Fred Spofforth was known as the demon. He was tall, strong and skilful fast bowler and created a long-lasting impact in the history of Test cricket. He was the first ever bowler to script a hat-trick in Test cricket. He was also instrumental in giving birth to Ashes. Anindya Dutta shares the fascinating story of Spofforth and first ever hat-trick in Test cricket.

A Demon is Born

In 1855 when Frederick Robert was born to bank clerk Edward Spofforth and his wife Anna in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, there was no indication that a ‘Demon’ was amongst us. In fact for the next 23-years, young Fred would have to make do without this sobriquet, which he would, in the end, bestow upon himself.

In 1878 at Lord’s after taking 10 for 20 while dismissing WG grace for a duck and MCC for scores of 33 and 19, Fred Spofforth would be found in the dressing room gesticulating wildly and chanting: “Ain’t I a demon? Ain’t I a demon?” Many agreed that he was, and the name stuck.

But to truly appreciate our story of the Demon Bowler it is necessary that we go back to the beginnings of Spofforth’s forays into the world of cricket, and there is no better source than the great man’s own writings which appear in a recently compiled book, The Demon Speaks: Recollections and Reminiscences.

Fred Spofforth. Image Courtesy:

The beginnings were quite early if Spofforth is to be taken at his word: “I don’t remember quite when I first played cricket, but I cannot remember when I did not, so I suppose a bat and a ball must have been put into my cradle.”

His first success came as a young lad of 14 when playing for the first XI of Newtown CC one of the leading clubs of Sydney, defending a team score of 65, he was called upon to bowl by the captain (“Here, youngster, you have a try”) with the opposition nicely poised at 60 for 5.

Spofforth describes what happened next: “Success followed my efforts, and I clean-bowled all five batsmen, the match ending in a tie.” It is worth remembering that this was a time when each over had only four deliveries. The five ball over was only to make its appearance in 1889 and the six ball over, decades later.

Spofforth describes how he started off bowling underarm (“as nearly everybody did at that time in Australia”) and then proceeded to “throw” in his effort to bowl faster, until discovering ‘round arm’ bowling watching his first bowling hero, George Tarrant – “It was a perfect treat to me to see him. His tremendous pace on the hard wickets positively scared the batsmen. When he hit the wicket, time after time the stumps were knocked completely out of the ground, and it was no uncommon thing for them to be split in pieces.”

Fred Spofforth was hooked on fast bowling and would never look back.

Spofforth joined the English, Scottish, and Australasian Chartered Bank (ES&A Bank which merged with ANZ Bank in 1970) at a salary of £40 per year, and took to playing serious cricket on Saturdays. In his first season, in fact in his very first outing for New South Wales, he destroyed Victoria (a team NSW had lost nine straight matches to until then).

The newspaper report the next morning read: “Spofforth, after going sixteen paces and delivered the ball with lightning velocity, a crash was heard in Campbell’s wicket, and the “Pride of East Melbourne” retired for the dreaded duck’s egg.”

Test cricket begins

In 1876/77 when James Lillywhite’s MCC team arrived in Australia, the bowling of Alfred Shaw and James Southerton was to have a profound impact on Spofforth and create the foundations for his bowling genius. Alfred Shaw bowled reasonably fast off a short run-up, but his hallmark was accuracy and length. He could bowl on or just outside the line of the off stump all day long (a trait Dennis Lillee and Glenn McGrath would come to be known for in later years) on a nagging length, with subtle variations in pace that made him difficult to score off.  James Southerton, who remains the oldest man (at 49 years) to have made his Test debut, was the first man to successfully send down slow round-arm deliveries in an era when the norm was to bowl fast round arm. His ability to the flight the ball and spin it off the pitch must have been an amazing sight for young Spofforth to devour and learn from.

Spofforth says: “Their bowling was a revelation, and I didn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t copy them as well as Tarrant, and try to combine all three. I very soon found that variation in pace was the most important thing of all, and with the object of disguising it I tried various experiments until I gradually found what seemed to me a style which was best for disguise as well as for ease.”

A revolution in fast bowling was in the making.

