Melbourne. March 15th 1877
The first ever international cricket match took place, surprisingly, between the USA and Canada on 24th and 25th September 1844 but this has never been classified as a Test match. In 1868 the Australian Aborigines toured England but this was not a full Australian XI. There had been many overseas tours by English sides particularly to the USA, New Zealand and Australia but it was the match played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 15th that has been officially given the status of the first Test match. The expression ‘Test match’ itself was not used until 1885 by which time the Ashes had been born.
Later in 1882 the Australians had unexpectedly defeated the English in England and the Sporting Times published a mock obituary of the English game saying that, “The body [of the English game] shall be cremated and the ashes taken back to Australia” and this led to an urn being made to hold the ashes of burnt bails.
There were two rival tours being planned in 1876. An amateur one led by Fred Grace and a professional one led by James Lillywhite. The amateur one was forced to cancel however and Lillywhite’s trip did not contain any of the fine amateurs of the day including WG Grace. The tour left from Southampton on a steamship in November 1876 on a journey that took 48 days. It called in at New Zealand on the way. Whilst there the squad of 12 was reduced to 11 as the wicket keeper, Ted Pooley, was in a Christchurch jail after a charge of assault and a betting scandal.
The first Test should have been played at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground as the main stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), had been booked by Fred Grace. However with that tour cancelled Lillywhite moved the game to the more profitable MCG where more people could watch. The Australian XI contained only 4 non-British born players but did not include the legendary ‘demon bowler’ Fred Spofforth. He refused to play when the New South Wales wicket keeper, Billy Murdoch, was not selected. However at 1.05pm on the 15th March the first ball in Test match history was bowled by the Englishman, Alfred Shaw, after the Australian captain, Dave Gregory, had won the toss and elected to bat first. The match was timeless, but was to last 5 days including the rest day on the Sunday, and each over consisted of 4 balls.
The first ball was bowled to Charles Bannerman who went on to score not only the first runs in Test history, off the second ball, but the first Test century. His score of 165, before he retired hurt with the webbing of his finger split, remains the highest by an Australian on Test debut. Australia went on to score 245 and Bannerman’s percentage of the team’s runs, 67%, also remains a record. The Englishman James Southerton took three wickets for 61 runs and he remains the oldest player ever to make his debut for England, aged 49.
England went into bat about 3pm on the second day. The crowd reached about 4,000 although it was noted that many of these had forged tickets. England made 196 with Harry Jupp top scoring with 63. He had actually trodden on his stumps when on 0 but the umpires did not notice and he replaced the bails, to the great chagrin of the Australian players. This led to much abuse from the vociferous crowd which has been replicated in Test matches between these countries ever since.
On the Saturday Australia scored just 104 in their second innings in front of a crowd of over 12,000. England could not capitalise and chasing 154 to win collapsed to 108 all out to lose by 45 runs. The English born slow bowler, Tom Kendall took 7 wickets for just 55 runs. The Australian skipper was given a gold medal and his teammates a silver one as James Lillywhite magnanimously said that, “This was a feather in their cap and a distinction no Englishman would begrudge them.”
After the commercial success of the match a second Test was hastily arranged at the same venue, this time with Fred Spofforth playing after being given £50 to bring him and Billy Murdoch to Melbourne. England won this match by 4 wickets levelling the series. Up to August 2015 there have now been 69 series between England and Australia. Each country has won 32 series with 5 having been drawn. In matches won Australia lead by 130 to 106 with 89 draws. No one could possibly have envisaged at 1.05pm on March 15th 1877 what history was being created and what rivalry would ensue in one of the oldest sporting competitions in the world.