Sydney Barnes (left) and Jack Hobbs © Getty Images
Sydney Barnes (left) and Jack Hobbs © Getty Images

December 30, 1911. Deprived of the new ball in the previous Test, Sydney Barnes returned with a vengeance at Melbourne to reduce the Australians to 11 for 4 within the first hour. Four days later, in the final innings, Jack Hobbs played one of the most silken knocks to win the game. Arunabha Sengupta revisits the Test that set the trend for England’s eventual 3-1 triumph.

A lesson learnt

Johnny Douglas had learnt his lesson. The SCG Test had been lost. Plum Warner, indisposed in his sanatorium, had called all the senior professionals around his bed in an urgent council of war. After all, the sins of depriving the best bowler in the world of the new ball do not wash away easily. It had taken all the persuasiveness of the normally reticent Jack Hobbs to retain the champion boxer as the England captain.

And now Warner, propped up on his bed, supported by a quivering elbow and relentless passion for the Ashes, called Douglas to his side and passed on words of wisdom and tact. Syd Barnes could not be used as first change, no matter what the composition of the team, no matter how good a bowler Douglas considered himself. Warner revelled in enveloping the strongest words in a cloak of diplomacy. In this case they found their mark. Barnes was ill with fever, but Douglas convinced him to get out of bed and take the new ball. Douglas himself bowled second change.

The win at Sydney notwithstanding, yawning gaps had been spotted in the Australian line up. CB Fry, back home in his training ship Mercury, had already received a cable from Frank Foster saying that the first Test match would be the only one England would lose in the tour.

I told you so

The morning of December 30 started with a drizzle. Hobbs, taking a look at the flat wicket, turned to fast bowler Bill Hitch and said, “The side that wins the toss will win the game.”

Unfortunately for England, Clem Hill prevailed in the spin of the coin. Charles Kelleway and Warren Bardsley made their way to the middle. A gingerly Barnes followed behind the English fielders, still feverish, but with a demeanour that suggested ‘a chilling certainty that he could get the batsman out and that he would grudge every run until he did so.’

A few days earlier, Barnes had woken up soaked in perspiration, and the consulted physician had expressed doubts about him getting fit in time for the second Test match. Years later he revealed, “Although I felt weak I was able to play and when I got the ball in my hands, I had a curious feeling that I could do anything with it. I very nearly did.”

After Foster had run in with his leg-theory and down sent a maiden over, Douglas stood with Barnes and tried to set the field. After a while he gave up and moved away. Barnes painstakingly positioned every man exactly where he wanted. And then he started his loose-limbed, deliberate, long loping run. The arm swung over with disengaged carelessness. The first ball swerved in to Bardsley, hit the batsman on his toe, and went on to the wicket. “He would have been LBW if it had not,” Barnes made it clear in an interview after a few decades.

A few minutes later, Kelleway planted his foot forward and did not play a stroke to one that seemed on its way down the leg side. It dipped in on him and struck him on the pads right in front. It was 5 for 2.

Clem Hill now faced a testing over. First an off-break at full pace that the left-hander played hesitantly. This was followed by an in-swinger which was again negotiated watchfully. The next one swung away and was let go. The last ball of the over pitched on his leg-stump and hit off. Hill later recounted that he had never faced an over like this one. 8 for 3.

Three runs later, a leg-break went past Warwick Armstrong surprisingly quick. The batsman played back and edged to Tiger Smith. It was 11 for 4.

Seldom had a Test match got off to sensational a start. Hitch walked up to Hobbs and said, “Jack, we’ve won the match.”

Between wickets, Barnes glared at Douglas, a look that loudly proclaimed, “I told you so.”

By lunch, Barnes had bowled for an hour and ten minutes. Australia had progressed to 32 for 4. The figures of the great bowler read 9-6-3-4. Barnes, dizzy by now, took a well-earned break.

After resumption, Foster rattled the stumps of Victor Trumper. Barnes, fussy, meticulous, moving the fielders about with scrupulous attention to detail, now caused the crowd some sparks of irritation. They shouted at him to get on with it. And he threw the ball down, folded his arms, and refused to bowl until the noise had subsided.

Soon, he had Roy Minnett missed at third slip and then induced the batsman to spoon a catch to cover. It was 38 for 6. The figures next to Barnes read 11-5-6-5.

Warner, who had been watching the match seated in the stands, now needed to rest. He was carried into the pavilion by manager T Pawley and Armstrong. Turning to the latter, Warner asked, “Is there anything wrong with the wicket?” The big Australian all-rounder answered, “No — nothing at all. Just magnificent bowling.” Barnes could make the ball swerve both ways, rise from the pitch, break in and away, and change pace and spin without any modification of action. On this day he unfurled his repertoire to the fullest.

But, by now he was feeling ill again. He was taken off and Vernon Ransford and swarthy complexioned ‘Ranji’ Hordern fought back, adding 42. Barnes came back to induce Hordern to sky one which somehow no one tried to catch. Later, last man Bill Whitty was bowled — or so everyone thought — but the umpire decided that the ball had come back off the wicketkeeper’s pads. Whitty and Hordern added 35 runs for the last wicket. Australia finished with 184. The final figures of Barnes read 23-9-44-5.

