Kittitian Sam Morris: The first black man to play Test cricket

Sam Morris WEB -final
Samuel Morris, born June 22, 1855, was the first black man to play a Test match. Of West Indian heritage, he played for Australia against England and was a fine all-round cricketer in his day. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this scarcely remembered but pioneering cricketer.

A curious pioneer

He was the first black man to play Test cricket.

Moreover, he was the first man of West Indian heritage to grace the highest level of the game — 43 years before the Caribbean islands gained Test status.

He was also the first non-white Test cricketer, predating both Charles Llewellyn and KS Ranjitsinhji by almost a decade.

He played for Australia. In fact, he was the first man born in Tasmania to play Test cricket, five years before Edwin Kenneth Burn. And no, although he was a black Australian cricketer he was not one of the excellent aboriginal cricketers that the southern land produced.

And somewhere in his West Indian bloodline was a strain that heralded from Bengal. His maternal grandmother had been a Bengali servant girl in the employ of a British family.

It seems strange indeed that Sam Morris is so seldom remembered today, let alone in the pioneering context of black cricketers. In his day, he was a fantastic all-round cricketer and almost a legend as a curator of cricket grounds.

He played just one Test, in January 1885, dismissed Arthur Shrewsbury and Billy Barnes while also opening the batting. However, one must admit that he got the opportunity only because of a major revolt by the leading Australian cricketers which led to a second string side. Morris, however, played with distinction for Victoria, and several prestigious Melbourne clubs.

His deeds were not limited to the quirks of ethnicity, though. A medium-pacer to start with, his batting improved with every passing season, till that day in February 1882 when he scored 280 for Richmond against St Kilda in the Ceeland Cup match. It was the highest score recorded in a Colony at that time. In Cricket: A History of its Growth and Development Throughout the World Rowland Bowen states that it was the first double hundred by a West Indian in Australia. Several other sources have asserted that it was the first ever double century by a coloured cricketer anywhere. That indeed seems to be the case.

Three weeks after this spectacular feat, Victoria were scheduled to play South Australia in Adelaide. The team was difficult to put together, with Jack Blackham, Tom Horan, Harry Boyle, Percy McDonnell and George Palmer away playing Alfred Shaw’s England side in the fourth and final Test match of the 1881-82 series.

Hence, along with Charles Francis Foot, John Lawlor, Henry Alfred Musgrove and George William Stokes, Morris became one of the five Victorian cricketers to make his debut. His 28 in the first knock was the second highest score in that innings.

It makes sense to note here that in spite of the oddity of a black man playing First-Class cricket in Australia, Morris was neither the first non-white man to do so, nor the first West Indian cricketer.

The splendid aboriginal cricketers Twopenny and Johnny Mullagh had already played top grade cricket in the Colonies.

As far as West Indian cricketers are concerned, the Jamaica born George Watson Hogg Gibson had played for Victoria between 1865 and 1873, and had also captained them in two matches. Gibson was, in fact, the first West Indian cricketer to play First-Class cricket anywhere. Charles Seymour Carr was another Jamaican man to play for Victoria when he turned out against New South Wales in 1873.

However, both Gibson and Carr were of Anglo-Saxon stock.

The complicated roots

Morris was born in Hobart, Tasmania —more precisely Hobart Town, Van Diemen’s Land as it was called in those days — on June 22, 1855. His birthplace remained a matter of confusion for years. Till very recently, prominent databases and reference books put it down as West Indies or the Victorian mining town of Eganstown. It has been established now that he was indeed born in Tasmania.

It was his father, Isaac Morris, who hailed from Barbados. Records indicate that he sailed to Australia during the gold rush era and tried his luck as a miner — which is perhaps another way of saying gold seeker. He finally settled down as a blacksmith in Eganstown. But that was in the 1860s, some years after Sam was born in Hobart Town.

Sam’s mother Elizabeth Ann was born in Launceston in northern Tasmania. Her father George Phipps had hailed from West Indies, from St Christopher (St Kitts) as far as it has been ascertained. Her mother, Ann Peney, had been a Bengali servant girl in the employ of a British family who had sailed for Van Diemen’s Land.

