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The birth of Test cricket

A look back to the first game in cricket's premier format

The MCG at the time of the first Test  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The MCG at the time of the first Test  •  ESPNcricinfo Ltd

While there had already been four major tours by English sides to Australia, the team arranged and captained by James Lillywhite that left England in November 1876 was the first to visit as a business venture rather than following an invitation.
Three years earlier WG Grace had led a similar venture, but there had been deep divisions within the group and Lillywhite's Cricketers Companion had noted that it was unlikely that any attempt to mix amateurs and professionals would happen again.
Lillywhite, who had been involved in that unhappy trip, learnt from his experiences and relied entirely on professionals, leaving all the amateurs at home. While he had a strong bowling attack, the best batsmen were by and large the absent amateurs - the previous summer only four of the top 26 in the averages were professionals. And with every penny spent eating into the venture's profits, the squad was made up of only 12 players, meaning very little rest for those involved.
This was also the first trip to play matches against anything other than odds. The Australian teams were generally considered to be too weak to meet on equal terms, and so opposing sides fielded as many as 22 players. That helped account for the remarkable number of wickets and eyebrow-raising analyses of the leading bowlers on such trips. Alfred Shaw took 19 for 50 against XXII of Newcastle, for example.
But Australia's cricketers were improving fast, and Lillywhite's side were challenged to an 11-a-side game by New South Wales shortly before the tour diverted to New Zealand for six weeks in mid-January 1877. Although the tourists had the better of a draw in the two-day game, the other states were not about to be outdone and Victoria issued a similar challenge.
Meanwhile, Lillywhite's side played eight odds matches in New Zealand. While there, they lost wicketkeeper Ted Pooley, an inveterate gambler, who was left languishing in a Christchurch jail after a betting scandal, and so they returned to Australia with the core 11 players.
The financial demands of playing as many games as possible meant that Lillywhite had accepted the Victorians' offer and on March 15, barely 24 hours after they arrived back, the 18th match of the tour took place at the MCG between Lillywhite's XI and a Combined Australia XI, a side raised between the Victoria and New South Wales authorities. Although not advertised as an international, it is recognised this was the first match between two representative teams and it was subsequently given the accolade of being cricket's first official Test.
England came into the game in a poor state, exhausted by endless cricket and travelling without a chance to rest - Pooley never rejoined the squad - and the reserve keeper, Harry Jupp, was suffering from an inflammation of the eyes. One of the XI, James Southerton, was 49 when he made his debut. Jupp was not trusted to keep wicket but the lack of any reserve meant that he had to play. As it was, he top-scored for England with 63 in their first innings.
Australia, too, had their problems, with a simmering row between the Victoria and New South Wales associations undermining preparations. The biggest loss came when the great fast bowler Fred Spofforth refused to play because he disapproved of the choice of wicketkeeper, insisting in vain that Billy Murdoch play. The selectors brought in Frank Allen as Spofforth's replacement, only for Allen to pull out after deciding he preferred to attend a local fair.
Around 1500 spectators were inside the MCG when, shortly after one o'clock on a sunny afternoon, the first ball in Test cricket was bowled by Alfred Shaw to Charles Bannerman. The first run came off the next delivery, and the first wicket in the fourth over, when Allen Hill bowled Nat Thompson. The ignominy of the first duck fell to Edward Gregory later in the day.
The MCG at the time had one newly built grandstand that could seat 2000, with the remainder of the ground surrounded by a grass bank. By the close 4500 people had turned up, but few bothered to use the stand, which was said to have only a smattering of people in it all day.
At the close, 5pm - there had been around three-and-a-half hours' play - Bannerman had made 126 out of 166 for 6, Test cricket's first hundred. The two teams spent the evening at the opera.
Bannerman continued to dominate the next day until, shortly after lunch, the middle finger on his right hand was split by a lob from George Ulyett, forcing him to retire hurt on 165. His percentage of the innings - 67.3% - remains a record. It was not the best innings and he was helped by what contemporary reports described as poor bowling and fielding. He was dropped when in single figures - a simple chance to mid-off hit a nonplussed Tom Armitage in the stomach.
Armitage, determined to make amends, bet his captain £7 to £1 that he would make a fifty. He failed in that regard as well. In his defence, he, like several of his team-mates, had suffered from severe seasickness on the return trip from New Zealand and was reportedly barely able to stand on the morning of the match.
In reply to Australia's 245, England were bowled out for 196, Billy Midwinter taking 5 for 78. It would have been far worse had either umpire spotted that Jupp had trodden on his wicket before he had scored, but he survived the appeal, to the booing of the crowd.
England did better second time round, dismissing Australia for 104 in front of a third-day crowd of 12,000. Bannerman, severely incapacitated and given a rousing reception as he walked out, was again dropped, this time before scoring, but it wasn't nearly such a costly miss, as he made only 4.
Chasing 154 to win, England were skittled for 108, with slow bowler Tom Kendall (like Bannerman, born in England) taking 7 for 55. Their chase might not have been helped by the large lunch, and copious quantity of beer, they consumed during the break. They lost Allen Hill second ball, slogging to mid-on, and within an hour were 22 for 4. From there, on a wearing pitch, there was no way back.
The margin of Australia's victory was 45 runs, a result remarkably repeated in the Centenary Test in March 1977. "The combined team worked together with the utmost harmony and goodwill," reported The Australian.
There were the almost customary moans about the quality of the pitch and the umpiring, but of more concern to Lillywhite's men was their share of the gate money. Southerton noted that throughout the trip "the financial returns rarely tallied with the estimated number of people present".
The Australian XI were all presented with a gold watch each by the Victoria Cricket Association - captain Dave Gregory getting a slightly larger one - while a public subscription raised £83 for Bannermann and £23 for Kendall and wicketkeeper John Blackham.
Although England squared the series by winning the second Test, the Australians were jubilant at having shown that they could match their rivals. One newspaper summed up the mood in an editorial on the day Lillywhite's side set sail for home. "It shows that in bone as muscle, activity, athletic vigour, and success in field sports, the Englishmen born in Australia do not fall short of the Englishmen born in Surrey or Yorkshire".
"For the time being," wrote the Argus, "we must forget we are Victorians and New South Wales and our geographical distinctions, and only remember that we are of one nation - Australia."
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa