Tibby Cotter (left) and Gerry Hazlitt: Heroes of the epic Test. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

December 19, 1907. A tale of suspense, tension and swinging fortunes at Sydney ended in a riveting two-wicket win for Australia, as Tibby Cotter and Gerry Hazlitt held their nerves at the death. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the nerve racking first Test of the 1907-08 Ashes, one of the two timeless classics the series produced that have become almost lost to our remembrances.

Illness, fate and fortune

The uncontrollable variables of life had untold bearing on the first Test of the 1907-08 Ashes series.

It had seemed quite all right at first, when striding in against Western Australia at Perth captain Arthur Owen Jones had struck the ball with the middle of the bat. Ernie Jones, the former terrifying fast bowler, had gained in years and lost in pace, and Jones had been at ease as he had put on 91 excellent runs with deputy Fred Fane. The visiting team had won by an innings.

The captain had followed it up with a superb 119 at Adelaide as MCC had overcome South Australia by another huge innings margin. The side had just about managed to hold out for a draw at Melbourne against Victoria on a spectacular final day, and Jones had as usual led from the front with a sterling second-innings 82.

It was on reaching Brisbane that the labours of an Australian tour took a toll on his fragile constitution. He scored 69 against Queensland, but from No. 9 with a temperature of 101 degrees.

After the game that he consulted a doctor. And at once Jones was diagnosed with pneumonia and sent to the hospital. He would not play for a couple of months. Later, he did return to take part in the final two Tests and a few First-Class matches, but the unfortunate cricketer would never really get over the illness. He would die in a few years, at the age of 42.

With the captain in hospital, the burden of leadership fell on Fane. His first job was to look for a replacement for Jones the batsman.

George Gunn of the famous Nottinghamshire cricketing family had travelled with the team, but not as one of the squad. A haemorrhage in his lungs had troubled him in his youthful days, until the previous year winter in New Zealand had produced sterling results. The warmer clime had restored him dramatically.

This winter, he had voyaged to Australia on doctor s orders. And now, with Jones indisposed, Fane turned to him.

The man left out in the process was a certain Surrey professional called Jack Hobbs. The bespectacled amateur wicketkeeper Dick Young was asked to move up the order to open with Fane. Gunn was slated to bat at No. 3.

Already frustrated at his exclusion from most of the warm-up games, Hobbs was quite aggrieved at the way he had been treated. In 1924, he wrote: Surely a man who had been brought out as a member of the team should have been given the preference?

The decision did not go down too well within the team. In fact, when Gunn came down to breakfast on the morning of the Sydney Test, he was treated to some sotto voce remarks. The chief voice of dissent was raised by the leg-spinning all-rounder Len Braund.

However, it must be added that Hobbs bore Gunn no grudge. On the contrary, they became fast friends. Besides, Gunn turned out to be England s biggest hero in the Test match.

The roar of the Gunn

About 15,000 people flocked in under cloudless skies, a remarkable gathering for a weekday. A large proportion of the spectators were ladies whose summer dresses and hats added a wealth of colour to the scene, wrote the Sydney Morning Herald.

On a beautiful batting wicket, under bright sunshine, England took the first strike. Tibby Cotter, the fiery Australian fast bowler, ran in with the wind behind him to produce perhaps one of his best bowling performances.

Fearsome in his pace, Cotter was prone to pitch short and spray it around, thereby wearing himself out quickly. But, on this day, he kept to an excellent length, rarely bowling above stump height. The wise, canny Monty Noble used him in short bursts. Thus, even in the Sydney heat, Cotter managed to produce extreme pace.

Fane edged a drive and Victor Trumper at third slip held the catch a couple of inches from the ground. The over had ended, and Gunn walked in and stationed himself at the non-striker s end. The following over, he faced Jack Saunders. The first ball was short and Gunn s cut was perfectly placed between cover and point for four.

Soon, however, makeshift opener Young was neatly taken by wicketkeeper Hanson Carter. At 18 for 2, the advantage of winning the toss was already lost.

