Warwick Armstrong - the oppressive Australian summer and heated exchanges with the authorities had welded him to the wicket © Getty Images
Warwick Armstrong – the oppressive Australian summer and heated exchanges with the authorities had welded him to the wicket © Getty Images

February 8, 1908. With the series locked in a titanic tussle, the skies opened up and the spirited challenge of the visiting England side drowned in the deluge. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the fourth Test of the 1907-08 Ashes, which saw an epic by Warwick Armstrong as well as the first great Test innings of Jack Hobbs.

Down Under the Weather

Weather was the decisive factor.

Till then it had been cruel. The two sides had contested epics at Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide under the scorching, tyrannical sun.

With the hosts leading 2-1 after three riveting and gruelling Test matches, the touring England team thankfully retired to the cooler climes of Tasmania. There they relaxed a bit, with some justification. Local wicketkeeper Norman ‘Joker’ Dodds did have some gala evenings with some of the tourists, with plenty of alcohol splashing about.

For a while it did look that the change of weather had worked in England’s favour. At Launceston, Jack Hobbs scored a classy hundred and the maverick young medium-paced off-spinner Jack Crawford picked up 8 wickets in the comprehensive win. In the return match at Hobart, Joe Hardstaff Sr and Wilfred Rhodes slammed hundreds and the leg-spinning all-rounder Len Braund collected a bagful of scalps. Although the home team held on for a draw with 8 wickets down in their second innings, the Englishmen were upbeat. READ: Test all-rounders who featured among top three run-getters and wicket-takers in a calendar year

When they returned to the heat of Melbourne to play Victoria, there were plenty of good tidings to rejoice. Captain Arthur ‘AO’ Jones, indisposed since the early matches of the tour, had recovered well enough to take part in the game. Besides Victoria were without some of their best cricketers, the side having exhausted themselves during their tall-scoring, timeless Shield match against New South Wales.

The Englishmen seemed in prime form. Hardstaff amassed another hundred and Crawford hit with extreme power, launching the ball into the top gallery of the Grand Stand. Following this Syd Barnes destroyed the local team for just 77, with some extraordinary exhibition of leg-theory bowling. In the second innings Hobbs batted with fluent ease for another hundred, Kenneth Hutchings struck the ball with class and style, before Barnes ran in once again to skittle Victoria out to earn victory by 330 runs.

The England side seemed recovered and itching to resume the titanic tussle for the Ashes.

And then it rained, at the most unfortunate moment. With that, England’s hopes for the urn were washed away with finality.

The day in the sun

The start of the fourth Test had, however, been extremely encouraging for the visitors.

Monty Noble called correctly and walked out to bat with the sublime Victor Trumper for company. However, in the first over itself disaster struck the home side. Facing his first delivery, Trumper wafted airily at a shortish ball from Arthur Fielder and was neatly taken at slip by Crawford. A few minutes later, Barnes swerved a wicked ball past the blade of Clem Hill to dismiss the great hero of the previous Test for just 7.

Getting the two best Australian batsmen with just 14 on the board on a perfect wicket was more than the Englishmen could have bargained for. In response Noble, joined by the controversial Peter McAlister, adopted a risk-free approach against some excellent bowling and impeccable fielding. READ: Archie MacLaren’s amateurs fell Warwick Armstrong’s mighty Australians in one of cricket’s greatest fairytales

Barnes was extremely difficult to get away. And Crawford improved as the day’s play progressed. The Surrey youngster bowled his quicker version, mixing his pace with great effect.

With the score on 89, Noble tried to turn a Crawford delivery to leg and was bowled. Syd Gregory, deceived by a clever slower ball, holed out to cover. Fielder, in the meantime, swung one away and found the edge of the bat of McAlister. The returning captain Jones, always brilliant close to the wicket, held it at slip.

The scoreboard showed 105 for 5 and advantage was again heavily loaded in favour of the tourists.

