WG-Grace-Fred-Spofforth-Syd-Barnes-Jack-Hobbs-Don-Bradman
From left: WG Grace, Fred Spofforth, Syd Barnes, Jack Hobbs, Don Bradman. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

WG Grace (Jan 1, 1874)

It was the champion s first tour to Australia. He was just 27, the build still strapping and athletic, long before butter and whiskey had increased the spread to leviathan proportions. But he was already heralded as greater than anything the cricket world had seen. And when he took an English side to Australia in 1873-74, in the pre-Test cricket days, it was known as WG Grace s XI.

The tour started with the Christmas Day, which had ice-pails substituting yule logs and fern leaves for holly. WG left his wife Agnes, with whom he was honeymooning in the hotel and scampered off to bag some kangaroos.

Returning from the outback, his side was trounced by an innings by the XVIII of Victoria at Melbourne. Additionally, some of the players turned up late and an embarrassed captain was forced to ask his counterpart for substitutes. Besides, brother Fred insisted on driving the carriage taking them to the ground, drove too close to the kerb and the vehicle was overturned. Arthur Bush took the blame, but it was common knowledge that the skipper s brother had been at fault.

Grace battled alone, remaining unbeaten on 51 as the much-hyped English side followed on and ended their second innings at 135. However, the criticism was scathing. The Times accused them of indulging themselves without the required self-denial to get into condition after a long sea voyage. The Australian press was openly caustic. The people who had wagered heavily on the English side even cast aspersions that the match had been thrown because Mr Grace and his coadjutors have been wilfully and dishonourably dishonest. There were also rumours of an amateur-professional rift in the team.

Grace responded to all this in the way he knew best. The following match was at Ballarat, and the temperatures soared to 100 F in the shade. Acknowledging in his log that it was the hottest day in which I ever played cricket Grace walked out to bat against the local XXII on New Year s Day 1874.

With Frank Allan, Samuel Cosstick, Tom Kendall and the legendary pioneer Tom Wills, the attack was a strong one. But Grace hit his way all around the wicket to score 126. Characteristically playing equally efficiently off the front and back foot, he struck all around the wicket and twice hit out of the ground for fives. Fred Grace followed his example to score 112, but it was the skipper s 126 which replaced the highest score by an Englishman in the southern hemisphere, previously Richard Carpenter s 121 in 1863-64 hit on the same ground.

The deed was done on the New Year. The following day, Grace s team went on to amass 470. However, the captain was not done yet. When Ballarat batted, he bowled medium pace and sometimes his slower loopy deliveries to pick up 7 for 71. As for fielding, the Ballarat Courier thought Grace was worth at least six good men in the field .

The three day match ended with the XIs taking a 194-run first innings lead. The critics were silent for at least a day.

Brief Scores:

WG Grace XI 470 (WG Grace 126, GF Grace 112, William Oscroft 65, Andrew Greenwood 62) drew with Ballarat XXII 274 (William Figgis 53; WG Grace 7 for 71, James Lilywhite 6 for 75).

Fred Spofforth (Jan 1, 1881)

The New South Wales and Victoria Combined XI was a terrific unit when it squared off against the Australian XI on New Year s Day 1881. Skippered by Dave Gregory, it featured Hugh Massie and Tom Horan starting its batting and had the all-round skills of Billy Midwinter, alongside the bowling riches of Tom Garrett and Spofforth s biggest rival Edwin Evans.

It was perhaps the presence of Evans in the line-up that goaded The Demon into playing like one. Not that Evans was picking up the wickets. He had got past the stubborn willow of Alec Bannerman, but Billy Murdoch, Percy McDonnell, Jack Blackham all fallen to Midwinter. The great hitter George Bonnor, playing his first First-Class match in Australia, had fallen to the same bowler as well, after a furious 55. Spofforth came in at 133 for 9 and threw his bat around for a valuable unbeaten 25 as the innings folded for 172. And then the Demon Bowler got hold of the ball.

