Philip Barker

The Ashes series between Australia and England this December now seems likely to go ahead. England named a touring party this week after long discussions between the two cricket Boards.

The England and Wales Cricket Board insisted the "decision is subject to several critical conditions being met before we travel. We look forward to the ongoing assistance from Cricket Australia in resolving these matters in the coming days."

England players had been concerned about the strict COVID-19 travel and quarantine restrictions in force. These seemed likely to mean the enforcement of a bubble and a ban on family members joining the touring team for Christmas. However, there was no thought of accompanying families when Australia and England contested back to back series a century ago.

England’s players were away for almost seven months from September to April. Australia’s reciprocal visit saw them depart in March and not return home until December.

The teams travelled by sea, and a contemporary problem confronted the England party on board the Royal Mail Ship Osterley as it approached Fremantle.

Some passengers had contracted Typhus. There were no smartphones with tracking applications but team members were identified as "close contacts" and put into isolation. They improvised practice on matting wickets at the quarantine station.

Joe Root, left, and his England team are set to travel to face Tim Paine's, right, Australia in the Ashes this winter, despite serious concerns related to COVID-19 restrictions ©Getty Images
Joe Root, left, and his England team are set to travel to face Tim Paine's, right, Australia in the Ashes this winter, despite serious concerns related to COVID-19 restrictions ©Getty Images

England’s tour party was selected by the prestigious Marylebone Cricket Club, which had initially been hesitant about sending a team in the immediate years after World War One.

The captain was John William Henry Tyler Douglas, known in the more formal English press by his initials JWHT. The Australians nicknamed him "Johnny Won’t Hit Today".

Douglas was a gifted and versatile sportsman. He won middleweight boxing gold at the 1908 London Olympics.

"As it stands, the side is undoubtedly a very strong one, the best that could have been obtained," said Douglas. "It is impossible to prophesy, but I certainly think we ought to do well. The great thing is that a proportion of the side have been to Australia before and, therefore, appreciate the conditions to be met with."

By the time the players were cleared for release, their scheduled opening match in Perth had been cancelled. This has caused intense local disappointment, said reports at the time, and a one-day match was hastily arranged so the locals could at least see the visitors play - Lancashire’s Harry Makepeace hit a century for the tourists, but the locals held out for a draw. 

Douglas’ men then beat South Australia in Adelaide and Victoria in Melbourne, both by an innings. The first defeat came in Sydney against New South Wales.

The Test series did not start until December. Australia’s captain was Warwick Windridge Armstrong, known as "The Big Ship", a fitting moniker given he stood at 1.91 metres tall and weighed 133 kilograms.

Australian crowds, starved of cricket against their oldest rivals for so long, flocked to Sydney to see the first test match, which Australia won by 377 runs. The second test in Melbourne began on New Year’s Eve, where Australia inflicted a crushing defeat on England by an innings and 91 runs.

There were further convincing victories in Adelaide and Melbourne. Then in Sydney, Australia won again by nine wickets to complete a 5-0 whitewash on the first day of March.

Australia were dominant in their home and away Ashes 100 years ago, winning 5-0 on home soil and 3-0 in England ©ITG
Australia were dominant in their home and away Ashes 100 years ago, winning 5-0 on home soil and 3-0 in England ©ITG

Less than a fortnight later, both sides set out for England for the return trip. In charge of the Australian touring party was Sidney Smith Junior, who kept a detailed journal and later produced a book that constitutes a fascinating record of sport a century ago. "I am hopeful this unliterary effort of mine will afford pleasure to followers of the greatest game on earth," Smith said.

The New South Wales contingent boarded ship at Circular Quay in Sydney and sailed for Melbourne, where the party was swelled by the Victorians. They all boarded a train heading West.

One player - Clarence "Nip" Pellew - met up with the team briefly but followed on a later sailing. A batsman, medium-pace bowler and outstanding fielder, Nip was also a farmer - "Nip met us at Riverton in his farmer togs, having been in town buying pigs and sheep for his station and had lunch with us," Smith recorded.