Fred Spofforth. Image Courtesy: Alchetron

Notwithstanding the progress he was making as a bowler and the reputation he had already earned for himself, 23-year old Fred Spofforth was to miss the first match of the tour at Melbourne starting on the 15th of March 1877 against Lillywhite’s team, sitting out in protest against the non-selection of New South Wales wicketkeeper Billy Murdoch, who was his friend and mentor. It was only eight years later when the re-designation of the matches was to take place in 1885, would Spofforth come to know that the match he had boycotted was to be forever referred to as the first official Test match.

The honour of bowling the first ball in Test cricket would go to Alfred Shaw, Charles Bannerman would forever be mentioned as the man who scored the first run, and Australia would win the match by 45 runs. Even though Spofforth would be brought in for the second match, England would win the match by 4 wickets.

The excitement that would be generated by the two matches and the confidence the Australians would get from their performance, would have much wider ramifications. Charles Bannerman and Spofforth would propose after the series that an Australian XI visit the British Isles, and this would come to pass in the English summer of 1878.

The confident Australians would lose the first match of the tour to Nottinghamshire rather tamely. Spofforth’s take on it typically matters of fact: “The weather was horribly cold, it was very windy, we were not acclimatized, and our bowling was bad.” The Aussies had walked on to the field in silk shirts without vests, sporting white felt hats atop their crowns on a typically wet spring day in England. Spofforth was not exaggerating when he said that they were not acclimatized. He should have said they were woefully unprepared.

The Demon arrives

It was a much chastened set of Australians that travelled to Lord’s to face a strong MCC team comprising the best talent that England could put together on a cricket field, an encounter whose impact on the establishment of international cricket would be far greater than the actual length of the match that was fated to last less than a day.

Lashed by two successive storms, it was past noon by the time Lord’s was ready for play with a weak sun shining on St. John’s Wood. WG Grace strode in to open the innings, having been sent in by the Australians. One customary swing to the leg side brought a four and the next finished in the hands of the fielder who had just moved into the gap. Grace stood there disbelievingly, staring at the fielder wishing him to disappear, but in the end, with much reluctance, he walked.

At 27 for 2, despite Grace’s exit, the MCC was not worried. They should have been, for that’s when Spofforth was introduced into the attack. Less than six Fred Spofforth overs and one hat-trick later, it was all over. MCC was all out for 33 and Spofforth had figures of 5.3–3–4–6.

For a while after lunch it did not look like Australia would do much better. At 24 for 8 on the almost muddy wicket, MCC had the real possibility of taking an unlikely lead, but Frank Allan and Billy Murdoch survived some hostile bowling from Alfred Shaw and Morley to take Australia to 41 before the innings folded.

Fred Spofforth. Image Courtesy: Sky Sports

As WG Grace faced up to Spofforth, the talk around the ground was all about how Grace would now firmly show the visitors their rightful place. The first ball was in the wicketkeeper’s gloves before Grace had fully raised his bat to make the customary opening shot through mid-wicket. The second sent the bails flying for 30-yards before they came to rest a third of the way to the stands. The Argus reported: “A perfect storm of applause, lasting till the Leviathan reached the pavilion, greeted the bowler.” This time around, George Bailey would take 6 wickets for 3 runs and Spofforth’s share would be 4 for 16. England would fold up for 19 in 17.1 overs.

Australia would go on to knock off the 12 runs with the loss of Bannerman’s wicket and seal a famous victory. The stunning nine-wicket loss in all of 5.5 hours of play on a single day for one of the strongest MCC sides on record would shake the foundations of the cricketing world. Wisden would report: “The maddened crowd … included MCC members who shouted themselves hoarse before they left to scatter far and wide that evening the news, how in one day the Australians had so easily defeated one of the strongest MCC elevens that had ever played for the famous old club.”

Fred Spofforth would then go back to the dressing room and his chant of “Ain’t I a demon?” would earn him the sobriquet of ‘The Demon Bowler’ for eternity.


In Part 2 of our Spofforth story, we shall look at the first hat-trick in the history of Test cricket and the lasting impact that Fred Spofforth was to have in the history of cricket.

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