Harry Boyle would be the partner-in-arms when Spofforth would tear through the England batting at The Oval a year and a half later to kick-start the legend of The Ashes. However, on this day, he was reduced to just another fielder. Spofforth opened the bowling with Joey Palmer.

The two bowled till the end of the New Years Day. Palmer picked up three, all bowled. Spofforth, all arms and legs and nose as he ran in, hit the woodwork of Massie and Evans and got the remaining caught. The ball rose wickedly, and sometimes broke back spitefully. Midwinter played one back and Spofforth extended his long, lean arm and latched on to it. The rest were taken by the slips and the point. At the end of the day the New South Wales and Victoria XI were 84 for 8, Spofforth had 5.

After a day s rest, Spofforth returned on the morning of the 3rd day of the Year and knocked out the remaining two to finish with 7 for 55. The total read 94. The innings had lasted 56 overs, Spofforth had bowled 29 four-ball overs, Palmer 27. No, that is no typo. Bowlers those days could change ends once in an innings by bowling two consecutive overs.

In the second innings they repeated their feat. Palmer sent down 31 overs taking 4 for 29. Spofforth bowled 3 more balls, capturing 5 for 50. The 85-run innings came to an end when Tom Groube s throw had caught skipper Dave Gregory short and thus ended the final resistance. The Australian side triumphed by 178 runs.

Brief Scores:

Australian XI 172 (George Bonnor 55; Billy Midwinter 7 for 107) and 185 (George Alexander 42*; Edwin Evans 5 for 38, Billy Midwinter 4 for 104) beat New South Wales and Vctoria9 4 (Fred Spofforth 7 for 55) and 85 (Fred Spofforth 5 for 50, Joey Palmer 4 for 29) by 178 runs.

Syd Barnes (Jan 1, 1902)

Legend has it that Archie MacLaren was facing Syd Barnes at the nets in Old Trafford when the bowler rapped him on the thigh. Sorry sir, he apologised. And MacLaren responded, Don t be sorry Barnes, you re going to Australia with me.

Given that the story was supposedly repeated by MacLaren to Neville Cardus who penned it down, one has to treat it with several bucketfuls of salt. In fact, I will have my eyes open for flying pigs if some day it is verified as true. However, Barnes did make it to Australia for the 1901-02 Ashes.

This greatest of bowlers took to the strange conditions as if playing in his backyard. 4 for 32 was the return against South Australia, 5 for 61 and 7 for 38 against Victoria, 5 more in the match against New South Wales.

The first time he bowled in a Test match it was at Sydney. The platform was set by MacLaren himself who struck 116 in a total of 464. Facing Barnes was the great Victor Trumper at the height of his powers. The bowler caught him lazily off his own bowling off the second ball he bowled to him. He also got Clem Hill, Charlie McLeod and Joe Darling before an Ernie Jones skier was taken by Gilbert Jessop in the outfield. The first innings in Test cricket saw him take 5 for 65. England won by an innings.

The second Test began in Melbourne on New Year s Day 1902. There was rain, and the wicket was wet. MacLaren won the toss and sent the hosts in.

Once again Trumper faced Barnes. This time again, he lasted two balls. Johnny Tyldesley caught him in the slips for a duck. Hill was bowled for 15. The stubborn Reggie Duff was caught in the slips as well. Barnes finished with 6 for 42 from 16.1 overs. Bowling in tandem was the great Colin Blythe, who ended with 4 for 64 from 16. Australia were all out for 112.

However, that was not nearly the end of the New Year day celebrations for Barnes. Because in the Australian ranks were bowlers of the calibre of Hugh Trumble, and more importantly Monty Noble. On a wet wicket, Noble could be a nightmare. The English reply lasted 15.4 overs and amounted to 61. Noble had 7 for 17, including Barnes caught and bowled for 1.

So, there was Barnes again, with the ball for the second time on New Year s Day. Captain Joe Darling went out bravely at the top as usual, but the rest of the batting was restructured. Trumble opened, wicketkeeper Kelly came in at No. 3, William Howell at No. 4, Jones at No. 5; Kelly was run out, but the rest of them fell to Barnes. Australia ended the day at 48 for 5, and Barnes had 10 for the day.