The train arrived in Western Australia five days after leaving Melbourne. There followed a match against a team of 15 from the Goldfields in Kalgoorlie and an invitation to a trotting meeting "under electric lights".

These activities were pronounced a "great success" and, after a match against Western Australia, the ship sailed for England and immediately encountered "a fairly rough sea." Smith reported how "the members of the team eyed one another to see who would be the first to unlock the seasick remedies."

Later, when the ocean was calmer, the Osterley Derby took place. Smith described how "six ladies, nominated by six gentlemen and representing six well-known race horses" took part. Six pieces of very narrow tape were placed on a pole. At the word go, a rush was made for the scissors and tape assigned to each lady, the objective being to "cut along the middle of the tape as evenly as she could."

It says much for onboard life that this "proved to be our most exciting form of amusement since leaving Australia."

The ship steamed through the Suez Canal before finally arriving at the French port of Toulon. The party crossed France by rail and visited the Palais de Versailles. Smith then braved a flight across the English Channel, though the others came by sea to end the long voyage.

Meanwhile, Australian newspapers gleefully published a gloomy forecast by Sidney Pardon, editor of the respected Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. "It would need the most sanguine person to view hopefully England’s prospects in the coming summer," wrote Pardon. "I have a strong feeling the Australians will be too good for us. The selected side is so overwhelmingly strong."

Australia’s strong bowling attack featured Jack Gregory, Ted Macdonald and Arthur Mailey, a gifted cartoonist. Their batting included the renowned Charlie Macartney and Herbie Collins. 

Australia’s itinerary included at least one match against every first-class county. They also played against Oxford and Cambridge Universities and the Armed Services. In addition there were three matches in Scotland.

Australia manager Sydney Smith flew over the English Channel on his way to England to contest the Ashes ©ITG
Australia manager Sydney Smith flew over the English Channel on his way to England to contest the Ashes ©ITG

There had been a coal strike and Smith was concerned that "the number of trains was limited and was decreasing. It became a serious question whether we would be able to play our matches."

The opener against Leicestershire began on the last day of April. Smith fretted that "three trains were cancelled before I finally knew the exact time the team could leave London."

Armstrong lost the toss. Australia fielded but Gregory took a wicket with the first ball and the home team were twice bowled out cheaply. In their one innings, Australia piled on the runs to set the pattern for the tour.

At Old Buckenham Hall in Norfolk, they were hosted by Australian financier Lionel Robinson. His team included distinguished former England captain Archie Maclaren, present skipper Douglas and future leader Percy Chapman. The match was drawn but thereafter, Australia were almost invincible.

In Nottingham, they won the first Test by 10 wickets to resume where they had left off in Australia. A fortnight later, they won again, this time by eight wickets at Lord’s.

England made seven changes. Lionel Tennyson, the grandson of poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, was installed as captain. But it was to no avail. Australia won by 219 runs to retain the Ashes.

There was no presentation ceremony. In 1921, the urn was not on public display but kept at the home of Lord Darnley, who had received it as a keepsake during the tour in 1882-1983. Even the cover of Smith’s tour diary depicted a large silver trophy, not the tiny urn.

England, who had used 30 different players, drew the final two tests, ending a sequence of eight successive Australia test victories. But Australia's dominance had been almost total.

Despite this, England's 49-year-old former captain Maclaren remained convinced he had found a way to beat Australia. He raised an invitational side to challenge them at Eastbourne.

Victory seemed impossible when his team was dismissed for 43. Australia took a first innings lead, but the tide turned after South African test star Aubrey Faulkner struck 153 in the second innings. Clement Gibson, born in Argentina, took six wickets and the Australians were bowled out for 174. They had been beaten at last. Another defeat came against Charles Thornton’s XI at Scarborough. 

Finally, after five months on British soil, Australia boarded the steamship Balmoral Castle to head home. But even then, it was not a straight journey.

Three weeks later, they were taking the field in Johannesburg. They played three Tests against South Africa. Understandably perhaps, they did not achieve a clean sweep, though they clinched the series with victory in the third and final test.

The Australian players eventually saw their families again in mid-December. It had been a long time wait.