One of the strongest teams ever to leave Australia arrived in England in 1921 to defend the Ashes, which they had ruthlessly won by an unprecedented 5-0 margin at home just a few months back. Led by Warwick Armstrong, the team boasted the likes of Warren Bardsley, Charlie Macartney and Jack Gregory. Not that the Englishmen were weak – they had illustrious names like Percy Holmes, Frank Woolley and Wilfred Rhodes; but the thrashing Down Under meant that Armstrong’s Australians were clearly in a better frame of mind.
Those were the days when the touring team used to play so many first class games in England, that the whole tour lasted for almost 5 months. The Australians gunned down most of the counties as well as the minor teams, and went on to retain the Ashes by winning the first three Tests by 10 wickets, 8 wickets and 219 runs respectively, before England managed to draw the next two, resulting in a 3-0 win for the visitors. After the Ashes were done and dusted, the former England captain Archibald MacLaren proclaimed that this hitherto-unbeaten-on-tour Australian side was indeed beatable. ‘I think I know how to beat Armstrong’s lot. Come and write about it’, MacLaren wrote to the great cricket writer Neville Cardus of the Guardian.
To put things into perspective, MacLaren’s career had long ended – he played his last Test in 1909. The Australians had not lost a single game on the tour, so what chance did MacLaren, and his team of amateurs that he brought together, have of competing with them, let alone win ? It was great of MacLaren to be optimistic, but it pays to be realistic, at least that was what Cardus thought at first. Yet, the legendary writer was in attendance for this interesting mismatch – Archie MacLaren’s England XI v Australians, at the Saffrons in Eastbourne on the 27th of August. Needless to say, he was the only reporter present there.
Australia had their full-strength team out on the field, and immediately proved the gap between the two sides by bowling out ‘Archie’s innocents’, as they were called, for a paltry 43 in just 20.1 overs and 75 minutes. The magnificent fast bowler Ted McDonald took 5/21. Only Percy Chapman (16), who was to become an Ashes-winning captain in the future, crossed double figures. The Australians themselves were bowled out for 174 (Warren Bardsley 70, Michael Falcon 6/67) rather quickly on the first day, perhaps with the feeling that they would then bowl out the amateurs cheaply again and get done with the game. At close of play on the first day, MacLaren’s XI were already 8/1, still 123 behind. Old Archie’s over-enthusiastic prophecy was fast turning false.
MacLaren failed to add to his overnight score, and was bowled for 5 by McDonald early on the second day. At 60/4, things were all going according to the script. At which point came in Aubrey Faulkner, still a Test player for South Africa, and best known for being one of South Africa’s famous googly quartet. Faulkner joined Hubert Ashton in the middle, and they together proceeded to blunt Armstrong’s Invincibles. The duo put on 154 for the fifth wicket, and their their team finally looked like putting up a semblance of a fight. Ashton made 75, while Faulkner recorded one of his best knocks – a gallant 153. The team total swelled to 326 (McDonald taking 6/98 to have 11/119 in the match), and the Australians not only had to bat again, but also get 196 runs to win the match. Right-arm fast medium bowler Clement Gibson of Cambridge University (he played first-class cricket for Argentina in later years!) got rid of Herbert Collins early, as the visitors ended the second day at 25/1.
On Day 3, the in-form Bardsley and Hanson Carter motored the score along to 52/1, when Gibson bowled the former. Falcon then bowled McCartney with a beauty to make it 73/4, which was, in Wisden’s opinion, the turning point. The tide was turning, the Australians looked like struggling for the first time in nine months. John Ryder and Thomas Andrews looked like resuming normalcy with a 40-run 6th wicket stand, but the unheralded Gibson proved too hot to handle for the mighty Australians. The tail quickly subsided, and Gibson (6/64) bowled Arthur Mailey to finish the match. The Australians were bowled out for 164, losing their first match on tour by 28 runs to a side made up of amateurs.
MacLaren’s Innocents had achieved what England could not, in spite of trying a record 30 players in the Ashes – a win against Australia. ‘Not in his heyday did he give us finer captaincy than he has given us in this match’, wrote a jubliant Cardus in the Guardian. Cardus’ faith had been rewarded, for he had the honour of writing about Australia’s only defeat of the summer. ‘The sensation of the season’, observed Wisden. MacLaren duly announced his farewell from cricket, and the man had indeed kept his word. It was truly unbelievable to assemble a team of bits-and-pieces players and going on to lead them to victory against an Australian team that lost to none else. It undoubtedly remains one of the unlikeliest results in the history of the game, and certainly MacLaren’s finest moment.
‘I saw MacLaren coming from the field, conqueror in the last great match of his career in England, his sweater hung about his shoulders and his grey head bared to the crowd as he raised his cap to acknowledge their acclamations’, wrote Cardus. For the record, MacLaren (1871-1944) played 35 Tests for England, and is also remembered for his 424 for Lancashire against Somerset at Taunton in 1895, a first-class score that stood unbeaten for nearly thirty years. He incidentally played 424 first-class matches in all, of which the Eastbourne game would surely have been closest to his heart.
Match Scorecard – http://cricketarchive.com/Archive/Scorecards/10/10306.html