Thursday the 15 March 1877 is now recognised as the first day of test cricket history. Whether the Victorian organizers deliberately chose the Ides of March as the starting date has not been recorded, but it is nicely symbolic of the colonies’ desire to ambush the mother country. Although the use of the term ‘Test Match’ can be found as early as 1862, that designation was not ascribed to this game at the time. In fact, it was not until an Australian journalist, Clarence Moody, decided to unilaterally confer it with this status in the 1890s that the concept of test matches became universally accepted.
The Melbourne Cricket Club had clearly gone to great lengths for this game, with a large circular marquee to the south of the two- storeyed stands, with rows of banked seats further complementing the permanent grandstand. Lillywhite’s team were impressed by the ground and its accommodation for spectators, considering it “unapproached by anything we can point to back home”. As with many famous historical events, the momentous nature of this game was not recognised at the time by the locals, with a disappointing crowd of only just over one thousand spectators arriving for the start of the game.
Lillywhite’s team had only arrived back in Melbourne from their New Zealand tour on the 14 March. Originally, they were meant to arrive back three days prior to the beginning of the match against the Combined team, but their ship was delayed en route back to Australia. Reports regarding the voyage also indicate that the English tourists were exposed to very sub-standard accommodation on the vessel, with some choosing to sleep under the stars rather than venture below decks. It is clear that a number of the players were badly affected by only arriving in Australia the day before the match. While many were still decidedly unwell by the start of the game, with only eleven available men, no replacements were possible.
The captains of the respective teams met to toss the coin on what was a sunny and warm Autumn morning. Dave Gregory won the first ever toss in Test cricket and, following wisdom that still prevails today, decided to bat first. The quality of the pitch is hard to judge but it was considered “under-prepared and almost grassless” by some of the observers. The two umpires for the game were Melbourne locals Curtis Reid and Richard Terry, both of whom played first class cricket for Victoria. The Australian and English representatives agreed that the timeless match would be played under the four ball per over rule, but the hours of play were less clear.
Some reports indicate that they were determined to be nominally from 10am to 2pm each day. This did not transpire, however, as the first day of Test cricket actually started at approximately 1.05pm. The Melbourne Argus had written that the game would commence at 10.00am, and consequently some spectators turned up on the first day approximately three hours before play eventually got underway.
The English team took the ground resplendent in white flannels and cravats. The round-arm bowler Alfred Shaw opened the bowling for the English side, with the twenty-five year old Charles Bannerman taking strike. Bannerman, one of six English born players in the combined colonies team, had moved to Australia with his parents at the age of two. He had first played for the Warwick Club in Sydney during the 1866/67 season, and following good performance, Bannerman made his inter-colonial debut against Victoria in 1871. Over the following six years, he established a reputation in both New South Wales and Victoria as the pre-eminent batsman in the country. Described as “the best batsman in Australia, hits brilliantly all round” in Cohen’s NSW Cricketer’s Guide for 1877/78, Bannerman was only a small man measuring only about five foot six inches in height. He was another of the players who had been coached extensively by Caffyn and was renown for his excellent strokeplay and in particular his powerful driving.
Bannerman had the privilege of scoring the first run in Test cricket cutting the second ball from Shaw for one. Bannerman’s opening partner was Nat Thomson and he became the first wicket in Test cricket, when he was bowled by Shaw’s opening partner Hill for 1. The opening partnership had been only 2, but Bannerman and the new batsman Horan pushed the score along steadily. During this period of time Bannerman badly miscued a short ball from Shaw before he reached double figures; Armitage, however, spilled the easy chance at mid-off.
The score had reached 40 just before the lunch break when Horan was caught by Hill off Shaw. This brought the Australian captain Dave Gregory to the crease. He immediately got off the mark with a single from Shaw’s bowling, but he then proceeded to be run out by Jupp. The lunch break at 2.00pm saw Australia at 3 for 41, with Bannerman on 27. Cooper joined Bannerman, who was increasing in confidence rapidly. Cooper held up his end determinedly, while Bannerman started to show why he was rated the best batsman in Australia. They had a partnership of 77, of which Cooper only contributed 15. Bannerman was by now “driving dominatingly and scoring freely to most of the field”. Cooper’s dismissal by Southerton, who at age 49 years and 119 days is still the oldest test debutant, brought Midwinter to the wicket.
