Jack Hobbs scored 187 runs against Australia in the third Test of the 1911-12 Ashes in Adelaide © Getty Images
Jack Hobbs scored 187 runs against Australia in the third Test of the 1911-12 Ashes in Adelaide © Getty Images

January 14, 1912. In between their superlative performance to overcome the Australians at Adelaide, the England players fought a bushfire to save the residence of the Governor-General of South Australia. Arunabha Sengupta revisits the brilliance of Jack Hobbs, Frank Foster and Sydney Barnes on the field and the bravery of the English cricketers off it.

It was an unequal battle, between indomitable spirit and demoralised infighting.

The Englishmen battled the Australians, soaring temperatures and wild bushfire and ended in the highest spirits, coming from behind to go one up in the series.

As for the home side, it was a sorry tale of bitter brawls with the administrators that hurtled towards the first major showdown between the Board and players.

Mercury Rising

The intense heat was beginning to take its toll. “The weather was very hot and dry, without a breath of wind,” recalled Jack Hobbs.

During the first day of the Adelaide game, one spectator actually died from heat exhaustion. The heatwave was licking the southern parts of Australia with an angry scorching tongue. Even hardened farmers were suffering from sunstroke. Iron foundries had to be closed down because tools were too hot for workers to use. “Some of us will be reduced to grease sports,” a train driver voiced his apprehensions to the England team. The grounds had been turned to steaming cauldrons.

And as the mercury shot up, the highest echelons of Australian cricket that had simmered in unrest for long now started boiling furiously. The appointment of a secretary for the 1912 England tour by the Board was severely opposed by captain Clem Hill and others. This significantly included star batsman Victor Trumper and the all-rounder Warwick Armstrong. In fact, everyone other than Warren Bardsley was against the decision.

There were other problems as well. While practicing for the Sheffield Shield match between New South Wales and South Australia, Charlie Macartney was hit on the head by a net pole. Hill dispatched a telegram to fellow selectors Peter McAlister and Francis Iredale, located in Melbourne and Sydney respectively, that he was not sure about Macartney’s fitness. He added that he would take a call on the New South Welshman on the day before the Test match and since players of the calibre and experience of Armstrong and Trumper were with him, they could help him to select the final team.

McAlister, a rather mediocre player of eight Tests for the country, was not at all keen to give up his authority. He replied to Hill curtly, negating his request and stressing that Iredale and he would make the decision.

On the day before the Test, Macartney declared that he was better. Hill pressed for leg-spinner Jimmy Matthews as well — the man who would script history half a year down the line with hat-tricks in each innings at Manchester. The skipper insisted on dropping Bill Whitty and Roy Minnett to make way for the two. However, McAlister was emphatic about Minnett’s inclusion. He cabled back: “My team forwarded yesterday. Still oppose Macartney’s inclusion … if Iredale agrees with you favour yourself standing down not Minnett.”

This caused a huge uproar. At that point of time, Hill was the highest run-getter in Test cricket, with 3,253 to his credit at 40.16. Minnett had played just two Tests, both in the current series, totalling 143 runs in the four outings. The very suggestion of dropping the captain and the most seasoned man in the line-up for an unproved rookie was ridiculous to say the least, especially for this all-important Test match with the Ashes hanging 1-1 in balance. The South Australian Register did not mince their words in reporting, “Older men scorned the suggestion of Mr McAlister and the younger generation were no less indignant.”

In the end, Macartney was benched and Matthews and Minnett played. Using his characteristically sparse prose, Macartney later wrote in his autobiography, “persistent ill-feeling seriously affected the morale of the side.”

The abject collapse

The only thing that worked for Hill was his luck with the coin. Australia batted first on a perfect wicket. However, by this time of the series Frank Foster and Syd Barnes were rumbling like thunder even before the action commenced on the field. Foster, with his left-armed menace made balls rise threateningly from the wicket. He removed Charles Kelleway early. Barnes soon got Bardsley caught at the wicket. The advantage of the toss had been negated within 17 minutes.

‘Ranji’ Hordern, who had batted with pluck in both the innings at Melbourne, was sent in at one drop to coast on his new found batting form. And he gave a fairly good account of himself yet again. But, the Australians hardly had an answer to Foster’s leg theory. With four short legs, and men at mid-on and long leg, Foster kept just three men on the off-side and bowled at the middle and leg stumps, making the balls swing into the batsmen at an extremely brisk pace.

Vernon Ransford was struck on his finger and had to retire. Armstrong and Trumper settled down, only to lose their stumps to Foster and Bill Hitch respectively. Captain Hill, with plenty of other things on his mind, batted at seven, and lasted just two balls. Tiger Smith, courageously standing up to Foster’s bowling, whipped off his bails as he played forward.

Foster, whose initial spell read 11-6-8-1, finished with 5 for 36, with the wickets of Hordern, Hill and Minnett coming off just 7 balls. Australia, on the best of batting tracks, collapsed to 133.

The googly has been conquered

In walked Hobbs, having set out from Melbourne on one of the most sublime spells of run making in his extraordinary career. Along with him came in Wilfred Rhodes, the one who had won England the famed Oval Test of 1902 by coming in at No 11. During the past nine and a half years, the willow of the Yorkshire left-arm spinner had taken the dimensions of a barn door.

