The Ashes were still young – 12 years to be precise, when England travelled Down Under for a five-Test series in 1894-95 to defend the urn that they had won courtesy a narrow 1-0 win in the three-Test series at home in 1893. This was only the second time that the two nations were competing in a five-Test series, the first instance being in Australia in 1884-85, when England won 3-2.
Interestingly, all five Tests in this series were given timeless status. The first Test began on 14th December, 1894 at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Australia, under their wicketkeeper-captain Jack Blackham, won the toss and elected to bat.
The first day belonged to George Giffen, who played a superb innings to not only rescue Australia from peril, but also lead them to a dominating position by stumps. Tom Richardson bowled John Lyons, Harry Trott and Joe Darling (the latter two in successive deliveries), as Australia slumped to 21/3.
Syd Gregory scored a masterly 201 in the first innings, in just four hours (source – wikipedia.org)
But Giffen, who came in at 10/1, proceeded to play a fine knock of 161 in 254 minutes, studded with 22 fours and a six. He first put on 171 with Frank Iredale (81) for the fourth wicket, and then a further 139 with Syd Gregory for the sixth before getting out at 331/5. England’s opening burst was short-lived, as the hosts ended the day at a healthy 346/5, Gregory on 85*.
On the second day, Australia’s lead continued to swell, with Gregory going on to make 201 in just 241 minutes, with 28 fours. This was only the second double-hundred in 18 years of Test cricket, and at that time the quickest scored. Skipper Blackham (74), coming in at number ten, added 154 with Gregory for the ninth wicket to further deflate the visitors.
Australia were finally dismissed for 586 at a run rate of 3.39 per over, Richardson toiling 55.3 overs to claim 5/181 – all clean bowled. England then lost Archie MacLaren, captain Andrew Stoddart and Jack Brown to become 78/3, before ending the day at 130/3, with opener Albert Ward on 67*.
George Giffen put in a fine all-round performance for Australia (source – antiquarianprintgallery.com.au)
Play resumed after a rest day (Sunday), and England kept on losing wickets, slumping to 211/7. A rearguard 73-run stand for the ninth wicket between Johnny Briggs (57) and Leslie Gay ensured that they reached 325. Ward top-scored with 75, while Giffen starred with the ball too, taking 4/75 with his medium pace.
However, the follow-on could not be avoided, and England had to bat again on the fourth day. On day four, the pitch looked easier to bat on, and England reached 268/4 by close of play – ahead by seven. Ward led the way again, scoring 117, and shared in a third-wicket stand of 102 with Brown (53). On day five, England looked down for the count at 296/6, the lead being only 35.
Francis Ford and Briggs then added an important 89 for the seventh wicket. The innings terminated at 437, with England stretching their lead to 176. Giffen scalped 4/164 to give himself eight for the game. England had batted solidly and sensibly, and had given themselves an outside chance of winning the Test.
Australia needed 177 to win this high-scoring match, and looked to be home and dry when the fifth day ended with the score reading 113/2, Giffen and Darling both unbeaten and well-set. During the night it rained, and it was followed by sunshine the next morning – the sixth day.
This altered the condition of the pitch significantly, and the slow left-arm orthodox bowler Bobby Peel came into his own, and so did Briggs, another slow-left armer. The duo began to make serious inroads in the Australian line-up. Firstly, Peel removed Darling while Briggs accounted for Giffen to make it 135/4. Iredale too was quickly back in the pavilion – 147/5.
The Australian nerves tightened, and England had their tails up. Gregory was out for 16, caught behind off Peel – 158/6. From hereon, Australia were completely pressurised, and contrived to be bowled out for 166 – losing the Test by 10 runs. Peel took 6/67 while Briggs collected 3/25. The home side had capitulated remarkably, losing eight for 36 to go one down in the series.
England’s astonishing victory was the first ever instance of a team winning a Test after following-on. Since then, the feat has been repeated only twice – Australia being at the receiving end on both these famous occasions too – losing to England in 1981 at Headingley and India in 2000-01 at Kolkata.
‘This was probably the most sensational match ever played either in Australia or in England’, observed Wisden. For the record, Australia’s 586 remains the highest total by a losing team till today.
England won the second Test to go 2-0 up, but then suffered two heavy defeats to set up a finale at Melbourne, where they chased down 297 rather comfortably, losing only four wickets, to win the enthralling series 3-2 and retain the Ashes.