Australian captain Billy Murdoch (left) and Ivo Bligh consented to an extra Test after The Ashes was decided. The match remains unique in the annals of First-Class cricket © Getty Images
Australian captain Billy Murdoch (left) and Ivo Bligh consented to an extra Test after The Ashes was decided. The match remains unique in the annals of First-Class cricket © Getty Images

The philosophical mind welcomes the periodic introduction of elements of innovation and diversity in life as being essential to the holistic evolution of a life style. This element of change has been evident in the world of cricket over the years as well and has played a vital role in the gradual metamorphosis of the game and the formulation of the laws that govern it.

The design and height of the stumps have both undergone changes with time, the design and dimensions of the bat, likewise. Batting gloves, leg-guards, wicketkeeping gloves and pads, the introduction of protective equipment, indeed, even the attire of the players, all these have gradually been subject to modification up to the present time. Even the laws of the game have evolved gradually by a trial and error method.

In 1900, MCC came up with the idea of boundary nets and a handful of matches were played at Lord’s under an experimental rule where a four-foot high net was erected round the boundary and any ball hit into it was worth two plus anything run while the fielders retrieved it. A hit over the net got five runs. ALSO READ – The Ashes: Ivo Bligh brings back the Urn after brushes with calamity and cupid

If nothing else, this experiment provided the spectators with some moments of mirth, with fielders often becoming entangled in the net while chasing a ball to the fence, and the incoming and outgoing batsmen frequently tripping over this unaccustomed hindrance at the gate to the pavilion (for it must be remembered that not all cricketers were tall and lofty of stature). Fortunately, the idea was soon abandoned.

In the immediate aftermath, and conclusion of World War I, the feasibility of the resumption of First-Class cricket in England was somewhat uncertain for the 1919 domestic season. Indeed, the issue being debated was whether at all the counties would be in a position to go back to the old playing formats after the break of the four War years. In their collective wisdom, MCC proposed a curtailment of the playing time for the matches, from 3 days to 2 days. Well, this experiment lasted only the specific season (1919), normal rules being again put in place from 1920 onwards. ALSO READ – Ivo Bligh: the hero of cricket’s immortal love story

And so it went, with different ideas being tried out, some being found to be beneficial, others being found to be impractical for some reason or other, one important issue being that of the back-foot law of no-balls. It was felt that the extant back-foot law imposed too much strain on the umpires. A new school of thought advocated a front-foot variation of the law, and this was gradually accepted and is in force currently.

There was, however, an experiment carried out, and in a Test at that, in February 1883, which was something quite out of the ordinary. The logic behind this unusual episode of cricket history may not be very clear to the present generation of cricket followers.

Bligh from Blighty

The Honourable Ivo Bligh, later to become the eighth Earl of Darnley, set sail in the autumn of 1882, leading an England team, still smarting from their defeat by 7 runs in the only Test played at The Oval in 1882, with a mission — to recover ‘The Ashes’. The contest was to be conducted over a series of 3 Tests.

In brief, Australia won the first Test at Melbourne by 9 wickets. England avenged their defeat in the second Test, also at Melbourne, winnings by 27 runs. The series having been halved, the last Test played was keenly contested, England winning by 69 runs.

Honour having been restored and ‘The Ashes’ having been recovered, it was decided to play an ‘extra’ game, retrospectively designated as the fourth Test (Test #13 in chronological order).

This story is about that ‘extra’ Test, played at SCG, starting February 17, 1883.

The sign of four

Wisden states that though the scheduled 3-Test rubber had already been decided in favour of England with a 2-1 margin, the “extra” match had attracted no less than 55,000 spectators over 4 days of the game.

Bligh won the toss for England and decided on first strike. England put up a score of 263. AG Steel finished with 135 not out (the Almanac report says that it should have read: “AG Steel 0. Untidy fielding by the combined Australian team allowed him to reach his century”). The wickets were shared by four of the six bowlers used. George Giffen had a leg injury that prevented him from bowling.

Australia replied with 262. The larger-than-life George Bonnor, opening the innings, scored 87 in 165 minutes with 7 fours. Skipper Billy Murdoch, himself dismissed for a duck, ran for the injured Giffen, who scored a painstaking 27. Wicketkeeper Jack Blackham contributed a valuable 57. England employed 7 bowlers, the wickets being shared between 5 of them.

England scored 197. Billy Bates, the Yorkshire slow round-arm bowler, often referred to as ‘The Duke’ by his friends because of his penchant for smart dressing, top scored with 48. The bowling figures for Australia in this innings made interesting reading: 5 bowlers were used and each man picked up 2 wickets.

In the Australian second innings of 199 for 6, Alec Bannerman, the stonewaller incarnate, scored 63  in 175 minutes with 6 fours and (hold your breath) a six! Wisden says that he should have been dismissed for 7, had the fielding been more alert.

Murdoch ran for Giffen again, while he added a very valuable 32 runs to his first-innings tally of 27. Australia won this game by 4 wickets.

Let us examine the credentials of the umpires for this match: Edward Elliott had played 8 First-Class matches, mainly for Victoria. James Swift, however, had only 1 First-Class to his credit as far as cricketing experience was concerned. The four innings totals make interesting reading: 263, 262, 197 and 199, the compliance factor was only 2.

But why are we discussing this match in particular?

What had set this First-Class match (let alone Tests) apart from all others in cricket history and had given it an “exclusive” status, was the fact that it had been mutually agreed between the think-tank of both sides that a different pitch would be used for each of the four innings played, a bizarre, and thankfully, unique experiment with the laws of the game. The Almanac favoured this match with the prim and proper remark, “Each innings was played on a fresh wicket.”

Brief scores:

England 263 (CT Studd 48, AG Steel 135*; Harry Boyle 3 for 52) and 197 (Billy Bates 48*) lost to Australia 262 (George Bonnor 87, Jack Blackham 57; Dick Barlow 3 for 88, AG Steel 3 for 34) and 199 for 6 (Alec Bannerman 63, Jack Blackham 58*; AG Steel 3 for 49) by 4 wickets.

(Pradip Dhole is a retired medical practitioner with a life-long interest in cricket history and statistics)