Ashes Tests: 19
Off the Mark
Percy McDonnell, arguably one of the finest Australian batsmen of the 19th Century, played 19 Tests for his country in a career spanning almost nine years. By modern standards, his average of 28.93 might appear poor, but given the nature of pitches in those days, McDonnell was a star.
Known for standing up when others around him failed, McDonnell’s greatest achievement with the bat came at the SCG in 1881/82, when he shared a 199 stand with Charles Bannerman. Apart from Bannerman and McDonnell (147) the next highest score was just seven.
Controversy surrounded McDonnell’s first game in charge, when in 1886/87, the SCG was double booked for an inter-colonial match, as well as the Test. Neither NSW nor Victoria reached 100 in that match, suggesting the pitch could be demonic. Thus, for the first time in history, McDonnell shocked the world when he sent England in to bat after winning the toss.
Rather than rely on Spofforth, the new captain decided to open the bowling with two of his NSW teammates, Charles Turner and Jack Ferris. The unprecedented move worked, with England crumbling to be all out for 45. They say you can’t judge a pitch until both sides have used it, and that proved to be the case, as England went on to win by 13 runs in a match where no one passed 50.
McDonnell’s tenure was a difficult one, in the sense that he never had the team that he truly wanted. The crème de la crème were injured, working or disillusioned by poor pay. The terrible state of pitches in Australia, coupled with the woeful administrative procedures saw cricket in this country become somewhat farcical. English teams refused to return until Australia took its cricket seriously.
Although he finished his career with a discouraging 1-5 record, McDonnell wasn’t abhorred like some of his predecessors. In fact, given the players he had to work with, it was actually quite admirable that he managed to win a game, especially considering it was at Lord’s. He had the guts to go with Ferris and Turner instead of the tried and tested Spofforth, and was innovative enough to send the opposition in on a difficult Sydney wicket.
As a player, McDonnell was one of the best batsmen of his generation. In the first ever Test played in Adelaide, McDonnell came within a whisker of becoming the first player ever to score a century in each innings. Australia only made 243 in the first innings (McDonnell scored 124) and in the second, was run out on 83 after a mix up with George Giffen.
Played and Missed
Aside from being a glorious top-order batsman, McDonnell was also noted for being one of the leading Greek scholars the country had to offer.
In a Boxing Day match at the MCG, McDonnell made 239 for NSW; the next highest score was 29.
McDonnell became the first captain in Test history to win the toss and elect to bowl. Even now it is considered a bold option, so one can only manage how it was perceived in the 19th Century.
After the first Test in 1886/87, English player Billy Barnes allegedly threw a punch at McDonnell at a Sydney bar. Luckily for both, it missed.
McDonnell’s playing days were cut short by chronic illness, which led to his untimely death at just 35.