Syd Barnes claimed 17 wickets in the Test © Getty Images
Syd Barnes claimed 17 wickets in the Test © Getty Images

The first ever Boxing Day Test was played at Old Wanderers in 1913. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a Test that ended up being yet another couple of days at work for Syd Barnes. 

When England toured South Africa in the Southern Hemisphere summer of 1913-14 it was expected to be a one-way rout, and it began on exactly that note at Kingsmead. Herbie Taylor, the host captain, scored 109 out of a team total of 182 (nobody else reached 20) but the South Africans were no match for Syd Barnes.

Barnes, arguably the greatest fast-medium bowling of all time, finished with a match haul of ten for 105. England captain Johnny Douglas scored 119, and a Surrey youngster called Jack Hobbs added 82 more. South Africa lost by an innings and 157 runs on the third morning.

The second Test at Old Wanderers was scheduled to be the first Boxing Day Test in the history of the sport. There have been matches starting on December 23, 24, 29, 30, and 31, but it took 36 years for the countries to agree on a Boxing Day Test. South Africa made as many as four changes, bringing in Billy Zulch, Rolland Beaumont, Louis Tancred, and the debutant Claude Newberry for ‘Dusty’ Tapscott, ‘Plum’ Lewis, Alfred Cooper, and Harold Baumgartner.

Day One: Barnes runs through

Taylor won the toss and elected to bat on what he must have thought a relatively flat track. Opening bowling, Douglas took himself off after opening bowling and brought Albert Relf on to partner Barnes. Taylor and Zulch added 22 before Barnes struck thrice, reducing South Africa to 24 for 3.

The batsmen hung on, but Barnes was almost impossible to score off. With his nagging line and length he choked the hosts, not letting Taylor and Dave Nourse get away with easy runs. Relf provided him with the support he needed, and the fielding was excellent. Standing up to the stumps, Bert Strudwick didn’t make things any easier for the batsmen either.

Barnes eventually broke through, clean bowling both Nourse and Taylor in a short span and then having Tancred as well. South Africa had been reduced to 78 for 6, all six falling to Barnes. It fell on Gerald Hartigan and Tommy Ward to bail them out of trouble.

Barnes and Relf kept on probing, but the batsmen guarded their wickets with a sense of purpose. The hundred eventually came up, and with Ward holding one end up, Hartigan began to play his strokes: a tired Barnes soon gave way to the wiles of Wilfred Rhodes, then a ‘youngster’ of 36.

The score was almost doubled when Frank Woolley finally managed to break through Ward’s defence. Hartigan reached fifty, but fell to Rhodes shortly afterwards. Once the opening was created Douglas brought Barnes back: the ace bowler picked up the last two wickets in a jiffy.

South Africa were bowled out for 160, Hartigan’s 51 being the only decent score. Barnes finished with figures of 26.5-9-56-8; stumps were called at that score.

Day Two: Rhodes comes to the party

Rhodes and Relf batted at a rapid pace; both batsmen reached their fifties quickly, and the runs kept coming. All four specialist bowlers — Joe Cox, Nourse, Jimmy Blanckenberg, and Newberry tried hard, but Rhodes and Relf remained at the crease. The breakthrough eventually came at 141 when Relf was bowled by Blanckenberg for 63.

Hobbs walked out to join Rhodes; England went past the South African total, but the Yorkshireman slowed down as he approached his hundred; Hobbs, still in the early days of his career, batted beautifully but eventually became Newberry’s first wicket, falling leg-before for 23. Rhodes scored his hundred in the company of Phil Mead, and the two batsmen remained unvanquished at stumps.

England finished with 317 for 2, a comfortable 157 ahead. Rhodes remained unbeaten on 143 and Mead on 73. South Africa — given the presence of the dangerous Barnes — had already been batted out of the Test.

Day Three: Mead rejoices before hosts fight back

Rhodes fell early on Day Three, followed by Lionel Tennyson, Douglas, and Woolley in quick succession. Blanckenberg, who had seemed rather innocuous the day before, had suddenly started to look dangerous: Mead reached his hundred but fell to Blanckenberg soon afterwards for 102.

Newberry (on debut) and Cox put up a hearty fight as well, and from 333 for 3 the tourists were bowled out for 403. Blanckenberg finished with 5 for 83 while Newberry had 3 for 93. Despite the collapse a lead of 243 was definitely a match-winning one with Barnes in the side.

Zulch and Taylor had a better start this time, adding 70 for the first stand. Douglas tried himself and Relf, but soon used Woolley to come to Barnes’s assistance. Once again it was Barnes who broke through, removing both openers in the space of seven deliveries.

Brought back into the attack, Relf had Beaumont stumped; Hartigan was trapped leg-before by Barnes, but from 106 for 4 Nourse and Philip Hands grafted out an unbeaten 71-run partnership and gritted it out till stumps. Nourse remained unbeaten on 52 and Hands on 40; South Africa finished on 177 for 4, requiring only 66 to save the innings-defeat.

Day Four: Barnes blows hosts away

Douglas wisely bowled Barnes unchanged through the morning and the legend kept on picking up wicket after wicket. Hands fell to him before South Africa could add a single run; Nourse fell for 56, but South Africa lost their last 6 wickets — all to Barnes — on the fourth morning. They had added only 54 runs and had lost the Test by an innings and 12 runs.

Barnes finished with figures of 38.4-7-103-9; in the process he became the second bowler (after George Lohmann) to take 9 wickets in an innings. He finished the Test with 17 for 159, and still remains the only bowler (other than Jim Laker) to take a 17-wicket haul in Tests.

What followed?

- England won the third and fifth Tests at Old Wanderers and St George’s Park, though they drew the fourth one at Kingsmead.

- Barnes finished the series with 49 wickets at 10.93 despite playing only 4 of the 5 Tests, breaking his own record of 39 wickets from 6 Tests at 10.35 in the triangular tournament at home in 1912. It still remains a record series aggregate.

- Barnes had actually pulled out of the fifth Test for a specific reason: the authorities had refused to pay for his wife’s accommodation. The uncompromising Barnes pulled out of the Test. As a result he could not make it to the 50-wicket mark. Given his performance in the series (he had taken 7 five-wicket hauls in 8 innings) there was a high possibility that he would have become the first player to have taken 200 Test wickets. As things turned out, he finished on 189.

- It took 48 years for the next Boxing Day Test to happen when South Africa played New Zealand at New Wanderers. Seven years after that, the first MCG Boxing Day Test took place when West Indies toured Australia.

- Since then the Boxing Day Test has been a regular feature at MCG (with some exceptions). Kingsmead (in the recent years) and Basin Reserve (from 1997-98 to 2003-04) have also been regular hosts of the event.

- There have been only three Boxing Day Tests played outside Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand: India vs West Indies, Eden Gardens, 1987-88; England vs Zimbabwe, Harare, 1996-97; and Bangladesh vs Sri Lanka, Mirpur, 2008-09.

- It was the last Test series before the First World War.

Brief scores:

South Africa 160 (Gerald Hartigan 51; Syd Barnes 8 for 56) and 231 (Dave Nourse 56, Herbie Taylor 40, Philip Hands 40; Syd Barnes 9 for 103) lost to England 403 (Wilfred Rhodes 152, Phil Mead 102, Albert Relf 63; Jimmy Blanckenberg 5 for 83, Claude Newberry 3 for 93) by an innings and 12 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)