George Orwell’s dire predictions for 1984 may have seemed minor compared to what Australian cricket faced that year.
Two hundred and eleven. When Steve Smith was dismissed reverse sweeping at Old Trafford in the current Ashes Test match, it meant that the most recent double century and the first ever in Test matches are exactly the same total.
Australian captain Billy Murdoch was the first to achieve the feat in the third Test of the 1884 series at the Oval. Like Smith, he had come into after a poor start with Australia 1-15. This was the 16th Test match to be played.
Murdoch’s remarkable achievement can be assessed by the fact that it took another 62 Tests and 19 years before it was matched by an Englishman, when Reg Foster scored 287 at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the 1903-04 series.
It was not until 1899 that Murdoch’s total was surpassed by an Australian Test cricketer when the legendary Victor Trumper compiled a brilliant undefeated 214 at Lord’s.
In an age when Test pitches were unpredictable and low team totals were common, Murdoch took advantage of the conditions at the Oval in heat so extreme that spectators were reported to have fainted.
A number of other Test match milestones were reached in this innings: Murdoch’s partnership of 207 with Henry Scott was the first double century stand in Tests and Australia’s final total of 551 was the first occasion when 500 had been reached.
When Murdoch departed for his 211 he had faced 525 balls and been at the crease for 490 minutes (Smith faced 319 balls in his 497-minute stay). Declarations were not allowed at this time and so England were forced to use all 11 players before the Australians were finally dismissed.
This was not Murdoch’s only marathon innings where his powers of concentration and immense patience resembled that of Smith.
He had already made the first triple century in Australian first-class cricket (321 against Victoria), 286 not out against Sussex on the previous tour in 1882 and an undefeated 279 against a Combined XI in Melbourne in the lead up to the 1884 trip. Remarkably, at age 41, Murdoch scored 226 for his adopted Sussex after he had moved to England for whom he played one Test.
So Smith and Murdoch are now the only Australian Test batsmen to make 211. When both were caught, the English must have been similarly relieved but we can be sure that Murdoch had not played a reverse sweep to be dismissed 135 years ago!