Australia V England – 1977

This game, above all others, marked the transition of the game of cricket from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ era. The purpose of the match was to commemorate one hundred glorious years of Ashes contests, but it was so much more than that. Games in Australia still consisted of the archaic 8-ball over, but even that was to change within the next two years.

Let’s look at the reason the match was contested in the first place. 100 years and one day earlier, the first example of the type of contest we now call ‘test cricket’ was staged at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

It wasn’t billed as ‘The Ashes’ – the mock obituary in The Sporting Times which stated that “…the body of English cricket would be cremated and the Ashes taken to Australia” referred to an encounter at The Oval five years later.

The terms ‘The First Test Match’ or even ‘ Test Cricket’ were unheard-of. In fact, the original 1877 game wasn’t even labelled ‘Australia v England’. The contest was a challenge match between ‘A combined Sydney and Melbourne XI and James Lillywhite’s touring team’.

There were (horror) four English-born players in the Australian team and the game was ‘timeless’ – that is, no end date was fixed and it would be played out to the finish. History records that Alfred Shaw was the first bowler, and each over comprised just four deliveries.

Charles Bannerman faced the first ball, scored the first run, made the first century and was the first to retire hurt. His 165 was more than 67% of Australia’s total. Remarkably, he was also accredited for the first ‘five’ in test match history. Even more remarkably, in order to score a ‘five’ at the MCG, the ball had to clear the fence, not just the boundary.

The game ended on the fourth day, 19 March 1877, Australia being victorious by a margin of 45 runs. Two weeks later, the sides clashed again at the same venue (as a benefit for the English touring professionals) – this time, the tourists were victorious, and so the greatest contest in sport was born.

Hans Ebeling played one test match only – the fifth and deciding game of the topsy-turvy 1934 series at The Oval which the visitors won 2-1. He took the wickets of Wally Hammond, Gubby Allen and Hedley Verity in an encounter more widely remembered for a partnership of 451 between Bill Ponsford and Donald Bradman out of Australia’s first innings total of 701.

Hans Irvine Ebeling MBE died in 1980 after giving many years of devoted service to Melbourne cricket – part of which was as the driving force behind the ‘Centenary Test’ in 1977.

The Centenary Test attracted the largest gathering of international cricketers ever seen together in one place before or since, invitations having been sent out to every living English and Australian player to have made at least four test match appearances in Australia.

The one-day international had been born a few years before, the World Cup was just two years old and everyone wanted a piece of the action. One man above all brought matters to a head – Kerry Packer.

It is rumoured that envelopes (commonly referred to as ‘theatre tickets’) were circulated amongst certain players before, during and after the game, and shortly afterwards ‘World Series Cricket’ was born. It was the first (albeit accidental) step along the long road towards the day when the players – and not the administrators – would be more justly rewarded for their efforts in international cricket.

But enough of that – let’s look at the game in question. Many of the protagonists would soon be bidding farewell to test cricket for the more lucrative ‘Packer Circus’ – amongst them, both captains, Greg Chappell and Tony Greig – some never to return to play for their countries again.

England won the toss and had little hesitation in asking Australia to take first knock. The learned judges expected the wicket to give assistance to the seamers early on then flatten out before assisting the spinners – in short, the perfect test wicket in keeping with the occasion.

What we got was a spiteful brute of a wicket, a snarling beast full of venom which suddenly turned into a lamb. England started with the left-handed John Lever, a man who had rolled India over on debut just three months before, and Bob Willis who would return to haunt Australia in years to come.

Ian Davis and Rick McCosker stuck it out for half an hour, barely able to lay bat on ball before Lever struck, trapping Davis in front with just 11 on the board. Five minutes later, in the following over, a short ball from Willis smashed into McCosker’s head, fracturing his jaw. To add insult to the obvious injury, the ball rebounded onto the stumps, bringing the Australian captain to the crease and McCosker to hospital in one fell swoop.

The wickets continued to fall on the first morning as first Gary Cosier, quickly followed by debutant David Hookes and the dapper Doug Walters, all found themselves back in the pavilion before lunch. Chappell, meanwhile, stood firm and in wicket-keeper Rod Marsh found a brave and willing partner.

For an hour and a half the pair toughed it out, repulsing everything that the English seamers could hurl down at them. Marsh clubbed just three boundaries but in the context of the match, each was vital. Finally, after taking the partnership beyond 50 and the overall score past 100, the gritty Marsh feathered a Chris Old delivery through to his fellow keeper Alan Knott.

Tony Greig turned to the spin of Derek ‘Deadly’ Underwood and in partnership with Chris Old, the pair gradually chipped away at the Australian tail as Chappell tried to hog the strike. When Chappell was finally clean bowled by Underwood for a four hour 40, he became the Kent spinner’s 250th test match victim. Two overs later, Max Walker went in identical fashion as Australia subsided to just 138 all out.

