1890 Ashes: England wins a heart-stopping thriller; Fred Martin hauls 12 for 102

Fred Martin’s 12 for 102 was the best figures by a Test debutant till, Bob Massies’s bettered that 82 years later with a match haul of 16 wickets. (Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia)

August 12, 1890. If only the catches had been held or the run-out had been affected, the Australians of 1890 would have been hailed as heroes. However, they lost by two wickets and went down in the pages of history as one of the weaker sides to visit England. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the incredibly tense two days at The Oval.

It was one of those games which demonstrate the fine line between glory and despair. If only Billy Murdoch and Harry Trott had held the catches or Jack Barrett had not lost his head. Then there could have been epic accolades, similar to the ones that had followed Fred Spofforth’s demolition job at the same ground eight years earlier – the match that had given birth to the tradition of the Ashes.

But, then, what if Ted Peate had connected or snicked Spofforth for another boundary in 1882? There would have been no mock obituary, no rivalry over a little urn. Cricket is like that, fluctuating and fickle. And in spite of coming close to being acclaimed as heroes, the 1890 Australians went down as one of the weakest sides to have visited the shores.
Blackham’s predicament and the Murdoch coup

Early enough, senior wicketkeeper Jack Blackham had voiced his pessimism about the team’s chances. During practice at Chiswick Park, he confided to Wisden’s Charles Pardon that “while the side would be strong enough to beat any of the counties, the batting was not sufficiently powerful to offer much hope of defeating England on a hard wicket.”

Blackham himself must have been feeling a bit sheepish. Asked to choose between New South Welshman Syd Deane and Victorian Jack Harry as his deputy stumper, he had toed the diplomatic line and asked for Kenny Burn of Tasmania. Much later it emerged that Burn was a decent batsman and useful bowler and fielder, but had never kept wickets in his life. Blackham had been misled by reports of some stumpings by Kenny’s brother George Burn — a 40-year-old who had never played a First-Class match. There was still time to recruit a genuine ’keeper, but somehow it was Burn who boarded the Liguria and Harry and Deane were left wondering about the lack of justice in the world. Deane, a disillusioned 24-year-old, moved to the stage and screen and ended up appearing in more than 40 Hollywood films, including the first adaptation of Treasure Island.

Some of the stars had stayed back. George Giffen, by far the best Australian player on current form, had declined because he did not think the team was good enough to end with financial profits to justify his unpaid leave. Alfie Jarvis and Alick Bannerman had also refused to travel citing employment as reasons.

Yet, a major coup for the selectors had been Billy Murdoch himself. For five years, Murdoch had settled down into his life after cricket, refusing various approaches to turn out for Victoria. Now, rather eager to advance financial interests in Britain, he emerged out of his retirement. According to Derek Carlaw, ‘At least one Australian paper unkindly suggested that Murdoch would not have dared to return to the game had his father-in-law still been alive.” Perhaps John Boyd Watson’s death in June 1889 really played a role in his decision. Whatever be the case, Murdoch and wife Jemima sailed several weeks before the rest of the team. His motive was to move permanently to Sussex.

The voyage of the squad was also riddled with misadventure. Jack Lyons fell off a trapeze and injured his hip. The Liguria collided with French and British ships while coming to anchor at Gibraltar. And when they reached England, they faced a group of sparkling talent. WG Grace waited with his looming stature, Walter Read, Andrew Stoddart and brilliant young wicketkeeper Gregor McGregor were amateurs of serious potential. And then there were Arthur Shrewsbury, William Gunn, George Ulyett, Bobby Abel, Bobby Peel and George Lohman among the professionals. Waiting in the wings were Stanley Jackson and Archie MacLaren. According to Malcolm Knox, “It was a bad time for Australia to be weak.”
The uneasy build up

Yet, with Charlie Turner and JJ Ferris shouldering the attack with a young Hugh Trumble, and Trott, Lyons and Murdoch to hold the batting together, it was still hoped that Australia would provide some competition. They started well enough. A strong Lord Sheffield’s XI was beaten by an innings. But as time went on, they lost their way, form and matches. By the time the first Test was played at Lord’s, Australia had won just two of their last 14 games. Their prospects were deemed so poor that Stoddart was pulled out of the Test team by Middlesex to strengthen their side for the county game against Kent. The newly organised county championships were definitely proving to be a bigger draw than the Australian visit.

Propelled by an all-round show by Lyons, the visitors gave a fairly good account of themselves at Lord’s before WG Grace decided to put an end to the challenge by taking England home by seven wickets with a resolute 75 not out. There were memorable performances by the Australians. Barrett became the first opener to carry his bat with an unbeaten 67 in the second innings, and Lyons scored a fifty in 36 minutes. Neither Blackham nor McGregor conceded a bye in the match.

However, the following match against Cambridge University saw them play out a curious draw after conceding a big first innings lead. Hence, at The Oval for the second Test, their billing was not too auspicious.
Wickets tumble

Stoddart was withdrawn once again, to play for Middlesex against Yorkshire. When Lord Hawke got wind of this, he asked Ulyett and Peel to join the Yorkshire team. In the end, Peel dismissed Stoddart cheaply in both innings in the county game.