They batted well into the second morning, and by the time Rhodes was out leg-before to Cotter, England had the lead. In the meantime, Hobbs was busy reducing Hill to despair. His superb timing through the off-side prompted the Australian captain to place a man deep and square on the off-side, cutting off the square drives and cuts. Hobbs kept placing his strokes to either side of the man, running easy twos. George Gunn departed at 206, young Jack Hearne at 260. But Hobbs did not look like making a mistake all through. After his second chanceless hundred on the trot, the master from Surrey opened up with a flurry of boundaries.

However, what the bowlers and fielders could not achieve was ultimately made possible by the intense heat. With the temperature reaching a staggering 109 degree Fahrenheit in the shade, Hobbs felt the strain. During his last hour at the wicket he gave three chances, and all of them went down. Finally Hordern, the googly bowler he had mastered by this stage of the tour, got under a catch off Minnett’s occasional medium pace and held on as if his life depended on it. Hobbs walked back after five and a half hours of batting for 187. “I was so very tired that I was not at all sorry to get out,” he confessed in his autobiography.

The Manchester Guardian was ecstatic the following day. “The story of yesterday’s play practically surrounds Jack Hobbs. It is very evident from the scoring done by the England team in the last two matches that the terrorising ‘googly’ has been fathomed… The Surrey man batted magnificently and his work received unstinted applause from the Adelaide crowd.”

The score was 323 for 4 when Hobbs walked back, and stumps were drawn four runs later. The following morning, the visitors were in no mood to vacate the crease for the Australians. Foster now set out to prove once again that his skills were not limited to terrorising batsmen with left-arm pace. He patiently stroked his way to 71. Phil Mead and captain Johnny Douglas joined the fun. Frank Woolley and Tiger Smith did not want to miss out as well. In the end England totalled 501.

Faced with this mammoth 368-run deficit, the Australian openers put their heads down. Towards the very end of the day, Douglas got one past Kelleway, and the hosts finished at 96 for 1.

Saving the other Bosanquet

On the rest day, it was a high-spirited England team that started out to keep their lunch appointment with the Governor-General of South Australia. The temperature had remained at a scorching high, and the team headed for the Government house in their convoy of motor cars.

There might have been some light-hearted words at the expense of their host, especially given that Sir Day Bosanquet shared his last name with the originator of the googly — a form of bowling that Hobbs had been reported to have mastered.

However, as the cars approached the house, the players noticed dense clouds of thick smoke. Once the vehicles had been parked, they witnessed a bush fire raging nearby, approaching the Governor-General’s house menacingly. The dry branches in the trees crackled and flames flickered, advancing towards where they stood. Some of the cricketers drove back as fast as possible towards central Adelaide. However, the remaining — led by Hobbs the centurion — set out towards the flames on foot.

“Shielding our faces with our arms, we dashed along the narrow road and cut through a forest. Flames were bursting out on either side, and the smoke was blinding and suffocating. Dead chickens lay in the road, scorched to death. Many of the trees were pillars of flaming fire.”

The England cricketers made through the blazing hell and reached the furnace like house. Admiral Bosanquet and his staff were already fighting to save the building. The windows and parts of the house were on fire. The players joined in, rushing to the fore. With the help of the extra hands, buckets of water made their way to the smouldering parts. The fire was brought under control and finally defeated.  “We had earned our lunch,” Hobbs wrote later.

And now the turn of Australia

After their triumph over the Australian nature, the players had to deal with the obstinacy of the country’s cricketers. Bardsley made a polished 63, wicketkeeper Harry Carter, sent in as night-watchman, got 72. Hill demonstrated his greatness by overcoming the enormous pressure of the deficit and the differences with the Board to score a classy 98.

Yet Barnes, with his wonderfully steady and persevering line, got rid of the captain and then removed Minnett and Hordern before the innings defeat was averted. And then Matthews, who had soldiered manfully with the ball without a wicket to show for his efforts, notched up a defiant half century. By the time Barnes had bowled the debutant leg-spinner and Cotter in quick succession to end the innings, the total had reached 476.

Setting out to get 109 to win, Hobbs was out leg-before to Hordern for three. However, Rhodes and Gunn put on 97 and England cruised to a seven-wicket victory.

The Australian team, however, were plagued by far more weighty issues to engage in introspection. On the last day of the Test, Hill, Armstrong, Trumper, Carter, Cotter and Ransford drafted a letter that to the Board. The missive categorically stated that they would not tour England unless the Board obeyed its own constitution, allowing players to manage their own finances.

England were on a roll, 2-1 up in the series. On the other hand, the Australian infighting would soon come down to the level of literal fisticuffs.

Brief scores:

Australia 133 (Frank Foster 5 for 36) and 476 (Warren Bardsley 63, Harry Carter 72, Clem Hill 98, Jimmy Matthews 53; Sydney Barnes 5 for 105) lost to England 501 (Jack Hobbs 187, Wilfred Rhodes 59, Phil Mead 46, Frank Foster 71; Tibby Cotter 4 for 125) and 112 for 3 (Wilfred Rhodes 57*, George Gunn 45) by 7 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)