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Not only did Sydney Barnes take 5 for 72 in the second innings, he batted on till the end, unbeaten on 38 as England clinched a thriller © Getty Images

January 7, 1908. A second thriller in the space of a few days, and a second classic Test we have all but forgotten. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the Melbourne Test that marked the debut of Jack Hobbs, and saw Syd Barnes and Arthur Fielder steal a fascinating win from the proverbial jaws of defeat.

 Forgotten masterpiece

In My Life Story Jack Hobbs wrote about his debut: “(This) Test match was destined to be famous for all time because of its sensational finish.” In another book of his, Playing for England, the great opening batsman described the look on the face of the hero of the final moments of this extraordinary match. “(Syd Barnes) had a death or glory expression on that keen face of his”. Barnes himself remembered this match as one of the most memorable of his immensely long career. So did all the participants of this epic match.

England manager Major Trevor Phillip had the following to say about the last day’s play in his record of the series, “It was an eventful — and may in years to come be regarded as an historical — day’s play.”

Alas, seldom is this game recalled today. Indeed, not only the match, even the players have been forgotten. The names of Hobbs and Barnes still flash across the television screen now and then, because of their superlative careers, mostly in statistical tables listing the most brilliant. And commentators earning fat sums for their drivel need to spell out those names hesitantly, unsure of the pronunciation, ignorant that the ‘S’ in SF Barnes stands for Sydney.

But then, that is the fate of the history of cricket.

However, the match remains an epic. With the slightest change in the fortunes of the teams, this might have ended in the first ever Tie in the history of Test cricket.

Illness again

England and Australia were yet to get over the terrific thriller they had contested a couple of weeks earlier. And they met again at Melbourne to engage in another heart-stopping encounter.

Illness had already played a role in the fortunes of the English team. Indeed, it had cut both ways in the first Test. Captain Arthur Owen Jones had been hospitalised with pneumonia and the burden of leadership had fallen on Fred Fane. To replace Jones the batsman, Fane had called upon George Gunn, the Nottinghamshire strokeplayer who just happened to be in Australia for health reasons. Gunn had hit 119 and 74, top-scoring in both innings.

Health issues now played a major role in the build-up for Melbourne as well.

Before the Test, the visitors travelled down to Upper Reserve, Bendigo, to play against a local XVIII. Hobbs had shown good form during his 58, following up on his 77 against Victoria. His claims to a Test place was getting stronger, especially with the abject failure of wicketkeeper and makeshift opener Dick Young in the first Test.

However, Bendigo came with its own challenges. When the team reached on the Christmas Day, the temperature soared, touching the late thirties (107⁰F) in the shade. The match started in furnace like atmosphere. And then it suddenly started raining and there was a sharp drop to 20⁰C (68⁰F).

Jack Crawford, the maverick off-break bowling all-rounder, captured 6 Bendigo wickets. Colin Blythe, the great Kent left-arm spinner with the most fragile of constitutions, took 7. They both felt unwell even as they bowled. By the time the team reached Melbourne, Blythe had to be sent straight to bed. He was saved from pleurisy by the thoughtfulness of wicketkeeper Joe Humphries, ‘who rubbed him nearly to pieces with turpentine’. Crawford had a bad cold in the head. Gunn, in the country because of his poor health, now became a mass of aches and pains. Len Braund, the leg-spinning all-rounder, developed a bad cold in the chest.

The day of the Test drew nearer and, while the others recovered, Blythe was still in the process of recovery. The previous week, five inches of rain had been registered in Melbourne. But, since then the weather had cleared up. All the prospects pointed to an excellent wicket.

Hence, the England management decided to leave Blythe out. At long last, the 25-year-old Hobbs was set to make his debut. Wilfred Rhodes had been so under-bowled at Sydney that he had joked, “I am in the team because of my singing.” With Blythe out of the side and a batsman chosen as replacement, he was earmarked as the left-arm spinner to turn to in case of necessity.

Slow and steady

On New Year’s Day, 1908, just before the start of the match, Hobbs arrived at the Melbourne Cricket Ground with the England side. He was hitting a few in front of the pavilion when the great Australian batsman Clem Hill approached.

“So you’re playing this time, Jack?”

“Yes, I’m going to have a shot,” Hobbs replied.

“Hearty congratulations then, and good luck,” Hill wished.

