In 1902 when the Australian team led by Joe Darling landed in the British Isles for a 5-Test series, they were brimming with confidence. It looked like the ‘Ashes’ could remain Down Under permanently given England’s failure to get their hands on the urn the last three times the teams had met. With the man who was already being hailed as Australia’s greatest ever batsman, Victor Trumper in the side, joined by a tremendously talented handsome young player called Warwick Armstrong (in later life to earn the nickname ‘Big Ship’ for his size).
Trumper would have a series that did no harm to his already enhanced reputation. His 2,570 runs in the 1902 series would become a new record for any Australian in England. Cricket historian Harry Altham, who was Cricket Master at Winchester College and an accomplished first-class cricketer for Surrey, wrote: “From start to finish of the season, on every sort of wicket, against every sort of bowling, Trumper entranced the eye, inspired his side, demoralized his enemies, and made run-getting appear the easiest thing in the world.”
Warwick Armstrong had made his debut a few months before their series when England had visited Australia and had already shown what he was capable of. He would be a thorn in the side of England for the next two decades and in 1921 as captain, his boys almost succeeded in becoming the first Australian side to leave the Isles undefeated. The team would falter at the last hurdle, a traditional Exhibition match held at the end of the tour, where the Aussies were taken down by an Argentine bowler Clem Gibson bowling a magnificent spell. It would be left to Don Bradman’s team, 27-years later to achieve the feat and earn the sobriquet of The Invincibles.
Wicketkeeper Jim Kelly was also to have a wonderful series and along with Trumper and Armstrong, he would be named Wisden Cricketers of the Year for their impact on the series.
Such then was the core of the Australian team that England had to face in the summer of 1902. If pride had to be restored, the nation had to do something different to achieve more positive results. Tasked with such a challenge, the English selectors delivered something quite extraordinary for the first Test match at Birmingham.
A Team Of Centurions
The Wise Old Men Of English cricket decided to put together a team that (they hoped) could not lose, a squad that for some including the redoubtable Frank Keating, was the greatest team that England had ever put on a cricket ground for a Test match. A.A. Thomson wrote that this was the best-integrated side that England ever put into the field.
Remarkably, every member of the XI had a first-class century against their name. Such a team had never walked out onto a ground since Test cricket had first been played (granted it had only been 25-years at that stage).
Captaining the side and opening the batting was Archie MacLaren about whom his greatest admirer Neville Cardus once said: “He was not just a cricketer any more than Wagner was just a composer,”. His 424 for Lancashire against Somerset, scored in 1895, stayed a world record in First-Class cricket for 28 years before being surpassed by Bill Ponsford, and remained the highest score in England for 99 years before Brian Lara surpassed it with his 501 in 1994.
Opening the batting with McLaren was CB Fry, as he had done so often with WG Grace. Charles Burgess Fry was an extraordinary Englishman. He had sporting achievements that left a whole generation idolatrous and awestruck. He played for England in two sports and was world class in another. He was academically outstanding, an accomplished writer, one of the most handsome men in England. And, as if that wasn’t enough to get along with, he was also invited to become king of Albania.
Walking in at No.3 was KS Ranjitsinhji, the future Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, and the man who made the leg glance and leg side elegance both acceptable and fashionable. In an age when wickets and heads were uncovered, spinners like Hugh Trumble often opened bowling on sticky wickets making the ball bite, turn and take off with spite and venom, and some of the greatest batsmen to ever stride the 22-yards, like WG Grace and Victor Trumper, were scoring all their runs on the offside, Ranji, single-handedly, pioneered the leg-side game. Cardus was never more poetic than when he wrote: “when Ranji batted a strange light was seen for the first time on English fields, a light out of the East.”
Fry and Ranjitsinjhi together formed one of the most memorable of partnerships both for Sussex and England. They together changed the game of cricket significantly: nobody late-cut like the silk-shirted Indian prince, nobody on-drove like Fry. Ranji, once he obtained his prized princedom, would always be well off and generous, and was to be Fry’s friend and supporter through many years of trouble.
Stanley Jackson followed Ranji. His Wisden obituary speaks about his batting: “While essentially a forward player on hard wickets, he had at his command on sticky wickets a strength and science of back play to which few men have attained. His great stroke sent a good-length ball through the covers; he cut square or late and turned the ball cleverly on the leg side with similar precision. Nothing was better than the way he jumped in and drove the ball over the bowler’s head.” Becoming Governor of Bengal between 1927 and 1932 he survived a passionate but amateurish assassination attempt by a student Bena Das in the Convocation Hall of the University of Calcutta. He was unhurt and she was given 9 years rigorous imprisonment.
JT (Johnny) Tyldesley batted at No.5. He was in peak form and in 1901 the previous season he had an aggregate of 3,041, including nine centuries, eight of which were made for Lancashire. There were few batsmen more attractive to watch than John Tyldesley. He was exceptionally quick on his feet and so always appeared to have plenty of time in which to make his strokes. Essentially a batsman of enterprise, when he went forward to the ball it was nearly always to hit. He also possessed a very strong defence and had at his command practically all the strokes in the game.
AFA (Dick) Lilley the English wicketkeeper, then made his way out to the middle. Wisden says about him: “As a wicketkeeper he was most consistent and so pronounced an artist that at the end of his career his hands and fingers showed scarcely a trace of the heavy strain to which they had been subjected in taking bowling of all descriptions. Other wicketkeepers may have appeared more brilliant but there was none surer in making a catch.” But he was no mean batsman and in all first-class matches he scored 15,746 runs, including sixteen centuries.
