Exactly 132 years ago, the first Test match was played on English soil. It was also the debut of the great WG Grace. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the historic match at The Oval which culminated in a thrilling finish.
The Oval – September 6, 1880
It has gone down in history as the first Test match to be played in England. It is also counted as the debut of the bearded giant and his two brothers, along with five other Englishmen and seven Australians.
Only, none of them really knew about the history in the making.
In reality it had been a hastily arranged three-day match between a representative England XI and the visiting Australians at the end of a long and troublesome tour.
CW Alcock, the secretary of Surrey, had offered The Oval to Lord Harris if he would arrange the game, as a telling wind-up of a great cricket season.
Harris managed to assemble the strongest possible English side, barring two or three big names. The Australians also played full strength but for the major, major absence of their in-house Demon – Fred Spofforth had broken a finger during a rather meaningless game a week earlier.
The word ‘Test’ was unknown at the time. Nevertheless, 20,814 people turned up to witness the first day – and only about a 1,000 less on the second. Outside the ground, people climbed trees and gasometersto follow the proceedings from vantage viewing points.
It was a first for another reason.
The great WG Grace opened the innings with brother EM, a fraternal feat not repeated in the next till Hanif and Sadiq Mohammad walked out to bat against New Zealand at Karachi 89 years later.
Lord Harris won the toss and England batted. The siblingsput on 91, still the best stand between opening brothers. As the late summer sun smiled on the ground, WG feasted on the bowling. Batting for three hours and fifty five minutes, he amassed 152 off 294 balls in his first innings in Test cricket.
Is it not surprising that balls were counted for that ancient game whereas there is no such record for one solitary Test played 110 years later at Chandigarh? It is for this peculiar glitch during the India-Sri Lanka encounter of 1990 that Sachin Tendulkar’s Test strike-rate remains a matter of conjecture.
After WG and Bunny Lucas had taken England to 211 for one, the Australians fought back. Alec Bannerman bowled Lucas for 55 and the bowlers pegged away at the wickets. The late afternoon saw three quick dismissals and by the end of the day, from 404 for five, England had slumped to 410 for eight.
A game worthy of the occasion
The following day, the home team did not add many more – finishing their first innings at 420.
Fred Morley, the Nottighamshire left-arm seamer, now picked up five for 56, skittling the Australians out for 149. WG took the last wicket with his fifth ball in Test cricket. However, the over consisted of four balls in those days – a lesson that Ashutosh Gowariker may do well to remember the next time he thinks of making a period film dealing with cricket. Hence, WG does not go down in the record books for having captured a wicket in his first over.
The other highlight of the innings was performed by the third Grace brother, GF. George Bonnor, the legendary hitter, had skied the ball high enough for the batsmen to run two before it descended and was lapped up by GF on the gasometer side of the ground. “I can see and feel it now, the carry, the height, the agonising suspense of the fall,” recounted Reverend CJM Godfrey, an eyewitness of the match, 59 years later in the 1939 Autumn Annual. On the same day, it was measured that GF had taken the catch 115 yards from the bat.
Following on, the Aussies were soon in trouble against Morley and Alfred Shaw. At 14 for three, one wondered if the match would last till the third day. But captain Billy Murdoch stitched together a partnership with the Greek scholar Percy McDonnell, and managed to remain unbeaten on 79 when the day ended with the visitors at 170 for six.
With Australia still needing 101 to make England bat again, only 3,751 people turned up on the final day. And they were a fortunate few.
Murdoch carried on, adding 52 with number ten George Alexander and 88 with last man William Moule. When Billy Barnes knocked over the stumps of Moule, Murdoch was unbeaten on 153, thus becoming the highest scorer of the match by one run. The lead was just 56, but England still had to go out and get them.
WG, who had bowled 28 overs for two wickets, was tired from rolling his arm over and decided to bat down the order.
In a frivolous mood induced by the small target, England decided to experiment. GF opened the innings with wicketkeeper Hon. Alfred Lyttelton.
The scheme backfired as Joey Palmer, a medium paced spinner with nagging accuracy, sent back GF for a duck, Lucas for two and at 22, pegged back the stump of Lyttelton.
Nine runs later Harry Boyle, who was to claim the Ashes defining wicket at the same ground two years later, got Billy Barnes caught, and then bowled EM for a second ball duck.
At 31 for five, WG entered again, to finish the job that his brothers had left virtually unstarted. Along with Frank Penn, he got the remaining runs amidst growing excitement. The crowd rushed into the ground when the final run was scored, and England were through by five wickets.
The Surrey secretary Alcock fittingly summed it up, “In the eternal fitness of things… the game was in every way worthy of an historic occasion.”
However, there was a bitter aftertaste. GF Grace left Oval to travel to a match in the rain at Stroud. He got thoroughly soaked and then slept the night on a damp mattress. It resulted in pneumonia and within a fortnight of the match, he succumbed to the illness.
(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)