The first Test on English soil, as published in The Illustrated News. Lord Harris is seen chasing the ball © Getty Images
The first Test on English soil, as published in The Illustrated News. Lord Harris is seen chasing the ball © Getty Images

Additions and improvements continued to be made at The Oval. Surrey County Cricket Club obtained permission in 1876 to lay out a roller-skating rink on the premises, the idea being that revenue earned therefrom “ would enable them still further to extend their operations” in the furtherance of cricket “as well as to enlarge their sphere of utility as purveyors of athletic amusements for South London”.

Although no new buildings were erected, an asphalt rink was laid out and was converted at a later date into practice wickets. The Surrey Tavern (which had been built after William Houghton had lost the lease of the premises in 1853) was rebuilt between 1877 and 1878 at a cost of £4,000. By 1880, the job of completing the banks around the ground was completed using earth excavated from the Vauxhall Creek.

The new pavilion and Tavern were designed by Thomas Muirhead of Manchester (the architect of the pavilion at Old Trafford) and built by the firm of Foster and Dicksee of London and Rugby between 1895 and 1897. Indeed, the red brick Tavern with its stone dressing, built in the Jacobean style to an asymmetric plan, has the date ‘1897’ inlaid over the entrance to the public bar.

While all these refinements were being put in place at the Kennington Oval, events were taking place in the other side of the world that would later have an important impact on the history of the ground.

Knowledgeable students of cricket history will be aware of the fact that the first ever time that an English cricket team had made an overseas tour was the 1859 trip to Canada and the USA by George Parr’s XI. They played 9 games in all in September and October. None of the games, however, were accorded First-Class status.

The next venture was to Australia, when a 12-member squad led by HH Stephenson of Surrey had left from England on October 20, 1861 and returned back to England on May 12, 1862. It is said that Felix William Spiers and Christopher Pond, proprietors of Spiers and Pond, running an eatery in Melbourne, had entrusted their representative in England, one Mr Mallam, to invite novelist Charles Dickens to undertake a lecture tour of Australia for a consideration of £7,000. The great novelist had declined the generous offer, upon which, having heard of the success of Parr’s XI in North America, Spiers and Pond instructed Mallam to explore the possibility of a cricket tour by an English team as an alternative.

The history of that first cricket tour by an English team to Australia, for which each of the team members was contracted for £150 plus expenses, is well documented in history. Two more cricket tours by English teams to Australia followed: the 1863-64 squad was led by George Parr of Nottinghamshire, and the 1873-74 one went under the stewardship of the Grand Old Man of English cricket, Dr WG Grace of Gloucestershire himself, virtually on a “honeymoon tour” with his newly married wife, Agnes.

There were no First-Class games played on any of these three tours, the majority of the games being ‘odds’ matches where the visitors would be pitted against 15, 18 or even 22 of the locals. Another common factor for the first three tours was that they were all in response to definite invitations from Australia with attendant sums of money being agreed upon for each team member even before the respective tour could be embarked upon. The very matrix of Anglo-Australian cricket, however, was to change with the fourth English tour to the Antipodes.

Not many people had turned up at the Southampton quayside on September 21, 1876 to witness the departure of the three-masted P & O ship Poonah for her long journey to Australia. The 12-member group of English professional cricketers led by James Lillywhite Jr of Sussex reached Australia in the first week of November.

There were several important departures planned from the usual custom of previous tours to Australia. For a start, the travel arrangements and the accommodation were both going to be first-class. For the first time, the tourists were planning to play teams of local Australian cricketers on “even terms”; in other words, there were going to be 11-a-side games (attributed First-Class status by statisticians retrospectively).

The tourists were also planning on generating their own funds from the matches they were about to play. Lillywhite found an able ally in James Conway of Victoria, who was looking after the arrangements of the games in Australia, and in a young, wealthy farmer, Arthur Hobgen, and in cricket enthusiast Charles Stride, who, between them, provided much of the financial support for the venture.

The team made a short trip to New Zealand to play 8 matches between January and March. Interestingly, the English squad had to leave wicketkeeper Ted Pooley behind in New Zealand as Pooley had been imprisoned at Christchurch in connection with a gambling episode. That left the tourists with the bare minimum quorum of only 11 men. Harry Jupp, the reserve wicketkeeper, who had played in only one game on the tour before the New Zealand trip, was pressed into service for the remaining matches.

When the tourists took the field at Melbourne Cricket Ground on Thursday, March 15, 1877, they might have been completely unaware of the fact that a momentous event was about to unfold and that they were about to be part of one of the most important episodes of the history of cricket. Test cricket was born that day.

