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Test Nations – The Early Years

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Test Nations – The Early Years

At a time when Test match cricket faces unprecedented pressure to maintain its relevance as the pre-eminent form of the game, we are about to see two nations play their maiden Test matches over the next couple of months. First, Ireland will take on Pakistan in May in a one-off Test and then in June Afghanistan enter the fray against India. Whether this increase in the number of Test playing nations will serve to strengthen the game by expanding it to new horizons or dilute it by simply adding to the number of fixtures played out in empty stadiums will largely depend on how quickly these debutants can become competitive. History tells us that the transition to Test status can be a slow process. One way to gauge what we can realistically expect of Ireland and Afghanistan is to look back at those that have gone before.

The Early Years of Test Cricket

For a decade following the inaugural Test match in 1877 all cricket at that level was played between the game’s original adversaries England and Australia. It was not until 1889 that South Africa became the third Test playing nation when they hosted a tour by an under-strength England side who none the less prevailed winning both matches played. Albert Rose-Innes became the first player outside of England or Australia to take a five wicket haul in Test cricket when he took 5-43 in the first game. Those remained his only wickets in Test match cricket.

England toured South Africa four times between 1889 and 1899 playing a total of eight Tests and winning them all. There were some humbling experiences for the South Africans during this period, including being dismissed for thirty in the second innings of the First Test of England’s 1896 tour. However there were also some highlights. JH (Jimmy) Sinclair emerged as South Africa’s premier player highlighted by an exceptional all-round performance in a losing cause in the Second Test in 1899. In the first innings he scored South Africa’s first ever Test century making 106 out of a total of 177 whilst also taking nine wickets for the match. He went on to tour England two years later but, remarkably, not before being captured by the Boers during the Boer war and escaping from a POW camp in order to make the trip!

South Africa had to wait until 1906 before recording their first Test win which happened at Johannesburg in the first of a five match series against England. In what was a thrilling climax, they triumphed by one wicket in chasing down a second innings target of 284, guided home by AW “Dave” Nourse, who made 93 not out batting at number eight. The South Africans went on to win that series 4-1. They also won their next home series against England in 1909/10; however this was something of a false dawn, as they had to wait another twenty years for their next series triumph, again against England, in 1930/31.

West Indies

By this time the West Indies were playing Test cricket. In 1928 they toured England playing three Tests each of which they lost by an innings. Herman Griffith, one of the first in the ensuing line of superb West Indian quicks, claimed a five wicket haul in the final Test taking 6/103, including the wicket of the great Walter Hammond.

The West Indies fared much better when England made the return trip to the Caribbean in 1929/30 drawing a four match series 1-1. Opener Clifford Roach scored the first West Indian Test century in the first innings of the opening Test making 122. That match ended in a draw but after England were victorious in the second game the West Indies squared the series and secured their first ever Test victory in Georgetown thanks largely to a first innings double century by that man Roach again (209) plus 114 from George Headley. Five years later the West Indies secured their first series win (2-1) when England made their next tour of the Caribbean. In fact the West Indies quickly made a fortress of their home location and did not lose a home series until Australia secured an emphatic 3-0 victory in 1955.

New Zealand

Eighteen month after the West Indies’ initial Test match New Zealand opened their account when they hosted an England team in early 1930, albeit in unique circumstances. Back in 1926 the ICC (which initials stood for Imperial Cricket Conference in those less enlightened days) had elected both the West Indies and New Zealand to Test status. England recognised the need to support the development of the game in these fledging outposts, but opportunities to tour were severely limited by both the tyranny of distance and existing commitments to Australia and South Africa. The solution devised was to send separate teams on overlapping tours to both locations. So whilst a highly experienced team featuring the likes of Wilfred Rhodes (52), George Gunn (51) and Patsy Hendren (40) (these were their ages not their batting averages!) battled to a hard fought 1-1 series draw in the West Indies, a somewhat junior collection of players, bolstered by the presence of Frank Woolley, enjoyed a more relaxed time of it in New Zealand winning a weather affected four Test series 1-0. The New Zealand Tests were three-day affairs and the entire series stretched to only nine actual playing days, whilst over in the Caribbean England’s “Dad’s Army” were subjected to seven days of play in the final “timeless” test alone! The overlapping nature of the two series meant that two England teams were simultaneously playing Test cricket on separate continents – the first and (to date) only time that this has occurred.

It can be tempting sometimes to discount the career records of modern players compared to their forebears, in part due to the number of matches played against newer and notionally “weaker” opponents. How to assess Matthew Hayden’s 380 against Zimbabwe in Perth, for example? It is worth remembering that matches of uneven balance have always been a part of our great game’s history and the events of 1930 serve to underline that point.

New Zealand continued to struggle to reach something approaching competitive status and that elusive first Test win didn’t arrive until 1956 with the final of a four Test series at home against the West Indies. The West Indies were already comfortably 3-0 up in the series and the match was New Zealand’s forty-fifth attempt since commencing Test cricket some twenty-six years earlier – but neither of these facts served to dampen the elation of those at Eden Park.


Long before those celebrations at Eden Park, India had also commenced their Test journey. Having been admitted to the ICC in 1929, they played their first Test match, a one-off, against England in 1932 on the “hallowed” turf at Lords. The politics of the day in India meant that the captain had to come from the nobility. Whilst there were numerous candidates qualified from an “off-field” perspective, few if any had sufficient playing capability. After much wrangling it was the Maharajah of Porbandar who led the squad that set sail from Bombay, but recognising his own limitations he deferred to CK Nayudu to actually captain the team at Lords. England won that game comfortably, despite being 19 for 3 on the first morning.

