The first-ever Test at Lord’s and the first-ever catch by a substitute

Billy Murdoch © Getty Images

July 21, 1884. The first-ever Test match was played at Lord’s which saw England triumphing by an innings, and also witnessed Billy Murdoch catch one of his own batsmen. Arunabha Sengupta revisits the game, including the misadventures of the Australians at sea and the incredible catch held by George Ulyett.

It was in 1884 that Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) ‘climbed onto the Test bandwagon at last, agreeing to stage a match’ at Lord’s. The sterling performance by the Australians of 1882, followed by the birth of Ashes, finally prompted the home of cricket take their colonial visitors seriously. After the Manchester Test was robbed of a result by rain, Test cricket at long last made its debut at the headquarters, on July 21, 1884.

Misadventures at sea

The Australians had already done themselves quite a lot of damage on the way to the tour. The financial considerations had been considerable, and manager George Alexander had asked for half the gate, stands and outer viewing areas included. Every county had laughed off the demand. The final agreement had been 50 per cent of the outer-ground, and the entire gate for the Test match at Lord’s.

The demands for money had predictably jarred with the English cricketing establishment and media. The Sporting and Dramatic News had observed that the Australians “have undertaken the enterprise less for honour than the filthy lucre… we most heartily and earnestly deprecate another infliction upon us next year.” Lord Harris had deplored in righteous indignation about “the formation of a class of semi-professionals.”

However, the tight-fisted deal struck by the English counties had necessitated a cost cutting strategy by the Australians. Only 12 men, led by Billy Murdoch, were sent on the voyage along with manager Alexander. This meant the team had to stay fit and meticulously free of injuries. And on board the Sutlej, this intention was already defeated when William Cooper, the Victorian spinner, tore ligaments in his spinning finger in a game of shinty. He never thoroughly recovered the use of the finger, and was nothing more than a passenger from then on. Eighteen years down the line, Cooper achieved some consolation for his sporting ambitions by becoming the singles lawn bowls champion of Australia.

The first-ever Test at Lord’s and the first-ever catch by a substitute

Billy Murdoch, seated second from right, with the first-ever Australian cricket team to tour England in 1878. Back row (from left): Frederick Spofforth, John Conway and 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

In order to stay fit, many of the players took to rising at six o’clock during the voyage and feeding coal to the ship’s furnaces, before emerging on the deck covered in sweat and soot. There was an additional personal tragedy of sorts. Star all-rounder George Giffen, eating oranges on the Mediterranean, threw some peel into the sea and two diamond rings that he wore went overboard with the most expensive overthrow he had made in his life.

The first substitute catch — a suicidal take

In spite of his reservations about the Australian attitude, Lord Harris led England in the second Test, taking over from Lancastrian AN ‘Monkey’ Hornby who had been the captain at Manchester. At the toss Murdoch, following the huge footsteps of WG Grace, correctly called ‘woman’. Australia batted and immediately started struggling against the left-arm spin of Ted Peate. Percy McDonnell was bowled for a duck, Alec Bannerman, Murdoch himself and Billy Midwinter dismissed with few on the board. George Bonnor, the great hitter, struck the ball well for a while and added 42 with Giffen before holing out.

Wickets continued to tumble as Giffen battled along, but when Peate came back to bowl him for 63, the rest of the batting collapsed to 160 for nine. Tup Scott was joined at the wicket by fellow Victorian Harry Boyle and a fight-back commenced. The number eleven provided solid support as Scott batted with cool confidence, taking the score to 229, before an incredible incident took place.

WG Grace went off the ground and in commendable spirit of camaraderie, Australian skipper Billy Murdoch himself came in to field for the English giant. Perhaps this was his way of showing gratitude for the trick of calling ‘Lady’ at the toss — a well-known Grace trick. And it was Murdoch who brought the Australian innings to an end, taking a smart catch to dismiss Scott off Allan Steel. It was the first-ever catch by a substitute fielder in Test cricket. But for this noble act by the captain in catching his highest scorer, the Australian innings could have amounted to a few more.

The first-ever Test at Lord’s and the first-ever catch by a substitute

The beared Dr WG Grace, sitting in the centre, is seen here with Allan Steel (on the extreme left) and Albert Neilson Hornby, aka Monkey Hornby, in blazer and pads, to the immediate left of Grace. In the window opening behind (foreground, right) is Australian captain Billy Murdoch. This was possibly the Gentlemen of England (amateurs) against the Australians at The Oval from June 22-24, 1882 © Getty Images

Steely knock to ‘stop this rot’

By the end of the day, England reached a reasonably comfortable 90 for three. However, on the second morning they struggled against the off-breaks of Joey Palmer. George Ulyett had his stumps rattled after seeming to settle down. Skipper Harris missed one from Fred Spofforth. The score read 135 for five, and the home side was starting to totter.

As he walked back, Harris saw Dick Barlow coming in. The captain exclaimed, “For Heaven’s sake, Barlow, stop this rot.” And Barlow, the foremost stonewaller of the day alongside Alec Bannerman, proceeded to do just that. At the other end, Steel, let off by Boyle when on 48, was playing an invaluable innings. Assured in approach and sound of technique, he kept the scoreboard moving as Barlow dropped anchor. A match-winning stand of 98 ensued before Barlow was caught in the slips off the occasional medium pace of Bonnor.

In the company of Walter Read, Steel completed his hundred before he was joined by wicketkeeper the Hon. Alfred Lyttleton. Another excellent partnership followed before Palmer and Spofforth combined to end the innings at 379. Steel’s magnificent effort amounted to 148 made in 230 minutes with 13 fours.
When Australia batted again, the wear and tear on the wicket caused by the third step of Spofforth’s follow-through proved a crippling dent in their innings. Pitching on the spot helpfully created for him, George Ulyett finished with figures of 39.1-23-36-7. While looking at the figures, one must remember that these were four-ball overs.

Scott played a lone hand again, but the match was perhaps sealed when Ulyett had Bonnor caught and bowled. This giant of a man, and one of the most powerful hitters the game has ever known, hammered the ball back to the bowler with a sound like the clap of thunder. According to AA Thomson: “Happy Jack (Ulyett) shot out a hand. There was a crack that echoed round the ground like a pistol shot and, by some miracle, the ball stuck.” Ulyett recounted afterwards that it had come back to him as if attached to elastic. Punch suggested that Ulyett should be engaged by the army to catch cannon balls and hurl them back.

The oldest MCC member in the stand summoned Ulyett after the match, handed the professional a sovereign and told him that it was the catch of his lifetime — encompassing all the years he had spent watching cricket. And WG Grace, with his medical mind at play, called Ulyett “a damn fool for attempting anything so foolish; he was lucky to have any fingers left.”

The bowler himself quipped: “The ball was no sooner out of my hand than it was back again.”

Australia lost by an innings, but had reason to be pleased. They had negotiated the entire gate at Lord’s and it amounted to £1334 from the 35,411 paying spectators. In contrast, the English professionals Barlow, Ulyett, Peate and Arthur Shrewsbury, had to be satisfied with just £10 each.

Brief scores:

Australia 229 (George Giffen 63, Tup Scott 75; Ted Peate 6 for 85) and 145 (George Ulyett 7 for 36) lost to England 379 (Allan Steel 148; Joey Palmer 6 for 111) by an innings and 5 runs.

(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