He kept on taking wickets on the morrow, dismissing Syd Gregory, Trumper and Hill. But by then the wicket had become a great one to bat on. Hill and Duff added 66, before the former was tragically out for 99 to make it 233 for 9. And young Warwick Armstrong, a genuine batsman coming in at No 11 due to the inverted order, joined Duff to add 120 more. Barnes finished with 7 for 121, making it 13 for the match. However, by then Australia were at the top and Noble s 6 for 60 saw them win by 229 runs.

Brief Scores:

Australia 112 (Syd Barnes 6 for 42, Colin Blythe 4 for 64) and 353 (Clem Hill 99, Reggie Duff 104, Warwick Armstrong 45*; Syd Barnes 7 for 121) beat England 61 (Monty Noble 7 for 37) and 175 (Johnny Tyldesley 66; Monty Noble 6 for 60, Hugh Trumble 4 for 49) by 229 runs.

Jack Hobbs (Jan 1, 1921)

It was a weak, war-ravaged England side who were battling in Australia in the summer Down Under 1920-21. The great Jack Hobbs was there at the top of the order, and there was some meat in the batting. But it was the bowling that proved the principal difference.

The supremacy of the bowling attack of the hosts was apparent from the First Test at Sydney when Australia made short work of the England line-up dismissing them for 190 and 281. The Australian first innings had been limited to a manageable 267, but then captain Armstrong hit 158 and the second innings total of 581 meant a target of 659. England surrendered easily enough. Hobbs top-scored in both innings, with 49 and 59.

The second Test commenced at Melbourne on the last day of 1920. The hosts batted first and were given a solid start by openers Herbie Collins and Warren Bardsley. This was followed by centuries of contrasting styles from Nip Pellew and the great hard-hitting all-rounder Jack Gregory. Wilfred Rhodes, now playing as a specialist opening batsman partnering Hobbs, was forced to roll his arm over for a few overs before the innings finally came to an end at 499.

So, Hobbs walked out in the afternoon of New Year s Day, with the unenviable task of replying to 499. His job was made no easier when Gregory knocked the stumps of Rhodes out of the ground at 20. At 32, captain Armstrong caught Harry Makepeace plumb in front.

And the 38-year-old opener fought back. Gregory, Charles Kelleway and Armstrong tested him, but he remained firm. Drives flowed firmly through the covers and straight. At the other end Patsy Hendren, playing just his second Test, helped weather the storm. Plucky and skilful batting took them to the end of the day at 93 for 2. Hobbs was again the mainstay, having scored 53 of them.

Rain started from the nightfall, and by the time light dawned on Sunday the wicket was under water. And when the players came back to walk out on the muddy field, batting on that pudding of a pitch was a treacherous affair.

The ball jumped about from the first over, short balls and sometimes good-length ones flying over the head of the batsman. Wicketkeeper Herbert Strudwick, the only batsman apart from Hobbs and Hendren to get runs, was struck thrice over the heart by balls from Gregory that reared up. Yet, on wicket, Hobbs played as if on a featherbed. The drives continued unimpeded, and when he departed after three and a half hours of unbelievable mastery, the score against his name read 122. Even Hobbs, the most modest of men, later recalled it as an innings I number among my best .

England lost by an innings and 91 runs, but the New Year masterpiece was acknowledged by Wisden as the best innings of the series.

Brief Scores:

Australia 499 (Herbie Collins 64, Warren Bardsley 51, Johnny Taylor 68, Nip Pellew 116, Jack Gregory 100) beat England 251 (Jack Hobbs 122, Patsy Hendren 67; Jack Gregory 7 for 69) and 157 (Frank Woolley 50; Warwick Armstrong 4 for 26) by an innings and 91 runs.

Don Bradman (Jan 1, 1948 and, well, Jan 1, 1934, Jan 1, 1936 and Jan 1, 1939)

It is a difficult proposition to limit Bradman brilliance to one innings, regardless of what criteria you limit yourself to.

