Clem Hill (left) and Roger Hartigan. One from sickbed and the other on leave from work for four days. They added 243. Picture courtesy: The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser.
Clem Hill (left) and Roger Hartigan. One from sickbed and the other on leave from work for four days. They added 243. Picture courtesy: The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser.

January 14, 1908. Australia were on the verge of meek surrender when Clem Hill got off the sick bed, walked into the arena and played one of the most remarkable innings of all time. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the Adelaide Test of 1907-08 Ashes, the third thriller on the trot in a series that has been criminally forgotten.

Heat, Hill and History

The temperature soared to over 100 in the Fahrenheit scale. That means beyond 40⁰C. In Jack Crawford’s colourful diary, it was jotted down as 154 in the sun and 108 in shade.

The situation in the series was also red-hot. The first Test had been a thriller in which Australia had squeezed home by 2 wickets. The second took it even closer to the wire, with England pipping the hosts by the thinnest of margins as Syd Barnes and Arthur Fielder had scrambled the last single.

Now, with the series tantalisingly hanging on the edge of the proverbial knife, the third Test at Adelaide was being contested under a cruel, scorching South Australian sun. And once again, the sides were slugging it out to the limit.

By the fourth morning, England were securely placed in the driver’s seat. They led by 78 in the first innings through some fantastic rallying late in the order, mainly some brilliant hitting by that maverick all-rounder Crawford.

On the third afternoon, Barnes had beaten the flummoxed bat of Victor Trumper and the ball had crashed into the stumps, registering a duck against the great name. He had followed it up by foxing young Charlie Macartney, the man who had top-scored in the first innings. By the end of the day, Australia had lost Peter McAllister and Warwick Armstrong as well, and had led by just 45.

Early on the fourth morning captain Monty Noble, who had batted magnificently, was sent back by the persevering Fielder. After a fighting stand, leg-spinner Len Braund snared the stylish Vernon Ransford. And the enigmatic Crawford sent one through with the flick of his fingers and it hit the stumps of debutant medium pacer Jack O’Connor, the night-watchman.

It was 180 for 7. Australia led by just 102. At one end was another debutant Roger Hartigan. The newcomer, who worked as a Queensland wool-broker, was playing the Test with four days’ leave from his employers.

Little batting remained. Hanson Carter had shown splendid application in the previous two Tests, but the situation seemed insurmountable for his limited abilities. Jack Saunders had no pretensions as a batsman. And the great Clem Hill had spent most of the match in bed. Suffering from the beginning of the Test from gastric influenza, not really helped by the agonising heat, he had batted at No. 7 in the first innings and had scored 5. After that, he had stayed in bed at the team hotel. His brother Roy Hill had substituted for him in the field.

This morning however, with the clock approaching lunch hour, he had made his way to the ground. Sitting in the pavilion, he was feeling just a little better. The sun was beating down, threatening the healthiest of them. As O’Connor walked back, Fred Fane and his men waited for the next batsman to appear. Most of them expected the slight form of Carter. A smooth victory before the close of play was being prophesised. After all, the lead was small. And Tibby Cotter, the most feared of Aussie bowlers, had still not recovered from his supreme exertions in the second Test. He was not playing this one.

But it was Hill who emerged, looking ghastly and pale under his baggy green. Even his walk was shaky, tottering. No one had expected him to come out. Now, no one expected him to score runs. Some prayed that he would be dismissed early, if only to ensure that he did not become critically ill from the exposure to the sun in his wretched condition.

Indeed, Hill seemed in no condition to bat. Soon, after negotiating a few deliveries, he drew away from the wicket and threw up.

After lunch this happened again, and then again. And in between, Hill just about managed to survive. So did Hartigan. With a curious mixture of pluck and luck.

There followed the short phase of play that decided the fate of the series. Crawford was bowling his deceptive medium pacers, and shaped one away. Hartigan flashed at it and it flew to Fielder at point. Was there ever a man who failed to live up to his name so dramatically as Fielder at that moment? The man who had been the best bowler in the series for England now spilled the simplest of catches. Hartigan was just 32 at that time.