Not really the embodiment of modesty, Barnes later recalled, “There was nothing wrong with the wicket, except that it was too good. It would be absolutely impossible to make a better wicket. Just a typical Australian wicket.”

England lost Hobbs early to Tibby Cotter and ended the day at 38 for 1.

A day of unrest

The following day, the rest day of the Test, spelt doom for Australia.

Billy McElhone, Sydney solicitor, future Lord Mayor and the supremo of the Board of Control formed six years ago, had always been at loggerheads with the Australian cricketers. The rifts eventually ending in the infamous showdown with the Big Six — Armstrong, Hill, Trumper, Cotter, Ransford and Hanson Carter. On this Sunday, McElhone’s henchman George Foxton of Queensland moved that the Board appoint one of its members as a ‘secretary’ for the 1912 England tour, for a fee of £400 paid out of the money earned on the trip.

This was a direct manoeuvre to control the players’ finances, and the cricketers were obviously not amused. Hill and others argued that the appointment contravened Regulation 9 of the Board’s constitution, a clause that empowered the players to name their manager and control their affairs.

With these murky affairs in the background, the Australian attack seemed toothless the following morning as Wilfred Rhodes and Jack Hearne batted with ease. Even the overnight rain had not really affected the pitch and 22-year-old Hearne stroked the ball beautifully on his way to 114. It was only after tea that the wicket became faster, and Hordern pitched his leg-breaks and googlies in a judicious mix to trigger a collapse. He accounted for Frank Woolley, Douglas, Smith and Barnes for just 4 runs and ultimately the lead was restricted to 81.

The Hobbs magic

The next morning, a refreshed Barnes opened the bowling with Foster. The latter got rid of Kelleway, Bardsley was run out. Barnes had a visibly disturbed Hill caught for a duck and then brought one back to bowl Trumper.

At 38 for 4, the match seemed to be heading for a quick finish. But, Armstrong and Ransford rallied around, followed by Minnett. Hordern demonstrated admirable qualities with the bat yet again, and finally Cotter swung in the old fashioned way, finding the middle of the bat quite often and sending one over way the picket fence.

Foster, with his lithe run up and round-the-wicket left-arm medium pace looked much like a prototype of Wasim Akram. The quickness of his arm-swing made the ball come off the pitch like lightning. He accounted for 6 batsmen and Barnes finished with 3 for 96 as Australia ended on 299. Foster and Barnes had scalped 15 of the 20 Australian wickets. England required 219, not that easy a task on a fourth-day wicket with a spinner of the quality of Hordern.

However, after batting against the best bowler of the world, Australia were now faced with the unenviable task of bowling to the best batsman. Hobbs came out with intent and plan, and started on his way to a truly magnificent innings.

During his first few minutes, he restrained his natural desire to have a go at Cotter’s off-ball — a stroke that had brought about his downfall in the first innings and had also led to his dismissal in the Sydney Test. Once he had his eye in, however, his cutting was delightful, both square and late, and his driving to the off and leg hits were excellent as well.

Hordern cunningly disguised his spin and pitched the balls accurately, but Hobbs was severe on his bowling. The Surrey master met the spin either right back or jumped out to the pitch of the ball to drive. Before the tour, Hobbs had told the Daily Mirror that the leg-spin googly bowling dentist, with his unerring accuracy and devious variations, would be the greatest threat to England. Indeed, he had taken 12 wickets in the Sydney Test to bowl Australia to victory. However, now, as Hobbs drove, pulled and cut him with ease, he had no answer to the sublime mastery. In the end, he conceded 66 runs from 17 overs without picking up a wicket.

Rhodes fell at 57, George Gunn stuck around till 169. But Hobbs was stepping surely on to his purple patch which would see three match-winning hundreds on the trot. Warner, watching from the stands, remarked: “It was a truly magnificent and faultless innings. He may have played more brilliantly in the past but never more finely.”

More than 96,000 people packed the Melbourne stands through the days of the Test, and with his vibrant grace and fluid run making Hobbs left most of them happy and satiated in spite of the 8-wicket loss for the hosts. Barnes thought it was one of the most remarkable Tests he had ever played in.

The series was now level and the template of the rest of the tour had been drawn up. From now on it would be Hobbs with the bat, and Barnes and Foster with the ball, while Hill and his men fought with the administrators in the background.

Brief scores:

Australia 184 (Vernon Ransford 43, Ranji Hordern 49*; Sydney Barnes 5 for 44) and 299 (Warwick Armstrong 90, Tibby Cotter 41; Frank Foster 6 for 91) lost to England 265 (Wilfred Rhodes 61, Jack Hearne 114; Tibby Cotter 4 for 73, Ranji Hordern 4 for 66) and 219 for 2 (Jack Hobbs 126*, George Gunn 43) by 8 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)