The Strangers Who Came Home: The First Australian Cricket Tour of England, by John Lazenby
Bloomsbury (2016), Paperback, 304 pages
A wonderful read for all cricket tragics, like myself. In 1878, an intrepid band of Australians (most of whom regarded themselves as Englishmen still), set out to tour the Old Dart and to try to beat the English at their own game. Following the successful English tour of the previous year, which involved the first official Test match ever played, the Australian Eleven as they were known, embarked on one of the most epic sporting tours of all time. They would play 72 matches on three continents, cross two oceans, and take the best of a year to complete the tour. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly beating the powerful MCC side in a single afternoon at Lords, a victory that shattered English complacency and contempt regarding the sporting prowess of colonials, and laid the foundations of the continuing cricket rivalry between England and Australia, now into its 3rd century and showing no signs of abating. But the side also played 42 other matches against English and Scottish sides of varying strengths, winning some and losing some, encountering foul weather, terrible pitches, outright cheating and crowd hostility, but also plenty of good competition, healthy rivalry, press adulation and playing some damn good cricket along the way. Lazenby does an excellent job of bringing this almost forgotten tour to life, every significant ball and shot in every match being described in loving detail, with plenty of news reports and anecdotes that evoke wonderfully the spirit of the times. The book is full of larger than life characters, such as W.G. Grace, the giant of English cricket, the demon fast bowler Fred Spofforth, who broke wickets and English hearts, the incredibly hard-hitting batsman Charles Bannerman, and the “Prince of Wicketkeepers”, Jack Blackham. This is vintage cricket-writing at its best, reminiscent of legends such as Cardus and Arlott. Cricket tragics and fans of classic sporting contests in general will love this.