While in Eganstown, cricket was popular in the nearby mining town of Daylesford. Isaac Morris seems to have been a cricketer for one of the local clubs Blanket First XI, and there is the description of a splendid catch taken by him at long slip.

The all-round cricketer

By the late 1860s, Sam and his brothers Edward and Isaac Junior were deeply involved in local cricket. When he was 17, Sam was already playing for New Racecourse and Evening Star. By 1874, the Daylesford Mercury and Expressnoted that “Sam Morris’s style of batting was much admired while his fielding was always first class.”

In 1875-76, the Daylesford and District Challenge Cup was established, and Morris made headlines with his aggressive batting and incisive bowling for New Racecourse. When East Melbourne finally sent a team to play a combined Daylesford team at the Wombat Ground in 1878, Morris took 6 for 11 in just 48 deliveries.

By October 1879, he had become important enough to be elected a committee member of the Daylesford Cricket Club. When the Australian XI prepared for their 1880 tour of England, they played the Daylesford XXII in a match played at the Adelaide Oval in front of a crowd of 1000 people. It is a testimony to the versatility of Morris that he kept wickets in this game, and was lauded in The Australasian as “Morris, the wicketkeeper, by his expertness, astonished the XI, and more than one of them remarked that he was worth a place in a First-Class team solely for his wicket-keeping.” He stumped Fred Spofforth in the first innings and George Bonnor in both. The prince of wicketkeepers, Jack Blackham, remarked, “He’s a wonder.”

1880 also saw the important new development in Morris’s career. The prestigious Richmond Cricket Club had a splendid reputation for their ground. However, the increasing use of the premises for football in the winter months led to problems of maintenance. A new curator was being sought for to help look after their wonderful ground. And Morris was selected for this job.

Morris excelled as a curator, but more than that his bowling was much sought after when the team trained at the ground. And soon, his services were extensively used in Richmond’s matches. He became a regular player for the club.

It was for Richmond in 1881-82 that he hit that 280 against St Kilda; that propelled him into the realms of First-Class cricket.

In late February 1884, while Tom Horan was emphatically advocating Morris as curator for the Adelaide Oval — ‘he is a capital all-round player and can prepare a wicket in a style second to none’— that Morris played his second inter-Colonial game. This was in Adelaide against South Australia.

This was a historic occasion as for the first time six-ball overs were used. Morris took 4 for 82 from 40 overs in the first innings, and then took the Victorians home as they chased down a formidable 369, staying at the wicket for 115 minutes to notch up an unbeaten 64. The Victorian Cricketers Association presented him with a commemorative clock. This remained his highest score in First-Class cricket.

That season, he also performed a hat-trick for Richmond against Melbourne Cricket Club and went on to win the Richmond Cricket Club trophy for the best fielder.

Morris in his prime
Morris in his prime
Test cricket

The following summer was special. Alfred Shaw and Shrewsbury brought their English side to Australia. The ongoing feud of the Australian XI with several of the Nottinghamshire professionals over payment issues saw the Australian stars of the Victorian side boycott the tour match against the tourists. Hence Morris played against the England side for Victoria, but achieved little success as the Colony was crushed by a huge margin. However, his fielding was of the usual exceptional quality.

An interesting aside to this match was that Johnny Briggs apparently said to his teammates, “Well, I’m blessed if there isn’t a fielder wearing black kid gloves.” According to Shaw, “Morris’s ebony hands and wrists below his white shirt were calculated to convey the impression that he was wearing black kid gloves.”The English cricketers were not too used to black cricketers at that time.

It makes sense to note here that throughout his playing days, Morris was referred to as ‘Darkie’ by the contemporary newspaper reports. There was, however, no racial slur involved in such reporting. It was a nickname which was given naturally, as other players were called ‘Lefty’, ‘Shorty’ or ‘Curly’. There was little discrimination or prejudice.

