Ten years after the Aboriginal tour of 1868, a full representative side at last set out from Australia to tour Britain.
The Aboriginals had been viewed as a curiosity, their appearances entertainments rather than serious sporting contests. Few expected the 1878 side to be much different. 18 months before, James Lillywhite’s England team had won one and lost the other of two games at Melbourne against a full Australian team, but Lillywhite’s XI had not represented the best of English cricket. Its tour, as were all cricket tours of the time, had been a commercial venture, set up to make money rather than establish supremacy on the cricket field. The idea of the Test Match had yet to be conceived. As far as English cricket was concerned, its supremacy remained unchallenged. It was about to get a bit of a shock.
The Australians began their tour with defeat by an innings at Nottingham, twice bowled out for less than a hundred. The test in their next match at Lord’s was expected to be even stiffer. The MCC team they would face in a three-day match scheduled to begin on 27 May included Alfred Shaw and Fred Morley, the two bowlers who had destroyed them at Trent Bridge as well as the Nottinghamshire wicket-keeper Fred Wylde. Six current or future England players were also included along with a couple of Hampshire regulars. The captain was none other than WG Grace. It was generally agreed to be one of the strongest elevens ever to have represented the Club.
An early morning storm left the wicket in treacherous condition, but Grace still began proceedings with a crisp boundary off Fred Allan. Trying to repeat it, he gave a catch to square-leg and trooped off to unaccustomed cheers from a Lord’s crowd offering encouragement to a plucky but surely doomed underdog. Brilliant bowling from Fred Spofforth soon changed their opinion. In the first of many devastating spells against English opposition that would earn him the nickname “The Demon”, Spofforth claimed six wickets for just two runs in the space of 19 balls, including a hat-trick. MCC were all out for 33 and the Australians returned to the Pavilion amid a tumult of applause.
The visitors found batting conditions no more to their liking than MCC had. Brought up on the firm, dry pitches of their native land this muddy English gluepot was completely alien to them. Shaw and Morley tormented them again, claiming five wickets each as they bowled unchanged through 66 four-ball overs. They slumped to 23 for 8 and only the determined efforts of the last two wickets edged them past MCC’s score by just eight runs.
It was not yet four o’clock when Grace strode to the wicket for his second knock of the day, 20 wickets already having fallen. He would be facing Spofforth for the first time. The first ball of the innings zipped past his outside edge. The second jagged back off the seam and rattled his stumps. From then on it was a procession. Grace’s duck was followed by six others, only Wilfred Flowers reaching double figures. This time Harry Boyle was the main destroyer, claiming 6 for 3. The first nine wickets were all clean bowled until Morley was caught by Tom Horan off Boyle, ending the innings at just 19. Australia knocked off the 12 runs required for the loss of one wicket before the crowd erupted joyously onto the field.
The Australians’ victory was greeted with the same mixture of amazement and jubilation that would meet their triumph at the Oval four years later. No-one suggested it marked the death of English cricket, but Punch still saw fit to commemorate the occasion in verse:
The Australians came down like a wolf on the fold,
The Marylebone cracks for a trifle were bowled;
Our Grace before dinner was very soon done,
And Grace after dinner did not get a run.
31 wickets had fallen in the day. It remains the lowest scoring completed first-class match in history. Anglo-Australian cricket rivalry would never be the same again.