The Roar
The Roar


Bubble, what bubble? Try the 1878 cricket tour to England

England head coach Chris Silverwood. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
Roar Rookie
7th February, 2022

It’s a tough life being a professional cricketer. Take the English cricket team, for example. Acting coach Paul Collingwood said last week that the players “deserved medals” for fronting up in Australia for the Ashes.


Staying in first class hotels, with occasional bio-bubbles, and only allowed out for a few hours every day to practice while in quarantine. Forced to spend two whole months of the balmy English winter in Australia and even having to spend time with their families, once the ECB wangled that concession. And doing it all on salaries in the top one per cent of British income earners!

Australia has also had its share of handwringing, over the sacrifices made by cricketers in the Big Bash League, with players going down with asymptomatic Covid, and in the case of the Perth Scorchers, having to be away from home for six whole weeks.

They belong in the pantheon of Australian heroes with the Diggers of Gallipoli and the Kokoda Trail!

Collingwood’s tale of heartbreak noted that many in the England squad played numerous games over the last year, suffering from “bubble fatigue”. Why, captain Joe Root spent no less than 93 days on the cricket field in 2021.

A couple of years ago, Glenn Maxwell topped out at about the highest of preset day players at 101 days in the 12 months before he took his mental health break.

Glenn Maxwell plays a reverse sweep

(Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)


It may provide little comfort to note that former Australian captain Allan Border’s busiest year took him onto the field on 183 days in 1986, nearly double Root’s burden. Border played 84 matches in all, including 11 Tests and 21 ODIs, plus a full five-month county season with champions Essex, and numerous Sheffield Shield and tour games in India and New Zealand.

Mark Waugh averaged 146 days annually from 1992-95, probably the most over an extended period, also including seasons with Essex. Going back further to the almost fully amateur era, Bill Lowry averaged exactly the same number of days as Root’s 2021 load of 93 during 1961-64, according to statistician Charles Davis.

Most cricket buffs know that the early tours between Australia and England entailed sea voyages of four-six weeks or more up to the 1950s, and being away from home and family for six or seven months.

To give some perspective to and ease the pain of our present day professionals, they might well compare their lot with the adventures of the first Australian quasi-representative Australian cricket team that toured England in 1878, wonderfully recounted in John Lazenby’s book, The Strangers Who Came Home.

The team comprised most of the combined XI from NSW and Victoria who represented the Australian colonies in what were later recognised as the inaugural England-Australia Tests the year before. Added was George Bailey from Tasmania, great-great grandfather of his namesake, the current chief selector. It was the second cricket tour from Australia, following the 1868 venture that took thirteen indigenous cricketers to England.

The 1878 tour went ahead despite the absence of any support or endorsement from the NSW and Victorian cricket associations. The driving force behind the venture was Melbourne entrepreneur, journalist and ex-Victorian player Jack Conway.


Conway was instrumental in securing a year’s leave of absence for his players from their jobs: six were civil servants, three bank clerks and one (Billy Murdoch) a solicitor. Conway wrote dozens of begging letters to Ministers and cajoled, flattered and dined out “scores of colonial potentates” to get the desired result.

The 11 players, plus Conway and an assistant manager, financed the tour from their own pockets, each putting in a £50 stake, with all profits and losses to be shared equally.

The party set off by boat from Sydney in March 1878, after “warming up” with a three-month, 16-match tour of New Zealand and eastern Australia starting in November 1877, travelling by boat, rail and horse-and-carriage.

The trip to England comprised four weeks by steamship to San Francisco; seven days on a sometimes excruciating train ride across the United States to New York; and then nine days by ship to Liverpool. After a four-month stay in England, Wales and Scotland, the tourists travelled back to Australia by the same route they had come, spending a month in the US and Canada en route.

They arrived back in Sydney in late November 1878, eight months after leaving Australia and just over a year after starting their preliminary Australasian tour.

Generic cricket ball

(Steven Paston – EMPICS/Getty Images)

The boat trip to San Francisco sounds more than a bit bubble-like: 29 days of tedium with inedible food, according to Victorian batsman Tom Horan, who also reported on the tour for newspapers at home, where it was followed keenly. His and other reports were made possible by the undersea telegraph, which had connected Australia to the world just six years earlier.


There was some opportunity for practice on board with deck cricket, but they lost so many balls overboard they had to resort to using turnips and potatoes – until the ship’s cook cut off further supply.

While in England, the Dave Gregory-led Australians played a total of 42 fixtures, including 15 against first-class sides, plus a further five games in North America. (There were no Tests – the first Test in England, as later recognised, was in 1880.)