How many modern Australian cricketers would do that? One wonders.

The placid wicket notwithstanding, the first over ensured a cautious and slow Australian approach. The luck with the toss had gladdened the hearts of the home team and their supporters, and a large score had been predicted.

But Fielder’s third ball almost bowled Trumper. The following delivery was nicked and Gunn at slip put down a simple catch. This slowed proceedings. Charlie Macartney and Trumper, two batsmen who would retire with famous hundreds before lunch under their belts, did not really hurry the score along. Macartney, in particular, in just his second Test, was rather nervous and slow.

It was, in the opinion of some, Macartney’s hesitation that caused the first wicket to fall. Trumper on 49 pushed to leg, and there appeared to be an easy single in it. Eager for his half-century, the legendary batsman hastened down the wicket, but Macartney remained resolutely fixed in his crease. Trumper, rushing back, was not very amused.

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With a crucial first-innings 83, Jack Hobbs was instrumental on his Test debut © Getty Images

Crawford was the bowler. Fane’s lack of confidence in the off-spinner had resulted in his being the fifth bowler to be tried. His next ball was short and outside the off-stump. Trumper, impatient now, flailed at it. Humphries, standing up, held an excellent catch.

The Repton man got Macartney as well. Bowling with an extremely attacking field at the greenhorn, with two slips and a short point, Crawford kept probing and finally turned one enough to bowl the batsman.

Hill was removed by Fielder. This fast man in the form of his life proceeded to bowl off-theory at skipper Monty Noble. He ran in with three slips, gully, third man, cover point, extra cover, mid-off, with only mid-on patrolling the leg side. Hardstaff, a greyhound across the turf and possessing an excellent arm, was stationed strategically in the outfield. Braund and Hutchings, specialist slip fielders both, stood waiting for the snick.

With Barnes not really making the ball talk yet, most of the bowling was carried out by Crawford and Fielder. Noble and Warwick Armstrong played comfortably enough, but both struggled to break free. Gunn, having a particularly bad day, dropped the Australian captain at mid-on. However, the batsman could not really capitalise on his luck and start to dominate the bowling.

Sticking to sound principles of line and length and tight fielding, the England bowlers managed to keep the scoring down as well as strike vital blows. Armstrong was caught at slip off Crawford at 168, Peter McAllister could not settle down and looked for a suicidal run at 197. Rhodes, used sparingly in this match as well, turned one just enough to get the outside edge of Noble’s bat when the Australian captain had scored 61.

Tibby Cotter, a picture of restraint and maturity during his victorious resistance at Sydney, now came out and tried to heave at everything. He managed a few boundaries before missing one from Crawford. Australia ended the day at 255 for 7, a rather mediocre effort on a perfect Bulli wicket and excellent weather.

The debutant and the ephemeral

The following morning, much depended on the classy Vernon Ransford, but he ran himself out rather unnecessarily. Crawford picked up his fifth wicket by bowling Gerry Hazlitt. And Fielder ended the innings by skittling the stumps of Jack Saunders. The 266-run total was anything but what the Australians had been hoping for.

Hobbs walked out for the first time in Test matches, alongside skipper Fane, to face the scorching pace of Cotter and the dubious action of Saunders. Much, much later, in a BBC interview given his 80th birthday, the master batsman described Cotter as the quickest Test bowler he ever faced. “He was very fast indeed, he really was. He came bounding with energy and he slammed the ball down and it went by you just like a flash of lightning sometimes.”

But, he was equal to the challenge. In the second over, bowled by Saunders, he hit one beautifully to the off-side fence. Thereafter, he batted slowly — not nervous but risk-averse by his standards.

He lost Fane at 27, bowled by Armstrong, but continued to bat steadily. In fact, according to some local reports, he was more bothered by the pestering flies than the bowling.

Gunn could not really repeat his Sydney success, falling leg-before to Cotter for 15. But in Hutchings, Hobbs found the ideal partner.

Who remembers Hutchings, the Kent icon? His cricket career was destined to be short. Like the many other excellent cricketers of his day, Blythe included, he would fall in the First World War.

However, he did make himself immortal to the devotees of cricket history. First, with the stylish and delectable innings he played on that afternoon. And secondly, by branding Macartney with that famed sobriquet — ‘Governor General’.

