Ashes haul helps place Rhodes on plinth of Test greats

England and Australia resume battle in the fourth Test at Melbourne on Boxing Day. Cricket correspondent Chris Waters looks back 110 years to the time when a Huddersfield-born Yorkshire all-rounder graced the MCG’s festive occasion with a famous match-winning performance.

Wilfred Rhodes
Wilfred Rhodes

IT is said that no-one knows the name of the world’s greatest all-rounder.

All that can be stated for certain is that he bowled left-arm, batted right-handed and came from Kirkheaton.

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When George Hirst, who was born in the village near Huddersfield in 1871, was asked his opinion on the subject, he always said that Wilfred Rhodes was the greatest.

Rhodes, who was born there in 1877, always declined to comment, the implication being that he was not inclined to dispute his colleague’s assessment.

In the early days of 1904, however, there could be no doubting Rhodes’s claim to the title.

For at Melbourne in the second Test between Australia and England, Rhodes produced one of the game’s most famous performances.

The left-arm spinner took 7-56 in the first innings and 8-68 in the second to return match figures of 15-124, the best in Ashes cricket at that time.

It took another Yorkshireman in Hedley Verity to beat Rhodes’s record with 15-104 at Lord’s in 1934, and another to beat Verity’s in Jim Laker, whose 19-90 at Old Trafford in 1956 remain the best match figures in history.

At the MCG in January, 1904, the legendary Hirst and Rhodes were part of an England side that had won the first Test of the series by five wickets in Sydney.

That Sydney match had special significance as it was the first Test played under the aegis of MCC, with previous English tours to Australia the result of private enterprises as opposed to being organised by a specific body responsible for selection and management.

Both Yorkshiremen contributed to a famous win.

First, each took two wickets as Australia opened with 285, captain Monty Noble top-scoring with 133.

When England replied with 577, Rhodes (40 not out) shared a last-wicket stand of 130 with RE ‘Tip’ Foster, who hit 287 – which was then the highest individual innings in Test cricket and still the highest by a batsman on Test debut.

Rhodes took 5-94 as Australia responded with 485, the great Victor Trumper carrying his bat for 185.

It left the tourists needing 194 for victory, Hirst leading them home with an unbeaten 60.

It was a much-needed success for a side that had lost the Ashes in 1902 – Australia’s fourth successive Ashes series triumph – and, following his fine individual performance, Rhodes now backed it up in record-breaking fashion.

After England captain Plum Warner won the toss, his team made 315 – an innings notable for the fact that ‘Tip’ Foster caught a chill after the first day’s play and was forced to retire ill on 49, unable to take further part in the match.

Bad weather meant England’s innings did not end until day three, Rhodes then taking full advantage of favourable conditions as his initial seven-wicket haul helped dismiss Australia for 122.

Once again, Trumper was outstanding, scoring 74 of those runs before he was last out to Rhodes.

The next highest score was 18, with only one other player reaching double figures.

When England batted a second time, rain had taken a much heavier toll on the pitch and a total of 103 owed almost everything to Lancashire’s Johnny Tyldesley, who hit 62, having also top-scored with 97 in the first innings.

It left Australia wanting 297 on a surface that had cut up badly and was tailor-made for Rhodes.

When Trumper fell for the top score of 35, Australia collapsed from 73-3 to 111 all out, Rhodes’s eight-wicket haul sealing victory by 185 runs and 2-0 series lead.

Wisden said the win would have been even more convincing “if the Englishmen had not blundered so deplorably in the field, a lot of catches being missed”.

According to the almanack, eight were dropped off Rhodes alone – as many, in fact, as he took wickets in the innings.

The Daily Telegraph was particularly scathing of England’s fielding.

“Apart from Rhodes’ splendid bowling, England were, in the last innings of the match, far indeed from covering themselves in glory.

“Never probably on an occasion of so much importance has there been such an epidemic of dropped catches, and who knows how much better Rhodes’ figures might have been were it not for such wretched fielding.”

The Telegraph said Rhodes was helped by “a wicket utterly ruined by rain” but insisted “there are probably not more than three or four other bowlers in the world who would have been so difficult to play”.

Rhodes’s figures – as well as being an Ashes record – were the third-best in Test history at the time.

Johnny Briggs, the Lancashire left-arm spinner, had taken 15-28 for England against South Africa at Cape Town in 1889, and Surrey pace bowler George Lohmann had returned 15-45 against the same opponents at Port Elizabeth in 1896.

Rhodes remains one of 12 men in the game’s history to have taken 15 wickets in a Test match, a quarter of whom – thanks to the subsequent achievements of Verity and Laker – are Yorkshiremen.

In a 58-match Test career, Rhodes captured 127 wickets at 26.96 and, in all first-class games, a world record 4,204 wickets at 16.72.

Australia hit back in the third Test of the 1903-04 series in Adelaide, winning by 216 runs in a fixture in which Hirst top-scored with 58 in the England first innings.

But the Ashes were regained in the fourth match at Sydney, where Rhodes picked up four first innings wickets in a 157-run win.

A fascinating series concluded with a 218-run win for Australia at Melbourne that trimmed the deficit to 3-2, Australia off-spinner Hugh Trumble taking a hat-trick – his second in Test matches – after Hirst’s five-wicket haul in the home side’s second innings.

Trumble was Australia’s leading wicket-taker in the rubber with 24, while England’s highest was Rhodes with 31, which confounded those who thought he might struggle on Australian pitches.

“Rhodes quite confuted those who prophesied that he would be a failure in Australia, his figures being exceptionally fine,” commented Wisden.

“He was fortunate in being more often helped by rain than he could have expected, but we have Mr Warner’s testimony to the fact that he nearly always bowled well even on the best and firmest pitches.

“By taking 15 wickets at Melbourne, he set up a new record in Test matches.

“Mr Warner wisely treated him as a bowler pure and simple, giving him little chance to expend his energies in run-getting.”