Two overs later, Wilfred Rhodes floated one up to Hill. The southpaw, batting on 22, drove hard and it lobbed up to mid-off. It was a dolly, but it seemed a strange virus had afflicted all the English fielders at once. A man as capable as Barnes stood there, serene and calm under the ball. Hill turned and started to leave the crease for the pavilion. And somehow the ball slipped out of the grasp of that supreme professional bowler. The batsman, the crowd, the fielders — none of them could believe it. Two catches grassed in the space of a few minutes.

And then Joe Humphreys failed to collect a ball from Rhodes that could have sent Hill away stumped. “Men who came to Australia a remarkably fine fielding side, and who had supported that reputation, went completely to pieces. They became fairly rattled. They could do nothing right,” thus did an astonished Sydney Morning Herald sum it up.

Hill continued to draw away from the wicket and vomit. Indeed, the following day, the papers called him CLEMENT ILL. But, never again did he waver in his batting that day. His physical condition remained the same, perhaps he became even weaker. But his innings improved steadily and rapidly.

And Hartigan too grew from strength to strength. Following Hill’s advice, he left the balls outside the off-stump well alone. Both the batsmen hit well and frequently, but without any modicum of risk. Besides, they ran their singles with supreme effect, moving the score along and tiring the fielders on that scorching day. By teatime, they were doing as they pleased with the batting.

The Englishmen bowled with determination, and after the two dropped chances fielded well enough. Fane changed the bowling around. But there seemed no chink in the by now solid Australian resistance.

Slowly but surely the sun had its effect on the English fielders. Fielder, who had been suffering from a chill and had spent the Sunday in bed, was the first to be affected. Then Barnes and Braund followed suit. Three of the main bowlers, were all feeling the terrific heat. And then Humphreys collapsed and left the ground. In fact, in order to give the English fielders time to recover, tea was extended by ten minutes.

This helped Hill as well. Also Hartigan. They batted without any trouble whatsoever. Crawford bowled his heart out. Even Kenneth Hutchings was tried. But the strokes now flowed. Hill, compact and secure, fortified with tablets, found gaps with ease. Hartigan peppered the pickets.

By the close of play, according to Crawford’s diary, “We were walking about like old men of eighty.” The Australian score at the end of the day read 397 for 7. Hartigan was on 105, Hill 106 and the temperature in Fahrenheit scale 105.

Hill staggered back to the pavilion and collapsed on the massage table. Hartigan cabled his employer, asking for an extension of his leave because he was still batting. His boss at the wool-brokers responded, “Stay as long as you are making runs.”

The match had been turned on its head.

Of sheep, fines and magistrates

Hartigan’s dalliance with wool was not the only ovine matter in the Test. Just before the start of the match John Creswell, the secretary of the South Australian Cricket Association, had been fined in the magistrates’ court for allowing his sheep to graze on the pitch next to the Adelaide Oval.

In fact, nor was this brush with the magistrate was the only fine associated with the Test. After the incredible last wicket win in the previous Test match, Fielder, Hardstaff and Rhodes had been relaxing with drinks at the Old White Hart Hotel. Being non-residents, they had fallen foul of local licensing laws.

Constable Haslett had confirmed that they had indeed been drinking at the Hotel while they were actually residents in the Grand Hotel next door. Mr Dwyer, the presiding magistrate, had fined them £20 each. However, the hearing was on January 10, by which time the miscreants had already reached Adelaide, and were sweating it out in the field as Australia scored 275 in the first innings.

In that innings, England had done well to get Trumper and Noble early, but Macartney, Ransford and Hartigan had rallied things around. Barnes, for much of the innings bowling leg-theory with three short legs and two long legs, had picked up three wickets and Fielder had perspired his way to four scalps.

George Gunn and Fane had replied strongly, but a quick flurry of wickets had seen a middle order crisis. It had been triggered by Gunn, refusing to budge at the call of a single from Fane. The captain, hurrying back and slipping on the way, had been run out by yards.

The slide had been halted by Rhodes and Hardstaff, and Crawford had come in to play a remarkably good innings. According to manager of the England team, Major Philip Trevor, Crawford “did not make the mistake common to most hitters who choose to alter their usual tactics. He did not eschew hitting altogether, but combined good judgement with restraint.” His plucky 62 had helped the visitors take a 78-run lead. The quick wickets that had followed had looked likely to result in a comfortable win.

