The first Australian Test team which came to play cricket in England in 1878. Back back row, from left: Fred Spofforth, John Conway, Frank Allan, Middle row, from left: George Bailey, Tom Horan, Tom Garrett, Dave Gregory, Alec Bannerman and Harry Boyle. Front row, from left: Charles Bannerman, Billy Murdoch and Jack Blackham. © Getty Images
The first Australian Test team which came to play cricket in England in 1878. Back back row, from left: Fred Spofforth, John Conway, Frank Allan, Middle row, from left: George Bailey, Tom Horan, Tom Garrett, Dave Gregory, Alec Bannerman and Harry Boyle. Front row, from left: Charles Bannerman, Billy Murdoch and Jack Blackham. © Getty Images

May 27, 1878. Before the first Test was played in England, a team of travelling Australian cricketers met a strong MCC side at Lord’s. The match ended within a single day and did more for establishing international cricket than any played before or since.  Arunabha Sengupta revisits the day that saw 31 wickets tumble for 105 runs.

“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.” —  Punch, May 1878

It was touted as a venture with the singular purpose of making money. Promoters backing the Australian tour to England had speculated heavily and the visit was managed with exceptional professional efficiency. It seemed even the team had been tailored for making profit. Manager John Conway was a worldly wise journalist with plenty of experience in sporting ventures. Captain Dave Gregory and assistant manager William Gibbeswere, both accountants by profession.

The candid financial pursuit with which the foreigners landed in the country was at first viewed with extreme coolness by the English public. During the initial days, sporting papers ignored the travels of the team almost entirely.

However, by the end of the visit it was acknowledged as a remarkable financial success. Eighteen matches were played in all and the Australians won 10 and lost five. Far more importantly, the commercial success ensured that the two  countries would play regularly against each other in the future. The tour went a long way to establish the future of international cricket.

The start was slow in terms of public intertest. Even though the two countries had shared the Test series of 1876-77, the Australians were still viewed more as a bunch of entertainers than cricketers.

It all changed with the game played on May 27, 1878, between the visiting Australian cricketers and a full-strength MCC at Lord’s. No cricket match has influenced the future of the game more than this three-day contest, which ultimately got over on the first evening.

The rout at Nottingham

It was a long voyage for the group of splendid cricketers. They started their journey onboard the City of Sydney, along with singing troubadors, businessmen and emigrants. Daiy two hours of deck practice was carried out till they docked in San Francisco. It was followed by a seven-day train journey to New York and then City of Berlin carried them for nine days across the Atlantic to Liverpool.

Billy Midwinter, who had come over to England with the returning English cricketers of 1877, joined them in Nottingham, completing a  fantastic group. Midwinter, Gregory, Charles and Alec Bannerman, Tom Horan, Harry Boyle, Billy Murdoch, George Bailey, Frank Allan and Fred Spofforth combined into an enormously talented team.

Yet, to the Englishmen, locked up in the northern island in the high latitudes, they were more of entertainers. The interest surrounded the looks and characteristics of these foreigners, not their cricket. A surprised old-timer was quoted saying, “Why, they bean’t black at all; they’re as white as wuz.” The memories of the Aboriginal troupe of 1868 somehow struggled to come to terms with this new bunch of men. At Nottingham, one gentleman pointed at Blackham, Murdoch and Spofforth and exclaimed, “But those three chaps have black blood in them.” Lord Harris, the president of Kent and Lord’s, later admitted that ‘the ignorance of Colonial ethnology and geography in those days were lamentable.’

Some of the English amateurs took it with a sense of humour. Allan Steele introduced Spofforth to his friends as ‘the demon nigger bowler.’

The Australians were humiliated by Nottinghamshire, losing by an innings. And although Notts secretary Captain Jack Holden was gracious enough to say that the Australians would win more than they would lose on the tour, captain Gregory secretly harboured doubts about the venture. There were some players who were already talking of going home, sure of the financial losses.

In the match at Trent Bridge, Alfred Shaw, England’s leading bowler, had taken 11 wickets. The much vaunted Spofforth had managed just one. Some reports, including Wisden, commended them on the pluck of the Australians in presuming to take on ‘the well-seasoned skilled cricketers of old England’. However, as Charles Alcock, secretary of Surrey, remarked, “The idea of a visit from an Australian team … was at first treated as something of a joke by English cricketers.”

The great WG Grace himself was reserved in his opinion. “We never for a moment thought of classing them with an English team.” Even an Australian newspaper had dubbed the trip as “A presumptuous adventure calculated to dampen the ardour of the most enterprising spectator.”

The transformation took place May 27. About half a century later, Spofforth would remark on his deathbed, “I made my reputation in May.” He was as accurate as most of his deliveries.

The match on the Lord’s gluepot

MCC team that met them at Lord’s was almost a full representative side. Grace himself was there, at the top of the batting order and captain. Shaw and Fred Morley, the two Notts bowlers who had destroyed the Aussies in Trent Bridge, were there as well. With ‘Monkey’ Hornby, AJ Webbe, Fred Wyld, George Hearne, George Vernon it was the assembly of the cream of English talent.

The day started with a destructive storm. And a second gale swept across Lord’s as the Australians arrived at 11.30. Only a handful of spectators were seen cowering from the wind in the sidelines. When the sun peeped out, promising the likelihood of play, people slowly made their way to St John’s Wood. By the end of the day there were 4,742, resulting in almost £120 for the tourists.

