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Seven Warwickshire players have played for England in the Ashes at Edgbaston. The first was Dick Lilley, in 1902, when England and Australia fought out back-out-back Ashes series separated by a long cruise with some most convivial concerts. Brian Halford reports.

For a young man from humble stock in Holloway Head, close to the centre of Birmingham, Arthur Frederick Augustus Lilley, didn’t do too badly.

Lilley, known as Dick, was the son of a musician, but it was in cricket that his talents lay. As a wicketkeeper and batsman, he first played for Warwickshire in 1888, having been spotted playing for Cadbury’s, and quickly became established, helping the club secure first-class status six years later.

A beautiful wicket, for which Edgbaston had long been famous, had been prepared by Bates, the Warwickshire groundsman. Then there was nothing to suggest that anything out of the ordinary would be likely to happen but the events that followed were remarkable

Dick Lilley

Two years after that, at Lord’s in 1896, he made his Test debut for England against Australia under the captaincy of W.G.Grace. During the next 13 years, the boy from Brum would share dressing-rooms with all the greats of the era – Grace, Ranjitsinhji, Rhodes, Fry, Jessop – in a career of 35 Tests, the 13th of which, in 1902, was the inaugural Test at his home ground of Edgbaston.

It was against Australia (England rarely played anyone else in those days – 31 of Lilley’s 35 were against the Aussies) and the opening match of the second half of back-to-back Ashes series. The first half had ended in Sydney just 86 days earlier, Australia winning 4-1. It was hard-fought as always but contested in a good spirit which was then reinforced on the long journey to England when the teams travelled on the same boat.

Lilley recalled: “We returned from Australia in the early days of March and had as fellow passengers on board the Omrah the members of the Australian team who were coming over to England for the following summer.

“It was impossible to be associated with them for any length of time without realising that they regarded their visit to England as a very serious matter indeed. They had just won distinction in Australia by beating Mr MacLaren’s team and fully intended to leave no stone unturned to follow up these wins by further successes in England.

“But during the voyage the two teams were on the best of terms. Concerts were given, usually organised by [Australia all-rounder] Mr Monty Noble, who displayed the same thoroughness in this as he does in his work on the field. Mr Noble has a really fine baritone voice and was the best singer among us; but this is not actually saying much, for the musical ability of the rest of us was very limited.

“[Somerset all-rounder] Len Braund would treat us to Chirgwin’s old song The Blind Boy which we heard so often that it became very familiar. But there were some good singers on board among the other passengers and the concerts proved successful in shortening the journey.”

The Australians had little to sing about when the serious business resumed at Edgbaston at the end of May. After England piled up 376 for nine (Lilley scored two before falling to the fine baritone), the Aussies, despite fielding what remains one of their strongest ever sides, sensationally collapsed to 36 all out. Wilfred Rhodes took seven for 17, his middle three dismissals assisted by Lilley with two catches and a smart stumping to take revenge on Noble.

“A beautiful wicket, for which Edgbaston had long been famous, had been prepared by Bates, the Warwickshire groundsman,” said Lilley, “and it was confidently anticipated that we should make a substantial score. Then there was nothing to suggest that anything out of the ordinary would be likely to happen but the events that followed were remarkable.

“I have no doubt the Australian players were under the impression that the wicket was affording more help to the bowlers than it actually was. Hirst and Rhodes certainly bowled magnificently, and were backed up by perfect fielding, but there was nothing to account for an exceptionally fine batting team being disposed of for 36 runs.”
That fielding included one remarkable catch by Braund off the bowling of George Hirst to dismiss Clem Hill – a catch which would have stood out even in more athletic times a century later.

“Hill actually played the ball to fine-leg when Braund, fielding at first slip, covered such an extraordinary amount of ground that he got some two strides to the leg-side behind me and brought off a phenomenal catch,” recalled Lilley.

“Mr Hill was amazed and could not believe that an apparently safe stroke which should have gone to the boundary had in fact cost him his wicket.”

England’s domination was not to be rewarded by victory. Last-day rain saved Australia and the tourists recovered to retain the Ashes with a 2-1 victory. Seven years later, they returned to Edgbaston for the ground’s second Test and Lilley was one of 11 men who played in the 1902 Test and were still good enough to earn selection in 1909.

It was another unprofitable game for the Warwickshire player with the bat as he bagged a duck in England’s first innings, but he wasn’t needed in the second as England cruised to a ten-wicket victory. It was to be Lilley’s last series before, after the final Test at The Oval, his England career closed with 903 runs, 70 catches, 22 stumpings and one wicket.

He played on for Warwickshire until 1911 before leaving midway through the season having scored 15,597 first-class runs, taken 714 catches and executed 197 stumpings. A tower of strength in Warwickshire’s sometimes difficult early days in first-class cricket, he departed with them well on the way to winning the county championship for the first time. Dick Lilley could be truly described as the first Great Bear.