Armstrong resorted to leg-theory, keeping it naggingly on and around the leg-stump, with fielders clustered on that side of the wicket. He sent down 22 overs after lunch, and they cost him only 29 runs. The fielding was indefatigable.

Hobbs lost his patience once, pulling Armstrong, and was put down by Macartney at square leg. He was 59 then and that was the only blemish in his innings. Hutchings defended wisely, patiently waiting for the loose ball. It was late in the day when this Kent stylist treated the spectators to some of his superb strokes. That included a six off Hazlitt.

Hobbs played nearly flawless cricket other than that one chance. According to England team manager Major Phillip Trevor, “His forward strokes to the off, and his defensive back play worthy of his master Tom Hayward.” He finally fell to Cotter for 83. But Hutchings carried on, and although Braund did not look comfortable at all, England ended the day at 246 for 3.

The Noble and the Valiant

The following morning, however, was rather painstaking in terms of run-making. Cotter, ignoring the gentle track and the extreme heat, worked up tremendous pace and bowled Hutchings for 126. Braund and Rhodes stuck around long and got some runs. Hardstaff, and later in the order Crawford and Barnes, stayed at the wicket for considerable periods, although without managing substantial scores. But, after Hobbs and Hutchings, none of the others batted with any degree of comfort.

England took the lead, but the process of building on it was laborious. Crawford tried to hit his way out of the fetters, but he was caught excellently by Ransford at deep mid-off. That, incidentally, was the first catch to be taken in the innings, and it came after 350 had been registered.

When Hill caught Barnes off Armstrong to end the innings, the visitors led by 116. But the slow progress had shifted the momentum towards Australia. Cotter did finish with 5 for 142, but Armstrong’s figures of 34.2-15-36-2 were perhaps of as much value in its extreme stinginess.

By the end of the third day, the Australians had roared back into the game. After all the slow struggle of the English batsmen, Trumper and Noble, the latter astutely moving up the order to open the innings, treated the bowling with a mixture of class and disdain. Strokes were unfurled, the ones by Trumper specially delighting the cockles of the heart. Noble was solid, steady and never missed the opportunity to score. Both the batsmen were masters of the situation.

Late in the day, with the eye on the morrow, the rate of scoring slackened. But, when the stumps were drawn at 96 for no loss, Australia had recovered most of the lost ground.

The Englishmen left the ground tired and hot. The temperature soared. The hours between the drinks breaks, according to Crawford, seemed to be 360 minutes long.

Not only the players, but most of the spectators suffered. The heat was oppressive and fights broke out among the crowd. The police were kept on their toes. Facilities at the MCG were deplorable. There were only three taps around the ground, and “the crush about each of (them) whenever there was an interval in the play approached at times a wild scramble, in which the weaker ones had very little chance.”

The Big Ship and The Governor General

The following morning, Trumper and Noble followed in the same vein and the Australia had wiped off the deficit before first blood was drawn. It was Crawford again, managing to get turn even on this surface. It beat Trumper as he played from his crease, and the great man walked back for 64. Noble followed soon, bowled off his wrist from a full pitch by Crawford. It was an intentional full pitch, trying to induce a catch to square leg.

Fielder clean bowled Hill for the second time in the match. He would take no other wicket in the innings, but could not have chosen a better batsman to dismiss. McAllister was run out, also for the second time in the match.

It was a sort of crisis at 168 for 4, only 52 ahead. England were ahead once again. But the ‘Big Ship’ remained steady, sedate and unperturbed. Armstrong batted with assurance, and found a slow but sure partner in young Macartney. Both men bided their time, and took full advantage of the loose ball. The England bowling between lunch and tea failed to rise above the ordinary, and the two stalwarts piled on the runs. Australia were ahead now, the score over 250, with just 4 wickets to show for England’s efforts in the field.

It was after tea when Barnes, finding his characteristic venom, started to ask probing questions. He was hesitant to use leg-theory in Test matches, always of the opinion that a good bowler should not bowl balls that the batsman can leave alone. However, in this rather desperate situation, he decided to try the tactics. After consulting Fane, he went round the wicket and bowled to a leg-side field.

Armstrong fell first, bowled for 77. Macartney and Ransford took the score past 300, before the former edged Barnes to Humphries. Ransford, left-handed, and therefore immune to the leg-theory tactics, was striking the ball well. But Barnes slanted one across him and moved it away off the wicket. The snick was taken in the slips. It was 312 for 7 and England were back in the game.

