Could Scotland beat Australia...again!?
Cricket Scotland writer Neil Drysdale takes a look at the famous match where Scotland beat Australia in 1882 ahead of the One Day International between the two teams this Tuesday.
The present generation of Caledonian stars may have no experience of beating the sport’s superpowers, but if you rewind 131 years to 1882, you will discover that at least one group of cricketing Scots proved capable of defeating the might of Australia. And, if it can happen once, who is to say that the current ensemble will not orchestrate similar heroics against the baggy-green brigade in Edinburgh on September 3?
It was, and remains, one of the finest results in Scotland’s sporting history, and merits greater recognition. After all, the SFA and SRU’s finest have never prevailed against Brazil or New Zealand in football and rugby, yet, on Saturday July 29, when a large crowd convened at Raeburn Place in the Scottish capital to witness a meeting between Leslie Balfour-Melville’s team and Billy Murdoch’s tourists, who had earlier beaten England at The Oval – the result which sparked the creation of “The Ashes” – they were treated to a terrific exhibition from the underdogs once the action commenced.
Nor was this some fluke occurrence, with excessive alcohol consumption or inclement weather proving the catalyst for an against-the-odds result. Instead, Scotland were indebted to their penetrative bowling attack and inspired by the derring-do of Balfour-Melville, one of the truly great Victorian all-rounders, a man who excelled in every pastime he attempted, from golf and athletics to tennis, billiards, curling and cricket. “He was our equivalent of W G Grace or, more accurately, C B Fry,” says the Scottish historian, Neil Leitch. “He had perfect hand-eye co-ordination and balance, which meant that he strode like a colossus across the scene in the later half of the 19th century.”
Granted, the Australians had recorded an innings victory against their hosts before this contest. But they still picked the majority of the performers who had accounted for England and were overwhelming favourites to maintain their winning streak before the match commenced. However, on a saturnine morning, Murdoch decided, perhaps arrogantly, to bat first after winning the toss in conditions conducive to swing bowling, and was made to pay for that judgement in the ensuing hours. Initially, at least, his confreres made steady progress in advancing to 46 for 0, with George Palmer and Tom Garrett surviving an early grilling from Peter Thompson, prior to Robert Macnair entering the attack, and sparking a collapse, which thrilled the home supporters.
These Scottish warriors weren’t intimidated by the reputation of their adversaries. On the contrary, they were experienced cricketers, and their exploits should offer a reminder that the sport was flourishing north of the Border and had been established long before the Old Firm even existed, let alone dominated the headlines in their homeland. With a knowledgeable crowd cheering on their efforts, the effervescent Macnair first bowled Palmer, prior to Garrett being run out for 28, and wickets suddenly tumbled in an almighty clatter, as 51 for 1 became 63 for 5, following the implosion of the Australian middle-order. None of them could break the shackles imposed by Thompson and Macnair – who, between them, bowled 52 overs and snapped up a combined haul of six for 66 – and although the visitors’ tail wagged, to some extent, with Murdoch contributing a stout 22, they were eventually dismissed for 122, before the Scots marched off to wild cheering from the congregation, which had swelled in number as the contest had raged on.
At that juncture, few in the crowd would have dared to take anything for granted, but their Australians were missing their talismanic “Demon” Spofforth, and the home side had the reassuring presence of Balfour-Melville, one of those phlegmatic characters, whom Kipling subsequently brought to life in his poetry. There may have been nerves jangling elsewhere, but the captain was an ocean of tranquillity, amid the mounting hubbub, and amassed runs gradually, purposefully, inexorably, and found willing partners in Alfred Wood, who made 15, Joseph Cotterill, 24, and James Walker, 19, as the Scots approached their modest target. Murdoch, a tough-as-teak individual, who detested losing any tussle, and particularly one against chaps with double-barrelled names, switched his bowlers and flung himself into the task of defending his modest tally. But Balfour-Melville, unflustered and unhurried, passed his half-century, then moved on to 73, and, even as the shadows began to lengthen, Scotland coasted to a seven-wicket success, which was understandably greeted with jubilation by everybody in the ground.
Nowadays, the proceedings would have concluded as soon as the Scots had reached 123, yet, befitting the gracious Balfour-Melville, he insisted that his players batted on after their win to provide the spectators with value for money. In short, the Scots not only triumphed, but did so with a clinical efficiency, which spelled out their belief that there was no logical reason why they should be inferior to their opponents: and although cricket has changed entirely since that halcyon day, the outcome was a reminder that shocks can happen in any pursuit, if the underdogs adopt the right attitude.
Of course, it was a one-off performance, but a few footnotes are worth adding. Incredibly – or perhaps not – Balfour-Melville was later recalled to the Scotland ranks at the age of 55 in 1909 and batted on into his 70s, while becoming the captain of the R & A Golf Club at St Andrews, and the president of the Scottish Cricket Union. Then, maybe belatedly, his myriad achievements were recognised when he was one of the 50 original inductees into Scotland’s Sporting Hall of Fame in 2002. He was a genuine star and the hope has to be that some of his compatriots will create similar footprints in history when Michael Clarke's side come calling to the same leafy part of Auld Reekie.