All of India’s early Test match outings were played against England, until they finally ventured to Australia in 1947/48 and then hosted the West Indies the following year. Success continued to elude the Indians until 1952, when they secured their first Test win during England’s visit to the subcontinent. This was achieved in the fifth and final match of a drawn series and came in emphatic style with India winning by an innings and eight runs thanks to centuries by Pankaj Roy (111) and PR “Polly” Umrigar (130 n.o.). However, the man of the match award, had such a notion existed in those days, would surely have gone to Vinoo Mankad with match figures of 12/108.


It would be a twenty year wait for the next country to make their Test debut. In 1952, five years after partition, Pakistan played a five Test series in India and proved competitive in losing by only a 2-1 margin. Pakistan were beaten by an innings in the first Test in Delhi with Mankad to the fore once again for India taking thirteen wickets for the match. However, the Pakistanis bounced back to win the second Test, also by an innings, with Fazal Mahmood devastating on the matting wicket at Lucknow taking 5/52 in the first innings and a match winning 7/42 in India’s second knock. Mahmood would feature again in Pakistan’s next series when they toured England in 1954. Two rain affected matches enabled Pakistan to reach the fourth and final test at the Oval only one down. Mahmood rolled through an England team that included the likes of Hutton, Compton and May. Having taken 6/53 in the first innings he followed up with 6/46 in the second to secure an historic twenty-four run victory and draw the series.

Sri Lanka

How you define “modern times” in cricket may well, in part, date from when you first saw a new nation play Test cricket. For me, this was Sri Lanka and it seemed like an unprecedented shake up of the status quo in a sport that I did not much associate with disruption. Nevertheless, in July 1981 Sri Lanka became the eighth country to be awarded Test status and seven months later found themselves in their inaugural match hosting England in Colombo. England won comfortably enough by seven wickets, though not without mishap, losing their last five wickets for twenty-three in the first innings and facing a potentially tricky target of 171 to win the match. It took Sri Lanka fourteen matches before they secured their first victory which occurred in the second Test of the home series against India in 1985. A first innings century from Amal Silva (111) and nine wickets for the match from Rumesh Ratnayake led to a 149 run victory and jubilation across the land.


After the thirty year hiatus between the admission of Pakistan and Sri Lanka it was a comparatively short wait until the next Test debutant in the form of Zimbabwe in 1992. Theirs has proven to be a turbulent journey towards Test respectability. However, their first match in Harare against India gave no indication of the struggles to come. Captain Dave Houghton scored Zimbabwe’s maiden century (121) in a substantial and prolonged first innings total of 456 made across 214 overs. Spinner John Traicos (a former South African Test player) took 5/86 in India’s first innings as the game petered to a draw. There was an emphatic first win three years later at home against Pakistan by an innings and 64 runs, thanks mainly to the Flower brothers. Captain Andy made 156 and brother Grant compiled a superb 201 not out. However, the series was subsequently lost 2-1. It took another twenty matches before their second victory which occurred in a one off home Test against India. The same year (1998) saw Zimbabwe win their first series, away from home, against Pakistan thanks to victory in the First Test at Peshawar. However, other than against our final newcomer, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe have, to date, failed to win another series since that high point against Pakistan.


Bangladesh became the first new Test playing nation of the twenty-first century, lining up against India at Dhaka in November 2000. Success took a while to come with a number of mainly two Test series failing to produce a single win until the Zimbabwe tour of 2005 and triumph in the first Test at Chittagong. Captain Habibul Bashar top scored for his side in both innings as Bangladesh won by 226 runs. With the second Test ending in a draw this meant that they also secured their first series win. Whilst Bangladesh have shown recent signs of improvement, most notably with their first ever Test victory over Australia in 2017, the fact remains that the two most recent entrants to Test ranks have each won only one series in contests not between themselves. In truth, Bangladesh’s 2009 series win in the West Indies was also somewhat devalued by the severely weakened nature of the opposition.

What this may mean for the prospects of Ireland and Afghanistan, as they enter the big time, remains to be seen. Whilst both have some impressive credentials in the One Day and Twenty20 formats, it is a significant step up to the five-day game and expectations should not be set too high. Nevertheless it is exciting to contemplate the journey that lies ahead. So welcome Ireland and Afghanistan. The road may yet be long and winding but its great to have you on board!

Summary of Early Test Records by Nation

Team Number of Tests to first win Number of wins in first 50 Tests First Century Maker First 5 wicket haul
Australia 1 18 Charles Bannerman Billy Midwinter
England 2 30 WG Grace Alfred Shaw
South Africa 12 9 JH Sinclair Albert Rose-Innes
West Indies 6 15 Clifford Roach Herman Griffith
New Zealand 45 1 Stewie Dempster Jack Cowie
India 25 5 Lala Amarnath Mohammad Nissar
Pakistan 2 10 Nazar Mohammad  Fazal Mahmood
 Sri Lanka 14 4 Sidath Wettimuny  DS de Silva
 Zimbabwe 11 4  Dave Houghton  John Traicos
Bangladesh 35 1 Aminul Islam Naimur Rahman


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