Bannerman and Midwinter had pushed the score on from 118 to 135 when, at approximately 4.25p.m., Bannerman scored the run that gave him the first century in test cricket. Midwinter fell soon afterwards for 5, and was followed quickly afterwards by Dave Gregory’s older brother Ned, who recorded the first duck in test cricket. By the close of play at 5 p.m., Australia had lost six wickets for 166, but without Bannerman’s unbeaten score of 126, it is hard to imagine what their total may have been. While Shaw had been the most successful bowler on the day, Ulyett had shown why he was rated by many judges as the fastest bowler in England. He had struck a number of the Australian batsmen during the day, and had made good use of the variable bounce in the pitch. Estimates of the day’s attendance are unreliable and vary from report to report, but the news of Bannerman’s efforts spread through Melbourne and it is believed that a total of around 4,500 spectators eventually turned up on this first day. At the conclusion of the day’s play, the two teams met up for dinner and went to the opera to finish off the evening.
Bannerman and Blackham resumed their innings the next day at a quarter to one, and took the score off through to 197 before Southerton bowled Blackham for 17. It was looking increasingly likely that Bannerman would carry his bat through the innings when Tom Garrett, an eighteen year old picked to open the bowling and who was to become the great–grandfather of Midnight Oil singer and Commonwealth Parliamentarian Peter Garrett, joined Bannerman and batted with a maturity beyond his years. He was second top score with an undefeated 18, and had assisted Bannerman to progress the score through to 240 when Ulyett literally struck a vital blow. Apart from his early let-off Bannerman had batted without error, but a quick delivery from Ulyett jumped from just short of a good length and struck him on the right hand. This blow split open his index finger and Bannerman had to retire hurt. Batting gloves in 1877 did not provide very effective protection to the batsman’s hands, and finger injuries such as this were not uncommon. Bannerman had scored 165, a massive contribution towards the Australian total. The innings folded quickly after Bannerman’s exit, with Kendall and Hodges only adding another five leave Australia with an eventual total of 245.
The magnitude of Bannerman’s performance can be seen by the fact that he contributed a phenomenal 67.3% of the team total, a record for Test cricket that still stands. His score of 165 is over nine times higher than the next best effort, which also remains unsurpassed in completed innings. The Argus was justifiable excited by this effort, and started a public campaign for a Charles Bannerman subscription at the end of the second day. This collection raised approximately £83 or half a pound for each run he scored. The opposition were also impressed, with Lillywhite declaring that “he had seen as good a display of batting in England, but never better”.
The English team started their reply at approximately 3.30pm with Jupp and Selby facing the Australian opening bowlers Hodges and Garrett. They put on a partnership of 23 before Selby was caught by Cooper off the bowling of Hodges for 7. The innings of Lillywhite’s team then followed a similar pattern to the Australians, with the opening batsman Jupp batting solidly whilst his partners fell about him. At the end of the second day England were 4 for 109, with Jupp undefeated on 54. Surprisingly, the crowd for day two was slightly less than the first, with only about four thousand turning up to see Bannerman continue his innings. The second day had provided slightly better value for money for those who attended, with a total of 188 runs for seven wickets comparing with 166 runs and six wickets on the first. With Bannerman’s hand injury preventing him from fielding, the Melbourne Cricket Club’s professional W. Newing acted in his steed as no twelfth men were nominated for either side.
The start of the third day at a quarter past twelve saw Armitage joining Jupp at the crease, but the batter Jupp was soon dismissed for 63 by Garrett. A valuable 35 not out by Hill batting at no. 9 managed to push England’s score towards 200, but their final total of 196 gave Australia a very useful lead of 49 in a low scoring game. The scoring rates of both teams were almost identical, with Australia scoring at 36 runs per hundred balls, whereas England were infinitesimally slower at 35.9. Allrounder Billy Midwinter became the first player to take five wickets in an innings in test cricket, with 5 for 78 off fifty four overs. Dave Gregory rotated his bowlers well, and showed that the faith of the Victorians had not been misplaced. He showed no favour towards his fellow New South Welshmen, and used all of the bowlers judiciously. His astute field placements were also unexpected by the English sides, who had been anticipating less sophisticated captaincy from a man who had never led his state team.
In spite of his injury, Bannerman insisted upon taking his place at the top of the order. With his hand swathed in bandages, Bannerman manfully attempted to recreate his first innings form, but Ulyett’s pace quickly proved too much for him. Bannerman was bowled for 4, with only 7 on the board, and without a repeat of his first innings dominance, Australia finished the third day at 9 for 83. Dave Gregory showed his willingness to experiment by changing the batting order, with Garrett rewarded for his first innings heroics by switching places with Gregory and batting at no. 4. This sadly did not work, with Garrett being dismissed without scoring and Dave not doing much better with only 3. Horan made 20, Midwinter 17 and Ned Gregory made 11, but the rest of the rest of the team did not contribute significantly. The general consensus in the papers was that England should manage to win the game easily on the next day.
