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Cricket History: The Sydney Riot - 1879

by Sayon

Cricket is a symbol of a gentleman game which has been cherished for its sportsmen spirit since its origination. The game spirit of cricket is such that it has witnessed a lot less dishonorable incidents when compared to other sports. That might be the reason it is regarded as a true gentleman’s game. The game is full of stamina, enthusiasm and determination of players, along with the roar of the spectators.

Today, anger, anguish, misjudgment and patriotism on the field sometimes has made the game witness cracks in its spirit but there might be just a couple of cricketing incidents you would recall that had taken the form of riot and posed a question mark on the spirit of the game. But this is not exactly a new phenomenon.

Way back in 1879, the game became the witness of humiliation due to civil disorder in Sydney, Australia , at Moore Park, better known today as the Sydney Cricket Ground. The incident, or rather the riot, became famous by the name of “Sydney Riot of 1879″ in the history of cricket.

It was Friday, the 7th of February, when the English team toured Australia, and it was the second match between the English XI led by Lord Harris and New South Wales being led by Dave Gregory, who was also the captain of Australia. At that time, each side used to select one of the two umpires. So the English team selected Victorian George Coulthard, upon the recommendation from Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Though Coulthard was a star footballer for Carlton, he was also a bowler of Melbourne and yet to make his debut in first-class cricket. On the other hand, New South Wales selected Edmund Barton, who later went on to become the first Prime Minister of Australia.

The match started with a roar with the stadium being packed. Moreover, New South Wales, the hosts, were backed heavily since they had won the previous match and they also had stars like Gregory and Spofforth, who were regarded as a nightmare for any opposition. Harris won the toss and chose to bat. Hornby and Lucas started the English Innings with a boom. They managed 125 on the board before Spofforth bowled Lucas for 51, followed by Hornby at 67. Now Ulyett and Harris were managing the score card and put up a  justifiable score on the board. During his innings, Harris was once caught behind by the wicket keeper Billy Murdoch, but the umpire Coulthard negated that. Ulyett and Harris made 55 and 41 respectively, before they were sent back to the English dressing room.

The match seemed to have been controlled by the hosts as Spofforth was bowling in the line of the wicket, giving the opposition no chance to even think for smashing it. Edward Evans, bowling from the other end, was on the mark with every ball. This triggered a collapse of the English side with 267 on board. Evans took 5/62 and Spofforth 5/93. With the end of the first day, the host team managed 53 for 2 with Billy Murdoch on 28 and Hugh Massie on 3, at the crease.

The match resumed after noon the next day. Massie got out with the hosts having 107 on the board. However, after lunch, the batting crumbled and wickets tumbled one after the other, restricting the innings of New South Wales to 177 only. Tom Emmeth from the England team was the most productive bowler with 8/47, while Murdoch from the host side scored 87 not out , which made him the savior in the eyes of the locals.

At the that time, the follow on mark was 80 runs and the hosts were 90 runs behind. So the English captain Lord Harris made the host to bat again. New South Wales started their 2nd innings with Murdoch and Alick Bannerman, which ended soon with the host team having just 19 on the board when Murdoch was given run out by umpire Coulthard. Murdoch managed to score only 10. Locals among the spectators disagreed with the decision and called the dismissal to be a deliberate one as Coulthard was selected by the English squad. The Sydney Herald spread the rumours that Coulthard had put a huge bet on an English victory, which was denied by both Harris and Coulthard. Moreover, Gregory was accused of trying to fan the dispute and instigated the crowd to gain support for the team. The Sydney Morning Herald had commented in the morning edition, “The decision [to give Lord Harris not out on the first day] was admittedly a mistake”. This had already made Coulthard the culprit in the eyes of the locals who regarded him to be impartial.

In the meantime, the match was put to a halt and Harris went towards the pavilion to have a chat with Gregory. Gregory asked Harris to replace Coulthard as their umpire but Harris refused since their team thought that the decision was right and fair. Moreover, Barton agreed to and supported Coulthard’s judgment of Murdoch being run out. It was then when Harris was arguing with Gregory that the mass of people came on to the pitch. About 2000 people were involved in the invasion. Meanwhile, Coulthard was bumped and Lord Harris, who supported him, was struck by a whip. Hornby, member of the English team and also an amateur boxer, grabbed his captain’s assaulter and dragged him back to the pavilion. In return, he was also attacked and lost the shirt off his back. Emmett and Ulyett too came for Harris’ rescue and took a stump each to protect themselves and escorted Harris off the field.

Crowd anger made it look that the riot would intensify. English players were jostled and it led to minor injuries, limited to cuts and bruises. The Englishmen on the field were abused by the spectators. After 30 minutes, the situation was overcome and the field was cleared. Gregory still insisted Harris to replace Coulthard. When Harris didn’t agree, Gregory declared the game to be over. Harry requested Barton to convince Gregory to take back his allegation and resume the game. Barton succeeded and the NSW innings was resumed by Bannerman and Nat Thomson. As soon as they reached stumps , the crowd again surged onto the pitch and remained there till the scheduled end of the play. The Sydney Mail reported that 90 minutes play was lost. Lord Harris remained on the ground among the barbarous spectators , fearing that his leaving the field might lead to a forfeit.

Match finally resumed on Monday 10th February, as Sunday was the rest day. Moreover, Monday, being a working day, the crowd was also less. This also supported the resumption of the match. Thomson went back for a duck and leading to the collapse of the whole team with just 49 on the board. Bannerman was the top-scorer of this short inning with the contribution of 20. Six of the members of NSW squad went out for a duck. Emmett and Ulyett of the English team took four and five wickets respectively, which includes Ulyett’s four wicket at one go in four balls. Thus, finally, England won the match by an inning and 41 runs.

According to the allegations made by the media, the riot was started by bookmakers as widespread betting was known to be occurring  at the match. The Australian press, local and English media all condemned the riot. The Sydney Morning Herald regarded it to be “a national humiliation”, and that it “would remain a blot upon the colony for years to come”. The act of attacking the Englishmen was condemned and regarded it to be a civil disorder. The Australasian claimed that the policemen on the ground allowed the rioters to surge on to the field to attack the Englishmen. Wisden condemned the riot by regarding it to be a “deplorably disgraceful affair” and spectators to be a “rough and excited mob”.

Lord Harris condemned the whole incident in a letter to his friend, which got published in The Daily Telegraph and later again in the  Wisden Cricketers Almanack, as they regarded the incident was of high significance. In his letter, Harris rebuked the mob, gamblers, NSW squad and the authorities for letting such an incident to happen. The letter of Harris was taken seriously by NSWCA and they also replied harshly. The game, which was made to sustain peace, became the reason of a rift between two International teams.

Later on, the custom of cricket tours between England and Australia cemented the bitter relationship to a peaceful one through the efforts of few real gentlemen of this honorable sport of cricket.

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