With an hour of the first day remaining, England started their reply in circumspect manner. Dennis Lillee tore in, striking Mike Brearley a fearsome blow before making the early breakthrough, having Bob Woolmer caught at slip by Chappell. England sent in Underwood as night-watchman, a role he had accomplished with some aplomb on more than one occasion. The pair successfully negotiated the many perils until close of play and the relative safety of the dressing room with 29 on the board.

The second day for England was just about as bad as it gets in test cricket. There is only one thing that Dennis Lillee likes better than taking wickets – and that is taking English wickets. He would have plenty of opportunity to celebrate.

With the exception of a couple of short breaks, Lillee and Walker kept up their hostile pairing for almost four hours. Lillee struck first having Brearley caught by Hookes, and when Underwood fended a Walker delivery to Chappell, England were 34-3.

Australia kept as many as seven players in close-catching positions as time and again, the edge was found and the catch taken. Marsh bagged four victims and in the process wrote himself into the record books, surpassing the great Wally Grout’s total of 187 test dismissals. It was not to be his only record during the match.

England were finding survival difficult enough and scoring nigh-on impossible. As in the Australian first innings, boundaries were a rarity, something to cherish despite most of the field being within spitting distance of the batsmen.

Dennis Amiss and Derek Randall were the next to depart, dismissed in consecutive overs on 40 as the visitors were struggling to make any headway. Tony Greig made his entrance and in a brief gesture of defiance, blazed three fours in rapid succession before he was bowled by Walker, top-scoring for just 18.

Lillee lost little time in wrapping up the tail as England stuttered and spluttered their way to barely 95 in 34 overs, a first-innings deficit of 43.

As part of the festivities, Queen Elizabeth II was due to make an appearance at the MCG on day five of the game, but you would have been hard-pressed to find any bookmaker willing to lay odds against the game lasting into a fourth day, let alone a fifth.

Mercifully, the pitch flattened out just a little towards the end of the second day, although batting was still by no means straightforward. Kerry O’Keeffe was given a unique opportunity to open the innings as a replacement to the injured McCosker, now nursing his wired-up jaw and unlikely to take any further part in proceedings.

Lever and Willis toiled for half an hour, but the expected clatter of wickets did not come immediately. However, normal service was resumed when Greig turned to Chris Old as replacement for Willis. O’Keeffe holed out for 14, to be followed quickly by Chappell (2) and Gary Cosier (4) for the addition of 53.

For the first time in the whole match, two batsmen got in together and troubled the scorers as Davis and Walters successfully repelled the English attack until the close, which Australia reached on 104-3 with Davis just five short of a half-century.

Why should a devil one day suddenly turn into an angel the next? The abnormal bounce and lateral movement of the first two days were completely absent as the snakes left the wicket and left behind a more than decent batting track – hard, fast and true. Perhaps it was more a case of batsmen coming to terms with the situation.

Finally, there was reward for anyone prepared to get behind the line and play straight – a grafter’s pitch. Davis progressed to his half-century, the first fifty of the match as Australia looked to bat England out of the game, then the England captain brought himself on to bowl. Greig struck almost immediately, having Davis caught by Alan Knott.

Walters, too, was finding life much more to his liking and in partnership with Hookes on either side of the luncheon interval, took his own score beyond 50. Caressing the ball around the ground while Hookes was finding his feet, he was finally dismissed for 66 in identical manner to Davis, fifth out with the total on 187.

Enter Rodney Marsh, a man who had started his first-class career as a specialist batsman before taking up the gloves and eventually replacing Brian Taber in the national side. If truth be told, Marsh’s average had been in decline for years, but he was still a man who relished a battle – and games against England were nothing if not a battle.

For a while, he stood by as David Hookes took a decided liking to the bowling of Tony Greig, smashing him for no less than five boundaries in a single over. Together they brought up the 200 but when Hookes seemed set on 56 he played Underwood straight into the waiting hands of Keith Fletcher.

England sensed they had an end open and tried to press home, but Marsh was in no mood to make matters easy. Furthermore, at the other end stood Gary ‘Gus’ Gilmour, a man who had threatened to destroy the English with the ball just two years previously. The pair eked out another 30 or so before Gilmour was bowled by Lever.

Surely the end of the innings was just around the corner?

Not a chance. Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh did more than occupy the crease on either side of tea – they took England to the cleaners. The pair added 76 for the eighth wicket at almost a run a minute and in the process elevated Australia to a seemingly impregnable position. When Chris Old finally dismissed Lillee, the home side were sitting pretty on 353-8. For England to win the game now, something quite extraordinary would be required.

