“COME on old Sunderland!” shouted a wag as Australia faced Durham at Ashbrooke sports ground for the first time in 1912.
Joke or not, the battle cry had the desired effect – prompting the local cricketers to put on the show of their lives.
“By pure chance, the two-day game started on exactly the same date as the Durham Ashes test in 2013 – August 9,” said local historian Keith Gregson.
Durham batted first and the side – including several from Sunderland – was bowled out for the relatively small total of 142.
It was when Australia began its reply, and local professional Alf Morris started his run up, that the wag shouted out his Come on, old Sunderland comment.
“Morris responded to the encouragement, and ended up bowling out six of the Australians – including batsmen Macartney, Bardsley and Kelleway,” said Keith.
“The Australians managed to score heavily, ending up on 349 all out. However, Morris had managed to take his six wickets for only 96 runs in 32 overs.”
Sadly, despite all the excitement, rain stopped play and the game ended as a draw.
“Morris, who was originally from West Hartlepool, was one of the great cricketers of the early 20th century,” said Keith, the official archivist for Ashbrooke.
“This was despite the fact that he played most of his games for Sunderland and minor county Durham, rather than a first-class side.
“Indeed, it is generally acknowledged by sport historians that he was Durham’s finest bowler until Steve Harmison came along.”
There is plenty of evidence, according to Keith, to back up this claim. And there is do doubt that, for the little known Morris, 1912 was to prove quite a season.
“Spotted by the famous spin bowler Bosanquet, he was asked to turn out against the same Australians for an England XI at Norwich,” said Keith. “In two innings he took seven wickets for 75 runs.
“He also faced the other international visitors, the South Africans, at Stoke. Representing the Minor Counties, he took all the three wickets that fell for five runs before the weather intervened.”
Alf spent six seasons at Sunderland as a professional, and the score-books kept within the Ashbrooke archives reveal he was devastating with the ball.
“He appears to have been what we would call a swing bowler rather than a fast bowler, and could surprise the batsman by nipping the ball back off the pitch at pace,” said Keith.
“In 1911 he took 97 wickets for the county at 10.98 and 102 for his club at 7.51. These are figures rarely seen today, as a good bowler might be expected to take his wickets at around 20 runs each.
“It is both interesting and ironic that the other great bowler of the time, Sid Barnes, also chose to play minor county cricket.
“Barnes was chosen to play for the full England side but, when he turned out for Shropshire, he also came across Morris playing for Durham and Morris often won the contest with the ball.
“Let’s hope that one of the England bowlers manages to conjure up a Morris-like display at Chester-le-Street in the Ashes Test!”
l The story of Alf Morris and Australia’s cricketing trips to Sunderland is told in Keith’s latest book – Australia in Sunderland – the Making of a Test Match.