From the other end, Warwick Armstrong was put on, bowling his leg-breaks to an impeccable line, leaving very few scoring options. The fielding was sharp and quick. The home team was winning, the top class bowlers baying for blood.

And here Gunn fought back. Making his Test debut in rather inauspicious circumstances, he was joined at the wicket by fellow debutant Keith Hutchings. The latter seemed to underplay the occasion, striking hard and often. With time, Gunn followed his example. Runs came in a flurry and even Cotter was made to look less than threatening.

The two debutants grew in confidence, and it seemed England had survived the worst. But, Hutchings tried one hit too many and lobbed one back to Armstrong. Lunch was taken at 91 for 3, Gunn unbeaten on 41.

There was a delay before the match got underway again. A pinned list of the friends of the Australian cricketers allowed access to the inner sanctum of the team rooms had been taken down by an official. The unhappy cricketers had called a strike. However, sanity prevailed. The list was put up again, and soon the players were on the field.

Braund had joined Gunn at the wicket. The Nottinghamshire man had not forgotten the remarks at the breakfast table. Many years later, Gunn disclosed to his neighbour Frank Stokes: He d as good as said I couldn t bat, you see. So when he came out to join me, I thought, We ll have to see about that . I had the strike and I kept taking singles at the end of each over. I reckon I kept him away for about the first 45 minutes of his innings. After that he didn t say much.

Well, the 45 minutes bit may be a stretch of the sort that player memories are prone to indulge in. However, Braund batted for 144 minutes and was the eighth out for 30. Gunn batted just 6 minutes more and was the fourth to fall for 119.

In between Braund just about survived. And Gunn moved from 78 to 102 with 6 sparkling boundaries. The score stood at 208 and England seemed to be running away with the game by virtue of Gunn s brilliance. Then Cotter produced a peach of a delivery at high speed, curling away. Gunn drove at it and edged. Gerry Hazlitt at second slip flung himself and got both hands to the catch and came up with a blinder. A great exhibition of batting had come to an end.

Hill responds

The rest of the batting did not really offer much. The volatile maverick Jack Crawford received a smarting blow on the leg from Cotter but struck merrily for 31. The others, however, found Cotter too hot to handle. The innings ended at 273, hardly a satisfying score in such brilliant conditions.

The Australian response stuttered at the start. Peter McAllister, remembered more now for his infamous fisticuff with Clem Hill, found Syd Barnes too good. But thereafter, the celebrated pair of Hill and Trumper batted with calm assurance. There were moments of luck, when a fast one from the other opening bowler Arthur Fielder struck the wicket hard but Hill s bails were not dislodged.

By the end of the day, the score had been taken to 50 for 1, Trumper showing glimpses of his genius, Hill steady and compact as ever.

On Saturday morning, the stage was set for another epic battle between these great Australian batsmen and Barnes, soon to become the best bowler of the world.

Before the Test, Barnes had trained long and hard. During the 1901-02 tour, he had watched Noble from close proximity, noting how he swerved the ball from the leg and then broke it from the off. The Lancashire professional had planted two poles on the pitch, one ten yards from the bowling crease, and another six yards further, and tried to replicate the delivery. He had practiced for hours.

But today, it was the day of Fielder and Barnes remained wicket-less. The Kent pacer hit Trumper s wicket as he tried to force a ball to the leg. Noble came in and was content to keep his wicket intact. Hill was his usual stolid, busy self, doing most of the scoring.

By lunch, Australia had scored more than half of England and were just two wickets down. The advantage seemed to be back with the hosts. But, soon after the break fortunes changed rapidly. Noble edged Fielder and was brilliantly taken one-handed by Braund at first slip. With his score on 87, Hill slashed the same bowler and was caught by Gunn at third-man. Armstrong did not last long either. It was 184 for 5 and Fielder had taken four.

The clutch of debutants

There was, however, a clutch of debutants in the Australian side, most of whom would go on to become names to reckon with.

Young Charlie Macartney hit a few good strokes in his 35, Vernon Ransford promised much with his left-handed strokeplay in his stylish 24, wicketkeeper Carter stuck around with characteristic scrappy spirit for 24. With Trumper, Hill, Cotter and Armstrong, Carter and Ransford would become embroiled in the Big Six controversy of 1912.

