Ashes Tests: 35
Record: 3 wins, 2 draws, 3 losses
Off the Mark
John Blackham set the standard on how wicketkeepers should perform in the 19th century. His form behind the stumps had him labelled the greatest of his time, and saw him become the first man picked in any Australian side.
His exploits during a 35 game career cannot be understated. Blackham’s 61 Test dismissals included 24 stumpings; many of those off fast bowlers. For it was Blackham who showed bravery (some might call it stupidity) to stand up to the stumps against the finest quicks at the time. With protective gear in those days being flimsy at best, he relied on his technique to protect him.
Blackham captained Australia on eight occasions, with the majority coming in the early 1890’s. However, his first game in charge was the fourth Test in 1884/85. The keeper was the country’s third captain of the series during a time when politics and money dominated the sporting landscape. In a cricketing first, the captains agreed to use two pitches for the match, with both sides having to use a different pitch for each innings. After England made 269 on the “good” pitch, Blackham decided to reverse the order, hoping that the “good” pitch would get even better with time. The plan worked, with Australia reaching 309 thanks to 128 from Bonnor at number eight. England was no match for Australia’s quicks on the deteriorating “bad” pitch, and were humbled for just 77. Australia reached the paltry 38 with ease, handing Blackham a winning start.
After re-assuming the captaincy in 1891/92, Blackham led Australia to its first series win over England in nine years with a 2-1 win at home.
His final Test in charge was one of the more memorable matches of the era. Leading a youthful XI, Blackham won the toss on a dry SCG deck in the summer of 1884, and gleefully elected to bat. After George Giffen had earlier plundered 161, Syd Gregory (201) combined with Blackham (74) for the highest ninth wicket stand by Australia of all time (154) in just 76 minutes. The captain had suffered a thumb injury while batting, but quickly forgot about the pain as England were bowled out for 325 and forced to follow-on. However, the visitors quickly amassed 437, setting Australia a challenging 187 for victory. The task became even harder when overnight rain left the pitch in a sticky state. The English tore through Australia, with Blackham the last man to go.
Blackham won’t go down as one of Australia’s leaders. His tendency to panic and over-think situations had an unsettling effect on his younger teammates. He was known to be rather superstitious, and it was his strange habits that gave birth to the traditions we see today.
As a player, Blackham was unrivalled behind the stumps. He would keep up to quicks, and became the first keeper to operate without a long-stop. He was an exceptionally fair player, and on one occasion, recalled a batsman because he thought he had taken the ball in front of the stumps before knocking the bails off. Such sportsmanship hasn’t been since Adam Gilchrist walked against Sri Lanka in the 2003 World Cup semi-finals.
Played and Missed
Blackham “stole” the ball from the first Ashes Test, and later sold it for £617.
English clergymen berated Blackham, because they believed long-stop was the vicar’s fielding position when it came to playing village cricket. This didn’t stop the rest of England copying Blackham.
In 1882/83, Blackham became the first player to pass 50 in each innings of a Test when he reached 57 and 58 at the SCG.
Rather than sit through nervy situations, Blackham was known to leave the ground for hours on end in the comfort of a hansom cab until the trouble has passed.
By 1880 (thanks to Fred Spofforth) Blackham’s smile was missing many a tooth.