For a moment few days back, Auckland were in real danger of being bowled out for the lowest ever total in any first-class match played in New Zealand. Hosts Wellington had them on the mat at a precarious 12/7 in their opening Plunket Shield clash at the Basin Reserve, and there was every possibility of an ignominious 140-year-old record being broken or equalled.
The record however stayed intact, as Auckland eventually reached 62, before crashing to defeat by an innings and 205 runs inside three days. Incidentally, back in 1877-78, it was Auckland who had registered the lowest first-class total in New Zealand – a record that has since stood the test of time. It is still the lowest first-class total outside England, and the joint third-lowest of all time.
The initiation of the Plunket Shield was a good 29 years away, although first-class cricket was being played in New Zealand since 1863-64. Auckland took on Canterbury in the opening first-class game of the 1877-78 season at the Auckland Domain ground, which was Eden Park’s predecessor as Auckland’s home venue. This was Auckland’s first first-class fixture in four years.
In what was a three-day match consisting of four-ball overs, beginning on December 28, 1877, Canterbury captain William Neilson elected to bat after calling correctly. The visiting batsmen capitulated to the promising debutant Daniel Lynch, who snared 7/31 to condemn Canterbury to 93. Auckland trotted to 40/0 in reply, and seemed to be well in control.
Former Surrey paceman David Ashby and slow left-armer William Frith then took seven wickets between them to limit Auckland’s lead to 42. Canterbury produced a better batting display in the second innings, reaching 163 with a top score of 34 from seasoned wicketkeeper Edwin Fowler, who had appeared for Victoria in a first-class match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1865-66.
Auckland were set a target of 122 on New Year’s Eve, but the start to the innings was ominous, with captain William Robinson falling to Ashby, stumped by Fowler, even before the first run was scored. Robinson’s fellow opener, wicketkeeper Henry Colson, too fell for a duck a run later, bowled by Frith. This was to be Colson’s only first-class match – he died in 1880 at the age of 34.
Ashby struck again soon, castling Robert Yates, while Frith did the same to Lynch, to leave Auckland at 3/4. William Rees and Edmund Dufuar shared a fifth-wicket partnership of four runs – embarrassingly, the highest of the innings – before the latter was run out. Ashby went on to add three more scalps to his kitty to finish with stunning figures of 15.2-13-2-5. Frith chipped in with 3/3.
Auckland were bowled out for a preposterous 13 in 30.2 overs and 38 minutes. Even more tellingly, eight of these were extras; the highest-scoring batsman was Rees (2). Six batsmen were out for zero, and seven of the victims were bowled. Since then, only once has a team been dismissed for a lower total – Northamptonshire were shot out for 12 against Gloucestershire at Gloucester in 1907.
Canterbury continued their good form in the second match of the season, posting a convincing nine-wicket win over Otago in Dunedin. Ashby collected career-best figures of 6/27 in the first innings. Auckland played their next first-class match only in 1882-83; however, they recovered from this uncertain start and went on to become the most successful side in Plunket Shield history.