The current Ashes in England has featured some of the most one-sided matches in the contest for many years. Whether it constitutes a "great" series is largely a matter of perspective, and probably more importantly, nationality. The first really great Ashes series in terms of competitiveness occurred more than 120 years ago, in 1894-95 in Australia. England won the deciding fifth Test to take the series 3-2, but there were more twists and turns en route than the Stelvio Pass Road in Italy. This was perhaps best exemplified by the first Test in Sydney.
The Melbourne Cricket Club, in conjunction with trustees of the Sydney Cricket Ground, had agreed to underwrite the costs of an English team to come to Australia for the 1894-95 summer. Cricketers from England were considered a certain drawcard. Prior to television and the commercialisation of the modern era, spectators were the key to whether tours were successful or not, with gate takings the primary source of income.
Lord Sheffield, the patron of the 1891-92 England touring party, declined an invitation to again make the arduous voyage to the southern hemisphere. WG Grace was similarly not in a position to tour again, and so the Australian organisers approached Andrew Stoddart, an England and Middlesex batsman, and asked him to lead the touring party. Stoddart was acknowledged as one of the leading players in England and had also captained the country in rugby union in 1888. When Grace injured a finger before the Lord's Test in 1893, Stoddart became the only person to lead both the England cricket and rugby union teams. He organised a fine team of players to travel to Australia in the attempt to retain the Ashes. The side departed England on the RMS Ophir on September 21, 1894, on what would eventually be a 33-week trip.
"Give me the ball, Mr Stoddart, and I'll get t'boogers out before loonch!"
Bobby Peel to his captain
The first Test was proclaimed by Wisden to be "probably the most sensational match ever played either in Australia or in England" and it ultimately set the tone for the entire series. The pitch was in wonderful condition, and Australia captain Jack Blackham elected to bat. This decision appeared to have backfired when the England fast bowler Tom Richardson provided an inspiring start for the visitors, leaving Australia reeling at 21 for 3. George Giffen and Frank Iredale then added 171 before Iredale fell for 81. Syd Gregory, playing his seventh Test, had only made it into double figures once, and had already batted everywhere in the order from Nos 4 to 11. However, the runs flowed on this day and when Giffen was finally dismissed for 161 before stumps Australia's shaky start had become a very healthy 346 for 5.
The second day, a Saturday, saw a large crowd of 24,000 spectators turn out to watch Gregory resume his innings on 85. He was a favourite of the SCG faithful - perhaps not unexpectedly, as his father, Ned, was the curator and he himself had been born at the ground. Australia were 409 for 8 when Blackham joined Gregory. What followed was a thrilling partnership that raced along at two runs a minute. The two batsmen put together 154, a ninth-wicket partnership that is still an Australia record. Gregory passed Giffen's score of 161, and a great cheer greeted him when he went past Charles Bannerman's 165 to break the record for the highest Test score by any player in Australia. He then reached 200, the first Test double-century in Australia. His innings finished on the next ball, when he was caught in the deep for 201. Gregory had hit 28 fours, and the media rated his innings as the greatest ever seen in Australia. Australia finished with a massive total of 586, scored at the very impressive rate of nearly 3.5 runs-per-over.
Gregory's status as the crowd favourite was quickly confirmed, as his supporters collected a massive sum of £103 and 10 shillings in recognition of his efforts. This collection, which could be valued at approximately $50,000 in modern currency, was presented to Gregory by the premier of New South Wales, George Houston Reid. Reid commented:
"If we had left the list open a week, I believe we would have got enough to set him up for life, but it was thought better to crown this performance with a spontaneous expression of admiration. When I say that no grander innings was ever played on the ground, I feel glad for the sake of the Old Country that our friend is no taller, for if he had been Bonnor he would have got into millions."
David Frith's wonderful book Stoddy's Mission: The First Great Test Series reports that Gregory "gasped 'Thank you' and no more. He had just whispered, white faced, to a friend: 'What'll I say? I can't make a speech'." Perhaps unfairly, the highly creditable efforts of Giffen, Blackham and Iredale were not also similarly rewarded, as without their efforts and support, Gregory would never have got the chance to get near 200. Gregory was the only New South Welshman of the group, however, and the local spectators did not seem keen to financially support players from the other colonies. Gregory had also shown his patriotism by using a bat manufactured in Sydney, which was in contrast to most of the rest of the Australian side, who used bats imported from England.
England in reply made only 325, leaving them 261 behind and were asked to follow on. Giffen followed his 161 with figures of 4 for 75. England performed better the second time around, and gave themselves a useful lead of 176 by scoring 437. With the exception of wicketkeeper Leslie Gay, the rest passed double figures. Opening batsman Albert Ward had a good match, scoring 117 to follow his first-innings 75. In this timeless Test, the fifth day ended with Australia at 113 for 2. A victory for the home team seemed a mere formality, with Giffen and Joe Darling on 30 and 44 respectively.
Beautiful sunshine greeted the players on the sixth day. However, it had rained heavily overnight, and the uncovered pitch had become a bowler's dream. Many of the tourists, feeling the game was beyond their reach, had had a night on the town the previous evening. In particular, the left-arm-spinner Bobby Peel was reported to be still very intoxicated in the morning. Stoddart evidently stuck him under the shower to sober him up, and once Peel realised that the pitch was now tailor-made for him, he said to Stoddart, "Give me the ball, Mr Stoddart, and I'll get t'boogers out before loonch!"
After rolling, the pitch played reasonably well initially, but Peel was true to his word. He dismissed Darling for 53, and, in a collapse similar in magnitude to that seen in the fourth Test at Trent Bridge this year, the score of 130 for 2 quickly disintegrated to 166 all out. Australia were bowled out two minutes before the scheduled lunch break, and England won the Test by ten runs. In doing so, they became the first Test team, and still one of only three, to win after being forced to follow-on. Fellow left-arm spinner Johnny Briggs took 3 for 25, but it was Peel who took full advantage of the conditions, finishing with 6 for 67.
Of the batsmen who had to play on the wet pitch on the last day, only Giffen, who added 11 to his overnight score, and first-innings hero Gregory made double figures. Using his quick footwork, Gregory managed to overcome some of the problems that Peel and Briggs caused. However, even his great form couldn't last for long in those conditions and he fell to Peel for 16, edging a catch to the keeper. Of the remaining batsmen, Iredale's score of 5 was the next best. The significant change in conditions was underlined by the fact that, in spite of Australia's disastrous collapse of 8 for 36, the match still ended with 1514 runs scored, which was a record for highest aggregate in a Test. It is probably reasonable to assume that the England players celebrated this amazing victory as hard as they had mourned their imminent defeat the previous evening.