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Great Test Matches Part III: Australia v England, The SCG, 1894 - Gulu Ezekiel Column
by Gulu Ezekiel
Sep 18, 2008
The creation of the 'Ashes' in 1882 gave Anglo-Australian cricket a boost and something tangible for the original two cricket nations to play for. But it would be another 13 years, following the ninth visit of an England side Down Under since 1876-77 before Test cricket really captured the imagination of the public. The 1894-95 series was pivotal in that sense.

This was only the second series of five Tests and went right down to the wire, England winning the final Test at Melbourne in March 1895 by six wickets to clinch the series 3-2. This after squandering a 2-0 lead. It has since gone down in cricket history as the first great Test series and produced some magnificent individual performances.

Remarkably, the previous five Test series also played in Australia 10 years earlier followed the same pattern with the final Test at Melbourne giving England the rubber The tourists were led by A.E. Stoddart, who also captained England in rugby and was one of the leading batsmen of the 1890s. There was a sensational start to what would be a fantastic series. The first Test at Sydney in December 1894 saw England scramble home by just 10 runs and that too on the sixth day.

What made this victory so special was that it was the first time in a Test match that a side had come back to win after being forced to follow-on. Over the next century when this occurred again Australia was at the receiving end on both occasions, versus England at Headingley in 1981 and against India at Kolkata in 2001.

Jack Blackham, the sole survivor from the inaugural Test of 1877, won the toss for Australia and had no hesitation in choosing to bat on what was a placid track. But if the Australian batsmen thought they would have it easy they were rudely awakened by the fierce pace and accuracy of Tom Richardson, the premier fast bowler in the world at the time.

Openers Jack Lyons and Harry Trott were blasted out and then Joe Darling followed first ball, all bowled by the mighty Richardson as Australia staggered to 21 for three within the first hour of the match.

George Griffin and Frank Iredale weathered the early storm, blunting Richardson's pace and hanging onto their wickets to take their side to 78 without further loss at lunch. The partnership was worth 171 before Iredale fell for 81. But England's woes were to continue till the end of the day with Australia strongly placed at 346 for five. England's bowlers had been forced to endure another century stand. This time between Giffen and Syd Gregory, who had been born at this ground where his father was the groundsman.

Though Giffen was out for 161 shortly before close of play, Gregory would go on to score 201, his first Test century on the second day in front of a crowd of 24,000. That took Australia to a massive 586 and it soon had England on the back foot. The tourists lost their first five batsmen with only 155 on the board before the rest of the batting rallied around. Still, a total of 325 was inadequate and they were forced to bat again on the fourth day, 261 behind. Now came the first twist in the tale with England's batsmen piling on runs. Opener Albert Ward led the revival as he was involved in useful partnerships for the first three wickets. This included a century stand with Jack Brown (53) before he was bowled by Giffen for 117 and 217 for three.

With all the English batsman down to No.9 contributing usefully, their total of 437 meant Australia's target was 177. With Giffen (30) and Darling (44) together at the close of the fifth day the Aussie score had reached 11 for two and victory for the home side now appeared a mere formality. But the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the match was not done as yet. This time it would be nature and not any of the players that provided the final twist with heavy overnight rain falling on the uncovered pitch. Saturated, it had suddenly turned a nightmare for the batsmen. Some of Stoddard’s men, feeling the match was lost, had got drunk at night and it was left to the captain to try to get slow left-arm bowler and notorious drinker Bobby Peel fit to bowl. The blazing morning sun on the wet overnight pitch had given England a fighting chance as Peel soon realized once he had been sobered up.

This was the first to enter the sixth day and what a dramatic one it would be. Blackham was generous enough to allow a slight delay to the start to allow England's staggering cricketers to reach the ground. Peel–despite his aching head--was getting the ball to spin viciously while Richardson was making it leap at a ferocious pace. Darling decided to hit out but his luck ran out soon after reaching 50. He lofted Peel into the deep where Bill Brockwell reached around to cling onto the vital catch. Just five runs later at 135 for four, it was Giffen's turn to go, lbw to left-arm spinner Johnny Briggs for 41 and now wickets began to fall in a cascade.

Peel was by now virtually unplayable on he vicious turner. The Aussies could not believe their "cruel luck" as Blackham put it so eloquently after the match. Peel bagged four of the final six wickets which fell for 31 runs, including last man Blackham, caught and bowled.

Australia had crumbled to 166 all out two minutes before lunch, falling an agonising 10 runs short with Peel grabbing six for 67 and Briggs three for 25. It remains one of the most sensational turnarounds in cricket's history. An elated Stoddard referred to his boys as "a team of triers" but candidly admitted Australia were thwarted by the elements.

England won the second Test at Melbourne by 94 runs to take a seemingly unshakable grip on the series. But Australia stormed back at Adelaide and Sydney to make it 2-2. Then came the climatic fifth Test at Melbourne and ultimate victory for England. It was also a victory for Test cricket and ensured England v. Australia encounters would always have a special resonance.
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