Caricature of Lyttelton keeping wicket in I Zingari colours, by "Ape" (Carlo Pellegrini) in Vanity Fair, 1884. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Caricature of Lyttelton keeping wicket in I Zingari colours, by “Ape” (Carlo Pellegrini) in Vanity Fair, 1884. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

August 12, 1884. Frustrated by the long Australian innings, Lord Harris asked the wicketkeeper, Hon. Alfred Lyttelton, to have a go. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the curious way lob bowling achieved its first ever success in Test cricket.

The long, long innings

The Australians did have their problems early on the tour.

They took time to shrug off erratic performances, being beaten by Oxford, MCC and the Gentlemen of England during the first month. However, from June they embarked on a juggernaut of victories that only occasionally slowed down to allow a draw or two. There were only two more losses after those initial hiccups, but unfortunately one of those came in the second Test at Lord s. The first Test, the first ever played at Old Trafford, had been characteristically marred by rain and had ended in a draw.

Hence, they were behind in the series. But since the beginning of June, they had played 18 matches and won 10 and lost 2, drawing the rest. So, as the sun beat down on a perfect wicket at The Oval and Billy Murdoch constructed an innings of incredible concentration, one backed them to square the series in this final Test.

In an era of relatively low scores, the progress hinted at a feast of runs. After Alec Bannerman was caught at point off Ted Peate early in the innings, there was little for the bowlers to do other than see the scores pile up. Murdoch and Percy McDonnell carried the innings forward steadily, with cautious approach interspersed by some delightful strokes.

Shortly after half-past one the 100 came up, and by the time the score was 114, captain Lord Harris had used six bowlers. Peate and George Ulyett had opened the attack followed by AG Steel, William Barnes, Dick Barlow and the great WG Grace.

The ball was now tossed to WW Read. One of the top batsmen of his era, this Surrey cricketer sometimes bowled underhand lobs. He had done so on his debut at the MCG in 1882-83, playing for Ivo Bligh s side. But, he was hardly ever effective at the highest level. McDonnell hit him for a four and a couple of twos in his first over.

It was a while before Peate got McDonnell, well caught at slip by Ulyett. But it was after only the batsman had notched a fluent 103 and the score stood at 158. The breakthrough soon proved to be a false dawn of hope. Murdoch stood resolutely at one end, as resolute as ever. Harry Scott joined him and the run making continued unabated.

Read s lobs were tried again, and punished yet again with great gusto. At a quarter to four, the 200 went up. Scott celebrated the milestone by sending one onto the roof of the pavilion.

At 243, Harris ran out of ideas and asked the stonewalling opening batsman William Scotton to turn his arm over. And then he went on himself. Nine bowlers had been used, and Australia were still cruising with Murdoch past his hundred.

When Scott hit Scotton for two fours in an over, Steel was brought back. To make things worse, Harris himself missed Scott off a skier after running quite a distance to get to the ball.

At half past five Murdoch drove Ulyett for to the boundary to bring up the 300. Read s lobs were tried again and thrashed again with plenty of zest.

At 341 for 2, tired from a long day s leather-hunt, Harris signalled towards Hon. Alfred Lyttelton. The wicketkeeper and crack batsman from Middlesex started removing his pads.

It was Read who took his position behind the stumps as Lyttelton bowled a curiously erratic medium pace. Most of his balls went way down the leg side. After a few of these overs, Grace and Barnes were reintroduced and the day ended at 363 for 2. Murdoch was on 145, Scott 101. It was already a world-record partnership for any wicket, going past 199 by Alec Bannerman and McDonnell.

Lobs enter the scorebooks

The following day the weather remained as fine, while a few white clouds kept the temperature from becoming intolerable. The talk of the day as the spectators settled into their seats was the high scoring of the ongoing Test. However, only two runs were added to the score when Scott was smartly caught by Lyttelton off Peate.

But with George Giffen joining Murdoch, the runs continued to keep coming. The Australian captain went past the world record score of 165 by Charles Bannerman set in the first ever Test match, and then, to top up England s owes, was missed at third-man by Barlow.

Murdoch finally finished at 211, after registering the first ever double-hundred. By then Australia were 494, with Billy Midwinter also looking in good nick.

The law allowing declaration was still some years away. Hence the Australians batted on, Midwinter and wicketkeeper Jack Blackham using the long handle against the listless bowling.

And at twelve to five, with the score reading 532 for 6, Harris gestured to Lyttelton once again.