But there was the towering and determined form of Warwick Armstrong at the wicket. The big all-rounder had scored 110 for Victoria against New South Wales between the Tests. At the same time, along with Frank Laver, he had fallen out with his Victoria skipper McAlister during the game. There were plenty of battles he had fought with the Victoria Cricket Association in the recent past. In the scorching summer, Armstrong had been caught up in all sorts of heated exchanges.

And all that heat seemed to have welded him to the wicket all through the match. From the very start, his adhesive qualities were unfurled for all to see, albeit not much in terms of runs. He scored just 9 in the first hour. It was almost in an apologetic attempt to make up for the lost time that he launched Braund for six. READ: Ashes 1909: Warwick Armstrong keeps debutant Frank Woolley waiting by bowling trial balls for 19 minutes!

At the other end was the classy young left-hander Vernon Ransford. In the same Victoria-New South Wales encounter he had caressed his way to 129 in the second innings. After a careful initiation into the innings, he produced some delectable strokes without really trying to score too quickly.

The pair put on 91, and Australia were on their way to recovery once again.

But now Jones put Fielder on with the wind behind him. Immediately there were remarkable results. Ransford played and missed a couple of balls before snicking to Braund at first slip off the final ball of the over.

Armstrong, after all the limpet-like caution, now threw his bat wildly at Crawford to be bowled. Charlie Macartney, for some reason demoted to No 8 in this Test after top-scoring from No 3 in the previous, did not last long. Hanson Carter, a splendid scrapper down the order, hit one back to Crawford. When Jack O’Connor lobbed a tame catch to Fielder off the brilliant Crawford, Australia were all out for 214.

It had been a superb performance by the bowlers and fielders. Crawford with 5 for 48 from 23.5 overs had sent down one of his best spells.

When Hobbs and Gunn played out time and walked back to the pavilion at the end of the day with the score reading 9 without loss, England had every reason to be pleased. With its fluctuating pendulum, the day had been characteristic of the way the series had progressed so far

But, now the weather had its say. It did not wash the match away, always a difficult thing to do in such timeless Tests. But it did play spoilsport in a different way.

Hobbs on a sticky

It had been a hot day, and strangely, as dusk fell, the heat grew more oppressive. An intolerably scorching wind blew until five in the morning. And then, with the mercury tottering at torturous heights, the rains came. It rained and it rained. For three long hours. Seating at breakfast, the Englishmen turned their disturbed eyes through the windows at the bleak sky. They waited in unrest.

No play was possible till the clock showed a quarter past two. By then the wicket was a carefully prepared mud pudding. The famous Merricreek soil, a friend of the batsmen when the sun shines, turned lethal when sticky. At the end of the 15th week in the country, England were faced with their first real sticky.

Now, a great, great innings was witnessed. The two left-armers, Jack Saunders and Macartney, were quite predictably put on to bowl, to take advantage of the conditions. The effect of the roller, however, meant that the wicket would not be at the most difficult for about a quarter of an hour. And at once, to maximise this tiny window of time, Hobbs started to attack the bowling.

Using his swift footwork and his skill at playing the ball as late as possible, Hobbs banked upon his uncanny judgement of length and batted superbly. It was even tougher than an English sticky, because of the hardness of the turf. Later he called it ‘a beast’ where the ball kicked, flew and turned wickedly, ‘did all that it shouldn’t do.’

His outright attack saw Macartney being hit to all parts of the ground. The short pitched ball was dispatched with power and certainty, struck hard, with the middle of the bat, and placed perfectly between the fieldsmen on both sides of the wicket. He nimbly came down the wicket to tackle deliveries which would have been quite awkward if parried from the crease. And he knew the dangers of playing on the front foot on such a wicket, unless well down the track. He generally stayed back and waited till the last moment. He did not feel for the ball, as did the rest. His hitting was never wild or indiscriminate. READ: Warwick Armstrong bowls two successive overs in the same innings in a Test

Macartney was taken off. O’Connor, who replaced him, was thrashed with equal disdain. In fact, O’Connor fared even worse, struck for multiple boundaries all around the wicket.