There was another debutant, the off-spinner Hazlitt, and he, too, had a role with the bat. He had scored just 2 when Fielder produced another good delivery, moving it away, inducing the edge. Young, standing back, missed the offering. At 15, Carter was short of his ground when the wicketkeeper failed to collect Hardstaff s return from the outfield. These blemishes would prove extremely vital in the final reckoning. In the end, Hazlitt got an unbeaten 18, and the solid contributions lower down the order took the score along to 300, a lead of 27. Fielder s 6 for 82 had neutralised Cotter s 6 for 101.

Hazlitt would do more with the bat later in the match.

Gunn fires again

Young was quite shell-shocked with his lapses, and the kind-hearted Fane relieved him of the responsibility of opening the batting in the second innings. Wilfred Rhodes was an ideal man to act as the replacement opener. 19 were scored without mishap before the day s play ended and the players went off for Sunday s rest.

The Test being timeless, Fane opted for caution when the innings resumed on Monday morning. The strategy was to wear the bowlers out. However, due to the astute Noble, this was unsuccessful. Bowling was changed regularly and Cotter was kept fresh. Progress was slow as Rhodes and Fane both dropped anchors.

Rhodes fell to the left-arm spin of Macartney at 56, Fane to Saunders at 82. The left-arm medium pacer from Victoria sent the confident Hutchings back early. At 105 for 3, the match was delicately balanced.

But Gunn was playing the match of his career. His hands had become badly blistered during the course of his first innings hundred, and his gloves were sodden with blood. But with Joe Hardstaff also timing the ball well, he proceeded to give his second fine exhibition in the game, this time with more onus on defence.

By tea, England were coasting on 199 for 3, very much ahead in the game. Armstrong had been used astutely to check the flow of runs from good, settled batsmen, but the advantage was again back with the tourists.

Rain has no effect

But, yet again, things changed very quickly after the interval. The wise Noble bowled Saunders for 63 to end the 113-run partnership. Cotter came back, working up great pace, getting Gunn caught at slip for 74. Young was bowled by Noble. Crawford was held in the slips off Cotter.

And then Saunders ran in, cannily slanting the balls away. Barnes and Colin Blythe resisted strongly, with Braund fixed at one end. But Saunders dismissed both the bowlers. When the skies opened up to end the day s play, England were 293 for 9, the quick wickets and the rain adding curious variables to the fate of the match.

It rained through the night and when the sun shone at ten o clock, it was expected that the Australians would get caught on a sticky. However, such was not the case.

With one wicket standing, Fane was still the captain of the batting side. But he was not consulted as the groundsmen rolled the wicket. By twelve o clock, the Sydney pitch of fine Bulli clay had dried so well that the ball was coming off the pitch with little life and the break could be easily followed by the batsmen.

Fielder fell early enough, the England second innings total registering a well-rounded 300. And on that rain affected wicket, Barnes ran in to brush Trumper s pad on the way to his stumps. Fielder, carrying on from his first innings exploits, beat Hill with one that kept low, and spread-eagled his stumps. Stupendously important wickets, those. It was 12 for 2.

But, then the wicket started easing out. Macartney, pushed up the order to open, was caught at third-man off a cut at 27. Noble and Armstrong, however, prevented any more mishaps by batting calmly through the early afternoon. Much of it was through a drizzle. At five minutes to three, this became a steady downpour. The players went off the ground with the score reading 63 for 3.

The Wednesday was washed out because of continuing rain, and play was able to get underway only at noon on Thursday. Once again, Rhodes and Blythe warmed up, anticipating a sticky dog. And once again, the wicket surprised everyone by remaining easy.

There was no sun, it did not dry and crumble. Fielder found it too slow, as did Braund s wrist-spin. Rhodes and Blythe could not manage to trouble the batsmen with their left-arm spin. Barnes bowled a good length, but bowled Noble early in the day, but that was the extent of his success.

