Fred Spofforth – the player whose performance gave birth to The Ashes

Blog by: Yash

Fred Spofforth

Fred Spofforth

August 29, 1882. England vs Australia at The Oval: Chasing 85 to win the Test, England were skittled out for 77 to hand Australia a historic 7-runs win. The architect of this victory for Australia was a fast bowler who took 7-44 in England’s second innings to add to his tally of 7-46 in the first innings to have a match haul of 14-90. The English team was scathingly criticized for the defeat and the birth of the legend of The Ashes took place.

The bowler who scripted the Aussie win was Frederick Robert Spofforth, widely regarded as the finest pace bowler in the 19th century. Nicknamed “The Demon”, his first-class career spanned between 1874 and 1897 and his lionhearted endeavor and voracious appetite for wickets made him a revered figure.

Born on September 9, 1853 at Balmain, Sydney to Anna and Edward Spofforth, Fred Spofforth spent his childhood at Hokianga, New Zealand and was later educated in Sydney at Eglinton College. After completing education, he took on the job of a clerk in the Bank of New South Wales. He was attracted to the game of cricket since boyhood, and initially started by bowling fast under-arm. But after watching G. Tarrant of the visiting English team in 1864, he switched to the over-arm action.

He later learned the nuances of pace variation from English slow bowler J. Southerton. In 1871-72, he first played for the Newton Cricket Club, and later for Albert Cricket Club. He then played for the New South Wales team against W.G. Grace’s team in January 1875, and later helped the team win in the inter-colonial match to help them register their first victory in seven years.

Spofforth was selected to play the visiting English team in 1877, but refused to be a part of the team in the first Test because J.M. Blackham was selected ahead of of W.L. Murdoch (who had previously been his teammate at Albert Cricket Club and later at New South Wales). Spofforth ultimately made his debut in the 2nd test of the series, only when Murdoch also found a place in the XI and Spofforth finished the game, which Australia lost, with 4 wickets.

Spofforth went to England on the Australian tours in 1878, 1889, 1882, 1884 and 1886. He first sprang to game when he took 10 wickets for 20 runs in the team’s win over a strong Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) side at Lord’s on May 27, 1878. In the first innings, the MCC team slipped from 27-2 to 33 all out, with Spofforth taking six wickets including a hat-trick. In the second innings, Spofforth took 4 wickets, including that of W.G. Grace, who was bowled for a duck, as MCC were dismissed for a meager score of 19.

At the end of the day Spofforth is said to have chanted inside the dressing room: “Ain’t I a demon? Ain’t I a demon?” Many agreed that he was, and hence he got the nickname. The Guardian described his performance saying “Spofforth varies his pace in the most remarkable way, at one time sending down a tremendously fast ball and at another almost a slow one.”

W.G. Grace paid compliment to Spofforth’s performance, saying “His pace was terrifically fast, at times his length excellent, and his breakbacks were exceedingly deceptive. He controlled the ball with masterly skill and, if the wicket helped him ever so little, was almost unplayable. A good many batsmen funked Spofforth’s bowling and a great many found it impossible to score off him.”

Spofforth had the distinction of being the first bowler to take hat-trick in Test cricket and was also the first bowler to capture 50 Test wickets. In the 18 Test matches that he played for Australia, he took 94 wickets at an average of 18.41. His first-class tally was 1146 wickets at an average of 13.55. Out of the 5 tours to England, he took over 100 wickets on a tour thrice.

His biography states that he “could make the ball whip from the pitch and possessed an uncanny control, not only of length, pace and direction but also over the amount of break.” It is said that he once rode over 400 miles to participate in a country match, and he finished the game capturing all 20 wickets. A witness of his bowling talked about “his catherine-wheel action, rare command of pace and break and Mephistophelian cast of countenance”.

A tidy fielder and a wonderful athlete – he could run 100 yards in under 11 seconds. Though he was a tail-end batsman, Spofforth once top-scored in an innings of a Test match, with a score of 50 while batting at number 11.

The 1884 tour of England ended with him marrying Phyllis Cadman, an Englishwoman, and when Phyllis failed to settle in Australia, the couple moved to England in1887. He exited Test cricket for his marriage, even though he was at the peak of his powers. If he had continued playing, he may have achieved even greater heights. After relocating to England, Spofforth represented Derbyshire for a while, but later decided to focus on his wife’s family business – the Star Tea Company, and did so with considerable success. He left the estate valued at £169,258, which is equivalent to £8.8 million today.

Spofforth died in June 1926 of chronic colitis, shortly before the start of the Ashes series. The flags at Lord’s were flown at half-mast, and among many came to pay tribute to him was former England captain Archie MacLaren. Neville Cardus wrote in his tribute to Spofforth: “We shall not look upon his like again, no doubt, at which sentiment all honest batsmen will say: ‘What a soothing reflection is that!”

Spofforth was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame when the institution’s original ten members were named in 1996, as recognition to his outstanding overall record in cricket. The entry noted that “his swarthy complexion, black moustache and steely brown eyes combined to convey the unmistakable aura of hostility”. His team-mate Geogre Giffen summed up the impact that Spofforth had on the opposition batsmen, saying “I verily believe that he has frightened more batsmen out than many bowlers have fairly and squarely beaten.”

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