One of the most written-about cricket matches of all time ended after four days of riveting action with the hosts emerging victors by 45 runs. Charles Bannerman (165 retired hurt) became the first ever Test centurion. Billy Midwinter (5 for 78) and Tom Kendall (7 for 55) became the first two Australians to achieve five-wicket hauls. Alfred Shaw (5 for 38) became the first English bowler to achieve the same feat.

Equilibrium was restored during the second Test, also at Melbourne. England team won by 4 wickets and the first ever Test series was shared 1-1. George Ulyett of England was the star of the second game with 52 (95 minutes, 5 fours) and 63 (90 minutes, 5 fours and 1 six), the only two individual fifties in the match.

The weary tourists returned to England on June 2, 254 days after they had left their native shores. Meanwhile, the two Test matches had fired both the imagination of the public and the desire for an early resumption of cricket ties between the two traditional cricket rivals.

Kennington Oval, a brief history: Part 1
Kennington Oval, a brief history: Part 1

Conway, himself a cricketer and journalist from Geelong, along with a non-cricketing enthusiast from Sydney, William Gibbes, an accountant with New South Wales Public Service, and the abundantly bearded Dave Gregory, another accountant serving with the same body but with strong cricketing ties, conceived of a plan of touring England and North America with a representative cricket team. They were helped immensely in this enterprise by Lillywhite, who acted as their English agent and made most of the local arrangements to stage the various matches in England. Between May and September of 1878, then, an Australian team led by Gregory and managed by Conway made the inaugural First-Class tour of England with a representative Australian side.

Although none of the games played on the tour were accorded ‘international’ status, the die had been well and truly cast. Anglo-Australian cricket rivalry assumed another dimension. The tourists played 37 scheduled games on the tour, 15 of which were attributed First-Class status.

The Australians’ first ever First-Class match at Lord’s, the home of cricket, was against MCC, the local team containing the cream of English cricket at the time. History has been at pains to record the fact that the game ended on the very first day, with the tourists victorious by 9 wickets.

It was primarily a bowlers’ game, with Australians Harry Boyle (3 for 14 and 6 for 3 from 8.1 overs) and Fred ‘Demon’ Spofforth (6 for 4 from 5.3 overs, including a hat-trick, and 4 for 16) being almost unplayable. For MCC, the bowling honours went to Alfred Shaw (5 for 10) and Fred Morley (5 for 31). The team totals for the game were 33, 41, 19, and 12 for 1. There were a staggering 16 individual ducks in the game. Punch felt inspired to write:

“The Australians came down like a wolf on the fold,
The Marylebone cracks for a trifle were bowled;
Our Grace before dinner was very soon done,
And Grace after dinner did not get a run.”

The tourists played two matches at The Oval, both of First-Class status. In the first, the tourists were up against a fairly strong Surrey in June. The Australians won by 5 wickets. In another bowlers’ match, Spofforth captured 11 wickets while Edward Barratt repaid the compliment on behalf of Surrey by also claiming 11 wickets in the match.

The second match at The Oval was against the Players, in September. The outstanding performance of the game was the effort from Barratt in the Australia’s’ first innings. He claimed all 10 wickets for 43, only the second time that a bowler had taken all 10 wickets in a First-Class innings at The Oval. As always, Spofforth played a prominent part in the game, claiming 7 for 37 (including a hat-trick) and 5 for 38. The Australians won the match by the tantalising margin of only 8 runs.

This may be an appropriate juncture in the narrative to list the instances of a bowler claiming all 10 wickets in an innings at The Oval till date. The chart of the 7 instances is as follows:

Figures Bowler For Against Season
10/74 Edward Walker England Surrey 1859
10/43 Edward Barratt Players Australians 1878
10/59 George Burton Middlesex Surrey 1888
10/45 Tom Richardson Surrey Essex 1894
10/28 Bill Howell Australians Surrey 1899
10/37 Alex Kennedy Players Gentlemen 1927
10/88 Jim Laker Surrey Australians 1956

Gregory’s men had barely returned home in September when the fifth English team to tour Australia set off, in mid-October. They reached the Australian mainland on December 3. The 13-member squad was led by Lord Harris of Kent and comprised 11 amateurs and two professionals in Tom Emmett and Ulyett, both Yorkshiremen. Both men had played in both Tests on the 1876-77 tour. They were also the only two in the team with any Test experience.

Lord Harris’ men played 14 matches in Australia, of which 5 were of First-Class status. This included the only Test match of the tour. They also played one game at Christchurch and another at Hoboken right at the end of the tour.

