The Ashes were still young – 12 years to be precise, when England travelled Down Under for a 5-Test series in 1894-95 to defend the urn that they had won courtesy a narrow 1-0 win in the 3-Test series at home in 1893. This was only the second time that the two nations were competing in a 5-Test series, the first instance being in Australia in 1884-85, when England took the rubber 3-2.
Interestingly, all 5 Tests in this series were given timeless status. The first Test began on 14th January 1895 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. 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 4th wicket, and then a further 139 with Syd Gregory for the 6th 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 matches, and at that time the quickest ever scored. Skipper Blackham (74), coming in at No.10, added 154 with Gregory for the 9th wicket to further deflate the visitors. Australia were finally dismissed for 586 at a 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*.
Play resumed after a rest day (Sunday), and England kept on losing wickets, slumping to 211/7. A rearguard 73 run stand for the 9th 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. But the follow-on could not be avoided, and they were required to bat again on the fourth day.
On Day 4, the pitch looked easier to bat on, and England reached 268/4 by close of play – ahead by 7. Ward led the way once again, scoring 117, and shared a 102-run 3rd wicket stand with Brown (53). On Day 5, 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 7th wicket. The innings terminated at 437, with England stretching the 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 conditions 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 pavillion – 147/5. The Australian nerves tightened, and England had their tails up. Gregory was out for 16, caught behind off Peel – 158/6. From then on, 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, losing 8/36 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 4 wickets to win the enthralling series 3-2 and retain the Ashes.
Match Scorecard – http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/match/62437.html