When Was the First Ever Test Match Played?
Every sport that we know of today had its humble beginning somewhere, after which it was further polished and refined until it became the sophisticated, competitive spectacle we know and love today.
Cricket: From Child’s Play to International Spectacle
Cricket is one of the most complicated sports out there, and it had its share of evolution. What began as a game between English children in the 16th century rapidly grew in popularity, spreading to Britain’s many colonies around the world until the first ‘International’ match took place between — of all countries — the USA and Canada in 1844.
However, due to that match being a 3-day affair and the fact that the rules weren’t firmly established yet, the first international match considered a ‘Test’ was the battle between Australia and England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground beginning March 15, 1877. It wasn’t called a Test at the time, though, with the term only being coined in 1885 and the status of the match retconned.
Prelude to the Match
It took the English team a whopping 48 days to even get to Australia — quite unthinkable now — as they had to travel via steamship. In fact, they first had to make a stop in New Zealand during which their wicket-keeper, Ted Pooley, was incarcerated after getting into trouble with local authorities — reducing the English squad to just 11 men and no full-time keepers.
Once the England team finally arrived, the match was all set to begin. Originally, it had been arranged to be played at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground, but once the MCG freed up due to a second amateur tour being canceled, the venue was moved to accommodate a larger audience.
Certain rules which may now seem alien to us were in place at the time. One of the most shocking examples of this is the fact that if someone hit the ball over the boundary, it would only be considered as 5 runs, with the ball being required to be hit out of the stadium entirely for a six to be registered. Another example would be the four-ball overs instead of the long-established six. Fun fact: the cricketing world wouldn’t be settled on the number of balls per over until the 1978-79 season, with the ‘over’ fluctuating between 4 and 8 deliveries for over a hundred years!
The Game Begins
Australia won the toss and chose to bat, and the first ball in Test cricket was bowled on March 15, 1877 at 1:05 PM by Alfred Shaw, with the legendary first-ever centurion Charles Bannerman facing. The very next ball, the first runs in Test cricket were scored. Bannerman went on to score a massive 165, which wasn’t just the highest score of the match, but remains the highest score by an Australian on debut to this day.
Australia managed a now-modest first innings total of 245, with Bannerman’s knock making up around 67% of the runs — another record that still stands. The second-highest score was a mere 18 by bowler Tom Garrett. If you think runs are scored too slowly in Tests, you would have fallen asleep during the match because Australia took 169.3 overs to get there. Even if you consider 6 balls for an over by modern standards, it would have taken them around 112 overs, and that’s not counting the time taken to change ends and field each time an over was declared.
For England, the aforementioned Alfred Shaw took 3 wickets and James Southerton did the same. Shaw bowled an exhausting 55.3 overs as a fast bowler, which is around 36 overs in 6-ball terms.
England’s chase began promisingly, with the team getting to 79 before losing their second wicket. However, after 63 from opener Harry Jupp and 36 from 1-down Harry Charlwood, the middle order collapsed, and it took bowler Allen Hill’s blitzy 35 for the team to get close to their opponents with 196. It should be noted that Jupp had accidentally stepped on the stumps to dislodge the bails while still at nought, but he quickly replaced them and the umpires didn’t notice.
For Australia, Billy Midwinter starred with Test cricket’s first-ever five-wicket haul, with Tom Garrett playing a supporting role with two of his own. When the Aussies came back out to bat, they could only put up 104, with Tom Horan’s 20 being the top score. England’s Alfred Shaw had fought back with a fifer of his own, and George Ulyett had taken two to aid in the effort.
In the final leg of the match, the visitors needed just 154 to win, but despite John Selby’s 38 and George Ulyett’s 24, the team crumbled for a mere 108 thanks to a massive 7 wickets by Tom Kendall, complemented by John Hodges’ two scalps. Australia had won the very first international match of a game invented by the English.
After the Fact
The fact that the crowd swelled to well over 12,000 over the course of the match proved what a profitable event a cricket match could be, and a second game was quickly arranged. England went on to win the match and tie up the series, and although they wouldn’t return until two years later (due to the logistical challenges), Test cricket had been born.
Over the next 145 years, the sport would only see 10 more teams join the fray. The first of these was South Africa, who joined on 12 March 1889, and the most recent addition was Afghanistan on 14 June 2018. However, it has become a regular fixture in the sporting world, with 2,450 Tests having been played up to the time of writing.
Who would have thought on that warm Melbourne afternoon that they were witnessing history in the making?