The very first First-Class match of the tour happened to be the only Test played on the tour, at Melbourne. Australia won by 10 wickets, riding mainly on the bowling skills of Spofforth, who claimed 6 for 48 and 7 for 62. England were bowled out for 113 and 160. The highest individual score of the Test was the 73 by Alec Bannerman in the Australian first-innings total of 256. For England, Lord Harris had a good game, scoring 33 and 36, whilst Charlie Absolom (later to die a horrific death under unusual circumstances) scored the only half-century (52). Emmett gave the visitors some reason to cheer with 7 for 68.

As is well known, the match between the Englishmen and New South Wales at Sydney (which Lord Harris’ XI won by an innings and 41 runs) turned out to be an inglorious chapter in cricket history for the ugly scenes that had followed the run out dismissal of wicketkeeper Billy Murdoch in the NSW second innings. There was a pitch invasion by the rowdier elements among the spectators and some of the visitors were assaulted physically. Lord Harris was struck twice himself. Play was called off for the day to allow things to settle down and for the match to be completed.

Lord Harris, however, was not amused. He refused to play the second projected Test of the tour, scheduled for Sydney. There was another reason for His Lordship’s discontent. He soon realised that the Australian players, rated as amateurs like the majority of his own team, were making a fair packet out of payments from the matches, whilst his amateur players were hardly netting any pay to boast of. Lord Harris could not be mollified and left Australia in high dudgeon. Time, the great healer, however, was to effect a reconciliation between him and the Australians soon. So far then, 3 Test matches had been played in all, and all of them at Melbourne.

When Melbourne Cricket Club began negotiations with the English cricketing bodies for an Australian tour of England in 1880, the initial response had not been very warm. Memories of the Sydney incident and of the payments made out to the Australian players were still rankling in English minds. Lillywhite, acting as an agent for the Australians and trying to make arrangements in England, was told that the 1880 fixtures had already been made and that it would not be possible to accommodate an Australian tour. Many of the county teams spurned Lillywhite’s overtures for games against the Australians, and he could not secure assurances for any of the major cricket grounds in England being made available. In desperation, he had to resort to placing advertisement in The Sporting Life for matches against a proposed touring Australian team in the English summer of 1880.

The 13-member Australian team set sail from Melbourne on March 19 on the SS Garonne. It was during the voyage itself that Murdoch was selected for the captaincy role by the players themselves. The team was managed by the George Alexander, with vice-captain Boyle sharing some managerial duties.

On arrival at Plymouth on May 4, Alexander and Boyle travelled overland to London, only to learn, to their dismay, that only 5 matches had been arranged for the visitors in England. They practised at Mitcham for about a week before playing XVIII of St Luke’s at Southampton. However, the quality of the cricket played by the touring Australians gradually opened up more match opportunities for the team.

The first of the First-Class matches (there were only 9) was against Derbyshire. The game was won easily by the tourists, by 8 wickets. As always, Spofforth played a stellar role with 5 for 24 and 8 for 61.

WG Grace, the behemoth of English cricket of the period, had tried to arrange for a Test at Lord’s during this season but was unsuccessful in his attempt. It was Charles Alcock (who had been instrumental in staging the first football International at The Oval), Secretary of Surrey CC from 1872 to 1907, who made the suggestion that the match between the tourists and Surrey at The Oval (the only scheduled match at the venue in the entire tour) be replaced by a Test match at the venue.

Both sides were agreeable, WG being eager to showcase the might of English cricket under familiar home conditions. It was decided that the fifth First-Class fixture of the tour would, in fact, be the fourth Test match of all.

It was during the game against XVIII of Scarborough in mid-August that the visitors lost their first match of the tour. Misfortune struck them deeper than the defeat. Serious doubts were raised regarding the legality of the bowling action of the Yorkshire fast bowler Joseph Frank though he was not ‘called’ by either umpire. Frank broke the third finger of Spofforth’s right hand with an ‘illegal’ delivery, rendering The Demon hors de combat and unfit to play in any of the remaining games on the tour.

It was reported that Murdoch had spoken personally to Scarborough captain Henry Charlwood and had voiced the team’s concern at the bowling action of Frank. Charlwood, however, had refused to take him off the attack. As a result of his injury, Spofforth was not among the number who took the field for Australia in the first ever Test in England, a great loss for the visitors.

The Oval was all agog on Monday, September 6, 1880, in anticipation of the remarkable event. The very first cricket Test was to be played on English soil. Wisden mentions a first day crowd of 20,814, an unprecedented figure for a cricket match, and figures of 19,863 for the Tuesday of the match and a gathering of 3,751 for the last day of the historic match.

It seems that Lord Harris had by now been placated enough to assume the responsibility of leading the England team for this epochal Test. His Lordship won a vital toss. The English openers, brothers EM (The Coroner) and WG (The Champion) Grace, were both making their debuts in this Test. A third brother, GF, was also playing his first Test. This provided the first instance of three brothers playing together in the same Test.