At No.7 striding to the centre was George Hirst who Lord Hawke once described as the greatest county cricketer of all time. Wisden tells us that between his first county game for Yorkshire in 1889 and his last in 1929, Hirst scored 36,203 runs, average 34.05, and took 2,727 wickets, average 18.77; at his peak teammates and opponents alike recognised him as the best mid-off in the country. A considerable proportion of his 550 catches were made from scorching drives in a period when strong driving was an essential component in every batsman’s game. The measure of Hirst’s ability is best reflected in that he accomplished the double feat of l,000 runs and 100 wickets fourteen times. In 1906 he would make 2000 runs and take 200 wickets in a season. Years afterwards, when asked if he thought his record might be broken, he replied: “I don’t know, but whoever does it will be very tired.”
There was no Englishman better known for his hard-hitting, fast scoring and aggressive strokeplay than Gilbert Jessop batting at No.8 in this lineup. A look at all of Jessop’s 179 scores of over 50 shows that he scored these at a rate of 79 runs an hour. His 53 scores of over 100 were scored at nearly 83 runs an hour. In comparison. WG Grace scored at 36 runs an hour, CB Fry and Jack Hobbs at 40, Bradman at 47, Ranji at 50 and Trumper himself at 55 runs an hour. Jessop’s first-class run tally stood at 26,698 and centuries at 53 by the time he retired.
At No. 9 was LC (Len) Braund one of the most accomplished all-rounders of the early 20th century. He was a fine bat on all kinds of pitches, a beautiful fielder in the slips and a clever leg-break bowler. He had the reputation of a big match player, so it was little wonder that he made it into this team at such a crucial juncture.
At No. 10 walked in WH (Bill) Lockwood, a magnificent fast medium bowler, and the only man in the team without a Test hundred against his name, although in first class cricket he had accumulated 15 of them. He was one of the finest bowlers in England at the time, bowling at a brisk fast medium, with a high action and pronounced body swing, and clever variation of pace. His specialty was the break-back, often pitching outside off but pounding into the batsman’s thigh or passing over leg stump. He also generated speed off the pitch and had a slower ball “of almost sinful deceit”.
Finally, almost unbelievably, at No. 11 walked in Wilfred Rhodes, a gifted all-rounder — a left-arm spinner and a self-made batsman. He scored 39,969 runs in First-class cricket and had 58 centuries against his name, including two in Test cricket. By 1912, Rhodes had worked his way up the batting order, opening the batting and putting on a record 323 with Jack Hobbs. He is one of the three men to have batted at all 11 positions in Test matches. Yet, he was first a bowler, something that he did for 1,110 matches, picking up a colossal 4,204 wickets at 16.72. No bowler in the history of cricket has taken more wickets in First-class cricket.
Between them, England’s XI (during the course of their careers) would score a staggering 278,706 first-class runs and 607 centuries.
This was the team that the Australians faced at Birmingham in 1902.
The Test Match at Birmingham
Archie MacLaren won the toss, and given the line up he had at his disposal, it is hardly surprising that he chose to bat first on what was described as a “beautiful wicket”. CB Fry was out in the third over, caught behind by the wicketkeeper standing back. Ranji walked in but with the England score at 13, a misunderstanding ensued between Ranji and captain MacLaren resulting in the captain being run out. MacLaren made it clear to Ranji that he considered the fault to be entirely of the Indian Prince. Seething from indignation at what he deemed an unjust accusation, and losing his concentration, Ranji was bowled by second-change bowler Warwick Armstrong for 13, and England was 35 for three.
Stanley Jackson then batted until lunch with Tyldesley, and had made 53 when he inside edged Ernie Jones. Wicketkeeper Lilley followed, having skied a ball from Noble to Jones, while Tyldesley enjoyed the luxury of three dropped catches. Tyldesley was last out on the day, having made 138, an innings described as “truly magnificent” despite the chances, including “masterly defence” and well-timed cuts. Lockwood and Rhodes added 55 before stumps on the first day, and when play resumed at three o’clock on the second day after rain had fallen during the night, they added a further 25 before MacLaren declared at 376.
When Victor Trumper and Reggie Duff walked out to open the innings for Australia, the light was not great but the pitch had by no means deteriorated from the latter part of England’s innings. In the light of these facts, it is quite extraordinary what ensued. Wisden called it “one of the chief sensations of [the 1902 season]”.
It took 90 minutes to bowl out Australia for 36, with Trumper making half of the total. The Yorkshire bowlers Rhodes and Hirst bowled 22 of the 23 overs, in a manner described by the Wisden Almanack as “wonderful”. Rhodes got seven wickets for 17, his first five-wicket-haul in Test cricket, and up until 2004 joint cheapest seven-for in Test history and one of the most spell-binding spells in Test cricket. Victor Trumper tried to hold the innings together, but found it impossible to score off Rhodes, and when he was the seventh batsman dismissed, the score was only 31.
Twelve hours of unrelenting rain followed and left the ground completely unplayable. When play finally resumed, following on, the Australians were playing for pride and made sure they did not have a second collapse. When the 3-day Test (as was the custom at the time) ended, Australia was 46 for 2 with Gregory and Clem Hill playing out the overs until the umpires called an end to the match.
It had been an extraordinary match, and one can indeed speculate that if this had been a modern 5-day Test, or one uninterrupted by rain, with their lead and such an extraordinary team at its disposal, England would have come away with that elusive victory. As it transpired however, Australia would win two of the next four Tests and lose the final one, earning bragging rights to the Ashes for the fourth successive time.
Despite putting out its ‘greatest team’, England would have to wait another 18-months for its turn to hold up the urn in triumph.