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A familar tale of riots and betting

At Sydney in February 1879, pitch invasions, assaults and stories of behind-the-scenes gambling led to the cancallation of what would have been cricket's fourth Test

Martin Williamson

April 15, 2006

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Lord Harris: 'Beyond slyly kicking me once or twice the mob behaved very well' © The Cricketer
Last weekend saw unsavoury scenes at Guwahati following the abandonment of the ODI between India and England. Sadly, such disturbances are almost as old as the game itself, and one of the first involving a touring side took place 126 years ago in Sydney.

A team from England led by Lord Harris toured Australia in 1878-79 - English tours at that time were usually privately arranged and XIs played under the name of the captain. It wasn't until 1903-04 that an England side was picked by a committee and travelled as a representative team ... and even then they toured under the flag of the MCC for another 70 years.

As was the custom, Harris's side were accompanied by their own umpire, a 22-year-old Victorian called George Coulthard who was to go on and play one Test for Australia in an otherwise undistinguished career. Coulthard, who was a professional at Melbourne CC, had been recommended to Harris by the club on his arrival in Australia.

In February 1879, Harris's side played the second of two matches against New South Wales at Sydney's Association Ground, Moore Park - now known as the SCG - and the first day passed off without incident. On the second day, however, more than 10,000 spectators witnessed the home side collapse after lunch and be forced to follow-on. They had reached 19 when Billy Murdoch, a local hero who top-scored in the first NSW innings, was adjudged run-out by Coulthard.

The general consensus of those nearby was that it was a close call but a right one. However, Coulthard was already in the spotlight as the Sydney Morning Herald had criticised a decision that he had made on the first day, and there were also rumours that large bets had been laid - and lost - as a result of the dismissal. Before Murdoch had reached the pavilion, pandemonium had broken out among the members inside.

As Harris's side waited, no batsman emerged to replace Murdoch, and Harris himself had to go to the pavilion to ask Dave Gregory, the NSW captain, what was happening. Gregory requested that the umpire be changed if the match were to continue; Harris refused.

There were allegations that Gregory's stand was encouraged by gamblers. Vernon Royle, a member of Harris's team, wrote in his diary that it "was a most disgraceful affair and took its origin from some of the 'better' class in the pavilion".

As the two captains talked, some spectators started climbing over the fencing and heading towards the middle. Harris swiftly ran back to protect Coulthard, the target of the mob, by now numbering into the thousands, and was struck by a stick.

Monkey Hornby, inches shorter than Harris but a pocket battleship, grabbed the assailant and frog-marched him to the pavilion, fighting off blows all the way. "He was struck in the face by a would-be deliverer of the larrikin," wrote Harris, "and had his shirt nearly torn off his back. He, however, conveyed his prisoner to the pavilion in triumph."

Tom Emmett and George Ulyett grabbed stumps for self defence, but the tourists remained on the field. "For some thirty minutes or so I was surrounded by a howling mob," Harris explained, "resisting the entreaties of partisans and friends to return to the pavilion until the field was cleared, on the grounds that if our side left the field the other XI could claim the match."

While the outfield was eventually cleared, Harris and Gregory remained at odds, and finally Gregory stormed off announcing the game was at an end. Harris asked Edmund Barton, the other umpire and a man who was to become Australia's first prime minister, to speak to Gregory, which he did with success. Meanwhile, the crowd had again stormed onto the field which once again had to be cleared.

Dave Gregory: demanded a new umpire © The Cricketer
Finally, Alick Bannerman and Nat Thomson came out to resume the NSW innings, but before the first ball could be bowled, the crowd again invaded and remained for the rest of the day. Harris and his players once again stood their ground until the scheduled close of play. "Beyond slyly kicking me once or twice the mob behaved very well," he observed.

Although Harris's XI wrapped up an innings victory on a rain-affected pitch the next day, the matter was far from over, and the publication of a letter from Harris about the incident stirred up even more unrest.

Initially, the local press condemned the riot, with the Sydney Morning Herald calling it "a blot upon the colony for some years to come", while the South Australian Register said it was " a disgrace to the people". But the SMH also remarked that one of the English side had "made use of a grossly insulting remark to the crowd about their being nothing but 'sons of convicts".

But when Harris's letter was published in London on April 1, the mood changed. He accused the members of NSW of being instrumental in the disturbances. "The disgraceful part of the business is that other members of the association - one a member of the legislative assembly - aided and abetted the bookmakers in raising the cry." The NSW Cricket Association (NSWCA) replied in kind, expressing regret but accusing Harris of being economical with the truth.

Two men were subsequently charged with disorder, and several members, including a well-known bookmaker, were booted out of the NSWCA and banned from the ground. Harris cancelled the return match at Sydney, which would have been only the fourth Test ever.

In 1880, Murdoch led an Australia side to England, but such was the hostility among the cricketing hierarchy that they struggled to get any decent fixtures. Harris wrote: "They asked no-one's goodwill in the matter, and it was felt this was a discourteous way of bursting in on our arrangements; and the result was they played scarcely any counties and were not generally recognised. We felt we had to make a protest against too frequent visits".

It was only at the end of the summer that Harris was approached by Surrey to raise an England side for a Test. He agreed, although three of his selections who had been at Sydney - Hornby, Emmett and Ulyett - refused to play. It was, nevertheless, to be the first Test played in England.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo.

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