This time the stumper did not even bother to take off his pads. The great Oval crowd was entertained by the sight of the gigantic form of WG bending behind the stumps as Lyttelton prepared to bowl lobs. In retrospective analysis, historians agree that he had had never bowled a lob before this in any sort of cricket.

In 1884 lobs were in the process of a revival. Walter Humphreys had rejuvenated the art with his second coming as a crafty bowler of this variety. Against the Australians, three weeks earlier, Humphreys had bowled for Sussex at Hove and captured 6 for 97. The August 28 issue of Cricket would feature him as the leading story.

However, Humphreys is a splendid chapter in the history of lob bowling and will be dealt with in a full-fledged episode in this series which he so deservingly warrants.

The Australians would come across some more lobs on the tour. In the match that immediately followed the third Test, against Gloucestershire at Clifton, Murdoch would miss his hundred by being bowled by the lob bowling of Frank Townsend for 89.

But they would never come across the sort of bowling they faced now.

Harris wrote, At last, having exhausted the wiles of the regular bowlers, I resorted to giving everyone a turn, and so hit on the key to the position in Alfred Lyttelton, with his pads on, with lobs.

The ground roared with laughter as the first lob was sent down. It went in a high parabolic arc, down the leg side. Midwinter heaved at it, missed and it lodged in Grace s gloves. An excited Lyttelton appealed vociferously. And the umpire responded positively to the query.

The hilarity turned to applause. Lobs had struck, for the first time in a Test match, albeit in a curious way. Even the verdict was dubious. Grace recalled, I had no time to prevent the umpire giving his decision, so Midwinter had to go . But the lob had registered itself on the scorecard as a Test wicket taking delivery.

And Lyttelton had become the first wicketkeeper to claim a wicket in Test. It was also his first ever wicket in First-Class cricket.

With the farcical element fully entrenched in the game, Harris now called upon the great opening batsman Arthur Shrewsbury. This meant all the eleven English cricketers had bowled in the innings, the first instance of such an event in a Test match.

And Lyttelton continued at the other end. Blackham was trapped leg before off a disastrously bad ball, Fred Spofforth was bowled and Harry Boyle was caught by Harris. The wicketkeeper literally ran through the last bit of the innings.

According to WG, Lyttelton s lobs were very bad . The lbw was off a long hop, one bounced three times, and another went like a snail. Yet, at the end of the innings, Lyttelton s figures read 12-5-19-4. It remains the best bowling analysis by a wicketkeeper.

Australia were all out for 551.

The Test ended in a draw, made remarkable by the batting exploits of the other lob bowler in the fray. Read went in at No. 10, the score reading 181 for 8, Lyttelton just having been dismissed. And with Spofforth and Joey Palmer threatening a quick end and the chances of defeat looming, he played an extraordinary hand of 117 in two hours, with 20 boundaries, one of the greatest rearguard innings ever. While it is true that Read was batting way below the position he merited, the score still stands as the highest by a No. 10 batsman.

Coming back to Lyttelton, this versatile man achieved a lot in his life.

He scored over 4,000 runs in First-Class cricket at a very respectable 27.85 with 7 hundreds, while catching 134 and stumping 74 batsmen.

In 1877 he had won a cap in football for England, playing against Scotland, and had played this sport with a lot of success for Cambridge and Old Etonians. A deft dribbler and a skilful and fast forward, he was also a prolific scorer of goals.

Lyttelton later served as legal private secretary to the Attorney General, Sir Henry James. In 1894, he entered politics as a Liberal Unionist. The following year he was elected to the House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Warwick and Leamington.

In January 1900 Lyttelton was appointed a Queen’s Counsel. Later that year he was sent by to South Africa as chairman of the committee planning reconstruction following the Boer War. Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain himself appointed him to the position and Lyttelton s work impressed even the South African High Commissioner Alfred Milner. Finally, after Chamberlain resigned, Lyttelton became the Colonial Secretary.

A supremely successful man in all walks of life.

However, in spite of the many accomplishments in a hugely eventful life, he never bowled lobs again.

Not only that. In 1937, 24 years after his death, his brother Edward Lyttelton wrote to The Times observing, So far as I know Alfred had never bowled a lob before.

So, that was the extent of Lyttelton s lob bowling. He never played Test cricket again, and never again took a wicket in First-Class cricket. In fact, those were the only four wickets in First-Class cricket. When asked, his rejoinder was that after his Test-match success he had decided to retire from bowling.

Hence, the man who put lob bowling in the wickets column in Test cricket finished with a Test bowling record of 4 for 19 at the average of 4.75.