August 28, 1882 – The leaves had started to change their colours, and the transformation of England's landscape into an array of autumn colors was slowly taking place. But the grass at the Kennington Oval in South London was jazzy green. The thronging crowd was excited for the beginning of the ninth first class cricket match (known as a Test match in modern day cricket), which was about to take place between the inventors of the game and a combined team from the Australian colonies.
England appeared to be prepared and confident – they had never been beaten on home soil, and nobody expected the team from the British colony to make much of an impact.
At that point of time, nobody would have imagined that these two days of cricket would later go on to become one of the most talked-about events in the history of the sport, and a great rivalry between two nations.
Day One: English dominance over Australia
After winning the toss, Australian captain Billy Murdoch made a decision to bat first. But his decision backfired badly, the Australians' batting crumbling badly under pressure of continuously falling wickets and were eventually bowled pout for 63 after play of 80 overs (four balls per over).
England succeeded in keeping a close rein on Australia. Dick Barlow emerged as the star as he grabbed 5 wickets, giving away only 19 runs. He maintained an impressive economy rate of 0.61, while Ted Peate's economy rate stood close to 0.82, Peate took 4 wickets for 31 runs.
On the other hand, Australian openers Alec Bannerman and Hugh Massie contributed just 10 runs in the meagre total. Captain Murdoch scored only 13 runs. Jack Blackham (17) and Tom Garrett (10) were the other two batsmen who managed to take their score to double digits, the rest of the middle order caved in and the tail-enders were no good.
The beginning of England's innings started off with the opener Dick Barlow on one end of the crease and WG Grace on the non-striker's end. The ‘Ace-of-Pace’ for Australia, Fred Spofforth splintered the bails and sent Grace back to the pavilion. Soon wickets started to fall at regular intervals until Maurice Read stepped in, who remained unbeaten on 19 off 45.
After batting 71.3 overs England were all out for 101, establishing a first innings lead of 38 runs. Their highest run scorer was George Ulyett, who scored 26 off 59. The pace attack of Spofforth had proved to be too hard to handle for the English team, the gangly Australian finding a place in Ashes annals by taking 7 wickets on this fateful day.
August 29, 1882 –
Day Two: English cricket dies at The Oval
On Day 2, the Australian opening pair of Alec Bannerman and Hugh Massie played a steady innings to put on 66 for the first wicket, before Alan Steel made the breakthrough, Massie sent back to the hut, having hit 9 boundaries in his 60-ball-55 innings.
That breakthrough marked a remarkable turnaround for the Australians as they lost four more wickets for 13 in the next few overs. Then came the captain himself, Billy Murdoch, who added a much needed 29 runs. The scoreboard read Australia 122/10 in 63 overs, having an overall lead of 84.
England's innings was a dramatic one as any, with the advantage swinging between the two sides. The bowlers of Australia proved effective and broke the opening partnership of 15 runs between WG Grace and Albert Hornby. Once again, the pacer Spofforth thrived and clean bowled the captain Hornby for 9. His next wicket came in the form of Dick Barlow on the very next delivery, bringing up a hat-trick ball.
Instead of the hat-trick however, there was a semblance of partnership that started to build between WG Grace and George Ulyett. After putting 36 runs together on the scoreboard, Ulyett got caught behind for 11 off Spofforth and Grace fell 2 runs later for 32 against Henry Boyle's outstanding medium pace. England started to momentarily lose balance, tottering on 53 for 4, still requiring 31 runs for victory.
England's wicketkeeper Alfred Lyttelton took his team to 66 for 5 until his middle stump was uprooted by Spofforth. Within the next few overs, Alan Steel and Maurice Read both went for ducks in the same over, once again Spofforth's pace the nemesis. He then clean bowled Bunny Lucas for 5.
WG Grace's English eleven were reduced to 75 for 8, still short of 10 runs with 2 wickets in hand. It was a cinch for England to score 10 runs and win the ninth consecutive match on home soil. But the Australians were intent on creating a historical episode in the world of cricket. Henry Boyle attacked the last two batsmen and dismissed them in one single over, Barnes and Ted Peate going for 2 apiece. England were bowled out on 77, having played precisely 55 overs.
For an instance, a wave of silence hit the crowd. The thought that England could not be beaten at their game had been smothered to death.
The collapse of English cricket left its public outraged. The foreigners’ victory on English soil inspired a young journalist from London, Reginald Shirley Brooks, to write a mock obituary that appeared in the Sporting Times – " In affectionate remembrance of English cricket which died at The Oval, 29th August, 1882. Deeply lamented by a large circle of sorrowing friends and acquaintances, RIP. NB the body will be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia. "
The Ashes has been the most enduring of all rivalries in the history of cricket, England host Australia for the 1st Ashes Test on 8 July in Cardiff to continue the most glorious of traditions – continuing from the days of Spofforth to the current age of Mitchell Starc.