The dispute of the Australian XI over money grew to a crescendo before the second Test match at the MCG. The regular members of the team demanded 50 per cent of the gate money. Refusal led to boycott, and even intervening negotiations came to nothing. With the major players refusing to play, a team was somehow put together to take on the England side, with Tom Horan taking over as captain. There were nine debutants, among them Morris. Thus he became the first ever black man to play Test cricket.

England piled up 401, but Morris accounted for the two most threatening batsmen. Shrewsbury was caught by Worrall off his bowling for 72 and Barnes was bowled for 58. Throughout the innings, he fielded brilliantly. Horan noted, “Morris was particularly swift in his movements and his correct and true returns from the farthest points of the outfield, combined with his dash in picking up, frequently brought down the house…As a fieldsman, especially at point, Sam has no superior among Australians.”

Perhaps his enthusiasm impressed the captain enough to ask him to open the innings. He responded by striking the first ball from William Attewell to the leg-side boundary for four. But he was trapped leg before at the same score. Australia followed on and Morris batted at No 10 the second time, and remained unbeaten on 10 in the eventual defeat by 10 wickets.

It was to be the only Test appearance of Morris, just like four other debutants playing for Australia in that match.

Strangely, the man himself did not quite realise that he had created history. True, the term ‘test match’ was new, but by the turn of the century ‘Test matches’ were recognised as the highest form of cricket, and the past matches had been accorded proper status.

When Arthur Gilligan’s men visited Australia in 1924-25, a number of veterans talked about the old days. One of them said that Sam Morris was a Test cricketer. Some did not agree. To settle the dispute, Alfred Clarke, along-time friend of Morris, went along and asked Morris himself. Now on the verge of turning 70, Morris answered, “No, I never played in a Test match.” Clarke consulted some others who confirmed that Morris had indeed taken part in the Test in 1884-85. When Morris was reminded of it, he said, “Oh yes, but that was an international match.” Test matches were known by that term in those old days of the 1880s.

Final days

Morris did continue to play First-Class cricket till 1892-93, as also grade cricket. In 1886-87, he played against the touring Englishmen again, this time for Victoria. Caught by Shrewsbury off George Lohmann for a duck in the first innings, and wicket-less when England batted, he scored an unbeaten 54 in the second, helping the hosts to save the match through an unbeaten 77 run last wicket partnership with James Phillips.

It was in February 1887 that Morris had a match of commendable success. Against a strong South Australian side, he top scored with 24 in the first innings, hit another useful 25 in the second, while captured 4 for 59 and 5 for 21 to take the depleted Victoria side to victory. In the game, he had the great George Giffen caught and bowled for 4 and then bowled for a duck.

Morris ended his 20 match First-Class career with 591 runs at 17.91 and 31 wickets at 26.09.

After his cricketing days were over, he continued to work as a groundsman, as curator at Richmond, followed by University Cricket Club and St Kilda. Old cricket writers of the era were effusive in their praise for his work in the grounds.

In 1885-86, Tom Horan wrote, “Sam lives in a little cottage within the enclosure, and anytime going up Madeline Street, past the Medical College, towards the cemetery or down Gardiner Street, you can on peeping through the pickets see him within busy as a bee. I have passed the ground many a time within the last 12 months, and never failed to see Sam. He haunts the place. Early or late, late or early, it is all the same. Sam is bound to be there looking after the ground. His constant presence within the environs of Alma Mater has given him quite a classical appearance, and a turn for study also it would seem, for he told me himself that he had some thought of going in for medicine.”

And in spite of moving to Melbourne, Morris had a part of his heart strongly tied to Daylesford. Even during his playing days he presented bats to the ones who got the best individual score for the Daylesford Club in a season.

In the 1890s, he also stood as umpire in three matches between Tasmania and Victoria, and came close to being appointed as an umpire in Test matches.

It was only due to the tragic affliction of blindness in his late middle-age that he had to move away from his dream job as a curator. But, even without the gift of sight he could be seen in the important matches, accompanied by old cricketers, enjoying the proceedings.

Sam Morris died at his residence at Moubray Street, Albert Park, Melbourne on September 20, 1931.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)

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