At Sydney, on the first day of 1933, The Don had walked in just before tea for New South Wales against Queensland, and proceeded to get to 50 in 56 minutes, 100 in 86 and was 122 not out in 106 minutes when stumps were drawn. The following day, he added 131 runs in the 98 minutes he batted before lunch, completing 200 in 185 minutes and then taking a mere 16 minutes to race from 200 to 250. When he was bowled by Frank Brew for 252, he had batted less than three and a half hours.

A year earlier, he had enjoyed the rest day of the Melbourne Test, but had hit 103 from a total of 191 the following day against Harold Larwood and company.

Two years, down the line, when the 1936 New Year dawned, Bradman was recovering from a critical illness that had afflicted him during the 1934 tour of England. So, he did not travel to South Africa to play the Tests. But that did not stop him from taking field for South Australia (he had migrated) against Victoria on the first day of the year.

Batting sedately and preserving his strength, Bradman walked out at 8 for 1, and completed his half century in 70 minutes just before lunch. By tea he had passed his hundred and was marching towards his second. At the end of the day he was unbeaten on 229. Having tested his fitness with satisfaction, Bradman proceeded to bat more adventurously the following morning. In 358 minutes, the 300 was raised, and The Don took just 97 minutes to score 100 before lunch on the second day. Unbeaten on 338 at lunch, he was out to a skier after 421 minutes of batting for a personal score of 357.

The Melbourne Test of 1936-37 began on January 1, and Bradman was out for 13 to Hedley Verity that day. However, three days later, he had inverted the batting order, and come in at No. 7 to score 270 which ranks as one of the best knocks ever played. It also turned the Ashes series on its head.

On New Year s Day 1939, he resumed his innings at 52 not out against Victoria and was caught in the slips just before 5 PM. His innings amounted to 267.

And I have omitted several matches in which he was spending the first day of the year resting or on field before coming in to score another hundred.

Yet, if we pick out a solitary landmark innings played by Bradman on the first of January, it has to be with the rigid criteria of an innings on that day in a Test match. The Don did so on the first day of 1948, at the age of 39, at Melbourne.

It was the unfortunate Indians who got the wrong end of the stick, but with Dattu Phadkar, Lala Amarnath, Vinoo Mankad and Chandu Sarwate, the bowling was not too bad. Additionally, there was Vijay Hazare, who had dismissed Bradman on a wet wicket in the rain washed second Test at Sydney.

Bradman, with 185 in the first Test when he had been hit wicket for the only time in Test cricket, proceeded to notch another unique personal feat in this New Year Test. This was the only time in his Test career he scored centuries in each innings.

It was a rather sombre Bradman on display, scoring 37 by lunch after coming in at 29 for 1. By tea, he had proceeded to 99. It was at 132 that he was attacked by cramps and instead of retiring swung wildly at Phadkar to be leg-before.

After the Australian first innings amounted to 394, India reached 262 for 6 by the end of the second day. Rain queered the pitch on the third morning and wickets went down in a flurry. At 291 for 9 they declared, with the intention of targeting the Australian batsmen on the wet wicket. Bradman responded by inverting his batting order and came in at 32 for 4. By then the wicket had lost much of the venom and a cautious approach saw him proceed to 23 in an hour. But then he opened up and reached his century well before the end of the day. With Arthur Morris reaching his century as well, Bradman declared at the overnight score of 255, his personal runs amounting to 127 not out. That was two more than what the Indians managed in their second essay.

Brief Scores:

Australia 394 (Arthur Morris 45, Don Bradman 132, Lindsay Hassett 80; Lala Amarnath 4 for 78, Vinoo Mankad 4 for 135) and 255 for 4 decl. (Arthur Morris 100*, Don Bradman 127*) beat India 291 for 9 decl. (Vinoo Mankad 116, Dattu Phadkar 55; Ian Johnson 4 for 59) and 125 (Bill Johnston 4 for 44, Ian Johnson 4 for 35) by 233 runs.