Reginald Erskine "Tip" Foster came from a family of seven brothers, all of whom had played First-Class cricket — though Tip was the only one who played Tests © Getty Images
Reginald Erskine “Tip” Foster came from a family of seven brothers, all of whom had played First-Class cricket — though Tip was the only one who played Tests © Getty Images

One of the greatest Ashes contests was played at Sydney over a hundred years ago, ending on December 17, 1903. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a great contest that also included “Tip” Foster’s record 287 on debut.

Everyone expected a mouth-watering contest when England toured Australia in 1903-04, befitting the Golden Age of Cricket. What people did not expect was the fact that that the hero of the first Test would be an English football captain, who, despite the fact that he was a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 1901 for his stunning batting in University Cricket, had not made his debut yet.

Reginald Erskine “Tip” Foster came from a family of seven brothers, all of whom had played First-Class cricket – though Tip was the only one who played Tests. Foster was a fairly useful batsman for Worcestershire, but could play only a single match in 1902 and three more in 1903. The selectors, thus, were circumspect when he was picked for the tour.

Australia won the toss in the first Test at Sydney and Foster came into action early in the game by catching Victor Trumper brilliantly in the slips off Ted Arnold. Some quality bowling from George Hirst and Arnold meant that two more of their star batsmen — Reggie Duff and Clem Hill — were back in the pavilion with the score on 12. With Australia under serious pressure, Warwick Armstrong walked out to join his captain Monty Noble.

England had an ensemble bowling attack: Hirst and Arnold were backed up by the likes of Len Braund, Wilfred Rhodes and Bernard Bosanquet; standing up against a line-up of this pedigree, Noble played a superb innings, adding 106 with Armstrong, 82 with Bert Hopkins and 52 with Syd Gregory. Australia, after a well-executed recovery, ended the day at 259 for 7 with Noble still unbeaten on 131.

The Australian tail was dismissed early the next morning, Noble scoring a virtually flawless 133 and Arnold taking four for 76. England, too, had a start as disastrous as Australia’s, losing their captain Plum Warner for a duck to Frank Laver: this might have triggered a collapse, but Johnny Tyldesley showed immense application, and recovered the situation somewhat with Tom Hayward under tricky conditions. The conditions improved towards the afternoon, but wickets had started falling, and when Braund joined the debutant Foster, Australia had clawed back into the match with England struggling at 117 for 4.

In the afternoon, though, under considerably better conditions, Foster and Braund made merry; at stumps they had already taken the score to 243 for 4, with Foster on 73 and Braund on 67. Both of them were eyeing their respective hundreds, and with the conditions favouring the batsmen now, England were all set for a big score.

Test cricket was merely in its mid-20s during this series, and Billy Murdoch’s 211 way back in 1884 remained the highest score. It was on Day Three that the record was eclipsed by Foster; after Braund fell for 102, there was a collapse as England slid from 309 for 4 to 332 for 8, giving Australia a chance to claw back into the match. It was then that Foster took over.

Foster soon went past Charles Bannerman’s unbeaten 165 — the existing highest score in a debut Test. He went on to 115 with Albert Relf for the ninth wicket and 130 — a new tenth-wicket record — with Wilfred Rhodes. When Foster was last out, he had not only gone past but had dwarfed Murdoch’s score: his 419-minute 287 was 76 more than Murdoch’s 211; despite the record changing hands ten times in history, 76 still remains a record for a difference. It was also the highest score at SCG till Michael Clarke went past it with his unbeaten 329 in 2011-12.

The match, though, was far from over: Australia fought back, led by Trumper, who scored a stunning unbeaten faultless 185 in only 230 minutes. Duff and Hill contributed with crucial fifties, and Australia were dismissed on the fifth morning for 485. Rhodes, the quintessential workhorse, toiled on for over 40 overs taking 5 for 94, and England were left to score 194 for what seemed like an easy victory.

It was then that Bill Howell began the downslide by bowling through Warner’s defense; Tyldesley fell to Jack Saunders, and after a promising partnership the debutant Foster was stumped off Armstrong for 19. Howell removed Braund for a duck, and when Hirst joined Hayward at 82 for 4, things indeed looked tricky for England.

It was then that Laver dropped Hirst when he was still to score a run; Hayward, batting amidst all the mayhem, hung around with Hirst; the two of them took the score to 122 for 4 at stumps, and to 181 before Hayward was stumped off Saunders for a well-compiled 91; Hirst remained unbeaten on 60 as England polished off the remaining runs, and England won what might have been a very close encounter by five wickets, and eventually went on to clinch the series 3-2.

(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in)