The highlight of the tour, which helped confirm the idea that Australians could compete with England’s best, was a nine-wicket win at Lord’s over a strong MCC side led by the legendary W.G. Grace. The MCC were bowled out for a mere 33 and 19, with Fred ‘The Demon’ Spofforth taking 11 wickets, including a hat-trick.

As these figures suggest, the playing conditions of the time didn’t feature today’s smooth pitches, covered for rain, with billiard table outfields. Other trials they faced in England included playing in mud, rain or freezing winds, and even smoke and noxious fumes in northern industrial towns: the players’ faces were black by the end of the day in Sheffield, according to Horan.

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The 1878 tourists also had to contend with hometown umpiring, in protest against which they walked off the ground in Philadelphia, provoking diatribes in the American press; endless rounds of banqueting and speeches; the scare of a train robbery in Wyoming; approaches by match-fixers; and the theft of money and watches from their bags in Toronto.


They endured seasickness and storms, during one of which the ship’s engine died for six hours in the North Atlantic; and travelled for hours by rail overnight between many fixtures in England, playing the next day with little sleep. Conway claimed (perhaps with some exaggeration) that the party travelled some 70,000 miles in all.

They also got into a heated tug-of-war with W.G. Grace over the loyalties of the 12th player in their squad, Billy Midwinter, who had been playing in England with Grace’s county Gloucestershire, and was supposed to join them for the English leg.

At one point, Grace turned up at the Australian change room at Lord’s where Midwinter was padded up to open the batting, and browbeat him into going across town and playing instead for Gloucestershire against Surrey.

This meant that the party’s strength was down to 11 for much of the time, with some players having to play with illness or injury, their numbers occasionally reinforced by the odd colonial ring-in.

By the end of the full tour, which included eight extra games in Australia on return (including the third-ever Test, vs Lord Harris’s XI) Fred Spofforth had bowled the equivalent of almost 2000 six-ball overs since the team’s first match in New Zealand 15 months and 68 matches earlier (taking 717 wickets at 6.0!).

Spofforth’s story might help soothe the aching limbs of England fast bowler Mark Wood, who CricViz’s Ben Jones described as being “bowled into the ground” in the recent Ashes.

Mark Wood of England celebrates the wicket of Marnus Labuschagne of Australia during day one of the Fourth Test Match in the Ashes series between Australia and England at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 05, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Mark Wood of England celebrates the wicket of Marnus Labuschagne. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)


Wood delivered a grand total of 120 overs in the series, and 446 overs over the last 15 months since October 2020, an equivalent period to Spofforth’s tour.

More recent Ashes greats like John Snow and Dennis Lillee might also scratch their heads about Wood’s alleged plight. Snow bowled the equivalent of 301 six-ball overs in 1970-71, and 449 across the whole tour.

Lillee bowled the equivalent of 243 overs in the 1974-75 Ashes and a total of 579 in first class cricket that season. His partner in crime Jeff Thomson bowled 233 in the Tests.

Those pointing to the more compressed Test schedules these days should note that Lillee also played four-day Shield games in the breaks between Tests. The likes of McGrath, Johnson, Larwood, Anderson and Statham all had similar workloads in Ashes series Down Under. In winning teams.

In the end, all the travails proved worthwhile for the 1878 tour. It was financially very profitable, thanks to healthy crowds and gate receipts, the profits of which they had had to carry in a strongbox across America, under close guard from shysters and conmen and the threat of train robbers. Each man was said to have made £750-800 from their £50 investment, about four years’ salary for a bank clerk like Spofforth.

It was also a sporting success – notably the defeats of the MCC and six other English first-class sides, including Grace’s champion Gloucestershire. Apart from Spofforth, the prowess of batsman Charles Bannerman and ‘keeper Jack Blackham won high praise.

The Times opined that “it was an event of striking significance that an eleven should come from Australia and hold its own, always with credit and generally with triumph, against the best skill that could be pitted against it”.


One of the more striking moments of the journey was the team’s reception in New Zealand on the way back to Sydney. They were met by a welcoming committee of thousands of admirers in Auckland Harbour and were feted with grand receptions, where they were thanked “for the reputation they had gained for the Australasian colonies” as “the success of one colony was the success of all”!

The Australian rugby community can only dream of what might have been.

On their return home to Sydney after eight months away, one in ten of the city’s population of 200,000 packed the streets to cheer the team. The Premier thanked “the Eleven”, as they were known, for proving once and for all that colonials were not “degenerating” under the hot Australian sun, as some in England had suspected, but indeed flourishing.

In retrospect, many saw the tour as an important step in the growth national self-awareness and self-confidence as the colonies moved towards federation in 1901.

Might the recent England Ashes squad and other professional cricketers have accepted some of the hardships of 1878 had they but won the same honours and adulation as those pioneering tourists?