But, in spite of the less than ominous image of the Australians, with the Surrey ground saturated by rain one wondered the damages Turner and Ferris would inflict on the sticky wicket.

The Australians won the toss and Murdoch decided to bat. And the game followed along expected lines after a great amount of rain. The ball beat the bat all through the day and only 197 runs were scored for the loss of as many as 22 wickets.

Trott, a master of bad wickets, formed the heart of the Australian innings with 39 scored over an hour and twenty minutes. Left-armer Frank ‘Nutty’ Martin, called up by Lord Harris from the Kent ground staff as a hasty replacement, made his debut and whisked out six Australians for 50. The first innings lasted two and a half hours and amounted to a paltry 92. It came to an end in a rather unfortunate manner. Trott played forward to a Martin delivery, it hit his pad, ran up his arm and was taken down the leg side by McGreggor. At the other end Lohmann picked up three wickets, but was inclined to pitch a bit short, and the wicket was perhaps a bit slow for his liking.

In response, Ferris had Grace caught in the slips off the very first ball. Shrewsbury survived precariously for half an hour before being caught at point.  It was a 39 run stand by Gunn and James Cranston which steadied England after being precariously placed at 16 for three, but a rather ill-advised call for a short run proved the undoing of the latter. It was 70 for four when Percie Charlton replaced Turner and wickets fell in a heap. In the end, England managed exactly 100, leading by eight runs after rather bizarre exchanges.

By the end of the day, Barrett and night-watchman Ferris were back in the hutch and the Australians were still three runs in the arrears.
Many a slip

By the end of the innings, Martin picked up six more wickets, finishing with match figures of 12 for 102. It would be as many as 82 years before Bob Massie would go past him to boast the best figures by a debutant. Oddly, Martin played just one more Test in his career, against South Africa.

The Australian innings ended at 102 at 1:35 pm on the second day. Trott once batted with supreme assurance in abominable conditions, top-scoring with 25. Lyons threw caution to the wind and lashed out at everything to get 21. England were left with 95 to get — a task easy enough on paper, but infinitely more arduous on the pudding that was the pitch at the moment. Spofforth had skittled them out short of a similar target in 1882. Now, Turner and Ferris were fully capable of doing the same.

Grace sliced a cut off the first ball and it went straight into the hands of Trott. The man known as ‘strong-point’ because of his ability on the field let it slip through his hands. Having batted splendidly in both innings, Trott now was brought cruelly down to the earth by this frightful lapse.

If the catch had been taken, Grace would have been out for a King’s Pair — the only pair in his four decade career. However, having escaped that, he did not last long. He was caught in the slips off Ferris for 16. By 32, Shrewsbury, Gunn and Walter Read had joined him in the pavilion. According to Pardon, the interest was by then “reaching a very acute point.”

Debutant Cranston and Maurice Read took the score to 63 when Murdoch made his fatal error. Read chipped a ball that stopped on him and it lobbed gently to the Australian captain at mid-on. This catch also went down. According to Pardon, “the Australians would in all probability have won the game” had the catch been taken.

Read finally hoisted Turner to long on and Barrett took the catch, but by then the score was 83, and just 12 remained to win. Yet, a collapse followed which harked back all the memories of the great 1882 match.

Cranston was caught at slip off Turner, Lohmann snicked Ferris to Blackham and Billy Barnes was trapped leg before. The score stood at 93 for eight, two runs required with two wickets in hand, Jack Sharpe and McGreggor at the wicket.

The excitement reached fever pitch. Five maiden overs followed, one after the other as the crowd sat speechless at the edge of the seats. Ferris kept breaking the balls back. They kept beating Sharpe’s bat. And every one of them missed the edge and the stumps by a whisker.

The tension was unbearable. Sharpe looked like getting out any moment. Desperate measures were called for. He finally managed to stroke one ball, and it went straight to cover point to Barrett. But, with the relief of having middle a ball at last, Sharpe sprinted down the wicket. At the other end McGregor did not budge. And with both batsmen at one end, all Barrett had to do was to lob it gently to Blackham. Instead, in a mad bout of frenzy, he hurled it over Ferris. The ball went into the country and the batsmen ran the required couple. England squeezed home by two wickets.

Trumble later sympathised, “Barrett was positively broken-hearted and for many days was in the depths of dejection.”

It all hung on a proverbial knife’s edge. Any of the catches held or the run out affected might have made heroes out of the Australians. Instead, they went down as one of the weaker of the touring sides.

Fate did not give them a chance to redeem themselves either, with the third Test at Manchester abandoned due to rains without a ball being bowled.

Brief scores:

Australia 92 (Fred Martin 6 for 50) and 102 (Fred Martin 6 for 52) lost to England 100 (JJ Ferris 4 for 25) and 95 for 8 (JJ Ferris 5 for 49) by 2 wickets.

(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://twiter.com/senantix)