Prior to this match, Australia had lost seven successive times to England. The streak began with the deciding fifth Test of the 1884-85 Ashes, followed by three matches in 1886, two in 1886-87 and one in 1887-88.
Moreover, Australia had not yet won an Ashes Test in England; their only win in the mother country was the 1882 epic at the Oval which gave birth to the legend of the little urn.
The Australians of 1888 were a strong unit. Captained by Percy ‘Greatheart’ McDonnell, who had four years back reeled off hundreds in successive Ashes Tests, the team boasted of, among others, that fine wicketkeeper Jack Blackham, the seasoned New South Welshman Alec Bannerman and a pair of dynamic bowlers in Charlie Turner, who bowled right-arm fast and John Ferris, who was a left-armer known for his swing.
Yet England, despite the absence of stalwarts Arthur Shrewsbury and George Ullyett, were strongly considered as clear favourites given their recent record and also because man-to-man, they possessed a much superior outfit.
Leading the home side was Lancashire great Allan Steel, who had cracked 148 in his maiden Test appearance at Lord’s in 1884. The batting line-up featuring W.G Grace, Bobby Abel (who made his Test debut) and Walter Read was as good as any, while the bowling was even stronger, with the pace of George Lohmann combining with the slow bowling of Johnny Briggs and Bobby Peel.
Australia came into the first Test on the back of seven wins in their previous eight tour matches. This match, scheduled from 16th to 18th July, 1888, was their third Test appearance at Lord’s. They had suffered innings defeats in both of their the previous two Tests at the Mecca, in 1884 and 1886.
The weather during the build-up to the Test had been overwhelmingly wet, and this worked in the favour of Turner and Ferris, who were at the forefront of their team’s impressive streak in the tour games.
A muddy wicket greeted the teams on the first day and it was not until 3 p.m that the first ball was bowled. Keeping in mind the treacheries of the pitch and the fact that it would steadily become worse, the toss assumed massive importance. Fortune favoured the visitors as McDonnell called correctly.
Lohmann immediately got the ball rolling by removing Bannerman for no score courtesy a catch from Grace. Debutant number three Harry Trott soon also fell for a duck to Peel to make it 3/2. McDonnell showed admirable application in making 22 before being caught by Irishman Tim O’Brien off Peel.
Blackham (22) and Sammy Woods, another debutant, got together at 32/4 and shared a partnership of 33. The next five wickets fell for only 17 runs as Peel (4/36) and Briggs (3/26) cut through the middle and lower order. The score had slipped to 82/9 when Ferris came out to join Jack Edwards, Australia’s third debutant.
The last pair hit out and put on an invaluable 34 runs, which turned out to be the highest stand of the match. Edwards remained unbeaten on 21 as Australia were dismissed for 116 in 71.2 four-ball overs, which could be said to be above par on the deteriorating track.
As the day grew longer, England lost three wickets – those of Abel (bowled by Ferris) , Billy Barnes and Lohmann (both falling to Turner) – to finish at 18/3. 13 wickets had fallen for 134 runs on the opening day.
Early on the second day, Blackham stumped Read off Turner while Grace, who was unbeaten on 10 overnight, failed to add to his score and was caught by Woods off Ferris to make the score 22/5. Turner captured two more scalps, first castling O’Brien and then having Steel stumped to complete his five-wicket haul.
England were in complete dissaray at 26/7, still 11 runs short of avoiding the follow-on. Briggs, who came in at 35/8, ensured that the ignominy was averted by sharing a stand of 14 with Peel for the ninth wicket before the latter was run out.
Four runs later, Briggs was bowled by Woods for 17 – the highest score of the innings – as England folded for just 53 in 50 overs. Turner bowled incisively to return 5/27 off 25 four-ball overs while Ferris provided adequate support with 3/19. Australia’s cushion of 63 was worth its weight in gold.
The wicket was virtually hell for the batsmen by now as the visitors began their second innings. England’s improved bowling and groundwork made it all the more tougher. Lohmann bowled McDonnell and Trott while Peel did the same to Bannerman.
George Bonnor and Woods too succumbed to the guile of Peel, who no doubt relished bowling on such surfaces. Blackham got run out and Edwards was stumped by Mordecai Sherwin off Lohmann as the score was reduced to a woeful 18/7.
Ferris, batting at number nine, put his hand up again as he scored an unbeaten 20 to spruce up the final total to a luxurious 60 in 29.2 overs. He shared a partnership worth 24 with his bowling partner Turner, who scored 12 from number six.
Peel was the pick of the bowlers with 4/14, thus giving himself 8/50 in the match. Lohmann too took four wickets, giving away 33 runs. England were thus faced with a highly challenging target of 124, required to be chased amid the worst batting conditions of the match.
The openers Grace and Abel provided a sound start by mopping 29 runs off the target. Grace in particular was batting very sensibly and for a moment it seemed that England were up to the task. But Ferris provided the opening by removing Abel, who was caught by Bonnor.
Five runs later, Grace too perished to Ferris, caught by Bannerman for a defiant 24 – the highest score of the match. England had lost their backbone. ‘Terror’ Turner then took over and proceeded to snuff out any faint hopes that the hosts might have had of challenging the Australians.
He crashed through the defences of Peel, Read and O’Brien within the space of six runs to leave England reeling at 44/5. Steel and Billy Gunn took the score to 55 before Ferris sent back he latter. A run later, Turner accounted for Briggs to make it 56/7. Steel tried to thwart the bowling but he quickly ran out of partners.
It was not long before the tail caved in. With the score on 57, Ferris got rid off Barnes and Lohmann, both stumped by the brilliant Blackham, to complete his bag of five wickets. Five runs later, it was all over as Turner took his fifth wicket, that of of Sherwin who was fittingly caught by Ferris.
England were shot out for 62 in 47 overs, achieving exactly half of their target. Steel was left stranded, unbeaten on 10. Turner took 5/36 to return an outstanding 10/63 in the match. Ferris claimed 5/26 and his match figures read 8/45. The match ended at 4.25 p.m and did not even last for two full days in entirety.
On the second day, 157 runs were scored for the loss of an incredible 27 wickets – which till date remains the record for the most number of wickets fallen in a single day’s play of Test cricket. This was Australia’s first win at Lord’s, a ground which they would grow to love in the future – they did not lose a Test here between 1934 and 2009.
A total of 291 runs were scored for the loss of 40 wickets in the match which was a new record for the lowest aggregate in a completed Test, obliterating the 363/40 in the aforementioned Oval Test of 1882. The record stood till 1931-32, when the Melbourne Test between Australia and South Africa produced 234 runs for 29 wickets.
It was a significant victory for Australia, as their previous Ashes successes at home had come against English sides weaker than those they faced in England. The urn could not be wrested however, as England bounced back with two resounding wins – by an innings and 137 runs at the Oval and by an innings and seven runs Old Trafford. Australia were bowled out for 80 and 100 in the second Test and 81 and 70 in the third.
Peel was the star for the hosts, finishing the series with 24 wickets at an average of 7.54. Turner, who would go on to become one of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game, was not too far behind either as he collected 21 wickets at 12.42.
Amazingly, not a single batsman reached a hundred runs in the entire series, further underlining the degree of wetness experienced throughout the summer. In 1891-92, Australia won the Ashes for the first time while they had to wait till 1899 to win their first series in England.