Friday, 5 November 2010

Ashes advent calendar: "This thing can be done"

The 29th August, 1882, has, thanks to the Sporting Times obituary, passed into history as the day that English cricket "died". The manner of England's undoing only 8 runs short of victory in an epic match has cemented the everlasting fame of Australian pace-man Fred Spofforth, whose bowling in the final innings almost single-handedly won the match for the tourists, leading directly to the birth of the Ashes.

The Oval Test was the only Test Match played that summer, although Australia enjoyed a full four month tour of England playing a total of 37 matches, 32 of them first-class. The tourists drew 11 matches on the tour and lost only four, to to Cambridge University, the Players, Cambridge Past & Present, and the North of England, with their star performers being Spofforth with 143 wickets and their captain Billy Murdock registering 1540 runs.

There's no doubt the Australian side was an experienced one, all eleven having previous Test experience, but the batting and bowling figures for that English first-class season told that, on paper at least, the English team were superior in every department. England had not, it has to be said, had the best of the encounters that had taken place in Australia, but in the only previous Test Match on English soil, the occasion in 1880 where all three Grace brothers played in the same side, England won by five wickets after making the Australians follow on. It's easy to see why the home crowd felt so cocksure.

The Test Match itself was scheduled to last three days, with Australia winning the toss and opting to bat. It didn't start well for the tourists as Ulyett bowled Massie with only 6 runs on the board, before a dramatic colapse saw Murdoch, Bonnor, Bannerman, Horran and Giffen dismissed by Peate and Barlow to leave them at 30 for 6. Garrett and Blackham helped their side to something approximating respectability, but all out for 63 was hardly an imposing total. England fared only slightly better in their first innings, Grace falling for just 4 and Ulyett the only player to pass 20 as Spofforth picked up seven wickets. The home side put on 101 before the final wicket fell to bring the first day to a close.

Bannerman and Massie were much improved when the Australians opened up on day two, passing England's 38 overnight lead without loss and making 66 together before Massie was bowled for 55, the only half-century of the match. Bonnor and Bannerman both fell soon after but Murdock steadied the ship a little, making 29 with various partners at the other end. With the score at 114 the pivotal event of the match took place as Jones was run-out by Grace, who had hidden the ball behind his beard and taken the bails of as Jones, assuming the ball to be dead, wandered out of his ground. The manner of Jones's dismissal outraged the Australian side, not least Spofforth who was next man in.

Only eight more was added before the Australian innings came to a close, but despite only setting 85 for England to chase, Spofforth was adamant that he could avenge Grace's gamesmanship, telling his team-mates "This thing cane be done". True to his word, Spofforth unleashed one of the greatest spells of fast bowling ever seen, dismissing Hornby, Barlow, Ulyett, Lucas, Lyttelton, Steele and Read to leave England ten runs short with two wickets in hand.

With no runs added Barnes was caught off his glove from the bowling of Boyle, leaving the two tail-enders Studd and Peate at the wicket, still a tantalising 10 short of victory. Peate didn't trust the batting of Studd, who was playing his first Test, and took it upon himself to knock the runs off. However, after facing just three balls and adding two runs, he was bowled by Boyle and the whole of cricketing England descended into mourning.

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