And then Clem Hill had walked out.

Up-Hill Task

The next morning Hartigan was missed twice in quick succession. However, this time he could not capitalise on the mistakes and soon flashed Barnes to deep point. Dick Young, substituting for the indisposed Fielder, held the catch at deep point. With the thermometer registering 111 in the shade, Fielder had been advised to stay in the pavilion.

Hartigan walked back for a sterling 116. He had struck 12 boundaries. The partnership had amounted to 243, then the highest for any wicket in Test cricket, going past Syd Gregory and Harry Trott’s 221 for the fourth wicket at Lord’s in 1896. It continued to stand as the highest for four years, till Jack Hobbs and Wilfred Rhodes went past it in 1912 by putting on 323 for the first wicket. Strange indeed that the highest stand in Test cricket for four years was an eighth wicket collaboration.

The Australian innings was far from over. Hill batted on, recovered and revived after a good night’s sleep. Carter, joining him at the wicket, proved to be the same stubborn batsman he had been in the first two Tests. By now Hill was toying with the bowling.

The pair added 78 before Hill hit Crawford into the hands of Gunn. The incredible knock had come to an end. The left-hander had batted for 319 minutes and scored 160 in one of the most miraculous exhibitions of undying spirit. 18 boundaries had flowed from his bat. In terms of the time taken, it was unusually slow for one of Hill’s big innings. But, given the heat, state of the game and the physical condition of the batsman, it was understandable.

Perhaps one of the best innings ever played. Criminally underrated and forgotten. It did not help that a self-effacing Hill barely wrote just some 10 lines about the knock in the only collection of reminiscences that he ever penned, for a newspaper in 1933.

It was past three in the afternoon when the Englishmen set out on their herculean task of making 429 for victory. And immediately, their course was derailed. The first ball from Saunders struck Hobbs on his stomach and he had to retire hurt from severe bruising. He did not return till the fall of the sixth wicket, and by then it was a lost cause.

That was just the first blow. The following three were not so literal, but followed each other in distressing haste. Fane was bowled by Saunders, Hutchings was beaten by pace of an O’Connor delivery, and Gunn mishit O’Connor to Trumper at mid-off.

It could have been worse if Saunders had accepted the return catch from Hardstaff and Braund had been presented a king’s pair with Carter stumping him. But the chances were missed. Saunders grassed the catch and Carter, after moving swiftly to leg to collect the ball, dropped it while trying to break the wicket. There followed an entertaining partnership between the two, both the batsmen hitting easily and well.

More than a hundred were added in just an hour and a half, with Hardstaff collaring the bowling with disdain. But it was too good to last. Saunders was launched over mid-on. Macartney turned and sprinted nearly forty yards before clutching on to the most magnificent of catches.

In the brief period that remained on Day 5, Rhodes struck a mighty hit and was well caught by Armstrong in the deep field. England ended on 139 for 5, the match registering a completely different complexion within a day and a half.

It did not help matters that on the next day of this timeless Test, the wicket finally showed signs of wear. The only one to score significantly on the final day was the thermometer, which notched 160 in the sun and 112 in the shade. O’Connor and Saunders ran through the remainder of the batting with considerable ease.

O’Connor’s lively medium pacers, in use because of Cotter’s absence, scalped eight wickets in the match. A good haul for someone making his debut at the age of 33.

“In this match they [the Englishmen] showed the white feather,” wrote former Australian batsman Frank Iredale. It was perhaps a trifle uncharitable. The reality was that a man called Clem Hill had refused to follow the orders of the doctor or dictates weather or of his health and had decided the match with a sparkling gem of an innings.

Brief Scores:

Australia 285 (Charlie Macartney 75, Vernon Ransford 44, Roger Hartigan 48; Arthur Fielder 4 for 80) and 506 (Monty Noble 65, Roger Hartigan 106, Clem Hill 160) beat England 363 (Fred Fane 48, George Gunn 65, Joe Hardstaff Sr 61, Jack Crawford 68) and 183 (Len Braund 47, Joe Hardstaff Sr 72; Jack Saunders 5 for 65, Jack O’Connor 5 for 40) by 245 runs.

(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.)