. The professional cricketers of England were exhausted by the then. They had played and travelled for months without a break. A number of them were suffering from sea-sickness, unable to stand without reeling when asked to report for the first day.

The first Test match

It was billed as the Great Combination Match. With the Melbourne Cricket Ground booked earlier by Grace, the game was supposed to be held in the East Melbourne Cricket Ground. However, with the other tour proving a non-starter, Lillywhite arranged to move the match to MCG.

It started on March 15, 1877, at one in the afternoon. It is now considered as the first-ever Test match to be played.

With Pooley out of circulation, there was no reserve. Harry Jupp, suffering from an eye-inflammation, could not do the job of a backup wicketkeeper. Yet, he had to play as a batsman. John Selby put on the gloves. James Southerland 49 years and 119 days on the day, has gone down in history as the oldest Test debutant.

It was not very smooth for the Australian outfit as well. The cricket associations of Victoria and New South Wales were at loggerheads, and the combined team fielded was far from the strongest. Preparations were inadequate. And the great Fred ‘Demon’ Spofforth withdrew when Jack Blackham was chosen ahead of Billy Murdoch as the wicketkeeper.

The replacement for Spofforth was Frank Allen. On the eve of the match, Allen decided to attend a local fair instead of playing in the match.

The sun shone brightly that afternoon and around 1500 spectators gathered to watch the proceedings. There was a newly built grandstand with a capacity of 2000, and the rest of the ground had grass banks running around it. Very few of the crowd wanted to sit in the grandstand. The grass banks were full of sitting and reclining onlookers. By the end of the day the crowd had grown to 4500.

The firsts

The New South Wales pair of Charles Bannerman and Nat Thomson opened the batting. Alfred Shaw bowled the first ball in Test cricket to Bannerman. Off the next delivery came the first run. In the fourth four-ball over, sent down by Allen Hill, Thomson was bowled. The first wicket had gone down in Test cricket. Captain Dave Gregory became the first man to be run out. And brother Ned Gregory had the dubious distinction of scoring the first duck in Test cricket.

All through the three-and-a-half hours of cricket, through the wickets that fell at the other end, Bannerman batted on. He was dropped while still in single digits, the simplest of chances softly thudding back from mid-off where it hit a bemused Tom Armitage in the stomach. The day ended with Australia on 166 for six. The opening batsman was on 126, becoming the first man in Test cricket to score a hundred. The two teams spent the evening at the opera.

Bannerman continued his innings till lunch on the second day, helped along by mediocre bowling and poor fielding. Shortly after the break, a lob bowled by George Ulyett split the middle finger of his right hand. Along with being the first man to face a ball, score a run and notch a hundred in Test cricket, Bannerman also became the first to retire hurt. His innings amounted to 165. The Australian essay came to an end at 245. The 67.3% of the runs scored by Bannerman still stands as the maximum for a completed innings. One thousand four hundred and thirty eight Test matches later, Michael Slater got close at Sydney in 1999, scoring 66.84% of the runs, 123 out of 184 against England.

Armitage, having dropped a sitter that proved so costly, was hell bent on making amends. As a self-motivation manoeuvre, he bet Lillywhite£7 to £1 that he would make a fifty. He came in on the third morning, with the score on 104 for four, and snicked Billy Midwinter to Blackham for nine. He walked back sadder and poorer.

Midwinter went on to take five for 78 as England ended on 196. Jupp had stepped on his wicket before scoring, but the umpire had been confused and turned down the appeal. The Surrey batsman had resumed his innings, accompanied by a severe round of booing, and had gone on to score 63.

When Australia walked out to bat again, Bannerman received a great round of applause. However, cricket established itself as a great leveller in those early days. The opener was dropped again, before scoring. But, playing with a badly damaged hand, he was bowled by a lob from Ulyett for four.

Alfred Shaw picked up five wickets as Australia were shot out for 104.The excitement grew around the ground as England started on their 154-run chase. By then the crowd had grown to 12,000.

Gold watches and amber liquid

A large lunch, lubricated by gallons of beer, did not exactly help the English cause. It was the day of Tom Kendall, the slow bowler from Victoria. He set the tone by dismissing Hill without a run on the board, the batsman slogging to mid-on. Andrew Greenwood, the other opener, was dismissed at seven. Harry Jupp, the danger man, was removed by Midwinter. Soon, England were struggling on a wearing pitch at 22 for four.

Only Selby offered some resistance with a gutsy 38. Kendall picked up seven as England were stopped at108.

Australia won by 45 runs, a margin repeated in the Centenary Test played one hundred years later in one of the gladdest of cricketing coincidences.

It was also remarkable that the two main architects of Australian victory, Kendall and Bannerman, had both been born in England.

The Australian reported: “The combined team worked together with the utmost harmony and goodwill.”

The tradition of complaints about the quality of the pitch by the losing side started from that very first Test match. However, Lillywhite’s men were more worried about their share of the gate money. Southerton said later, “The financial returns rarely tallied with the estimated number of people present.”

The Victorian Cricket Association presented the Australian players with a gold watch each. The one for captain Dave Gregory was slightly larger than the rest.

A public subscription raised £83 for Bannermann and £23 for Kendall and wicketkeeper John Blackham.

A few days later, another match was arranged at the same ground – later given the status of the second Test match. England won the encounter to level what turned out to be the first ever Test series.

Brief Scores:

Australia 245 (Charles Bannerman 165*) and 104 (Alfred Shaw 5 for 38) beat England 196 (Harry Jupp 63; Billy Midwinter 5 for 75) and 108 (Tom Kendall 7 for 55) by 45 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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