The original damp squib
April 23, 2005
The scheme was hatched at the very first meeting of the Imperial Cricket Council, a new world governing body, at Lord's in July 1909. At that inaugural gathering, such topics as eligibility of players to represent countries other than that of their birth and a programme for Test series were discussed - plus ca change. High on the agenda, and quickly agreed to, was a triangular contest, to be held in England in 1912 and thereafter every four years. The reservations of the counties that there would be too much cricket were quelled by a deal whereby they would all be guaranteed lucrative tour matches against both visiting sides.
In 1909 the plan was most attractive. England and Australia were evenly matched, and South Africa were growing in strength and had won their most recent home series against England (in 1905-06) 4-1 - they were to win the 1909-10 series 3-2 - and had performed well in England in 1907 thanks to their phalanx of legspinners.
But in the February of 1912, the simmering dispute between several leading Australian players and the recently formed Australian Cricket Board spilled over into open warfare. At a meeting of the selectors ahead of the fourth Test at Sydney, Clem Hill, Australia's captain, came to blows with a colleague, Peter McAllister. Underlying the animosity was the question of who should have the right to appoint the tour manager for the 1912 trip. The players, nominal amateurs for whom the trip was a real money-spinner, thought they should, while the board, realising that there was cash to be made, thought it should. The end result was that the board won through and six leading players - Hill, Warwick Armstrong, Victor Trumper, Tibby Cotter, Hanson Carter and Vernon Ransford - refused to tour.
The South Africans had problems of their own. Their earlier success had come largely thanks to their battery of legspinners and googly bowlers who, on the matting wickets then used in South Africa, were lethal. But batsmen were becoming more used to playing the relatively-new googlies, and on English turf wickets the spinners' effectiveness was even further reduced.
The third crucial factor was the weather. A soggy spring in 1912 was followed by one of the wettest summers since records began in 1766. In June, July and August, rainfall was more than double the annual average, and to add to the misery, August also went into the record books as the coldest, dullest and wettest month of the twentieth 20th century.
If Australia's lack of depth on the field was a worry, the squad's off-field antics were even more remarkable. The post-tour report by George Crouch, the board-appointed manager, spoke of bad language, poor manners and heavy drinking. Even the usually conservative Wisden was taken to observe that "some of the players were not satisfied with Crouch as manager", while adding he claimed some of the team had behaved so badly that the side was "socially ostracised". It was hardly surprising that the Australians' income from the tour was 40% down on their previous trip in 1909.
Even England had problems, with CB Fry's idiosyncratic captaincy openly criticised in the media. But the weakness of the opposition, allied to the strength in depth of the side and familiarity with the conditions, meant the tournament was a fairly one-sided affair.
Then the weather closed in. Only four hours' play was possible on the first two days of the first Test between England and Australia at Lord's, and as all the matches were over three days, that ruled out any meaningful contest. The second meeting of the two sides at Old Trafford was even worse hit, and although there was some play, Fry complained that the pitch was "pure mud".
England eased to a second win over South Africa at Manchester, and in front of desultory crowds at Lord's, Australia beat them as well by 10 wickets. One of the few who attended that match was King George V, the first time a reigning monarch had seen Test cricket.
The final round of matches was just as uncompetitive. At The Oval, England polished off South Africa before lunch on the second day, with SF Barnes grabbing 8 for 29 inside 90 minutes. In the only match at Trent Bridge , appalling weather enabled South Africa to avoid a tournament whitewash in their final match against Aussies.
The series decider came at The Oval, where it was agreed that the match would be played to a finish - the organisers had forgotten a tiebreaker in the event of two sides finishing with the same number of wins and so a definite result was needed. The first day was sunny, but a wet outfield meant that Fry was unwilling to start promptly and play didn't get underway until midway through the afternoon. The crowd vented their feelings by booing Fry all the way to the middle when he came out to bat.
Less than 90 minutes' play was possible on both the second and third days, but on the third Australia lost eight wickets for 21 runs on a "pitch better suited to water polo". They never recovered, and England won the match, the tournament and The Ashes.
It was fairly apparent that the experiment had not been a success, with the weather and public antipathy the crucial factors. "Nine Tests provide a surfeit of cricket," observed The Daily Telegraph, "and contests between Australia and South Africa are not a great attraction to the British public."
Wisden concluded that "the experiment is not likely to be repeated for many years to come - perhaps not in this generation." Although the idea was not officially shelved, it never resurfaced after the First World War. It was to be another 63 years before a multi-national tournament was held again and that - the 1975 World Cup - was an altogether more successful affair ... helped by one of the hottest summers of the century.
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Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo
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