In a few days’ time (1st August), the much-awaited Ashes series will get under way and it may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that the links between Sunderland CC and Australian cricket are even older than the Ashes themselves - the Ashes were first played for in 1882.
The Australian cricketers came to Sunderland on their first two trips to England in 1878 and 1880. In 1878, their game against XVIII Gentlemen of Sunderland was the only one the visitors played in the north east. The Australians were later to pay a number of visits to Ashbrooke but their first two games took place at the club’s old ground near to what is now the hospital on Chester Road. When the Australians first came there had already been a pre-Ashes test match in Australia but not in England.
In 1878 there was no English test and their game in Sunderland was the very last of the tour.
An exciting match it was too with the Sunderland side made up of local amateur and professional cricketers and a couple of top national professional cricketers. The aim of these ‘against the odds’ games (i.e. eleven against eighteen or even twenty two) was simply to raise money. The Australians were bound to be too good for most local sides and the added numbers and professional ‘ringers’ were meant to ensure that the crowd got their money’s worth.
The crowd certainly got their money’s worth in the first match and in front of a large crowd at the Chester Road ground. The Australians had only brought twelve players on tour and as three were unavailable for various reasons they had to use a couple of other players as substitutes. One of the missing was Fred ‘the demon’ Spofforth, regarded by many as one of the greatest bowlers of all time.
The home team won the game with a couple of the professionals bowling well. However the batting was held together by two local men – Mewburn and Sparkes.
They were actually next door neighbours in Sunderland and Mewburn went on to captain Durham County in its early days.
Two years later it was a different story. In 1880, the Australians sprang a surprise on the British public by suddenly deciding to tour and by fixing up matches after they arrived. This time they also arranged matches in Newcastle and Middlesbrough, ending up in Sunderland for a match in mid-August. This time, the home side was thrashed. Spofforth was playing and took an incredible seventeen wickets. The game finished early and so another match was arranged. Spofforth kept wicket in this one which ended up in a draw.
Soon after the Sunderland match, Spofforth was injured while playing at Scarborough. With him out of the way, the English authorities agreed to a test match and less than four weeks and four games after an appearance at Chester Road, Australia played England in England for the very first time. Sunderland folk had the last laugh however. They had seen Spofforth at his rampant best while those who paid to see the first test in England didn’t see him at all.
The Ashbrooke archive has a rare, probably unique, casual photograph of the first Australian side to visit England. To date, experts in England and Australia have not been able to produce another copy although other photographs taken on the same day and in the same location may exist.