What happened next is the stuff of legend. Suddenly, the crowd fell silent, then erupted. Out of the pavilion emerged Rick McCosker, his face horribly swollen, his head swathed in bandages and with his Baggy Green cap perched precariously on top of his head.

Every time McCosker faced a ball, the crowd collectively held their breath, but they needn’t have worried. The sting had been drawn from the wicket. Willis and Lever, so hostile on the first morning, were a spent force. The final hour of play saw Australia press on, ending on 387-8 with Marsh just 5 runs shy of his third century.

Rodney Marsh swept into the record books for the second time in the game shortly after play resumed on the morning of the fourth day when he became the first Australian wicket-keeper to ever make it to three figures against the oldest enemy. Shortly afterwards, the brave innings of McCosker ended when Greig caught him off the bowling of Chris Old, still battling on. McCosker had helped to add 54 runs in his partnership with Marsh – a seemingly futile gesture in the context of the match. How wrong we were. It effectively won the game.

Marsh eventually finished undefeated on 110 as Chappell declared the innings closed on 419-9, leaving England with the seemingly impossible matter of a world record 463 to win in five and a half sessions – more realistically to bat for over 11 hours in order to save the game.

England’s first target was to make it through to lunch unscathed – they barely made it half-way as Max Walker penetrated the defensive push of Bob Woolmer and rapped him on the pad with the total a mere 28. Brearley and Derek Randall managed to survive, though, as gradually England managed to gain a precarious foothold in the game for the first time since mid-way through the first day.

Brearley battled, but Randall flourished, despite taking a number of painful raps on the body. At 100-1, if nothing else they had given England an air of respectability. Gilmour made a brief appearance as a bowler, but he was a shadow of the player who had taken six wickets at Headingley in 1975. He bowled just four overs in the innings for 29 runs, clearly injured.

Chappell threw the ball to the willing Lillee once more, and he repaid his captain by trapping the dour Brearley for 43 – an innings which had taken almost three hours to compile. For the rest of the day, Randall was accompanied by Dennis Amiss, another player destined to be throwing his cap into the Packer Circus ring – but that lay in the future.

The fifth and final day of this epic encounter started with England on 191-2 with Randall on 87 – the Australian ‘devil number’ – and Amiss looking assured on 34. Lillee toiled but with Max Walker largely ineffective, a most unlikely victory was beginning to look a distinct, albeit distant, possibility.

Lillee managed to floor Randall with a bouncer, but the eccentric Nottinghamshire talisman leaped to his feet and doffed his cap at the moustachioed speedster. The longer the morning went on, the less penetrative the Australian attack seemed and the more freely England seemed to be scoring, so much so that England were still only two down with 267 on the board at lunch.

Shortly after the interval and with Australia reduced to using Chappell in order to give his principal bowlers a break, the first decisive breakthrough came. Somehow, the impenetrable Amiss defence was breached, bowled by Chappell for a valiant 64. He had stood firm with Randall for almost four hours and given England a chance.

Give Dennis Lillee a sniff and he will make you pay, as one bookmaker discovered to his cost a few years later. Australia had a new batsman to terrorise in the shape of an uncomfortable-looking Keith Fletcher. He lasted just eight balls before prodding a catch to Marsh and in the process presented Lillee with his eighth victim of the match.

Tony Greig strode out to the wicket on 290-4, still 173 runs short of victory but with Randall still going well. The 300 was raised, Randall’s 150 and then, suddenly, disaster for England. Randall edged, the Aussies went up as one and England’s main man was seemingly gone for 161. In keeping with the spirit of the game, Marsh signalled that he had not taken the ball cleanly and Randall was recalled to torment the Australians still further.

As Sir Henry Newbolt so famously wrote, “Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

Randall survived only to make another 13, his epic knock of 174 ending seven and a half hours after it had started when Cosier snaffled him off the bowling of Kerry O’Keeffe with England now 346-5. The same combination of bowler and fielder accounted for Greig shortly afterwards, and this was the signal for Lillee to enter the fray once more.

The tail failed once more to stand up to the Lillee onslaught amd the last wicket, that of the defiant Alan Knott who made 42, fell at 5:12 on the final evening, fittingly to Lillee who finished with match figures of 11-165.

Match Summary

Australia 138 (Chappell 40, Underwood 3-16, Old 3-39)
and 419-9 (Marsh 110*, Davis 68, Walters 66, Old 4-104)
England 95 (Lillee 6-26, Walker 4-54)
and 417 (Randall 174, Amiss 64, Lillee 5-139, O’Keeffe 3-108)

Australia won by 45 runs

One hundred years of history had been marked in the perfect manner – the margin of victory precisely mirrored that of the pioneering game played out one century earlier.

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