At the other end, Saunders was kept on, his immense experience standing in aid. Yet, with England speeding past 50 without the loss of a wicket, for a while it looked that the mud-cake had been mastered.

Yet, with time the wicket got worse. Gunn perished to a ball that stopped. Hardstaff snicked O’Connor. But, Hobbs was playing as if on a different plane and surface. He peppered the pickets with fours, hitting as many as ten of them, and succeeded in flaying O’Connor out of the attack. It was 88 for 2, and Hobbs was on 57.

And now, with the score reading 88 for 2, Noble was forced to put himself on. The Australian captain’s first delivery kept low and crashed into the stumps of the Surrey opener. With the end of the great innings, the English resistance ended. The game was practically decided by this delivery.

Hobbs had got 57. Gunn 13. The rest of the batsmen managed 8, 8, 4, 0, 1, 3, 3, 3, 1. And there were 4 extras. Saunders got 5 and Noble 3. England were knocked over for 105.

The crucial phase

Australia, in spite of a poor first innings, led by 109. They had an hour to bat on a bad wicket. And then there would be the Sunday for the weather to determine the course of the match as the players rested. The only way England could make a real match of it at this stage was by taking as many wickets as possible during the remaining hour.

Jones opened the proceedings with Barnes and Crawford. Immediately the latter beat the bat of Trumper and bowled him. It was the great man’s only pair in Test cricket, and his third duck on the trot.

Noble was joined at the wicket by Hill. There were uncertain moments. And then Crawford hit the stumps of the Australian captain. It was 21 for 2, and wickets were indeed tumbling.

Barnes, unfortunately, struggled with his length. Fielder was put on, and he curled it away. McAlister hung his bat and Joe Humphries took the catch. Australia 28 for 3. Another 25 minutes remained to be played.

These 25 minutes saw one of the most crucial stages of the series. Hill and Gregory, experienced and classy, negotiated Crawford and Fielder. The bowlers tried their hardest, but the batsmen hung on. Stumps were drawn at 48 for 3. Hill 18, Gregory 13. READ: Alex Moir bowls two consecutive overs in a Test innings to emulate Warwick Armstrong

Neither batsmen would make it to their 30s on Monday. But their contribution was invaluable in the context of the game.

Perhaps Jones erred in not bowling the left-arm spin of Rhodes on Saturday afternoon. Perhaps England erred in not picking the other proven match-winner on wet wickets, Colin Blythe. Against Victoria, as Barnes had taken 10, Blythe had also been among wickets capturing 6 in the match. With his left-arm spinners turning away on that uncertain surface, the Australian batsmen could have had a rough time.

However, Blythe did not play the Test, and Rhodes barely bowled on that Saturday. The Australians managed to survive without any further damage other than the three early wickets. The Englishmen perhaps prayed for rain on Sunday to queer the pitch just about long enough to dismiss the rest of the Australians cheaply. However, there was just a light shower. By Monday morning, the wicket was back to its perfect condition.

The Big Ship

Indeed, it seemed the rain had washed the life off the track as well. Even a fast bowler would have been hard-pressed to get the ball more than three-quarter stump high.

Yet, the Englishmen persevered. A brilliant bit of fielding by Barnes and a sharp take by Humphries ensured the end of Hill for 25. Fielder sent through a straight one to trap Gregory leg before for 29. Australia were 77 for 5. The wicket was good. So, England could still make a match of it.

But now the first innings pair of Ransford and Armstrong were at it again. Circumspect, eschewing risks, steady, they made runs slowly and surely. Ransford the more enterprising, more stylish, with delightful strokes unfurled now and again, with every bit of the so-called ‘left-hander’s classical elegance’ of which he was the pioneer. Armstrong did not really trouble himself with the concept of attractive cricket. He was there to stay at the wicket.

