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The first Test to be played in England was a hastily put-together affair that took place against the odds
September 11, 2010
One hundred and thirty years ago this week the first Test in England took place at The Oval. But it was a hastily arranged affair at the end of a long and largely derided tour by an Australian team, and was staged at The Oval rather than the more obvious location of Lord's, because of the lofty attitude of the MCC towards the "colonials".
Although what we now recognise as the first Test took place in Australia in March 1877, when the Australians toured England the following year, the MCC, which ran the game then, refused to offer them any games against a representative England XI. That sniffy attitude was undermined when the tourists beat a strong MCC side at Lord's, skittling them for 33 and 19, but the seeds for the 1880 Test at The Oval were sown when, a week later, 35,000 over two days watched the Australians' game against Surrey.
The seriousness with which Australian tours were taken was best highlighted by the then influential Lillywhite's Cricketers Annual, which in 1879 noted, with disapproval, that visits were treated as a virtual joke.
An English tour to Australia under Lord Harris in 1878-79 had not helped relations when a riot marred a game against New South Wales at the SCG. Many felt it was too soon after that for an Australian side to return and feared they would receive a hostile welcome if they did.
Nevertheless, plans were put in place for an 1880 tour under Billy Murdoch. However, a dispute between the Victorian and New South Wales boards meant the trip was not finally confirmed until April, by which time counties had arranged their fixture lists and had no intention of altering their plans.
James Lillywhite, acting as agent for the Australians, failed to secure any matches on major metropolitan grounds. At every turn he was curtly rebuffed. In January the Surrey committee declined a plan for a game against the county, claiming the "season was too full". Lillywhite countered by offering to play for charity but the committee, while split, again declined.
Meanwhile, the MCC briefly entertained a proposal for a game at Lord's, submitted by WG Grace, who offered to raise an XI himself. But the Australians could not rearrange their schedule around the date offered and the idea lapsed.
Grace's involvement was not entirely altruistic. At the start of the summer he noted the tour was "a doubtful experiment" as there was "a growing prejudice against speculating and travelling teams". But by July he appreciated there was money to be made from a high-profile contest at Lord's, not least by him, and for the remainder of the tour he was an active advocate of such a game taking place.
As the tour limped on it was largely ignored by the press and appeared to be on the way to being a public relations and financial disaster. At one stage Lillywhite had to take out advertisements seeking any opposition willing to play the side, and by mid-July only Yorkshire and Derbyshire of all the counties and serious representative teams had been played, and even then not on a major ground. By the end of the four-and-a-half month trek only eight first-class matches had been played alongside 45 other games.
In late July, at the sixth time of asking, the Surrey committee agreed to stage a game against the Australians at The Oval on September 6, 7 and 8, one of only a handful of matches the tourists were to play in the south all summer. The question of raising a strong England XI remained.
Charles Alcock, the Surrey secretary and one of the leading administrators in cricket and football in both sports' early days, began a month of frantic travel around the country to persuade the top players to take part. He began with a visit to Canterbury to try to convince Lord Harris to captain the XI; aided by the persuasiveness of Grace, who was playing in the festival against Harris, Alcock achieved his hardest goal. With Harris signed up for the venture, he knew others would follow.
From there Alcock went to Hove to ask the Sussex committee to cancel a game Lillywhite had arranged with them on the same three days in September, and again was successful, his argument aided by compensation of £100. After that he travelled extensively to recruit leading players, and all but three - Emmett, Ulyett and Hornby - who had been involved in the Sydney riot, agreed. Harris later wrote that he "had to bring a lot of pressure to bear on several prominent amateurs… to play". By the time of the match a good-strength side had been assembled.
As news spread that a representative side would play the Australians, interest in the tour in general took off. The huge crowds that flocked to The Oval suggested the lofty attitude of the authorities was hopelessly out of synch with those of the public.
Although the actual attendance is uncertain, Wisden reported "20,814 persons passed through the turnstiles on Monday, 19,863 on the Tuesday, and 3751 on the Wednesday". The game itself was a thriller and the dismissive attitude towards Murdoch's Australians was forgotten as the establishment congratulated itself on such a fine venture.
Alcock, exhausted but delighted, wrote: "In the eternal fitness of things… the game was in every way worthy of an historic occasion."
A hundred years later England hosted the Centenary Test. It was a sign of the times that it was played at Lord's rather than The Oval, purely for financial reasons: Lord's could hold more spectators and guarantee greater revenues. And it was ironic the hosts, and the organisation that made a healthy profit, was the MCC, the very club that had done so much to obstruct the Australians at the dawn of international cricket.
Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail us with your comments and suggestions.
The Father of Modern Sport, Keith Booth (Parrs Wood Press, 2002)
WG Grace: A Life, Simon Rae (Faber & Faber, 1998)
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