Yet, when Ransford pushed at one from Blythe that held up on him and the bowler held the return catch, it was 95 for 5. The state of the pitch notwithstanding, advantage was very much with England. But, after lunch the wicket eased up further.

The resistance

The last of serious batting departed in the form of Armstrong. Crawford, brought on only after the score was 120, got one past the wide bat of the big man. A valuable innings of 44 came to an end. It was 124 for 6. The shaky McAllister was all that was left of the batting along with the lower order.

But now Aussie grit came to the fore. Carter put his head down, McAllister managed to survive. There was no trace of nerves. Whatever mishit resulted from the efforts fell clear of the fielders.

The general opinion was that the bowlers could not really exploit the conditions. The English team maintained that there was no condition to exploit. It was again the sparingly used Crawford who broke through, bowling McAllister for 41, but 61 invaluable runs had been added for the 7th wicket.

Yet, at 185 for 7, 89 remained to be scored. Cotter, by all accounts a hitter who connected only once in a while, walked out to join Carter.

And surprisingly, he started blocking.

Later, Macartney wrote, No better exhibition of restraint have I ever seen than that of Cotter on this occasion. The fast bowler simply kept his wicket intact as Carter scrambled for the runs.

Three times in a single over Barnes curled his medium paced leg-spinners past Cotter s bat. But he held on, doggedly. The frustrated bowler strayed on to the pads and Cotter clipped him away for 3.

The score inched along. Carter, unorthodox, once executing what is now known as the scoop, went past one of the best half-centuries scored by a late order batsman. And then, with the score on 219, he edged Fielder. Young held on as if his life depended on it.

Cotter and Hazlitt

Two wickets in hand, negligible batting skills, and still 55 left to score. Cotter was joined at the wicket by Hazlitt, a 19-year-old scarcely known for his batting. It was also his first Test. He had batted 12 times in First-Class cricket before the match, managed to score in just 8 of them, going past double figures on only 4 occasions. But, he had a 50 under his belt, for the Rest against New South Wales in the previous season, and on that occasion he had been caught by Cotter.

Perhaps Cotter remembered that innings. He seemed to have plenty of confidence in his young partner. He did not remain blocking as he had done while Carter had been around, but concentrated on hitting all along the ground. It was Hazlitt who took risks, lofting several of his strokes, fetching quite a few boundaries in the process. Cotter hit only one.

The younger lad had his share of fortune. Hardstaff dropped him, and he almost chopped one from Blythe on to his stumps. His running was rather whimsical, and twice he survived by hair s breadth. But, the runs kept coming.

Desperate for a wicket, Fielder ran in. Cotter, by now seeing the ball well, drove him straight down the ground. Frantic chase was given and the batsmen sprinted for three. The score stood at 271 for 8. Hazlitt had the strike.

Fielder turned again, trying to put the last bit of venom into the delivery. It was short and Hazlitt swung him to the leg side boundary. Australia had won the incredible match by two wickets.

Hazlitt unbeaten on 34 with 6 boundaries. Cotter a steady 33 from an hour and six minutes with only one four, an unprecedented feat of restraint. The last 56 runs added in 39 minutes of a battle of nerves.

The two heroes were cheered all the way to the pavilion. Even the England team manager Major Phillip Trevor admitted: Hazlitt played with extraordinary nerve and judgement for so young a player, while Cotter, who is known to most people merely as a hitter, showed that he was not only capable of exercising self-restraint, but also of playing a sound defensive game.

The series had started with one of the most fascinating of Tests. The next one would be even more dramatic.

Brief Scores:

England 273 (George Gunn 119, Kenneth Hutchings 42; Tibby Cotter 6 for 101)and 300 (George Gunn 74, Joe Hardstaff Sr 63, Jack Saunders 4 for 68) lost to Australia 300 (Victor Trumper 43, Clem Hill 87; Arthur Fielder 6 for 82) and 275 for 8 (Warwick Armstrong 44, Peter McAllister 41, Hanson Carter 61, Tibby Cotter 33*, Gerry Hazlitt 34*) by 2 wickets.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)