MCG plays host to first-ever Test match

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15 Mar 2020 | 10:58 AM
authorPramod Ananth

MCG plays host to first-ever Test match

On March 15, 1877, the world witnessed the debut of Test cricket

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We have witnessed 2,387 Test matches till date, with many more to be played in the near future. However, do you know how it all started? Test cricket turned 143 years old today. Here’s a quick look back of its origin.

The background

In the 1876-77 season, two Englishmen tried to push for cricket tours of their own. One of them was James Lillywhite, who wanted to tour Australia with a bunch of professional cricketers, while Fred Grace (WG Grace’s brother) urged for the inclusion of amateurs. However, it was Lillywhite’s team that eventually made it across the shores, leaving the amateurs behind, which meant only the professional cricketers were on board. It is believed that Lillywhite’s team had a strong bowling attack, but their batting was nothing to rave about.

The team visited New Zealand first and then played a couple of matches against the Combined Australia XI, which later became official Tests. Before the tour of New Zealand Lillywhite’s men were challenged to match by New South Wales, which they drew. They had it easy against the other states, while Victoria issued a similar challenge as New South Wales.

The team played about eight matches in New Zealand but returned with the core 11 players, losing wicketkeeper Ted Pooley behind as he was arrested and kept at Christchurch jail after a betting scandal.

However, many had already written off the English team calling them the weakest side to have played in the colonies.

Three years ago, WG Grace had led the team for a similar assignment. But Lillywhite learnt from that experience not to mix amateurs with professionals. 

Among the Australians, Fred Spofforth, known as the ‘Demon Bowler’ was not picked for this match much to England’s relief. He said that he would not play if wicketkeeper Billy Murdoch does not get an opportunity. But the Australians had already given Jack Blackham the nod and could not convince Spofforth to reconsider. They brought in Frank Allan as replacement, but he chose to attend a local fair instead of playing the match.

Lillywhite had accepted the challenge to play two matches against the Combined Australian XI barely 24 hours before they arrived from New Zealand, leaving behind Pooley. To add to their woes, reserve ‘keeper Harry Jupp was not fully fit as he was suffering from inflammation of the eyes. But lack of options meant he had to play. There was also place for the 49-year-old James Southerton, who till date happens to be the oldest Test debutant.

Test cricket’s debut

The match that began on March 15, 1877 was England’s 18th match of the tour. Around 1,500 people – which rose to 4,500 by the end of the day – had gathered around inside the MCG and at about 1 o’clock on a sunny afternoon, the first ball in Test cricket was bowled by Alfred Shaw and off the very next delivery, Charles Bannerman scored the first-ever run in Test cricket. Allen Hill in the fourth four-ball over knocked over Nat Thompson for 1, which was the first-ever wicket taken in Tests. 

Thompson’s opening partner Bannerman was let off the hook when he was in single digit – dropped by Tom Armitage at mid-off – and he made them pay. England’s fielding too was below par and Bannerman became the first Test centurion and had scored 126 out of Australia’s 166 for 6 on Day One. Bannerman dominated the bowling even on the next day, but had to retire hurt on 165 after he sustained an injury, Australia were bowled out for 245. Bannerman had scored 67.3% of his team’s runs which even now is a record for the highest percentage of runs scored by a batsman in a completed innings. 

Many years later Michael Slater came close to breaking the record, but fell narrowly short as his 123 out of the team’s 184 runs meant that he had scored 66.84% of the runs.

In reply, England were bowled out for 196. It could have been worse for them as Jupp is said to have hit his wickets while batting even before scoring a run, but he survived that and went on to top score with 63. Medium-pacer Billy Midwinter was the pick of the bowlers finishing with 5 for 78. Gloucestershire-born Midwinter later on went on to play four Tests for England between 1881 and 1882.

Bannerman came on to bat, this time with a rousing reception from the crowd, which had gone up to 12,000. Just like in the first innings, he was dropped early, but that did not cost England much as he was eventually dismissed for just 4. England needed 154 to win, but managed just 108, handing the Australians a 45-run win – incidentally Australia beat England by the same margin in the Centenary Test at the same venue in 1977.

"The combined team worked together with the utmost harmony and goodwill," reported The Australian.

While the pitch and the umpiring were a concern, England were more concerned about their tally of the gate money. “The financial returns rarely tallied with the estimated number of people present,” Southerton remarked.

What followed?

  • The Victoria Cricket Association presented the Australian team with gold watches.
  • Public subscription of £83 and £23 was raised for Bannerman (165*) and Tom Kendall (7 for 55) respectively
  • Less than two weeks later, another match was arranged at the MCG between the two sides. England won the match by four wickets and squared, what turned to be the first-ever series.

What the newspapers said:

"It shows that in bone as muscle, activity, athletic vigour, and success in field sports, the Englishmen born in Australia do not fall short of the Englishmen born in Surrey or Yorkshire,” taking a sarcastic dig at many England-born players, like Bannerman and Kendall, in the Australian team

"For the time being" we must forget we are Victorians and New South Wales and our geographical distinctions, and only remember that we are of one nation - Australia." - Argus

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