Gregory won the toss and with the wicket like pudding, sent the MCC in. And the drama started immediately, with some sharp practice on the field.

Grace walked in, striding like a bearded Colossus. He liked to start with a swing to the leg boundary. He got off the mark with four off Frank Allan. Gregory left the square leg open and as Allan bowled again, he signalled Midwinter to move into the gap. Grace swung again and was dumbfounded to find his protégé catching him. Although such tactics were not unusual in those days, the shock on Grace’s face was evident through his beard. The crowd, hoping that the visitors would put up a good fight, actually cheered loudly as their hero returned to the pavilion.

Hornby blasted one over square-leg, breaking the fanlight of the billiard-room door. The fight was on. The score was 27 for 2 when Gregory brought Spofforth on.

The spindly pacer with his curious, hurtling action started quietly with two runs off the first four-ball over. In the next five, he captured six wickets for two runs. He bowled Hornby in his second over, Webbe in his third. He commenced his fifth over by bowling Flowers, and with the next two deliveries had knocked back Hearne’s wicket and had Shaw stumped. In the next over, he had Vernon stumped, ending the innings at 33. Spofforth’s figures read 5.3-3-4-6.

The crowd sat shell-shocked for a while, before rushing in to welcome the Australians back to the pavilion.  The normally prosaic Wisden was effusive within its sedate bounds, “Spofforth and Boyle were thoroughly mobbed … The fielding of the team was smart and effective, all working together admirably, their backing up being the very perfection of our cricket, and quite a pleasure to look at.”

However, the Australian response was not very encouraging. The wicket was almost muddy and Charles Bannerman was caught in Morley’s second over, Hearne running full tilt to clutch the ball with sun in his eyes. After lunch, Australia collapsed to 24 for 8. Batting on that sticky surface against Shaw and Morley was well-nigh impossible. Yet, Allen, nicknamed Crouching Panther for his peculiar stance and style, stayed long enough with Murdoch for the visitors to battle it out and squeeze ahead by eight runs. Alfred Shaw’s figures were remarkable — 33.2-25-10-5. Murdoch’s nine was the second highest score after Midwinter’s 10, both more valuable than hundreds in the conditions.

According to The Argus, as Grace walked back to start the second essay some minutes before four o’clock, “Every one said that WG would make up for it in the next innings.” And Gregory handed the ball to Spofforth.

The ‘Demon’ ran in and zipped the first ball past the confused willow of the great man. Grace’s surprise was noticeable from beyond the boundary. And the second, a superb breakback, neatly picked up the bail and sent it spinning 30 yards away. Again, according to the Argus, “A perfect storm of applause, lasting till the Leviathan reached the pavilion, greeted the bowler.” It is reported that Spofforth himself had been surprised enough at the outcome to rather bemusedly remark, “Bowled!”

Spofforth then hit Hornby in the midriff, forcing him to retire hurt. But, the Lancashire man could not stay in the pavilion for long. With Boyle and Spofforth scooping up wickets by fistfuls, he returned to the wicket at 17 for seven, and the towering form of WG joined him as runner. But, Grace, runless in the second innings, could not steal a few for his partner. Boyle bowled Hornby almost immediately. Spofforth had figures of 9-2-16-4 this time. Boyle outdid him with 8.1-6-3-6.

Twelve were required. Shaw did get Charles Bannerman for one. However, Midwinter and Horan knocked off the required runs without fuss. At 5.30 pm, five and a half hours after the start of the game, Horan sliced Morley through the slips to win the match.

MCC had been stunned, defeated by nine wickets within the course of a day. The spectators burst into the field, applauding wildly as the Australians made their way back to the pavilion. According to Wisden, “The maddened crowd … included MCC members who shouted themselves hoarse before they left to scatter far and wide that evening the news, how in one day the Australians had so easily defeated one of the strongest MCC elevens that had ever played for the famous old club.”

The players were hounded by an increasing group of admirers. The congratulatory messages kept coming in. Yet, few could have foreseen the importance of this win.

As mentioned, even after the inaugural Test match, Australian cricket had always been looked at with a patronising, indulgent eye by the English cricketing fraternity. Now suddenly they were taken seriously, considered good enough to take on the best of the land.

In Punch, the lines provided at the top of the article were published in a parody of Byron’s The Destruction of Sennacherib. The magazine also praised the victory as proof that “more than gold, Australian beef and kangaroos” could come out of the country. The Globe observed that the MCC team had been “as good as could be found to represent London and England, and probably nearly as good as the Club has ever turned out.” It was Home News who sealed the argument for the Australians: “it was clear that our Antipodean cousins could more than hold their own with the best cricketers in the country.”

With each subsequent match, the gates improved till the tour was transformed into a remarkable success. Crowds flocked in wherever the team went. When the cricketers travelled by train, hundreds thronged the windows at the station, the question thrown at them “Which be Spoffen?” There was enough proof of popularity and money to sustain the contests between the two nations.

A century later, Alan Gibson observed, “[The match] had more to do with the development of international cricket than any other that has been played.”

Unfortunately, it was never awarded the status of a Test.

Brief scores:

MCC 33 (Fred Spofforth 6 for 4) and 19 (Fred Spofforth 4 for 16, Harry Boyle 6 for 3) lost to Australians 41 (Alfred Shaw 5 for 10, Fred Morley 5 for 31) and 12 for 1 by 9 wickets.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at