Wicketkeeper Hanson Carter had proved to be a handy batsman in the series. And Cotter had discovered a dimension of maturity to supplement the skills of a hitter. In the previous Test the two had been instrumental in the ultimate triumph. This time, they put up a sterling collaboration that saw Australia through to stumps. The day ended with the hosts on 360 for 7, leading by 244.

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Arthur Fielder clean bowled Clem Hill in each innings, and hung around with Syd Barnes to add 39 for the last wicket to pull off a miraculous win; Colin Blythe was too sick to play; Kenneth Hutchings played the innings of his life

A grinding day

There had been four gruelling days of cricket in the heat, and the relieved players spent a relaxed Sunday before resuming their battle. Immediately on resumption Carter was missed at slip by Hutchings.

Crawford, bowling a commendable line, sent back Cotter as he swung across the line. But Hazlitt, the other tail-end hero in the first Test, put his head down obstinately and allowed Carter to thrive on his good fortune.

It was almost half an hour before Barnes curled one past the bat to hit the stumps of Hazlitt. Carter struck hard, going past his second half-century in two Tests before Barnes weeded him out. The master bowler thus ended with 5 for 72, and the total of 397 meant a steep ask of 282 to win.

Barnes, though, would have an even more vital role in the game.

Hobbs and Fane walked out to begin their quest for victory. The wicket was still true. But, as was the case throughout the match, aside from the brief sunny periods of Hutchings-Hobbs and Trumper-Noble collaborations, it had been a uniformly daunting task to score runs freely.

The tale was repeated now. Even Hobbs was rendered cautious, batting 69 minutes for 28. Bowling with strategic fields, and sticking to clever lines, Armstrong, Noble and to a lesser extent Saunders, choked the flow of runs to a trickle. Cotter tried his heart out for wickets, but there was no more pace left in the track.

Hobbs was bowled by an off-break from Noble. Two balls later, Gunn missed the line and was leg-before. The score was 54 for 2. By now the tension around the ground could be sliced with a knife. Even Hutchings, a free striker of the ball fresh from a first innings hundred, started blocking with extreme caution.

The score crawled along. Noble was bowling extremely well, Armstrong was as difficult to score off as ever. The fielding was fantastic. Every run had to be earned. Fane got to a meritorious half-century in over two hours and a half, with just two boundary hits. England were past 100, only two wickets down.

And now Armstrong castled Fane for exactly 50. Soon after that Macartney spun one to lure a mishit from Hutchings. The pendulum had swung again, the score was 131 for 4.

Braund and Hardstaff played the same style of cricket as the previous duo. Risks were eschewed, temptation kept at bay. Runs came in occasional ones and twos. When stumps were drawn England were 159 for 4. Still 123 more were required.

Less than 200 runs had been scored through the day, only 7 wickets had fallen. But the cricket had been thoroughly gripping.

Climax

And now started the sixth day, the final hours of pulsating drama.

The umpire had scarcely called play when Cotter charged in and bounced. Hardstaff rocked back and hooked. It was an elegant, wonderfully timed stroke. And Ransford, at long-leg, ran around, raised his arms and took his second stunner of the match. 162 for 5.

Bowling to a precision and fielding magnificently, with men moved about cannily on the field, the Australians proceeded to play a brilliant game. Armstrong stuck to leg-theory, runs were not allowed at any cost. The wickets continued to be threatened. At 196 Braund was deceived by the flight by the big man and lost his stumps.

Two runs later Rhodes ran himself out. 198 for 7 and the tail was in. It was Barnes who walked in now.

How good a batsman was he? It was difficult to say. He had a half-century for Players against Gentlemen way back in 1903. He had seldom played for Lancashire, and had never scored much for them. He was the best bowler of England, perhaps the world, but batting was not something he was renowned for. True, he hit half-centuries, even a few centuries, in Lancashire League, but then which player did not?

Yet, there was something about the way he held the bat. It seemed he knew what to do with it.

But now Crawford, a much better batsman, started striking wildly. He did manage to send one into the crowd. And then he tried to send the pace of Saunders into the horizon and beyond, and the serene Armstrong got under the ball. All seemed to be over at 209 for 8, 73 still required to win.

Humphries joined Barnes at the wicket. According to a contemporary report, every fielder in the ground seemed to stand at short leg for Armstrong as he bowled his leg stump line.

