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.

The first Hat-trick in Test cricket

The success of the 1878 tour of England would be in no doubt when Charles Bannerman and his men returned home. They had left the Australian shores as two groups of unheralded players from New South Wales and Victoria, and would return as a successful Australian team. On landing in Port Jackson, the team was driven to the Town Hall in a four-horse coach for a public banquet in their honour, and Sydney was illuminated like it had seldom been until that night. Similar receptions at Melbourne and Adelaide followed. The first cricketing heroes of Australia had arrived.

The excitement around the summer visit and the impact the Australians had made upon their English hosts was evident when later in the same calendar year, another English team this time under the leadership of Lord Harris would make the trip down under. They would play a solitary Test at Melbourne, but one that ensured the scorecard would retain its rare significance in cricketing annals.

With both Lillywhite and Shaw dropping out of the team when the MCC asked Harris to lead the squad, inexperience was always going to be the bane of the English team. Not unexpectedly, this being Melbourne, thunderstorms lashed the ground before play began, and exhibiting his inexperience Lord Harris chose to bat after winning the toss.

On a sticky wicket, faced with Englishmen woefully out of their depth, Fred Spofforth was in his elements. George Ulyett was bowled off the second ball of the match, playing on to a skidding delivery from Spofforth. Frank Allan from the other end was the perfect complement to the Demon. His left arm prodigious swing came in from a different angle, and the Englishmen were all at sea. Webb and Lucas were bowled by deliveries that swung into them from outside the off stump. England was 10 for 3. When Spofforth broke through Hornby’s defences, the mother country was perched precariously at 14 for 4. Lord Harris was now at the other end, watching his batting unravel. But worse was to come.

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With the team score at 26, Reverend Vernon Royle looked back in dismay to find his stumps shattered. He had not even seen the ball. Francis MacKinnon, ‘The 35th MacKinnon of MacKinnon”, who replaced him at the crease, was soon making the long trudge back, shaking his head at the broken timber behind him. As the groundsman rushed to replace the stumps for the second time in as many deliveries, he probably added a plea to Tom Emmett who walking out to the middle, for Emmett managed to put bat to ball, saving the stumps from further damage, but in the process holing out to Tom Horan.

Fred Spofforth had taken the first hat-trick in Test cricket.

Charlie Absolom, an able striker of the ball decided to chance his arm, and in the company of the red faced Lord Harris at the other end, helped England reach a total of 113. Spofforth’s figures read 6 for 48.

Providing a further exhibition of his inexperience, Harris made a series of bizarre bowling changes allowing Australia to score 256. Seven bowlers toiled against the strong batting side while Absolom with 250 first-class wickets did not get a single over. After conceding a 143-run lead, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Englishmen to save the Test.

Spofforth this time did even better, taking 7 wickets conceding 62 runs, as the English were bowled out for 160. Once again Harris held up one end while the wickets tumbled. Charles Bannerman and Billy Murdoch rattled off the 18 runs needed for victory.

Fred Spofforth’s hat-trick and match haul of 13-wickets had ensured that the Englishmen would sail back across the seas with their tails between their legs, convinced once more that they now had a real international rival to contend with. Complacency on the cricket field was a thing of the past.

Fred Spofforth’s impact on the future of cricket

Fred Spofforth’s impact on the history of cricket goes far beyond his hat-trick in Melbourne or his demonic performance at Lord’s. Not only was he the first fast bowler to send down genuinely fast over-arm deliveries, but the immaculate control over his bowling and the variations that he developed would last the test of time and establish the basis of fast bowling for the next hundred years.

A newspaper report of the match against MCC read as follows: “The Australians have brought over a bowler with them who fairly puzzled the best batsmen in the country, and it is not impossible that they have introduced a new system, by which, once more, the scale will turn in favour of the ball against the bat. Mr. Spofforth’s delivery is quite appaling; the balls thunder like cannon shots, yet he has the guile, when seemingly about to bowl his fastest, to drop in a slow, which is generally fatal to the batsman.”

The Guardian would write: “Spofforth varies his pace in the most remarkable way, at one time sending down a tremendously fast ball and at another almost a slow one.”

Spofforth himself would say: “Variation is only any use if you learn to hide it. The sole object in variation is to make the batsman think the ball is faster or slower than it really is

Fred Spofforth. Image Courtesy: Cricinfo

Fred Spofforth had invented the slower ball, which succeeding generations would make the delivery of choice as limited overs cricket took hold of the cricketing public’s imagination a hundred years later.

Four years later, at the Oval in 1882, Spofforth would once again be involved in creating cricketing history laying the groundwork for a conflict that would continue to survive and thrive even after 135-years had passed. Australia would win the toss and choose to bat on a wicket that they judged to be fairly good. The two teams were at full strength, and this was billed to be a hard contest with the Australians convinced they had what it took to win.

Spofforth, in his pithy style, lays bare what happened: “The wicket was fairly good, and we did not expect to be got rid of under 200 runs. Our innings, however, proved a failure: We were all dismissed for 63. With this disaster, our spirits sank to the depths…… The English team began well with Ulyett and Barlow, but there was lack of consistency in the batting, and on the first innings they were only 38 runs in advance. Our fielding had been superb, and our bowling was probably never better.”

The Australians came out to bat and were 66 for 1 when an unfortunate event happened that was destined to change the course of the match.

WL Murdoch snicked a ball to the leg side and being unsighted, took a single and not the double that was there for the taking. There was an overthrow and the ball was picked up by WG Grace who, seeing the batsmen were not running, started walking to the bowler rolling the ball in his hands. Murdoch’s partner Sammy Jones at this point stepped out of his crease to pat the ground, and seeing this, Grace walked away from the bowler, and with the ball still in his hand, quietly took off the bails.

The Australians protested but to no avail. When play re-started, clearly affected by the episode, the batsmen started to capitulate and the innings ended at the score of 122. Murdoch was the man whose exclusion had caused Spofforth to miss the first Test match between the two nations, so it was but natural that this “unsportsmanlike” episode affected him more than the others. What incensed him further was that in the first innings Spofforth himself had let off England’s opener Hornby with a warning when he was caught standing outside his crease.

Not unexpectedly, at the break, there was an exchange between Spofforth and Grace which ended acrimoniously, notwithstanding the high esteem in which the two held each other. Spofforth stormed out of the English changing room telling Grace: “This will cost you the match.” Then back in his own dressing room, with England needing 85 runs to win the match in the last innings, the story goes that Spofforth roared to his teammates, “I swear to you, England will not win this…..this thing can be done.

He took the first two wickets off successive balls to leave England reeling at 15 for 2. Then, with England at 66 for 5, Spofforth was brought back into the attack. He ran through the side in a remarkable spell of fast bowling, with his last 11 overs fetching 4 wickets for 2 runs, including 3 wickets in 4 balls.

This then was the truly magnificent spell of bowling that launched The Ashes contest between Australia and England. It was after this defeat that the Sporting Times carried a mock obituary mourning the death of English cricket, promising that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”, ensuring that Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth’s name would be remembered alongside WG Grace’s more than a century later as the men who laid the memorable foundations of the Gentleman’s Game.


Spofforth passed on in 1926 at the age of 73. He would have smiled with undisguised pleasure if had read his own obituary in The Daily Telegraph who paid the ultimate tribute to a Demon bowler: “No one ever bowled with his head so earnestly and so malignantly.”

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