Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….

Quote: “This thing can be done.”

By: Fred Spofforth to his Australian teammates at The Oval, afternoon, August 29, 1882

Sammy Jones played WG Grace to point and had taken a single. He grounded the bat behind the crease and went ahead to ‘farm’ the pitch. Alfred Lyttelton threw the ball to Grace, who, keeping true to his gamesman self, knocked the stumps and appealed for a runout. Bob Thoms, that much-revered umpire, had no option but to rule Jones run out (“if you claim, sir, it is out”).

Fred Spofforth, the incoming batsman, was far from happy at this. He talked to his captain Billy Murdoch, who had witnessed the run out from the other end. “I swear to you, England will not win this,” announced Spofforth when he found out from Murdoch.

Eight runs later Australia were all out. England needed a mere 85, but that did not matter to Spofforth. “This thing can be done,” he told his teammates in the dressing room before they walked out at 3.45 PM.

Grace was confronted by George Bonnor before he faced the first ball of the innings: “If we don’t win the match, WG, after what you’ve done, I won’t believe there is a God in Heaven.”

Also read: Cricket history in quotes, part 6: “The Australians came down like a wolf on the fold…”

Two hours and one gnawed umbrella later England were bowled out for 77. Bowling unchanged for 28 four-ball overs, Spofforth took 7/44 (to finish with 14/90 in the match). The other three wickets went to Harry Boyle.

The saga of the fourth innings has been repeated too many times by the greatest names of cricket literature. It also formed the premises of the much-acclaimed Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes by Arunabha Sengupta.

England were 51/2 at one point before Spofforth ran through them. Grace himself scored 32 of England’s 77 before he became the fourth batsman to be dismissed, on 53.

“I left six men to get 30-odd runs and they couldn’t get them,” he would later lament in that pip-squeaking voice.

Despite his herculean effort, however, Spofforth could not live up to one promise: “I’m going to bowl at the old man. I’m going to frighten him out.” Grace was only 34, so the adjective made little sense (which makes us question the authenticity of the quote). Anyway, as things turned out, Grace was in control till he was there till Boyle snared him.

There was another iconic quote later in the day, from Ted Peate. A rank tail-ender, Peate walked out last, with 11 still to be scored. He whacked the first ball for two but was bowled by Boyle off the next.

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At the other end was CT Studd, one of the finest batsmen of the era but running a fever that day. Batting at ten that day after sitting in the pavilion draped in a blanket, Studd did not get to face a ball. However, AA Thomson claims that captain ‘Monkey’ had saved Studd for the end: “I want to keep you up my sleeve.”

When asked for an explanation by his colleagues, Peate responded: “Mr Studd was so nervous I did not feel I could trust him to score the runs.”

Legend is that Spofforth went to his teammates for validation of his feat once the Test got over, asking everyone “Am I not a demon? Am I, not a demon?” They agreed; nickname stuck – or at least that is the popular version.

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AG Steel, who played in the match, had certainly referred to Spofforth as ‘demon’ in 1878 while introducing him to his friends. Perhaps Spofforth went around asking others. Perhaps it was his way of getting his moniker – one that was already in place – validated by his teammates.

Indeed, the task of selecting one from so many iconic quotes from possibly the most significant afternoon of cricket is not an enviable one. Dailies and periodicals, too, joined in. Cricket: A Weekly Record of The Game published a mock obituary on August 31:

SACRED TO THE MEMORY
OF
ENGLAND’S SUPREMACY IN THE
CRICKET-FIELD
WHICH EXPIRED
ON THE 29TH DAY OF AUGUST, AT THE OVAL
“ITS END WAS PEATE”

The more significant mock obituary, however, appeared in The Sporting Times on September 2:

In Affectionate Remembrance
of
ENGLISH CRICKET,
WHICH DIED AT THE OVAL
on
29th AUGUST 1882,
Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing
friends and acquaintances
—-
R.I.P.
—-
N.B. – The body will be cremated and the
ashes taken to Australia.

The legend of The Ashes was thus born, over a decade before the start of the Modern Olympics. The 11-centimetre terracotta urn, however, was still some months away.

What if Grace had not run Jones out that day? Would Spofforth have steamed in as relentlessly, over after over, throughout that two-hour session? Could he have prevented England from getting 85 – still the lowest target defended in Test cricket?

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