Ashes 1924-25: The day eight new balls were used before the score reached 200

Jack Hobbs (left) and Herbert Sutcliffe walk out to open the innings for England at Melbourne © Getty Images

Melbourne 1924-25.The second Test of the series saw some splendid cricket over seven days. However, it was made unique by a peculiar mistake on the part of match officials. Arunabha Sengupta has the story behind the day eight new balls were used before the score had reached even 200.
All things considered, the seven day Test match was a superb exhibition of cricketing skills. Bill Ponsford, Vic Richardson, Maurice Tate, Jack Hobbs, Jack Gregory, Arthur Mailey — all these worthy men produced excellent performances, with perhaps Herbert Sutcliffe carving a niche for himself above all else.

But, yet, the Test had a curious and singular claim to fame that had nothing to do with the cricketers.

When Australia won the toss and batted, Ponsford underlines his phenomenal talent with a sublime 122. Vic Richardson followed up his success in Australian Rules Football by scoring what would be his only Test century in just the second match of his career, demonstrating his claims to being the greatest all-round athlete of Australia.

Maurice Tate, his large feet pounding the ground, his large heart thudding against his chest, his beautiful action repeated over and over again, ran in tirelessly. The sterling medium pacer bowled 45 eight-ball overs to capture three wickets for 142 runs in the first innings. When the wicket became worn and helpful, he snared six second innings wickets with another stretch of hard labour of 33 overs.

For the Australians, Jack Gregory and Arthur Mailey proved yet again that they were the two best bowlers in the country.

The magnificent Sutcliffe

And what can one say about that supreme opening partnership, between Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe?

Arthur Gilligan lost the toss and England had spent two hard days on the field, watching Australia pile up 600 in the first innings. Yet, the third day ended with the scoreboard reading 283 for no loss. It was the third consecutive century partnership between the opening pair, soon to assume legendary proportions. They had already put on 157 and 110 at Sydney and still ended up on the losing side.

“Never have I seen sounder, safer batting,” reported The Australian. “Hobbs and Sutcliffe are not of the belligerent kind, preferring to make their runs in a more delicate manner; but as to their skill and touch there can be no two opinions. All through their big stand so masterly were their methods that only two mistakes were made, neither constituting a chance.”

Monty Noble also gushed effusive about the flawless display: “It was English cricket at its best. You have only to remember the total that flared in the faces of these men as they went out to open the innings to realise the mental as well as physical effort necessary to overcome the feeling of hopelessness. As a demonstration of perfect cricket it was probably unique, but as a spectacle it was more fascinating for its precision rather than its brilliance.”

Hobbs urged caution against Gregory at the start of the England innings. “If we can tame Jack, we might be there for a considerable time.” Sutcliffe rated this partnership second only to the epic stand on the sticky wicket at The Oval in 1926. At lunch, they were 70; at tea, 187; by end of day, 283. The wicket’s column on the scoreboard remained blank. After tea, having batted for 195 minutes, Hobbs reached his hundred. As they crossed for the landmark run, Sutcliffe stopped Hobbs in the middle of the wicket for an instant to congratulate him. Half an hour later he got to his own century.

During Sunday’s rest, a cable of congratulations arrived from Wilfred Rhodes, who had added 323 with Hobbs in 1911-12 at Melbourne. He wished them all the luck for the next morning, but Mailey dismissed Hobbs without addition to the score when play resumed. The result of profound planning? Perhaps. As Mailey remembered, “We sat in the Windsor Hotel until two in the morning, evolving attacking schemes, drawing field placings, thinking of all manner of distractions, such as loose bowling sleeves, bowlers wearing red caps designed with cricket balls, and even our captain [Herbie] Collins, a man with rich appreciation of the old game, lowered his ideals to such a state that he suggested in all seriousness an ordinary underarm grubber. This goes to show how desperate one becomes in such hopeless circumstances.” Ultimately, it was a full toss that got Hobbs.

It was the second full toss in a row, swinging in the breeze. Hobbs, having played the first one calmly, tried to play wide of mid-on and made it almost into a yorker. It struck his leg stump and he walked back for 154. Perhaps he regretted refusing the invitation of the younger Sutcliffe to have a knock just before the resumption. Sutcliffe had yearned to break the record, and urged him for a session. But Hobbs had declined with a smiling, “No, I shall be all right, Herbert.”

The wicket ensured a big Australian lead. England could manage 479, Sutcliffe fifth out at 404 at his individual score of 176. Tate did offer a glimmer of hope by taking six wickets for 99, but Johnny Taylor followed up his first innings 72 with 90 on a wearing wicket and the target of 372 was always going to be steep.

If Hobbs had fired yet again, England might have even won it. But Mailey trapped him with a googly for 22.

Sutcliffe, at the zenith of his powers at the age of 30, was no longer an apprentice of the master, but a legend in his own right. Immaculate in appearance, he was the silken revolutionary professional. His coolness and restraint, that made him such an asset on deteriorating surfaces, saw him fight single-handedly as wickets fell at the other end. He proceeded to his second hundred in the match with serene calm, and when he got there the crowd rose as one. According to Pudsey and Stanningley News the ovation “can never have been surpassed on a cricket ground. It was truly a wonderful scene of triumph.”

An Adelaide correspondent wrote, “Had Victor Trumper achieved the same distinction, it would have been impossible for the Australian idol to have had a greater reception. The characteristic doggedness of Yorkshiremen was never more in evidence than with Herbert Sutcliffe.” Noble waxed eloquent about the second innings as well: “The way he set out to master the idiosyncrasies of strange wickets and the hard, bright lights marked him out as a player who must make good. Sutcliffe never seemed to court popularity, yet there was something in his personality that compelled the admiration of great numbers of Australians.” It was the first time someone had scored twin hundreds in an Ashes Test since Warren Bardsley had done it at The Oval in 1909.

When Sutcliffe and Frank Woolley were together with the score 211 for three, victory was well within sight. But the latter’s dismissal triggered panic, and Gregory and Mailey soon got into the act. The sixth day ended at 259 for six, Sutcliffe still battling on at 114. And when the opener was dismissed by Mailey the following morning for an unmatched 127, the score stood at 280 for seven. The rest of the batting fell away for 10 more runs.

It’s raining cricket balls

However, for all the brilliance of performances, the most intriguing events in the match had to do with an organisational glitch. It took place in the first two innings and marked this Ashes Test as unique.

When only 15 runs had been scored on the first morning, and Arthur Gilligan was walking back to his bowling mark, he suddenly noticed that a great piece of leather had come off the ball. He showed the ball to umpire Bob Crockett. On consultation with the other umpire Clement Garing, a brand new ball was produced. By lunch, Australia had reached 87 for three, and no fewer than four different balls had been used.

During the break it was discovered that, by mistake, a wrong packet of balls had been delivered to the ground. Till lunch, the game had been played with number three grade cricket balls instead of number one. Captains Herby Collins and Gilligan agreed that they would play out the first innings of both sides using the number three grade variety. As many as eight balls were used by England before the Australian score had reached 200 to allow a legitimate new ball. When Australia bowled, they used seven during the same period.

It is perhaps the only Test match to have been played with balls of wrong specifications.

Brief scores:

Australia 600 (Bill Ponsford128, Jack Taylor 72, Vic Richardson 138, Albert Hartkopf 80, Jack Gregory 44) and 250 (Jack Taylor 90; Maurice Tate 6 for 99) beat England 479 (Jack Hobbs 154, Herbert Sutcliffe 176) and 290 (Herbert Sutcliffe 127; Jack Gregory 4 for 87, Arthur Mailey 5 for 92) by 81 runs.

(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