The stage is set at The Kia Oval for the final showdown as this ferociously fought, all-time classic Ashes series reaches its much anticipated climax. In the build-up to the 39th contest between England and Australia in Kennington, Richard Spiller looks back at the earliest encounters and how The Oval became the birthplace of the Ashes.
Kennington has become the stage of farewells, where the Ashes finish and many great players take their final bows in one of the sport’s longest-running contests.
It makes it all the more iconic that the Ashes were birthed at The Oval, and even before the origin of the series, the ground hosted England’s first home Test against Australia.
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 this famous match at The Oval unforgettable and spawned a fabled cricketing tradition for the ages 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.”