The third day had seen by far the greatest audience at the match, with in excess of ten thousand spectators. After a rest day to observe the Sabbath, the game resumed on Monday and the attendance fell back to the levels of the previous week with around two thousand people turning up to see an expected England victory. The last pair of Kendall and Hodges resumed at twenty past twelve with the total at 83, and they frustrated the English team by adding another 21. Hodges was eventually bowled by Lillywhite for 8, with Kendall finishing with 17 not out. Shaw underlined his status as the premier bowler in England, taking a very economical 5 for 38 off 34 overs. He bowled very well in partnership with Ulyett and Hill, and no Australian batsman looked comfortable against their attack. Australia’s total of 104 meant that England only required 154 to win, a score that was not expected to trouble them. Dave Gregory and his side were not of this opinion, and came out determined to make them struggle for every run. The pitch was getting more and more difficult to bat upon, and it seemed that the Australian team was in a good position to win.
Dave showed his experience and cricketing brain again by changing the opening bowlers for the second innings. Left-armer Tom Kendall had only taken 1 for 54 in the first innings, but Dave had noticed that none of the English players appeared totally comfortable in playing him. Kendall opened the bowling with Midwinter, and they bowled almost unchanged throughout the innings. Lillywhite also changed his tactics, with Hill and Greenwood replacing Jupp and Selby as the openers. The reasons for this change are unclear, but it is possible that Lillywhite hoped that the hard-hitting Hill would get England off to a fast start. Regardless of the rationale behind it, the switch in order was a mistake for England, with Kendall dismissing both openers with only 7 on the board. When first innings stalwart Jupp fell lbw to Midwinter for 4, England were 3 for 20. This quickly became 4 for 22, with Kendall bowling Charlwood for 13.
Australia had rapidly become favoured to win, but a sensible partnership between Selby and Ulyett pushed the score through to 62. Kendall managed to achieve the breakthrough by bowling Ulyett for 24. Shaw also fell to Kendall soon afterwards, becoming his fifth wicket, and all on what was his first class debut as he had never been selected for Victoria. Armitage quickly settled in, however, and Selby continued on without too many problems. Feeling that his team was losing the initiative, Dave Gregory switched his bowlers around and this saw prompt results with Hodges getting Selby caught by Horan for 38. With the loss of Selby at 92, the remainder of the English innings fell away quickly, and they were dismissed for 108. Kendall was the undoubted star, taking 7 for 55 off 33.1 overs to back up his 17 not out earlier in the day. The combined Australian side had triumphed over the English side by 45 runs, a result that was as critical for the development of test cricket as it was unexpected.
The victory of Dave Gregory’s team was greeted with jubilation in the colonies, with the newspapers in both Melbourne and Sydney reporting with great glee the defeat of the English side. The Sydney Daily News used the occasion to send a patronizing message back to London, declaring that “It may console them to note that the English race is not disintegrating in a distant land and on turf where lately the blackfellow hurled his boomerang.” The Australasian was highly effusive, saying that :
“The victory of the Australian Eleven over the English cricketers is no ordinary triumph. For the first time a team representing the cricketing prowess of England has been beaten on equal terms out of that country. The event marks the great improvement which has taken place in Australian cricket; and shows, also, that in bone as muscle, activity, athletic vigour, and success in field sports, the Englishmen born in Australia do not fall short of the Englishmen born in Surrey or Yorkshire.”
Whilst Dave Gregory had previously not had a happy time playing at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for New South Wales, this victory made up for much of that anguish. The Argus newspaper reported that the leadership of Dave was the difference between two evenly matched sides.
To celebrate their win, the Victorian Cricket Association presented a gold medal to each player, with Dave Gregory being awarded a slightly larger medallion in recognition of his role as captain. In addition to the subscription list for Bannerman, Blackham and Kendall were also the recipients of collections of approximately £23 each. The takings from this first game exceeded all expectations, and the two teams agreed to meet again at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in a fortnight for a re-match. It was agreed that this game would be for the benefit of Lillywhite’s team, and, following the success of Australia in the first game, it was expected that the match would be a financial windfall for Lillywhite’s team prior to their return home.
Not all of the publicity surrounding the game was positive, and there was some gloating by the local media, with some disparaging remarks about the strength of Lillywhite’s side. The Australasian claimed that the team was by far the weakest to have ever played in the colonies, and that the bowling attack lacked penetration:
“If Ulyett, Emmett and Hill are fair specimens of the best fast bowling in England, all we can say is, either they have not been in their proper form in this Colony or British bowling has sadly deteriorated”.
There were also a number of rumours circulated throughout Melbourne claiming that the English side had deliberately lost the game in order to increase the attendance at the second game.