EM and WG walked out to the wicket in fine weather as the clock struck midday. There were as many as eight Test debutants for England that day and seven for Australia.

While wickets fell around him, WG, like the true champion that he undoubtedly was, stood like a colossus at the wicket. He fittingly scored the first century for England in Test cricket. WG’s 152 in the first innings (with one difficult chance) occupied all of 251 minutes of masterful play, being scored off 294 deliveries. It contained 12 fours, a remarkable effort even for a sprightly 32-year-old athlete.

The England innings finished at 420. ‘Bunny’ Lucas (55), Lord Harris (52), and AG Steel (42) all made useful contributions. GF was dismissed for a duck (he was destined to be the first batsman in Test history to be dismissed for a ‘pair’ on debut; he would also pass away in a fortnight’s time).

The Australian bowling proved to be somewhat toothless in the absence of Spofforth. ‘Joey’ Palmer (1 for 116) and Alec Bannerman (3 for 111) registered bowlers’ centuries. That the English bowling, under familiar conditions, was much more testing is quite evident from the fact that when the first Australian wicket fell on 28: Murdoch, dismissed without scoring, had been at the crease for 22 minutes and had faced 19 deliveries.

The Australian innings ended on 149. Only Bannerman (32) and Boyle (36*) went past 30. Left-arm fast bowler Fred Morley (his name curiously misspelt as Frederic in his birth registration) picked up 5 for 56 whilst Steel captured 3 for 58. Lord Harris found himself in the advantageous position of being able to enforce the follow-on.

The Australians batted with greater resolve and application this time. Their innings ended on the third day at 327, thus gaining an overall advantage of 56 runs. Murdoch, batting at 3 in the second innings, had stood like a rock, guiding his team through a difficult time and himself remaining undefeated at 153, his maiden First-Class and Test century. The chanceless innings lasted 316 minutes and was scored off 358 deliveries. He hit a five and 18 fours. It was a testament to his skill and sense of responsibility to his team. In the process, he just happened to trump WG’s score (152).

With only 57 runs for a victory in the first ever Test played on his home soil, Lord Harris decided to send in wicketkeeper Alfred Lyttelton and GF Grace to open. The move backfired somewhat when Grace was dismissed for a duck at the team score of 2. One-drop man Lucas (2) was dismissed at the total of 10. Only 12 more had been added to the total when Lyttelton was sent back to the pavilion. Billy Barnes (5) and EM Grace (0) both fell at the total of 31 with the scorecard reading 5 for 31. Was there a hint of panic in the English ranks and among the spectators at The Oval at this point of the game?

Nerves were, however, soothed by the comforting sight of The Champion himself striding out to the middle. Meanwhile, No. 4 batsman Frank Penn seemed to be quite unruffled by events at the other end. The pair saw England home by 5 wickets.

There was an interesting snippet of information from the Lambeth Police Court about a curious incident at The Oval that occurred at about 6.30 PM on the last day of the Test, after play had been concluded. Two men, Isaac Booth (54) and George Connor (44) both employed at the ground, in the capacity of turner and steward respectively, were apprehended by the police on charges of pick-pocketing.

The report stated: “As the crowds were leaving the ground around 6.30 in the evening a policeman spotted the pair ‘pushing about in a very suspicious manner’. As the crowd gathered in front of the grandstand to cheer the appearance of W G Grace, Booth was seen to ‘get behind a gentleman’ and attempt to dip into his pockets.Connor was acting as cover; trying to shield Booth’s actions from prying eyes. The constable moved in and arrested them both.” Both men, however, were acquitted at court because of insufficient evidence against them.

A story, apocryphal perhaps, has been in circulation for a long time in connection with the Test of 1880 at The Oval. It relates to an alleged conversation between the good friends Grace and Murdoch on the eve of the game. WG is supposed to have laid a wager that he would score more that Murdoch in the Test.

Well, the commanding first-innings performance of 152 by The Champion might well have given him an inner glow at the thought of getting the better of his friend in the wager. Murdoch’s duck in the first innings may have reinforced the happy feeling in the Father of Modern Cricket. However, he may have celebrated too soon, and may have underestimated the grit of the players from Down Under. Murdoch went on to better his friend with his 153* in the second innings. Graciously accepting defeat, WG had presented his friend with the guinea that had been the wager. Legend has it that as a tribute to their undying friendship, Murdoch had taken the guinea to a jeweller and had it drilled so that he could wear it on his watch-chain for the rest of his life.

The two friends were to meet again at the same venue in 1882 in another epic Test match.