Lunch was taken at 111 for 5. After the break, the story continued along the same lines before Rhodes, finally given a decent spell, got Ransford caught at the wicket. It was 162 for 6. There was plenty of batting left.

Macartney, once again batting low down the order, joined Armstrong. The big man went on batting sedately, runs coming almost as an afterthought. According to umpire Bob Crockett, “Some onlookers, who always think they know more of the game than the captain, suggested to Noble that Armstrong, as he was well set, should open out. Noble simply said, ‘He’ll do for me.’”

Macartney was dismissed by the persevering Crawford at 217. But now, England had Carter to deal with.

With more than 200 runs with a couple of fifties and some other handy scores in the series, the stumper had been a thorn in the flesh in the lower order. Now he proceeded to play perhaps his best innings. He struck to leg with certainty and dispatched the over-pitched deliveries with confidence. Armstrong continued in the same vein, but Carter was more aggressive. By the time Fielder had got him caught at the wicket, he had hit an attractive 66 and the match was as good as over as a contest. This was Carter’s third half-century in four Test matches. He would play 24 more and cross 50 only once more.

Armstrong passed his hundred with O’Connor for company. And having reached his landmark, he permitted himself a break from extreme caution. Twice off consecutive deliveries, he drove Braund high and dispatched him over the picket fence. As the England manager Major Philip Trevor wrote, such strokes would have got fours in England, but were worth six in Australia.

After this brief display of human aggression, he retreated into his shell and played out time till stumps. The day ended with the hosts on 358 for 8, Armstrong on 114.

Surrender

The England bowlers and fielders staggered off the ground, but their performance had been impeccable as well. Not a ball had been mis-fielded, not a catch put down. Humphreys in particular had given a stimulating display of wicketkeeping.

But by the time Saunders was snapped up in the slips by Jones off Fielder the following morning, the Englishmen were exhausted. The hopelessness of the situation had something to do with it. According to the Launceston Examiner, “During the Test Crawford was examined by Dr Strong and it was found that he had strained the right side of his heart… (the Melbourne doctor) advised him to consult a London specialist before resuming cricket in England.” ‘Barrier Miner’ wrote in Broken Hill that he was not surprised at this because “he is the greatest grafter ever seen here, whether fielding, batting or bowling … his loss will be felt by the Englishmen in the remainder of their matches, especially the fifth Test.”

Additionally, Fielder had an injury, Barnes a strained leg and Humphries went down with an ‘internal problem’ for which he needed an operation.

In the end, neither Fielder nor Humphries played the fifth Test and Crawford had to.

Armstrong walked off the ground with 133 not out to his credit and England were set the impossibility of 495 runs to win. They did not really have the hearts in it. Saunders was making the ball dart off the wicket, but the batsmen gave in too easily, without much ado about resistance.

Rhodes hit a defiant 69 after coming in at 57 for 5. Captain Jones, batting at No 9 after the heat and exertions had taken a toll of his fragile and recovering constitution, hit 34. Crawford and Barnes added 31 for the final wicket, and that was a bonus after Saunders had put down a dolly. The 229 all out before the close of Day 4 was anticlimactic.

The Ashes was hence decided in favour of Australia, and much of it was a result of the fickle elements.

However, as Major Trevor wrote, “Had (England) won the toss they would have needed to play very badly indeed to have avoided winning the match.”

Brief Scores:

Australia 214 (Monty Noble 48, Vernon Ransford 51; Jack Crawford 5 for 48) and 385 (Warwick Armstrong 133, Vernon Ransford 54, Hanson Carter 66; Arthur Fielder 4 for 91) beat England 105 (Jack Hobbs 57; Jack Saunders 5 for 28) and 186 (George Gunn 43; Jack Saunders 4 for 76) by 308 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.)