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At the height of cricket's Golden Age, England and Australia played out an epic Ashes contest with a legendary climax. Eric Midwinter recalls one of the greatest series of all
It was a Conservative government, also predestining an era in which the Tories would rule for three quarters of the century. Football was destined to be the sport of the age. In that rapidly developing arena Sheffield United, very much a form team of the time, beat Southampton 2-1 in the FA Cup Final at Crystal Palace in a replay. The Blades' star was tireless `Nudger' Needham, tenacious in defence and adroit in attack, still to be reckoned among the pick of England's half-backs. As for Southampton, their right-back was one C.B. Fry, while Sheffield United were to play a minor role in the coming season's cricket.
Cricket had reached its apogee. If the establishment of the official County Championship in 1890 and the onset of war in 1914 marks out the parameters of cricket's Golden Age, then 1902 was its centrepoint. England fielded an XI that summer which many regard as their strongest ever.
The batting was formidable. In the First Test in May at Edgbaston (Birmingham's first Test match) England fielded 11 players who had all scored first-class centuries, including the wicket-keeper A.F.A. Lilley, who made over 15,000 first-class runs in his consistent career, and Gilbert Jessop, a frightening proposition at number eight. There was an admirable balance to the bowling while, in the likes of Archie MacLaren, Len Braund, Johnny Tyldesley and Jessop, England had specialist fieldsmen of choice competence.
Edgbaston was always a happy hunting ground for Tyldesley: in the 1902 Pest, he made 138 out of 376 for 9 declared, while F.S. Jackson, who made 53 and Bill Lockwood, with 52 not out, were his chief sources of support. Then England proved that their bowling was equally talented. On a good wicket, albeit in murky light, Australia were dismissed in less than an hour and a half for 36, their lowest ever Test score. Wilfred Rhodes took 7 for 17 and George Hirst 3 for 15, whilst Victor Trumper's 18 was the highest score.
Reeling, the Australians followed on but incessant rain, which had already marred proceedings, allowed them sufficient respite. They were 46 for 2 as the game, which had effectively been reduced to not much more than five sessions, ended unluckily for England in a draw.
The wet weather that had spoilt the early part of the season followed the teams to Lord's for the Second Test. Only 38 overs were possible over three miserable days, with England on 102 for 2 at the close of a shortened first day and with no play at all on the other two days. By the beginning of July, when the teams repaired to Sheffield, the Australians had recovered something of their good form and at Bramall Lane, home of the FA Cup winners, the tourists inflicted what Wisden called a "severe disaster" on the confident England side. Australia hatted soundly, but not convincingly, as Sydney Barnes, replacing Lockwood, took 6 for 49.
However, the Australian total of 194 was 49 more than England could manage in response, as Jack Saunders and Monty Noble took five wickets apiece. Clem Hill then made a hundred and Trumper a whirlwind 62, as the tourists set a daunting target of 339. MacLaren and Jessop made fifties, but England were dismissed for 195 and lost by 143 runs, Noble bagging another six wickets. It was to be Sheffield's solitary Test match.
The last two fixtures in the five-match rubber were dramatic enough to earn labels related to one of the protagonists, although for very different reasons. At Old Trafford, 'Tate's match' was won by the Australians by a mere three runs after a rain-affected game featuring `extraordinary fluctuations of fortune', according to Wisden. In the second innings, with the score on 16 for 3 after Australia had resumed 37 runs ahead, Fred Tate reprieved the Australian captain Joe Darling on the square-leg boundary; Darling went on to make 37, his side's top score, and the next wicket did not fall until 64. When England replied, needing 124 to win, Tate was bowled by Saunders with just four runs required in this, his only Test match.
In between whiles, on the first day the nonpareil Victor Trumper scored the first ever Test century before lunch, Jackson responded with an elegant 128, supported by Braund's 68. The fiery Lockwood, at his mettlesome best, then took 5 for 28 as Australia were dismissed for 86, but Hugh Trumble and Saunders shared the English second-innings wickets amidst louring clouds in what remains one of the most closely fought international matches.
The Oval Test became known as `Jessop's match' and was just as keenly contested, with England emerging victors by one wicket. Australia batted forcefully to make 324, against which England could muster only 183, as Saunders and Trumble again ran through the home batting. With rain once more a contributory factor, Lockwood then enjoyed another of his lethal spells, taking 5 for 45 to make the Australians tumble.
Nevertheless England's second-innings target was still 263 and the wicket was moist and torn. At 5 for 2 and then 48 for 5, a third Australian victory was the obvious outcome. But then Jessop played his legendary innings. After an awkward start he hit a staggeringly outrageous century in 75 minutes, then the fastest Test century and since surpassed in terms of minutes only by Jack Gregory, who took 70 minutes to reach his hundred against South Africa at Johannesburg in 1921-22.
Jackson, who had an excellent series, made 48 and then at the finale Hirst, with a battling half-century, was joined in another historic alliance by his old ally, Rhodes. It is now usually claimed that the Yorkshiremen's supposed agreement that `we'll get 'em in singles' is apocryphal, but cricket's folklore happily remains as potent as its factual account. Whatever was said, the two prototypical professionals made the 15 necessary for a face-saving win.
Is it right to term a team which also on occasion included such talented men as Lionel Palairet, Tom Hayward and Bobby Abel as England's greatest ever when they could not reclaim the Ashes? It is true that C.B. Fry had a poor series and Ranji was lost through injury for part of the rubber, and it is fair to add that the Ashes were regained in 1903-04 and retained in 1905. What must also be mentioned - and it is further ammunition to those who judge these the golden years - is that the 1902 Australians were arguably the strongest team to have visited these shores, while some would not hesitate to compare them with the impressive Australian sides of the 1940s and 1990s.
Given the relative weakness of the English opposition at those two other junctures, it might be suggested that the 1902 summer, rain-hit although it was, found England and Australia at the highest point of conjoined skill the two countries have reached. A very memorable series was the enthralling consequence.
This article first appeared in the September 2003 edition of The Cricketer.