Ashes At The Oval: Early 20th Century

Published: 9th March, 2019

When England take on Australia in the final Test at The Oval in September, it will be the 38th time they have done battle at the Kia Oval.

Richard Spiller moves on from the earliest clashes, which established the legend of The Ashes, in the second of his series. Click here to read the first article in the current series.

If anyone feared international cricket was a 19th century fad which would fade away, the Test of 1902 at The Oval quickly dispelled that idea.

Wet draws at Edgbaston and Lord’s had been followed by Australian wins at Sheffield’s Bramall Lane – the only Test played there – and Old Trafford, the latter by just three runs, to win the series.

A third successive defeat for England appeared to be beckoning when they slumped to 137-7 in reply to 324 and, had Bill Lockwood not been dropped, the follow-on could not have been saved. His 25 allied with George Hirst (43) pushed the home side up to 183 and then the Surrey speedster’s 5-45 led a destruction of the visitors’ second innings for 121.

Even that seemed to be in vain when, needing 263, England slid to 48-5. The start of a remarkable fightback saw Stanley Jackson – the honourable FS Jackson, to give his full title – make 49 while Gilbert Jessop carved his own niche in the game’s history, the pair adding 109 in quick time.

Jessop, “The Croucher”, had promised more than he had delivered at that stage of his career but now rattled up 104 in 77 minutes, hitting 17 fours and taking an all-round five on the massive Kennington boundaries, blasting the ball into the pavilion three times.

He finally fell at 187-7 and the hosts were still outsiders when last man Wilfred Rhodes joined his Yorkshire colleague Hirst. Legend had it that they agreed to “get them in singles” and, although history does not bear that out, they inched their way to a nerve-tingling victory by one wicket.

It’s hard not to sympathise with off-spinner Hugh Trumble, who had top-scored in the Australian first innings with 64 and bowled throughout both England innings to finish with 12 wickets yet still finished on the losing side.

If 2019 promises to sate the appetite of even the greediest cricket watcher, a World Cup being followed by the Ashes, then 1912 appeared to offer much the same thing. A triangular tournament involving England, Australia and South Africa – involving three Tests between each – might have been a roaring success but for one crucial factor: The weather.

Warnings of a possible overkill of cricket proved ironic when one of the wettest summers since records had begun in 1766 included an August which was to prove the coldest, dullest and dampest of the 20th century.

Neither did it help that South Africa, still relative newcomers to the international arena, found conditions made it even harder to acclimatise. To make things worse, a dispute over money meant six leading Australian players stayed at home, the selection meeting having featured a punch-up, and there were allegations of poor behaviour during the tour.

So it was no surprise that England should win the tournament through four wins in six games, securing top spot by first hammering South Africa by 10 wickets at The Oval and then needing just over three rain-interrupted days to thrash Australia by 244 runs on the same ground.

Rhodes, who had made the journey from last man to opener, made 49 in helping Surrey’s Jack Hobbs (66) launch the hosts with a stand of 107, Frank Woolley’s 62 extending their score to 245.

The Kent all-rounder then combined with SF Barnes, taking five wickets each to dismiss Australia for 111. Skipper CB Fry’s 79 dominated a second innings of 175, off-spinner Gerry Hazlitt (7-25) unable to contain the target to less than 310 and slow left-armer Woolley capped a wonderful match by adding another 5-20 to demolish the tourists for 65.

That was to be the last Ashes encounter for eight years, thanks to the intervention of the First World War, and when the action resumed Australia were overwhelmingly stronger. No County Championship matches being staged between the outbreak of hostilities in the final weeks of the 1914 season to the armistice in 1918. When first-class cricket resumed the following summer, fixtures were limited to two days.

England were at a major disadvantage when the Ashes resumed, a 5-0 whitewash down under in 1920-21 being followed by three successive wins when the return series commenced three months later. The run was only ended by a soggy draw at Old Trafford,

The Oval’s first Test for nine years also ending in stalemate but not before Phil Mead, born in Wandsworth, had dominated the home side’s first innings of 403-8dec with an unbeaten 182.

Mead had been on the Surrey groundstaff in his earliest days but never felt at home and settled at Hampshire, where he amassed the majority his 55,061 first-class runs in a career which stretched over three decades.

No stylist, which was held against him by those who preferred more classical and flowery talents, Mead was determined to remind Surrey of what they had missed as he batted for 309 minutes.

Australia responded with 398 all out before England played out time – there were still only three days for Tests – at 244-2, tourists’ captain Warwick Armstrong sufficiently unimpressed to read a newspaper in the outfield during the closing stages.

Five years later it was announced that the final Test would be played to a finish, although it only took four days to complete one of The Oval’s classic encounters.

Australia had won the intervening series 4-1 but, aided by the weather, were still unbeaten through four matches when the teams came to the final Test of 1926. Desperate to take their opportunity against an ageing side, England appointed a new captain in Percy Chapman at The Oval, recalled Harold Larwood – their fastest bowler – and brought back 48-year-old Rhodes given he was enjoying a vintage summer for Yorkshire.

Just 22 runs separated the sides in the first innings but heavy rain on the second evening put England in peril, Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe having reached stumps at 49-0 to put the hosts narrowly in front. On a pitch now treacherous, they established an alliance of 172 with Hobbs – ‘The Master’ – playing one of his most famous innings to make exactly 100 and Yorkshireman Sutcliffe going on to reach 161 – which confirmed them as one of England’s great opening partnerships, and put them on the way to 436.

Needing 415 to win and retain the Ashes, Australia were scattered for 125 with Larwood, later to be their scourge in the Bodyline series, claiming three wickets and Rhodes’s left-arm spin teasing the way to 4-44 to give England their first victory over their great rivals since 1912.

Celebrations, which were to be echoed in 1953 and 2005, made it a famous day for English cricket but they would not have too much to get giddy about – Australia were just about to enter the age of Bradman.

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