Trevor writes, “73 were still needed for victory when Humphries joined Barnes. 7 of them were made, and then came the luncheon interval. In the course of it, disappointed and jubilant partisans respectively made their remarks. Those remarks differed greatly as criticisms, but they had a single point of view. They were founded on the hypothesis that England were an unmistakably beaten side.”

However, after lunch, Barnes and Humphreys batted with such steady application that even to the most excited Australian fan it was clear that there was a fight on hand.

Noble was not guilty of overconfidence. He remained steadfast in his tactical manoeuvres. But the score rose steadily. Both Barnes and Humphreys were sound in their resistance. But with Barnes looking more and more confident by the minute, Humphreys wisely allowed him to farm the strike. 34 were put on by this pair. And then, Armstrong struck Humphreys on the pad. There was an appeal and he was given out.

It made Barnes angry. An angry Barnes could always be a handful.

Barnes takes up the story: “In my opinion it was a wrong decision, as I was convinced he had played the ball and I told the umpire so. I got a little annoyed and as Fielder, the last man, came out from the pavilion, I went to meet him, told him what had happened, and said, ‘Come on, Pip, we’ll knock ’em off now.’”

Barnes offered Fielder sound advice — to push his bat straight down the wicket at everything. It was accepted and faultlessly executed. And Barnes batted better than he had ever done in his career. Every single heightened up the tension. Sydney Morning Herald noted, “There were men round the ground so breathless that they could not speak.”

In the England dressing room, the cricketers stood as their superstitious statues.  Hobbs recalled, “There we stood, crowding, half-dressed at the windows, with socks and shoes in our hands, not daring to stir a muscle lest the two batsmen out in the field were put off their game.” Beside him stood Ernie Hayes, the Surrey batsman in the England squad. According to Hayes, “Jack and I were standing on a form in the dressing room, looking out of the window, it was too exciting to be outside and I would not let Jack move in case he broke the luck.”

The score continued to creep towards the Australian total. And then two remained to be scored.

The final moment

Fielder was facing Armstrong, still bowling to the leg-side field, pitching outside the leg-stump. Again, let Barnes take up the story:

“Fielder played one to mid-on. It was a very risky run, but as we were both of one mind, we got home safely. Then I faced Armstrong. As was usual with him, all the fieldsmen with the exception of two were on the leg side. The ball came at my legs, and I drew away from the wicket and pushed the ball to the off. It was an easy run and as I played the ball I was off down the pitch expecting Fielder to do the same, but to my consternation, I saw that he was still in his ground.

“‘For God’s sake, Pip, get off!’ I shouted. By this time Hazlitt at cover point had gathered the ball, but instead of tossing it to the wicketkeeper, Carter, he tried to throw down the stumps —and missed. So Fielder, who would have been run out by yards, got safely home and the match was won.”

Thus Hazlitt, who had shown such pluck in clinching victory in the previous Test, now found the tension too much for his 19-year-old nerves. If he had managed to keep his head, it would have been the first Tie in Test cricket, predating the actual pioneering result at Brisbane by 53 years.

“Jack and I fell off the form, shrieking with joy,” recalled Hayes.

By now, tears were running down the cheeks of Fane and Major Trevor. In Playing for England Hobbs wrote about Barnes having the death or glory expression, and he followed it up describing Fielder, “when the winning run was completed, Fielder ran on and on for sheer joy and didn’t slow down until he was half way to the pavilion.”

Barnes goes further. According to him, “Pip kept on running flat out and my last view was of him disappearing into the crowd around the pavilion. Had not the pavilion been in the way I think he would have finished up in England and been the first to bear the good news.”

Two fascinating Tests were thus completed and the series stood at 1-1.

Brief Scores:

Australia 266 (Victor Trumper 49, Monty Noble 61; Jack Crawford 5 for 79) and 397 (Monty Noble 64, Victor Trumper 63, Warwick Armstrong 77, Charlie Macartney 54, Hanson Carter 53; Syd Barnes 5 for 72) lost to England 382 (Jack Hobbs 83, Kenneth Hutchings 126, Len Braund 49; Tibby Cotter 5 for 142) and 282 for 9 (Fred Fane 50, Keith Hutchings 39, Syd Barnes 38*) by 1 wicket.

(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.)