Looking Back: Early Ashes At The Oval

Published: 9th February, 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 looks back at the earliest encounters in the first of a series of articles building up to the match.

Kennington has come to be place of farewells, where Ashes series finish and great players make their final interventions in one of sport’s longest-running contests.

It makes it all the more ironic that The Oval hosted England’s first home Test against Australia, even before the legend of the Ashes had even been born.

Three Tests had already been played down under, the first at Melbourne in March 1877 – won by Australia – when Billy Murdoch’s side arrived in 1880, no Tests having been played on a visit two years earlier, but they received a distinctly cool reception and struggled to gain fixtures.

The reason behind that was an incident in February 1879, when a controversial decision in England’s tour match against New South Wales provoked violence, apparently provoked by gambling, which resulted in what became known as the “Sydney Riot”.

Only Surrey’s determination finally secured the first official home Test and it was England who were the victors by five wickets.

Debutant WG Grace made 152 opening for the hosts, playing alongside his brothers EM and GF, backed up by AP Lucas (55) and skipper Lord Harris (52) in making the most of winning the toss by reaching 420 all out.

Light rain on the first evening transformed conditions, Australia being bowled out for 149 with Fred Morley taking 5-56 in 32 overs. Asked to follow-on, they were in crisis at 14-3 but captain Murdoch’s 153 lifted them to 327 all out as he set a new highest Test score.

The last two wickets helped him add 140 and left England needing 57, which they might have failed to achieve but for the absence of Fred Spofforth, “The Demon”, thanks to injury, finally getting there by five wickets.

It was a decidedly mixed match for the Graces. While WG carved a chapter in his remarkable career as one of cricket’s early superstars, EM made 36 and a duck and poor GF – Fred – suffered the ignominy of a pair.

He took a remarkable catch, which finally came down when the batsmen were running a third, yet within a fortnight was dead from pneumonia after apparently sleeping on a damp mattress.

Just two years later Australia were back – once more The Oval staged their only Test of the tour – and this time Spofforth was fit, earning the tourists a seven-run victory which began the legend of the Ashes.

Not that a win looked remotely likely when they were bowled out for 63 by left-armers Dick Barlow and Ted Peate, the pitch spiced up by rain for two days before the start. For their part England struggled to 101 all out – George Ulyett’s 26 the best – as Spofforth claimed 7-46.

Opener Hugh Massie’s 55 dominated an Australian second innings of 122 but England needed only 85 for victory and were hot favourites at 51-2. Losing Ulyett and WG Grace for two runs changed the complexion of the match again and Spofforth’s 7-44, giving him 14-90 in the match, wrenched victory by seven runs in dismissing his hosts for 77.

So tense had been the final stages that one spectator reportedly died of heart failure and another bit through his umbrella handle.

What made the match even more famous was a notice in the following day’s Sporting Times, a fake obituary of English cricket which ended: “The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”

When England won the following winter’s series down under 2-1, a group of ladies in Sydney went one better and presented skipper Ivo Bligh with an urn containing some ashes and a brand – although the word more often used about cattle in those days – par excellence was born.

A good pair of sea legs was a vital component for international cricketers in the 1880s and 1890s, Australia making another seven visits before the end of the century and receiving just as many back, no other country having official test status until 1906.

It should be no surprise that the Surrey side which dominated English cricket in the late 19th century should take leading roles for their country. When the sides arrived at The Oval in 1884, England were 1-0 up after two matches, needing just a draw in the last.

Australia seemed set to level the series after amassing 551 – all 11 of the home side having a bowl, including wicketkeeper Alfred Lyttelton – and reducing the hosts to 181-8. But opener William Scotton, grafting 90 in 340 minutes, found the perfect partner in Walter Read.

The Surrey man was reportedly unhappy at having to bat down at number 10 and blasted 117 in less than two hours – a knock described by Wisden as “among the finest ever played in Test matches” – as the pair put on 151 for the ninth wicket. It could not save the follow-on but England batted out time easily enough to force a draw.

Read’s early cricket had been limited by teaching duties but after being given the post of “assistant secretary” of Surrey he was able to concentrate full-time on the game.

He was to the fore two years later when, having retained the Ashes 3-2 down under in between, England won by an innings at both Lord’s and The Oval. Up at number four this time, Read made 94 to build on WG Grace’s 170 which pushed England to 434.

Rain intervened in opportune manner for the home side again for George Lohmann – Read’s Surrey colleague – to claim 7-36 in hurrying out the tourists for 76 and then added 5-68 in finishing them off 149 in a remarkable display of seam bowling.

Lohmann’s role was somewhat different in 1888. His 29.3 overs included 21 maidens as he finished with a miserly 1-21 while Lancashire left-arm spinner Johnny Briggs did the damage at the other end, Australia being starved out for 80 in 90.3 overs. But he hit a fierce 62no at number 10 which extended the innings to 317, Australia being despatched for a miserable 100 second time round.

That was the second in a string of five successive victories at The Oval and the last of them, by 66 runs in 1896, was famous for another reason.

England needed victory to retain the urn but five players threatened strike action over pay. Three of them – Surrey men Bobby Abel, Tom Richardson and Tom Hayward – relented but Lohmann was one of two who refused to give in.

Having already suffered from tuberculosis, which forced him to spend winters abroad, with and his health clearly waning, it was the end for Lohmann, whose 112 wickets in just 18 Tests marked him among the greats but was to die aged 36 only five years later.

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